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Top 20 NBA teams of century by strength ratings

By Steve Makinen  () 

With the excitement of the NBA’s announcement that the 2019-20 season would restart in July, the timing is ideal to continue my series on top teams from each sport in the 21st century by looking at the NBA. 

 

Basketball is probably the most statistically rich sport for which I offer strength ratings, as stats are calculated down to the possession, which nowadays is about 105 per game. These rankings are 100% statistical, a calculation of how much a team outplayed its opposition, comparing its points for and points allowed versus the quality of opposition it faced.

 

My formula to create these ratings has not changed in the 25 years I have done them, an important factor to consider when comparing teams from different seasons or eras. You can get a hypothetical feel for what the odds might be between two teams by comparing their overall Effective Strength Ratings. For instance, using the top two teams, the 2016-17 Warriors would be considered 1.44 points better than the 2019-20 Bucks, essentially about a 1.5-point favorite in a head-to-head neutral-court matchup or a -130 moneyline favorite.

 

Had this study gone back to the Bulls’ era of dominance, the 1996 Chicago team would have rated the highest, checking in at No. 2 with an Effective Strength Rating of + 11.29. That was the group that went 72-10 in the regular season and beat Seattle in the NBA Finals. The ’97 team had a + 9.85 rating.

 

Remember these ratings are not impacted by eventual playoff accomplishments. Exactly half of these teams, or 10, won NBA championships, with two teams from the 2019-20 season yet to be determined. This stands as evidence that the NBA playoffs are easily the most predictable of any sport and that the upcoming proceedings in Orlando, Fla. — bringing six extra teams to the party — might be gimmicky and fun but are probably an exercise in futility for those clubs. Consider that as you handicap the return of the 2020 season, although we will be seeing many changes, including neutral environments, loss of all momentum and the potential return of key players who had missed much or all of the season. As always, your comments and feedback are welcome.

 

Top 20 NBA Teams by Effective Strength Ratings Since 2000

 

1. 2016-17 GOLDEN STATE + 11.94

Record: 83-16, -14.15 units, 47-44-8 ATS (51.6%)

Playoff fortunes: Won NBA championship

Season recap: Golden State placed three teams in the top five among the best teams of the century. The top Warriors team was the 2017 championship squad, and strangely it became the first team in any sport covered thus far to top the list and win a title. This is the team that added Kevin Durant to the already potent lineup featuring Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Curry led the team in scoring at 25.3 PPG, while Durant scored 25.1. The team hit 982 3-point shots in the regular season and averaged 116.5 PPG for all 99 games played. Perhaps the most dominant defining statistic was winning its first 15 playoff games before dropping Game 4 in the Finals to Cleveland. The Warriors closed it out in Game 5. With a 67-15 regular-season record and 16-1 playoff mark, Golden State still lost over 14 units for bettors on moneylines as it was an underdog just three times, a sign that oddsmakers highly respected the team.

 

2. 2019-20 MILWAUKEE + 10.50

Record: 53-12, + 1.6 units, 36-29 ATS (55.4%)

Playoff fortunes: TBD

Season recap: The current Bucks team was enjoying an amazing season when the coronavirus pandemic halted the season. With the action expected to pick up in late July, the Bucks will be looking to finish the job by winning their first NBA title since 1971. Milwaukee is outscoring its opponents 118.7-107.4 per game. It can be argued that the hiatus came at the right time, however, as coach Mike Budenholzer’s team had lost three straight and was 1-5 ATS in the last six. The Bucks also appeared to be destined for the Finals the prior year before an unexpected four straight losses to Toronto in the East finals erased a 2-0 series lead and ended the season prematurely.

