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Passing Time: Reflections on the best offenses in NBA history (since 1973-74)

adjustedefficiencyCross-generation comparisons in professional sports are a Gordian knot of a logic puzzle. Even if we set aside the myriad off court-variables — the transition from commercial flights to chartered; exponential growth in training and nutrition; fun pseudo-secret, performance-enhancing procedures that are assuredly not PEDs or anything similar; and, of course, bank accounts best expressed by Avogadro’s number  — the on-court product is in constant transition. Offenses and defenses evolve in a dance of anticipation and reaction. Rules change to mold the game to new geometries and styles. It’s all basketball, but it’s never the same.

With all that said, it’s clear that any effort to rank teams across the ages of the game against one another is a fool’s errand. And I’m just the fool to try it! Earlier in the season, comrade Ian Levy and I introduced one take on adjusting for these particular variations. A brief recap for those uninterested in clicking on the previous link:

The premise is simple — take the offensive and defensive efficiency (points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) for each team since 1973-74, and divide it by the league average efficiency for that season to create a ratio between a team’s performance relative to the league average. An adjusted efficiency (ORtg+ or DRtg+ for short) of 100 means a team was league average on offense or defense. Higher than 100 is good on offense. Lower than 100 is good for defenses. A team that has an ORtg+ of 105.0, for example, scored 5% more per 100 possessions than the league average. Ian put together a fancy visualization that wonderfully demonstrates the arrangement of over 1,000 individual team-seasons in the database. (Ed. note: at the time this article was published, the data in the visualization is a couple months behind the updated numbers. It’s a nice relic of an age when this year’s Pacers were on pace to be the best defense in NBA history, but it will be updated soon. The spreadsheet is updated through games completed on 4/13.)

By adjusting relative to league average for the year a team played, we’re attempting to define a team’s play by the standards of the time. Those aforementioned changes in offense and defense can make for league-wide peaks and valleys in efficiency as one side or another reigns supreme. And hand-checking and zone defense rules have made for distinct scoring climates as well. Per-possession comparisons, then, aren’t enough. It’s more informative, and more accurate, to look at teams through the lens of how they did against their competition.

Here, then, are the top 5 offenses in NBA history — the numbers behind their seasons, but the stories and memories they left behind, too, and the way they shaped the game — from fifth to first, relative to league-average for the season in which they played. It’s a mouthful, but it’s honest.

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5. 1996-97 Chicago Bulls – 107.22 ORtg+

Raw offensive rating: 114.4 (12th best since 1973-74)

The Bulls of the first three-peat were better offensive teams than the Bulls of the second, at least in terms of raw offensive rating. But the league lost a few points per 100 possessions on average during Michael Jordan’s tenure as a baseball player, and as a result, the post-retirement Chicago teams were slightly better offensive teams relative to league average. 1996 gets all the glory, with the Bulls winning 72 games and all, but the 1997 team was a behemoth of its own, a monstrosity of basketball destruction severed from the stem of a prior season’s splendor and grafted onto the unwilling, unwitting host that was the rest of the NBA. This team ranks ahead of the 1996 squad because of a down year across the league; arguably, the Bulls were a better offense the year before. Yet they were essentially the same team either way; the 1997 team gets the nod in the end because, well, it had Robert Parish and the 1996 team didn’t.

4. 1997-98 Utah Jazz – 107.33 ORtg+

Raw offensive rating: 112.7 (42nd)

Something about this team seems terminal. The denouement is rarely celebrated in a sport that fetishizes its champions, and the stretch from June 1997 to June 1998 was the closest Utah came to the sublimity of jewelry. It was the peak moment of the John Stockton and Karl Malone era, and it lasted an entire year through some trick of Sloan-ian relativity. Yet like every challenger who’d come before, Stockton, Malone et al. were buried by Jordan. Looking back, it feels to a non-Jazz fan as if that second Finals series were the end. Rationally, I know those two Hall of Famers stayed in Utah for five more years, watching Finals appearances give way to conference finals disappointments and, eventually, unceremonious first round exits. Consciously or not, however, the 1998 Jazz are the stitch in time I’ve chosen as the last, content to let the truth of history fray at the edges in the pursuit of one perfect thread.

