We used our TRACR model to assess every NBA franchise’s best team. 

The questions have been asked all across the media landscape over the past couple of months.

Talking heads have filled countless minutes of airtime debating them. Star power, various stats and league rankings have been compared in copy, on bar stools and at water coolers.

Is the 2023-24 team the best in Minnesota Timberwolves history? How do the 2023-24 Boston Celtics compare to some of the Larry Bird-era teams?

Everyone has their opinion on the best season in his or her favorite team’s history. It might be based on the numbers, stars or a memorable postseason run. But there’s no need for hot takes, heated arguments or even polite agree-to-disagree sentiments here. 

Our model is here to decide it once and for all. NBA TRACR (Team Rating Adjusted for Competition and Roster) normalizes performance from league environmental factors that can either inflate or deflate its numbers, making it possible to compare teams across eras.

It uses advanced metrics and other factors on both ends on the court to calculate how many points per 100 possessions better or worse teams are or were compared to the league-average club during a season (including the playoffs). From that output, we’ve created offensive TRACR (O-TRACR), defensive TRACR (D-TRACR) and an overall TRACR. (Lower is better for D-TRACR.)

It should be noted that we have TRACR going back to the 1986-87 season, so this list won’t include the Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar teams of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

And we realize there’s probably something to the old “it don’t mean a thing without the ring” refrain – not all of these teams won championships. Our model measures performance over the entirety of the season, so we’re not just listing title winners here.

But we’ll oblige for a moment below if you’d like to know which title teams are the best in NBA history.

best NBA TRACR among champions

For others, consider this a license to trash talk if you’re on the right side of these disputes. We’re revealing the most dominant NBA seasons for each franchise over the past 37 years.

We’ve ordered these from the best of the best (the highest single-season TRACR for a team) on down to the poor Washington Bullets/Wizards franchise.

Jump to a Team

Atlanta Hawks/Boston Celtics/Brooklyn Nets/Charlotte Hornets/Chicago Bulls/Cleveland Cavaliers/Dallas Mavericks/Denver Nuggets/Detroit Pistons/Golden State Warriors/Houston Rockets/Indiana Pacers/Los Angeles Clippers/Los Angeles Lakers/Memphis Grizzlies/Miami Heat/Milwaukee Bucks/Minnesota Timberwolves/New Orleans Pelicans/New York Knicks/Oklahoma City Thunder/Orlando Magic/Philadelphia 76ers/Phoenix Suns/Portland Trail Blazers/Sacramento Kings/San Antonio Spurs/Toronto Raptors/Utah Jazz/Washington Wizards

Chicago Bulls: 1995-96 (14.14 TRACR)

The only question was going to be which of the Michael Jordan-led Bulls teams was the best, right? Of course, it was the 1995-96 club that set the all-time record (at the time) with 72 wins. Those Bulls finished a ridiculous 14.14 points per 100 possession better than the average team over that season. According to our model, it was the greatest season any team has had since 1986-87.

best single-season TRACR

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Golden State Warriors: 2016-17 (12.82)

The Bulls went 203-43 (.825) during the regular season from 1995-96 to ’97-98. It was the best winning percentage by any team in a three-season span in NBA history before the Stephen Curry-led Warriors went 207-39 (.841) from 2014-15 to ’16-17. That included an NBA-record 73-9 finish in 2015-16 that led to debates about which team was the best ever. But that team wasn’t even the best in Warriors history (according to our model). That 73-win team, which did not win the title, had a TRACR of 10.48. With Kevin Durant on board the following season, the Warriors won 67 games, had the second-best final TRACR between 1986-87 and 2022-23 and won the title.

