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The 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, were the first truly great team of the 21st century. Most recently, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green led the Golden State Warriors to the 2017 title, leaving behind one trounced opponent after another in their wake.
But between those two juggernauts, plenty of other outfits have risen to the top of the league-wide pecking order.
The San Antonio Spurs have been mainstays near (or at) the pole position. MVP candidates ranging from Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have moved their teams into championships contention. Other iterations of the current Warriors have claimed supremacy.
How do they all stack up?
As explained when I ranked the 10 greatest squads in NBA history, we’re turning to NBA Math’s team rating to determine the order. The metric shows how well a team played on both ends of the court by comparing its success (per 100 possessions) to the league average. That way, changing styles from era to era are accounted for, such that a score of 100 always indicates a squad was perfectly average.
Teams’ regular-season scores and postseason marks were averaged together, because we wanted to account for the extra volume of the first 82 games and the increased importance of the contests that follow. It is possible to be an all-time great and fail to win a title, but the losses that lead to elimination will naturally lower a team’s score.
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Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 103.53
Postseason Team Rating: 102.63
Regular-Season Record: 55-27
Postseason Results: 4-1 victory over Dallas Mavericks, 4-2 victory over San Antonio Spurs, 3-4 loss to Golden State Warriors
How differently might NBA history have progressed if the Oklahoma City Thunder had been able to take down the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals? Led by the dynamic duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, they enjoyed a 3-1 series lead before falling apart and watching as the Dubs went on to earn a rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals.
And that wasn’t even the most painful part. Not when Durant decided to join the enemy a few months later and officially end an era in Tornado Alley.
Even still, the positive memories associated with this team should be overwhelming. Durant and Westbrook formed one of the greatest one-two punches in recent memory, and this was the loftiest height they ever reached.
The 2011-12 and 2012-13 bunches came close to earning honorable mentions in these rankings, and the former even made a Finals appearance against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. But this squad featured two superstars in their unquestionable primes, supported by quality seasons from Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters.
That’s the type of depth you don’t often find on a star-laden roster that developed organically.
Honorable Mentions: 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs (103.08), 2003-04 Indiana Pacers (103.07), 1999-00 Portland Trail Blazers (103.06), 2006-07 Phoenix Suns (103.02), 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs (103.02)
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Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 103.96
Postseason Team Rating: 102.43
Regular-Season Record: 62-20
Postseason Results: 4-1 victory over Indiana Pacers, 4-2 victory over Atlanta Hawks, 1-4 loss to Miami Heat
Wondering what might’ve happened if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade chose to join Derrick Rose on the Chicago Bulls in the summer of 2010 makes for a fun what-if. But even without two superstars accompanying the eventual league MVP, these Windy City representatives became a dominant outfit.
Everything started with Rose.
This was still the pre-injury portion of his career, and he put up an eye-popping 25.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 85.8 percent from the charity stripe. Even playing high-quality defense with his leftover energy reserves, he was an absolute force who couldn’t be kept away from the basket—shooting limitations be damned.
And the Bulls still weren’t a one-man show.
Thanks to head coach Tom Thibodeau’s paint-packing desires, Chicago boasted the league’s best defensive rating during the regular season. Peak Joakim Noah (when he wasn’t injured) held down the fort, and both Kurt Thomas and Omer Asik did fantastic jobs as replacements. Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer wreaked havoc on the wings, while Taj Gibson was a roaming presence, equally adept at stepping toward the perimeter and filling holes in the paint.
Chicago featured a roster construction coaches dream of: dominant defensive troops working in support of a one-man offensive show. Everything clicked before injuries rained holy hell down upon the Bulls.
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Noah Graham/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 104.35
Postseason Team Rating: 102.3
Regular-Season Record: 59-23
Postseason Results: 4-1 victory over Denver Nuggets, 4-2 victory over Seattle SuperSonics, 4-1 victory over Phoenix Suns, 4-3 victory over Detroit Pistons
Not a fan of the San Antonio Spurs and their dynastic excellence? Here’s some advice: Close your eyes and rapidly scroll down for about 10 seconds. A deluge is coming.
The 2004-05 San Antonio Spurs seemed unstoppable.
