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May 21, 2012
Most Dominant
Ranking the Champs

by Neil Paine

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Which NBA champions had the most impressive postseason performances of all time?

To answer that question, you first need to lay down a few ground rules. Number one--in this context, "impressiveness" is tied primarily to point differential, with a few adjustments. The first is a modifier to take into account the location of each game (based on the home team's per-game advantage from the regular-season in question); the second adjusts for the regular-season strength of the opponent faced, using Basketball-Reference's Simple Rating System. Finally, results are tweaked so that performances in crucial games (as determined by Championship Leverage Index) mean more to the team's bottom line than those in less meaningful games.

All of this is done in an SRS-style manner, with a margin-of-victory prediction generated for each game based on the team's "playoff rating", its opponent's regular-season rating, and whether they were at home or on the road. The best set of ratings is the one that minimizes the prediction error for each game, with errors weighted by Leverage.

Without further ado, here is this system's ranking of the best championship playoff performances from 1986-2011:

26. 1988 Los Angeles Lakers (15-9, +4.61 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +4.81
LI/Game: 1.82
Best Opponent: Detroit (+5.5 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +4.4

They Rank Here Because...
They didn't really face much stiff competition at all throughout the playoffs, yet didn't blow the doors off of opponents either. A league-average team would have been expected to lose by just 1.9 PPG in their schedule, and they won by an average of only 2.5 PPG. Won two most crucial games by an average of just 2 PPG.

25. 2005 San Antonio Spurs (16-7, +5.27 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +7.84
LI/Game: 1.76
Best Opponent: Phoenix (+7.1 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: -2.2

They Rank Here Because...
Lost Game 6 of the Finals (3.6 Leverage) by 9 points and Game 4 (3.2 Leverage) by 31 points. Only particularly strong opponent faced were the Suns in the WCF; they beat them impressively but didn't play up to +7.84 regular-season in other series, including needing 7 games (w/ HCA) to beat a Pistons team whose +3.31 regular-season SRS made them one of the weaker Finals losers of the past 25 years.

24. 2000 Los Angeles Lakers (15-8, +6.78 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +8.41
LI/Game: 1.58
Best Opponent: Portland (+6.4 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +7.2

They Rank Here Because...
Only had a +2.3 PPG margin in playoffs, lowest of any champion since 1986. Suffered a number of double-digit losses, including being routed by 29 at home in Game 2 of WCF and a 33-point loss in Game 5 of the Finals. Did go 5-0 in five highest-leverage games, though they required an epic fourth-quarter meltdown by Portland in L.A.'s most crucial game of the season.

23. 1994 Houston Rockets (15-8, +6.82 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +4.19
LI/Game: 1.68
Best Opponent: New York (+6.5 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: -0.8

They Rank Here Because...
Playoff PPG differential of +3.1 was among weakest of any champ. Won three of five highest-leverage games (including Games 6 & 7 of Finals by a combined 8 pts), but lost third- and fifth-most crucial games of season by combined 16 points. Only two double-digit victories in games with a leverage index of 1.00 (average) or higher; had six in games with LI below 1.00.

22. 2010 Los Angeles Lakers (16-7, +7.63 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +4.78
LI/Game: 2.04
Best Opponent: Utah (+5.3 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +4.0

They Rank Here Because...
Faced relatively weak (+3.37 SRS) Boston team in Finals, but required seven games (plus HCA) to defeat them. Played single highest-leverage game of the last 25 years in Game 7 of Finals; won by only 4.6 more points than you'd expect from a league-average team. Won 2nd-most crucial game (5.5 LI) by 22, but lost 3rd-most crucial game (4.4 LI) by six. Swept toughest opponent (Utah), but average Championship LI of those games was just 0.58. Played most pressure-packed postseason of the last 25 years; only champ to average an LI over 2.00 in their playoff games.

21. 2007 San Antonio Spurs (16-4, +8.77 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +8.35
LI/Game: 1.56
Best Opponent: Phoenix (+7.3 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +8.8

They Rank Here Because...
Mostly faced a very weak slate of opponents, aside from Suns. Six highest-leverage games were vs. Cleveland (+3.3 SRS) and Utah (+3.1), games a perfectly average NBA team would only be expected to lose by 2.2 PPG. +4.0 playoff PPG margin not overly impressive regardless of SOS, made worse considering who it came against, regular-season expectations, and leverage of games.

20. 1993 Chicago Bulls (15-4, +8.92 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +6.19
LI/Game: 1.67
Best Opponent: Cleveland (+6.3 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +1.6

They Rank Here Because...
Won by far their highest-leverage game (Game 6 of Finals = 4.9 LI) by only one point. Lost third-most crucial game of the season (Game 5 of Finals) at home by 10 points. Most impressive performance came in a sweep of Cleveland, but that was only in Round 2 of the playoffs (average Leverage Index of those games was 0.51). Generally saved least dominant performances for the most critical games.

