Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fact or Fiction: Heat the Best Ever?

By Matt Thomas

If you spend any time watching that four-letter all sports network these days, you've undoubtedly noticed that the Miami Heat are on a run for the ages. Though the verdict is still open on how far this win streak will go, Miami passed the 2007-08 Houston Rockets with 23 straight wins at the time this article was submitted (as an aside, it is interesting to note that the aforementioned Rockets streak was ended on March 18, 2008 with a loss to the Celtics ... five years later TO THE DAY, the Celtics failed in their attempt to be the first team in NBA history to end two separate 22-game win streaks).

In addition to the nonstop coverage of Miami's streak, that same network has inundated its watchers with facts and figures that portray the notion that this team — the 2012-13 Miami Heat — is among the best teams ever. This article will delve into that idea and will explore the merits of this team and a handful of others whose play within a given season warranted a ball in the proverbial hopper in the discussion on "the best team ever."

Before we get into the comparisons, let's set the ground rules. This study will assess teams only within a single NBA season. So called "dynasty" teams will only be considered if any single season within that dynastic stretch set a team apart from its contemporaries and the length of a team's sustained success will not factor into this missive in any way. Additionally, player comparisons, a crucial component to any team's claim as the best ever, will not be arbitrarily adjusted based on the era in which a team/player played. This simply means that the measure of a player's excellence will be relative to the league within the year they played, so any arguments about today's athletes automatically earning extra credit because they are bigger, stronger, and faster than their predecessors won't hold up. Now let's meet the competitors:

2012-13 Miami Heat; 52-14, 30-3/22-11 (home/road split), 23-game win streak

1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers; 65-17 regular season record, NBA title, 12-1 playoff record

1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers; 69-13 regular season record, NBA title, 33-game win streak

1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers; 65-17 regular season record, NBA title, 15-3 playoff record

1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers; 68-13 regular season record, NBA title, 46-4 record in first 50 games

1995-96 Chicago Bulls; 72-10 regular season record, NBA title, 41-3 record in first 44, 15-3 playoff record

1985-86 Boston Celtics; 67-15 regular season record, NBA title, NBA record 40-1 home record

1998-99 San Antonio Spurs; 37-13 regular season record, NBA title, 15-2 playoff record (50-game season)

The eight teams included in this assessment will be measured in five key categories: Offensive Prowess, Defensive Presence, Quality of the League, Team Depth, and Superstar Factor. Teams will be awarded points on a scale of 1-10 for each of the five categories and these totals will be added together to net a final score, so a "perfect" team would have a total score of 50 points. It's as simple as that!

Offensive Prowess

The measure of "Offensive Prowess" is an assessment of how effectively a team scores. Factors include field goal percentage, team points-per-game as compared to the league average, and a team's ability to gain extra possessions through offensive rebounds. While some subjectivity is levied, this is a heavily stat-based category.

In reviewing the participants relative to this category, it quickly became clear that seven of the eight teams were well above average based on the comparison items in play. The one team that really didn't show well in this category is, unsurprisingly, the '99 San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs scored just over 1 point per game more than the league average and were the only team of the eight not to average over 100 points per game. While they did post a better-than-average team field goal percentage (45.6%) and a low number of turnovers (4th lowest in the league), they also shot free throws at a clip below 70% and weren't anything special in 3-point percentage, offensive rebounding, or free throws per field goal attempt.

At the opposite end of this spectrum were the 1972 Lakers. This team scored a whopping 11 points per game more than the league average and led their league in field goal percentage (49%), while also finishing in the top five in free throw attempts and offensive rebounds, making them the most efficient offensive team in this competition.

The 1987 Lakers (+8 vs. league average in scoring), 1967 Philadelphia 76ers (+8), and 1996 Chicago Bulls (+6) all showed very well in the offensive prowess category. The Lakers shot 51.6% from the field and also shot a league high number of free throws, while the Bulls led the league in offensive rebounding percentage (36.9% of available offensive rebounds were collected by the Rodman-led Bulls) and turnover percentage. The '67 Sixers shared the Lakers propensity for getting to the free throw line, but unfortunately they also shot a lowly 68% on those free throw attempts, buoyed by the awful foul line performance of star Wilt Chamberlain.

