Friday, June 18, 2010 Updated: June 19, 11:35 AM ET
Intro to all-time NBA franchise rankings
By John Hollinger ESPN.com
Celtics. Lakers. Bulls. Which NBA franchise is the greatest ever? John Hollinger ranks all 30 squads.
Editor's note: These rankings were originally published in 2009 and have been updated to reflect the 2009-2010 season.
My team is better than your team.
That simple argument is at the heart of sports. Fans can debate about players or strategies or countless other issues, but what tends to get hearts pounding the most is when fans start trading boasts about which side is better.
Almost immediately, the barbs will begin about the various sides' accomplishments. Celtics fans will throw their 17 championships in the face of anyone who dares challenge them; Lakers fans might answer with their 30 conference titles; while Spurs supporters will point out that their past decade is arguably the best of anyone's. And so on down the line, until we get to a few scattered Grizzlies supporters waiting meekly in the corner for a Clippers fan to walk by.
And that's where we step in. With six decades of history to fall back on, we can take a look in the rearview mirror and stack up each team's accomplishments from 1 to 30. Obviously we can't account for every single credit and debit over such a huge time frame, but it turns out that once we install some basic accounting principles, the list pretty much falls into place.
To start with, we set this up to look at things from the perspective of fans, as opposed to coaches or owners or -- God forbid -- statistical analysts.
Therefore, the rules are as follows:
1. Winning matters.
2. Winning in the playoffs matters more.
3. Winning a championship is far and away the best thing that can happen.
4. Watching superstars is amazing, even if the team around them isn't any good.
5. Intangibles matter: Fans want to like and admire the team they're cheering.
With those rules in mind, I set up a simple formula to award "points" for all the positives and rank the teams' accomplishments accordingly:
Regular-season wins are worth one point. This is the source of 82 percent of the points in this system, but it matters much more for noncontending teams.
Playoff wins are worth two points. You might argue that this tends to favor recent playoff teams since the current postseason is so much longer; on the other hand, it's a lot harder to accumulate these in a 30-team league than it was in an eight-team league.
Playoff series wins are worth four points. There's a big difference between 3-4 and 4-3, and having an added category for series wins reflects this fact. During some seasons the league had staggered playoff systems in which teams advanced with a bye, and in those years teams were awarded "phantom" playoff series wins for earning a bye.
Playoff losses don't matter. Nobody cares if they won 4-0 or 4-3. In fact, most fans end up with much fonder memories of a hard-fought 4-3 series than they do of a 4-0 rout.
Championships are worth 30 points. I settled on this while trying to balance out the dilemma of "Would you rather win one championship and stink for the next four years, or be halfway decent five years in a row?" I think nearly every fan would take the former over the latter, and I'm guessing a lot of Heat fans are nodding in agreement right now. Putting such a premium on championships gives us the right balance between being great and merely being competitive.
All-Star selections are worth two points each. Most fans would much rather watch superstar performers than ensemble casts, with the only exception being if it's a championship-caliber ensemble. For instance, ask a Hawks fan whether it was more fun to watch Dominique's teams in the '80s or Mookie Blaylock's in the '90s. The '90s teams were about as successful, but from a fan's perspective there's no comparison.
Relocation is a 100-point penalty. Changing cities is the ultimate failure for a sports franchise, leaving the fans in the former city out in the cold and forcing the team to build a new history with unfamiliar faces in a different locale. In a couple of instances I penalized teams 50 points for "half-relocations" -- Baltimore to Washington for the Bullets, Long Island to New Jersey for the Nets -- when they stayed in the same general region but likely had to cultivate a new base of ticket holders.
Intangibles matter too, and I created a separate category for special circumstances. For instance, the Blazers of the early part of this decade were perfectly respectable in terms of wins and losses, but few were eager to admit rooting for that team because of all the scoundrels littering the roster. This is the one part that's completely subjective, but for several teams I subtracted or added 50 to 150 points based on playing styles, player behavior, superstars and other major factors.
ABA playoff results count half. The NBA likes to pretend the ABA never happened when it presents historical results, but by the early 1970s the two leagues were of similar quality, and the best player in basketball (Julius Erving) was in the ABA. Still, I had to count the results at half because the league was so small at times. It's pretty easy to make a deep playoff run in a six-team league.
Once I summed up the total for each team, I divided by the number of seasons the team had played in the NBA; otherwise this system would be horribly unfair to expansion teams.
The result is a number of points per season for each team, and conveniently the average is almost exactly 50: 50.17, to be exact. In the following pages we'll get into where every team ranks and why.