Standard Deviations: Standard Deviations of Overall SRS from the league mean.
When I post the roster makeup of the team, I try and do it by playoff minutes. The numbers are age, regular season BPM and Playoff BPM (basketball-reference's BPM is being used here).
So if I say: "C: Vlade Divac (22), +2.3 / +4.3" I mean that Vlade Divac was their center, he was 22, he had a BPM of +2.3 in the regular season and a +4.3 in the playoffs. Yes, BPM misses out on a lot of subtle stuff but I thought it a good quick-hits indicator of the skills of the players.
I then cover the three highest players in Usage% (assuming the season has those numbers), the three highest players in scoring per 100 (with their true shooting relative to league average) and the three highest players in Assists per 100. I realize that these are arbitrary, but I wanted a quick-hits reference for how these teams' offenses ran.
I then talk about Heliocentrism, Wingmen and Depth. Basically I add up all of the team's VORP (again, basketball-reference) and then figure out what percentage of that VORP comes from the #1 player (Heliocentrism), from the #2 and 3 players combined (Wingmen) and Depth (everyone else). I include the ranking among the top 100 for reference. There are only 82 of these rankings, because 18 teams pre-date BPM/VORP, so I only have 82 to work with. I'm not saying that these are particularly meaningful, I just thought they were cool.
Playoff Offensive Rating: Amount by which your playoff offensive rating exceeds the offensive rating you'd expect given the regular season defensive rating of your playoff opponents. If you would be expected to post a 99 given your opponents but you post a 104, that's graded as +5. This way we can compare across eras.
Playoff Defensive Rating is the same as Offensive Rating, just the opposite.
Playoff SRS: Is SRS measured *only* in the playoffs. Overall SRS is a mix of both playoffs and regular season.
Total SRS Increase Through Playoffs: Basically their Overall SRS minus their Regular Season SRS. This is basically how much better a team did in the playoffs than you'd guess, relative to their regular season performance.
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: The average regular season offensive rating of your playoff opponents.
Average Playoff Opponent Defense: The average regular season defensive rating of your playoff opponents.
Rankings of any kind are out of my list. So if I say that the '91 Lakers had the 42nd best regular season offense, I don't mean "42nd best of All-Time", I mean "42nd best of my Top 100 Teams of All_Time". Which will be pretty comparable, but I want to be clear about this.
I also walk through the playoffs at each round, covering their opponent their SRS (at that time), how many games the series was, the margin of victory (and a "+" is always in the favor of the discussed team; losing a series by +2.0 means that you outscored the other team by two points a game on average despite losing) and for reference I put in an SRS equivalency (beat a +5 SRS team by 5 points a game, that's an equivalent +10 SRS series).
In writeups, if I ever say a player shot at "-8%" or something, that means "his true shooting was 8% lower than the league average that year". Any time I say "a player shot" and follow it by a percent, I am *always* using true shooting percentage unless otherwise indicated.
I also have a modern comps section for any teams pre-2011. It's nothing fancy; it's literally just me feeding the player's regular season numbers into Stathead and looking for player-seasons in the recent past (the more recent the better) that are reasonably comparable. This is *not* intended to be anything other than fun. I find it to be a neat way to re-conceive what a roster truly was when translated out of the trappings of their laundry and era. The method suffers when translating man defense, as steals/blocks/defensive rating are very approximate estimates of a player's defensive contributions. When I say something like:
PG: 2017 LeBron James (worse rebounding, better passing, way fewer shots)
What I mean is, "This team's point guard was basically 2017 LeBron James, but make his passing better, make his rebounding worse and make him take way fewer shots).
Anyhow. I don't know how clear any of this will be, so please let me know what does and doesn't work from these writeups. And thanks for reading!
#80. The 1966 Boston Celtics
Regular Season Record: 54-26, Regular Season SRS: +4.34 (90th), Earned the 2 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: -2.6 (97th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -6.6 (12th)
PG: K.C. Jones (33), 0.117 / 0.089
SG: Sam Jones (32), 0.222 / 0.179
SF: John Havlicek (25), 0.094 / 0.102
PF: Tom Sanders (27), 0.139 / 0.137
C: Bill Russell (31), 0.165 / 0.191
6th: Larry Siegfried (26), 0.166 / 0.106
Scoring/36m: Sam Jones (26.3 / +3.5%), John Havlicek (22.1 / -3.7%), Larry Siegfried (20.9 / +1.8%)
Assists/100: K.C. Jones (6.7), Bill Russell (3.9), Sam Jones (3.6)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +1.76 (84th), Playoff Defensive Rating: -5.39 (45th)
Playoff SRS: +8.60 (87th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +2.55 (48th)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +2.28 (54th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -0.20 (87th)
Round 2: Cincinnati Royals (+1.0), won 3-2 by +4.6 points per game (+5.6 SRS eq)
Round 3: Philadelphia 76ers (+4.2), won 4-1 by +9.6 points per game (+13.8 SRS eq)
Round 4: Los Angeles Lakers (+3.5), won 4-3 by +3.5 points per game (+7.0 SRS eq)
Bear with me; there are about seventeen Bill Russell teams and I don’t have access to a lot of stats to do analysis with. So these writeups will probably be shorter than others.
