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Most Dominant Playoff Teams of All Time… March Madness Style

Posted by Neil Paine on March 17, 2010

Two weeks ago, I posted about the most dominant NBA teams of all time over the course of the entire season, and the results basically featured the usual suspects: the '96 Bulls, the '71 Bucks, the '86 Celtics, etc. However, I didn't have the 2001 Lakers on the list because they weren't dominant for the entire season -- because of some injuries (and because they felt they could "flip the switch" on when they really needed to), L.A. sleepwalked through the regular season, winning "just" 56 games after scorching the league to the tune of 67 in 2000 (they had to rattle off 8 straight at the end of the season to take the Pacific by a single game over Sacramento). They finished the regular season as the 2nd seed in the West behind San Antonio, and had the league's 6th-best SRS, hardly the stuff of a juggernaut... But in the playoffs, they were indeed able to flip the switch, unleashing a ridiculously dominant performance against Portland (#5 in SRS), Sacramento (#2), San Antonio (#1), and finally Philadelphia (#7), a run marred only by a single defeat in Game 1 of the Finals.

What's the point of me telling you all this? Well, it's simply to say that in an 82-game season, sometimes teams don't play their hardest until the playoffs, so we probably need an additional list that ranks teams based on how dominant they were in the playoffs alone. For that purpose, I ran the standard SRS for every team in NBA history over all of their games (regular-season and playoffs), and then isolated just their postseason games by modifying the SRS formula: playoff SRS = (avg. MOV in playoffs) + (avg. playoff opponent's full-season SRS). This will credit teams for their playoff performance while also taking into account how good their opponents had been all season long. Throwing out teams which did not win a title (again, how can you truly be the most dominant without winning it all?), you get this ranking of the most dominant playoff teams in NBA history:

Rank Year Team MOV SOS SRS
1 2001 LAL 12.75 4.92 17.67
2 1971 MIL 14.50 0.60 15.10
3 1996 CHI 10.56 3.91 14.47
4 1991 CHI 11.71 2.12 13.83
5 1950 MNL 8.54 4.48 13.02
6 1961 BOS 11.60 1.16 12.76
7 1986 BOS 10.33 2.32 12.65
8 1967 PHI 9.33 2.95 12.28
9 1985 LAL 10.16 2.05 12.21
10 1987 LAL 11.39 0.50 11.89
11 1973 NYK 5.06 6.06 11.12
12 2009 LAL 7.22 3.86 11.07
13 1989 DET 7.71 3.24 10.95
14 1998 CHI 7.00 3.78 10.78
15 1997 CHI 5.53 4.75 10.28
16 1983 PHI 6.46 3.77 10.23
17 1972 LAL 3.20 6.99 10.19
18 1993 CHI 5.84 4.17 10.01
19 1999 SAS 7.24 2.66 9.90
20 1992 CHI 6.18 3.63 9.81
21 1982 LAL 6.07 3.57 9.64
22 1964 BOS 6.20 3.25 9.45
23 1981 BOS 6.06 3.38 9.43
24 2003 SAS 5.50 3.85 9.35
25 1990 DET 7.00 2.07 9.07
26 2002 LAL 3.79 5.26 9.05
27 1974 BOS 5.61 3.39 9.00
28 1959 BOS 7.73 1.25 8.97
29 2004 DET 6.39 2.33 8.72
30 1995 HOU 2.77 5.81 8.58
31 1954 MNL 6.23 1.94 8.17
32 1969 BOS 3.11 5.04 8.15
33 2005 SAS 4.35 3.70 8.04
34 1966 BOS 5.65 2.21 7.85
35 1977 POR 4.68 2.98 7.67
36 1960 BOS 5.77 1.89 7.66
37 2007 SAS 3.95 3.67 7.62
38 1980 LAL 4.31 3.25 7.57
39 1951 ROC 7.07 0.48 7.55
40 2008 BOS 5.23 2.17 7.40
41 1975 GSW 5.29 1.85 7.14
42 1965 BOS 6.92 0.16 7.08
43 2006 MIA 3.78 3.29 7.07
44 1994 HOU 3.13 3.77 6.90
45 1968 BOS 3.11 3.79 6.89
46 1962 BOS 4.86 1.93 6.79
47 1978 WSB 3.67 2.96 6.63
48 2000 LAL 2.35 4.25 6.60
49 1953 MNL 5.25 1.25 6.50
50 1984 BOS 4.17 2.14 6.32
51 1957 BOS 7.20 -1.13 6.07
52 1979 SEA 2.53 3.22 5.75
53 1970 NYK 3.63 2.06 5.69
54 1956 PHW 6.20 -0.62 5.58
55 1988 LAL 2.54 2.17 4.71
56 1952 MNL 3.38 1.22 4.61
57 1976 BOS 2.94 1.08 4.02
58 1963 BOS 2.15 1.84 3.99
59 1958 STL 2.45 1.36 3.81
60 1955 SYR 2.27 0.86 3.13

