Posted by Jonah Gardner on April 14, 2016
Everyone knows who the best team of the 1990s was. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all-time, leading a cast that included two of the greatest defenders of all-time, a legendary sharpshooter, and a Hall of Fame coach. That team's 72-win regular season seemed like the modern equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's hit streak, a record so unfathomable that we all knew it would never be broken.
Except that this year, it was. The Golden State Warriors still have a title to win, but it's not too early to say that, if they are crowned NBA Finals' champs, they'll likely be remembered as the best team of the 2010s (at least, until the 2019 76ers, under Bryan Colangelo's leadership, win 74 games).
There's no room for debate about the 1990s and, similarly, it seems obvious that we'll look back on this Warriors team as the defining one of this decade. However, this got me thinking about the decade in between. The 2000s were a strange era for the NBA. The early part was defined by polarizing gunners, like Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, and dominant bigs, like Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan. Meanwhile, the defining star of the latter half of the decade, LeBron James, would have to wait till the 2010s to win a title or really be a part of anything like an era-defining team.
A lot of fans consider the seasons from 2000-2009 to be a low point in terms of watchability and fun. Here's how the average NBA team in 2005-06 compared to one this year and the year the Bulls won 72 games:
The game was slower and lower scoring. Players shot worse and didn't share the ball as much. Despite the era's reputation for strong defenses, there weren't even as many fun defensive plays like blocks and steals.
However, while I certainly prefer the modern NBA and think the last couple of years may be the most fun I've had as an NBA fan, these factors, as well as recency bias, have caused us to underrate some of the great teams from the 2000s. So who was the greatest team of the Aughts?
First, we need to define that era. For the purposes of this blog post, we'll be using a rather broad definition of The Aughts, starting in 1999-00, the year of the first Kobe/Shaq Lakers Title, and running through 2009-10, LeBron's final year on the Cavs.
For each team, I'll give their regular season W-L record, as well as their Simple Rating System score and Net Rating. For those who don't know, SRS uses a team's average point differential and strength of schedule to measure team strength, while NRtg is a measure of how many points per 100 possessions a team outscored its opponents. Lastly, I'll list their best player and his Win Shares for that season.
Let's look at the contenders:
W-L Record: 66-16. SRS: 8.68. Net Rating: 10.0. Best Player: LeBron James, 20.3 Win Shares
We start with a cautionary tale for the Golden State Warriors. By almost any measure, the 2008-09 Cavaliers were one of the best teams of the decade. They had the 2nd best SRS and 2nd best NRtg of any team from 1999-00 to 2009-10. Their 66 wins were tied for 3rd most by a team and only MJ, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and George Mikan had more WS in a season than LeBron on this team.
LeBron's supporting cast was also better than you might remember. Mo Williams had 9.8 WS and Anderson Varejao had 8.0. In contrast, on this year's seemingly more talented, and certainly more expensive, Cavaliers, Tristan Thompson is 2nd in WS with 8.8 and Kevin Love is 3rd with 8.5.
What happened? Dwight Howard. Despite being 2 points worse by SRS and nearly 3 worse by Net Rating, the Orlando Magic upset Cleveland in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, behind hot shooting and a monster performance from Howard.
This Cavs team, on paper, was one of the best teams of the decade. And yet no one thinks of them in those terms. This should serve as a warning to the Warriors, who do not face an easy road to the Finals. As good as they've been this season, true immortality will only come with a championship.
W-L Record: 58-24. SRS: 8.35. Net Rating: 9.3. Best Player: Tim Duncan, 13.0 Win Shares
From LeBron, we move on to the first team to beat him in the Finals. Of the three Spurs teams to win a Finals this decade, not to mention the other very, very good teams that didn't, the 06-07 team was the most dominant. They had the 4th best SRS and the 3rd best NRtg of the decade.
However, more than that, this team was the most Spurs-y. While their Pace of 89.8 was faster than the team that won the 2005 Finals, the 2007 Spurs were 27th in the league by that measure, while the 2005 model was 23rd. So, while this Spurs team was slightly faster, they were slower in the context of the league they played in, appropriate for a team known for grinding wins out. It was the last year Tim Duncan posted 13 or more Win Shares, but it was also tied for Tony Parker's best season by the measure as well as Manu's 3rd best.
In other words, the 2006-07 Spurs had what we think of as the Spurs' traditional big 3 all rolling at the peak of their powers. What's more, this Spurs team only lost 4 times in the playoffs, the best of any of the 2000s title-winners to come out of San Antonio.
W-L Record: 54-28. SRS: 5.84. Net Rating: 6.6. Best Player: Chauncey Billups, 11.3 Win Shares
Does the most surprising title-winner of the 2000s have a case as the decade's best team? There are two points in their favor. The first is that that only these Pistons and the 2003 Spurs managed to beat the Shaq/Kobe Lakers in a playoff series in this decade. What's more, this Pistons team triumphed over a Lakers team that also included Hall-of-Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone (both of whom posted PERs over 17 that year), as well as future super-coach Luke Walton.