 

3. 2015-16 SAN ANTONIO + 10.08

Record: 73-19, + 17.75 units, 49-43 ATS (53.3%)

Playoff fortunes: Lost in Western Conference semifinals

Season recap: Considering that the Spurs have won five titles since 1998, it would seem a surprise that the highest team on this list that didn’t even make the conference final. This San Antonio group set a franchise record with 67 wins and won its first five playoff games before an unexpected 1-4 stretch versus Oklahoma City ended the campaign. Still, the team produced over 17 units of profits for bettors and was 30-11 against the spread at the midway point of the regular season. This was Tim Duncan’s final season in the NBA, and with he and Kawhi Leonard setting the tone, this team ranks as the best defensive squad of the last 20 years.

 

4. 2014-15 GOLDEN STATE + 9.78

Record: 83-20, + 17 units, 56-43-3 ATS (56.6%)

Playoff fortunes: Won NBA championship

Season recap: The first of the recent Warriors teams to win the title was the 2014-15 group, which went 67-15 in the regular season, improving by 16 games from the previous season. This is the year when fans first got to know the Splash Brothers well, as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson each made over three 3-point shots per game and both scored over 21 PPG. Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Mo Speights contributed in supporting roles. Golden State enjoyed winning streaks of 12 and 16 games and won its final three games SU and ATS to beat Cleveland in the Finals 4-2.

 

5. 2015-16 GOLDEN STATE + 9.62

Record: 88-18, + 21.95 units, 59-45-2 ATS (56.7%)

Playoff fortunes: Lost in NBA Finals

Season recap: The 2015-16 Warriors were the best team in NBA regular-season history, going 73-9. Part of that was a 39-4 start guided by interim coach Luke Walton. Golden State won its first 24 games before falling at Milwaukee. The Warriors were 25-16-2 against the spread under Walton. Steve Kerr returned to help the team blow a 3-1 Finals lead to Cleveland, losing Games 5 and 7 as hosts after going 50-3 at home. Stephen Curry had a monster season that earned him league MVP honors, scoring 30.1 PPG while making over five 3-pointers per game and shooting 45.4% from behind the arc.  

 

6. 2007-08 BOSTON + 8.76

Record: 82-26, + 20.05 units, 67-40-1 ATS (62.6%)

Playoff fortunes: Won NBA championship

Season recap: The team on this list that enjoyed the best season for point-spread bettors was the 2007-08 Celtics, who won the championship behind a potent three-headed monster lineup featuring Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. In a classic Finals, Boston turned back the rival Lakers 4-2, covering all six games against the spread. Overall, the Celtics finished 67-40-1 ATS, good for 62.6%. They were nearly as effective on the road (62.3%) as at home (63%). The Doc Rivers-coached team won 66 games in the regular season, two shy of the storied franchise’s record.

 

7. 2008-09 CLEVELAND + 8.71

Record: 76-20, + 30.1 units, 57-38-1 ATS (60.0%)

Playoff fortunes: Lost in Eastern Conference finals

Season recap: The 2008-09 Cavaliers set a franchise record with 66 wins in the regular season, improving by a remarkable 21 games from the previous season. It appeared this would finally be the first Cleveland team to win a title, but the Cavaliers were upset by third-seeded Orlando in six games in the East final. LeBron James won his first league MVP, averaging 28.4/7.6/7.2. Point guard Mo Williams scored 17.8 PPG in a secondary role. As opposed to many of the other teams on this list, the Cavaliers were not highly rated until late in the season, and as a result were able to produce over 30 units of profit for moneyline bettors and were 60% against the spread. Included was a 45-3 SU and 32-16 ATS record at home.

 

8. 2013-14 SAN ANTONIO + 8.59

Record: 78-27, + 16.35 units, 58-47 ATS (55.2%)

Playoff fortunes: Won NBA championship

Season recap: The Spurs’ final championship team of the era was the 2013-14 group. San Antonio turned back Miami in five games in the Finals and was 13-4 SU and ATS in its final 17 postseason games after battling Dallas to a 3-3 tie in the first six games of the opening round. San Antonio was a well-balanced team and featured six players who averaged in double digits, led by Tony Parker’s modest 16.7 PPG. The season was highlighted by two incredible runs, a 14-1 start to the season and a 19-game winning streak out of the All-Star break, part of which was a 16-0 SU and 13-3 ATS record in March.