And as you can see, the Lakers' tear in 2001 ranks first, having obliterated one of the hardest schedules of any champ en route to the 2nd-biggest playoff MOV average of all time.

Now, here's where the real fun begins... In honor of March Madness tipping off this week (and shamelessly appropriating an idea from PFR's Jason Lisk), let's use this ranking to determine our seeding and throw these teams into a bracket to see which NBA champ comes out on top. Like Jason, I'll use Whatifsports' sim engine for the matchups (mirroring a project I started but never finished years ago), and teams will be limited to the players they used in the playoffs of that season. Here are the brackets:

Who will win? Stay tuned to find out!


21 Responses to “Most Dominant Playoff Teams of All Time… March Madness Style”

  1. Ben Says:

    Cool. Is home court advantage taken into account when putting together opponent SOS?

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Yeah, I usually add in HCA on the MOV side, but this time I added it to the opposing SRS for each game. It doesn't matter, since it's getting added in either way, but it occurred to me that HCA should be considered an aspect of SOS.

  3. Adam Says:

    Can't imagine you haven't considered this, but I think it would be a great follow-up exercise to retain the bracket and run each pairing as a NBA style best of 7 playoff series and see who comes out on top.

  4. Nolan Says:

    Ok I love this idea and it's onbe of the better ones I have seen on this site. (longtime lurker 1st time poster)
    But the 2009 Lakers seeded higher (different bracket but still)than the 2000 Lakers? The one year SHAQ was fully focused and dedicated to winning a title.
    I was impressed with last year's Lakers but the 2000 team would DESTROY the '09 team ...

  5. StuBakha Says:

    Make sure you take into account that the league was extemely weak after jordan left in 1998. Also, the league was in transition. Either the best players had left, they were aging, or too young.

  6. Neil Paine Says:

    What's interesting is that the 2000 Lakers weren't really a dominant postseason team:

    They faced elimination twice, were actually outscored by Portland in that WCF series, and needed 6 games in the Finals to beat a good (but hardly great) Indiana team that was much weaker by SRS than last year's Magic. All season long, yes, they were pretty dominant. But in the playoffs, they didn't really show a lot of that form.

  7. G.D Says:

    Kareem played on 3 of the top 10 in the list...

    Phil Jax coached 6 of the top 15!

  8. AYC Says:

    I have 7 upsets in the 1st round, though 3 come in the 8/9 matchup:

    In Pool A, I have the 05 Spurs over 69 Celts, and the 08 Celts over the 90 Pistons.

    In Pool D, I have 60 Celts over 04 Pistons.

    In Pool B, It's 66 Celts over 54 Lakers, 13th seeded 84 Celts over 4th seeded 97 Bulls.

    In Pool C, It's 62 Celts over 99 Spurs, and 80 Lakers over 74 Celts.

  9. AYC Says:

    Oops, forgot 07 Spurs over 59 Celts in Pool D

  10. NickS Says:

    Throwing out teams which did not win a title (again, how can you truly be the most dominant without winning it all?)

    If you included teams that lost in the finals (and, for example, the 94-95 Sonics seem like a team that could have won in a lot years) could you get rid of the teams from the 50s? It's hard to imagine any of them winning against a modern team.

