Are the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors the Best NBA Team Ever?
When the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors won 67 games, they joined the exclusive club of teams to have an average margin of victory (MOV) north of 10 for a whole season, and won the NBA title, the question was raised.
When the 2015-16 iteration won a record 73 games and put a second entry into the 10-plus MOV club (becoming only the third team to ever do so in back-to-back seasons), the question was still up for debate, despite their falling short of winning the title.
Now, after another 67 wins, a record-setting third straight year in the aforementioned MOV club, and one of the most dominant postseason runs ever put together, maybe we finally have an answer to the question that has been on all of our minds for three years now:
Is this Golden State Warriors team -- the 2016-17 version that became NBA champions last night -- the greatest team in NBA history?
Let’s see what the numbers say.
Regular Season Wins and Losses
There have been 13 teams in NBA history that have won at least 67 games and this Warriors dynasty (can we call it that yet?) represents three of them.
Of those 13, only six have won more than 67 and only four of those teams (the 72-win 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, the 69-win 1996-97 Bulls, the 69-win 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, and the 68-win 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers) won the title.
Of the remaining seven teams that won exactly 67, there were five champions (the 2016-17 Warriors, the 2014-15 Warriors, the 1999-00 Lakers, the 1991-92 Bulls, and the 1985-86 Boston Celtics).
That makes nine teams in NBA history that have won at least 67 regular season games and a title in the same year and a good jumping point for our “greatest team of all time” debate.
|Golden State Warriors||2016-17||67-15||Y|
|Golden State Warriors||2014-15||67-15||Y|
|Los Angeles Lakers||1999-00||67-15||Y|
|Los Angeles Lakers||1971-72||69-13||Y|
Margin of Victory and Simple Rating System
Sometimes, a simple win-loss record doesn’t tell enough of the story when it comes to a team’s dominance. The quality of its opponents comes into play, as well as how well the team in question was beating those opponents.
Margin of victory is a good indicator of just how dominant a team was relative to its competition, but perhaps an even better measurement tool is Basketball-Reference.com’s simple rating system (SRS), which takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule.
There have been 11 teams in NBA history with a MOV over 10, and 10 teams with a double-digit SRS (with the 2007-08 Boston Celtics dropping out of the SRS list due their easy strength of schedule mark for their championship season).
Here are the only teams in NBA history to record a MOV north of 10, sorted by SRS:
|Los Angeles Lakers||1971-72||12.28||11.65|
|Golden State Warriors||2016-17||11.63||11.35|
|Golden State Warriors||2015-16||10.76||10.38|
|San Antonio Spurs||2015-16||10.63||10.28|
|Golden State Warriors||2014-15||10.10||10.01|
Of those 11 teams, here are the ones that also won at least 67 games and a title:
|Golden State Warriors||2016-17||67-15||Y||11.35|
|Golden State Warriors||2014-15||67-15||Y||10.01|
|Los Angeles Lakers||1971-72||69-13||Y||11.65|
And then there were six.
Playoff Win-Loss Record and MOV
But regular season records/stats and winning a title don’t tell the entire story, as it’s missing the context of the postseason run.
What really puts these Warriors in the conversation as potentially the best team of all-time is that they dominated these playoffs just as much as they dominated the regular season, and perhaps more than any other team in NBA history.
First of all, according to statmuse.com, the 2016-17 Warriors now hold the NBA record for the largest total MOV in a single postseason at 230:
2016-17 Golden State Warriors had the largest total margin of victory in NBA postseason history (via @statmuse): https://t.co/69QC75KK7q
— Russell Peddle (@rustypedalbike) June 13, 2017
According to ESPN Stats & Info, they also have the second-largest average MOV:
Warriors had the 2nd-largest average scoring margin for any team that played at least 5 games that postseason pic.twitter.com/fFzRD9PF5k
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 13, 2017
They didn’t end up pulling off the first ever postseason sweep in NBA history, but with a 16-1 record, they became only the third team to ever finish with only one postseason loss and with the best win-loss percentage ever recorded in a single playoff run:
|Team||Year||Playoff W-L||Playoff W-L%|
|Golden State Warriors||2016-17||16-1||.941|
|Los Angeles Lakers||2000-01||15-1||.938|
When you look at the six teams that met our preceding criteria of 67 wins, an SRS over 10, and a title, only two teams stand out in terms of playoff MOV:
|Team||Year||Reg. Season Record||Title||SRS||Playoff Record||Playoff MOV|
|Golden State Warriors||2016-17||67-15||Y||11.35||16-1||13.53|
|Golden State Warriors||2014-15||67-15||Y||10.01||16-5||7.81|
|Los Angeles Lakers||1971-72||69-13||Y||11.65||12-3||3.20|
When you put it all together, the only teams in NBA history to ever record a minimum of 67 wins, a regular-season SRS over 10, an average postseason MOV north of 10, and win the title are the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and these 2016-17 Golden State Warriors (with all due respect to the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks, who fell short of this admittedly arbitrary set of criteria by “only” winning 63 games, but arguably while playing against a weaker NBA with only 19 teams and only two other than them who won 50-plus games).
So then there were two.
1995-96 Bulls vs. 2016-17 Warriors
As we touched on both last year and the year before, Michael Jordan’s 72-10 Chicago Bulls of the 1995-96 NBA season are pretty well the consensus “greatest team ever” for a variety of reasons. Based on the stats we’ve studied here, it’s easy to see why.
But while the Warriors may have fallen short the last two years in terms of being on their level (not having the win total and overall dominant differentials in ‘15, not winning the title in ‘16), this year’s iteration just dropped a nearly perfect season of basketball that checks a lot of the same boxes as that historic Bulls team:
|Team||Year||Reg. Season W-L||Reg. Season W-L%||Reg. Season SRS||Playoff W-L||Playoff W-L%||Playoff MOV|
|Golden State Warriors||2016-17||67-15||.817||11.35||16-1||.941||13.53|
So, which is better?
Well, that completely depends on what you value. The Bulls had the better regular season, but the Warriors arguably just had a more dominant playoff run (at least in terms of record and average MOV).
Jordan is still almost unanimously considered the best player of all time -- and that might factor into how you remember this Bulls team in the annals of NBA history -- but he and his ‘96 Bulls didn’t have to get past an all-time great player at the level of LeBron James (who is even making a case to be considered Jordan’s equal).
Ultimately, naming a definitive “best team of all time” just got way harder and that’s something of which the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors should be very proud.
Even for those who wouldn’t give the Warriors the ultimate crown, the team achieved such greatness this year that it has been rendered impossible for anyone to exclude them from the very short list of contenders going forward.
At the very least, they have indisputably earned the title of "one of the greatest teams in NBA history" and that's certainly something.