3. 2001-02 Dallas Mavericks – 107.37 ORtg+

Raw offensive rating: 112.2 (54th)

Spoiler: it’s about to get really Steve Nash-heavy in these rankings.

2001-02 was the genesis of the Nash revolution. It was the first season in which he started all 82 games. It was Nash’s first All-Star selection. And it was the first year that he topped eight assists per 36 minutes, a stepping stone on the way to eight straight seasons of double-digits assists per 36. He was the fulcrum for a talented offense that relied on a heavy dose of Michael Finley and got contributions from Raef LaFrentz and a 237-year old Juwan Howard in his pre-cryogenic freezing days.

But 2001-02 wasn’t just — or even mostly — about Steve Nash. Dirk Nowitzki continued his ascent to NBA superstardom in 2002, too, joining Nash as an All-Star at the age of 23. Even at such an early stage in his career, Dirk was fully formed as a dynamic scorer who bent defenses to his whims. His consistency which will be his legacy became a trend in 2002.

And 10-plus years later, it all seems so obvious. Combine one of the greatest shooters and offensive weapons in NBA history with one of its greatest offensive point guards, and one of the best offenses the league’s ever seen is a foregone conclusion. The only thing that’s striking is that it all happened before we knew who we were.

2. 2004-05 Phoenix Suns – 107.92 ORtg+

Raw offensive rating: 114.5 (10th)

Hey, look! It’s Steve Nash, again! Spoiler: that’s not changing any time soon. Nash has led some of the greatest offensive teams of all-time, and adjusting those numbers for the environment in which they came makes them even more impressive. None of his Suns teams were better on offense than that first incarnation, though. The marriage of Nash and Mike D’Antoni resulted in instant fireworks. This was the year that made Amar’e Stoudemire a household name and paved the way for the force he’d become, before injuries ravaged his knees. And it was the year that made Joe Johnson a very, very rich man. Leandro Barbosa was at maximum blur, and Shawn Marion’s shooting form was still fixable. Man, we were young. And so were the Suns. The year before, they’d won just 29 games. Without knowing the pressures on their shoulders, they made the Western Conference finals in just a year’s time.

And it was on the strength of their offense. A quick list of Phoenix’s offensive rankings in 2005: 1st in pace, 1st in field goals, 2nd in shots, 2nd in FG%, 1st in threes, 1st in threes attempted, 1st in three-point percentage, 3rd in assists, 1st in total points, 1st in effective field goal percentage, and 1st in three-point attempt rate. Somehow, that strength and those numbers have become a condemnation of Nash and D’Antoni and this era of Phoenix Suns. All offense, no defense. Couldn’t win a ring.

Maybe they could, maybe they couldn’t. They definitely didn’t. But when offense becomes art, the championships are beside the point.

1. 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks – 108.94 ORtg+

Offensive Rating: 112.1 (58th)

The 2004 Mavs are the undisputed champions of offense, yet without adjusting for the way the league has changed over the years, we might never know it. A more seasoned Nash and Dirk rendition put up almost exactly the same points per 100 possessions that the 2002 version did. But 2004 was a year of defense. The league average efficiency was 102.9 in 2004, the lowest it’s been since 1979. Hand-checking would be curtailed and defensive three-second violations enforced the following year in an attempt to bring some offense back to the game.

Against that backdrop, Nash, Dirk and the Mavs fought the good fight for ball movement and electrifying basketball. With Antawn Jamison, Antoine Walker and Michael Finley, Dallas had wing talent galore, to the point that it’s kind of depressing to think of what this team might have been capable of in a free-flowing league. Interestingly, Nash and Dirk had down years relative to their past two seasons, with PERs several points lower than the year before, whether as a result of the tenacious defense played across the league or a statistical blip in the arc of their careers.

The ultimate shame, though, is that the season in which scoring was an absolute chore across the NBA coincided with the last ride of Nash and Dirk. Each would get a chance to explore the game as it opened up and put a premium on their offensive abilities, and each would become MVPs. But they did so separately, fighting for championships on two fronts, though their combined might knew no equal. Wretched lands lie where offense goes to die, but Nash and Dirk brought life in their wake regardless of the harsh soil of barren fields.

Statistical support courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.