This is three years earlier than the prior Celtics’ team. Sam Jones was 32, which meant he was still the leading scorer on good efficiency, K.C. Jones was still the point guard and Havlicek was still figuring things out.
So, 1966. The East was better (as it always seemed to be in the 60s), with 3 (out of 4) teams having positive SRS, while in the West only 1 (out of 5) team had a positive SRS, the Lakers. But the two best teams seemed clearly to be the Celtics and Wilt’s 76ers; the Celtics finished one game behind, obligating themselves to play Oscar’s Royals in the first round.
The Royals were held to 8 points lower than their season average, in spite of Oscar’s 32/8/8 on +4.3% shooting. Sam Jones led the Celtics in scoring with a 27/3/2 on +7%, but Russell’s all-around 18-25-6 on -2.1% shooting was almost certainly the greater offensive achievement (and of course, doesn’t consider defense). It was a +4.6 point per game win, not great but pretty solid for the era. So the Celtics advanced to face the one-seed, Wilt’s 76ers.
The Celtics whipped them 4-1 by +9.6 points per game; this is the series that pushes the ‘66 Celtics’ rating this high. Russell again led the team in rebounds and assists (posting over three times the rebounds of any other Celtic) with a 14/26/6 on -1.7% shooting, while Sam Jones led in scoring again with a 26/5/4 on +4.3% shooting. But what happened to the 76ers; did Wilt choke? Well . . . not really. Wilt averaged a 28/30/3 on +1.3% shooting which, while not dominant, was pretty good. Wilt’s scoring was less valuable than Sam Jones’ probably, but then, Wilt was being defended by Bill Russell which probably didn’t help matters. But other 76ers? Chet Walker shot at -1.7% (15/7/3) and Hal Greer shot -8.2% (16/7/4). This fits the narrative that Wilt played well, but his teammates failed him. But it also fits Ben Taylor’s take that Wilt operated in a way that hurt his teammates’ performance (by not moving from the block and by not being able to integrate passing fluidly into his offense). Probably both have some truth. So the Celtics advanced to face the Lakers.
Give the Lakers credit, despite being the worse team they forced the series to seven games. Jerry West posted an excellent 34/6/5 on +10% shooting (I’ve only done a few of these Celtics’ writeups, but the “Celtics win by West posts an amazing series” seems pretty consistent). Elgin Baylor was the closest West had to help with a 25/16/2 on -2.5% shooting. Russell eviscerated the Lakers’ bigs (such as they were - Baylor averaged 7 more rebounds a game than anyone else on the team, from small forward) with a 24/24/4 on +9.6% shooting. You know what’s weird? Just Russell’s offensive numbers are weirdly impressive. Obviously I don’t know how many of his rebounds are offensive (nobody does), but it seems like in the playoffs he leads his teams in assists, gets a million boards and then posts solid (but not good, this series excepted) scoring. Sam Jones may have been the more valuable offensive player at this point, but Russell was clearly exceptional at all parts of offense besides scoring. And, of course, he was the most valuable defender ever. So that’s a thing.
But next year the 76ers would come back with a vengeance, and the Celtics would face the greatest challenge of Russell’s career.
#79. The 1973 Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season Record: 60-22, Regular Season SRS: +6.76 (51st), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +2.6 (69th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -5.0 (27th)
PG: Jerry West (34), 0.206 / 0.184
SG: Gail Goodrich (29), 0.145 / 0.119
SF: Jim McMillian (23), 0.104 / 0.120
PF: Bill Bridges (33), 0.126 / 0.088
C: Wilt Chamberlain (36), 0.247 / 0.162
6th: Keith Erickson (28), 0.070 / 0.069
Scoring/36m: Gail Goodrich (24.2 / +1.2%), Jerry West (23.0 / +3.5%), Jim McMillian (18.7 / -0.3%)
Assists/36m: Jerry West (8.9), Keith Erickson (4.5), Gail Goodrich (4.4)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +2.68 (73rd), Playoff Defensive Rating: -5.32 (47th)
Playoff SRS: +9.34 (74th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +0.70 (85th)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +1.48 (70th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -2.58 (36th)
Round 2: Chicago Bulls (+3.4), won 4-3 by +2.9 points per game (+6.3 SRS eq)
Round 3: Golden State Warriors (+3.9), won 4-1 by +14.2 points per game (+18.1 SRS eq)
Round 4: New York Knicks (+8.6), lost 1-4 by -3.8 points per game (+4.8 SRS eq)
The mid-late ‘60s had been bittersweet for the Lakers. On the upside, they were consistently the best team in the West (which contained somewhere between 4 and 7 teams at any time, but still). And they had the third best player in the NBA (when healthy) in Jerry West. There was only one teensy-weensy problem. He wore Celtics’ green and was the inspiration for DJ Khaled’s “All I do is win” (he wasn’t, but he should have been). The Lakers won the West six times in the decade, and each time Bill Russell and the Celtics defeated them in the Finals. In 1969 they bit the bullet and acquired WIlt Chamberlain to face off against the Celtics in Russell’s final year. They still lost. In 1970 the Celtics imploded without Russell and the Lakers conquered the West . . . only to fall to the New York Knicks. In 1971 the Lakers tried again, save that they ran into the Milwaukee Bucks in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s earth-shaking prime (with veteran Oscar Robertson thrown in) and lost hard. In 1972 the Lakers *finally* won the championship, defeating both the Bucks and the Knicks en route to the title. 1973 would be their swan song, their final chance. It was West’s last healthy year, and Wilt’s last year playing. So if the Lakers were to win another championship, this was to be the year.
