With the absence of recent champs and No. 1 seeds, the question seems fair. And it’s one we can answer going back to the 1986-87 season by using a team rating model to determine where this year’s Milwaukee Bucks rank.
For the first time since 1994, both No. 1 seeds in the NBA playoffs fell short of reaching the conference finals.
That became a reality when the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers were upended by four and five seeds, respectively, in the semis. And what about the favorites on paper: the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and loaded Brooklyn Nets? They also stumbled after injuries derailed their postseason chances.
The 2021 playoffs became a battle of attrition and the healthiest team left standing was likely to hold up the Larry O’Brien trophy.
With the absence of recent champions and No. 1 seeds, it seems fair to wonder if the NBA is celebrating one of its worst champions. Well, it’s a question we can answer going back to the 1986-87 season.
Everyone has their own opinions on the best and worst champs to hoist the trophy, but our unbiased model offers an objective way to evaluate each champion. It uses data on both sides of the ball to calculate how many points per 100 possessions better or worse championship teams from 1986-87 to 2019-20 were than the average team during those specific seasons, including the playoffs. From this model, we’re able to create an adjusted offensive rating, adjusted defensive rating and an overall adjusted team rating.
These adjusted team ratings are the same ones we recently used to determine that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were the best NBA champion over this span. The ratings are important because they normalize a team’s performance from league environmental factors during a respective era that can either inflate or deflate its numbers.
So where do this year’s Milwaukee Bucks rank? Well, seventh. Here are six through 10 on the list before we break down the top five in more detail:
Though Giannis Antetokounmpo put together a performance for the ages in the NBA Finals, the 2020-21 Bucks really did not this season. Milwaukee’s adjusted team rating of 6.82 places it seventh on the list, behind the 2010-11 Mavericks and ahead of the 2018-19 Raptors.
The Bucks, who were the third seed in the East, ended up fourth in the league in adjusted defensive rating (minus-2.42) this season, but just seventh on the offensive end (4.41).
5. 2009-10 Lakers: 6.14
This Lakers team finished 57-25 and earned the top seed in the Western Conference, but it was hardly a star-studded group aside from Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Andrew Bynum (15.0), Metta World Peace (11.0) – the artist formerly known as Ron Artest and now Metta Sandiford-Artest – and Lamar Odom (10.8) were the team’s third-, fourth- and fifth-leading scorers.
Los Angeles, which was ninth in adjusted offensive rating (2.50) and had the third-best overall rating that year, outlasted a 50-win Boston Celtics team that included Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to win the title. With final scores of 89-67 in Game 6 and 83-79 in Game 7, it just might have been the ugliest Finals in league history.
4. 2005-06 Heat: 5.56
The Miami Heat had the league’s fifth-best record and fifth-best adjusted team rating in 2005-06, but their stars – young and old – rose to the occasion in the postseason. The Heat upset the 64-win Pistons before winning four straight over Dallas in the Finals after falling behind 2-0. Dwyane Wade averaged 28.4 points in the playoffs and was named Finals MVP.
Shaquille O’Neal, Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and Udonis Haslem were the other Miami starters during the postseason run, while James Posey, Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning came off the bench. This was Wade’s first of three titles and Shaq’s last of four.
3. 1993-94 Rockets: 5.41
With Michael Jordan finally out of the picture (for now), the NBA title was up for grabs in 1993-94. It was a chance for the many teams that Jordan had denied over the previous years to reach the top. But instead, the league was more competitive than ever as a record (at the time) 10 clubs finished the season with at least 50 victories.
Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets seized the opportunity, winning both titles during Jordan’s absence in not-so-pretty fashion. Houston, which ranked 14th in adjusted offensive rating (0.57) and third overall, lost the first two games at home to the Suns in the conference semifinals before advancing in seven games. The Rockets then trailed the New York Knicks 3-2 in the Finals before winning the last two in Houston, thanks in part to John Starks’ infamous 2-for-18 shooting performance in Game 7.
2. 1987-88 Lakers: 5.32
Led by Byron Scott, James Worthy, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the “Showtime” Lakers finished with the best record in the league at 62-20. Sure, they were great offensively with an adjusted offensive rating of 6.43 that ranked second in the NBA at that time, but they were 14th defensively with a 1.12 adjusted defensive rating.
Altogether, they were the third-best team by the overall adjusted rankings that year behind the Pistons (6.47) and Celtics (5.92), but they beat the Pistons in seven games to win the last of Magic’s five championships.
1. 1994-95 Rockets: 4.87
These were the “don’t underestimate the heart of a champion” Rockets. And for good reason. They were the sixth seed in the Western Conference heading into the playoffs, trailed the Jazz 2-1 before winning their best-of-five first round series and rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the conference semifinals before Mario Elie’s “Kiss of Death” stunned the Suns in Game 7.
The Rockets swept the up-and-coming Orlando Magic to cap their remarkable and unlikely run to the title. And even after that postseason, the Rockets ranked just sixth in the league with their 4.87 adjusted team rating – the worst any champion since 1986-87.
Data modeling by Matt Scott. Research support provided by Jacob Jaffe. Design by Matt Sisneros.