Posts Tagged ‘tim duncan’

Kobe Bryant is Fading Away and Other Aging NBA Stars

October 13, 2014

I’ve been watching a lot of preseason NBA ball this past week, and it looks like Charles Barkley is still correct. Eventually Father Time conquers all.

There’s a litany of aging NBA stars playing out what may be their last professional contracts over the next couple of years – Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen if he signs somewhere, and maybe even Tim Duncan (that group in 2006 would have been the best team ever). I’m leaving Dirk off the list not because he isn’t an aging star but because it looks like his style of play will allow for a gentler slope of decline. Timmy probably belongs off the list with Dirk for a similar reason and because Pop takes such good care to protect him from the rigors of the 82 game season.

I’ve seen all of the Lakers preseason games, and 36 year old Kobe Bryant bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to 38 year old Michael Jordan of the Washington Wizards. The skillset is still there. He has all those familiar moves carefully crafted over an NBA lifetime spent winning scoring titles and championship rings. But the grace is gone, that athletic lift that put Kobe in another stratosphere.

Bryant has always taken and made a lot of tough shots. That’s part of his mystique. He can get up a shot with a chance to go in from anywhere at any time against anyone. But it’s getting to be more difficult to add easier, more efficient scoring possessions to those tough ones. The blow-by ability off the first step is harder to come by. The explosive dunk over the top of a help defender in the lane is a rarer highlight. Losing that ability to slash into the paint at breakneck speed and fly through the air at the rotating defender cuts down on trips to the free throw line. One drive per game that used to result in a drawn shooting foul that is now counted as a missed shot or a turnover becomes a huge hit to a player’s efficiency rating.

For the first three preseason games, Bryant has a TS% of 0.416. He has scored 34 points on 36 shot attempts with only 11 free throws attempted in 3 games and 0 made three pointers (he’s only attempted 1 three-pointer). Three games is a meaninglessly small sample, especially in the preseason. And the first two games weren’t so bad (3-13 in game 3 brings the total efficiency down a lot), but I watched the games, and I see real problems. Too many fade away jumpers against set defenders. Too few open shots off quick hitting attacks. Too many dribbles to get into the lane. It doesn’t take much in terms of a slower step or lower elevation to put the defense in position to impact those field goal attempts.

I saw all the same things with Jordan in Washington. A string of games where he seemed to play pretty well but when you looked at the box score his shooting was under 45%, and he barely got to the line followed by a putrid 30% shooting game and very few high 50% or unicorn-rare 60%+ shooting games to balance things out. In his youth and even the tail end of his prime, MJ would pepper his game log with really great shooting nights to offset the mediocre games. As a Wizard that just didn’t happen because even when he was making the majority of his tough shots, he still wasn’t getting himself enough easy opportunities (free throws and layups). So games that would have been 50+ points on 70% shooting for a younger MJ wound up being 35 points on 55% shooting for #23 in blue. They were exciting to watch, all the more so because so many of his makes were on tough, contested shots, but the end result was that what should have been a spectacular game was merely a good game. This is the territory that Kobe appears to be entering.

The problems Steve Nash faces are even more obvious. Once the premier fast break and pick and roll point guard of the league, Nash now lacks the quickness to get by defenders or turn the corner coming off screens with a live dribble. Pressure defense bothers him because he’s not a threat to blow by an off-balance defender and get into the lane. His handles are still good. His shot is still pure. And he was never a speed demon. Logically it would seem like his game could survive getting slower, but that little bit of separation he used to get is narrower than ever. He can still bounce in a perfect pocket pass or whip a lefty behind the back no look to the corner, but his scoring threat is severely reduced, which in turn means those open passing lanes are harder to come by as the opposing defense reacts less and less to his attempts to drive and shoot.

The defense is going too. Kobe can still put in a very solid effort one on one, but his days of wreaking havoc on opposing team offensive schemes are gone (and have been for a few years really). Nash was never much of a defender. Even KG isn’t dominant defensively anymore. He’s still sound in his rotations. He’s still seven feet tall. But he doesn’t close out on shooters like he used to. He can’t switch and stay in front of a dribbling guard for multiple seconds to snuff out a possession. His show and recover and other help defense actions are all a step slow.