  11. Pageup Says:

    You really think 2 Chicago teams deserve to be 1s?

  12. Brian Says:

    Am I missing something here? Why are the "fo',fo,'fo'" 1983 Sixers in at #16". I,ve seen the playoffs since 1969, Philly was one of the three most dominating playoff teams I've ever seen. You are right about '71 Milwaukee. In the Finals, they made the Bullets look like the Boston Shamrocks or the New Jersey Reds.

  13. Romain Says:

    The 1995 Rockets are not very high on this list because they went 15-7 in the playoffs, however in terms of quality opponents I'm not sure it can get any better.

    The went 47-35 in the regular season and were seeded #6 in the West, and then they beat
    - 60-22 Jazz in the 1st round (3-2)
    - 59-23 Suns in the 2nd round (4-3)
    - 62-20 Spurs in the WCF (4-2)
    - 57-25 Magic in the Finales (4-0)

    These were the 4 best teams of the regular seasons!! (The Magic were tied at n°4 with the Sonics).

    I've only followed the NBA since the early 1990's but I've never seen anything like that

  14. Mark Says:

    >Neil Paine
    What's interesting is that the 2000 Lakers weren't really a dominant postseason team: They faced elimination twice, were actually outscored by Portland in that WCF series, and needed 6 games in the Finals to beat a good (but hardly great) Indiana team that was much weaker by SRS than last year's Magic. All season long, yes, they were pretty dominant. But in the playoffs, they didn't really show a lot of that form.

    You're right. The '00 Lakers struggled against good 3-point shooting teams. Infact, I would favor the '09 Magic over the '00 Lakers, assuming Nelson is healthy. I can post Phil's interview with Bob Costas that post-season when he essentially admits as much. That match-up ('00 Lakers vs. '72 Lakers) is Shaq vs. Wilt and Kobe vs. Logo.

  15. MCT Says:

    I was also surprised to see the '83 Sixers so low. The Lakers' run in '01 was often compared to theirs. The Sixers beat teams with 44, 51 and 58 wins. Glancing at their playoff scores, it looks like they played a number of fairly close games, even though they almost always pulled out the victory in the end; that may be the explanation.

    I'm intrigued by the placement of a couple of older Celtics teams. One is the '69 team (the last year of the Russell dynasty). As most people reading this probably know, that team won only 48 games and was the last team to make the playoffs in the East, but upset three teams with better records to win the title. Statheads have long noted that they seem to have been a better team during the regular season than their record would indicate, however. They led the league in point differential, were second in SRS, and their pythagorean W-L has them winning 55 games. In light of that, it's interesting to see them in the middle of the pack on this list -- not super-dominant, but ahead of a lot of teams who had better regular-season records than they did. I don't know if they rested up all their aging veterans in the regular season with the intention of doing exactly what they did, or just lost a lot of bad-luck games, or what.

    The other Celtics team that catches my eye is the '76 team, which is near the bottom of the list. Contrary to the experience of the '69 team, analysis has identified them as a team that wasn't as good as their regular-season record suggests (they won 54 games, but their pythagorean W-L has them winning just 47). From that viewpoint, they were an aging team in decline with a shallow bench that was able to use its veteran smarts to keep people fooled and make one last run. It looks like that carried over into the posteseason. They undoubtedly also benefitted from playing in an era of extreme parity, and from the Suns' stunning upset of the Warriors in the West Finals that year. The 59-win Warriors were the only team other than the Celtics to win 50 games that year (in a league with 18 teams); in the postseason Boston faced teams with 46, 49 and 43 wins. In light of all this, the Celts' collapse over the next few seasons isn't so surprising.

  16. Ben Says:

    I'd like seeing the "most dominant" playoff teams that didn't end up winning it all. Last year's Cavs looked so good in the first two rounds...

  17. Bill Reynoldst Says:

    Neil - Fantastic stuff. Can you explain exactly how you made the home court advantage adjustment to the opponents' SRS to arrive at the avg. SOS figure? Is there a different HCA adjustment for each season? If so, can you post the figures for each year? Again, thanks for a great post!