 

9. 2018-19 MILWAUKEE + 8.52

Record: 70-27, + 17.85 units, 57-37-3 ATS (60.6%)

Playoff fortunes: Lost in Eastern Conference final

Season recap: The 2018-19 Bucks came up shy of their goal of snapping a streak of 48 years without winning an NBA title, but they were the league’s dominant team at many points in the season. Giannis Antetokounmpo won his first MVP honor after going 27.7/12.5/5.9, and Mike Budenholzer was named coach of the year in his first season with the franchise. After an 11-1 SU and ATS run to start the playoffs, however, the season turned on a dime with four straight losses to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference final. Before that, Milwaukee had gone a rewarding 57-33-3 ATS, and its 60 regular-season wins tied a 38-year high.

 

10. 2012-13 OKLAHOMA CITY + 8.25

Record: 65-28, -14.05 units, 51-40-2 ATS (56.0%)

Playoff fortunes: Lost in Western Conference semifinals

Season recap: A year after losing in the NBA Finals, many expected this team to finally take the next step and earn the Thunder/Sonics franchise their first title since 1978-79. OKC won 60 games in the regular season and went into the playoffs as the top seed in the West. After going up 3-0 on Houston in the first round, the Thunder were pushed to six games by the Rockets. The team never recovered its momentum and was eliminated in five games in the next round by Memphis, going 0-5 ATS. The Thunder were led by what was arguably the best tandem in the league, Kevin Durant (28.1/7.9/4.6) and Russell Westbrook (23.2/5.2/7.4).

 

11. 2006-07 SAN ANTONIO + 7.88

Record: 74-28, -11.4 units, 57-44-1 ATS (56.4%)

Playoff fortunes: Won NBA championship

Season recap: The first four San Antonio championship teams came off seasons in which they lost in the conference semifinals the previous year. The last of those was the 2006-07 team that swept the Cavaliers in LeBron James’ first trip to the Finals. These Spurs emerged from the West playoffs as the No. 3 seed, aided by Golden State’s upset of No. 1 Dallas in the first round. They were 58-24 in the regular season and enjoyed a highly profitable run of 14-5-1 ATS in the postseason. This was the last season Tim Duncan scored 20 PPG, and he was supported by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, each of whom topped 16 PPG.

 

12. 2000-01 LOS ANGELES LAKERS + 7.79

Record: 82-23, + 26.45 units, 55-45-3 ATS (55.0%)

Playoff fortunes: Won NBA championship

Season recap: Four of the final nine teams on the list are Lakers squad, and I was surprised to see that none of them came in above No. 12. The best of these was the NBA champion team from 2000-01, which turned back the 76ers in five games in the Finals. This was the second edition of the three-peat team coached by Phil Jackson and headlined by perhaps the best guard-center twosome of all time in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Both averaged over 28 PPG but watched Allen Iverson of Philadelphia collect MVP honors. This team was a bookies’ nightmare down the stretch, demonstrating its dominance by going 19-4-1 ATS in the final 24 games. A Finals-opening loss to Philly was its only setback in the postseason.

 

13. 2008-09 LOS ANGELES LAKERS + 7.74

Record: 81-24, + 2.8 units, 55-49-1 ATS (52.9%)

Playoff fortunes: Won NBA championship

Season recap: The 2008-09 Lakers were the first of back-to-back title teams highlighted by Kobe Bryant. These teams were coached by Phil Jackson, but besides Bryant, the team had an entirely different nucleus than the one at No. 12. The top supporting actors were Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Los Angeles played 23 games in the playoffs, going 13-10 ATS, and was pushed to the limit in the second round by Houston. The Lakers eventually beat Orlando in five games in the Finals. These Lakers boasted an impressive 10-4 SU and 12-2 ATS record as underdogs.