Only a year had passed since Tim Duncan won back-to-back MVPs. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were hitting their strides. Robert Horry, Rasho Nesterovic, Brent Barry and Bruce Bowen all submitted fantastic seasons. Devin Brown, Malik Rose, Beno Udrih and Nazr Mohammed were useful pieces off the bench.
Oh, and they ultimately were unstoppable.
After pushing toward 60 wins during the regular season (fewer than only Steve Nash and the high-powered Phoenix Suns), San Antonio faced a gauntlet during postseason play. The 49-33 Denver Nuggets (somehow a No. 7 seed) were no pushover. Nor were the 52-30 Seattle SuperSonics in the second round. Then came the 62-win Suns, followed by a matchup with one of the modern era’s greatest defensive units in the NBA Finals.
Not one of the challengers could overtake the Spurs, though they did diminish their team rating in the playoffs and knock them down a few spots in this countdown. Had San Antonio maintained its regular-season mark, it would have earned the No. 5 ranking.
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Chris Birck/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 104.57
Postseason Team Rating: 102.16
Regular-Season Record: 58-24
Postseason Results: 4-1 victory over Denver Nuggets, 4-2 victory over Phoenix Suns, 4-1 victory over Utah Jazz, 4-0 victory over Cleveland Cavaliers
Lucky for these San Antonio Spurs, they avoided the 67-win Dallas Mavericks, who served as a legitimate juggernaut throughout the regular season. Dirk Nowitzki and Co. had gone 3-1 against the Spurs throughout the 82-game stretch, only losing on opening night, but they couldn’t get past the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors during the playoffs’ opening round.
With the most dangerous enemy already downed, San Antonio blazed through the Western Conference field, then took out a young LeBron James and one of the worst supporting casts in Finals history to complete a last-round sweep.
The ending may have been anticlimactic. The final battle was against a relatively weak opponent. But don’t let that take away from the sustained excellence showed by this particular iteration of the NBA’s model franchise.
Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Fabricio Oberto and Tony Parker spent more time together than any of the roster’s other five-man units, and they outscored opponents by a staggering 12.6 points per 100 possessions. Replace Oberto with Francisco Elson, and the net rating skyrocketed to 30.2. Swap in Michael Finley for Ginobili? The result was a margin of 13.2 points per 100 possessions.
In fact, head coach Gregg Popovich almost couldn’t find a bad lineup. Of the team’s 13 most-used quintets, every one sat in the green.
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Regular-Season Team Rating: 103.69
Postseason Team Rating: 103.09
Regular-Season Record: 50-16
Postseason Results: 4-0 victory over Utah Jazz, 4-0 victory over Los Angeles Clippers, 2-4 loss to Oklahoma City Thunder
Five years later, finding a negative lineup was still a legitimate task. The San Antonio Spurs’ eighth-most-used five-man bunch—Matt Bonner, Tim Duncan, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker—was outscored by 0.7 points per 100 possessions.
Shame on them. It’s a wonder head coach Gregg Popovich didn’t just cut them on the spot.
Of course, he didn’t because each member of that strangely negative group was able to find success elsewhere. They were all high-quality players, with the sharp-shooting Bonner serving as the unit’s weakest member but still connecting on 42 percent of his 3.8 looks per game from somewhere over the rainbow.
These Spurs were just stacked.
The Big Three, comprised of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili, remained intact. Leonard was only a rookie, but his two-way potential was already readily apparent. (Fun fact: He’s one of only nine first-year players to log no fewer than 1,000 minutes and submit offensive and defensive box plus/minuses of at least 2.0, joining Alvan Adams, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Nikola Jokic, Rich Kelley, David Robinson, Arvydas Sabonis and Chris Webber.)
Oh, and because the Spurs are the Spurs, they were also squeezing positive contributions out of Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, DeJuan Blair, Richard Jefferson and Stephen Jackson.
If only they hadn’t run into the Oklahoma City Thunder and their superior athleticism—the only kryptonite to their incredible chemistry during the lockout-shortened season.
