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!
#75. The 1996 Seattle SuperSonics
Regular Season Record: 64-18, Regular Season SRS: +7.40 (32nd), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +2.7 (65th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -5.5 (21st)
PG: Gary Payton (27), +4.6 / +5.0
SG: Hersey Hawkins (29), +2.8 / +3.5
SF: Detlef Schrempf (33), +2.5 / +0.2
PF: Shawn Kemp (26), +2.8 / +4.8
C: Ervin Johnson (28), -1.1 / -3.4
6th: Sam Perkins (34), +2.0 / +3.4
7th: Nate McMillan (31), +3.7 / +5.6
Usage Rate: Shawn Kemp (26.2%), Gary Payton (23.6%), Detlef Schrempf (21.3%)
Scoring/100: Shawn Kemp (30.1 / +8.9%), Gary Payton (25.3 / +1.2%), Detlef Schrempf (25.1 / 5.6%)
Assists/100: Gary Payton (9.8), Nate McMillan (8.0), Detlef Schrempf (6.4)
Heliocentrism: 28.0% (61st of 82 teams)
Wingmen: 35.4% (50th)
Depth: 36.6% (19th)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +0.01 (96th), Playoff Defensive Rating: -7.63 (22nd)
Playoff SRS: +9.50 (72nd), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +1.35 (74th)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +4.13 (8th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -1.91 (52nd)
Round 1: Sacramento Kings (-2.6), won 3-1, by +6.0 points per game (+3.4 SRS eq)
Round 2: Houston Rockets (+2.8), won 4-0, by +11.7 points per game (+14.5 SRS eq)
Round 3: Utah Jazz (+10.9), won 4-3, by -2.6 points per game (+8.3 SRS eq)
Round 4: Chicago Bulls (+15.4), lost 2-4 by -3.8 points per game (+11.6 SRS eq)
PG: 2019 Eric Bledsoe (playing full time but better in every way except rebounding)
SG: 2010 Ray Allen (little worse shooter, a little better defender)
SF: 2018 Khris Middleton (better in every way but rebounding)
PF: 2010 Dwight Howard (better offense, worse defense)
C: 2008 Kendrick Perkins
6th: 2016 Jae Crowder (worse defense)
7th: 2019 Draymond Green
Ha! Gary Payton as Super Bledsoe? I don’t necessarily disagree. Payton is basically everything Bledsoe is, but much better (obviously the method of scoring is different, but the footprint is pretty similar). This defense is pretty loaded. Super Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, a weaker Dwight Howard, Perk, a weaker Jae Crowder and Draymond? That is a sick group of players. That shouldn’t be a surprise; they finished in the Top 25 of Defensive Rating for both the regular season and the playoffs (for my list). As for their offense, it’s not terribly robust: obviously Super Dwight will be awesome, and Allen and Middleton (and Super Bledsoe) will round things out, but everyone after that (besides Crowder) is a defensive specialist.
The 90s Sonics put together six straight years of +6 SRS or better. But the teams consistently fizzled in the playoffs. Here’s the list of all six years, their regular season SRS, their playoff SRS and how far they got:
1993: +6.66 / +4.95, Conference Finals
1994: +8.68 / +2.34, First Round
1995: +7.91 / +3.79, First Round
1996: +7.40 / +9.50, NBA Finals
1997: +6.91 / +7.49, 2nd Round
1998: +6.33 / +0.39, 2nd Round
There really wasn’t a rhyme or reason; some years it was offensive struggles, some years it was defensive. But it was a seriously consistent theme. 1996 was their best playoff year, the only year when their significant assembly of regular season talent would get to play on the world’s biggest stage. Sure hope there isn’t a super-team at the other end of this . . .
In the first round the Sonics continued to underperform out of the gate. The Kings were a fairly bad team that year; beating them by 6 points a game was a weak-sauce showing. And you may be thinking “Come on, it’s a weak first round opponent. You don’t really need to try hard.” Given that the Sonics got knocked out twice in the first round (even with positive MoV) suggests that maybe there’s some benefit to putting it beyond doubt. In a preview of problems the Sonics would face throughout the playoffs, Olden Polynice grabbed 4 offensive boards a game, and the Sonics took four games to finish off the Kings.
The Sonics bounced back against the ‘96 Rockets (who had won the last two titles). The Rockets really struggled to score. Hakeem shot -1.9% and not a single Rockets starter shot better than +2.1%. And Sam Perkins (a very early stretch 5, whose comp is Jae Crowder minus defense) shamelessly exploited the fact that the Rockets weren’t really equipped to handle a center shooting threes. For that matter, the Sonics bombed away from three and hit 46.1% of them. The Sonics won by 11.7 points per game; it was ugly. “But”, you may wonder, “if the Sonics weren’t actually playing a banging center, how did they stop Hakeem?” The Sonics played a super-aggressive trapping defense (not entirely unlike that employed by LeBron’s Miami Heat) and the Rockets didn’t really know how to handle it. Hakeem turned the ball over a ton (4 times a game) and wasn’t able to punish the Sonics by passing out of the pressure. The one major hole in Hakeem’s game (limited passing and decision-making) was brutally exposed.
