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December 29, 2009
The Decade's Best
Top NBA Teams

by Kevin Pelton

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As the first decade of the 2000s draws to a close, it's time to look back. Basketball Prospectus will do just that this week, starting today with the decade's best teams, continuing Wednesday with the best players and wrapping up Thursday with an updated version of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract "Decade in a Box" we did last January.

Naturally, there will be math involved. I ranked teams using a quick, dirty rating that combines performance in the regular season and playoffs, as measured by point differential. The key adjustment is also adding the average regular-season differential of each team's playoff opponents, so that I attempt to measure postseason performance by how the team would have fared against a group of league-average opponents. Lastly, I added a one-point bonus for each championship team. Your mileage may vary on giving this extra credit, which ended up pushing nearly all the champions above the runners-up--with one noteworthy exception each way. I don't agree with all the results, but I think they do provide an interesting starting point for the discussion. Thanks as always to Basketball-Reference.com for invaluable assistance with the league's history.

1. 2000-01 L.A. Lakers (11.8 rating | +3.4 regular-season differential | +18.3 adjusted playoff differential)
Among the decade's 10 champions, none had a lower differential in the regular season than the 2000-01 Lakers. Nonetheless, they top this list because of their remarkable run to the second of three NBA championships. The Lakers famously went 15-1 in the playoffs, with their only loss coming in overtime in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. As much as the record, what stands out is the way the Lakers ran through opposing teams, with a playoff point differential of +12.5 points per game. By comparison, when the 1982-83 "fo' fo' fo'" Philadelphia 76ers went 12-1 in the playoffs, their point differential was just +6.5 points per game (the 76ers did play a format that gave them a bye rather than an easier first-round series). The second-best playoff differential in the decade, oddly, belongs to last year's Denver Nuggets, who outscored opponents by 8.6 points per game (a figure inflated by their 58-point win over the New Orleans Hornets).

While the 76ers were not an exceptionally challenging Finals opponent, the Lakers sliced through a set of opponents ranked third among the teams listed here, trailing two Finals losers (the 2008 Lakers and last year's Orlando Magic). Because the Western Conference was so deep, the Lakers faced a 50-win Portland team in the first round in a rematch of the previous year's Western Conference Finals before knocking off a 55-win Sacramento team and a very good San Antonio team than won 58 games. That Western Conference Finals series, which matched the previous two NBA champions, is probably the best testament to the 2001 Lakers. They eviscerated the Spurs, winning the final two games by a combined 68 points.

As M. Haubs pointed out at The Painted Area, the Lakers benefited from an extraordinary run of shooting in the playoffs. Still, they were so dominant in the playoffs I'm willing to overlook any quibbles. I'm inclined to believe that the Lakers' (relatively) poor regular season was the fluke, reflecting the absence of Derek Fisher for the first four and a half months of the regular season due to a stress fracture in his right foot and a certain lack of motivation best seen in the Lakers' 21st-ranked Defensive Rating (their defense was the best in the league by a considerable margin in the playoffs).

2. 2008-09 L.A. Lakers (10.5 rating | +7.7 regular-season differential | +11.4 adjusted playoff differential)
Last year's Lakers went 16-7 in the playoffs, which isn't exactly the stuff of legends, but their point differential in the postseason was actually second among the champions behind the 2000-01 Lakers. Combine that with a solid regular season and the 2008-09 Lakers narrowly grab the second spot on the list. As compared to some other champions, last year's Lakers were inconsistent, which is why they were taken to seven games by the Houston Rockets and were in danger as late as the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets. Still, when the Lakers were on, they were capable of crushing very good teams.

3. 2007-08 Boston Celtics (10.3 rating | +10.3 regular-season differential | +8.3 adjusted playoff differential)
The best defensive team of the decade, the Celtics relied on a cast of imports to go from the lottery to holding the Larry O'Brien trophy at year's end. Obviously Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were the key newcomers, but reserves Eddie House and James Posey and assistant coach/defensive architect Tom Thibodeau also played important roles. In 2007-08, Boston posted the top regular-season point differential of the decade. The Celtics were more uneven in the playoffs, getting taken to seven games by a middling Atlanta team despite dominating the series and then facing a dogfight against Cleveland in the conference semifinals. Boston turned things on midway through the Eastern Conference Finals matchup with Detroit and went on to control the NBA Finals against a quality Lakers team.