Shaquille O’Neal was the first superstar I saw go from hyper-talented but raw rookie to dominant superstar to faded legend. I missed the first stage of that arc with the Jordan / Barkley generation, and I missed the first two stages with Bird and Magic. But the KG / Kobe era is close to me because I’m the same age as those players. To me they still seem like they should be young bucks in the prime of their careers, but stardom in the realm of athletics doesn’t work that way. So it’s time to lower our expectations and just enjoy the good moments when they come up. I’m sure Nash has one more game in his bones where he controls the tempo, gets the defense on a string, and makes his teammates all look like stars. And Pierce will hit a game winner and shout to the stands. And Bryant will toss in 50 hard-fought points. It just won’t happen often, and it won’t be easy.

Neil Young told us that it’s better to burn out than fade away. MJ and Kobe have taught us that even when your athletic flame has burnt out, you can still hit a fade away. Thank god that highlights are forever young.


Converting for Era – Part 2: Was Isiah Thomas a Star?

September 18, 2014

Ask a room full of NBA fans over the age of 40 who the best under 6’ 3” player of all time is, and I bet a majority of them will answer with the same name: Isiah Thomas. Thomas was the fiery leader of a Detroit Pistons team that won two titles, made three consecutive NBA Finals, made five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, and defeated Magic Johnson’s Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, and Larry Bird’s Celtics in the process. Bill Simmons, author of The Book of Basketball, swears up and down that Isiah is the best point guard of his lifetime (excepting Magic as something more than a point guard with his 6’ 9” frame). Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe pretty much echoes that sentiment (excepting also Oscar Robertson).

Old heads and modern basketball historians believe Isiah was the real deal. Modern metrics do not. He took too many bad shots. He gave away too many turnovers. He played in too fast an era. His teams excelled on the glass and on defense more than anything, and the credit for those areas goes to the big guys like Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, and John Salley.

A quick breakdown of Isiah’s game for the uninitiated: Thomas was an undersized, lightning quick guard with the best handles of his era, good elevation in traffic, and tremendous court vision. His offense was a lot of runners and quick pull-up jumpers. He was very good working the pick and roll or pick and pop, and he could break down almost anybody off the dribble one on one. Defensively he liked to press and really get underneath opposing point guards to hamper their progress up the court. He was both short and slight though and an easy target for post ups or for taller players to shoot over on the perimeter.

How did that playstyle translate statistically? It depends on your point of view. I created a big fat table from the statistical pages of all players since 1980 (3 point shot introduction) to today, ages 23-32 combined seasons, over 600 games played and I got the per game, per 36 minute, and per 75 possession stats along with the advanced metrics. Using a brutally simple production figure (points + assists + rebounds), among all point guards, Thomas ranks out as 3rd best per game, 2nd best per minute, and 3rd best per possession. He is dead last by Win Shares per 48 minutes. In fact, he is dead last among the 89 players on my list regardless of position.

So where’s the disconnect? Why do the the old man eye test and the basic box score stats tell us one story, and the advanced metrics tell such a different one?

There are two reasons that Isiah’s metrics don’t look so hot. He has a lousy effective field goal percentage, and his turnover rate is too high. Just looking at that in black and white makes him sound like a bad player. But when you consider how the Pistons built their team and what Isiah had to do to make the offense run properly, you see how his seemingly negative attributes were actually beneficial for the team.

Over the 10 year stretch that my statistics span for Thomas (1983-92), his Pistons were third in total wins behind LA and Boston. They had a 109.2 Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possessions) and a 105.9 Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), good for 6th best and 3rd best overall respectively. Offensive rating is largely based on Dean Oliver’s four factors, eFG%, TO%, ORB%, and FTrate. Basically what that means is that the four good things a team can do maximize its scoring efficiency are to shoot well, minimize turnovers, get offensive rebounds, and get to the foul line. Duh. The Pistons, who maintained one of the best offenses in the league, did so primarily by having very few turnovers and dominating the offensive glass. Their eFG% was a pedestrian .487, not even league average, and their FTrate was .492, just about dead-on average. But their turnover rate was 13.7, top 5 in the league, and their ORB% was 34.6, 3rd best.