19. 1999 San Antonio Spurs (15-2, +8.98 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +7.12
LI/Game: 1.44
Best Opponent: Portland (+5.7 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +5.0

They Rank Here Because...
Postseason strength of schedule was notably weak. Aside from beating tough Blazers squad in Western Conference Finals, Spurs faced unimpressive Knicks (+1.5 regular-season SRS), Lakers (+2.7), and T-Wolves (-0.2) teams en route to title. Average PPG margin in games with LI > 1.00 was +6.5, 9.5 better than you'd expect from a league-average team.

18. 2006 Miami Heat (16-7, +9.05 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +3.59
LI/Game: 1.68
Best Opponent: Detroit (+6.2 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +0.8

They Rank Here Because...
Won two most critical games (Games 5 & 6 of Finals) by a combined four points. Won third-highest leverage game (Game 4 of Finals) by 24 points but lost Games 1 & 2 of Finals by combined 24 points. Faced extremely weak (by playoff standards) Nets and Bulls teams in first two rounds of playoffs, only winning by 4.5 PPG on average (an average NBA team would be expected to put up a -0.5 PPG margin in those games).

17. 1989 Detroit Pistons (15-2, +9.55 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +6.24
LI/Game: 1.63
Best Opponent: LA Lakers (+6.4 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +6.8

They Rank Here Because...
Lost only twice all playoffs, but only had 1 especially dominant high-leverage win, a 12-point victory in Game 1 of the Finals. Not a particularly tough road to the Finals--only needed to beat Boston (+1.3 SRS), Milwaukee (+4.1), and Chicago (+2.1) to win East... An average NBA team would have navigated those games with a -2.1 PPG margin (Detroit was +8). Highest-leverage game was won by only three points at home, in Game 2 of the Finals.

16. 1995 Houston Rockets (15-7, +9.82 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +2.32
LI/Game: 1.37
Best Opponent: Utah (+7.8 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +8.0

They Rank Here Because...
Won 10 of 11 highest-leverage games. Faced extremely difficult postseason schedule, defeating Utah (+7.8 SRS), Phoenix (+3.9), San Antonio (+5.9), and Orlando (+6.4) along the way to the title. However, the Rockets also only had a +2.8 playoff PPG margin, second-worst among champs of last 25 years. They don't rank lower because of their SOS and the fact that they played their best in the highest-leverage games.

15. 2011 Dallas Mavericks (16-5, +10.03 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +4.41
LI/Game: 1.87
Best Opponent: Miami (+6.8 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +4.4

They Rank Here Because...
Played third-most pressure-packed playoffs of any champ since '86, according to LI/game. Had narrow victories in most high-leverage games, but were a combined +19 vs. Miami in Games 5 & 6 of Finals, which averaged an LI of 5.6. Faced moderately difficult path and put up moderately good PPG margin in playoffs, leading to middle-of-the-pack ranking.

14. 2004 Detroit Pistons (16-7, +10.15 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +5.04
LI/Game: 1.73
Best Opponent: Indiana (+4.9 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +9.0

They Rank Here Because...
Faced a relatively easy set of opponents on the way to the title. Lakers had star power and name recognition, but were just a +4.4 SRS team during the regular season... Toughest Detroit foe was actually Indy, who was a tick better than L.A. in terms of SRS. Pistons won five of their eight highest-leverage games by double-digits, including three wins of 15+ (two of 20+). Only thing keeping Detroit from ranking higher is the SOS factor.

13. 1990 Detroit Pistons (15-5, +10.40 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +5.41
LI/Game: 1.66
Best Opponent: Portland (+6.5 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +8.4

They Rank Here Because...
Same story as we saw with Detroit's 2004 title-winning team: they were dominant, but it came against an unimpressive postseason schedule. Portland (+6.5 SRS) was a worthy Finals foe; otherwise, Pistons dispatched overmatched Pacers (-0.2), Knicks (+0.8), and Bulls (+2.7), even needing 7 games (with HCA) to defeat the latter. On the plus side, they dominated when it mattered most, winning three of their six highest-leverage games by 14 or more points.

12. 2002 Los Angeles Lakers (15-4, +10.67 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +7.15
LI/Game: 1.60
Best Opponent: Sacramento (+7.6 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +7.2

They Rank Here Because...
A +3.8 postseason PPG margin isn't particularly great by championship standards, but Lakers did face a tough slate that included San Antonio (+6.3 SRS) and Sacramento (+7.6). Won second-highest leverage game of the season (Game 2 of Finals) by 23 points. Forced Game 7 of WCF in a dubious manner, but won the deciding game on the road--their most pressure-filled game of the season and one which the average NBA team would have lost by 11--by six points.