 

14. 2015-16 OKLAHOMA CITY + 7.69

Record: 66-34, -4.05 units, 45-53-2 ATS (45.9%)

Playoff fortunes: Lost in Western Conference finals

Season recap: The 2015-16 season in Oklahoma City was the first for coach Billy Donovan, who took over for Scott Brooks after a long run of success at Florida. Donovan’s team won 55 games in the regular season, but it was somewhat of an underachievement, as the Thunder were just 35-45-2 ATS in the regular season, a sign of great respect from oddsmakers. They also blew a 3-1 series lead in the conference finals to Golden State. Kevin Durant (28.2 PPG) and Russell Westbrook (23.5 PPG/10.4 APG) enjoyed huge seasons, but Durant departed later that summer, joining the champion Warriors as a free agent in one of the most controversial and ridiculed offseason signings ever.

 

15. 2017-18 HOUSTON + 7.64

Record: 76-23, + 21.45 units, 50-48-1 ATS (51.0%)

Playoff fortunes: Lost in Western Conference finals

Season recap: The only Houston team to make the top 20 list for this century is the 2017-18 group, which went an amazing 65-17 in the regular season but succumbed to the Warriors in a seven-game Western Conference finals series. The Rockets were an offensive power, scoring 112.4 PPG in the regular season, but that disappeared in the final five games against Golden State, when they averaged just 91.2 PPG. James Harden finally reached an MVP level that season, scoring 30.4 PPG while also averaging 5.4 RPG and 8.8 APG. Chris Paul and Eric Gordon also took on big roles for coach Mike D’Antoni’s team. The highlight of Houston’s season was an incredible run of 26-1 SU and 17-9-1 ATS through February and March.

 

16. 2019-20 LOS ANGELES LAKERS + 7.61

Record: 49-14, -6.25 units, 35-27-1 ATS (56.5%)

Playoff fortunes: TBD

Season recap: The current Lakers team will go into the playoffs sharing the same league-leading title odds as Milwaukee at 5/2. LeBron James, Anthony Davis & Co. had beaten the Bucks 113-103 the weekend before the season was put on hold. As opposed to Milwaukee, Los Angeles seemed to be playing its best ball down the stretch, going 11-2 SU and 9-4 ATS. James and Davis had scored better than 25 PPG in the first 63 games, and the team had the fourth-best point-spread record in the NBA. Of potential concern, first-year coach Frank Vogel’s last two teams in Orlando won just 29 and 25 games, and he has never coached a team past the conference finals.

 

17. 2009-10 ORLANDO + 7.59

Record: 69-27, -1.6 units, 53-38-5 ATS (58.2%)

Playoff fortunes: Lost in Eastern Conference finals

Season recap: The inclusion of the 2009-10 Orlando team was a bit of a surprise to me. I don’t look back at any of the Dwight Howard-led teams as being that significant, but this one was just two wins shy of a berth in the Finals. The Magic enjoyed an amazing run in the latter portion of the season, going 28-3 SU and 23-7-1 ATS. Howard led the team with 18.3 PPG and 13.2 RPG, while Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson also topped double digits in scoring. Coach Stan Van Gundy guided this team to its franchise-record third straight division title.

 

18. 2004-05 SAN ANTONIO + 7.50

Record: 75-30, -8.25 units, 58-44-3 ATS (56.9%)

Playoff fortunes: Won NBA championship

Season recap: The last of the four Spurs teams to make the list is the 2004-05 championship squad led by the usual trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli. Like almost all Spurs teams of the century, this group was not flashy but was solid on both ends of the court. The Spurs won 59 games in the regular season, assumed the No. 2 spot in the West playoffs and upset No. 1 Phoenix in the conference finals in five games, winning all three road games. They survived the Pistons in a classic seven-game Finals despite scoring just 84.9 PPG in the series. For the season, San Antonio finished 14 games above .500 against the spread, including 15-8 ATS in the postseason.