So how does Thomas, the player least likely to get an offensive board and most likely to turn it over, factor into that offensive success? By doing the things that put his teammates in position to succeed. Isiah was a wizard at getting into the lane, but once he got there, he met a lot of resistance. Laimbeer and Dumars could stretch the floor a little, but the other players couldn’t. Rodman played a lot of small forward for this team, so when Zeke got into the paint, he’d find Dennis along with Mahorn or Salley or James Edwards and their defenders directly in his path. No problem! He just drew the defense and lofted the ball up on the backboard for his big guys to corral. On the stat sheet it looks like he made a terrible play. He missed a covered shot. In reality he created an opportunity for the team’s board-crashing specialists to excel. And the turnover story is even simpler. Since Isiah was virtually the only player trying to make plays for others, no one else had a high turnover percentage, and the team as a whole maintained possessions exceptionally well.

Teams aren’t really built that way anymore. Few teams play two traditional bigs and a non-shooting small forward all at the same time (Memphis maybe). To answer the question of whether or not Zeke was a real star player or just a puffed up top scorer on a team that made its bones at the defensive end, let’s imagine who he might play like in today’s game on a team with more spacing and less rebounding.

Only two players on my stat list have a usage rate over 25% and an assist rate over 35%, Isiah Thomas and Tony Parker. When I consider Parker’s game, the lack of three point shooting, the pick and roll wizardry, and the ball-control and quickness and ability to get in the paint, I think it’s a pretty good modern comparison. However, because of the difference in teammates and system, the stats are considerably different. I won’t weigh this post down with their individual numbers but suffice it to say that Parker was much more efficient as a shooter and turned it over a lot less while Thomas put up much better per game and per minute totals because he played more on a faster team.

What’s more interesting is to look at what the Spurs expect of Tony and how it translates to the team’s stats. Over the 9 year stretch that my stats give for Parker (2006-14) the Spurs are far and away the best in total team wins. They have a 109.3 offensive rating (3rd best overall) and a 102.5 defensive rating (best overall). Their eFG% is 2nd best to Phoenix, and their TOV% is top 6. However, the Spurs have had the worst offensive rebound rate of any team over those seasons and the second worst free throw rate (made free throw / field goal attempt). If we look at those numbers we can figure out what coach Gregg Popovich is trying to accomplish and how Parker’s particular skillset factors.

First and foremost, the Spurs have the best defense in the league, and Pop prioritizes transition defense over offensive rebounding always. The lack of free throws is the result of the team not having the most athletic squad at the wings and because they get a ton of open shots. The high effective field goal percentage is all about maximizing shot value. The basic breakdown of a Spurs possession is: Parker gets into a side pick and roll and tries to score. If the defense fails to react, it’s a layup. If the two defenders converge on Parker, it’s an open shot for the screener, usually Tim Duncan. If the two defenders switch, it’s two mismatches that will result in a good though covered shot. If an extra defender leaves his man to come help on the Parker / Duncan screen and roll, then another Spur is open, usually for a corner three once the ball swings properly. If the play gets blown up, Parker will simply go into a second pick and roll and sometimes a third until the defense is compromised.

The reason this strategy works is because the Spurs have excellent shooters on the wing and capable passers and shooters up front. They are able to clear the defense out of the way to run the pick and roll and capitalize on Parker’s aggressiveness. Toss in the rules regarding perimeter hand-checking and defensive 3 second violations (this is a golden era for a super-quick point guard with the ability to finish and good vision), and you see why Tony Parker is so damn effective.

None of this is meant to undermine Parker or to say that in today’s environment on a team constructed like San Antonio, Isiah would be a match for Tony at finishing around the rim. That’s a tall order! But, I do think it’s fair to posit that Thomas would be a significantly more efficient shooter and passer in a system that called for less individual creation of shots against set defense and more execution of offense to get optimized shots for others. And if Isiah made one more shot per game, his eFG% would leap from .465 to .553, right in line with Steve Nash and significantly higher than Parker. If he only made ½ a shot more per game, his eFG% would come up to .522, almost exactly the same as Parker. It’s not a big stretch to think the Isiah would look like a star, if not a superstar, today (or for that matter that Tony Parker might have been a star in the olden days).

