How does the most successful regular season team in NBA history rank among the greatest?

Few experts doubt the fact that the Golden State Warriors are on their way to becoming one of the best NBA teams of all-time. The unit led by Steve Kerr and Stephen Curry won the title in 2014-15, established a new regular-season win mark with 73, and came agonisingly close to winning back-to-back championships before LeBron James led the Cavaliers to a historic comeback to win the series 4-3 from 3-1 down.

Many old-school journalists will say Golden State doesn’t have the toughness to succeed in another era, while others point to the fact that the sole reason the Warriors have done so well is because the league doesn’t have the talent it had in the 80s or even the 90s; an era when teams weren’t as star-studded as they are right now.

Some of the players that have criticised the Warriors are Charles Barkley (who’s gone on and off the record criticising both the Warriors and Stephen Curry), Cedric Ceballos (a former NBA star who played for the Phoenix Suns), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (member of the famous Showtime team of the Los Angeles Lakers), Shaquille O’Neal (who won three rings with LA) and Dennis Rodman, who played for championship-caliber teams in Detroit, Chicago and San Antonio. All of them have claimed – in some way or another – that their respective teams would beat the current Warriors team.

What do numbers say about those claims? Here at TSZ we have chosen to analyse the statistics and trends of some of the best teams in the history of the NBA to compare them with the current Warriors roster. The results were astonishing.

First, let’s take a look of all the teams we will compare against the 2015-16 Warriors in this exercise:

  • 1995-96 Chicago Bulls
  • 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
  • 1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers
  • 1988-89 Detroit Pistons
  • 1993-94 Phoenix Suns

One might find surprising the omission of any of the Boston Celtics teams that won 10 championships in 11 years between 1959 and 1969, but the reason behind their exclusion is that the game was so different back then, it makes it even harder to compare teams from that era with ones from current times. Same goes for the Celtics in the 80s that featured Hall of Famers such as Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, among others, as they haven’t criticised Golden State at all.

Now let’s dive into the numbers. Here’s the regular season record for each team.

In an unsurprising result, four of these teams won the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the season, and the Warriors had the trophy snatched from their hands by a determined potential future greatest of all time, LeBron James. The only other team that didn’t win the championship on the aforementioned list are the Suns from the 1993-94 season, and it’s pretty likely the claim made by Ceballos and Barkley was an attempt to attack the team’s mental toughness more than anything. Their records and statistics are in two entirely different leagues.

Speaking of statistics, this is how each team fared in that respective season in terms of points scored, points allowed and the respective ratings across the league.

Again – and not surprisingly – the Suns are not in the same class as the Warriors, the 95-56 Bulls or the 99-00 Lakers, so they are not going to continue in this analysis. They were a scoring threat, but the Warriors averaged more points and no team would’ve wanted to go on a scoring match-up against Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, easily one of the best shooting duos of all time.

Overall numbers suggest the Pistons might not be on the same level, too. Despite having Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars on the roster, the Bad Boys were better equipped to frustrate teams defensively rather than scoring, and they were not a fast team either. Ultimately, the Warriors’ pace could have given them lots of problems and even though Golden State would have had a hard time scoring against them, Detroit’s strength was the interior defense with Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer. Draymond Green would have likely been exposed, but the perimeter game would have been a game-changer for Golden State.
We’re down then to just three teams: the Lakers from 1986-87 and 1999-00 and the Bulls from 1995-96. Let’s compare each team one by one.

2015-16 Warriors vs 1999-00 Lakers

The Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-led Lakers from the 1999-00 season would have made an interesting matchup. O’Neal was the MVP that year – and he needed only one vote to win the award unanimously – so he would’ve dominated the paint, but the Warriors would’ve likely gotten the edge in the perimeter with Curry, Thompson and Green. It must be noted however, that those Lakers sides had Phil Jackson as coach, one of the best basketball minds of the past century, and he would’ve likely made some adjustments to slow the Warriors down.

As evidenced in the table above, the Warriors were more effective scoring – 14.1 PPG more than the Lakers – but they also surrendered almost 12 more points per contest. Considering the Lakers’ dominance over a longer period of time, Phil Jackson’s presence on the bench, and the fact that they would’ve frustrated the Warriors defensively, O’Neal and Bryant get the nod here. But it’s pretty close. If the Warriors continue this level of play for the next two or three years, then they are likely to overtake them.