In the Conference Finals the Sonics advanced to face the Utah Jazz, who had just beat two good teams (the +2.2 Blazers and the +7.3 Spurs) by double-digits each and looked to be a serious challenge. And they were. The series went to seven and the Jazz outscored them by 2.6 points per game. The Sonics’ wins were by 30, 4, 2 and 4. The Jazz’ wins were by 20, 3 and 35. So what happened? First, the Jazz exploited the Sonics’ weakness for turning the ball over. The Sonics had no players with turnover% lower than 14%, and most were above 20%. Kemp and Schrempf combined for seven turnovers a game. At the intersection of this advantage and turnovers and Utah’s superiority on the glass (led by Malone grabbing 12 a game), the Jazz took a whopping ten extra shots a game. A ten-shot margin is really hard to overcome and, by MoV, the Sonics didn’t. But the Sonics made up much of that gap with superior shooting. Shawn Kemp put up a 20/10/1 while shooting an astounding +19.7% (Malone guarded him without help for most of the series). But Perkins and Hawkins also combined for 26 points a game on +7.2% or better scoring. And the Jazz . . . Jeff Hornacek shot well (20 points per game on +9.7%) but Malone and Stockton really struggled. Malone shot -4.1% and Stockton couldn’t do better than -9%. Even with all of that, the Jazz probably played better over the series. But the Sonics had managed to pull it out and advance to the NBA Finals.
To face the ‘96 Bulls.
For those of you who are new to the party, the ‘96 Bulls were Jordan’s best team, and they are often considered the best team ever. The Bulls not only ripped through the regular season (+11.8 SRS, 72-10 record), but ripped through the playoffs as well. They beat the +1.5 Heat by 23 points a game, they ‘struggled’ with the +4.5 Knicks by winning only by +6.2 points a game, and they obliterated the +8.5 Magic by 16.7 points a game. The ‘96 Bulls were scary good.
And you know what? It was actually kind of close. The Bulls struggled to shoot well. That may sound hard to believe, but the Bulls shot way below their season average. Pippen shot at -11.3%, His Airness shot at -0.4%, Toni Kukoc shot at -2.3% . . . Jordan’s assertion “I had no problems with the Glove” (Payton’s nickname) . . . I think the data suggests that he did. Maybe Jordan struggled for other reasons, but either way; Jordan struggled. And I want to take a moment for this. The Sonics’ shot defense was so good that they were able to somewhat shut down one of the best offenses ever. The Sonics didn’t shoot particularly well, but they did shoot better. Led by Kemp (23/10/2 on +9.1%) and Hersey Hawkins (13/4/1 on +6%) the Sonics did well enough (about a point above league average). If all this happened, how did the Sonics lose?
The Sonics had two weaknesses. The first was that they turned the ball over a lot (especially Shawn Kemp - it’s the downside to a Dwight Howard comp). The second was that by playing Sam Perkins in place of Ervin Johnson (who barely played in the Finals) they were really weakening their rebounding (Perkins’ rebounding was not dissimilar to Detlef Schrempf’s, which isn’t good for a center). Just as the Jazz had, the Bulls exploited the crap out of those weaknesses. Kemp turned the ball over four times a game, and Dennis Rodman grabbed *6* offensive boards a game (Pippen added three more). It yielded the Bulls an extra 9 shots a game, and that was enough. The Bulls won by 3.8 points a game. And that loss is considered by my formula to be a great result for the Sonics. Losing by only 3.8 points to a 15 SRS team is really good. And let’s be real, the Sonics did an amazing job. Forever on the ‘96 Sonics’ headstone it will read, “Outshot and Seriously challenged the ‘96 Bulls”. That’s an achievement few can brag of.
#74. The 1992 Portland Trail Blazers
Regular Season Record: 57-25, Regular Season SRS: +6.94 (47th), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +3.2 (59th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -4.0 (42nd)
PG: Terry Porter (28), +3.7 / +5.4
SG: Clyde Drexler (29), +8.7 / +7.8
SF: Jerome Kersey (29), +1.7 / +3.7
PF: Buck Williams (31), +1.2 / -0.8
C: Kevin Duckworth (27), -3.6 / -2.0
6th: Clifford Robinson (25), -0.2 / +0.1
7th: Danny Ainge (32), +1.9 / +1.5
Usage Rate: Clyde Drexler (28.7%), Clifford Robinson (22.1%), Terry Porter (21.6%)
Scoring/100: Clyde Drexler (33.5 / +2.9%), Terry Porter (25.9 / +4.4%), Danny Ainge (23.8 / +0.3%)
Assists/100: Clyde Drexler (9.0), Terry Porter (8.3), Danny Ainge (6.1)
Heliocentrism: 42.0% (22nd of 82 teams)
Wingmen: 36.4% (45th)
Depth: 21.6% (55th)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +7.69 (21st), Playoff Defensive Rating: -2.16 (84th)
Playoff SRS: +9.33 (75th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +1.54 (72nd)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +4.06 (9th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -2.29 (44th)
Round 1: Los Angeles Lakers (-1.0), won 3-1, by +14.8 points per game (+13.8 SRS eq)
Round 2: Phoenix Suns (+6.9), won 4-1, by +3.2 points per game (+10.1 SRS eq)
Round 3: Utah Jazz (+5.9), won 4-2, by +6.5 points per game (+12.4 SRS eq)
Round 4: Chicago Bulls (+9.9), lost 2-4, by -7.3 points per game (+2.6 SRS eq)
PG: 2013 George Hill (but somewhat better in every way)
SG: 2005 LeBron James
SF: 2014 P.J. Tucker (a little better in every way)
PF: 2017 Tyson Chandler
C: 2020 Rui Hachimura (better rebounding and defense, worse scoring)
6th: 2017 Terrence Jones
7th: 2016 Patty Mills
Okay, I want to be clear on a few things. I’m working primarily off stats here. Most of these are teams I’ve never watched, and what I know about them is a combination of stats and what I’ve picked up from books and articles that I’ve read and whatnot. There are times when this lack of primary source interaction occasionally bites me in the butt (for example, with the injury-riddled slate of opponents the ‘89 Pistons played). So every conclusion I come to has a bit of an asterisk, and I’m certainly open to correction. Especially with this.