Jerry West wasn’t the same player he had been. His world-class efficiency had slowly dwindled away to merely above-average and he had started transitioning more to a pass-heavy floor general by 1971. His defense (if indicated by his 3.6% steals in 1974, his last year, was any indication) was still excellent. Wilt had slowly receded into something of a dunker role: his once prodigious usage rate had dwindled to less than ten shooting attempts per game, albeit on a ridiculous +19.1% efficiency. And his rebounding and passing were still reasonably intact. Gail Goodrich rounded out the triad with solid scoring from the shooting guard spot. But this offense was only above average, it was their defense that stood above.
In the regular season the Lakers posted the highest SRS in the league and won the one seed. In the first round they struggled a bit with the Bulls, taking 7 games to beat a +3.4 SRS team, and winning by only +2.9 points per game. The Lakers shot below league average and only Wilt shot above +2% (on a 12/25/3 series). However, the Lakers’ excellent defense smothered the Bulls’ attack, forcing the team as a whole to shoot at -4.5%.
In the next series the Lakers would face the Golden State Warriors (led by Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond) who had just upset the Bucks in the first round. It is this series where the Lakers would shine, and it is largely the cause of their ranking. The Lakers’ offense played well, with Jerry West posting a 26/5/8 (on +3.6%), Jim McMillian posting a 22/4/2 (on smoking +10.1% shooting) and Wilt posting a 7/24/4 (on +17.7% efficiency). But the Warriors’ offense was shut down, scoring ten less points a game than in the regular season. Rick Barry shot -7.6%, Nate Thurmond shot -7.0%; only one starter shot above league average. The Lakers won the series by +14.2 points a game, which is a ton normally, but against a very good team (who had just beat the Bucks don’t forget) this is an exceptional showing. But waiting for them in the Finals was the New York Knicks.
It didn’t go great. It was a brutal defensive battle with both offenses struggling. New York was unable to post any dominant performances but it was a capable team effort (Clyde Frazier put up a 17/7/5 on +1%, Bill Bradley put up a 19/5/3 on -1.4%, Willis Reed put up a 16/9/3 on +2% and Earl Monroe put up a 16/3/4 on +5.8%). But the Lakers couldn’t get anything going. Jerry West was held to a 21/3/5 on -1.1%, Jim McMillian struggled on a 20/5/2 on -7.2%; of the starting roster only Gail Goodrich shot above league average (+1.9%). In the final game West shot a putrid -17% and the Knicks ran away with it in five (3.8 points per game). It was a sad end to a great team. But their whipping of the Warriors in the Conference Finals were a testament to how good they were capable of being.
#78. The 2007 Phoenix Suns
Regular Season Record: 61-21, Regular Season SRS: +7.28 (36th), Earned the 2 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +7.4 (5th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -0.1 (96th)
PG: Steve Nash (32), +5.9 / +5.2
SG: Raja Bell (30), -0.1 / -0.2
SF: Shawn Marion (28), +4.4 / +4.2
PF: Boris Diaw (24), +0.4 / -0.4
C: Amar’e Stoudemire (24), +1.8 / +5.7
6th: Leandro Barbosa (24), +2.7 / -1.1
Usage Rate: Amar’e Stoudemire (25.8%), Leandro Barbosa (23.4%), Steve Nash (22.9%)
Scoring/100: Amar’e Stoudemire (31.2 / +9.6%), Leandro Barbosa (27.7 / +5.4%), Steve Nash (26.4 / +11.3%)
Assists/100: Steve Nash (16.5), Boris Diaw (7.8), Leandro Barbosa (6.1)
Heliocentrism: 28.2% (58th of 82 teams)
Wingmen: 42.0% (24th)
Depth: 29.8% (31st)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +6.75 (33th), Playoff Defensive Rating: -3.63 (69th)
Playoff SRS: +9.56 (70th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +1.10 (79th)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +2.43 (48th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -2.67 (34th)
Round 1: Los Angeles Lakers (+0.2), won 4-1 by +10.4 points per game (+10.6 SRS eq)
Round 2: San Antonio Spurs (+8.2), lost 4-2 by +0.5 points per game (+8.7 SRS eq)
The 2007 Phoenix Suns had an amazing regular season offense. Like, all-time great. In fact, only four teams on this list had better regular season offenses: the ‘96 Bulls, the ‘97 Bulls, the ‘16 Warriors and the ‘05 Suns. That’s a great group to be part of. This is better than any Magic-led team (though it’s worth mentioning that the ‘87 Lakers are 6th). But there’s a meaningful line to draw. Here are the ranks in offensive and defensive ratings (for this list) for the top 10 teams:
2005 Suns: 1st / 98th
2016 Warriors: 2nd / 66th
1997 Bulls: 3rd / 33rd
1996 Bulls: 4th / 19th
2007 Suns: 5th / 96th
1987 Lakers: 6th / 77th
1992 Bulls: 6th / 49th
1997 Jazz: 8th / 63rd
2017 Warriors: 9th / 30th
1971 Bucks: 10th / 40th