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San Antonio Spurs: 2015-16 (11.67)

Any argument about which team was the best during the Spurs’ dynasty could go on for a while. For some perspective, San Antonio posted a TRACR of 6.0 or better 15 times in 19 seasons between 1998-99 and 2016-17. The best season of the David Robinson era came in 1998-99 when he teamed with a young Tim Duncan. The Spurs won 37 games in that 50-game season (10.05 TRACR), had the second-best single-season defensive TRACR of the past 37 years, and beat the Knicks in the NBA Finals. Two Tim Duncan-led teams topped that mark: the 2013-14 team (10.98) that beat the Heat in the finals and the 2015-16 team that set a franchise record with 67 victories but was stunned by the Thunder in the conference semifinals when the top of the Western Conference was about as daunting as it gets.

best single-season defensive TRACR

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Boston Celtics: 2023-24 (11.57)

While it’s hard to proclaim any Celtics team the best if we’re not including the championship teams of the 1960s, ’70s or even the 1985-86 team that won the title, we do get to look at a good portion of the Larry Bird-era teams by starting in 1986-87. The Celtics had a 6.11 TRACR that season, though it’s far behind the Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo 2007-08 team that posted the best record (66-16) since the 1985-86 team and a TRACR of 11.18. However, it might surprise you that the 2023-24 Celtics, who had the fifth-best regular-season win percentage (64-18) in franchise history, had the fourth-best season of any franchise over the past 37 years.

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Cleveland Cavaliers: 2008-09 (10.04)

Though the Cavs had some great years in the 1980s with Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper and Larry Nance – including a 57-25 record and 7.77 TRACR in 1988-89, you had to figure this was going to come down to which LeBron James-led team was No. 1. And the 2008-09 team was the most dominant overall, winning a franchise-record 66 games before getting upset by the Orlando Magic in the conference finals. In case you’re wondering, the 2015-16 champions ended up at 8.44.

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Los Angeles Lakers: 2008-09 (9.97)

The Showtime Lakers. The Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal Lakers. The Kobe and Dwight Howard Lakers. The Kobe and Paul Gasol Lakers. The LeBron and Anthony Davis Lakers. So many teams have valid arguments here. And remember we’re talking 1986-87 and beyond. So the right answer is the Kobe-Gasol Lakers in 2008-09 who finished with the third-highest victory total in franchise history (65) and dispatched the Magic in five games in the NBA Finals. The Showtime Lakers with Magic Johnson were next with a 9.21 TRACR in 1986-87, while the Kobe-Shaq Lakers ended up at 9.05 in 2001-02 and 8.23 in 1999-2000. LeBron’s best Lakers finish? A 7.02 mark in 2019-20 when they won the title.

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Oklahoma City Thunder: 2012-13 (9.65)

Our timeframe puts us back to when the franchise was still in Seattle, so were the Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp SuperSonics that went to the NBA Finals No. 1? How about one of the Russell Westbrook-Kevin Durant Thunder teams? Where does this year’s 57-25 Thunder fit in? Though they were upset by the Grizzlies in the second round, the 2012-13 team with KD and Westbrook that won 60 games had the best performance overall. This year’s club is a close second at 9.27 (entering the conference semifinals), while the 1993-94 Sonics – a year after they won the West (6.93) – rank third at 8.63.

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Utah Jazz: 1996-97 (9.36)

Perhaps the only question here was: Which “Stockton-to-Malone” team had the highest TRACR? The answer is the first of the back-to-back Western Conference championship teams in 1996-97 when Utah set a franchise-record that still stands with 64 victories. But the second-best team wasn’t the 1997-98 team (6.35) that returned to the NBA Finals. It was the 1995-96 club (9.02) that lost to the Sonics in a Western Conference finals that went the distance. It seems hard to believe now, but the third-best season was in 2020-21 (8.37) when the Donovan Mitchell-Mike Conley-Rudy Gobert Jazz won an NBA-best 52 games in that 72-game season. 