But what the hell is up with this lineup? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fascinating that the best comp for peak Drexler is 20 year-old LeBron (who was athletic as hell, but was still very unpolished compared to what he would grow into). They’re both strong rebounders, carry high (but not huge) loads, both did most of the passing on their team (but not tons), both shot above average (but not by much), both posted strong box-score defensive stats. Weirdly I think this comparison complements them both. Drexler because ‘05 LeBron was a proto-version of the ultimate floor-raiser, and LeBron because at 20 he was comparable to a peak Hall of Famer leading a team to the Finals. So that part’s fine.
George Hill (and Fred VanVleet) are the two modern players that the comp engine seems to reach for whenever you have a solid-shooting decent usage player with solid, but not heavy assist% numbers. So it identifies Porter as more of a decent passing shooting guard, which is fine, but it’s hardly woo-woo. And Kersey? Nice defender and *great* rebounder for a wing, but that’s about as good as I can say. Buck Williams? He seems like some uber roll-man; his shooting efficiency is a stratospheric +12% for decent usage (17.8%) but his turnover to assist is hot garbage, his rebounding is strong but his defense (box-score numbers) look pretty weak for a 4. He was a 75.4% free throw shooter so he clearly had a solid shooting touch, but he also ran a high FTr of 0.520, so I’d assume he was at the rim *a lot*. Duckworth . . . I really don’t know how much positive I can say about Duckworth. The Ainge/Mills comp is nice; both were smart role players who didn’t take anything off the table. But Clifford Robinson . . . at least he looks like a decent defender. I’m just saying, Kersey, Duckworth and Robinson *all* shot well below league average.
How the heck was this team that good? I don’t doubt that they dominated the glass eight ways from Sunday; between Drexler and Kersey you had a lot of extra rebounding coming from the backcourt (sure enough, 4th in ORB% and 2nd in DRB%). And the scoring *must* have run on Drexler, Porter and Williams carrying the scoring, because Ainge was only league average (though a nice passer). Their defense really lacks a traditional defensive big (Robinson notwithstanding), but their shot defense was actually really good, especially from 3 (3rd in the league on 3P% allowed). So I’m going to basically infer that the Blazers’s backcourt (specifically Drexler and Kersey) did a great job containing perimeter shooters. I don’t know. I guess I’m really not used to seeing a team on this list post such a weak starter (and fairly weak 6th man). This is just a very unusual roster configuration. If anyone with more inside info wants to enlighten me I’m all ears.
The Blazers had been a decent team before making the leap in 1990. Their offense only got slightly better, but their defense improved considerably (from league average to pretty good), mostly in shot defense and defensive rebounding. And, let the record show that, in 1990 they added Buck Williams and Clifford Robinson. So I won’t pretend to know the details, save that adding Williams and Robinson was something of a wash on offense, but a big step forward in shot defense. In ‘90 they actually made the Finals (sneaking by the ‘90 Suns who outscored them in the series) before losing convincingly to the Pistons. In ‘91 they were narrowly beaten by the ‘91 Lakers; 1992 would be the last serious year they’d have together. In ‘93 they lost Ainge and struggled with injuries (Drexler and Kersey) and it went downhill from there. If the Blazers were going to win a ring, this was going to need to be the year.
In the first round they faced the post-Magic Johnson Lakers, who had also lost James Worthy for the season. You’d expect Portland to win handily and they certainly did. The Blazers dominated the boards (Duckworth, Drexler and Williams combined for 9.5 offensive rebounds a game) and dominated shooting as well. The Lakers shot 2 points below average, while Drexler had a 26/9/9 with +4% shooting. It was a 14.8 point a game blowout, and while you’d be right to say that the no-Magic un-Worthy Lakers had no chance, obliterating them is exactly what you’re expected to do if you’re a top team. The Blazers were not so lucky with their matchups for the rest of the playoffs.
In the second round they ran into the ‘92 Suns, who were damned good; they had a +5.7 SRS for the regular season and started the playoffs by whipping the +2.8 SRS Spurs by 9 points a game. My formula definitely favored the Blazers for the series, but the Suns were really good. It was a track meet - neither team could really stop the other. Kevin Johnson ran amok with a 24-5-9 on +6.1% shooting with 2 steals a games, while Cedric Ceballos and Tim Perry combined for 26 points a game on +8.9% shooting or better. But the Blazers dominated the boards (as they usually did); Drexler averaged 4 offensive rebounds a game and four of their five starters posted TRB% of 10% or higher. Drexler posted a 31/8/7 on +4.1% shooting (1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks a game - doesn’t this look like a LeBron stat-line?), while Porter and Ainge both shot well, combining for 38 points a game on +11.7% shooting or better. The Blazers pulled off a 3.2 point a game win, a solid showing against a very good team.