This is a huge post, so I’ll wrap up now, but I also want to point out that there is probably an efficiency correction to be made based on total possessions played. It’s true that in today’s environment where the best teams are committed to full effort and execution on defense all game long, the per possession impact on each player is probably higher, but in a faster era where players actually had to run up and down the 90 foot court as many as 20 more times, that’s probably a more detrimental energy sapper. Just another piece of context to consider when we try to evaluate a retired player against a modern basketball framework.

Eastern Conference – Post LeBron and Lance Signings

July 18, 2014

Is it possible that I haven’t written an article since the before the end of round of one of the playoffs? All things are possible through our faith in LeBron, hallowed be his essay. But putting faith aside, I’ve had a crazy summer and am coming back with a vengeance today (possibly followed by another 3 month absence).

Let’s catch up on the things we’ve missed:

Spurs = incredible. Should be favorites to repeat until we see some kind of improvements among the Thunder / Clippers / Surprise WC Contender. Tim Duncan did not go to some other super-duper star level with this 5th championship. He was already there. Anyone who doesn’t view Tim as a top 10 player all time isn’t paying attention.

Heat flaws that we detailed during the season did come back to bite them just a bit in the Finals. Less aggressive defense than the last two years. More turnovers. Poor rebounding. Too much reliance on only taking excellent shots (layups, free throws, open threes), and when a good defense finally took those things away, they just weren’t used to taking tough contested shots (particularly James who could have been more assertive with his midrange game against a sagging Spurs defense). On the other hand, if Bosh and both PGs hadn’t gone ice cold from beyond the arc, the whole series might have been different.

Also a 4 time MVP and the consensus best player in the league just changed teams of his own accord and left the best team in the East for the 2nd time in 5 years. This is a bizarre league sometimes. I want to take the rest of our time in this post to consider the Eastern Conference in the wake of the dissolution of its 4-time Finals representative.

LeBron James bolting for Cleveland completely disrupts the power dynamics in the East. Everybody outside of Miami is proud of LeBron for making this family / community decision and bringing his market growing powers to a city in need of a boost. I concur, but I’m a little disappointed that this Heat team won’t get its best chance to make it 5 straight NBA Finals, which hasn’t happened since Bill Russell’s Celtics.

The Heat, who managed to keep Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, still have a ton of talent (particularly if Wade can pick up his shot attempts without killing what was a career best year for shooting efficiency), and depending on how they revamp their system, might actually remain a contender to make the Finals. I genuinely think that 2011 team could have made and possibly won the Finals with Luol Deng instead of LeBron and an upgrade at center with the rest of LeBron’s salary. That was four years ago. This team’s chances hinge entirely on what Wade has left in the tank. If he can go back to being a 2400+ minute, 30%+ usage first option creator, they have a strong chance to make it to the Finals. If not, I don’t see it happening.

However, another transaction from a top East team has cleared the way for basically anything to happen. The Indiana Pacers lost Lance Stephenson, who was pretty clearly their second best player and the one guy with the most potential to join Paul George as cornerstones for the future. Lance was Indi’s most creative pick and roll player, most aggressive slasher, and a great wing defender who played two positions and even provided some back-up point guard skills. Without him the Pacers could slide back to the pack, and with the Heat a huge question mark as well, there has to be a lot of hope among the other teams out East.

Chicago is the default favorite in many expert opinions (Vegas has the Cavs) based on the signing of Pau Gasol and the return of Derrick Rose. I need to see both of them perform at a high level before I’ll get excited about them and this team in general. The rotation is interesting. Rose and Kirk Hinrich at the guard spots, Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell and the rookie Doug McDermott at the wings, and Gasol, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson up front. They need to stay healthy or add a little depth, but they sound terrific on paper. The offense can’t be any worse than last year, and if the defense holds, they stand to improve. But Rose has to show us what he’s got before we can put them ahead of the pack.

Cleveland by virtue of LeBron is immediately a Finals contender. People who are concerned about his fit with this relatively young team need to relax. James can fill any skill gaps. We got used to him operating in that Hakeem Olajuwon mid-post, but if the Cav shooters aren’t up to spacing the court for him, he can do other things. Put him in a high pick and roll / pop set with Kyrie Irving, and good things will happen. Let him set a strong down screen for a curling Dion Waiters, and force the defense to switch a guard onto him on the block or leave Waiters open on the wing. He’s a man-mountain with all the skills the modern NBA has to offer. He’ll fit. Especially if they pull a trade and bring in Kevin Love to clear up that big man shooting issue.

Atlanta is interesting because people are probably not paying enough attention to their under-the-radar All-Star center pick up of Al Horford. This was a very well-coached team with great chemistry who competed at both ends last year, and they were missing their best player for most of the season. They are the Chicago of the South East division with much much much better shooting and not as much continuity and defensive dominance. Okay. They are nothing like the Bulls. But they are getting their best player back from injury, and they do have the potential to make a huge leap this season.

Washington lost Trevor Ariza, which I think will hurt them because he was doing a really good prime Bruce Bowen impression for them with more athleticism to boot. My main man Paul Pierce has lost a step and isn’t up to defending guards any more which means Bradley Beal and John Wall will have to guard their position every night instead of handing off the best opposing perimeter player. This is a very solid team with a spectacularly talented point guard and solid players at every position. Depth could be an issue, but they will be a tough out in the playoffs.

Toronto stayed the course, holding onto all the chief assets from last year’s run. They should be better with more experience together. Kyle Lowry was a top 4 guard in the East last year and may be again, and his back up is very solid as well. I don’t know if the overall talent level is high enough (what positions do they “win” against say the Wiz or Cavs?), but they have continuity and they compete hard, so in the upheaval of the Eastern Conference, you can’t write them off completely.

The Nets are headed downhill unless they get a remarkable return to form (from five years ago) from Deron Williams. That is really their only hope for getting better after losing Pierce.

The Knicks are looking to 2015 and don’t even want to be great next year. I keep hearing from New York representatives that Andrea Bargnani is going to have a bounce back year, and I keep asking myself “bounce back to what?” Hasn’t the mystique of being a #1 pick worn off yet? Carmelo Anthony came back, and they picked up Jose Calderon for a respectable PG presence. Those two factors coupled with the institution of a system offense by Derek Fisher might be enough to make the playoffs, but they aren’t contending.

The one other playoff team from last year that looks to be improved is Charlotte. The HORNETSNOTBOBCATS picked up Lance Stephenson which adds a lot of strength and versatility to their wing rotation. They can roll out Lance, Gerald Henderson, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with each playing in the low thirty minute range. That could make for some very nice perimeter defense and very shaky shooting. Losing Josh McRoberts will hurt as he was a legit 6’ 10” and could pass and shoot out of the high post. They need to find another complementary big to pair with Al Jefferson. Speaking of Big Al, he needs to come back healthy and repeat his excellent performance from last season. If Kemba Walker continues his upward trajectory, and they can plug a couple holes, this is a very solid team. Probably not a contender, but who knows. If Lance makes a leap, they could be a threat. Maybe. Unless Lance does something insane and Michael Jordan clubs him to death with a Brand Jordan 7-iron.

2014 NBA Awards and Playoff Predictions

April 18, 2014

Dear beloved readers,

If I could properly apologize for the two month gap in top notch basketball coverage content that my hiatus has left in your lives, rest assured, I would. But no amount of codified remorse could ever make up for my lapse. All I can do is offer you the most exhilarating, thrill-ride of a season wrap up, you’ve ever encountered. Brace yourselves for awards, playoff predictions, and whatever else pops into my head. I don’t want to oversell it, but it’ll probably be better than the NCAA tournament and all four rounds of the NBA playoffs combined.

2014 NBA Awards (Not predictions – how I would vote)

Season MVP: Kevin Durant – I don’t even see an argument here. The Thunder are the second best team in the league by record and by statistics, and the only better team, the Spurs, spreads the wealth too thin to have a real MVP candidate this year. Durant leads the league in scoring, PER, WS, and WS/48. The Thunder are a top 6 in both ORtg and DRtg. KD produced the most and did it efficiently for a great team. That’s the MVP.

MVP Runners up: LeBron James, Blake Griffin, James Harden, Tim Duncan

DPoY: Joakim Noah – He held it down all season long. Chicago is the second best defense behind Indiana, but unlike the Pacers, the Bulls start and give big minutes to a number of sub-standard defensive players. Noah carries the weight that they can’t at the defensive end.

