Berry Tramel: NBA has more great — and awful — teams than ever before
The Milwaukee Bucks host the Thunder on Friday night, and this is the Thunder’s toughest game of the season. Road game at a team playing historically great.
We don’t think of these Bucks as necessarily great. Milwaukee hasn’t reached the NBA Finals since 1974, and that includes last season, when the Bucks were the Eastern Conference’s best team but lost to Toronto in the NBA semifinals.
But these Bucks are great. They are 50-8, including 26-3 at home.
If the Bucks maintain their current winning percentage of .862, they would finish with the third-best record in league history, trailing only the 2015-16 Warriors (73-9, .890) and the 1995-96 Bulls (72-10, .878).
And Milwaukee raises a question. Is it easier than ever to have an historically-great season?
Of the 19 teams in NBA history to finish with at least an .805 winning percentage (66-16), five have come in the last five years. The Warriors of 2014-15 (67-15), 2015-16 and 2016-17 (67-15); the Bucks and the 2015-16 Spurs, who went 67-15.
Sure, it helps to have an all-time great team like the Steph Curry Warriors, who added Kevin Durant for the final season of that three-year run. But there have been lots of all-time great teams, and they didn’t reach at least 66 wins three times times.
In fact, the Jordan Bulls are the only other example of a franchise having 66-plus wins with the same core – Chicago went 72-10 in 1995-96, then 69-13 in 1996-97. The Bulls also were 67-15 in 1991-92, but that was mostly a different roster around Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
History suggests that yes, we’re having more and more victory-dominant teams. The 1946-47 Washington Capitals went 49-11 (an .817 winning percentage), and in the next 25 years, only the 1966-67 76ers (68-13) reached 66 wins.
In the early 1970s, three teams reached that threshold – the ’71-72 Lakers went 69-13, the ’72-73 Celtics went 68-14 and the ’70-71 Bucks went 66-16. But in the next 19 years, only one team won at an .805 clip (the ’85-86 Celtics went 67-15).
But after Jordan, the floodgates opened. In the 2000s, we’ve also had the 1999-00 Lakers (67-15), the 2006-07 Mavericks (67-15), the ’07-08 Celtics (66-16), the ’08-09 Cavaliers (66-16) and the ’12-13 Heat (66-16).
So that’s 10 of the 19 best records in NBA history all recorded in the last 20 years. Nine teams reached .805 in the first 53 years of the league, but now nine in two decade.
The reasons are clear, of course. Expansion has diluted the program. Even with the advent of international stars, the league isn’t as deep as it once was.
The NBA reached 29 teams in 1995 and 30 teams in 2004. As recently as 1976, there were just 18 teams. There were only 12 teams in 1968.
Expansion makes elite talent more dominant. The same number of great players spread over more teams. Couple that with increased free agency, and superstars can team up. The talent discrepancy widens.
That should mean more historically bad teams – and that has happened, too. Two of the three worst teams in NBA history has played in the last eight years. Charlotte went 7-59 (.106) in 2011-12; Philadelphia went 10-72 (.122) in 2015-16.
Of the 16 worst teams in NBA, teams with a winning percentage of .180 or worse, four have come in the 2000s. That’s actually not a terribly high number. I would have thought with increased expansion, bad teams would multiply, because expansion teams usually are a great bet to stink.
And indeed, six of the 16 worst teams in NBA history came in the 1990s, a big decade for expansion. In 1988, the NBA added two teams. In 1989, it added two more. In 1995, two more.
When the league was stable and small, it had few wretched teams. Of the 16 worst teams, only three came between 1953 and 1993 – the 1972-73 76ers (9-73), the 1986-87 Clippers (12-70) and the 1982-83 Rockets (12-70).
But now the league has more teams than ever, player movement is rampant and the NBA more than ever has teams that win and lose at historic rates. Including these Milwaukee Bucks.