And then they faced the Utah Jazz who, while not as good as the Suns, were very good (+5.9 SRS at this point in the playoffs). You might assume that the Blazers dominated the boards but they did not; Karl Malone went into beast mode, posting a DRB% of 28% for the series (blink blink) and the Jazz were actually able to gain a small advantage on the glass. However, the Blazers had a considerable advantage in shooting. You may be thinking “Right, Malone choked in the playoffs, duh” but Malone actually had a great series, posting a 28/12/2 on +9.7% shooting. A Malone did struggle in the series however, Jeff Malone, the pre-Hornacek shooting guard, who posted 19 points a game on -3.7% shooting, and Stockton only managed to shoot at an average level. On the other side, Terry Porter smoked Stockton hard, posting a 26/4/8 on +19.7% shooting, and Jerome Kersey actually had a good scoring series with a 20/7/3 on +7% shooting. In the end the Blazers managed to pull this one off by 6.5 points a game, a strong margin against a very solid team.
So the Blazers emerge from this Western Conference gauntlet to face . . . the ‘92 Bulls. Well hell. The series was billed as something of a face-off between Jordan and Drexler. And this isn’t as crazy as it sounds (yes it was, but bear with me). They were both dominant shooting guards that were both by far the best players on their teams. Drexler was the better rebounder (though Jordan was no slouch in that department) and Drexler dished more assists (though Jordan was no slouch in that department). That said, Jordan was better on defense and just a teensy, weensy bit better scoring (being the best scorer ever and whatnot). So Jordan was definitely better but it wasn’t . . . a crazy comparison. But of course, Jordan being Jordan, he took it personal. Drexler really struggled Game 1, putting up a 16/5/7 on -6.3% shooting with 4 turnovers. And Jordan . . . well, Jordan had a 39/3/11 on +18% shooting. Jordan was better than Drexler in the regular season by a respectable bit. Taking It Personal playoff Jordan was on another planet compared to Drexler. And that’s kind of how it went.
Jordan averaged a 36/5/7 on +8.6% shooting (and remember, the Blazers were a good shot-defense team). Holy **** mushrooms Batman! Drexler ended up with a respectable (but not compared to Jordan) 25/8/5 on -0.9% shooting. The Bulls outscored the Blazers top to bottom; of Blazers that used more than 7 shots a game, nobody scored above +4% (Porter) and everyone who wasn’t Porter shot below league average. The Bulls just smothered them. The Blazers did manage to win on the boards (Kersey and Drexler combined for 7 offensive boards a game) but it was nowhere near enough. The Blazers lost by 7.3 points a game, a really bad loss even against a very good team. The Blazers really were quite good, and really acquitted themselves well against multiple very good teams. But they were absolutely not able to compete with the ‘92 Bulls.
#73. The 2012 San Antonio Spurs
Regular Season Record: 50-16, Regular Season SRS: +7.28 (35th), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +6.3 (14th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -1.4 (83rd)
PG: Tony Parker (29), +2.7 / +1.1
SG: Danny Green (24), +3.0 / +1.1
SF: Kawhi Leonard (20), +3.4 / +3.7
PF: eventually Boris Diaw (29), +0.5 / +3.4
C: Tim Duncan (35), +3.3 / +5.0
6th: Manu Ginobili (34), +6.9 / +1.8
7th: Stephen Jackson (33), -0.1 / +4.7
Usage Rate: Tony Parker (27.7%), Tim Duncan (26.2%), Manu Ginobili (22.7%)
Scoring/100: Tony Parker (29.4 / +1.2%), Manu Ginobili (28.7 / +14.1%), Tim Duncan (28.3 / +0.4%)
Assists/100: Tony Parker (12.4), Manu Ginobili (9.9), Boris Diaw (6.0)
Heliocentrism: 15.3% (82nd of 82 teams)
Wingmen: 28.7% (76th)
Depth: 56.0% (1st)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +5.56 (40th), Playoff Defensive Rating: -4.67 (58th)
Playoff SRS: +10.31 (57th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +1.81 (66th)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +3.97 (10th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: +0.14 (93rd)
Round 1: Utah Jazz (+0.9), won 4-0, by +16.0 points per game (+16.9 SRS eq)
Round 2: Los Angeles Clippers (+2.4), won 4-0, by +11.5 points per game (+13.9 SRS eq)
Round 3: Oklahoma City Thunder (+8.1), lost 2-4, by -4.5 points per game (+3.6 SRS eq)
The 2012 San Antonio Spurs had the best regular season SRS in the West and got the one-seed. But would you believe that, before the season, the Spurs were given only the 12th best odds to win the title in the league, with an estimated 3% chance of winning it all? This Spurs team was really good, but going into the season they were being counted out by everybody. Part of it was that they were knocked out in the first round of 2011, which wasn’t a good look. But the other part was that the Spurs simply didn’t fit with what everybody thought of as a great team. Their best player, Tim Duncan, was 35 and, while still capable, was hardly a playoff Alpha anymore. Tony Parker was good but not a particularly strong scorer, Manu Ginobili was old . . . the roster was a combination of really old and unknown. The Spurs looked like a fading dynasty.