The ‘05 and ‘07 Suns had two of the five worst regular season defenses on this list (the other three are the ‘01 Lakers, the ‘17 Cavs and the ‘15 Cavs). My point is that the Suns kind of sold out on offensive construction in a way that really hurt their defense. That said, even with a league average defense (regular season) the Suns were still one of the best teams in the league. Under head coach Mike D’Antoni they’d been leveraging the all-time great creation of Steve Nash to unleash a murderous offense premised on movement and aggression. They had the perfect partner in Amar’e Stoudemire, a pick and roll monstrosity who was an all-time great finisher (as long as he had someone capable of setting him up - 65% of his made shots were assisted). In 2005 the Suns had rolled with Joe Johnson at the 3 and Marion at the 4 and it blew people apart . . . but it leaked like a sieve on defense. The ‘07 Suns were a compromise to that; moving Marion to the 3 and adding Diaw to replace Johnson lost a bit of offensive heat, but their playoff defense was legitimately good (69th on this list is really good for a D’Antoni Suns team; the ‘05 Suns are 100th).
Here’s the scene: the league overall is very tight. The very worst team is not below -5 SRS (compare that with 2020 where we had six teams worse than that mark). The East is fairly weak; there are three teams in the +3 to +5 range (Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland in that order). In the West there are three teams that stand head and shoulders above everyone else: the Spurs (+8.35), the Suns (+7.28) and the Mavs (also +7.28). And interestingly, those three teams were at the top of the preseason odds to win the championship, so everyone already had a pretty good idea who would be the best. And, luckily for the Suns, the Mavericks were decisively beaten in the first round by the #8 Golden State Warriors.
In the first round the Suns drew the interregnum Lakers and whipped them by +10.4 points per game. The Lakers were only average that year, but a 10 point win still counts. The Lakers had the advantage on the glass (Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown combined for 6+ offensive boards a game) but the Suns blew them away on shooting. While Kobe played well (33/5/4 on +2% shooting) the entire rest of the Lakers’ starters shot below league average. In contrast, Stoudemire posted a 24/14/1 on +5.8% shooting (look at that one assist per game - that isn’t even rounded down! Amar’e may have been a great finisher, but he sure was no creator). And the Suns as a team shot at +2.6%; Nash had 14 dimes a game even if he didn’t score particularly well (16 a game on -0.4% shooting). So the Lakers were defeated and the Suns advanced. To face the 2007 San Antonio Spurs. The Mavs had gotten the one-seed, so in the second round the Suns had drawn the other best team in the league.
The Spurs were the antithesis of the Suns. The Suns featured a high-flying offense with weak (comparatively) defense. The Spurs had a solid (but not great) offense combined with an outstanding defense (10th in regular season on this list, and 6th among teams that didn’t have Bill Russell). The Suns’ star was their all-offense point guard, and their center was an epic finisher who was not strong on defense. The Spurs’ star was Tim Duncan, one of the best defenders ever and the paragon of old-school fundamentals. And he was flanked by defense-first role players like Bruce Bowen and ball-hawks like Manu Ginobli. It was old-school vs. new, offense vs. defense and it promised to be epic. It was a serious loss for the NBA that the meeting between the two best teams in the 2007 NBA happened in the second round.
And there were really no surprises. The Suns couldn’t really contain Duncan (27/14/1 on +5.5% shooting and almost 5 offensive boards a game) but did manage to hold the Spurs overall to league-average shooting. And the Spurs, while not able to stop the Suns’ attack, were able to slow it. Stoudemire put up a 26/11/0 on +4.2% and Nash had a 21/4/13 on +6.4% shooting. The entire series was tight. In Game 1 the Spurs used dominant rebounding (8 offensive boards from Duncan) and strong shooting from the role players (Parker and Michael Finley combined for 53 points on +12% or better), and won by 5. In Game 2 the Suns’ attack was in full force, shooting at +5.8% as a team, with Stoudemire, Raja Bell and Kurt Thomas combining for 57 points on +15.1% or higher. The Suns won that game by 20. They were tied 1-1.
The Spurs took Game 3 on the back of an astounding 10 extra shooting possessions: Tim Duncan had as many offensive rebounds as the Suns entire roster did (5) while Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobli combined for seven steals (the Suns combined for 4). The shooting possession advantage was strong enough to buy the Spurs a 7 point win. In Game 4 the upper hand was on the other foot, as the Suns almost doubled the Spurs’ offensive boards (11 to 6) and gained a six-shooting possession advantage which bought them a six point win. However, Game 4 saw controversy erupt that would alter both the narrative and (possibly) the result of the series. Near the end of the game Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table. Horry was suspended for two games, but also suspended (for one game) were Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, who had risen off the bench in defense of their fallen teammate.