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Regular-Season Team Rating: 103.25
Postseason Team Rating: 103.69
Regular-Season Record: 58-24
Postseason Results: 4-0 victory over Los Angeles Lakers, 4-2 victory over Golden State Warriors, 4-0 victory over Memphis Grizzlies, 3-4 loss to Miami Heat
Don’t worry. This is the last San Antonio Spurs squad that will pop up…until we’re much closer to the top of these rankings.
Bear with me now. What if just one shot had gone differently?
Well, not just one shot.
“I didn’t want anybody going into the season thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, we got screwed, the basketball gods took one away from us,'” head coach Gregg Popovich told Sports Illustrated‘s Lee Jenkins. “That’s bulls–t. There’s a healthier way to move on. It wasn’t just one shot. It was 29 seconds.”
Those 29 seconds culminated in Ray Allen’s unforgettable corner three, but the entire unravelling cost the Spurs another championship. They’d dominated throughout the regular season. They’d gotten even better during the playoffs. But they couldn’t capitalize on their 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals, even though they were five points up on the Miami Heat in Game 6 until LeBron James shaved the margin to two with a second-chance triple that came with 20.1 seconds remaining.
So, what if that final half-minute had resulted in victory?
Heading into Game 6, the Spurs boasted a 104.36 team rating in the playoffs, one that was dragged down to a still-stellar 103.69 by the losses in each of the final contests. Had that been the team’s final score, their overall grade of 103.81 would’ve bumped them to No. 9 in this countdown.
When we’re talking about the greatest teams of the last 17 years, the margin for error is razor thin.
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Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 103.15
Postseason Team Rating: 103.88
Regular-Season Record: 46-20
Postseason Results: 4-1 victory over New York Knicks, 4-2 victory over Indiana Pacers, 4-3 victory over Boston Celtics, 4-1 victory over Oklahoma City Thunder
If the 2010-11 Miami Heat were trying to figure everything out (and still making it to the NBA Finals, where they infamously lost to the Dallas Mavericks), this squad had meshed. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James were no longer sharing the alpha role and just alternating takeover possessions. Chris Bosh was thriving in his new role as a stretch big.
Miami was still piecing together a distinct on-court identity, and that kept it from reaching even loftier heights. But the Heat boasted no true weaknesses, finishing the regular season ranked No. 8 in offensive rating and No. 4 on the defensive end. They could win in so many different ways, and they often did just that.
When things went wrong, it was because Miami didn’t always value the basketball. It was quite adept at shooting high percentages and earning trips to the stripe, but it could occasionally run into issues with turnovers and failures to create second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass.
That’s why the teams that gave the eventual champions the most trouble during their playoff run were defensively oriented ones who made maximizing possessions so vital. The Indiana Pacers provided a stern test with Paul George on the wings and Roy Hibbert displaying verticality principles, and the Boston Celtics, who had finished the year with the league’s top defensive rating, weren’t pushovers.
But Miami had the trump card: prime James, who submitted arguably the signature performance of his career with 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in Beantown during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
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Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 105.06
Postseason Team Rating: 102.06
Regular-Season Record: 73-9
Postseason Results: 4-1 victory over Houston Rockets, 4-1 victory over Portland Trail Blazers, 4-3 victory over Oklahoma City Thunder, 3-4 loss to Cleveland Cavaliers
Wait, what? The team that set the all-time record for wins during the regular season doesn’t even rank within the top 10? How is that possible?
Well, the Golden State Warriors lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals. You may have heard, but that involved blowing a 3-1 lead and becoming the butt of endless jokes that persist to this day. And if you’re reading this in 2027, that’s probably still true.
Throughout the regular season, the Dubs destroyed everyone in their path, becoming the first team in league history to have a single-digit losses number during an 82-game season. According to NBA Math’s databases, they had the No. 9 team rating of all time prior to the start of the playoffs.
The Houston Rockets didn’t pose too much of a threat. Golden State posted a 109.88 team rating during that 4-1 series victory. The Portland Trail Blazers nearly fell into the same category, as the eventual runner-ups logged a 102.22 team rating against their second-round foes.
Then came the tougher matchups.