This year's Heat team, the '83 Sixers, and the '86 Celtics showed similarly in the offensive measurable as each was right at +4 in PPG versus the league average and near 50% shooting from the field. The Sixers did post the highest offensive rebounding percentage in this contest (37.1%), but beyond that, none of the three teams really stood out as superior in any of the other measurable categories.

This category is going to be scored as follows:

'72 Lakers – 9.5
'87 Lakers – 9.0
'96 Bulls – 8.5
'67 76ers – 8.5
'13 Heat – 7.5
'83 Sixers – 7.0
'86 Celtics – 7.0
'99 Spurs – 3.5

Defensive Presence

While Offensive Prowess measures were largely statistically-based, the level of excellence as it relates to the "Defensive Presence" category is a bit more subjective in nature. Some stats can and will be used, however, because key defensive statistics were spotty at best for the older teams on this list, a true stat-to-stat comparison wasn't feasible. Obviously, defensive rebounding and a team's points allowed numbers versus the league average are key variables in the formula, much of the defensive assessment is based on the "eyeball test."

Three teams — the Spurs (-7), Bulls (-7), and Celtics (-6) — posted remarkably high grades in terms of points per game allowed. Each of the three were at the top of their leagues in that category and each also scored well in defensive rebounding (Bulls and Celtics were tops with 71.7% of defensive rebounds collected). The Celtics and Spurs also led their respective leagues in lowest field goal percentage against, with the Spurs topping the charts by allowing made field goals at a paltry 40% clip.

Though the Spurs have a slight statistical edge here, the Celtics and Bulls each had multiple players voted to the league's All-Defensive Team, with the Bulls showcasing an unprecedented three players (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman) on the 1st team of that unit. When assessing all the stats and factoring in the individual brilliance, these three teams are undeniably excellent, but those Bulls are nearly the perfect defensive team with Boston and San Antonio not far behind. Extra credit has to be given to those Spurs who gave up under 85 points per game defensively, by far the lowest total on this list, so in that sense that nudge Boston by a nose.

In the second tier, only one team stood out, the '83 Sixers. Mo Cheeks, Bobby Jones, and Moses Malone all found themselves voted as NBA All-Defensive first-teamers, but this feat is slightly less impressive (very slightly) due to the fact that they played in a season where there were six fewer teams than did the Bulls. Still, defensively, Philly's top five players accounted for an impressive 7 steals and 6 blocks per game, making this an elite unit any way you look at them.

Of the remaining four teams yet to be discussed, Miami is a cut above. One of only three teams of the eight that allow fewer than 100 points (San Antonio 84.7 ppg allowed, Chicago 92.9 ppg, Miami 95.9 ppg), when you watch the Heat, you can see that they have the defensive capability to shut down teams and individuals. That said, Miami's points per game total defensively is just 2 points below the league average and they aren't a particularly good rebounding team when looking at the statistics.

Based on these shortcomings, why is Miami considered a "cut above?" Consider the '67 Philly team which, though in another era, allowed nearly 116 points per game defensively (-2 versus league average), even with Wilt's ridiculous 24 rebounds per game and countless (literally, they didn't count them) blocked shots patrolling the paint. Ironically, another Chamberlain team, the '72 Lakers, also struggled a bit on defense allowing 109 points per game (2 fewer than the league average) and though they grabbed a ton of rebounds (Wilt averaged nearly 20 and Happy Hairston grabbed over 13 per game), their defensive rebounding percentage was around 60%, which was right in the middle of the rankings in the 17-team league.

The final team to be discussed in this group are those '87 "Showtime" Lakers. This team gave up 108.5 points per game — barely one point under the league average — allowed teams to hit field goals at nearly a 47% clip, and was near the bottom of the league in defensive rebounding percentage, yet they featured the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year in Michael Cooper. That last fact just underscores how very average this Laker team was defensively as even with Coop shutting down one opponent nightly, the rest of the team was regularly gouged for buckets of buckets.

Scoring of the defensive units:

'96 Bulls – 10.0
'99 Spurs – 9.5
'86 Celtics – 9.0
'83 76ers – 7.5
'99 Heat – 7.5
'67 76ers – 6.0
'76 Lakers – 5.5
'87 Lakers – 5.0

Quality of the League

All right, this category is a bit of a nod to those of you who lament about the differences between eras, but only just a slight nod. It is evident in reviewing a simple, high level statistical portrait of the league over time that the NBA has changed. There are more Superstars, better athletes, and, counter-intuitive to these two facts, far fewer points scored (as an aside, this is a product of the three-point line coming into play ... though the shot is worth more points, it has dropped shooting percentages down precipitously).

Even considering, it is still neither practical nor possible to factor in some sort of adjustment to level the statistical accomplishments of today's players to the inflated levels of those who played in the '60s and '70s, so we won't even try. What we can do, though, is factor in the relative strength and quality of the league at the time each of our teams played. To do this effectively (and to avoid the knee-jerk urge to rate quality of today's league very high and the '60s teams league very low), we'll use some statistical measures to draw out similarities and dissimilarities between the eras.

The first and most important factor that has to be considered is the size of the league. The '67 Sixers, for example, played in a 10-team league, while the '72 Lakers competed in a 17-team league. The three teams from the '80s featured 23 teams, while the "modern day" teams played in the 29-team league we are all familiar with today.

The second consideration, and one that gets weighed as a factor to the aforementioned league size conditions, would be how "good" the competition was. Those same '67 Sixers faced only one other team in their league with a winning percentage above .550 (which I've arbitrarily selected as a level that defines a team as "good"), meaning 1/9th of their opponents, 11%, were "good." By comparison, the '96 Bulls and '99 Spurs top the list with 11 such opponents on their schedules (out of the 28 they could face), and though they played against many more teams than the '67 Philly team, they still faced a "good" team 39% of the time. In short, marrying these two variables together provides a good indicator of what the landscape of the league looked like in terms that can be related to all eight teams on our list.

This is also where any highly impressive win streaks factor into the equation. While it can be opined that long winning streaks may well be due to a weak set of opponents, I'd like to think we're all past that idiotic belief. Look, winning 20+ consecutive games in any season — hell, in any sport — is impressive no matter how you cut it, as is winning 40 out of 45 or 72 out of 82 ... you get the point.

The final contributory factor that cannot be ignored is a team's strength of schedule versus the league average. One has to be careful with this particular number, as it must be noted that these teams did not play themselves during their seasons of greatness, so by definition they made the teams they played weaker by playing them and beating them on such a regular basis. Still, you can get a feel for just how consistent a team needed to be throughout the season by measuring the strength of schedule rating against the others on our list.

The number that this comparison will be using is called "SoS (Strength of Schedule) Rating Versus Mean" and it can be explained quite simply. If you consider a given NBA season and add up all the wins and all the losses, those two numbers will obviously be equal. This puts the "mean" (aka the average) win percentage at .500. If every team played every other team exactly the same number of times, than everyone's SoS Rating Versus Mean would be 0.0, indicating that each night, the average winning percentage of the team they were playing was .500.

But alas teams don't play every team exactly the same number of times, so this SoS RVM becomes much more relevant — if you play a team that has a win % of .150 20 times and one with a win % of .600 five times, you would expect to have a better record than you would if you reversed those numbers. I'm sure it is clear as mud at this point ... enough explaining, on to the ratings:

'13 Heat – 9.0; 10/28 teams over .550 (36%), 4 in conference. Number two SoS at -0.33. Plus 0.5 point for 23-game win streak.

'72 Lakers – 9.0; 7/16 teams over .550 (44%) including 5 in their conference. SoS a middling -0.63. Plus 1.0 point for 33-game win streak.

'96 Bulls – 9.0; 11/28 teams over .550 (39%) including a total of 6 in-conference. SoS rating of -0.44. Plus 1.0 point for 72-win season.

'83 Sixers – 8.5; 8/22 teams in the league were over .550 (36%). Feature the best SoS rating at -0.14.

'86 Celtics – 8.0; 8/22 teams over .550, 4 in conference. Third best SoS at -0.36. Plus 0.5 point for 40 home wins.