DPoY Runners up: Roy Hibbert, Andre Igudala, Tim Duncan, Serge Ibaka

6th MoY: Ray Allen – This is going to be an unpopular pick because his stats are a career worst, and maybe he should be disqualified since he started so much in place of Dwyane Wade, but the dynamic that Ray brings to the Heat offense is an overlooked aspect of their team greatness. Lots of good shooters stretch the floor, but Ray draws so much attention with his movement and the cross screens he sets for James and the perimeter guys, that it totally warps team defensive concepts. The Heat employs two big minute line-ups with +4 point differential. Wade is only on one. James is only on one. Ray is on both.

6th MoY Runners up: Manu Ginobili, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, Vince Carter

CoY: Gregg Popavich – He’s simply the best, better than all the rest, better than anyone, anyone I’ve ever met. Seriously. Pop has been ahead of the curve for a decade. He and RC Buford together are this generation’s Red Auerbach. Pop’s masterful manipulation of his team’s minutes, and his ability to adapt his system to the talents that come through to get the best out of everybody sets him above the pack.

CoY Runners up: Jeff Hornacek, Tom Thibodeau, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle

MIP: The entire Phoenix Suns team. It’s hard to pick. Green maybe? Dragic? Let’s go with the Dragon. Goran Dragic.

MIP Runners up: Gerald Green, DeAndre Jordan, Markieff Morris, Reggie Jackson

RoY: Michael Carter-Williams – I don’t care if the Sixers were one of the worst teams we’ve ever seen. That was management’s decision, and the players were not put in a position to be able to compete. MCW was the best rookie by the numbers averaging 16 ppg with 6 boards and 6 dimes. I’m not sure if projects to have the best career, but he did the most this season.

RoY Runners up: Victor Oladipo, Mason Plumlee, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Kelly Olynyk

First Team:

G – Stephen Curry
G – James Harden
F – Kevin Durant
F – LeBron James
C – Joakim Noah

Second Team:

G – Chris Paul
G – Tony Parker
F – Blake Griffin
F – LeMarcus Aldridge
C – Dwight Howard

Third Team:

G – Goran Dragic
G – Paul George
F – Kevin Love
F – Tim Duncan
C – Al Jefferson


First Team:

G – Andre Igudala
G – Tony Allen
F – Tim Duncan
F – Paul George
C – Joakim Noah

Second Team:

G – Mike Conley
G – Lance Stephenson
F – Jimmy Butler
F – Serge Ibaka
C – Roy Hibbert

Playoff Predictions

East Round 1:

PACERS def Hawks 4-1
HEAT def Bobcats 4-0
NETS def Raptors 4-3
BULLS def Wizards 4-2

West Round 1:

SPURS def Mavericks 4-1
THUNDER def Grizzlies 4-1
CLIPPERS def Warriors 4-3
TRAILBLAZERS def Rockets 4-3

East Round 2:

PACERS def Bulls 4-3
HEAT def NETS 4-3

West Round 2:

SPURS def Trailblazers 4-1
THUNDER def Clippers 4-2

East Finals:

HEAT def Pacers 4-2

West Finals:

THUNDER def Spurs 4-2

NBA Finals:

HEAT def Thunder 4-3

I’ve been predicting a Heat three-peat all season, and I still think it’s going to happen (Wade’s knee permitting). They just have another level they can go to, and I’m not sure that any of their would-be dethroners can say the same. I do think the Spurs would win a repeat of last year’s finals, but I don’t believe San Antonio would beat OKC to get there simply because of the match-ups involved. That said, Miami matches up very well against the Thunder and takes them out of their defensive schemes by going small, so that’s sort of a rock-paper-scissors that falls out in the Heat’s favor. LeBron wins his 3rd consecutive Finals MVP to join only Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.

2014 Heat – Most Difficult 3Peat Ever?

January 24, 2014

Right now, at just about the halfway point of the 2014 season, the Thunder, Spurs, and Pacers are all top 25 all-time teams by the Simple Rating System, a one number team rater that factors in margin of victory and strength of schedule. This is by no means a perfect estimation of a team’s ability to win, but as you can see in the below table, it captures something that picks up on many of the greatest teams of all time.

