Based on their current winning percentages, both the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs (who faced off against one another last night, ironically) should technically be considered two of the top three regular season teams of all time.
That’s probably good news for at least one of those organizations because heading into this season, 23 of the top 50 all-time regular season teams did ultimately win the NBA championship later that year.
In other words, to say that Golden State’s quest for 73 wins or San Antonio’s quest for a perfect single-season home record could be wearing those organizations out emotionally to the point where a ring may prove elusive is unfair. Plenty of teams have weathered the grind of breaking massive records like this. Obviously the Chicago Bulls won the title the year they set the regular season record, as did the 1972 L.A. Lakers before them and the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers before them.
Taking that into consideration, here’s a look at the 10 best regular season teams in league history (not including this year, which is still in flux), and how things ended up for them following their grueling campaigns in pursuit of all those victories. There’s plenty of gold at the end of those rainbows, but also a surprising amount of disappointment.
#6T – 2014-15 Golden State Warriors (67-15) – What better place to start than with the team that won the championship last year and only has lost nine games since that point? In 2014-15, the Warriors won just a ton of contests, starting 10-2 and eventually winning a franchise-record 16 games in a row, as well as 19 in a row at home at one point. Eventual MVP Stephen Curry broke the record for three-pointers made in a season (a record he broke again this season, for what it’s worth), while other Warriors smashed records of their own. Klay Thompson broke the NBA record for most points in a quarter with 37, Steve Kerr set the record for most wins ever by a rookie head coach, and the team shattered the record for three-pointers made by a team in a season (dropping in 525 for the year). Golden State won the championship last spring rather handily, toppling LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-2 and giving the franchise its first title in four decades.
#6T – 1985-86 Boston Celtics (67-15) – Depending on who you ask, this particular group could be considered the most gifted top-to-bottom NBA roster in league history, and their outstanding regular season performance is a big reason why. Larry Bird put together arguably the finest season of his career that year, averaging 25.8 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 6.8 APG and two SPG over the full season. It was enough to earn him the league MVP in 1986, while Bill Walton, who played a career-high 80 games, was named Sixth Man of the Year. The roster also featured Robert Parrish, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson, the latter of which was given the NBA Finals MVP that year for his defensive efforts. Boston won the title in six games, the last championship of the Bird Era.
#6T – 1991-92 Chicago Bulls (67-15) – Coming off of the franchise’s (and Michael Jordan’s) first-ever championship in 1991, the Bulls proved to be one of the more motivated defending NBA champs in league history. A big part of the team’s leap that year was the development of Scottie Pippen, who averaged 21 PPG while also putting up more assists and rebounds than Jordan for the first time in his career. Jordan, for his part, won his sixth consecutive scoring title and his third MVP trophy that season, all of which was enough to slingshot them into a tough Eastern Conference playoff picture that wrapped up with the Bulls winning a second title, this time at the expense of the Portland Trail Blazers.
#6T – 1999-00 L.A. Lakers (67-15) – With Kobe Bryant retiring at the end of the season, it’s a perfectly appropriate time to wax nostalgic on what has to be considered the best top-to-bottom team of his career. He still was pretty clearly second-fiddle to MVP Shaquille O’Neal that year, but a team that featured both those guys in their primes, as well as elite role players like Glen Rice, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Ron Harper and Derek Fisher, understandably coasted through an insanely successful regular season. O’Neal was a force, leading the league in both scoring (29.7 PPG) and field goal percentage (.574) on the way to his first championship. He’d win three more, but it never would come as easy it did at the turn of the century.
#6T – 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks (67-15) – Only two of the top 10 regular season teams of all-time failed to win a championship, and this particular Mavericks squad was one of them. After having won 60 games the season prior, the ’06-’07 Mavericks absolutely ran through the league as an encore performance, led by MVP Dirk Nowitzki’s monster season in which he averaged 24.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG and 3.4 APG while shooting a career-high 50.2 percent from the field. He also topped 40 percent from deep and 90 percent from the charity stripe, making him only the fourth player in league history to join the 50-40-90 club. Unfortunately, with such a huge lead in their division, Avery Johnson chose to rest a lot of his key players down the stretch, which led to one of the biggest playoff upsets in NBA history. Rusty from their collective layoff, the Mavs dropped their first-round matchup to Baron Davis and the Golden State Warriors – spoiling Nowitzki’s best season as a pro.
