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Searching for Greatness

Written by Trevor Lightfoot

Written By: Trevor Lightfoot @TrevorLightfoot

History presents greatness in way that was impossible to predict and often just as difficult to appreciate in the moment it happened. In sports this sentiment is especially true. Greatness is a fickle beast. Sure, you know it when you see it… but when it’s out of context, you’re left wondering just how great was that? How does it stack up? History helps us understand greatness relative to other performances of all shapes and sizes. Take the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for example. This team won an NBA record 72 games in a single season. There is no question that in the moment the Bulls accomplished this feat it immediately became significant. How could it not? No other team in the modern era of the NBA had ever won that many games in a single season, and no team has reached that level of dominance in twenty years since. History has a way of highlighting the remarkable in a way that permanently enshrines precise moments in a figurative hall of fame where only the truly great exist. In the case of the 1995-96 Bulls, history has only amplified and substantiated the significance of the 72-win season.

We now have two decades of proof that what the 1995-96 Bulls accomplished was something rare and extraordinary. The team has steadily become both the benchmark for single-season greatness and a beloved part of NBA folklore. This is the stuff of legends, man. The 72-win season is now a story that will be told over and over again. A story in which the facts that are likely embellished and varying degrees of accurate details are trickled down to future generations similar to the likes of Chamberlain’s 100-point game or the Boston Celtics eight consecutive championship seasons. It’s not the fact that the 72-win season happened that makes it so incredibly meaningful….

  • It’s the fact the no team in two decades has even come close to tying the record.
  • It’s the fact that the Bulls leveraged the dominant regular season performance to win three consecutive championships (for a second time).
  • It’s the fact that when a team does actually challenge the 72-win season, like the Golden State Warriors have this year, ESPN creates an entire spreadsheet with the sole purpose of tracking and comparing each game to the Bulls.
  • It’s the fact that when you search the term “greatest NBA team” on any search engine, the 1995-96 Bulls are right at the top of almost every single list.
  • It’s the fact that I need a moment to dismount my “It’s the fact high-horse…”

History is a powerful force that cannot be controlled or ignored. In terms of sports, and the NBA in particular, history provides both guidance and rationalization for how to interpret and pinpoint when true greatness occurs. By examining the triumphs and failures of NBA teams throughout the decades a distinct pattern begins to emerge. For each era of NBA history, one dominant team is able to define and represent that specific area of time. Let’s take a walk down memory lane…

  • The early 2000’s belonged to Kobe, Shaq, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
  • The 1990’s featured great teams such as the Hakeem the Dream driven Houston Rockets, the Patrick Ewing machine in New York, and the Charles Barkley show in Phoenix, but the entire decade irrefutably belonged to the Chicago Bulls.
  • The 1960’s belong to the Boston Celtics.
  • The 80’s go the Lakers (again), despite the Pistons having one of the strongest teams of all time.
  • The outlier may be the 1970’s, a decade that featured seven different champions.

This concept fascinates me, especially when it comes to understanding how the public will remember the teams, coaches, and players of today’s NBA. I suppose the next logical question is: How will we predict which team is dominant enough to represent the current era of the NBA?

We’re glad you asked.

To answer this question in a fair and unbiased fashion, the Wheelhouse Factory team analyzed several factors without knowing the associated team. Each factor was assigned a weighted point value based on varying criteria such as individual versus team accomplishment, playoff seeding, etc. The numbers were then added together to give the team with the most points the highest ranking. Before revealing the final position of each team, lets dive into the factors we examined in order to draw our conclusions.

The Era:

We investigated eleven consecutive NBA seasons, from 2004-05 all the way to 2014-15. This number was chose based on a few reasons, the primary one being that because this experiment is so heavily dependent on accurate statistics we only wanted to use the most reliable resources. For some of the information needed, we simply could not be certain the data was accurate enough to use.

Scoring Criteria:

Total Wins
Obviously, winning is the goal (or at least should be the goal) of all NBA teams. However, the fact is that over an eleven-year period some teams are simply better than others at winning. To win consistently for over a decade, teams need to be aligned from the front office to the water boy. There needs to be a strategy within the organizational dynamic of a team in order to support the growth of younger players, retain talent, and attract veteran free agents. There is a constant balancing act that takes place in terms of how to spend money during contract negotiations or free agency because the best teams don’t just pursue the best players, they desire the players who fit best within their system. Because winning is the baseline objective for all teams and demands organizational stability at all levels to be accomplished, the number of total wins was used as the benchmark point value.

Note: there was a lockout season during this study. For the sake we simplicity we assumed a season of 82 games for all years and added wins to each team’s total by taking the number of actual wins and dividing by 0.80, since the lockout season only provided 80% of a full season.

Playoff Seeding
 Along with total number of wins, simply reaching the playoffs consistently is difficult. For this metric, our goal was to award points for not only reaching the playoffs, but also for killing it, and achieving particular positions in the playoffs. Here is the methodology behind our madness:

  1. Two points are awarded for each season a team is able to reach the 1st – 4th seed
  2. One point is awarded for each season a team is able to reach the 5th – 8th seed
  3. Zero points are awarded for finishing in the 9th – 15th seed
  4. In order to assign more weight to the playoff point value, we multiplied each team’s total sum of points by eleven, one for each season… Nailed it.

We can’t award points for playoff appearances without awarding points for championship appearances, right? The road to the NBA finals is not an easy task. First, teams go through a grueling 82 game season and if they are lucky and talented enough, then another two months of even more tumultuous playoff basketball ensues. It takes an immense amount of physical and mental strength for teams to reach the finals, and for that reason, teams that reached the NBA finals were awarded 25 points per appearance. Boom.