'99 Spurs – 6.0; 11/28 teams over .550, 4 in conference. SoS low at -0.94. Lose an additional 0.5 point for 50-game strike-shortened season.

'67 Sixers – 5.5; 1/9 teams over .550 (11%). SoS predictably low at -0.94. Plus 1.0 points for 46 wins in first 50 games.

'87 Lakers – 5.5; 7/22 teams over .550 (32%), only 2 in conference. SoS of -0.98, worst of group.

Team Depth

Those first three categories focused on the teams themselves and how they fared as a unit. The final two will bring some much-needed individuality into the equation, beginning with "Team Depth."

Any basketball coach worth his or her salt will tell you that a deep team is a good team. This rings true in the NBA, as well, but isn't necessarily the rule. Understanding how deep some of the teams on this list are is important to the measure of that team as the "best ever" ... if it was not a consideration, than we'd be awarding this to the team with the best player on it and would stop there. Nobody wants that.

As you peruse the rosters of the eight teams, it is quite noticeable quite early that there are two distinct and very different methodologies to how these teams got on this list. One path is to have a very dominant core that handles the heavy lifting. Typically, these teams also have some players deeper down the roster with very specific skill sets that allow them to play very specific roles. The second path is to have balance throughout the roster with a larger group sharing the workload and spreading the statistical wealth across stat categories.

No team better epitomizes the latter than the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers. This is a team that boasted an aging but still productive Wilt Chamberlain — and he was their fourth leading scorer. The incomparable Jerry West and the underappreciated Gail Goodrich each averaged over 25 points per contest with West also chipping in nearly 10 assists per game. Relatively obscure teammates Jim McMillian and Happy Hairston also topped 13 per game along with the aforementioned Wilt the Stilt. Hairston added 13 boards a game, which complimented Wilt's 19 nicely. Six players averaged in double figures scoring in all and beyond those 6, there was still another 12 points per game floating around on their bench.

The '67 Sixers were similarly built as they also featured 6 double-digit scorers, but they did have a threesome that carried the majority of that water from the well, so they lose some momentum there. The '87 Lakers featured the most double-digit point men with seven, but the fact that they has only two all-star selections and only a single All-NBA representative (first or second team, no third team selected in '87) doesn't help their case, even if the reasoning behind that was a plethora of well-known, fan-favorite stars that blocked some of the supporting cast on the teams of the era.

There is little mystery over which team least fits the profile — those Jordan-led Bulls — but surprisingly today's Heat team and those '99 Spurs are comparable in terms of teams that lack top-to-bottom contributions. In the case of the Spurs, the problem was they didn't score very much. They had four 10+ ppg guys, but their bench barely scored at all. The Heat are in a similar predicament — four players averaging over 10 and contributions from the bench so sporadic that you never know where additional points are going to come from, if they come at all. But even with those two examples staring you in the face, there is no debating the fact that the Chicago Bulls are the team that is destined to score the worst in this category. Beyond Jordan and Pippen, those Bulls had the uber-erratic Toni Kukoc as their only teammate to drop in double figures each game. Yikes.

The '83 Sixers and '86 Celtics hold a very special place on this list. Though it would be unfair to award them more points than those mentioned in the first group, consider the pain that opponents would have to manage to get through when reviewing the lineup cards. In Philly's case, you have Moses Malone, Dr. J, Andrew Toney, Mo Cheeks, and Bobby Jones coming off the bench. In the case of that classic Boston team, you had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton coming in as the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. These two teams together featured seven future Hall of Famers (and two others that have a very good case in Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks), so to define these teams as anything other than "deep" would be greatly flawed logic.

