Top “Healthy” Teams in NBA History

Who are the best teams in NBA history? We often answer this question by looking at a team’s entire body of work, lumping in the good, the bad and the injured. Most teams have key players miss games and some even trade for key players, changing the chemistry of a given lineup. So who were the best teams when all of the key actors were on stage?

Below I’ve indexed the top “healthy” teams — when all 25-minute per game players were in action for a game — since the shot clock (1955) by SRS (adjusted margin of victory). Using this criteria, 51 teams have posted at least an 8.0 SRS when healthy.  Just 29 teams have eclipsed the 9.0 mark. (10 of those teams failed to win a title — well inline with what is predicted by the variability of a 7-game series.) The best are below, playoffs included:

Top Healthy Offenses

Disclaimers: SRS, while a better predictor of results than win percentage, is not a de facto team-ranker. First, it’s subject to the usual variance seen in the NBA (detailed in Chapter 4 of Thinking Basketball), so it’s not a perfect representation of team strength. Second, some teams are more resilient in makeup — they are better equipped at handling a variety of opponents while still remaining efficient, boosting their odds of winning from series to series. Finally, SRS is a measure of within-season dominance, so it cannot allow for perfect comparisons across seasons. A 10 SRS in 1986 is probably more impressive than one in 1972.

With that said, it is by far the single best metric for evaluating the performance of a team against its competition. The teams listed above were manhandling opponents, which is why many went on to win a title.

While this year’s Warriors were the most dominant single-season team ever, their SRS is influenced by a league that was incredibly top-heavy. Four of the top-40 healthy teams ever played in 2016 (Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland), which is either an unlikely coincidence, or a reflection of inflated numbers from a lopsided league.

The other top four seasons are from expansion eras, when teams could pick up an additional point or two by facing expansion squads a few times a year and padding their numbers with blowouts. All of those teams are in the conversation for “greatest ever,” but their statistical dominance here should be slightly curved.

As mentioned, we see the usual suspects: Jordan’s first three-peat Bulls. Jordan’s second three-peat Bulls. Kareem’s Bucks and the early 70’s Lakers. This is all line with in-depth analysis of the greatest teams ever.

So who are the most impressive teams of all-time that you probably didn’t know about:

  1. 2014 Spurs. When healthy, they posted an amazing 11.8 SRS. That team is basketball’s Sistine Chapel and Gregg Popovich its Michelangelo.
  2. 2004 Pistons. Absolutely impregnable after the Rasheed Wallace trade in ways that reminded everyone it was time for a rule change.
  3. 2008-09 Lakers and Celtics. These teams were fantastic in an incredibly competitive league. The Celtics were +8.8 and +9.3 when healthy, and the Lakers +9.7 and +9.0 once Pau Gasol joined. Kevin Garnett’s injury robbed us of possibly the NBA’s greatest trilogy.
  4. 1996 Magic. Yes, they were worthy of a documentary.

Amazingly, of the top 40 healthy teams of all-time, seven are Pop’s Spurs teams. Five are Jordan’s Bulls. Four are Laker teams with Kobe Bryant.

Remember this list the next time you construct an all-time list or you look ahead to the 2016 season.

Edit: This post was updated to include the postseason totals for the 2016 Warriors, and 96-97 Bulls. 

Half-Court Math: Hack-a-Whoever, Isolation and Long 2’s

In my upcoming book, Thinking Basketball, I allude to certain instances where “low efficiency” isolation offense provides value for teams. Most of us compare a player’s efficiency to the overall team or league average, but that’s not quite how the math works, because the average half-court possession is worth less than the average overall possession.

In 2016, the typical NBA possession was worth about 1.06 points. That’s a sample that includes half-court possessions against a set defense, but also scoring attempts from:

  • transition
  • loose-ball fouls
  • intentional fouls
  • technical fouls

Transition is by far the largest subset of that group, accounting for 15% of possessions for teams, per Synergy Sports play-tracking estimations. Not surprisingly, transition chances, when the defense is not set, are worth far more than half-court chances. As are all of the free-throw shooting possessions that occur outside of the half-court offense.

Strip away those premium opportunities from transition and miscellaneous free throws and the 2016 league averaged 95 points per 100 half-court possessions. (All teams were between 7 and 14 points worse in the half-court than their overall efficiency.) Golden State, the best half-court offense in the league this year, tallied an offensive rating around 105, far off its overall number of 115 that analysts are used to seeing.

Transition vs Half Court Efficiency

This has major implications for the math behind “Hack-A-Whoever.” If the defense is set, then, all things being equal, fouling someone who shoots over 50% from the free throw line is doing them a favor. One might think that a 53% free throw shooter (1.06 points per attempt) at the line is below league average on offense because of the overall offensive efficiency. But it’s actually well above league average against a set, half-court defense. (Other factors, like offensive rebounding and allowing the free-throw shooters team to set-up on defense complicate the equation.)

Said another way — fouling a 53% free throw shooter is similar to giving up a 53% 2-point attempt…which is woeful half-court defense.

There could be other viable reasons to “Hack-A-Whoever,” such as breaking up an opponent’s rhythm or psychologically disrupting the fouled player. (These would be good strategic reasons to keep the rule, in my opinion.) But assuming he was a 50-60% foul shooter, coaches would still be making a short-term tradeoff, exchanging an inefficient defensive possession for other strategic gains.

This also has ramifications for isolation scorers and long 2-point shots. Isolation matchups that create around a point per possession in the half court — or “only” 50% true shooting — are indeed excellent possessions. If defenses don’t react accordingly, they will be burned by such efficiency in the half-court. As an example, San Antonio registered about 103 points per 100 half-court possessions this year, and combined it with a below-average transition attack to still finish with an offensive rating of 110, fourth-best in the league.

The same goes for the dreaded mid-range or long 2-pointer — giving these shots to excellent shooters from that range (around 50% conversion) is a subpar defensive strategy. And even a 35% 3-point shooter (1.05 points per shot) yields elite half-court offense.

So, when we talk about the Expected Value of certain strategies, mixing transition possessions together with half-court ones will warp the numbers. Sometimes, seemingly below-average efficiency is actually quite good.