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:
|3||2015-16||Golden State Warriors||1839||1800||1756||1798|
|4||2014-15||Golden State Warriors||✓||1822||1745||1822||1796|
|6||2015-16||San Antonio Spurs||1800||1768||1759||1776|
|7||2008-09||Los Angeles Lakers||✓||1790||1726||1790||1769|
|14||2013-14||San Antonio Spurs||✓||1764||1696||1764||1742|
|16||1984-85||Los Angeles Lakers||✓||1764||1680||1764||1736|
|20||1971-72||Los Angeles Lakers||✓||1753||1717||1726||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|
|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|
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:
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.