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Milwaukee Bucks: 2018-19 (9.06)

If you want to side with one of the Oscar Robertson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar teams that won 59 games or more four straight years between 1970-74, we won’t argue with you. But since 1986-87, if you believe the Bucks’ 2021 title team (6.82 TRACR) was the best, we’re here to tell you that the data says they were better the two years prior. Milwaukee won 60 games and had a 9.06 TRACR in 2018-19 but lost after holding a 2-0 lead in the conference finals against Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors. The Bucks went 56-17 for the third-best winning percentage (.767) in franchise history and had an 8.53 TRACR in 2019-20 but fell to the Heat while Giannis Antetokounmpo battled an ankle injury.

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Miami Heat: 2011-12 (8.98)

The Heat, who started play in 1988-89, have been to seven NBA Finals, winning three titles with 2006 NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade playing a key role in each of those championships. And the move to team up with LeBron James and Chris Bosh to built their version of the “Big 3” paid dividends in 2012-13 when Miami won a franchise-best 66 games and beat the Spurs in seven games. All three of their top TRACR performances came during this era (7.52 in 2010-11, 8.98 in 2011-12 and 8.41 in 2012-13).

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Orlando Magic: 2009-10 (8.80)

The success of the Magic, who started as a franchise in 1989-90, has always centered around… well, centers. So were Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando teams better or were the Dwight Howard-led clubs the best? Both lifted the Magic to the NBA Finals. The Shaq and Penny Hardaway teams are widely more celebrated, but should Howard’s teams get more credit? While Shaq and Penny’s Magic had TRACRs of 4.04 in 1993-94, 5.74 in 1994-95 and 5.94 in 1995-96, Howard’s teams posted a 5.72 in 2007-08, 7.18 in 2008-09 and 8.80 in 2009-10. And Howard won three straight NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards between 2009-11. The data has spoken, but we’d welcome Shaq to as well.

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Houston Rockets: 2017-18 (8.56)

Sure, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets were great in the mid-1990s, winning back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. But remember, they had a knack for rising to the occasion in the NBA playoffs. Houston won 58 games and had the No. 2 seed in 1993-94 (5.41) and was only the sixth seed after winning 47 games the following season. That team’s 4.87 TRACR is actually the lowest for an NBA champion over the past 37 years. Call it the Jordan Void. The best team in franchise history by the data – and it really isn’t close – is the James Harden and Chris Paul-led 2017-18 team that won a franchise-record 65 games and had the mighty Warriors on the brink in the Western Conference finals. The Rockets had a 3-2 series lead before losing Paul (hamstring) the rest of the way and missing 27 consecutive 3-point attempts in Game 7. TRACR forgives such a single-game cold streak. The Warriors do not.

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Sacramento Kings: 2001-02 (8.42)

There was little doubt that Sacramento’s best was going to come in the early 2000s when they threatened to overtake the mighty Lakers. The Kings won 50 or more games five years in a row between 2000-01 and 2004-05. In 2001-02, Mike Bibby, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic and Co. won a franchise-record 61 games, marched to the conference finals and had a 3-2 series lead on the Lakers but ended up losing in a Game 7 overtime thriller.

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Detroit Pistons: 1988-89 (8.35)

It had to be the Bad Boys. Led by Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and a bruising defense that didn’t allow easy layups, Detroit won a franchise-record 63 games on the way to the first of back-to-back titles in 1988-89. But what about the 2003-04 team that shocked the Lakers or the club that broke the Bad Boys’ record with 64 victories in 2005-06? Well, the 2003-04 Pistons came close with an 8.03 TRACR before putting up a 6.17 the following year. The 2007-08 team ended up at 8.02, winning 59 games but losing to the 66-win Celtics in the conference finals.

