Posted by Neil Paine on January 16, 2009
Okay, you've been waiting for it and here it is, our list of the 5 best teams since 1999-2000 (based on regular-season and playoff pythagorean win %, adjusted for home/road performance, strength of schedule, and league competitive balance) that failed to win a title...
The Spurs make a ton of appearances on this list; in addition to their 3 titles this decade, they've also had a number of near-misses, which I suppose is one of the consequences of being a contender every single year (since 2000, their average season has consisted of 58 wins and a 6.81 SRS). In '06, they came particularly close to greatness, falling in overtime of Game 7 against Dallas in the Western Conference Semifinals. People forget that San Antonio actually led the Mavs 104-101 with 32 seconds left in that game, but Manu Ginobili's foul on Dirk Nowitzki with 21 seconds left led to a 3-point play which forced OT, where Dallas outscored the Spurs 15-7. It was an unfortunate end to a banner season for San Antonio, who set a new franchise record with 63 wins and led the NBA in defensive efficiency and SRS. In an alternate universe where Ginobili heeds Gregg Popovich's exhortations to not foul, there's a good chance the Spurs -- whose defense was far better equipped to stop Dwyane Wade than Dallas' -- win 3 straight titles from 2005-2007.
It was as evenly-matched a series as you'll ever find in the NBA, and the long-suffering Kings had clawed their way to a 3-2 advantage by gutting out a 92-91 victory in Game 5. The 2-time defending champion Lakers were on the ropes, especially considering the fact that they'd have already been eliminated if not for Robert Horry's miracle buzzer-beater in Game 4 (or Samaki Walker's 3-pointer to end of the 1st half, which counted despite clearly being released after the buzzer sounded). Then came Game 6, one of the most controversial games in sports history (even before Tim Donaghy's allegations). I don't want to get into the merits of some of those calls against Sacramento (though our friend Roland Beech has a very good breakdown here), but I will say that this was the high-water mark for the Kings, and obviously the absolute best chance their early-2000s team had to win a championship. They were the NBA's best team by SRS that season and essentially equal to L.A. by the method I'm using to rank teams here; East champ New Jersey would not have stood any more of a chance against the Kings in the NBA Finals than they ultimately did against the Lakers (who swept them 4-0). So for better or for worse, the WCF was the de facto Finals that year, and it's a terrible shame that such a great matchup and an intense rivalry had to end under such controversy. Both teams -- and, more importantly, we the fans -- deserved better.
When considering home/road splits and playoff performance, the Mavs slightly edge out the Spurs in '06 despite a lower SRS. That's because Dallas also had to close out a tough Phoenix team (one which made our honorable mention list) in the Conference Finals, and they were only outscored by 1 PPG on average in the Finals. This team seemingly had a title firmly in its grasp, up 2-0 on the Heat and leading by 13 with 6:34 to go in Game 3... but then Dwyane Wade took over the series, rallying Miami all the way back to a 98-96 win (a possible game-tying FT missed by Dirk Nowitzki with 3.4 seconds left didn't help Dallas' cause, either). Wade would go on to torment the Mavs for the rest of the series, averaging 34.7 PPG en route to MVP honors; Avery Johnson threw everything he had -- Adrian Griffin, Marquis Daniels, Devin Harris, Josh Howard, and a variety of zone looks -- at Wade, but ultimately no one could stop him when he made up his mind to attack the basket. The Heat were a team that peaked at the right time, and the Wade-Shaq tandem was tailor-made to exploit the Mavs' defensive weaknesses, but it's worth remembering that Dallas had a fantastic season and were close to winning this series (despite Wade's heroics) if not for a few late-game miscues.
Oddly enough, the Mavs' '06 Finals team wasn't even their best of the 2000s -- that honor belongs instead to the 2003 team, which boasted the league's top SRS by a wide margin and had one of the best offenses in NBA history (who else misses the Steve Nash/Dirk Nowitzki pairing?). They tied San Antonio for the league's best record with 60 wins, and ran through a brutal playoff gauntlet which included Portland (6th in SRS), Sacramento (2nd in SRS, albeit with Chris Webber suffering an untimely injury in Game 2), and finally San Antonio (3rd in SRS). If not for some clutch long-range shooting from Steve Kerr late in Game 6, the Mavs could very well have advanced to the Finals, where they would likely have been favored over the Nets. Most people will look back and see the 2006 Dallas team that squandered a 2-0 Finals lead over Miami as the Mavericks' best Nowitzki-era team, but the numbers show that the 2002-03 version was in fact Dallas' top squad of the decade.
Not the team you were expecting, right? Well, look at the numbers: At 58-24, San Antonio sported the league's best record. They led the league in pythagorean wins with 62.7. They were 6th in offense, and were #1 in defense. Their 7.92 SRS was by far the best in the league (Sacramento's 6.07 and Utah's 5.00 ranked a distant 2nd and 3rd, respectively). The 2001 Spurs were simply dominant for most of the season, and they did it in the most competitively-balanced league of the decade. Under the formula outlined here, they were 1.920 standard deviations above an average team, which was one of the best marks of any team, champion or otherwise, during the 2000s.
Unfortunately, the Spurs' '01 campaign has a pretty glaring flaw -- they were outclassed in every sense of the word by the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. L.A. had battled injuries all year long (Derek Fisher missed 62 games, Ron Harper missed 35, and Kobe Bryant sat out 14), plus -- let's be real about it -- they also coasted big-time during the regular-season, assuming they could "turn it on" come May. And boy, did they ever. They only lost once during the playoffs, and they toasted the Spurs by an average margin of 22.3 PPG in a devastating 4-game sweep.
Still, the Spurs were clearly the 2nd-best team in the NBA in 2001, and though their regular-season numbers won't show it, the 2001 Lakers (playoff version) were just about as dominating a force as any team in league history. The way they exited the playoffs was admittedly embarrassing, but that's no reason to forget the '01 Spurs' legitimately great full-season performance.