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We Crunched The Numbers On 2021’s Best (And Worst) Teams

As we look back on the highs and lows of 2021’s sports calendar, it’s tempting to crown certain teams as the best — or worst — in all of sports, not just their sport. That’s been difficult to do across the pro sports landscape … until now.

We here at FiveThirtyEight made a concerted effort to expand the number of leagues for which we keep Elo ratings and predictions. We added an interactive to track WNBA odds in May and rolled out an NHL forecast model just in time for hockey season in October. That gave us ratings and interactives for five major North American pro sports leagues — the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and WNBA — which we can also use to look back on the most dominant (and disappointing) performances of the year as a whole.

When measuring a team’s Elo performance in the past, we have tended to blend together three different measures: a team’s peak Elo when it was at its absolute best; its average Elo across the entire season (including playoffs); and its final Elo by season’s end. We can extend that concept by calculating those metrics for each franchise in each league across the 2021 calendar year, regardless of whether that included a single season (i.e., MLB) or stretched across multiple seasons (i.e., the NBA).1 And since the range of Elo ratings differs across leagues, we took one final step — calculating the z-score (which measures the number of standard deviations above/below average) for each blended Elo relative to its sport’s competition. With all of that in mind, here were the best and worst of our Big Five leagues in 2021:

(All 2021 ratings are as of Dec. 15.)

Best champion: Tampa Bay Lightning, NHL (+1.73 z-score)

The Bolts came into 2021 as the defending Stanley Cup champions, so they were starting out in better shape than most teams. But the Lightning’s 2020 championship had come under unusual circumstances (no fans!) in the league’s COVID-19 bubble, and they began their repeat bid missing some key pieces (such as the injured Nikita Kucherov), while it looked like they would also have tougher competition atop the league. Nonetheless, Tampa powered through. After finessing their salary-cap situation to finish tied for the league’s eighth-best record during the regular season, they went 16-7 in a postseason that saw Kucherov’s controversial return and featured all of the other favorites getting picked off before the final. A five-game championship triumph against the overmatched Montreal Canadiens capped off just the second back-to-back Cup run since 1998, cementing Tampa Bay as arguably the greatest team of the NHL’s salary-cap era … and Elo’s best champ of 2021.

Elo’s top champions of 2021

Most standard deviations of blended Elo above average (relative to league) for 2021 major pro-league champions

Elo Ratings
Team League Peak Average Final Blend Z-Score
Tampa Bay Lightning NHL 1602 1580 1574 1585 +1.73
Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL 1732 1661 1684 1692 +1.60
Milwaukee Bucks NBA 1709 1627 1626 1654 +1.40
Atlanta Braves MLB 1581 1536 1581 1566 +1.34
Chicago Sky WNBA 1657 1538 1657 1617 +0.83

Includes all games played by each franchise during the 2021 calendar year (through Dec. 15).

Best team that didn’t win it all: Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB (+2.31 z-score)

Like the Lightning, the Dodgers entered 2021 as defending champs from an abbreviated 2020 campaign that staged its postseason at neutral sites. And on paper, the Dodgers might have been even more talent-laden this year than they were the year before. But in reality, the season was far from a smooth ride, even though L.A. pulled off some impressive in-season acquisitions and ended up winning 106 games (second-best in MLB behind the archrival San Francisco Giants). In the postseason, the Dodgers survived the wild-card game and even defeated the Giants in a contentious division series matchup, but they fell short in an NLCS rematch with the eventual champion Atlanta Braves. Along the way, Los Angeles made decisions that cost them both money and trust, and reignited questions about whether the team has won as much as it should have given its talent. But at the same time, they were baseball’s most dominant team across the majority of the season — and the top “paper champion” of major pro sports this year.2

Elo’s best of the rest in 2021

Most standard deviations of blended Elo above average (relative to league) for major pro-league teams that did not win a championship in 2021

Elo Ratings
Team League Peak Average Final Blend Z-Score
Los Angeles Dodgers MLB 1616 1587 1607 1604 +2.31
Phoenix Suns NBA 1734 1639 1687 1687 +1.79
Utah Jazz NBA 1703 1653 1696 1684 +1.76
Colorado Avalanche NHL 1605 1564 1581 1583 +1.68
Kansas City Chiefs NFL 1778 1650 1672 1700 +1.67
Vegas Golden Knights NHL 1599 1563 1563 1575 +1.49
Tampa Bay Rays MLB 1584 1558 1571 1571 +1.47
Green Bay Packers NFL 1716 1652 1669 1679 +1.47
San Francisco Giants MLB 1586 1543 1578 1569 +1.42
Carolina Hurricanes NHL 1579 1560 1571 1570 +1.36

Includes all games played by each franchise during the 2021 calendar year (through Dec. 15).

Worst team: Jacksonville Jaguars, NFL (-2.22 z-score)

As impressive as the top teams of 2021 were, there was no shortage of candidates for worst team from the opposite end of the talent spectrum. Some teams were tanking; some were cursed; some were named the Jets. Several hailed from a single city — we’re sorry, Detroit —  that we anointed the current Capital of Bad Sports. But in the end, no franchise could compare to the mess that played out in Jacksonville this year. And most of it came down to one man: Urban Meyer. Meyer’s tenure at the Jaguars’ helm was an unmitigated disaster — both on and off the field — after he was lured out of college football retirement to coach in the pros. He was unable to harness the rookie potential of No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence at QB, unable to coax anything out of his offense or defense, and seemingly unable to go as much as a week without an embarrassing scandal. Fired just 13 games into the 2021 season, Meyer was the worst coach of the year, and he dragged his team down with him.