'72 Lakers – 9.5
'87 Lakers – 8.5
'67 Sixers – 8.5
'86 Celtics – 8.0
'83 Sixers – 7.5
'13 Heat – 6.0
'99 Spurs – 5.5
'96 Bulls – 5.0

Superstar Factor

Saved the best for last! All of these other facts, figures, and suppositions are neat and tidy and certainly paint a good picture, but let's get real here: no team is on this list unless they sport some real superstar gravitas. There isn't a lot of pomp and circumstance to get into as a prelude to this closing scoring element as it really is quite simple. The question we answer here is "How good is your best?" To that end, let's get this rolling…

Of the eight teams on the list, we have to cleave off one club and separate them from the rest. Unfortunately that separation comes at the bottom of this list. That club is the San Antonio Spurs. Though there is little denying the 21.7 ppg, 11.4 rpg, and 2.5 bpg stat-line that Tim Duncan threw up there nightly is strong, it just isn't dynamic enough on any level to rate up there with the others. The Admiral, David Robinson, also was much more than a corpse as he averaged double-digits in points and rebounds and chipped in with over 2 blocks a game and 1 steal a game, as well, but again, they are $30/plate steak entrees while the others are upwards of $50 per pop.

Looking at both Lakers squads, there are similarities. Magic on one hand versus West on the other. Both averaged well over 20 points per night and West's 9.7 assists were outdone by Magic's 12.2. Then you have three "other" Hall of Famers on West's Lakers team, one of which is one of the top three players ever to lace them up in the form of Wilt Chamberlain. Magic had his own aging big man legend at the tail end of his career in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (still averaging 17.5 ppg in the '87 season) and another HOF teammate named James Worthy. Both of these teams are large on star-power, and the final scoring in this category will certainly bear that out.

The other franchise with two teams in the hunt, the Philadelphia 76ers, did things very differently from one another. The '76 edition was highlighted by a dominant big man in Moses Malone, but the '67 version had the dominant big man, the aforementioned Wilt. Dr. J was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career in '76 and Andrew Toney could score at will. Still, Wilt averaged 24 PPG, 24 RPG and also chipped in nearly 8 assists per game. He also shot 68% from the field! Hal Greer, Wilt's main running mate, poured in 22 points per contest and actually led the team in scoring in the playoffs with 27 per game in the "second season." Chet Walker was no schlub either with his 19.3 ppg/8.1 rpg contribution. Both of these teams fare well in terms of superstardom, but fall short of the final group of teams in this category.

Bird's Celtics were stacked, as was already covered, but their depth doesn't negatively impact the assessment of their sheer superstar talent. Being a superstar is more than just the robust stat lines, and Larry Bird is Exhibit A in that argument. Yes, Bird put up numbers (25.8/9.8/6.8 plus 2 steals), but he also put up results when it mattered most. His consistency in the clutch sets him apart from many others on this list. McHale and Parish each could have averaged over 25 ppg had they been the lone post options for their team, so you can't punish them for playing alongside one another. Dennis Johnson was a star in Seattle before coming to Boston and he too could have put up much larger stats had he needed to. Bill Walton was aging and injury-prone, but his contributions as a sixth man reinforced his status as a star in the league.

The Miami Heat, though a team whose history has not yet been fully written, are unique in their own right. They have the single most talented basketball player today in uniform and that he has "sacrificed" his own numbers (still averaging 26.7/8.2/7.2) and still earns that moniker is a testament to just how good this guy is. Dwyane Wade may have parents that don't know how to spell "Dwayne," but they sure know how to raise a superstar hoops player. Chris Bosh, as the third member of the "big three," seems to step up at the most opportune times and whenever you want to make an argument against his superstar status, he goes on a Player of the Month type of run that makes such an argument absurd. Since this is a story that is still playing itself out, I am confident giving this crew the benefit of the doubt and sliding them ahead of all others, save one.

Michael Jordan is, without question, the greatest basketball player to have ever played in the NBA. If you do not agree with that statement, you simply haven't put enough time into researching it. Jordan was at his best when others are at their most unpredictable. Late in games, trailing by piles of points, in the NBA playoffs, sick; situations that have shrunk even the most stoic of NBA legends bread moments of unparalleled success for MJ. Yes, he lost some of his legendary luster when he came back and played for the lowly Wizards and even more as he drives the Charlotte franchise toward the edge of a bottomless pit, but in 1996, this man was untouchable.

