Skip to main content
Menu
After All That, The Warriors Aren’t Even The Second-Best Team Ever

The Golden State Warriors spent most of this season chasing history, battling with the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the title of greatest NBA team of all time. With a Game 7 finals loss to the Cavaliers, it’s clear that they came up short. But how far down the rankings did they fall?

A month ago, we took a slightly premature look at Golden State’s all-time ranking using Elo ratings, a simple measure of relative team strength based on head-to-head results (we use it here a lot). We generated a single value for each season in NBA history by blending each team’s peak, average and final Elo rating (since these ratings are based only on game-by-game results, they don’t take into account whether a team actually won or lost the title). When that article was published — with the Western Conference finals tied at one game apiece — the Warriors’ playoff record was 9-3, and their blended Elo of 1813 was just a hair behind the 1815 rating held by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. A title, even with a couple more losses along the way, would have all but guaranteed them the top spot.

And then they blew it. Golden State went 6-6 during the rest of the playoffs, getting outscored by 32 points in the process. Their updated rating of 1798 puts them in third, below both the 1995-96 and 1996-97 Bulls:

SEASON ELO
SEASON TEAM TITLE PEAK AVG END BLEND
1 1995-96 Chicago Bulls 1853 1770 1823 1815
2 1996-97 Chicago Bulls 1811 1792 1802 1802
3 2015-16 Golden State Warriors 1839 1800 1756 1798
4 2014-15 Golden State Warriors 1822 1745 1822 1796
5 1985-86 Boston Celtics 1816 1735 1801 1784
6 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs 1800 1768 1759 1776
7 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers 1790 1726 1790 1769
8 1991-92 Chicago Bulls 1782 1759 1762 1768
9 1997-98 Chicago Bulls 1788 1719 1785 1764
10 1990-91 Chicago Bulls 1785 1693 1785 1755
11 1988-89 Detroit Pistons 1788 1675 1788 1750
12 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers 1777 1731 1739 1749
13 2012-13 Miami Heat 1774 1715 1754 1748
14 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs 1764 1696 1764 1742
15 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers 1765 1708 1742 1738
16 1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers 1764 1680 1764 1736
17 1996-97 Utah Jazz 1764 1693 1748 1735
18 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers 1755 1715 1733 1734
19 1997-98 Utah Jazz 1766 1695 1737 1733
20 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers 1753 1717 1726 1732
21 2009-10 Orlando Magic 1782 1669 1744 1732
22 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers 1779 1634 1779 1731
23 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs 1757 1674 1757 1730
24 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers 1750 1699 1740 1730
25 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers 1759 1670 1759 1729
26 2004-05 San Antonio Spurs 1771 1719 1696 1729
27 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs 1756 1674 1756 1728
28 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs 1764 1696 1719 1726
29 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder 1767 1666 1744 1726
30 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs 1771 1671 1733 1725
The greatest NBA teams of all time, according to Elo

Again, these ratings are championship-agnostic, so the Warriors and Spurs are ranked much higher than you’d expect. (This wasn’t really much of an issue until this season. Through 2015, the 12 highest-ranked teams ever all won titles.) There’s also some recency bias here — fewer teams, shorter seasons and shorter playoffs in earlier NBA decades made it harder to accumulate a really high rating — but it’s still clear that the 2015-16 season was something special. Only four teams really threatened for the title at various parts of the season1, and all four ended up ranked in the Top 30 all-time. The Warriors may not have ended up as the greatest team ever, but no “second-best” team was ever stronger than the Spurs, no third-best stronger than the Cavaliers, and no fourth-best stronger than the Thunder. Not even close:

fischerbaum-bestnbaupdate2-1

For now, these same four teams have the best odds of winning the 2016-17 title, by a wide margin. The Bulls may stay unsurpassed, but it’s hard to imagine we’ll see a season as great as the one we just witnessed any time soon.


VIDEO: The greatness of LeBron James

Footnotes

  1. Five, if you count the brief end-of-season resurgence by the Los Angeles Clippers, before everyone dropped dead in the playoffs.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments