Wednesday, October 07, 2009

NBA All-Decade 2000s: Teams

When David Stern memorably handed over the Larry O’Brien Trophy to "Lakers Alternate Governor" Joey Buss back in June, he effectively closed the book on the decade of the 2000s in the NBA, as the next championship will be won in 2010.

With that in mind, we wanted to take a look back at some of the highlights of the NBA decade. In the second installment of this NBA All-Decade series, we discuss the best teams of the decade. (The first installment focused on the best players of the decade.)

[Note: We also encourage you to check Kevin Pelton’s Bill James-style review of the decade as well as Kelly Dwyer’s tour-de-force series on the NBA decade.]

Team of the Decade: Los Angeles Lakers
When it comes to the question of who was the best NBA team of the 2000s, there are only two teams in the discussion: the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs. Much as Tim Duncan was our narrow-but-clear choice over Shaquille O'Neal as the best player of the decade, the tables are turned here as the Lakers hold a slight edge over the Spurs in our estimation, with a 4-3 edge in championships and a 6-3 edge in conference championships for L.A. trumping superior consistency in S.A. - the Spurs did not have a single year under 53 wins, and had the best overall record.

Here is the season-by-season rundown for both franchises:
'99-00: 67-15, won Championship
'00-01: 56-26, won Championship
'01-02: 58-24, won Championship
'02-03: 50-32, lost West semis
'03-04: 56-26, lost Finals
'04-05: 34-48, missed Playoffs
'05-06: 45-37, lost First round
'06-07: 42-40, lost First round
'07-08: 57-25, lost Finals
'08-09: 67-15, won Championship
Total: 532-288, .649, 4 Championships

'99-00: 53-29, lost First round
'00-01: 58-24, lost West Finals
'01-02: 58-24, lost West semis
'02-03: 60-22, won Championship
'03-04: 57-25, lost West semis
'04-05: 59-23, won Championship
'05-06: 63-19, lost West semis
'06-07: 58-24, won Championship
'07-08: 56-26, lost West Finals
'08-09: 54-28, lost First round
Total: 576-244, .702, 3 Championships

Of course, there was plenty of direct competition, which proved decisive, as the teams met in the playoffs five times, with the Lakers winning four:
- 2001 West Finals: LAL 4, SAS 0 - Highly anticipated matchup of league's top two teams turns into a rout, as Lakers win by average of 22 points per game.
- 2002 West Semis: LAL 4, SAS 1 - Spurs lead in fourth quarter of every game, but can't hold on.
- 2003 West Semis: SAS 4, LAL 2 - Spurs end the threepeat, as L.A.'s Robert Horry's three rattles out at the end of Game 5, turning the series in S.A.'s favor.
- 2004 West Semis: LAL 4, SAS 2 - Derek Fisher's famous 0.4 miracle in Game 5 is decisive.
- 2008 West Finals: LAL 4, SAS 1 - Banged-up underdog Spurs blow a 20-point lead in Game 1, come up short in Game 4 after controversial no-call.

A few other observations:
- It's amazing how three shots by Big Shot Bob - his famous 2002 Game 4 buzzer-beater vs. SAC, his 2003 Game 5 miss for the Lakers vs. SAS, and his 2005 Game 5 game-winner in the Finals for the Spurs vs. DET - played such a big role in the destiny of these teams for the decade. Change around the results of those shots, and there are all kinds of different permutations for how the Lakers vs. Spurs decade looks.

- If we're playing the "What if?" game, let's also note how close the Spurs were to winning five titles in a row. They won it all in 2003, 2005, and 2007, of course. If Derek Fisher doesn't hit the 0.4 shot, there's a good chance S.A. goes into the 2004 Finals as favorites over Detroit. And then the classic 2006 series vs. Dallas went to a Game 7 OT. Turn that the other way, and San Antonio likely would've ended up favored to beat Miami in the Finals. Of course, it's not that easy, as perhaps the losses in the even years helped fuel hunger in the odd years which would have been otherwise hard to sustain.