How wrong everyone was. Here are all the teams that have three or more years in a row on this list, along with their preseason championship odds ranking (if odds don’t exist, they aren’t shown here):
1988-90 Pistons (4th, 2nd, 1st)
1991-93 Bulls (4th, 1st, 1st)
1996-98 Bulls (1st, 1st, 1st)
2000-02 Lakers (2nd, 1st, 1st)
2008-10 Lakers (16th, 2nd, 1st)
2011-13 Heat (1st, 1st, 1st)
2015-17 Cavs (1st, 1st, 2nd)
2015-2019 Warriors (8th, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st)
Those are all pretty much what you’d expect. The 2008 Lakers are low because the Pau Gasol acquisition was mid-season. The 2015 Warriors came out of nowhere, etc. But in general, once a team shows that they’re really good, they get a lot of love. There are no listings worse than 2nd for any team after that first year. Here are the 2012-14 Spurs’ odds rankings:
2012-14 Spurs (12th, 5th, 5th)
They were really good in 2012 even though nobody saw them coming. Even though they played great in the playoffs and made the Conference Finals, they were still only ranked 5th next year. And when they tore through the West before *barely* losing to the Heat the next year they were ranked . . . 5th (actually, they were tied at 4th with three teams, so I split the difference). Here’s my point: the 2012-14 Spurs were absolutely unprecedented in terms of how little attention/respect they got relative to how good they were.
Much of it is their roster construction. They finish dead last for this list on “Heliocentrism” and #1 in “Depth”. Some of it is that they paced their regular season minutes really hard: only one player averaged more than 30 minutes a game during the regular season and *eleven* players averaged more than 20. Also, regular season 35 year-old Tim Duncan is good but nobody’s bragging about him. Tony Parker is a 22 point per 75 scorer on +1.2% efficiency. Manu was out for most of the year. Kawhi was 20. This team *really* had nobody “carrying” it. Yet they had the #1 regular season offense in the league. How’d they do it with no regular season stars?
Honestly, they passed well and shot the lights out. That’s it. They were 4th in the league in assists, 3rd in the league in turnover rate, 7th in the league in three pointers taken and #1 in the league in 3P% (and #3 in 2P%). The Spurs had *seven* players shooting above 40% from beyond the arc. That was their entire offense; passing well but carefully and canning those looks. It worked really well, but no one player drove it. Their defense? It wasn’t great, but it was premised on defensive rebounding (#1 in the league) and not fouling (#2 in the league). Those sure sound like a Tim Duncan defense . . . And kicking things forward, R.C. Bufurd made two moves mid-season to ramp the Spurs up even more. He traded a first and parts for Stephen Jackson from the Warriors and he picked up Boris Diaw from waivers. Jackson would have an outstanding run in the playoffs, and Diaw would replace DeJuan Blair, sacrificing offensive rebounding for better spacing and passing. The Spurs went into the playoffs really deep with shooters who played as a team, didn’t make stupid mistakes and expecuted reasonably well on defense. It was a roster assembly that embodied the pace ‘n’ space era as much as Popovich’s early aughts rosters embodied the slower, defense-heavy era.
In the first round the Spurs ran the Jazz (+0.9) right off the court. Utah had some success on the boards (Favors and Millsap combined for almost 8 offensive rebounds a game) but the rest was all San Antonio. The Jazz had no players playing serious minutes that shot at league average; as a team they shot 20% from three. The Spurs shot their usual 40.7% from three, and Tony Parker had a smooth 21/4/7 on +5% shooting. The Spurs took the series by 16 points a game; a quality win if ever there was one. In the second round they faced the Chris Paul Clippers (+2.4) and once again left the issue in no doubt, sweeping by 11.5 points per game. While Tony Parker struggled against Chris Paul (17/3/8 on -5.9%), Tim Duncan posted a 21/9/3 on +8.7% efficiency and the Spurs as a team shot +6.6% (that’s *really* good). But in the Conference Finals they would face the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had just finished crushing the pre-season favorite Lakers by 9.4 points a game.
The series didn’t really go the Spurs’ way. Ginobili, Jackson and Diaw all struggled uncharacteristically with turnovers (combining for about 7 a game); for the Thunder defensive-specialist Thabo Sefolosha averaged 2.3 steals a game and the Thunder overall had almost double the steals of the Spurs (9.7 per game to 5.3). The Spurs shot well from deep (40.9%) but Duncan struggled to score (posting a 17/10/3 on -6.6% shooting). Nevertheless, the Spurs overall were held to only two points below their season average offensive rating; their team shooting made up for their other failings. But they could not contain the Thunder, or more appropriately, parts of the Thunder.
Russell Westbrook? He’s basically 2007 LeBron and the same thing that happened in the 2007 Finals happened here, with Westbrook shooting at -7.2% for the series. But the Spurs absolutely couldn’t contain Kevin Durant or James Harden. Harden posted a 19/6/4 on +11.4% shooting off the bench (he got lucky with 60.9% from three, but it still counts). But Durant got to the line over and over (9 times a game, against a team that prided itself on not fouling). He ended with a 30/8/5 on +13.5% shooting (1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks), a blistering performance. The Thunder took the series by 4.5 points a game, a hard loss to a very good team.
You could argue that their only playoff achievements were destroying two mediocre teams, that when they faced a really good team they failed. This is a totally legitimate criticism. But at the intersection of the strong wins in the first two rounds (which do count) and their excellent regular season SRS (35th best on this list), I think they deserve some love, even if the series against the Thunder didn’t go well. You would be forgiven for thinking that this was the Spurs’ last gasp. Instead, this was the first of three increasingly dominant years. It would be two years before the Spurs would get a rematch against the Thunder in the playoffs, and when it happened, the series would go quite differently.