Golden State earned a 99.55 team rating while fighting back from a 3-1 deficit against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and that number fell to 98.76 during the rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That was enough to drop it significantly down the historical leaderboard, nullifying so much of what happened during the record-setting portion of the year.
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Regular-Season Team Rating: 103.49
Postseason Team Rating: 103.95
Regular-Season Record: 54-28
Postseason Results: 4-1 victory over Milwaukee Bucks, 4-3 victory over New Jersey Nets, 4-2 victory over Indiana Pacers, 4-1 victory over Los Angeles Lakers
The Detroit Pistons most certainly had an identity.
Playing in the ugly era of early-2000s basketball, back when physicality and slow pace still ruled the roost, they made opponents work for every point. Not only did they trail only the San Antonio Spurs in defensive rating during the 2003-04 campaign, but they did so with a near-stagnant pace.
Combine those two factors, and Detroit allowed just 84.3 points per game—tied with the Spurs for the lowest mark in the Association.
On the wings, Tayshaun Prince and Chauncey Billups patrolled. Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace, who’s up there among the all-time greats on the defensive end, shut down the paint. Even Darko Milicic, then an 18-year-old rookie, was able to protect the rim during the rare instances in which he found his way onto the court.
Scoring on the Pistons was tough. It was painful. It didn’t happen frequently. And during the playoffs, no one could do so frequently enough to offset Billups’ offensive surge. Lest we forget, the dynamic point guard averaged 16.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists during the title run while making constant trips to the free-throw line and eventually earning Finals MVP.
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Jason Miller/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 103.02
Postseason Team Rating: 104.45
Regular-Season Record: 57-25
Postseason Results: 4-0 victory over Detroit Pistons, 4-0 victory over Atlanta Hawks, 4-2 victory over Toronto Raptors, 4-3 victory over Golden State Warriors
Apparently, flipping the switch is a real thing.
Here’s what Justin Rowan wrote for Fear the Sword in early May 2016, right after the Cleveland Cavaliers had taken a 2-0 series lead over the Atlanta Hawks in the second round:
“The last team with an undefeated record in the playoffs is the Cleveland Cavaliers. For all the trials of the regular season, the team appears to be clicking at the right time and taking care of business against the Detroit Pistons, and now the Atlanta Hawks. I hesitate to say that this team has flipped the switch, because that would suggest that they willingly were not playing this way all season and were waiting for the games to matter to start trying. Grievances have been aired throughout the season, adjustments and sacrifices have been made by everybody and it’s culminated in where the team is standing today.
I won’t be so hesitant.
The Cavaliers spent much of the 2015-16 season in a somnambulatory state. They relied on their overwhelming talent advantage to overcome foes, tested new sets, rested stars and seemed not to care about whether they pushed past 60 victories before the onset of the playoffs.
Then, everything clicked, eventually leading to a historic comeback from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors. LeBron James drastically improved his play. Kyrie Irving decided not to miss shots. Kevin Love rained down triples. The bench couldn’t misfire from beyond the arc.
Cleveland’s regular season wasn’t particularly special. The playoff run, however, most certainly was.
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Noah Graham/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 103.8
Postseason Team Rating: 103.75
Regular-Season Record: 65-17
Postseason Results: 4-1 victory over Utah Jazz, 4-3 victory over Houston Rockets, 4-2 victory over Denver Nuggets, 4-1 victory over Orlando Magic
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were both fantastic contributors for this Los Angeles Lakers squad, which ended a six-year title drought and overcame the previous year’s loss in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics. But they weren’t the only positive contributors on the roster.
Derek Fisher was a tremendous three-point shooter and a steady offensive force at point guard. Lamar Odom seemed capable of doing everything well, though his primary role came as a bona fide defensive stopper who could guard multiple positions. Injuries hadn’t yet ruined Andrew Bynum’s career, and he thrived as an interior finisher and defender. Trevor Ariza was beginning to break out, though he still couldn’t connect from behind the arc.
And we haven’t even touched on all the rotation members yet.
Head coach Phil Jackson maximized what everyone brought to the table. Even D.J. Mbenga and Sasha Vujacic finished with positive box plus/minuses, while Luke Walton served as a steady defensive presence in his limited run.
