Which team is the best of all time? To answer that question with more rigor than it’s normally debated in sports bars, in 2015 I ranked every group since moments played were tracked in 1951-52 (sorry to the 1949-50 Minneapolis Lakers) according to their performance in both the regular season and playoffs.
Three years later, it is time for an upgrade with a new No. 1, plus a lot of other newcomers to the list thanks to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors dominating the competition in their respective conventions.
For winners, I took the average of their stage differential during the regular season and their stage differential in the playoffs plus the point differential of their opponents. That tells us just how many points per game better than an average team each winner was, giving equal weight to the postseason as the regular time to reward the most important games.
For non-champions, the starting point is the same, but their playoff differential was adjusted by effectively giving them a five-point loss for each game they came up short of the title. That has little effect on teams like the 2012-13 San Antonio Spurs, who lost in Game 7 of the Finals, but it harshly penalizes teams which wrapped up large success margins early in the playoffs before falling short in the conference finals.
The adjustment deals with all quality of drama. It is no surprise that some of the best single-season team performances in NBA history came in the early 1970s, once the league had expanded quickly and also battled the ABA for incoming draft picks. The redistribution of gift allowed stars to glow even more brightly. For each season, I measured how players watched their moments per match increase or reduce the following season compared to what we would expect given their age. More minutes indicates that a poorer league, while fewer minutes suggests one that has gotten stronger.
Each year is ranked relative to 2017-18, from a high of 21 percent stronger in 1965-66, the previous year the NBA had only nine teams, to a low of 10 percent poorer in 2004-05, the last time that the league enlarged. That modification is multiplied by the group’s typical regular-season and playoff scores to provide a final score greater than an average team this season.
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