Elo’s worst teams of 2021

Most standard deviations of blended Elo below average (relative to league) for major pro-league teams in 2021

Elo Ratings
Team League Peak Average Final Blend Z-Score
Jacksonville Jaguars NFL 1339 1292 1261 1297 -2.22
Detroit Pistons NBA 1427 1377 1298 1367 -2.06
Detroit Lions NFL 1391 1321 1282 1331 -1.89
New York Jets NFL 1382 1335 1298 1338 -1.82
Orlando Magic NBA 1511 1362 1296 1390 -1.79
Detroit Red Wings NHL 1457 1420 1449 1442 -1.72
Oklahoma City Thunder NBA 1526 1373 1290 1396 -1.71
Buffalo Sabres NHL 1467 1440 1427 1445 -1.66
Pittsburgh Pirates MLB 1475 1445 1432 1451 -1.65
Baltimore Orioles MLB 1488 1449 1415 1451 -1.64

Includes all games played by each franchise during the 2021 calendar year (through Dec. 15).

Most improved team: Golden State Warriors, NBA (z-score +2.30 from 2020)

In a battle with their Bay Area MLB counterparts and a host of NBA peers, the Golden State Warriors easily produced the best turnaround story of 2021. It started last season, when the team emerged from a Steph Curry-less nightmare to finish above .500 and nearly return to the playoffs. But the real magic was only beginning to return. This season, the Warriors have found another gear entirely, arguably playing like the league’s most impressive team in the early going. As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz recently wrote, the current Warriors are eerily reminiscent of the pre-Kevin Durant version that set an NBA record for wins in a single season. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the NBA — and a fitting level of form for Golden State to end its wildly improved 2021 calendar year on.

Elo’s most improved teams of 2021

Biggest improvements in standard deviations of blended Elo above average (relative to league) for major pro-league teams from 2020 to 2021

Z-Score
Team League 2020 2021 diff.
Golden State Warriors NBA -1.35 +0.95 +2.30
San Francisco Giants MLB -0.31 +1.42 +1.73
Phoenix Suns NBA +0.26 +1.79 +1.53
Atlanta Hawks NBA -1.21 +0.30 +1.51
Chicago Bulls NBA -1.44 -0.06 +1.38
New York Knicks NBA -1.41 -0.12 +1.28
Cincinnati Bengals NFL -1.42 -0.26 +1.16
Detroit Tigers MLB -2.13 -1.00 +1.13
Detroit Red Wings NHL -2.83 -1.72 +1.11
Brooklyn Nets NBA -0.13 +0.96 +1.09

Includes all games played by each franchise during the 2021 calendar year (through Dec. 15).

Least improved team: Oklahoma City Thunder, NBA (z-score -2.12 from 2020)

The Thunder were one of the NBA’s surprising success stories of 2020, finishing fifth in the Western Conference and taking the Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs in the bubble. But after an incredibly busy offseason heading into 2021, OKC’s remade roster fared worse this year. A lot worse. Under new coach Mark Daigneault, the team dipped to 14th out of 15 teams in the West last season, and it’s tied for fewest wins in the West this season — one which saw the Thunder lose by a staggering NBA-record margin of 73 points against the Memphis Grizzlies in early December. Much of this is part of OKC’s long-term rebuilding plan, but even if it’s largely by design, no team in our data set saw its fortunes fall further from 2020 to 2021 than the Thunder did.

Elo’s least improved teams of 2021

Largest declines in standard deviations of blended Elo above average (relative to league) for major pro-league teams from 2020 to 2021

Z-Score
Team League 2020 2021 diff.
Oklahoma City Thunder NBA +0.41 -1.71 -2.12
Houston Rockets NBA +0.68 -1.19 -1.87
Orlando Magic NBA -0.11 -1.79 -1.68
Toronto Raptors NBA +1.49 +0.07 -1.42
Washington Nationals MLB +0.86 -0.50 -1.37
Los Angeles Sparks WNBA +0.53 -0.53 -1.05
Arizona Diamondbacks MLB -0.15 -1.15 -1.00
Minnesota Twins MLB +0.69 -0.29 -0.98
Columbus Blue Jackets NHL +0.36 -0.61 -0.97
Boston Celtics NBA +1.35 +0.40 -0.95

Includes all games played by each franchise during the 2021 calendar year (through Dec. 15).


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Footnotes

  1. An extremely technical note: While our single-season dominance ratings usually exclude the first quarter of each season (to avoid overvaluing preseason Elo, which is based on a regressed version of the previous season’s final rating), we did not do that for the calendar-year ratings.

  2. It may be surprising not to see the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun on this list, after they led the league with a 26-6 record during the regular season (before falling short in the playoffs). But although their blended Elo (1665) was comparable to some of the other teams on the list, it only equated to a +1.27 z-score because the WNBA’s standard deviation of blended Elo was so wide (108.7 points), making it harder for outliers to distinguish themselves.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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