This iteration of the Purple and Gold was brimming over with talent, and that advantage routinely manifested itself on both sides of the ball. These Lakers weren’t particularly dominant on either end, but they were quite good across the board.
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Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 104.08
Postseason Team Rating: 103.5
Regular-Season Record: 66-16
Postseason Results: 4-0 victory over Milwaukee Bucks, 4-1 victory over Chicago Bulls, 4-3 victory over Indiana Pacers, 4-3 victory over San Antonio Spurs
“I didn’t want anybody going into the season thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, we got screwed, the basketball gods took one away from us,'” San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told Sports Illustrated‘s Lee Jenkins. “That’s bulls–t. There’s a healthier way to move on. It wasn’t just one shot. It was 29 seconds.”
Remember that quote?
Twenty-nine seconds may have ruined the San Antonio Spurs’ season in 2012-13, but it was just part of the overall picture for the Miami Heat. This was a dominant outfit throughout the regular season, storming its way to 66 wins after Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh learned to excel alongside one another. And it didn’t slow down during the playoffs.
Had those 29 seconds gone differently, James would’ve had another Finals loss on his resume. That much is irrefutable. But even if the season had ended then and there, these Heat would’ve ranked as an all-time squad.
Heading into that fateful Game 6, their team rating during the playoffs still stood at 103.63. Winning the final two games actually brought the margin down. And had that been the final mark, their overall score of 103.86 would still have kept them in the same slot within this countdown.
Ray Allen’s game-saving trey might have led to the ultimate result of this Miami season. It did not change how great the team was.
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- 1995-96 Chicago Bulls: 106.38
- 1996-97 Chicago Bulls: 105.71
- 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks: 105.65
- 2007-08 Boston Celtics: 105.61
Ned Dishman/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 105.61
Postseason Team Rating: 102.92
Regular-Season Record: 66-16
Postseason Results: 4-3 victory over Atlanta Hawks, 4-3 victory over Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-2 victory over Detroit Pistons, 4-2 victory over Los Angeles Lakers
Here are the top four team ratings during the regular season throughout NBA history:
You might notice none of the squads ahead of these Boston Celtics played during the current millennium. Until the playoffs, this was as good as it gets.
Making the achievement even more staggering is the lack of continuity enjoyed in Beantown. The Celtics were fresh off a 24-58 record one year earlier, and the team didn’t skip a beat after adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen during the offseason. It actually stormed out to a 29-3 record before falling off the record-setting pace midway through the year.
Of course, the path to a title wasn’t quite so smooth. Most dominant squads sweep at least one foe, but the Celtics actually needed to go to Game 7 in the opening round against the Atlanta Hawks—cue Zaza Pachulia—and then again against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semifinals.
Losing games in the playoffs isn’t conducive to a climb even further up the historic ladder, no matter how deadly these C’s may have been during the opening 82 games.
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- 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers: 106.77
- 2016-17 Golden State Warriors: 106.21
- 1990-91 Chicago Bulls: 106.16
- 1995-96 Chicago Bulls: 105.92
- 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers: 105.09
Vince Bucci/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 101.76
Postseason Team Rating: 106.77
Regular-Season Record: 56-26
Postseason Results: 3-0 victory over Portland Trail Blazers, 4-0 victory over Sacramento Kings, 4-0 victory over San Antonio Spurs, 4-1 victory over Philadelphia 76ers
Consider the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers the inverse of the 2007-08 Boston Celtics.
Though Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant didn’t help the Purple and Gold become a truly fearsome foe during the regular season—they actually trailed the San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz in net rating—they found that ]next level during the postseason.
Their record marred only by a single dropped outing (an overtime loss in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers), the Lakers throttled one opponent after another. No one stood a chance against the unrelenting combination of defensive excellence and offensive potency.
To this day, the Lakers have—by a substantial margin—the top postseason team rating in NBA history:
Winning when it matters, well, matters.
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Fernando Medina/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 103.88
Postseason Team Rating: 104.69
Regular-Season Record: 62-20
Postseason Results: 4-3 victory over Dallas Mavericks, 4-1 victory over Portland Trail Blazers, 4-2 victory over Oklahoma City Thunder, 4-1 victory over Miami Heat
Rarely does one video perfectly encapsulate a team’s season as well as this one does.
