At the end of the last NBA season, we ranked the 67-win, champion Golden State Warriors as the third-best team in the history of the league. It’s not easy to follow up one of the greatest seasons ever with an even better one, but — one 73-win season later — here we are. And this season, it isn’t just the Warriors performing at an all-time clip, it’s the entire upper-crust of the playoff field. How do the rankings look now?
Our NBA season rankings are based on Elo ratings, which are our preferred metric for historical comparisons because their inputs are relatively simple (and thus available for older games). They’re calculated game-by-game, but we blend them into a single rating for each season by combining a team’s peak Elo, average Elo and final Elo rating.1 The ratings are zero-sum, so two of the surviving 2015-16 teams will gain points and two will lose them as we move into the finals.
GRAPHIC: We calculated Elo ratings after every game in NBA history — more than 60,000 ratings in total. Explore every team’s history »
Here are the standings after the Warriors’ blowout win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals:
|2||2015-16||Golden State Warriors||1839||1803||1799||1813|
|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|
|38||2015-16||Oklahoma City Thunder||1747||1660||1735||1714|
The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are clinging to that top spot, for now. Because of their completed championship run, they have a higher peak and end Elo than this season’s Warriors. But Golden State’s blistering 24-0 start has helped it keep a much higher average Elo over the course of the season. If the Warriors win the 2016 championship (we’re giving them a 45% chance), they’ll almost certainly claim the greatest season ever.2
Of course, nobody needs Elo to know that this Warriors’ squad is special. More remarkable is how high the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs appear on this list. Despite their disappointing loss in the Western Conference semifinals to the Thunder, the Spurs still rank as the sixth-best team in NBA history(!), behind only Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Steph Curry’s Warriors and Larry Bird’s Celtics. Playoff success rightfully counts for a lot in NBA lore, so this Spurs team may very well be forgotten — or remembered only as a historic playoff disappointment. But a team that went 40-1 at home and led the league in point differential for most of the season, despite playing in the same conference as the Warriors, deserves credit. Unless the Warriors stumble, this season’s Spurs will go down as the best team in history to not win a title.
San Antonio’s exit was disappointing in part because the Thunder — currently rated third in the NBA by blended Elo — seemed so far behind the Spurs and Warriors for most of this season. Same goes for the fourth-ranked Cavaliers, whose most memorable regular season moment was probably firing their head coach.3 These are two great squads though — together, they won 112 games and have three of the NBA’s best players. It’s rare for the third- and fourth-best teams in a single season to be as good as the current Thunder and Cavs. In fact, it’s never happened before:
The Thunder’s 1714 blended Elo — as of now — ranks No. 38 all-time. If the rating holds, this year’s squad would be the best team in Thunder/SuperSonics history and also the best third-ranked team ever, edging out the 2012-13 OKC squad. If the Thunder end up winning the NBA championship — knocking out two of the 10 best teams ever along the way — their rating could end up much, much higher. Currently, the Cavs’ Elo falls into the top 100: As of now, they’re the best fourth-ranked team ever, ahead of the 2008-09 Orlando Magic team that knocked that season’s Cavs out in the Eastern Conference finals. And they’re 9-0 in the playoffs.
Simply put, we’ve been spoiled this year. Spurs-Warriors gave us some of the strongest regular season matchups of all time, and we rated Thunder-Warriors as the strongest conference final since 1984. A Cavs-Warriors NBA Finals wouldn’t quite rise to the same historical level (the 1997 finals currently has that spot), but at least it would, like last year, feature two of the greatest players in history. When the league inevitably dips in quality — like the late-1990s NBA did after Jordan’s second retirement — we’ll look back fondly on how stacked this season was.