The second is that, while this team didn't have a clear superstar, they did have a fantastic starting five. In a time where we have a much more sophisticated understanding of what goes into playing defense, we can appreciate players like Ben Wallace. With distance from the pearl-clutching moral panic that seized much of the conversation in the early 2000s, we're free to appreciate Rasheed Wallace as the amazing player and fantastic personality he is. Advanced stats have given us a more nuanced understanding of everything Chauncey Billups brought to the table for this team
And yet, those advanced stats also sink the Pistons' case. Their SRS ranks 42nd in the decade and their NRtg is 29th, numbers that just aren't dominant enough to make the list.
W-L Record: 62-20. SRS: 7.08. Net Rating: 7.4. Best Player: Amar'e Stoudemire, 14.6 Win Shares
Personally, the Seven Seconds or Less Suns would get my vote. No team was more electrifying or thrilling to watch and no team did more to advance the game stylistically. In an era of plodding, grinding, lumbering teams, the Suns broke the mold and, in the process, became beloved in a way few teams of this era were. They didn't win, of course, but that's almost become part of their legend, in the same way that The Velvet Underground never having a hit is a part of theirs.
Yet, ultimately, the Suns were too far ahead of their time. In a way, they were the most important team of the 2010s, an era where every title winner has bombed from 3, played a traditional wing at a bigger position, pushed the tempo, or done all 3. In the same way that the Hardaway/Shaq Magic presaged what O'Neal would go on to do, the Suns didn't represent their era as much as point towards the next one.
W-L Record: 67-15/58-24. SRS: 8.41/3.74. Net Rating: 9.1/3.6. Best Player: Shaquille O'Neal, 18.6/14.9 Win Shares
The Shaq/Kobe Lakers would seem to be the obvious choice, but the problem is they don't have a season that's comparable to the '96 Bulls or '16 Warriors. The 2001-02 Lakers had fewer wins and a lower SRS than that year's Sacramento Kings. And while they ultimately triumphed over them in the playoffs, you don't need me to remind you that the result was somewhat controversial.
Then there's the 1999-00 team. Their 67 regular season wins are tied with the 2006-07 Mavericks for the most by any team in the decade and they rank 3rd in SRS and NRtg.
On paper, they have the stronger case, but the problem is that the 2000-01 Lakers exist. That team absolutely crushed opponents in the playoffs, losing one game across all four rounds while the Trail Blazers, who they faced in the WCF the year before, the Kings, who they'd face the next year, and the Spurs, who would ultimately beat them and win the title 2 years later.
But the regular season matters here. Part of what makes the Bulls and Warriors such special teams is their regular season dominance. And those Lakers, as special as they were, didn't dominate like that. Their regular season SRS of 3.6 is almost exactly the same as this year's Atlanta Hawks, not a team we'd put in the conversation for best of the decade.
W-L Record: 66-16. SRS: 9.31. Net Rating: 11.3. Best Player: Kevin Garnett, 12.9 Win Shares
Measuring by SRS and NRtg, the Big Three Celtics were the best team of the decade. They're also the only team in the decade to finish in the Top 11 in SRS and beat another Top 11 team in the Finals.
The case against them is their lack of playoff dominance. They lost 10 games in the playoffs, including 3 to a 37-45 Hawks team, while the 99-00 Lakers only lost 8. The Celtics also faced two teams (the Hawks and Cavs) with a negative SRS, while the Lakers faced overall tougher competition.
However, SRS rates the 2007-08 Pistons slightly higher than the 1999-00 Trail Blazers. Additionally, the Lakers team that the Celtics beat to win the 2008 Finals was much better than the Pacers team that the 99-00 Lakers beat.
The 2008-09 Celtics looked ready to seize the mantle. They were 44-11 as of the last game where KG played over 30:00, meaning that, while they weren't going to break the wins record, they did have a shot at combining an excellent regular season with a dominant postseason run. Unfortunately, Garnett's injury changed all of that.
Based on the results, and the criteria, it's difficult to make a case for anyone other Shaq/Kobe Lakers. And yet, they've left the door open just wide enough for the case to made for both the Big 3 Celtics (most dominant regular season team) and the 2007 Spurs (perhaps the best mix of a great regular season and postseason). The fact that the Lakers were never able to shut the door on this argument shows how much the Warriors have accomplished this year, as well as how fraught the path awaiting them is.
Despite winning 73 games, the Warriors face a tough challenge. SRS rates them as the 6th best team of all-time, but it has San Antonio right behind them in 7th. As the Lakers show, even a small stumble on the way to the title can create an opening for people (like me!) to nit-pick. As the Suns show, even revolutionizing the game isn't enough for history to consider you alongside the greats if you don't get the title. And, as the Celtics show, even when things go right, runs this dominant are fragile and fleeting.