- The Spurs were actually the definitive team of the 2000s in a bizarre sense. The NBA lost fans for a good chunk of the decade, many of whom were of the old-school variety, who lamented all of the values which they perceive to have been lost in the modern game. Yet, as we wrote after the 2007 Finals:
    "The ultimate hypocrisy of the NBA hater is this: they run off this litany of things they hate about the NBA. Then the NBA presents them with the San Antonio Spurs, who gives them everything they say they want: team-first, fundamentally sound, high-effort basketball played by guys who largely conduct themselves with class off the court. And what happens? No one watches, ratings go in the tank, the Spurs are labelled as boring."
Really, it's just bizarre when you stop and think about it.

Best Single-Season Teams
Another mildly bizarre aspect about the 2000s is that so many of the best regular-season teams failed to win championships. As you can note in the table at the bottom of this post, just three of the 12 teams which won 61 games or more in the decade ended up getting rings.

That's part of the reason that it's somewhat challenging to rank the best single-season teams of the decade. If there was anything missing in the '00s, it was that there was not a single-season team which one can say ranks among the all-time greats, after previous decades brought us teams like the '86 Celtics, '87 Lakers, and '96 Bulls.

Further complicating the single-season ranking is that teams weren't really able to put together dominant regular seasons and dominant playoff runs in the same year. More than one team in our top 5 came perilously close to being eliminated. All that said, here we go, with our ranking of the top 5 single-season teams of the decade:

1. '99-00 Los Angeles Lakers (67-15, 15-8, +8.5)
2. '00-01 Los Angeles Lakers (56-26, 15-1, +3.4)
How does one choose between these two teams? Both were similar, of course, led by the most dominant force of the decade - Shaquille O'Neal in his prime - with the dynamic duo of Shaq and Kobe at the core, surrounded by the utterly solid combination of role players in Fox, Fisher, Shaw, Horry and Harper.

The 2000 team was unstoppable in the regular season, but needed its stunning fourth-quarter comeback to withstand Portland in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, after also being extended to the full five games by Sacramento in the first round.

Meanwhile, the 2001 club meandered through much of the regular season before absolutely catching fire in the playoffs. They were just 48-26 at one point, and then won 23 of their last 24 - eight straight to close out the regular season, followed by an all-time best 15-1 playoff record. The only postseason loss was in OT in Game 1 of the Finals, and these Lakers also dismantled the Spurs in a Western Conference Finals showdown, as described above.

A few differences between the two teams:
- Shaq was dominant both seasons, leading the league in PER with 30.6 in 2000 and 30.2 in 2001. Kobe, meanwhile, showed a big jump in production in 2001, in going from age 21 to 22 - PER went from 21.7 to 24.5 in regular season, 19.3 to 25.0 in playoffs.
- The 2000 team had 32-year-old Glen Rice as a steady third scorer who averaged 15.9 ppg in 80 games. He was replaced by more minutes for Rick Fox, plus 18 mpg off the bench from Isaiah Rider (!) in 2001.
- Going from 36-year-old A.C. Green in 2000 to 35-year-old Horace Grant in 2001 was a moderate upgrade, though there was a steep drop-off in Abstinence Committed bears.
- Maybe the most notable difference was the disarray at the point-guard position in 2001 because Derek Fisher only played the last 20 regular-season games due to injury. L.A. turned to the immortal Mike Penberthy for 16 mpg in 53 games.

Fish joining the team correlated to the season taking off, as they finished the regular season 15-5. All told, the Lakers were 30-6 with Fisher, 41-21 without him in '00-01.

Given that the '01 squad didn't turn it on until mid-March, and that they finished 21st in defensive efficiency, we have to go with the '00 squad as the best.

Also, as we've noted previously in this space, the 2001 playoff run was slightly aberrant, too, in that I don't know if we've ever seen a team that sustained such a hot streak from three-point land - they went 32-72 (.444) in their sweep of the Spurs (WCF), followed up by 36-75 (.480) in the Finals - .463 total for those two series, for a team that shot the 3 at just .344 over the course of the regular season. Don't get us wrong - they were worthy champs and a great team, but we think the insanity of their playoff record was partially because they got insanely hot.

3. '07-08 Boston Celtics (66-16, 16-10, +10.2)
Picking the top two was relatively easy, sorting out 3-4-5 is a lot tougher - so close. The 2008 Celtics were the best team of the decade in terms of regular-season point differential, but had the worst playoff record of any champion, as they needed seventh games to get out of both of the first two rounds, included a heart-pounder vs. LeBron and Cleveland. Still, this stands as one of the best defensive teams in recent memory, with the maniacal work of Kevin Garnett making it all possible.