  18. Neil Paine Says:

    I actually just used a constant HCA across every season in NBA history, based on (PPG_hometeam) - (PPG_roadteam) for each regular-season game since 1950 (the HCA ended up being 105.1 - 101.2 = 3.9 PPG). So for every playoff game, the SOS component would be your opponent's full-season SRS minus 3.9 if you were at home or plus 3.9 if you were on the road. If I had used a season-specific HCA, there were actually some seasons where the "advantage" was near zero or some other strange amount that I wasn't really comfortable using, so it was not only easier to use a constant HCA term but it also seemed more practical.

  19. Bill Reynolds Says:

    Neil -- Thanks for the info. I'm having a little trouble replicating your results. Take the 2001 Lakers. They played the Blazers (4.52 SRS), the Kings (6.07), the Spurs (7.92) and the Sixers (3.63). If I understand your method correctly, there is no adjustment to either the Kings' or the Spurs' SRS, because both those series were decided in 4 games, with an equal number of tilts on each team's home court. In the Blazers series, there were 2 games in LA and one in Portland, so the Blazers SRS for the two road games would be 0.62 and for the one home game would be 8.42. Overall, Portland's adjusted SRS then is (2(0.62) + 8.42)/3=3.22.

    To adjust Philly's SRS, we note that the series went 5 games, but because it was a 2-3-2 series, 3 games were played in Philly while 2 were played in LA. Philly's SRS for the road games is -0.27, while for its home games it is 7.53. So adjusting Philly's SRS, we get (2(-0.27)+3(7.53))/5=4.41.

    So the four SRSs of the 2001 Lakers' opponents, adjusted where necessary for home court, are:

    POR 3.22
    SAC 6.07
    SAS 7.92
    PHI 4.41

    Add them up and divide by four and you get 5.41. But your table lists the Lakers SOS for that year as 4.92.

    It occurred to me that you might have overlooked the fact that more of the Finals games were played in Philly than LA even though LA actually had the HCA in the series. So maybe you multiplied Philly's road SRS by 3 (instead of 2) and its home SRS by 2 (instead of 3). That would cause Philly's (incorrect) adjusted SRS to be (3(-0.27)+2(7.53))/5=2.85. Then you would have the four adjusted SRSs as 3.22, 6.07, 7.92, and 2.85. Add them up and divide by four and you get 5.02, which is still off your finding of 4.92. So I'm confused.

    (Note: the 1990, 1991, and 2004 Finals were other cases where the team with HCA in the series overall still played only two of the five games at home, which can only happen in the Finals, with the 2-3-2 format.)

  20. Neil Paine Says:

    For "full season SRS", I didn't use teams' official Basketball-Reference SRS because it doesn't factor in HCA and only uses regular season results -- instead, I used an SRS that took into account all games, regular-season and playoffs, and made HCA adjustments. So in that Lakers example, their opponents would be:

    2001 PHI: 3.10
    2001 SAS: 7.13
    2001 SAC: 5.72
    2001 POR: 3.92

    "Adjusting" for the home/road split in each series you get:

    2001 PHI: 3.89
    2001 SAS: 7.13
    2001 SAC: 5.72
    2001 POR: 2.61

    Take a weighted average by the # of games in each series, and you get 4.92.

  21. Bill Reynolds Says:

    Neil -- Interesting. Thanks for the response again. I know your work well enough to figure there was an explanation. The reason I am so interested in this is I would love to be able to look at these kinds of figures over a period of years that would include non-championship seasons. In other words, what was the best five-year playoff run of all time? The Bulls from 1990-94 (when they went 61-23, the best winning percentage over five years of playoffs ever)? Or the Lakers from 2000-04 (they went 64-26 and probably faced tougher competition in the postseason)? Or the Bulls from 94-98? (56-22) It would be great to have additional SRS data on the site. I didn't know the "official" SRS figures don't account for HCA. It would be great to get an SRS for each team/year that includes playoffs, and a separate SRS for just the playoffs (if that is possible), and an SRS that accounts for HCA. SRS is such a cool tool, give us more! Thanks.