Skip to main content
Menu
The Warriors Are Great, But Are They Better Than The 1939 Yankees?

By now, it’s become clear that despite falling short of a perfect 16-0 playoff record, the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors make a very strong case for being the greatest NBA team in history. On Tuesday, I wrote about the statistical ratings that do — and don’t — place them ahead of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls as the best ever. Firmly in Golden State’s camp is FiveThirtyEight’s Elo system, which ranks the team as No. 1 all time not only according to its peak rating, but also using a blend of its peak, final and average daily Elo ratings during the season.

That’s just relative to other basketball teams, though. What happens when we open up this conversation to other sports? Since we also have Elo ratings for NFL and MLB teams, we thought we’d compare the Warriors’ 1828 blended Elo rating to the same blended metric in football and baseball.1 Are the Warriors the best … of the best?

As luck would have it, football Elo ratings are almost directly comparable to those in basketball because the amount of information conveyed by one NFL game is roughly the same as that conveyed by one NBA game.2 But in baseball, each game tells us less about a team’s true talent, so the range between the highest and lowest MLB Elo ratings is smaller. So, to account for these differences across sports, I calculated the z-score (the number of standard deviations above average3) for each team’s blended rating relative to their sport.

According to this metric, the Warriors are running slightly behind the NFL-best 2007 New England Patriots — and neither has anything on Joe DiMaggio and the 1939 New York Yankees, who compiled 106 wins and swept the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.

YEAR TEAM LEAGUE TITLE BLENDED ELO Z-SCORE
1 1939 New York Yankees MLB 1627 +3.07
2 1906 Chicago Cubs MLB 1620 +2.88
3 2007 New England Patriots NFL 1825 +2.82
4 2017 Golden State Warriors NBA 1828 +2.79
5 1996 Chicago Bulls NBA 1815 +2.68
6 1998 New York Yankees MLB 1610 +2.63
7 1927 New York Yankees MLB 1610 +2.63
8 1944 St. Louis Cardinals MLB 1610 +2.61
9 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates MLB 1609 +2.59
10 1932 New York Yankees MLB 1608 +2.56
11 1997 Chicago Bulls NBA 1801 +2.56
12 1942 St. Louis Cardinals MLB 1607 +2.54
13 1911 Philadelphia Athletics MLB 1607 +2.54
14 2004 New England Patriots NFL 1793 +2.53
15 2016 Golden State Warriors NBA 1798 +2.53
16 1937 New York Yankees MLB 1606 +2.52
17 2015 Golden State Warriors NBA 1796 +2.52
18 1907 Chicago Cubs MLB 1605 +2.48
19 1942 Chicago Bears NFL 1786 +2.47
20 1938 New York Yankees MLB 1603 +2.43
Best of the best: The top Elo ratings in NBA, NFL and MLB

NBA data includes BAA (but not ABA) teams going back to the 1946-47 season. NFL data includes AFL (during Super Bowl era) and APFA teams going back to 1920, minimum 5 games played during season. MLB data goes back to first World Series in 1903.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

MLB teams dominate the top-20 list, taking up 12 spots — mainly because baseball has been around for a lot longer than the other sports. To even the playing field, we can cut down the list to only look at modern (since 1980) teams:

YEAR TEAM LEAGUE TITLE BLENDED ELO Z-SCORE
1 2007 New England Patriots NFL 1825 +2.82
2 2017 Golden State Warriors NBA 1828 +2.79
3 1996 Chicago Bulls NBA 1815 +2.68
4 1998 New York Yankees MLB 1610 +2.63
5 1997 Chicago Bulls NBA 1801 +2.56
6 2004 New England Patriots NFL 1793 +2.53
7 2016 Golden State Warriors NBA 1798 +2.53
8 2015 Golden State Warriors NBA 1796 +2.52
9 1986 Boston Celtics NBA 1784 +2.41
10 1998 Denver Broncos NFL 1771 +2.34
11 1989 San Francisco 49ers NFL 1771 +2.33
12 2016 San Antonio Spurs NBA 1776 +2.33
13 1985 Chicago Bears NFL 1769 +2.31
14 1993 Dallas Cowboys NFL 1766 +2.29
15 2009 Los Angeles Lakers NBA 1769 +2.27
16 1992 Chicago Bulls NBA 1768 +2.26
17 1983 Washington Redskins NFL 1763 +2.26
18 1984 San Francisco 49ers NFL 1761 +2.25
19 1998 Chicago Bulls NBA 1764 +2.23
20 1997 Green Bay Packers NFL 1759 +2.22
The top Elo ratings in NBA, NFL and MLB since 1980

Source: Sports-Reference.com

The Warriors’ Game 4 loss in Cleveland was most likely the difference-maker in keeping them behind the 2007 Patriots as the best team in recent decades. Those Patriots obliterated the NFL, compiling a perfect regular season and scoring a staggering 75 touchdowns. (They then promptly lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, the 692nd best team since 1980. Go figure.)

Footnotes

  1. Any discrepancies between the MLB Elo ratings in this story and previously published work is due to using a slightly different version of Elo that accounts for the each game’s starting pitchers.
  2. Which makes it odd that one of those sports plays only 16 games per season while the other plays 82.
  3. Conveniently, Elo ratings are normally distributed.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments