The end of a decade is always a good chance to look back and reflect on where we started, where we ended up and how far we’ve come. In sports, the decade of the 2010s supplied plenty of highs and lows, so we wanted to highlight the best (and worst) of the past 10 years in five major professional leagues: the NBA, WNBA, NFL, NHL and MLB. We’ll cover both the top teams (overall and in single seasons) and the best players (according to advanced metrics) from the decade that was — a decade that we had the privilege of covering more than half of here at FiveThirtyEight as it unfolded.
MLB’s decade was defined early by a dynasty — that of the San Francisco Giants, who won three World Series in five years from 2010 to 2014 — and late by a historic glut of great teams (and bad ones). The best franchise of the 2010s by regular-season wins was the New York Yankees, though they infamously failed to win a title all decade long; the teams with the most postseason wins were the aforementioned Giants (36), along with the St. Louis Cardinals (35), Los Angeles Dodgers (33) and Houston Astros (28). According to our method of judging single seasons using Elo ratings,1 the best champion of the decade was the 2018 Red Sox, who enjoyed one of the all-time great single seasons in MLB history and beat out the 2016 Cubs for the top spot on this list. Interestingly, the Giants’ dynasty teams occupy three of the bottom four places on the list:
By this measure, the worst season of the 2010s belonged to the 2019 Tigers, who had an abysmal 1410 combined Elo between their peak, mean and end-of-season ratings. (Not really a surprise there.)
The 2010s also saw the debut of one of the greatest players of all-time in Angels outfielder Mike Trout. Trout not only accumulated the most total wins above replacement (WAR)2 of any player from 2010 through 2019, but he also accounted for five of the eight best seasons of the decade. But he didn’t have the No. 1 season — that belonged to Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, who put up an astounding 10.6 WAR in 2018.
|Most Total Value||Best Seasons|
|Mike Trout||73.0||Mookie Betts||2018||10.6|
|Clayton Kershaw*||61.8||Mike Trout||2012||10.3|
|Max Scherzer*||57.0||Mike Trout||2016||10.1|
|Justin Verlander*||54.7||Mike Trout||2018||10.0|
|Robinson Cano||50.2||Jacob deGrom*||2018||9.7|
|Joey Votto||50.2||Bryce Harper||2015||9.7|
|Zack Greinke*||48.0||Mike Trout||2013||9.6|
|Buster Posey||47.4||Mike Trout||2015||9.3|
|Adrian Beltre||46.9||Mookie Betts||2016||9.0|
|Chris Sale*||45.0||Jacoby Ellsbury||2011||8.9|
The NBA of the 2010s was mostly characterized by two things — LeBron James’s greatness and the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty. Although the San Antonio Spurs led all teams in regular-season wins this decade with 559 — and Gregg Popovich’s crew did also win the 2014 NBA title — the Warriors led in playoff wins (86) and championships (three). Meanwhile, if you combine all of LeBron’s Cavaliers and Heat teams into a single entity, that team would have won 120 postseason games, easily the most of any team or player in the league. (Kevin Durant, with 88 wins between the Warriors and Thunder, would rank second.)
For single seasons, the best championship team of the 2010s by Elo was the 2017 Warriors, who scorched the league in Durant’s first season playing alongside Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and company. But there are also a lot of Warrior teams to choose from on the list — three of the top five champs of the 2010s belong to Golden State:
And who was the worst team of the teens? While some of the tanking Philadelphia 76ers teams made strong bids, the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats scraped the bottom of the barrel after setting a new league record for the lowest winning percentage in a season (10.6 percent, or the equivalent of 8.7 wins per 82 games).
As for players, the best of the 2010s — in perhaps the decade’s least surprising development — was James, who racked up 185 WAR according to RAPTOR, our new NBA player value metric, between the regular season and playoffs. James’s lead over No. 2 Chris Paul (151 WAR) was roughly the same as the gap between Paul and No. 6 Russell Westbrook, so it was a comfortable title for The King. But in terms of single seasons, LeBron is not No. 1 — Curry’s 2016 campaign ranks first with 26.7 WAR. Curry actually owns the two most valuable seasons of the decade, as his 2015 tally (25.1 WAR) checks in ahead of James’s 2010 (24.8) for the second-best campaign of the teens.