4. 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers (10.0 rating | +8.9 regular-season differential | +11.1 adjusted playoff differential)
Because it ended in the Eastern Conference Finals, last year's Cavaliers team will be remembered by history as a disappointment. Still, from a purely statistical standpoint, Cleveland was a great team. The Cavaliers posted the second-best regular-season differential of the decade en route to winning 66 games, then rampaged through the first two rounds of the playoffs, sweeping overmatched Detroit and Atlanta teams. Then everything went wrong in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Cleveland was still barely outplayed by a very good Orlando team in a series that turned on matchups and poorly timed shooting slumps for the Cavaliers' guards. I'm willing to believe that, despite not reaching the NBA Finals, Cleveland was the best non-champion of the decade. Were the Cavaliers better than several champions? I'm not sure I agree with that.

5. 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs (9.1 rating | +8.4 regular-season differential | +7.9 adjusted playoff differential)
The 2007 Spurs are probably the least remembered of San Antonio's three championship teams in the decade, but they top the group here thanks to the best regular-season differential of the three. In the playoffs, the Spurs were truly tested just once, and early--in the Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns. Without a championship bonus, those Suns would actually come out ahead of San Antonio, which will do little to heal the wounds for Phoenix fans who believe a potential championship was stolen with the suspensions of Boris Diaw and Amar'e Stoudemire during the series. After knocking off the Suns, the Spurs cruised against a 51-win Utah team in the Western Conference Finals and swept a 50-win Cleveland team in the NBA Finals. San Antonio would be easier to rank had the team faced another elite squad, but that possibility was lost when the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks were knocked off by Golden State in the opening round of the playoffs.

6. 2001-02 L.A. Lakers (9.1 rating | +7.1 regular-season differential | +9.0 adjusted playoff differential)
The last team of the Lakers' three-peat split the extremes of the first two championship teams. Where the 2000 team was the best in the regular season and the 2001 squad turned it on in the playoffs, in 2001-02 the Lakers were about equally good throughout the campaign. Alas, that team will best be remembered for the controversial way it reached the NBA Finals by beating the Kings in the Western Conference Finals. Surprisingly, despite the fact that Sacramento barely outscored the Lakers head-to-head in that series, the Lakers have the better postseason rating and the 2001-02 Kings don't rank especially high among non-champions. As for the Lakers, a healthy Fisher successfully replaced retired Ron Harper at the point and somehow Lindsey Hunter started 47 games (ahead of Fisher, who played more minutes off the bench) and Samaki Walker 63 for an NBA champion.

7. 2004-05 San Antonio Spurs (9.0 rating | +7.8 regular-season differential | +8.2 adjusted playoff differential)
Essentially, the second Spurs championship team was indistinguishable from the third, as fifth through seventh on this list are separated by 0.1 points. San Antonio looked like a juggernaut after taking down the 62-win Suns in five games in the Western Conference Finals. However, the Spurs were tested by the defending-champion Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, winning in seven games despite being outscored by 13 points in the series. Robert Horry's clutch three in overtime of Game 5 ultimately proved the difference. Take away the Finals and these Spurs shoot up to fifth on the list, substantially ahead of the 2007 team. On paper, the combination of a productive Horry and a growing Tony Parker probably makes this the best San Antonio team of the decade.

8. 1999-00 L.A. Lakers (8.8 rating | +8.5 regular-season differential | +7.1 adjusted playoff differential)
Out of the champions, this is probably the rating that departs most from conventional wisdom. Phil Jackson's first Lakers team won 67 games, the most of any L.A. team in the decade, and also sports the best regular-season differential of the Lakers teams. Those played key roles in Haubs choosing this his team of the decade. However, by this method, L.A.'s playoff run was actually the worst of any champion in the '00s. The Lakers were outscored by 13 points in the Western Conference Finals series against Portland they famously won with a Game 7 comeback, then were outscored by 11 points in the NBA Finals against an Indiana Pacers team that was hardly great. I'm not sure how many teams have won consecutive playoff series despite being outscored. How much that should count against the Lakers on a list of the decade's best teams probably depends on the importance you place on postseason performance relative to success in the regular season.