4. '08-09 Los Angeles Lakers (65-17, 16-7, +7.6)
These Lakers were a joy to watch in running the triangle offense throughout the year, with Pau Gasol around for the entire season to fit in his multiple skills as the perfect final piece. However, this club coasted throughout the playoffs, as they really didn't turn things on until the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Would the '09 team have been good enough to beat those '08 Celtics? Such a close, close call. We're taking defense over offense and picking Boston in a close Game 7. They did as good a job of containing Kobe as any team we've ever seen.

5. '04-05 San Antonio Spurs (59-23, 16-7, +7.8)
Another all-time good defensive team, with Tim Duncan anchoring things in the middle. The 2005 team barely survived the Pistons, but they get the call over the 2007 team, which had a much better playoff run by the numbers, but had ridiculously easy matchups vs. the Jazz and the young Cavs, after the Mavs were bounced by the Warriors to open up the bracket. In 2005, more guys like Duncan (28), Bowen (33), and Horry (34) were closer to their primes, so we give them the edge over the 2007 greybeards.

Favorite Teams to Watch
1. 1999-03 Sacramento Kings
2. 2004-08 Phoenix Suns
3. 2000-04 Dallas Mavericks
4. 2006-08 Golden State Warriors
5. 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers

Yeah, so we're suckers for the offense. We loved the Seven Seconds or Less Suns as much as anyone, but we still prefer the beauty of that half-court passing game of those early-decade Kings. We've found over the years that a key element in aesthetically pleasing basketball is having big men who can pass - SAC had two great ones in C-Webb and Vlade. Loved that team, wish they'd gotten a chip.

I feel good about myself that pretty much Steve Nash's entire decade is covered here - he's certainly been the master of offensive efficiency for the decade (though it's worth noting that Dallas had its greatest success after they improved dramatically on D after Nash left and Avery arrived). I feel a little cheaper that I have most of Nellie's decade on here, especially as he descends into increasing madness. What a crazy ride with that guy's Mavs and Warriors.

That '01 Sixers team wasn't the prettiest team to watch, but man, I don't know if I've ever seen a team that played harder. One of the strangest aspects of the basketball decade to me is that I feel like Larry Brown turned in two of the absolute best coaching jobs I've ever seen ('01 Sixers and '04 Pistons) and two of the absolute worst ('04 U.S. Olympic team and '06 Knicks).

(Reg. season, playoffs, pt. differential)
2000: Los Angeles Lakers67-15, 15-8, 8.5
2001: Los Angeles Lakers56-26, 15-1, 3.4
2002: Los Angeles Lakers58-24, 15-4, 7.2
2003: San Antonio Spurs60-22, 16-8, 5.4
2004: Detroit Pistons54-28, 16-7, 5.8
2005: San Antonio Spurs59-23, 16-7, 7.8
2006: Miami Heat52-30, 16-7, 3.9
2007: San Antonio Spurs58-24, 16-4, 8.4
2008: Boston Celtics66-16, 16-10, 10.2
2009: Los Angeles Lakers65-17, 16-7, 7.6

1. '00 Lakers 67-151. '08 Celtics 10.2
1. '07 Mavericks 67-152. '09 Cavaliers 8.9
3. '08 Celtics 66-163. '00 Lakers 8.5
3. '09 Cavaliers 66-164. '07 Spurs 8.4
5. '09 Lakers 65-175. '05 Spurs 7.8
6. '06 Pistons 64-186. '03 Mavericks 7.8
7. '06 Spurs 63-197. '01 Spurs 7.8
8. '05 Suns 62-208. '09 Lakers 7.6
8. '09 Celtics 62-209. '02 Kings 7.6
10. '02 Kings 61-2110. '09 Celtics 7.5
10. '04 Pacers 61-21
10. '07 Suns 61-21
Champions in bold


At 11:14 PM, Blogger James said...

If you love teams that play hard I dont understand how you left the 04 Pistons off of your list. They may not have had anybody as exciting as AI offensively but Big Ben made as many exciting and jaw dropping defensive plays. They played hard every night and they played together, can it get much better than that?

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I agree with above, The Distons had one of the best "teams" ever. No superstars, all players that played hards and as a team.

Just boring for the media types.

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