#72. The 1982 Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season Record: 57-25, Regular Season SRS: +4.34 (89th), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +3.3 (55th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -1.4 (87th)
PG: Norm Nixon (26), -0.8 / +1.1
SG: Magic Johnson (22), +7.2 / +8.1
SF: Jamaal Wilkes (28), -0.8 / -1.2
PF: eventually Bob McAdoo (30), -2.7 / +1.6
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (34), +5.0 / +4.4
6th: Michael Cooper (25), +0.9 / +4.7
Usage Rate: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (25.6%), Jamaal Wilkes (23.6%), Bob McAdoo (23.2%)
Scoring/100: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (31.6 / +6.9%), Jamaal Wilkes (27.8 / +1.5%), Bob McAdoo (24.5 / -3.0%)
Assists/100: Magic Johnson (11.6), Norm Nixon (10.0), Michael Cooper (4.9)
Heliocentrism: 48.3% (10th of 82 teams)
Wingmen: 43.4% (19th)
Depth: 8.3% (76th)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +7.37 (25th), Playoff Defensive Rating: -2.60 (80th)
Playoff SRS: +10.34 (54th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +3.25 (36th)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +1.70 (63rd), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -2.37 (42nd)
Round 2: Phoenix Suns (+2.8), won 4-0, by +12.7 points per game (+15.5 SRS eq)
Round 3: San Antonio Spurs (+2.2), won 4-0, by +8.7 points per game (+10.9 SRS eq)
Round 4: Philadelphia 76ers (+6.7), won 4-2, by -0.2 points per game (+6.5 SRS eq)
PG: 2018 Caris LeVert (smaller)
SG: 2012 Kyle Lowry (way better shooter, way better rebounder)
SF: 2017 Harrison Barnes
PF: 2016 Tyler Zeller (more steals)
C: 2018 Karl-Anthony Towns (way lower rebounds, more usage)
6th: 2018 Josh Richardson
This is the opposite of the 2012 Spurs: a roster that sounds good on paper but really wasn’t. On paper you read “Magic, Wilkes, McAdoo and Kareem, that’s four Hall of Famers, woo hoo!” But it really wasn’t. Check out those comps. Instead of Jamaal Wilkes you’ve got a zero-creation finisher who doesn’t actually finish that well. Instead of Bob McAdoo you’ve got a zero-creation unremarkable big. Because his numbers simply aren’t that good. I’m not saying that Wilkes and McAdoo weren’t *skilled*, I’m just saying that they converted their looks at only around league average. If I ever talk about somebody being a good or bad scorer, I’m not actually talking about their skill/arsenal/aesthetics, I am always talking explicitly about their efficiency relative to league average. It’s funny how Kareem in his 30s often seems to comp to Towns. I guess Towns is the modern “Extremely efficient high usage big with respectable blocks and assists/turnovers that are just good enough not to be a liability.” But super-Lowry as Magic Johnson? No LeBron? No Nash? Is that the best comp I had? Mostly it's driven by Magic's really low usage rate at this point in his career. And what is Magic doing at the 2 while Caris LeVert (of all players) is at the 1? Great questions. Let’s talk.
Occasionally people express disbelief that nobody realized in 1984 that Michael Jordan had a legitimate chance to become the best player ever (or thereabouts). There are a lot of reasons for it, but here’s one: there had simply never been a guard to ever come close to something like that. Look, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were really good. Were they as valuable as Russell or Kareem? Not even close. West and Robertson showed that the very best guards could be extremely valuable, but since the NBA had existed, the best player in the league was pretty much always a big. There was simply no precedent for a guard who was that good.
Well, there was also no precedent for a guard whose passing was so good that it would create offense out of thin air. Oscar had been a great point guard to be sure, but his strength was more scoring than passing. In general, the role of the point guard had been fairly straightforward. It was the smallest member of the team, someone who could protect the ball as it was being brought up the court, somebody quick enough to steal the ball from the opposing point guard, somebody who could, once in the half-court, deploy the ball to a scorer without screwing it up and, ideally, someone who could score a little themselves. When Magic was drafted the Lakers already had a stable point guard in Norm Nixon. By the standards of the time Nixon was a solid point guard. He was a decent passer (8-9 assists a game), he didn’t turn it over much (3ish turnovers a game), he chipped in two steals a game and could be counted on for about 17 points a game. Nothing to brag about, but a solid point guard who had helped them to a second-round showing in 1979. Advanced metrics didn’t like him on account of his league average shooting and low rebounding, but nobody cared about those back then. So when Magic was drafted the Lakers put him at shooting guard.
Shooting guard!? Remember, Magic was 6’9”. Oscar was a big point guard at 6’5”; Magic was the size of a power forward. Nobody thought “This guy was a monster PG in college, let’s flip the mediocre Nixon for parts and let Magic run the show”, because nobody had ever run with a point guard that big before. Of course, there had never been a player that big who passed that well before (heck, there’d never been anyone’s passing who was this good before). So they put Magic in at the 2. How did it work?
Not bad. Magic and Norm Nixon basically both ran the offense (weird!) and Magic ran with a super-low (for him) usage rate around 20%. When he did shoot (which wasn’t a lot, 4th most on the team) he converted at very high efficiency (+5.1%, high for the time). And in his spare time he crashed the boards hard: he led the starters in OREB% and TRB%. So even though he wasn’t in his ideal role, Magic may have been the most valuable player on the team.
But there were problems. Head Coach Paul Westhead liked to run the triangle offense. Magic Johnson, historically great improviser, did not care for the triangle. And it’s interesting; shoot-first players like Jordan and Kobe ended up performing better in the triangle, because it found a way to subordinate the performance of the superstars to the function of the offense. But with a pass-first player like Magic it seemed to stifle the performance of the offense. Either way, Magic didn’t care for it (and, I’d imagine, didn’t care for being the shooting guard). So early in the season he handled the problem exactly the way you’d expect a team-first twenty-two year old to handle it: he confronted management and said that he’d quit unless they fired Westhead. Classy move. They acquiesced and replaced him with an assistant coach named Pat Riley, who did well enough.
The ‘82 Lakers were, statistically, very similar to most Magic-run offenses. Very good shooting, very high offensive rebounding and higher than normal turnovers. That said, the team’s offense was only very good in the regular season; in the playoffs it would reach another level. As was typical for the early-mid 80s, the Lakers were the best team in the West (only a +4.4 SRS), but there were three teams in the East that were better (the Celtics, 76ers and Bucks in that order). In the second round (the Lakers got a bye) they faced the Phoenix Suns, who were above average (+2.8), but only a little worse than the Lakers per the regular season SRS. The Lakers wrecked them. They dominated the boards (Magic, Kareem and Wilkes combined for 10 offensive rebounds a game) and Magic and Wilkes combined for 44 points a game on +9.9% shooting or better. When the smoke cleared the Lakers had swept the Suns by 12.7 points per game.
In the Conference Finals they faced George Gervin’s Spurs. It went pretty much the same. Gervin scored 32 points per game but on -1.7% efficiency. In the meantime Magic averaged a 17/12/10 (+3.1%) and all major minute players besides Wilkes shot at +3.1% or better. The Lakers swept them by 8.7 points a game, advancing to face the Philadelphia 76ers.
It was a tough series. The Sixers featured an enormous front line, with Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins and Bobby Jones off the bench, along with the long and athletic Julius Erving at the 3. And the Lakers actually had a hard time getting good shots off. Kareem averaged an 18/8/4 (+0.6%) and Jamaal Wilkes did worse, with a 20/6/3 (-6.9%). Nixon shot badly; the meat of the Lakers’ efficiency came from McAdoo, Magic and Cooper who combined to average 46 a game on +5.5% or better. And Magic dominated the glass, pulling down 11 boards a game (leading the series in rebounding for both teams). But the Sixers had their own offense: Andrew Toney put up a 26/3/8 on +4.4% and Dr. J averaged a 25/8/3 on +5.2%. In elimination game 6 Magic did his best Bill Russell impression, putting up a 13/13/13 (+39.4%) with 4 steals and 2 blocks (and 6 turnovers), and the Lakers pulled it off by ten points. But the series overall had been tight; the Sixers actually outscored the Lakers overall by 0.2 points per game.
This is an interesting team. A weak showing in the regular season, sure, but they had two dominant wins over decent teams before a tight series against the Sixers. Were they the best team that year? Probably not. The Celtics had the better regular season and actually outscored the Sixers by 4.7 points per game in the Conference Finals (even if they ended up losing in seven). But the Lakers *did* win the Finals (which counts for something), they had a solid playoff run and this was a reasonably competitive year. This is a fine place for them.
#71. The 1980 Boston Celtics
Regular Season Record: 61-21, Regular Season SRS: +7.37 (33rd), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +4.1 (45th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -3.4 (54th)
PG: Tiny Archibald (31), +1.1 / +0.1
SG: Chris Ford (31), +2.0 / +0.7
SF: Larry Bird (23), +4.5 / +4.3
PF: Cedric Maxwell (24), +3.5 / +6.4
C: Dave Cowens (31), +0.9 / 2.5
Usage Rate: Larry Bird (25.3%), Dave Cowens (20.1%), Cedric Maxwell (17.7%)
Scoring/100: Larry Bird (27.6 / +0.7%), Cedric Maxwell (23.0 / +14.8%), Dave Cowens (20.4 / -5.4%)
Assists/100: Tiny Archibald (11.0), Larry Bird (5.9), Dave Cowens (4.5)
Heliocentrism: 27.0% (68th of 82 teams)
Wingmen: 34.3% (56th)
Depth: 38.7% (15th)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +0.99 (90th), Playoff Defensive Rating: -7.18 (27th)
Playoff SRS: +9.81 (54th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +1.06 (81st)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +1.08 (80th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -1.19 (67th)
Round 2: Houston Rockets (+1.9), won 4-0, by +18.5 points per game (+20.4 SRS eq)
Round 3: Philadelphia 76ers (+5.7), lost 1-4, by -4.4 points per game (+1.3 SRS eq)
PG: 2009 Kyle Lowry (better shooter, much worse rebounder and defender)
SG: 2014 Patrick Beverley
SF: 2001 Kevin Garnett
PF: 2007 Nene Hilario (if he shot the same amount, but converted way, way better)
C: 2015 Jared Sullinger
So I guess two comps I’ll need to explain. There are pretty much no young Bird comps that aren’t power forwards. His rebounding and defensive impact are way too high. And though it’s not a great fit (or super modern) 2001 Kevin Garnett gets spit out on top. It makes a weird amount of sense; high usage, decent efficiency, good passing, relatively low free throws compared to what you’d expect, strong rebounding (specifically defensive) and big defensive impact? Sounds like ‘01 Garnett. And Maxwell? His scoring profile is insane efficiency on tons of free throws and solid (but not high) usage. Nene is a reasonable fit, given that Nene lived at the rim (in terms of scoring, offensive rebounding and free throws) he matches Maxwell decently. It’s a bit of an underwhelming offense. Bird/Garnett is good, Super Nene/Maxwell is good, but Cowens and Ford were both fairly weak offensive players. Looking at this team makeup, it’s easy to see how this offense dried up to league average in the playoffs, but their defense became outstanding.