 

19. 2012-13 MIAMI + 7.36

Record: 82-23, + 15.25 units, 58-47 ATS (55.2%)

Playoff fortunes: Won NBA championship

Season recap: The Heat have won three NBA titles in the last 15 seasons, but only one team had a season dominant enough to make the list — the 2012-13 squad, led by MVP LeBron James. This team survived a potential championship-winning Game 6 for San Antonio on Ray Allen’s clutch 3-point shot in the closing seconds. Allen was somewhat of a role player, scoring 10.9 PPG to support the big three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Miami was 66-16 in the regular season, an improvement of 10.8% from the previous title-winning season. Unlike many other champions, however, Miami went just 12-11 ATS in the postseason.

 

20. 2001-02 LOS ANGELES LAKERS + 7.20

Record: 73-28, -8.6 units, 48-52-1 ATS (48.0%)

Playoff fortunes: Won NBA championship

Season recap: The last team to make the list is the Lakers’ 3-peat championship team from 2001-02. Shaquille O’Neal (27.2 PPG) and Kobe Bryant (25.7 PPG) carried the load. Of course, they are two of the best players the NBA has ever seen at their positions. O’Neal lifted his game in the Finals sweep of New Jersey, averaging 36 points and 12 rebounds while garnering MVP honors. For the regular season, the team was just 58-24 and went into the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the West. But the Lakers upended No. 2 San Antonio in the conference semis and No. 1 Sacramento in the West finals. Despite the relatively easy 15-4 run through the postseason, they were just 7-11-1 ATS.

 

Those were the overall Effective Strength Ratings. Here are the top 10 offensive and defensive teams of the last 20 years using my effective scoring calculations. Only one of the top offensive teams won an NBA title, while three of the top defensive teams did.

 

Top 10 Offensive Teams (Effective Offensive Strength)

1. 2004-05 PHOENIX SUNS: + 14.27 — Lost in Western Conference finals

2. 2003-04 DALLAS MAVERICKS: + 11.46 — Lost in Western Conference first round

3. 2005-06 PHOENIX SUNS: + 11.46 — Lost in Western Conference finals

4. 2007-08 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: + 11.09 — Missed playoffs

5. 2006-07 PHOENIX SUNS: + 10.95 — Lost in Western Conference semifinals

6. 2016-17 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: + 10.94 — Won NBA championship

7. 2015-16 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: + 10.56 — Lost in NBA Finals

8. 2007-08 DENVER NUGGETS: + 10.22 — Lost in Western Conference first round

9. 2007-08 PHOENIX SUNS: + 10 — Lost in Western Conference first round

10. 2001-02 DALLAS MAVERICKS: + 9.9 — Lost in Western Conference semifinals

 

Top 10 Defensive Teams (Effective Defensive Strength)

1. 2015-16 SAN ANTONIO SPURS: -9.88 — Lost in Western Conference semifinals

2. 2007-08 SAN ANTONIO SPURS: -9.75 — Lost in Western Conference finals

3. 2003-04 SAN ANTONIO SPURS: -9.46 — Lost in Western Conference semifinals

4. 2007-08 DETROIT PISTONS: -9.29 — Lost in Eastern Conference finals

5. 2003-04 DETROIT PISTONS: -9.21 — Won NBA championship

6. 2006-07 SAN ANTONIO SPURS: -9.16 — Won NBA championship

7. 2012-13 MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: -9.13 — Lost in Western Conference semifinals

8. 2007-08 BOSTON CELTICS: -9.03 — Won NBA championship

9. 2016-17 UTAH JAZZ: -8.85 — Lost in Western Conference semifinals

10. 2007-08 HOUSTON ROCKETS: -8.65 — Lost in Western Conference first round

 

I’ll continue this series next week with a look at college basketball’s top teams of the 21st century.

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