I don’t mean to suggest that the suspensions were particularly unfair. NBA rules mandated punishments for players that come off the bench during altercations, and Stoudemire and Diaw definitely did. But it ended with disproportionate result: the Spurs lost Horry (a nice role player) for two games, while the Suns lost their best scorer and 2nd playmaker both for Game 5. For that game the Suns played their butts off. They hammered the offensive boards; Shawn Marion specifically played great with a 24/17/1 on +13.5% shooting. But it was not enough to overcome the Spurs’ advantage, pressed by Tim Duncan for a 21/12/2 on +1.6% with five blocks; Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobli combined for 6 steals. The Spurs ended up winning by 3.
Game 6 wasn’t as close as you’d have wished. The Suns’ stars played well (Stoudemire with a 38/12/0 and 4 blocks on +4.5% and Nash with a 18/6/14 on +28.6%) but their role-players faltered (Marion, Kurt Thomas and Barbosa used 36 shooting possessions on -11.4% shooting or lower). And the Spurs were buoyed by Mani Ginobli, with a 33/11/6 with 4 steals on +23.6% shooting. The Spurs won by 8, and won the series.
Now. You may be a bit scandalized with a second-round team being ranked here. But bear with me. The Suns may have lost, but they basically played the Spurs to a standstill (outscoring them by 0.5 points per game on the series). When the smoke cleared, the Suns and the Spurs were the clear two best teams in the 2007 NBA; overall SRS has the Spurs at +9.01, the Suns at +8.38 and the 3rd team as the Pistons at +5.45. That’s a huge lead for the Suns over the 3rd best team, and that’s *with* it being a competitive league.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that there are two teams that are definitely the best teams in the NBA. Let’s imagine that, by a confluence of fate, these two teams play each other in the second round. They play each other pretty much even, but one ends up winning. The winner then goes on to win the next two rounds by +5 points or higher per game, becoming the NBA champion. And the team that lost? They’re just a second round footnote in history. And yet, if the Suns had won (which I think was certainly possible) is there any real reason to think that they couldn’t have beaten the Jazz and Cavs by equally convincing margins? I’m just saying, they may have been knocked out in the second round, but it takes very little imagination to see the Suns winning the NBA Finals in ‘07, and being ranked around the 40s on this list. It didn’t happen. But the ‘07 Suns were pretty damned good.
PG: 2015 Steph Curry (similar effect, but less shooting, more passing, worse defense)
SG: 2016 J.R. Smith (all around better on offense)
SF: 2017 Myles Turner (better scoring and defense)
PF: 2014 Boris Diaw (better passing and defense)
C: 2014 Anthony Davis
6th: 2015 Klay Thompson (slightly worse)
While the Nash/Curry comp seems counterintuitive (because one is known for passing and the other for scoring), I think it’s spot on as far as both being offensive dynamos. In fact, it’s hard not to look at the Curry, Smith and Thompson comps and not see a murderous offense. Myles Turner (young version) is a neat Marion comp, being a decent scorer with tons of defense and rebounds. Diaw’s comp is, of course, an older Diaw. And I love Amar’e’s comp as being 20 year-old Anthony Davis. Tons of boards, tons of finishing, almost no creation . . .
Yeah. This comp lineup would be an insane offense. Defense would be decent.
#77. The 1981 Milwaukee Bucks
Regular Season Record: 60-22, Regular Season SRS: +7.14 (39th), Earned the 2 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +3.2 (58th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -3.7 (50th)
PG: Quinn Buckner (26), +0.8 / -0.2
SG: Sydney Moncrief (23), +3.8 / +0.5
SF: Marques Johnson (24), +5.6 / +10.9
PF: Mickey Johnson (28), +1.4 / +0.2
C: Bob Lanier (32), +3.9 / +8.3
6th: Junior Bridgeman (27), +1.1 / -0.4
7th: Brian Winters (28), -1.4 / +0.5
Usage Rate: Junior Bridgeman (24.0%), Marques Johnson (23.3%), Mickey Johnson (22.6%)
Scoring/100: Marques Johnson (28.1 / +4.9%), Junior Bridgeman (27.0 / +0%), Bob Lanier (25.4 / +3.9%)
Assists/100: Quinn Buckner (8.5), Marques Johnson (6.3), Mickey Johnson (6.3)
Heliocentrism: 28.2% (57th of 82 teams)
Wingmen: 35.1% (52nd)
Depth: 36.7% (18th)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +11.4 (5th), Playoff Defensive Rating: +1.20 (98th)
Playoff SRS: +11.45 (40th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +1.61 (71st)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +1.50 (69th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -6.00 (1st)
Round 1: **bye**
Round 2: Philadelphia 76ers (+8.9), lost 3-4 by +2.6 points per game (+11.5 SRS eq)
PG: 2008 Rajon Rondo (worse offense, better defense)
SG: 2008 Ronnie Brewer (better rebounding)
SF: 2013 Blake Griffin
PF: 2008 Josh Smith (more offensive rebounding)
C: 2015 Paul Millsap (less spacing)
6th: 2016 Victor Oladipo
7th: 2019 Fred VanVleet
As with the 2002 Kings, this is a team that I’ve heard of, but I didn’t actually know that much about. What a neat group! These comps are almost all extremely young players who are very athletic. ‘08 Brewer for Moncrief seemed weird, but both scored very well in small quantities (suggesting a lot of buckets in transition), both rebounded really well for 2s and both were very strong defenders. I love the ‘13 Blake Griffin comp for Marques Johnson; they’re both do-everything dominant rebounders who can score, pass (some) and defend. And it’s notable how many of these comps have a decent passing aspect to their game, but also how high the turnover rates are on these guys (it’s what you get with aggressive young players). It’s also notable that Rondo, Brewer and Griffin are crazy good offensive rebounders for their positions; crashing the glass was very much part of the Bucks’ MO. Certainly not built like a modern team (almost no spacing), but lots of defense, rebounding and fast-break athleticism.