11. 1997 Chicago Bulls (15-4, +10.71 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +10.70
LI/Game: 1.57
Best Opponent: Utah (+8.0 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +3.0

They Rank Here Because...
Playoff rating (+10.7) was identical to regular-season rating (+10.7). Not overly dominant in playoffs if you don't look at SOS; only had six double-digit victories all postseason. Still, faced a brutal path with the exception of Washington in Round 1: Atlanta (+5.5 SRS), Miami (+5.6), then Utah (+8.0), the best Finals loser by SRS over the 1986-2011 span. Won four of five most crucial games--PPG margin of +3.0 in those games isn't impressive until you consider the average NBA team would expect to lose them by an average of 7.5 PPG.

10. 1987 Los Angeles Lakers (15-3, +11.23 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +8.32
LI/Game: 1.43
Best Opponent: Boston (+6.6 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +8.0

They Rank Here Because...
Faced by far the easiest path to the Finals of any recent champ, defeating Denver (-1.1 SRS), Golden State (-2.5), and Seattle (+0.1) to win West. An average NBA team would have breezed through those games with a PPG margin of +2.2! (To the Lakers' credit, they won by an average of 15 PPG.) In Finals vs. tough Boston team (+6.6 SRS), L.A. won each of its four highest-leverage games, by 11.5 PPG on average. The Lakers' +11.4 playoff PPG margin was among the best in history, although you do need to adjust that a bit for the incredibly weak SOS they faced before the Finals.

9. 2003 San Antonio Spurs (16-8, +11.34 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +5.65
LI/Game: 1.82
Best Opponent: Dallas (+7.9 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +4.6

They Rank Here Because...
Against a more difficult set of playoff foes than most champs face, including +7.9 Dallas and +4.4 New Jersey, San Antonio won by 5.5 PPG. Won seven of their nine highest-leverage games, and the two losses were by three combined points (with one of the losses coming on the road). Won their two most crucial games by 21 combined points. Had double-digit wins in six of their 11 most important games of the season, under circumstances where the average NBA team would have lost by 6.4 PPG.

8. 2008 Boston Celtics (16-10, +11.55 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +9.31
LI/Game: 1.71
Best Opponent: LA Lakers (+7.3 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +13.0

They Rank Here Because...
Dominated when it mattered most. Won all six of their highest-leverage games, by 11.7 PPG on average (including a 39-point beatdown of the Lakers in the single most important game of the 2008 season), and eight of their nine most critical games. Would rank higher, but allowed significantly inferior Atlanta (-2.2 SRS) and Cleveland (-0.5) teams to force seventh games in the playoffs' first two rounds. ECF victory over Detroit was hardly convincing (+1.7 PPG margin), but the average team would have a -6.7 margin in those games.

7. 1998 Chicago Bulls (15-6, +12.06 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +7.24
LI/Game: 1.91
Best Opponent: Indiana (+6.3 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +10.0

They Rank Here Because...
Refused to lose their biggest games--won all four of their highest-leverage games (with an amazing +13.0 PPG margin, fueled in large part by a 42-point demolition of Utah in Game 3 of the Finals). Strong +7.0 PPG differential throughout the playoffs, despite facing very tough Pacers (+6.3 SRS) and Jazz (+5.7) teams in latter rounds. An average team would have lost Chicago's eight most crucial games by 5.1 PPG; Chicago won those games by 8.9 PPG on average.

6. 1992 Chicago Bulls (15-7, +12.48 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +10.07
LI/Game: 1.70
Best Opponent: Portland (+6.9 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +2.2

They Rank Here Because...
Aside from the badly overmatched Heat (-3.9 SRS) in round 1, Chicago faced an extremely difficult set of opponents: New York (+3.7), Cleveland (+5.3), and Portland (+6.9). Were badly outclassed in Games 2 of the East and NBA Finals, but for the most part they dominated the big games. Won eight of their 10 highest-leverage games with an impressive +11.0 PPG differential (including wins of 23, 29, and 33 points). Won their three most important games of the season by 9.0 PPG on average, games that the average NBA team would have lost by 8.4 PPG.