|Most Total Value||Best Seasons|
|LeBron James||185.0||Stephen Curry||2016||26.7|
|Chris Paul||150.6||Stephen Curry||2015||25.1|
|Stephen Curry||150.5||LeBron James||2010||24.8|
|James Harden||144.0||LeBron James||2013||24.2|
|Kevin Durant||141.5||Draymond Green||2016||23.5|
|Russell Westbrook||113.7||James Harden||2019||22.8|
|Kyle Lowry||100.8||Chris Paul||2015||22.6|
|Paul George||93.7||Jimmy Butler||2019||22.3|
|Kawhi Leonard||91.8||LeBron James||2012||21.6|
|Draymond Green||88.5||LeBron James||2011||21.1|
In the WNBA, the 2010s were the decade of the Minnesota Lynx. The team led all franchises in regular-season wins (231), playoff wins (40), Finals appearances (six) and total championships (four). The only other team to win multiple titles this decade was the Seattle Storm, who did it twice — but the Lynx won nearly double the postseason contests this decade that the Storm (23) did, so there really isn’t much doubt about who owned the 2010s as a whole. In terms of single seasons, however, the best champion of the decade — at least, according to net rating (as calculated by Basketball-Reference.com) — was the most recent WNBA champ, the Washington Mystics, who outscored foes by nearly 16 points per 100 possessions. (Minnesota had both of the next two best seasons.)
The worst performance of the decade was owned by the 2011 Tulsa Shock, who were in their second season after moving from their longtime home in Detroit. (They would later move to Dallas and become the team now known as the Wings.) There, they had been perennial championship contenders, but all of that was a distant memory by 2011, when the team went 3-31 — the worst record in pro hoops history — and were outscored by an astonishing 16.9 points per 100 possessions.
Player-wise, the Lynx also dominate the decade’s leaderboard. According to Wins Created, which blends Win Shares and the Player Efficiency Rating-based Estimated Wins Added metric into a single estimate of victories added, the best WNBA player of the 2010s was Sylvia Fowles, who has been with Minnesota since 2015; No. 2 was Maya Moore, who sat out in 2019 but spent her previous eight seasons in Minneapolis. The pair outproduced a number of familiar names, including Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker and Elena Delle Donne.
For single seasons, the best of the decade was Ogwumike’s 2016 campaign, when the L.A. Sparks forward created 10.0 wins in one of the most exceptional superstar breakouts in any sport. She beat out a few seasons by Fowles, Delle Donne, Moore and the final great season of Lauren Jackson’s storied career to earn the top spot.
|Most Total Value||Best Seasons|
|Sylvia Fowles||63.4||Nneka Ogwumike||2016||10.0|
|Maya Moore||55.7||Sylvia Fowles||2017||9.6|
|Nneka Ogwumike||50.8||Elena Delle Donne||2015||9.6|
|Candace Parker||46.4||Maya Moore||2014||9.1|
|Elena Delle Donne||45.6||Maya Moore||2013||8.8|
|Tina Charles||42.7||Nneka Ogwumike||2017||8.7|
|Tamika Catchings||41.1||Lauren Jackson||2010||8.5|
|Brittney Griner||37.9||Breanna Stewart||2018||8.3|
|DeWanna Bonner||37.7||Tamika Catchings||2010||8.2|
|Angel McCoughtry||34.9||Elena Delle Donne||2019||8.2|
The NFL is the only sport on our list whose 2010s are technically not over yet. (All of the other sports will be embarking on their “2020 season,” or have begun it already.) But there isn’t much mystery about who the best team of the decade has been: The New England Patriots have recorded the most wins in the regular season (124), the playoffs (16) and the Super Bowl (three titles) since the start of the 2010 season. Various teams seemed poised to legitimately challenge them at times, from the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos to the Seattle Seahawks and their Legion of Boom defense. Other opponents enjoyed brief, brilliant successes at the Pats’ expense — shoutout to the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. But no team has managed to consistently deny Bill Belichick’s squad. (Maybe the Ravens will do it this season?)
The best champion of the decade according to Elo was one of those New England squads — the 2016 Patriots. They required an epic comeback in the Super Bowl to even qualify for this list, but the Pats were also the only champ this decade to win 17 games in their Super Bowl season, entering the season as favorites and essentially dominating from wire to wire. Coming in a close second were the 2013 Seahawks, whose +235 point differential was the best in a season for a champion during the 2010s.
The worst team of the 2010s was looking like it might be this year’s Dolphins earlier in the season, but they started playing less poorly as the schedule progressed (and Ryan Fitzpatrick provided them a relatively professional level of quarterbacking). That means the honor of decade’s worst was secured by the 2017 Cleveland Browns, who went 0-16 and had a 1240 blended Elo rating, a level only “surpassed” in modern history3 by the expansion 1999 Browns (1230) and the infamous 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1206).