This was the first really successful Nellie Ball team, prioritizing aggression, athleticism and passing. I have to say, this lineup of comps really jumps off the page. I don’t know how their playoff Iso scoring would go, but this is a really nice lineup. In fact, I’d be pretty confident in this team’s future. Moncrief and Johnson were both still very young; there’s a lot to work with. And yet the early/mid 80s Bucks were basically the 2012-17 Clippers of their time; a really good team that just kept getting swallowed up by giants. In the case of the Bucks, the early 80s 76ers and the Larry Bird Celtics.
So, to set the scene. 1981. There are only three teams above +5 SRS: the Celtics (+6.05), the 76ers (+7.76) and the Bucks (+7.14). And, of course, they’re all in the same conference (remind you of the ‘07 Suns at all?) The Bucks got the bye, but as the two seed they got to face the 76ers, on paper the toughest team in the NBA, fresh off a 13.5 point per game domination of a decent Pacers team (+1.7 SRS). The 76ers were athletic and tough, led by the 30 year-old Dr. J and a host of athletic and strong defenders. They boasted the second best defense in the league. And the winner would get to face the ‘81 Celtics (who were busy stomping a solid Chicago Bulls team).
The series went to a full seven games, as befits a struggle between two excellent teams. Game 1 was a barnburner, with both teams scoring more than 120 points. Julius Erving had a fantastic game (38/9/1 on +14.4% with 6 blocks) with Maurice Cheeks contributing a 22/3/6 on +31.5% with 4 steals. Milwaukee’s gunner extraordinaire, Junior Bridgeman (isn’t that a super fake-sounding name?) went off for 32/4/6 on +16.3%. In the end the 76ers prevailed, barely, winning by 3. Game 2 went the other way. Dr. J shot -12%; only Bobby Jones had a strong game (22/8/1 on +29.4%). Milwaukee had a great team performance, with five shooters getting 13+ points and all shooting above +5%. The key was free throws, the Sixers simply couldn’t keep the Bucks away from the charity stripe (52 free throws vs 73 shots). And the Bucks pulled it off by ten. Series tied.
The 76ers took back the lead with a five-point win in Game 3. Marques Johnson had a fantastic game for the Bucks with a 29/9/8 (+11.6%) with 3 steals and 3 blocks, but it wasn’t enough. Maurice Cheeks put up a 19/2/9 on +21.1% with 4 steals and four of the Sixers’ starters scored at +6% or better. And in Game 4 it swung back for the Bucks with an eleven point win. The Sixers struggled a bit to score and Marques Johnson went off for another great game (35/8/7 on +13.1%).
Game 5 and 6 were both blowouts, in different proportion. In Game 5 the Sixers played well across the board, with Erving (19/9/2 on -7.6%) being the only one that shot badly. The Sixers ran away with it by 17 points. But Game 6 (predictably) was all Milwaukee. The Sixers’ starters played well, but their bench shot terribly, and they generated 3 steals to the Bucks’ 11. Mickey Johnson put up a 22/12/2 on +16% with 3 steals and the Bucks blew the 76ers out by 23 points.
I had the chance to watch the last six minutes of Game 7. It was nuts. There were so many times where a player would get the defender to bite on a pump fake and I’d immediately think “Two free throws”. And instead of jumping into the defender and drawing the foul, the shooter would actually do a fadeaway, or something that avoided contact. A different time. And there were a bunch of random observations. Like how the 76ers interior was *huge*. Two 6’11” guys in Dawkins and Caldwell Jones, plus the long and athletic Erving at the 3. Poor Bob Lanier would get the entry pass and then get mauled every time. And Dr. J was like pre-LeBron. The defenders would give him a *lot* of room. It wasn’t that he couldn’t shoot, but it was that he was so dangerous attacking the basket. They were two very fast, very athletic teams that played very hard. The Bucks played great. Marques Johnson posted a 36/9/3 (+12.8%) and Bob Lanier put up a 24/10/4 on +26.2%, while Erving struggled to score efficiently but played well overall (28/7/3 on -6% with 6 blocks). But only three Bucks shot above league average (Moncrief was the other), and everyone else shot -10% or worse. And the Sixer barely pulled it out, winning by a single point. Great freaking series.
The ‘07 Suns and the ‘81 Bucks have a lot in common. They were both one of the very top teams of their year. They both played in a loaded conference (that had all of the top teams). And they both ran into a team as good as they were in the second round, despite getting a good seeding. And they both played that team hard (the Bucks actually outscored the 76ers by 2.6 points per game). The Bucks *absolutely* could have won that series. And there’s no reason to think that the Bucks were incapable of beating the ‘81 Celtics. The 1981 season had three teams that were really good, all in the same conference, and they played each other really tight. The Celtics were the team that happened to come out on top. It would just take very little for the 81 Bucks to be ranked higher. Had they beat the 76ers (credible), they’d have finished 64th. Had they edged past the Celtics they’d have likely won the Finals, which would make them 43rd. They didn’t. But the Bucks were royally screwed by the RNG. The ‘81 Bucks deserve to be remembered as a really good team.
#76. The 1989 Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season Record: 57-25, Regular Season SRS: +6.38 (61st), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +6.0 (19th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -1.1 (89th)
PG: Magic Johnson (29), +9.4 / +8.2
SG: Byron Scott (27), +1.0 / +2.2
SF: James Worthy (27), +3.0 / +5.1
PF: A.C. Green (25), +1.6 / -1.3
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (41), -2.1 / -3.2
6th: Michael Cooper (32), +1.0 / +2.8
7th: Mychal Thompson (34), -1.0 / -0.8
Usage Rate: Magic Johnson (24.3%), Byron Scott (23.1%), James Worthy (22.4%)
Scoring/100: Magic Johnson (28.7 / +8.8%), James Worthy (26.8 / +4.5%), Byron Scott (26.6 / +2.1%)
Assists/100: Magic Johnson (16.4), Michael Cooper (7.7), James Worthy (4.7)
Heliocentrism: 47.7% (11th of 82 teams)
Wingmen: 34.4% (54th)
Depth: 17.9% (65th)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +9.13 (11th), Playoff Defensive Rating: -0.42 (94th)
Playoff SRS: +10.62 (51st), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +2.38 (53rd)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +3.52 (13th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -1.13 (69th)
Round 1: Portland Trail Blazers (+0.9), won 3-0, by +12.0 points per game (+12.9 SRS eq)
Round 2: Seattle SuperSonics (+1.8), won 4-0, by +10.0 points per game (+11.8 SRS eq)
Round 3: Phoenix Suns (+10.2), won 4-0, by +5.5 points per game (+15.7 SRS eq)
Round 4: Detroit Pistons (+9.3), lost 0-4, by -6.7 points per game (+2.6 SRS eq)
Remember when I was talking earlier about players who led their teams in Points per 100, Usage% and Assist%? And about how Kobe, Wade, Harden and LeBron were the only ones so far on the list who had done it, and I was curious about who else would? It genuinely didn’t occur to me that Magic would be on that list. Assists, sure. The more I look at it the more I’m appreciating that I really didn’t understand just how damned good he was in the late 80s. Take arguably the best passer ever, then combine it with one of the best scorers in the league. He was never particularly high volume, but he was always extremely efficient. There is a reason that this guy was on some of the best offenses ever. I suppose I often characterized these late 80s Lakers as “A strong team effort that Magic was the best of”. I wildly sold him short; it was a solid supporting cast, but Magic in this time was one of the most valuable offensive players *ever*.
And speaking of which, poor Kareem. They kept starting him but he was clearly a shadow of his early 80s self (which was, in turn, a shadow of his early 70s self). He was shooting below league average and couldn’t play for more than 23 minutes a game. Amazing for a 41 year-old . . . but not great for the Lakers.
If there’s a serious weakness to the Lakers’ legacy for the 80s (and Magic’s 5 rings) it’s that the Western Conference was simply never that good (from '81 to about '88). Or more accurately, it’s that the West was pretty poor at generating viable challengers. Here’s how the seasons broke down by Overall SRS, with the Lakers and their best challenger through 1988 for their pennants:
1980: Lakers +7.79, Bucks +4.20
1982: Lakers +7.62, Sonics +3.50
1983: Lakers +6.00, Spurs +5.68
1984: Lakers +7.65, Suns +2.18
1985: Lakers +11.36, Nuggets +4.02
1987: Lakers +11.26, Mavericks +3.13
1988: Lakers +6.02, Jazz +4.15
Some years there was a legit challenger (and the Lakers still won), and some years it wouldn’t really have mattered, because the Lakers were too good. But there were several years (1980, 1982, 1984 and 1988) where the Lakers were quite good (but hardly invincible) and the West simply couldn’t generate anyone close to that good. Compare this to the East (especially early on), when the Bucks and 76ers challenged the Celtics at comparable SRS-levels (by the way, how much does it suck that the Bucks got switched from the West to the East right as they got good? So much of how we see those teams might have changed if they’d stayed in the West and met the Lakers in a bunch of conference finals (and maybe won some)). All of this said, the Lakers need to be credited with actually pulling things off. Simply being better than other teams isn’t a guarantee of a victory. If the 80s Lakers had a particular skill, it was playing good (but not great) teams and turning them into smoldering craters (possible exception for the 86 Rockets). And I do think that this, on occasion, causes those Lakers teams to be a little overrated by my formula. Because one thing my formula (and SRS generally) loves is playoff blowouts. And the 80s Lakers + the 80s Western Conference = lots of blowouts. However, starting in 1989 the Lakers’ certain grip failed a bit. The Suns and Blazers rose up and would seriously challenge the Lakers’ control of the conference; the 89-91 Lakers wouldn’t be appreciably worse than the ‘88 Lakers (and at times, would be better), but the level of challenge had risen considerably.