Kawhi Leonard dribbles the ball up the floor and hands it off to Manu Ginobili in the right corner. The Argentine 2-guard immediately swings it to the top of the key, where Tiago Splitter keeps it moving into Patty Mills’ hands. Mills quickly throws an entry pass to Boris Diaw and cuts along the baseline, where the big man hands him the ball while setting a quick screen. The Australian guard draws extra defensive attention underneath the hoop, looks off a cutting Splitter and hits Ginobili on an uncontested dash to the basket.
Six passes. Twelve seconds. Three total dribbles after the initial setup from Leonard.
The San Antonio Spurs have always functioned as a finely tuned machine under the supervision of head coach Gregg Popovich. But this squad featured more passers at nearly every spot than ever before, and it produced some of the most beautiful basketball ever witnessed—pure unselfishness and an uncanny ability to use passes to free up teammates for remarkably easy looks.
Few teams could slow down San Antonio throughout the regular season, and the same remained true during the playoffs. By the time the Miami Heat were the last remaining foe, the Spurs understood each other so well that the defending champions didn’t stand a chance in the Finals rematch.
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Fernando Medina/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 103.85
Postseason Team Rating: 104.83
Regular-Season Record: 59-23
Postseason Results: 4-0 victory over Charlotte Bobcats, 4-0 victory over Atlanta Hawks, 2-4 loss to Boston Celtics
Dwight Howard used to be pretty darn good at this whole basketball thing.
Before drama engulfed his relationship with the Orlando Magic, leading him to join the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets in search of a permanent role, the big man was a legitimate MVP candidate. During the 2009-10 campaign, in which he led Orlando to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, he trailed only LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant in the MVP voting.
Looking at the numbers makes it readily apparent why he earned so much credit.
Howard averaged 18.3 points, 13.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.9 steals and 2.8 blocks while shooting 61.2 percent from the field. He led the NBA in rebounding average, rejections, field-goal percentage and defensive win shares, with his inept free-throw shooting serving as his only true weakness. He became the perfect player for head coach Stan Van Gundy, who surrounded him with shooters galore to create the patented four-out, one-in scheme.
And it worked. It worked better, in fact, than the previous year’s Magic, who made the NBA Finals despite smaller margins of victory during both the regular season (8.1 net rating in ’10 to 7.3 in ’09) and playoffs (9.9 net rating to 2.0).
Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson, Ryan Anderson and Jason Williams all averaged at least a triple per outing for the Magic, who weren’t slowed down until running into the Boston Celtics’ fearsome defense in the Eastern Conference Finals.
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Regular-Season Team Rating: 104.91
Postseason Team Rating: 104
Regular-Season Record: 67-15
Postseason Results: 4-0 victory over New Orleans Pelicans, 4-2 victory over Memphis Grizzlies, 4-1 victory over Houston Rockets, 4-2 victory over Cleveland Cavaliers
The Golden State Warriors were good in 2013-14, winners of 51 games before the Los Angeles Clippers eliminated them in Game 7 of the opening round. They got their revenge on the entire NBA one year later, starting the run of superiority that persists to this day.
More so than anything else, a head coaching switch from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr unlocked Draymond Green. The versatile power forward who’s become a perennial All-NBA and Defensive Player of the Year candidate started just 12 games and played 21.9 minutes per contest during his final year under Jackson. In his first with Kerr, he started every time he appeared, averaged an additional 3.1 points, 1.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists per 36 minutes and upped his efficiency numbers.
And the defensive impact was even larger. Green was able to play free safety in the new scheme, switched constantly and wreaked havoc in off-ball situations. All of a sudden, the Dubs went from No. 4 in defensive rating during 2013-14 to leading the league with room to spare.
Obviously, more went into the jump than Green’s growth. If it weren’t for a balky hamstring affecting Lee, Kerr may not even have made the permanent switch at power forward.
But everything worked, launching a dynasty that’s produced three—and counting—of the greatest teams in recent NBA history.