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Phoenix Suns: 2004-05 (8.28)

With Tom Chambers and Kevin Johnson leading the way, the Suns had a 7.08 TRACR in 1988-89 and a 7.35 in 1989-90. The Steve Nash-led “7 Seconds or Less” Suns bettered that with an 8.28 in 2004-05 and an 8.16 in 2006-07. The Chris Paul-Devin Booker team that won a franchise-record 64 games also put up a big number with a 7.18 in 2021-22. But it was the 2004-05 Suns that included Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson along with the NBA MVP Nash that was No. 1. They also posted the highest single-season offensive TRACR over the past 37 years. 

offensive TRACR ranks

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Portland Trail Blazers: 1999-2000 (7.99)

The Blazers played for the title in 1991-92, falling to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in six games. But by the data, they were better the previous year (7.96-7.32) when Portland was upset by the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Still, the best of the Blazers during this span was the stacked 1999-2000 team that featured Damon Stoudamire, Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Rasheed Wallace and Arvydas Sabonis. That group nearly came back from a 3-1 series deficit in the conference finals before the Shaq and Kobe Lakers rallied from 16 points down late in the third quarter to win it. 

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Dallas Mavericks: 2002-03 (7.74)

The Mavs have won two titles over the past 20 years, but they both fall short in terms of performance throughout the entire season. The 2005-06 team that beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals had a 7.56 TRACR and the 2010-11 team that beat the Heat put up a 6.56 mark. The 2006-07 Mavs, who won a franchise-record 67 games? They ended up at 7.28. No, the team that had the best season overall won 60 games in 2002-03 behind Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley but lost to the Spurs in the conference finals.

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Los Angeles Clippers: 2013-14 (7.68)

Not many contenders for the best Clippers team of the past 37 years until the past 10 years or so. The Chris Paul-Blake Griffin Clips changed everything with 56 victories (and a 6.72 TRACR) in 2012-13, a franchise-best 57 wins in 2013-14, 56 (7.01) in 2014-15, 53 (4.62) in 2015-16 and 51 (4.68) in 2016-17. The second-best team in Clippers history? The Paul George and Kawhi Leonard team that went 49-23 with a 7.06 TRACR in the shortened 2019-20 season.

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Indiana Pacers: 1997-98 (7.29)

The 1990s Pacers were always in the mix, but it was the 1997-98 team that was the best of the bunch. That club won a then-record 58 games and came as close as anyone to knocking off Michael Jordan’s Bulls during their dynasty. Reggie Miller’s game-winner forced a Game 7 in the East finals – only the third time Jordan had been forced to play a Game 7. Two years later, with Jordan gone, Indiana posted a 5.76 TRACR and lost to the Lakers in the 2000 NBA Finals. Then, with Miller still playing a key role alongside Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest, the Pacers won a franchise-record 61 games in 2003-04 (6.10) but lost to the Pistons in the East finals.

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Atlanta Hawks: 1986-87 (7.10)

The Dominique Wilkins era provided some exciting dunks, great seasons and one memorable seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal against Larry Bird’s Celtics. In 1986-87, ’Nique, Kevin Willis and Doc Rivers led the Hawks to a 57-25 record and the No. 2 seed before falling to an up-and-coming Pistons team in the East semifinals. In terms of record, only the 2014-15 Hawks featuring Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Al Horford and Kyle Korver fared better at 60-22. However, that team only finished with a TRACR of 4.75.

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Toronto Raptors: 2018-19 (6.99)

Everyone loves to reminisce about the Tracy McGrady-Vince Carter Raptors, but the best teams in franchise history have played more recently. Toronto won 59 games and had a 6.67 TRACR with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan leading the way in 2017-18. The team’s gamble on Kawhi Leonard, who was almost certain to leave after one season, then paid off in 2018-19 when it won 58 games and the first title in franchise history. It was the team’s best season (since entering the league in 1995-96), per our model.

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Minnesota Timberwolves: 2023-24 (6.73)

Here we are at the question that inspired this story. Earlier, we brought up whether the 2023-24 Wolves team was the best since the franchise debuted in 1989-90. But better than the Kevin Garnett-Stephon Marbury teams? Yes. Better than the KG-Sam Cassell-Latrell Sprewell 2003-04 team that went a franchise-best 58-24? Yes. The 2023-24 team finished at 6.73, while the 2003-04 club that also lost in the West finals had a TRACR of 5.90.