The first round was against the ‘89 Blazers who were only average (they’d take a big jump the next year). The Lakers’ offense ran amok; Magic, Worthy and Scott combined for 69.6 points per game on +8% shooting or better, and the Lakers won by 12 points per game. In the next round they played the Sonics and had the same result. This time Worthy shone with a 28/8 on +17% shooting. The Lakers’ won by 10 a game; it’s not like the Lakers’ defense was terribly effective; it’s that their offense was just that good.
In the Conference Finals the Lakers would face the Phoenix Suns (#85 on this list). The Suns were quite capable, but the Lakers swept the series by a solid 5.5 points a game. Kevin Johnson torched them, but Magic put up a 20/7/14 on +6.5% shooting, with both Worthy and Scott playing very well. The Lakers had made it through the West without losing a game, but in the Finals they faced the Pistons they had barely beaten the year before. And this time it’d be the Lakers that struggled with injuries: Byron Scott was injured before Game 1 and would not play. Lakers’ fans would have reason to be worried.
And their worries would be justified. In Game 1 the Lakers’ attack was quashed. Their usually dominant offensive rebounding got no traction, and the Lakers struggled to shoot. Worthy used 21.5 shooting possessions and shot a dumbfounding -14.2%. At the same time Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas combined for 46 points on +10% shooting or better. It was a 12-point whipping. Game 2 was better for the Lakers, but not by enough. Worthy had another awful game (-11.5% shooting) and Joe Dumars, Mark Aguirre and Vinnie Johnson combined for 65 points on +8.6% shooting or better. The Pistons won by 3. Things got even worse in Game 3; five minutes into the game Magic tore his hamstring and that was that. Kareem did his best to prop things up with a 24/13/2 on +4.1% shooting (amazing for a 41 year-old) but the Lakers still fell short by 4. In Game 4 it was Worthy who had a great performance on a losing effort, with a 40/3/3 on +16.1% shooting, but the Lakers (now short Magic and Scott) lost by 8.
So. The Lakers were swept out of the Finals by 6.7 points per game; this does put a black mark on their resume, from the point of view of the formula. How much of this was the Lakers’ injuries and how much of it was the ‘89 Pistons being really good? Well, one thing was for sure, Dumars and Vinnie Johnson both had extremely dominant series, shooting +12.2% and +8.3% respectively. Dumars’ scoring can perhaps be pinned on Scott’s absence, but Johnson’s? What about Laimbeer shooting +10.1%? I can’t imagine 41 year-old Kareem containing a strong and capable center like Laimbeer. I guess, look. Magic went down early in Game 3. There was almost no way they were winning the series. That they *lost* shouldn’t really be considered their fault. But the Pistons had pretty good control of the two games that Magic was healthy. I believe that Byron Scott was an important part of the team; I don’t for a second believe that he was worth 7.5 points per game. I 100% believe that the ‘89 Pistons were the better team here; just not by the margin we saw. (Of course, maybe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson just got lucky with their shots falling. Neither was a particularly efficient scorer even on good days; shooting performances like this suggest luck more than a weak defense. Still counts though.) Either way, their three dominant rounds before the Finals ensure a quality ranking.
And you know what? I’m super-impressed with the rest of the Lakers. For them to band together and manage only to lose by 4 and 8 points per game without Scott and Magic, for Kareem at 41 to post a strong game and for Worthy to throw up 40 points on good efficiency against a defense this good . . . I think it’s a great credit to them that they played so hard, even when they had zero chance of winning.
PG: 2013 LeBron James (better passing, much worse scoring)
SG: 2018 Klay Thompson (a little worse)
SF: 2019 Pascal Siakam
PF: 2016 Marcin Gortat (better scorer)
C: 2017 Marquese Chriss
6th: 2016 Patrick Beverly (better passing)
7th: 2016 Cody Zeller
Wow. It was until I ran the comps that I realized just how offensively thin the ‘89 Lakers were outside of Magic, Scott and Worthy. Looking at it you’ve got some nice defense and rebounding to be sure, but the whole thing is premised on LeBron creating for everyone, Siakam being the secondary scorer and Thompson punishing the defense for mistakes. The offense would work well, but without Thompson the attack gets pretty limited. And without LeBron, well, that’s pretty much it.
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