9. 2003-04 Detroit Pistons (8.8 rating | +5.8 regular-season differential | +9.7 adjusted playoff differential)
If I was doing this list subjectively, the Pistons would be much, much higher. I think they might be the most underrated team in NBA history. Their regular-season point differential was on the low side for a championship winner, but remember that Detroit really had two seasons--a span of three and a half months where the team was adjusting to Larry Brown and then a phenomenal run the rest of the way after the addition of Rasheed Wallace. After trading for Wallace, the Pistons outscored opponents by a ridiculous 12.1 points per game the rest of the way. Even adjusting for an easy schedule, Detroit was 10.5 points per game better than an average team, which would surpass the 2007-08 Celtics' decade-best differential. Give the Pistons that as their regular-season differential and they shoot to second on the list. With elite defenders at four of the five positions on the court and a legendary defensive coach, Detroit shut teams down over a four-month span. But that has been forgotten because the Pistons could never quite recapture that glory, they were the lone champion in the last three decades without a Hall of Fame superstar and because the storyline has always been about the talented Lakers choking in the Finals rather than Detroit beating them. That's a terrible shame.

10. 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs (8.5 rating | +5.4 regular-season differential | +9.6 adjusted playoff differential)
By this method, the 2002-03 Spurs were by far the worst of the three San Antonio championship teams. I had forgotten that the Spurs were not especially impressive in the regular season, finishing with the third-best point differential in the conference behind Dallas and Sacramento. Still, San Antonio was as good as ever in the playoffs. The numbers might even understate what the Spurs accomplished because the three-time defending champion Lakers team they faced in the conference semifinals is rated based on an injury-plagued regular season. San Antonio did benefit from Dirk Nowitzki's knee injury in the Western Conference Finals, but this was an awfully good team for one conceived with the goal of not sacrificing the team's cap space for the summer of 2003, which explains the presence of oddities like Speedy Claxton, Stephen Jackson and Hedo Turkoglu on the roster.

The Best of the Also-Rans

11. 2004-05 Phoenix Suns (8.3 rating | +7.1 regular-season differential | +9.5 adjusted playoff differential)
12. 2006-07 Phoenix Suns (8.2 rating | +7.3 regular-season differential | +9.2 adjusted playoff differential)
Two of the three teams who would have rated ahead of the actual champions without the championship bonus were Suns teams that lost to San Antonio. This is more a reminder that matchups matter than it is a commentary on defense winning championships. The Spurs simply had Phoenix's number during the middle of the decade, though it took more than a little luck in 2007. Both teams still rated very well in the postseason; the 2005 squad came into the Western Conference Finals rolling after sweeping a good Memphis team and thoroughly outplaying Dallas in the conference semifinals.

13. 1999-00 Portland Trail Blazers (8.2 rating | +6.4 regular-season differential | +9.9 adjusted playoff differential)
14. 2007-08 L.A. Lakers (7.9 rating | +7.3 regular-season differential | +8.6 adjusted playoff differential)
15. 2008-09 Denver Nuggets (7.9 rating | +3.4 regular-season differential | +12.4 adjusted playoff differential)
16. 2005-06 Dallas Mavericks (7.6 rating | +6.1 regular-season differential | +9.1 adjusted playoff differential)
Take away the NBA Finals and this is your best runner-up of the decade. Actually, take away the last three games and one quarter of the Finals and this is one of the best teams of the decade. For that matter, take away Bennett Salvatore and ... never mind.

17. 2007-08 Detroit Pistons (7.5 rating | +7.4 regular-season differential | +7.7 adjusted playoff differential)
This team was most dramatically overshadowed by the nation's all-encompassing desire for a Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals. I had no idea these Pistons actually had a better differential than the group that won 64 games under Flip Saunders in 2005-06.

18. 2008-09 Orlando Magic (7.3 rating | +6.7 regular-season differential | +7.9 adjusted playoff differential)
19. 2001-02 San Antonio Spurs (7.1 rating | +6.2 regular-season differential | +8.1 adjusted playoff differential)
t20. 2001-02 Sacramento Kings (7.0 rating | +7.6 regular-season differential | +6.3 adjusted playoff differential)
t20. 2002-03 Sacramento Kings (7.0 rating | +6.5 regular-season differential | +7.4 adjusted playoff differential)

The Decade's Other Champion

22. 2005-06 Miami Heat (6.7 rating | +3.9 regular-season differential | +7.5 adjusted playoff differential)
Even with the championship bonus, the 2005-06 Heat doesn't rank among the decade's 20 best teams by this method. Some allowance probably should be made for the 23 games Shaquille O'Neal missed due to injury, but even when Miami was healthy during the playoffs, its path to the championship rated worse than eight of the nine other champions and several playoff losers. This was a good team that took advantage of favorable matchups before getting hot at the right time during the NBA Finals and ended up winning rings as a result. However, I'm inclined to believe that the previous Heat team--which was a win away from the Finals succumbing to injuries--was the better one.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

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

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