It’s hard not to talk about the ‘80 Celtics without talking about their enormous improvement. In 1979 the Celtics went 29-53, with a -4.78 SRS (2nd worst in the league). In 1980 they went 61-21, with a +7.37 SRS, the best in the league. This is one of the greatest transformations in NBA history, but how did it happen? The easiest explanation is that Larry Bird was added. Bird was an extraordinary rookie, but it’s not particularly credible that he was worth a 12 point-a-game swing by himself. Nobody’s that good. The addition of rookies Kareem Abdul-Jabbar *and* Bob Dandridge boosted the 1970 Bucks by only 9.32 points per game. The addition of rookie Bill Russell boosted his team by 4 points a game. 12 points is not a thing from 1986 Bird, much less 1980 Bird. Sorry.
So what happened? The 1979 Celtics were the typical dysfunctional team. Their coach was fired 14 games into the season. And their replacement coach was their aging center, Dave Cowens. Their owner ignored Red Auerbach (who obviously knew nothing about winning, aside from his 13 rings) and assembled a roster of aging all-stars and big names. The roster, on paper, doesn’t look bad: Cedric Maxwell, Dave Cowens, Tiny Archibald, Jo Jo White, Bob McAdoo and Marvin Barnes have a lot of name appeal. Alas, they played like garbage. McAdoo was traded early on, Archibald had one of the worst years of his career (he’d been injured badly the year before) and Cowens really struggled. If you read articles about the team back then, they sound like they’re describing every all-hat no-cattle team ever: passionless basketball, no hustle, every possession is a star trying to score in isolation, they ate ice cream in the middle of the day . . . (fine, I made one of those up). The players may not have been that great anymore, but everything about it screamed ‘team culture problem’.
But in the transition to 1980 the old owner was bought out, and the new owner turned the running of the franchise (within reason) back over to Auerbach. Auerbach immediately went out and hired tough-minded Bill Fitch, in whom Auerbach saw a kindred spirit promising increased focus on defense and more ball-movement. Fitch delivered on both counts. The Celtics spontaneously improved in pretty much every dimension, Archibald, Cowens and Chris Ford bounced back from below average to decent and, of course, the Celtics added Larry Bird. Was the addition of Bird’s skill and intense competitive fire critical to the massive improvement? Probably. But he certainly wasn’t all of it. To imply that all other variables stayed the same except Bird’s addition is simply not true.
So anyhow. The 1980 Celtics surprised the crap out of everyone (including themselves) and finished the season with the best record in the NBA (by one win) and the best SRS in the NBA (by almost 2 whole points). Their offense (#2 in the league) was powered on good shooting, especially from deep (5.1 threes per game, but that was 5.1 more than the season before). Bird and Chris Ford both shot 40% from three, and the rest of the team (led by Maxwell) did a decent enough job canning twos and getting to the line. Being the best team in the East they got a bye, and in the semis they faced the +1.9 Houston Rockets, led by a 24 year-old Moses Malone. Moses played emblematically in the series (25/11 on +6.4%, but one assist a game vs 4 turnovers a game wasn’t great) but the Celtics rolled right over them to the tune of a sweep at +18.5 points per game. Bird averaged a 20/8/6 (+3.5%), while Maxwell averaged a distinctive 19/10/2 on +17.7% shooting and the Celtics had almost twice the steals that the Rockets did. It was not close.
But in the Conference Finals were the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers’ offense wasn’t great (Julius Erving was their only strong scorer) and it was quite prone to turnovers. But their defense was the best in the league; combining veteran Caldwell Jones with youngster Darryl Dawkins in the front-court (both 6’11”), with Bobby Jones (one of the best sixth men ever) off the bench and with Doc on the wing, nobody could score two pointers on them. They led the league in 2P% allowed and blocks; four different Sixers averaged block percentages at 2.7% or better. By SRS the Celtics were a five-point favorite, but the Sixers promised to be a challenge.
And they were. The Celtics were smothered inside the arc; Maxwell shot at +13.5%, Archibald at +2.2%, but every other Celtic with minutes shot around -5% or worse. To counter the Sixers ferocious interior defense the Celtics launched their five threes a game but they didn’t fall. Bird went 3 of 8 for the series; every other Celtic combined went 5 of 18. Bird played hard (22/14/4 with 2.4 steals and 1.4 blocks a game), but his inefficient shooting hurt. The Sixers didn’t shoot much better. Erving averaged a 25/8/4 on +3.6% with 2.6 steals and 1.4 blocks, while Darryl Dawkins averaged an 18/8/1 on +4.7%. The Sixers shot 2% better than the Celtics, and in a series that was evenly matched in most other areas, that was enough. The Sixers won by 4.4 points per game, a result closer than the 4-1 won/loss would indicate. And notably, after their struggles shooting the three in this series, in 1981 the Celtics’ three pointers per game dropped almost by half (which is a shame, because three-pointers were a perfect weapon for a team with Bird’s shooting and passing). It wasn’t until 1987 (when K.C. Jones was the coach) that the Celtics would attempt more than 5 three-pointers a game.
The Celtics had a great regular season and a fantastic showing against the Rockets. That they struggled against the Sixers isn’t great, but it was a tough matchup. They were playing a really nasty defense with a lot of size and athleticism, and this was their first year together as a team. It may have been a disappointing result, but it boded well for their first year with Larry Bird. The next several years would see the Aegis of the Celtics rising, and tough battles with the Sixers in the playoffs became an annual fixture.
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