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Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 104.78
Postseason Team Rating: 104.71
Regular-Season Record: 66-16
Postseason Results: 4-0 victory over Detroit Pistons, 4-0 victory over Atlanta Hawks, 2-4 loss to Orlando Magic
The 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers may have given us peak LeBron James.
According to NBA Math’s total points added (TPA), the future Hall of Famer and four-time MVP has never had a better individual season, as his 733.72 TPA in 2008-09 outpaces his 2009-10 (706.0) and 2007-08 (642.74) campaigns. And that shouldn’t be too surprising, considering the monstrous nature of his per-game numbers.
James averaged 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks for the Cavs while shooting 48.9 percent from the field, 34.4 percent from three-point territory and 78.0 percent at the stripe. Somehow, he even turned the ball over just three times per game—the lowest mark of his entire career.
But just as importantly, James was joined by a passable supporting cast, which wasn’t the case two years earlier when he was swept out of the NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs. Ben Wallace, Mo Williams, Delonte West and Anderson Varejao all joined him with positive BPMs.
During the regular season, this was enough. The Cavs looked unstoppable and won the Eastern Conference with four games of separation between themselves and the Boston Celtics.
Unfortunately, they actually were stoppable when the postseason rolled around. The Orlando Magic proved as much during the playoffs’ penultimate round by letting James take over (38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game) and watching as his supporting cast failed to live up to the billing.
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Bart Young/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 105.57
Postseason Team Rating: 104.78
Regular-Season Record: 67-15
Postseason Results: 4-0 victory over Memphis Grizzlies, 2-4 loss to Oklahoma City Thunder
The transitive property simply doesn’t apply to sports.
Even though the 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder, who ranked No. 20 in this countdown, beat the San Antonio Spurs during the second round of the playoffs, they aren’t the superior squad. They were just perfectly engineered to take down the Spurs, using their athletic advantages to overwhelm a slower, more methodical bunch.
Throughout the rest of the year, San Antonio asserted itself as the more dangerous force.
It won 67 games during the regular season—a feat that would’ve gained more attention if it weren’t for the 73-win Golden State Warriors. And it easily swept the Memphis Grizzlies out of the opening round, winning by an average of 22 points per game. It just couldn’t get past Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and there’s no shame in that failure.
Kawhi Leonard broke out as a legitimate MVP candidate for these Spurs. Tim Duncan, during the last season of his fantastic career, played defense so well in fewer minutes that he should’ve gained significant Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were still offensive forces.
In fact, according to BPM, a whopping 13 players finished in the green: the aforementioned four, along with Boban Marjanovic, David West, Danny Green, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyle Anderson, Rasual Butler, Patty Mills, Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw.
There’s depth, and then there’s whatever San Antonio enjoyed.
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Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Regular-Season Team Rating: 105.43
Postseason Team Rating: 106.21
Regular-Season Record: 67-15
Postseason Results: 4-0 victory over Portland Trail Blazers, 4-0 victory over Utah Jazz, 4-0 victory over San Antonio Spurs, 4-1 victory over Cleveland Cavaliers
Did you expect anything else?
The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors added Kevin Durant into the mix, supplemented a 73-win team with one of the three best players in the NBA and only sacrificed depth. Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West, Patrick McCaw and the rest of the new additions proved more than capable of replacing Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Harrison Barnes and all the other departures.
Maybe it was disappointing that the Dubs won “only” 67 games. That number doesn’t start with a seven, even if it’s tied for the seventh-most victories recorded in a single season. But Golden State still finished with the league’s top offense, and its defensive rating trailed only the mark produced by the stingy San Antonio Spurs.
Draymond Green won Defensive Player of the Year. Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Durant torched one foe after another. The depth overwhelmed opponents’ second units on a regular basis. And then the squad grew even stronger during the postseason.
Would the Warriors’ team rating have been lower if Kawhi Leonard had landed cleanly on his fateful jumper in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals? Perhaps.
But we can’t change the past, and nothing will prevent the history books from showing Golden State swept its way through half the NBA before dropping only a single game in the rubber match with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It firmly asserted itself as the greatest team of the 21st century and left little room for argument in the process.
Oh, and these guys might get even better in 2017-18.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.