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The Best — And Worst — Of Pro Sports In The 2010s

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

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:

Elo’s best MLB champs of the 2010s

Best MLB championship seasons of the 2010s, according to a mix of a team’s peak, final and seasonlong mean Elo rating

Elo Ratings
Season Team Peak Mean End AVG
1 2018 Red Sox 1610 1586 1610 1602
2 2016 Cubs 1592 1577 1589 1586
3 2017 Astros 1593 1571 1575 1580
4 2019 Nationals 1586 1541 1583 1570
5 2013 Red Sox 1585 1539 1585 1570
6 2015 Royals 1557 1542 1557 1552
7 2010 Giants 1564 1528 1564 1552
8 2012 Giants 1561 1522 1561 1548
9 2011 Cardinals 1555 1523 1555 1545
10 2014 Giants 1544 1519 1541 1535

Mean and Peak Elo ratings exclude the first quarter of the regular season to avoid crediting teams for simply carrying over their rating from the previous season.

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.

The best MLB players of the 2010s

According to wins above replacement (WAR), MLB players who had the most total value and the best single seasons, 2010-19

Most Total Value Best Seasons
Player WAR Player Year WAR
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

*Pitcher.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

NBA

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:

Elo’s best NBA champs of the 2010s

Best NBA championship seasons of the 2010s, according to a mix of a team’s peak, final and seasonlong mean Elo rating

Elo Ratings
Season Team Peak Mean End AVG
1 2017 Warriors 1865 1772 1846 1828
2 2015 Warriors 1822 1744 1822 1796
3 2013 Heat 1774 1714 1754 1747
4 2014 Spurs 1764 1697 1764 1742
5 2018 Warriors 1780 1691 1745 1739
6 2016 Cavaliers 1759 1670 1759 1729
7 2012 Heat 1729 1679 1712 1707
8 2011 Mavericks 1736 1644 1736 1705
9 2019 Raptors 1729 1649 1729 1702
10 2010 Lakers 1724 1681 1695 1700

Mean and Peak Elo ratings exclude the first quarter of the regular season to avoid crediting teams for simply carrying over their rating from the previous season.

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.

The best NBA players of the 2010s

According to RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR), NBA players who had the most total value and the best single seasons, 2010-19

Most Total Value Best Seasons
Player WAR Player Year WAR
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

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

WNBA

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 best WNBA champions of the 2010s

Best WNBA championship seasons of the 2010s, according to net efficiency rating

Record Efficiency Ratings
Season Team W L Off. Def. Net
1 2019 Mystics 26 8 115.9 100.3 +15.6
2 2017 Lynx 27 7 109.3 95.1 14.2
3 2013 Lynx 26 8 107.9 95.7 12.2
4 2014 Mercury 29 5 107.8 95.7 12.1
5 2010 Storm 28 6 108.2 97.7 10.5
6 2011 Lynx 27 7 107.1 96.7 10.4
7 2018 Storm 26 8 111.1 101.5 9.6
8 2016 Sparks 26 8 107.8 98.6 9.2
9 2012 Fever 22 12 104.4 96.4 8.0
10 2015 Lynx 22 12 100.5 95.5 5.0

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

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.

The best WNBA players of the 2010s

According to Wins Created (WC), WNBA players who had the most total value and the best single seasons, 2010-19

Most Total Value Best Seasons
Player WC Player Year WC
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

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

NFL

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.

Elo’s best NFL champions of the 2010s

Best NFL championship seasons of the 2010s, according to a mix of a team’s peak, final and seasonlong mean Elo rating

Elo Ratings
Season Team Peak Mean End AVG
1 2016 Patriots 1779 1693 1779 1750
2 2013 Seahawks 1766 1699 1766 1744
3 2014 Patriots 1743 1694 1743 1727
4 2010 Packers 1740 1639 1740 1706
5 2017 Eagles 1718 1648 1718 1695
6 2018 Patriots 1709 1651 1709 1689
7 2015 Broncos 1703 1661 1703 1689
8 2012 Ravens 1690 1630 1690 1670
9 2011 Giants 1661 1548 1661 1623

Mean and Peak Elo ratings exclude the first quarter of the regular season to avoid crediting teams for simply carrying over their rating from the previous season.

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.

The best NFL quarterbacks of the 2010s

According to ESPN’s QBR points above replacement, NFL QBs who had the most total value and the best single seasons, 2010-19*

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

* Through Week 16 of the 2019 NFL regular season

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

NHL

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 best NHL teams of the 2010s

Best NHL single seasons of the 2010s, according to a mix of a team’s peak, final and seasonlong mean (experimental) Elo rating

Elo Ratings
Season Team Peak Mean End AVG
1 2010 Blackhawks 1628 1603 1626 1619
2 2017 Penguins 1621 1594 1621 1612
3 2013 Blackhawks 1621 1598 1611 1610
4 2014 Kings 1618 1585 1616 1606
5 2018 Capitals 1613 1566 1613 1597
6 2011 Bruins 1610 1561 1610 1594
7 2015 Blackhawks 1610 1577 1589 1592
8 2012 Kings 1616 1542 1612 1590
9 2016 Penguins 1609 1539 1609 1585
10 2019 Blues 1590 1540 1590 1574

Mean and Peak Elo ratings exclude the first quarter of the regular season to avoid crediting teams for simply carrying over their rating from the previous season.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

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.

The best NHL players of the 2010s

According to Goals Above Replacement (GAR), NHL players who produced the most total value and the best single seasons, 2010-19

Most Total Value Best Seasons
Player GAR Goalies Year GAR
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
Carey Price 161.5
Evgeni Malkin 156.7 SKATERS YEAR GAR
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

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Footnotes

  1. We average together a team’s season-ending Elo rating, its peak rating and its average rating throughout the season (excluding the first quarter of the regular season).

  2. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  3. Since the Super Bowl era began in 1966.

  4. Including playoffs.

  5. This uses the results (and locations) of each game, including goal differential, and keeps a rolling rating across seasons (regressing to the mean between years), giving slightly extra weight to playoff games. In other words, it’s a very basic Elo model, but it does a decent-enough job for the time being.

  6. My own personal spin on Tom Awad’s Goals Versus Threshold, which I calculate via regression and properly rescaling Hockey-Reference.com’s Point Shares to a better allotment of value between forwards, defensemen and goalies. (Forwards are assigned 60 percent of leaguewide value, defensemen 30 percent and goalies 10 percent; the metric also widens the distribution of league goaltending performances and balances total league offensive value against the value of defense plus goaltending.)

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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