Rk Season Tm G W L W-L% MOV SOS SRS
1 1970-71 MIL* 82 66 16 .805 12.26 -0.34 11.91
2 1995-96 CHI* 82 72 10 .878 12.24 -0.44 11.80
3 1971-72 LAL* 82 69 13 .841 12.28 -0.63 11.65
4 1971-72 MIL* 82 63 19 .768 11.16 -0.46 10.70
5 1996-97 CHI* 82 69 13 .841 10.80 -0.11 10.70
6 1991-92 CHI* 82 67 15 .817 10.44 -0.37 10.07
7 2007-08 BOS* 82 66 16 .805 10.26 -0.95 9.31
8 2012-13 OKC* 82 60 22 .732 9.21 -0.06 9.15
9 1985-86 BOS* 82 67 15 .817 9.41 -0.36 9.06
10 1985-86 MIL* 82 57 25 .695 9.04 -0.35 8.69
11 1993-94 SEA* 82 63 19 .768 9.09 -0.41 8.68
12 2008-09 CLE* 82 66 16 .805 8.93 -0.25 8.68
13 1990-91 CHI* 82 61 21 .744 9.10 -0.53 8.57
14 1966-67 PHI* 81 68 13 .840 9.44 -0.94 8.50
15 1990-91 POR* 82 63 19 .768 8.68 -0.21 8.47
16 1969-70 NYK* 82 60 22 .732 9.09 -0.66 8.42
17 1999-00 LAL* 82 67 15 .817 8.55 -0.14 8.41
18 2013-14 SAS 42 32 10 .762 7.86 0.54 8.40
19 2006-07 SAS* 82 58 24 .707 8.43 -0.08 8.35
20 1986-87 LAL* 82 65 17 .793 9.30 -0.98 8.32
Rk Season Tm G W L W-L% MOV SOS SRS
21 2013-14 IND 41 33 8 .805 9.05 -0.76 8.29
22 1961-62 BOS* 80 60 20 .750 9.24 -0.98 8.25
23 2013-14 OKC 43 33 10 .767 7.26 1.00 8.25
24 1972-73 LAL* 82 60 22 .732 8.54 -0.36 8.16
25 1996-97 UTA* 82 64 18 .780 8.79 -0.82 7.97
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/24/2014.

Glaringly absent from the list are the two time defending champion Heat (currently ranked 235th all-time). This is not necessarily a nail in the coffin of the Heat. The last three teams to three-peat did not make the top 25 either – 1993 Bulls, 1998 Bulls, and 2002 Lakers. However, no other teams from those seasons made the list. 2014 Miami looks to be up against stiffer competition than these other teams, at least midway through the season. There’s a lot of time for these three 2014 juggernauts to slip out of the top 25 and for Miami to right the ship and make it higher up the list.

Assuming that the current rankings hold relatively static through the rest of the season, at least for one or two of these teams, what is the prognosis for the title this year? Well 14 out of the 22 teams in our top 25 who are not currently playing won the title. Of the 8 teams that failed to win the title, half of them lost to teams ranked higher in the top 25, so they didn’t underachieve, they just got beat by higher ranked teams. The remaining four squads that failed to win are:

2013 Thunder – Lost Russell Westbrook in round 1 of the playoffs.
1994 Sonics – Possibly the worst 1 – 8 upset in NBA history.
2009 Cavaliers – Epic fail against an inferior Magic team. LeBron James put up impossible stats.
1973 Lakers – Knicks kicked their butts in a revenge Finals meeting.

That’s one injury excuse, one major collapse, one minor collapse, and one that just got beat in the Finals rematch. The good news for Miami fans is that the 2013 Heat, 1994 Rockets, 2009 Lakers, and 1973 Knicks who won the title those four years also don’t show up on this list. If that Pacers, Spurs, and Thunder keep up their dominant play throughout the regular season, there’s still a 4 out of 22, basically 20% chance that someone will beat them. Heck, it’s very probable that of the Spurs and Thunder, one will eliminate the other. But that still leaves the Heat to go through Indiana to get to the winner of the match-up (you know, assuming many things fall out right for all four teams). Three-peating is never easy, but it should be especially tough against this level of competition.