For our top NFL players of the decade, let’s focus on quarterbacks, who are almost always the most valuable players in the league — and the only players who ever really significantly swing betting lines. (Apologies to the hundreds of players who don’t take their snaps from under center.) According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating points above replacement,4 the best QB of the 2010s was Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, whose 913 points above replacement edged out Matt Ryan of the Falcons (865) and Tom Brady of the Patriots (813). Brees also owned the best single season of the decade, beating out Aaron Rodgers of the Packers in 2011 as both QBs posted historically dominant campaigns. Ravens QB Lamar Jackson has a chance to move up that list this year; he’s currently on pace for the seventh-best QB PAR season of the decade if we prorate his total to 16 games (though he sat out the Ravens’ regular season finale) — and he could move up even more, depending on how much value he adds in the playoffs.
|Most Total Value||Best Seasons|
|Player||QB PAR||Player||Year||QB PAR|
|Drew Brees||912.9||Drew Brees||2011||123.5|
|Matt Ryan||865.4||Aaron Rodgers||2011||118.6|
|Tom Brady||812.9||Peyton Manning||2013||115.1|
|Aaron Rodgers||730.7||Drew Brees||2014||114.2|
|Philip Rivers||697.9||Peyton Manning||2010||114.2|
|Ben Roethlisberger||639.5||Patrick Mahomes||2018||112.2|
|Matthew Stafford||613.0||Peyton Manning||2012||108.0|
|Russell Wilson||567.7||Ben Roethlisberger||2018||104.6|
|Eli Manning||531.6||Tom Brady||2012||102.7|
|Joe Flacco||505.3||Tom Brady||2011||100.0|
The NHL offered fans a little bit of everything in the 2010s. The Chicago Blackhawks formed a dynasty early in the decade, winning a league-best three Stanley Cups (all by 2015), while the Pittsburgh Penguins became the NHL’s only back-to-back champs since the late 1990s in 2016 and 2017. And just last season, the St. Louis Blues went from having the NHL’s second-worst record at midseason to winning the Cup.
The most successful regular-season team of the decade was the Penguins, whose 466 wins narrowly bested the Washington Capitals’ tally of 462 — and the winningest playoff team of the decade was the Boston Bruins, who won 69 times in the postseason en route to three Cup Final appearances and one victory during the decade. According to an experimental Elo rating I made for hockey,5 the top champion of the decade was the 2010 Blackhawks, who had the best regular-season goal differential (+62) of any eventual Cup champ this decade, and never faced elimination at any point during the playoffs. Led by Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Duncan Keith and star forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Chicago set the tone for its dynastic run with an all-time championship season.
Elo’s worst team of the decade in the NHL was the 2015 Buffalo Sabres, who were outscored by a league-worst 1.4 goals per game during the back half of a two-season stretch in which Buffalo averaged just 22 wins a year. The 2015 Sabres’ Elo started low and never rose above 1400 all season long, something no other team this decade can say.
To judge the 2010s’ top individual performers, we’ll use Goals Above Replacement (GAR)6 and add up each player’s total value across the entire decade. Nos. 1 and 2 — in that order — come out to be Alex Ovechkin (198 GAR) and Sidney Crosby (192) … although it should be noted that GAR, as a partially cumulative stat, gives players credit for staying on the ice. (Sid the Kid was better on a per-game basis, for what it’s worth.) And the top goalie of the decade? Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist gets the extremely well-tailored nod at No. 1.
In terms of great seasons, the top GAR performances tend to be from goaltenders (who are singularly valuable when in peak form), and none was better than Tim Thomas of the Bruins in 2011. His save percentage (.938) was 29 percent better than league average, which is tied for 18th all-time, and he was worth 45.1 GAR. Among skaters, Ovechkin’s countryman Evgeni Malkin (29.3 GAR) netted the top season of the 2010s when he produced 50 goals and 109 points in 2012, despite the league’s low-scoring offensive environment that year.
|Most Total Value||Best Seasons|
|Alex Ovechkin||197.7||Tim Thomas||2011||45.1|
|Sidney Crosby||192.5||Carey Price||2015||39.9|
|Henrik Lundqvist||176.0||Ryan Miller||2010||38.6|
|Steven Stamkos||174.5||Mike Smith||2012||38.5|
|Patrick Kane||171.9||Sergei Bobrovsky||2017||35.8|
|Tuukka Rask||156.4||Evgeni Malkin||2012||29.3|
|John Tavares||151.3||Alex Ovechkin||2010||29.0|
|Brent Burns||149.8||Patrick Kane||2016||27.8|
|Pekka Rinne||149.7||Nikita Kucherov||2019||27.0|
|Erik Karlsson||147.9||Sidney Crosby||2010||27.0|