5. 2009 Los Angeles Lakers (16-7, +12.73 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +7.11
LI/Game: 1.65
Best Opponent: Orlando (+6.5 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +13.2

They Rank Here Because...
Unlike the 2010 version that would labor through the entire playoffs, the '09 Lakers cruised. They won seven of their eight most crucial games, by an average of 11.9 PPG, with the only loss coming by four points on the road. The only time they faced elimination was against Houston in the West semis, and in Game 7 they promptly won by 19. The only elite opponent they beat was Orlando (+6.5 SRS), but it was far from an easy path. L.A. navigated it with a +7.2 PPG differential and was nearly unbeatable in big games.

4. 1986 Boston Celtics (15-3, +12.81 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +9.06
LI/Game: 1.53
Best Opponent: Milwaukee (+8.7 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +10.4

They Rank Here Because...
The '86 Celtics are usually mentioned on the short list of possible "Greatest Team of All-Time" candidates, with good reason. After a spectacular regular season, they dominated the playoffs to the tune of a +10.4 PPG differential. They won six of their seven highest-leverage games, with a staggering average PPG margin of +13.6; the only loss was by two points on the road. The only knock on this team is strength of schedule--aside from a Bucks team that was fantastic in their own right during the regular season (Boston crushed them 4-0 in the playoffs), the Celtics faced an uninspired group that included Chicago (-3.1 SRS), Atlanta (+2.6), and Houston (+2.1). For the most part, the Celtics appropriately destroyed that underwhelming set of foes, but poor SOS is the one factor holding Boston back from the lofty heights of our top three.

3. 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (15-1, +14.99 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +3.74
LI/Game: 1.43
Best Opponent: San Antonio (+7.9 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +7.2

They Rank Here Because...
The last time I tried my hand at a list like this, the '01 Lakers were far and away the most impressive playoff team ever. So what's changed? As great as these Lakers were, the inclusion of leverage index hurts their case for #1. When we weigh all playoff games equally, L.A.'s epic run up to the Finals (+15.5 PPG margin, including brutal sweeps of the +6.1 SRS Kings and +7.9 Spurs) is emphasized more. Unfortunately, the Lakers let up a bit in the Finals, beating Philadelphia by "only" 6.8 PPG. And even that average is propped up by a 12-point win in Game 5, which carried a leverage of 1.5; in Games 1-4, which averaged a leverage of 3.3 (making them, on average, more than twice as important as Game 5), L.A. beat Philly by 5.5 PPG. That still makes the Lakers' run one of the most impressive ever, but their reduced dominance in the season's most critical games is just enough to slightly knock them down the list.

2. 1991 Chicago Bulls (15-2, +15.20 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +8.57
LI/Game: 1.51
Best Opponent: LA Lakers (+6.7 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +10.0

They Rank Here Because...
They defeated their playoff foes by an average of 11.7 PPG, which trails only the 2001 Lakers over the 1986-2011 period. They whipped a strong +6.7 SRS Lakers team in the Finals by 9.8 PPG. Most importantly, they won their three highest-leverage games by 14.7 PPG (games which the average team would expect to lose by 8.3 PPG), and 10 of their 11 most crucial games by +10.5 PPG, with the only loss coming by 2 points. In fact, their two losses in the entire playoffs came by a total of four points, with one coming on the road. For dominating the big games as well as the less-crucial ones, and having extremely narrow margins in their only losses, the '91 Bulls edge out the '01 Lakers for #2 on this list.

1. 1996 Chicago Bulls (15-3, +15.91 rating)
Regular-Season SRS: +11.80
LI/Game: 1.45
Best Opponent: Seattle (+7.4 SRS)
Average MOV in 5 Highest-Leverage Games: +12.0

They Rank Here Because...
The record-setting 72-win Bulls can boast the ultimate combination of PPG dominance, invulnerability in big games, and a tough path to the championship. Chicago beat its playoff foes by 10.6 PPG, a number that became an unbelievable +16.3 in their six highest-leverage games (they won by double-digits in four of the six, including wins of 22 and 38 points). There was the occasional hiccup--losing Games 4 & 5 of the Finals by 32 combined points, for instance--but the Bulls won 10 of their 12 most important games, games the average team would have lost by 5.1 PPG, by +8.8 PPG. Plus, by winning the first 3 games of the Finals, their losses in Games 4 & 5 were diminished leverage-wise, because the outcomes had less potential swings in championship probability. Games 4 & 5, which they lost by 16 PPG, carried an average leverage of 1.3; Games 1, 2, 3, and 6, which they won by 13.8 PPG, carried an average leverage of 3.3. And then there's the quality of opposition--Orlando was a tough out with a +5.4 SRS (Chicago swept them), and Seattle was the second-best Finals loser by SRS since 1986. Add it all up, and you've got not only the most dominant regular-season team from 1986-2011, but also the most dominant playoff team.

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Neil Paine is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Neil by clicking here or click here to see Neil's other articles.

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