#4T – 1972-73 Boston Celtics (68-14) – To be the winningest team in any franchise’s history is an honor, but to put up more regular season wins than any other team in Celtics history is particularly special. That’s what the 1972-73 Celtics did in a regular season that saw Dave Cowens win MVP, Tommy Heinsohn win Coach of the Year and John Havlicek, Paul Silas and Don Chaney all earn appearances on either the All-NBA First Team or Second Team. Unfortunately, this crew didn’t even make the Finals, losing to the eventual champion New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals but even with the disappointment it’s still hard to argue with the success of 68 wins.
#4T – 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13) – Coming off an offseason coaching change that saw the team welcome 43-year-old Alex Hannum to the head of the frontlines, the talented Sixers took his new approach to playing and turned it into one of the best seasons any team has ever strung together. This was a Wilt Chamberlain team (and one of the years in which he would win MVP), and he made a league-record 68 percent of his shots and knocked down a league-record 875 free throws. He scored 24 PPG, led the league in rebounds and blocks, and set a record in assists for centers with over eight per game. The efforts of legends like Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham and especially Hal Greer can’t be overlooked, either, as they all chipped in to orchestrate what some consider to be the best basketball team in the history of the game. Wilt only ever got two rings in his career, and this crew landed one of them.
#2T – 1971-72 L.A. Lakers (69-13) – This, of course, was the other time that Wilt Chamberlain won a title. This time, he did it as a member of the Lakers. There really is no question that he was the best player on that team, though Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Jim McMillian all had great seasons, as well. Chamberlain, West and Elgin Baylor all had come into the season having dealt with injury issues in years past, but new head coach Bill Sharman got the most out of his aging squad and broke what was then only a five-year-old record for the most wins in an NBA regular season. Baylor retired only nine games into the record-setting campaign, but McMillian picked up his slack and helped the team put together a record 33-game win streak, a mark that still stands today. It only took them five games to dismantle the Knicks in the NBA Finals, solidifying them as one of history’s all-time greatest basketball teams.
#2T – 1996-97 Chicago Bulls (69-13) – While Steph Curry and the Warriors continue to chase the No. 1 team on this list, they already have solidified themselves as the second-best regular season team in NBA history at the very worst, something that comes at the behest of the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls, who would, of course, go on to win the championship in 1997. Everything that made the 72-win Bulls great the year before also made this team great, which is why this season really was a continuation of the previous year’s dominance. Before 2016, the top two regular season teams in league history were put together by essentially the same group of guys in back-to-back campaigns. That’s beyond ridiculous and one of the many, many reasons guys like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are in the Hall of Fame.
#1 – 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10) – A little over halfway through the 1994-95 season, Michael Jordan returned to basketball after a brief hiatus into the world of baseball, and it didn’t end well for him. His Airness looked older, out of shape and out of practice, and the Chicago Bulls fell to the Orlando Magic in the playoffs that year – the first time Jordan had tasted any measure of postseason defeat since 1990. The next year he came out firing on all cylinders, leading an NBA team to 70 wins for the first time in league history and of course returning the Bulls to their mantle as NBA champions after a two-year reprieve. This was Dennis Rodman’s first season with the team and Jordan’s first full year with Toni Kukoc, though truthfully it was Jordan and Pippen that made that magic year come together. So far, their record still stands.
Here are the trends we take away from this assemblage of greatness: Of the 10 best teams in NBA regular season history, eight of them featured the league MVP and eight of them would go on to win the NBA championship.
In any context, an 80 percent chance of achieving something is undeniably strong, but there’s a wrinkle this year; those odds are worsened for both the Spurs and Warriors since they both appear likely to finish among the top 12 regular season teams of all time. That’s never happened before, and it means that, despite history, neither has greater than a 50 percent chance of winning the title.
And that’s what is truly remarkable about this NBA season, that two teams are doing this rather than just one. We already know that Stephen Curry is going to win MVP, but if history is any indication, either the Warriors or Spurs are headed for another championship this summer.
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