Robin to M.J.'s Batman was Scottie Pippen, a Hall of Famer in his own right who was at the top if his game in 1996. But the factor that sets this team apart from all comers is that annoying, freakish, oft-criticized and lampooned reluctant star named Dennis Rodman. Rodman scored a measly 5.5 points per game — hardly star material — but his 15 rebounds per game were light years ahead of his peers of the time. Rodman made a Hall of Fame career out of doing the little things better than anyone else of his generation and his presence on this team and his unique skill set was the perfect complement to Jordan's greatness and Pippen's consistency.

'96 Bulls – 10.0
'13 Heat – 9.5
'86 Celtics – 9.0
'72 Lakers – 8.5
'67 Sixers – 8.5
'87 Lakers – 8.0
'83 Sixers – 7.0
'99 Spurs – 5.5

And the Winner is...

To be honest, I did not know what to expect when I started this. I put much thought into my rankings and my methodology and I truly let those rankings play themselves out. I didn't look at the results and go back and tinker with a thing, I simply let the system dictate the results. In totaling all the scores, I must admit I was a bit surprised with how tight things turned out, but as I went through the totals, I can say that I feel very good about these results.

The reality is all of these teams are legendary in their own right. Though some may not be on the same level of others, they all belong in the discussion as each team did things that, when viewed in hindsight, defy any logical expectation. As you will see, Miami is not the greatest team of all-time, at least not by my calculations, but to have a team like that on the court in today's day and age is something any basketball fan should not take lightly. Enjoy the ride, as even though these "Once in a Lifetime" teams come along more frequently than that, they remain masterpieces to behold.

1. 1996 Chicago Bulls (42.5 Points) — It is fitting that the only team ever to win 70 games in a single NBA season winds up atop the list of greatest teams ever. They feature the best player ever to play and they won with a defensive intensity that is tough to match and an offensive efficiency that rendered no deficit insurmountable.

2. 1972 Los Angeles Lakers (42 Points) — A 33-game win streak is amazing when you truly think about the feat. Jerry West was as dynamic as they came in his day. Wilt Chamberlain, even at the twilight of his career, was a dominant force. A fitting No. 2 on this list.

3. 1986 Boston Celtics (41 Points) — Admittedly, this is the biggest surprise for me on this list. But a team with five Hall of Famers contributing should never be overlooked. Bird was nearly unmatched in his ability to make a difference in games and it is hard to imagine a more potent set of true post weapons in McHale and Parish, who rarely stepped outside of 15 feet from the rim.

4. 2013 Miami Heat (39.5 Points) — Time will tell if this team leapfrogs any others on this list, but they are in the argument and that argument is tough to discredit. Perhaps if the '13 Heat don't wind up sliding up a spot or two on this list, the 2014 version will, and that's as scary a thought as any.

5. 1983 Philadelphia 76ers (39 Points) — Probably the most underrated team on this list, the Sixers of this era were remarkably well put together. Of all the teams listed here, this is the one team that played the traditional positions to their definition: their big man was a dominant post weapon and gifted rebounder, their point guard was crafty, speedy, and smart, their shooting guard was an ultra-efficient scorer, their small forward was smooth and athletic, and their sixth man was gritty, blue collar, and exhibited pure effort.

6. 1967 Philadelphia 76ers (37 Points) — With Wilt closer to his prime than he was with those '72 Lakers, this team was a force to be reckoned with. It is quite possible that better stat-keeping in the era would have earned them some extra credit in this race, but a great showing nonetheless for a team that stepped in front of the Celtics freight train and lived to tell about it.

7. 1987 Los Angeles Lakers (36 Points) — The "Showtime" Lakers were as entertaining a watch as there's ever been, but their fast paced style actually played against them in this analysis as it did lead to some blowout losses which tarnished their luster ever so slightly.

8. 1999 San Antonio Spurs (30 Points) — As low men on this totem pole, many may question why they were included at all, but any team that allows 85 points per game in an NBA season — strike shortened or not — is in the discussion. What truly set this group apart was an impressive playoff run that to this day may never be matched, a testament to the age-old spirit of team play, understated excellence, and playing towards a goal. As impressive as that season was, it may be more impressive to note that since that season, this team has continued to perform at a high level without compromising those tenants which got them there in the first place.

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