2015-16 Warriors vs 1986-87 Lakers

The Showtime Lakers would’ve been a nightmare matchup in terms of scoring as they were virtually unstoppable during the 1986-87 season. They had seven players who averaged 10 or more PPG, while the Warriors only had three. The Lakers based their strategy on the run-and-gun style, a scheme that consisted in attacking the basket, crashing the boards and running the court on transition. The Warriors, on the other hand, also play with pace but they rely on the three-point shooting instead of the inside game. Let’s take a deeper look at each team’s offensive stats during their respective seasons.

At first glance, it is close. Both teams – as expected – are better offensively, but the Warriors might have an edge on defence since they allowed fewer points and ultimately had a better defensive rating. Numbers don’t tell the whole story in this case, as Golden State would’ve had a hard time defending Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who was on the decline) and Magic Johnson, while the Lakers could’ve struggled to contain Curry and versatile forwards like Green and Andre Iguodala. Since both teams matchup quite well collectively, individual performances on the day would have been the difference.

The graphic below shows the numbers of each big three: Curry, Thompson and Green for the Warriors against Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy on the Lakers.

The numbers are surprisingly close. The Warriors’ big three would outscore the Lakers (66,2 to 60,8 points per game) while generating more steals (4,4 to 3,6), but the Lakers would destroy them both on the assists (17,6 to 16,2) and blocks (2,7 to 2,2) department. Quantitative analysis shows they continue to match pretty well, but on the qualitative field things aren’t as close as one would imagine.

Curry is likely to get into the Hall of Fame as soon as he retires and both Thompson and Green might have a shot, too. But going against three established Hall of Famers – including two of the best 15 players to ever play the game – would’ve been too much for them. Johnson’s versatility would have destroyed Curry, Worthy’s physicality and length would have limited Thompson’s impact, and while Green could have had the edge offensively, defensively he would’ve been completely out-matched.

The Showtime Lakers get this one. They also – just like the 1999-00 Lakers – dominated the league for a prolonged period of time, something Golden State hasn’t done yet.

2015-16 Warriors vs 1995-96 Bulls

This is the comparison everybody wants to analyse. From the casual basketball fan to the expert journalist, the Warriors have been compared to the Bulls since the start of the season, and the comparisons got even worse when Golden State broke Chicago’s 72-10 record and finished with 73 regular-season wins, the highest mark in NBA history.

Would that be enough to make the Warriors the best team in the history of the league? The statistics from both teams are pretty close.

The Bulls, however, get the nod on the defensive end. Golden State were in the bottom part of the league when it came to both points allowed and defensive efficiency, while the Bulls finished their historic 1995-16 campaign as the best team on both sides of the court and as champions.

Several experts have also compared Curry to Michael Jordan based solely on what Curry has done this year. Even though the Warriors’ point guard was chosen as the league’s unanimous MVP, Jordan was on a superior level on almost every statistic, as the chart below shows.

With the exception of shooting percentages – an area that shouldn’t surprise anyone since Curry is likely to going to retire as the best shooter the NBA has ever seen – and assists – another expected phenomenon considering Curry is a point guard – Jordan tops Steph in every single category.

Yes, the Warriors finished the 2015-16 season with the best record in the league, but that doesn’t mean much when one looks at the collective stats. The Bulls appear to top the Warriors on every single aspect, and the qualitative analysis doesn’t help Golden State’s case either. Even though Curry would likely dominate against Ron Harper, the same could be said of Jordan against Thompson, Scottie Pippen over Green and even Toni Kukoc against Iguodala or Harrison Barnes.

PER (Player Efficiency Rating) actually shows the Bulls were an above-average team across the board, while the Warriors relied far too much on their big three. The following graph below shows the leaders on PER combining both starting units, and the Bulls get a clear advantage here as well

The Bulls’ run of entire dominance over the rest of the league can’t be forgotten, either. The Warriors have undoubtedly been the best team in the NBA the past two years, but Chicago ruled the entire association with no opposition for almost an entire decade, and it could’ve been longer had Michel Jordan kept playing.

There’s no question the Warriors are easily one of the best 10 – maybe five – teams in the history of league. But as the numbers evidence, they are still a few years away to compete with Jordan’s Bulls, Magic’s Lakers or even Shaq’s Lakers.

They are on the right path and they are getting close, though. It will be a matter of seeing if they can continue to dominate the league over the next five years or so after a setback in this year's finals, and if that’s the case, then there’s no question they will be higher on this list the next time.