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New York Knicks: 1993-94 (6.61)

There were some lean years after Pat Riley’s Knicks battled Jordan’s Bulls seemingly every year in the 1990s. So it’s fitting that the franchise’s best season since 1986-87 came during that time. After a franchise record-tying 60 wins in 1992-93 (5.58 TRACR), the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks had 57 victories a year later with Jordan playing baseball but fell to the Rockets in the NBA Finals. 

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New Orleans Pelicans: 2007-08 (6.54)

The Pelicans only came into existence in 2002-03 (then known as the New Orleans Hornets), and Chris Paul’s arrival led to easily the best season in team history in 2007-08. It was the only club to reach 50 wins (56-26) and finished with a TRACR of 6.54. The Pelicans’ second-best season? It was a 4.01 mark in 2023-24.

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Philadelphia 76ers: 2020-21 (5.98)

We don’t have the Wilt Chamberlain or Julius Erving years for our model to consider, but we do have the Allen Iverson era and the results of “The Process.” The Joel Embiid years have been the best at 4.74 in 2017-18, 5.98 in 2020-21 and 4.59 in 2022-23. The best mark of the Iverson era was 3.67 in 2000-01 when the Sixers won 56 games and reached the NBA Finals.

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Memphis Grizzlies: 2021-22 (5.58)

We don’t start tracking this franchise’s performance until it joined the NBA as the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995-96. The team never posted an above-average TRACR until after the move to Memphis at 2.80 in 2003-04. But easily the two best teams the franchise has ever had were its two franchise-best 56-win teams in 2012-13 (5.31) and 2021-22 (5.58).

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Denver Nuggets: 2012-13 (5.24)

The Nuggets haven’t had a ton to celebrate over this span with only one conference finals appearance (2008-09/4.92) before two-time MVP Nikola Jokic arrived. And the 2022-23 championship team finished with a 5.06 TRACR that is the second lowest for an NBA title winner over the past 37 years. No. 1 on this list is the 2012-13 team (5.24) led by Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and Andre Iguodala that won a franchise-record 57 games – a total matched by the 2023-24 Nuggets (5.08).

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Brooklyn Nets: 2002-03 (5.03)

With Jason Kidd, Keith Van Horn, Kerry Kittles, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson, the New Jersey Nets won a franchise-record 52 games and won the first of back-to-back Eastern Conference titles in 2001-02. But even though they won three fewer games during the regular season, the Nets had their best season over the past 37 years in 2002-03 despite losing to the Spurs in the NBA Finals. A close second was not that 2001-02 (3.68), but the 2020-21 Nets (4.95) that had Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden and went 48-24 over a COVID-shortened 72-game season. They had a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the conference semifinals against the eventual champion Bucks.

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Charlotte Hornets: 1994-95 (3.44)

When you think of the best teams in Hornets history, Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, Dell Curry and Muggsy Bogues probably come to mind. And you’d be right. The 1994-95 team had the third-best record in franchise history at 50-32. Charlotte retooled quickly around Glen Rice, Anthony Mason and Vlade Divac, and then Eddie Jones and Derrick Coleman, going a franchise-best 54-28 in 1996-97 (2.15 TRACR), 51-31 in 1997-98 (2.25), 49-33 in 1999-2000 (2.46) and 46-36 in 2000-01 (3.13). It should be noted that the Hornets didn’t exist until the 1988-89 season and then “suspended operations” (relocated to New Orleans) in 2002-03 and 2003-04.

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Washington Wizards: 1996-97 (2.01)

How bad has it been? The Bullets/Wizards haven’t made it past the second round of the playoffs since losing to the Sonics in the 1979 NBA Finals, and they’ve only had one season above a 2.0 in TRACR since 1986-87. That came in 1996-97 when Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland led the Bullets to a 44-38 record. The Wizards won 49 games in 2016-17 when John Wall and Bradley Beal carried them to the second round, but they only ended up with a 1.80 TRACR. 

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