Coaching Loyalty

Finding great coaches is just as rare as finding great players. When an organization hires a head coach, they are hiring the face of the franchise for better or worse. Some teams are extremely successful in coaching decisions while other teams seem to remain in a constant state of flux, changing coaches each time there is a bump in the road. For this metric we started with a baseline value of 325 points and subtracted 25 points for each coaching change an organization makes. For example, the Atlanta Hawks have had four coaches since the 2003-04 season… (Terry Stotts, Mike Woodson, Larry Drew, and now Mike Bedunholzer) so they received 325 – 100 = 225 points.

A 325 baseline may be seem a bit arbitrary, but let us explain before you get all worked up. Even though the NBA is a star driven league the coach is still vitally important. Just look at how Phil Jackson was able to corral egos and implement systems that brought multiple championships to not one but two franchises. Sure the players are the ones who battle on the court come game day, but head coaches are the motivator pushing every player to strive toward improvement. Using our 325-point baseline and 25 point weighting per head coach means that the maximum point value a single team can be awarded is 300. The difficult question here is how much does a head coach matter on a per game basis? Obviously the players are the key factor, as well as home court, back-to-back situations, and a hundred other variables that you could throw in to complicate things. To simplify things as much as possible we took the total possible wins per season, 82, and multiplied that by 11 (for each season), and lastly multiple that by 30 (for each team). Our grand total at this point becomes 27,060 total possible wins for all teams. In an attempt to account for all possible factors that go into winning a game, we determined that 10% was a fair number to assign a head coach. In other, a head coach is 10% of the reason a team wins a single game. Rounding up, approximately 10% of 27,060 is 300.

All-Star Players

We all know basketball is a team sport, requiring five individuals to play together as one unit. That being said, teams generally need at least one all-star to be successful in the long-term. A team is awarded one point for each all-star player and that number is then multiplied by eleven, again one weighted point for each season. There’s something to be said for having those faces of the franchise. You know, those guys that represent your squad, your city, and your brand on the biggest stage when the lights are the brightest.

Most Valuable Player

Not all MVP performances are equal. Steven Nash meant something different to the Phoenix Suns than LeBron James meant to the Miami Heat (or Cavaliers). To account for this we awarded point value by taking the win shares, which is a calculation that attempts to quantify the number of wins that an individual player produces for a team, and then multiplying that number by three. For example, in the 2005-06 season, Steve Nash had a win share of 12.4, giving the Phoenix Suns 37.2 points. However, in the 2008-09 season LeBron James had an impressive 20.3 win share calculation, meaning the Cavaliers received 61 points.

Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Players, and 6th Man of the Year

We believe this type of hardware adds notoriety, a certain level of swag and style, when franchises bring back these awards. Similar to the MVP calculation, we used the win shares statistic and multiply the total by two (instead of three). Why the difference? Well, would you rather have the MVP of the league or the 6th Man of the Year? There may be valid arguments for each side but for the Wheelhouse Factory methodology, we chose to award more points for an MVP award.

Enough with the number crunching, it’s time for the big reveal! Wheelhouse Factory presents the greatest NBA team of the 204 – 2015 generation, according to us.

The Top Five

New Top 5


Click to expand each of the top 5, below.

1. San Antonio Spurs

Three words: Duncan. Parker. Ginobili.

Wheelhouse Thoughts: Three Hall of Fame caliber players who stay together and take less money in order to improve the team’s chances of winning a title. A head coach who motivates and get buy-in from the every player on the team, especially the veterans and top performers. An organization that believes in being consistent, developing young players (such as Green or Leonard), and finding the perfect skillset for the Spurs brand of basketball. This is the blueprint for teams who have championship aspirations.

The Biggest Surprise: No MVP’s. Somehow that seems to fit the Spurs style just right.

2. Miami Heat

Three words: “I” in Team

Wheelhouse Thoughts: LeBron brought four consecutive finals appearances and two championships to Miami. He also amassed the second most productive MVP season in terms of win share percentage in the entire study. All of this success without a Rookie of the Year, 6th Man of the Year, Most Improved Player, or Defensive Player of the Year.

The Biggest Surprise: 22 All-Star players, the most of any team.

3. Dallas Mavericks
Three words: Dirk is good.

Wheelhouse Thoughts: The Mavericks have been in the esteemed category of “Title Contender” or “In The Hunt” essentially every year of the study, only missing the playoffs one time in the eleven-year span.

The Biggest Surprise: Only once in eleven years have the Mavs finished first in the Western Conference after the regular season.

4. Boston Celtics

Three words: The Big Four

Wheelhouse Thoughts: The Wheelhouse team was just as surprised as you to see the Celtics so high on the list. Only a few years have gone by since the Boston Big Three of KG, Ray “Jesus Shuttleworth” Allen, Paul “The Truth” Pierce were on ESPN commercials and playing in a number of epic playoff battles against the Bulls and Cavaliers. With the always feisty and ultra talented Rajon Rondo behind the wheel, it wasn’t long before the Big Four brought a championship to Bean Town.

The Biggest Surprise: In eleven years the Celtics finished in the top four in five consecutive seasons.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Three words: Break the curse

Wheelhouse Thoughts: Remember when we said LeBron had the second highest MVP performance in terms of wins share with the Miami Heat?  The only player to put up more dominant numbers during an MVP season, is LeBron with the Cavaliers.

The Biggest Surprise: Still no championship banner . . .


Ranking 6 through 15

6 - 15


Ranking 16 through 30

16 through 30


Do you think we got it right? Bring your A-game in the comments.

About the author

Trevor Lightfoot

Trevor has a bachelor degree in journalism and a masters in business administration. His specialty is basketball, late night food cravings, obscure movie quotes, and unwavering stubbornness.

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