Decade’s Top 5 NBA Teams
‘What can you say now?’
When it comes to the best, it’s difficult to keep things brief… or so I quickly learned after asking these five writers to pen 200-300 words about each of SLAMonline’s Top 5 Teams of the decade. So in the name of holiday spirit, and out of respect for the squads that brought perfection and wonder to the hardwood, here are their pieces in their entirety. Enjoy!
No. 5: ’03-04 Pistons
by Sherman Johnson
The Pistons didn’t win as many championships in the last decade as the Lakers and Spurs, but they still dominated like champs. Detroit was the team to beat for the majority of this decade if you wanted to get to the NBA Finals from the East.
It all began in 2002 with the signing of Chauncey Billups, who was a free agent at the time. Joe Dumars always had a vision of a more aggressive version of the system he prospered under as a player. As a GM, he started to really put a contentious team together with the acquisition of Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince with Rick Carlisle calling the shots. That year they posted another 50-win season and advanced the Eastern Conference finals only to be swept by the Nets in four games.
Carlisle was jettisoned the next season and Larry Brown stepped in to help complete the Pistons’ revolution with the acquisition of Sheed, who like Bill Laimbeer during his tenure with the organization would go on to become one of the top outside-shooting big men of his era) in 2004. Their 54-28 record was their best since 1997. In the playoffs they busted up the Bucks and cut down the Nets in seven after trailing the series 3-2. Their conference finals victory over Indiana propelled them into the Finals for the first time since 1990 before they put down the Lakers in five. What’s remarkable is that despite being underdogs the Pistons still won by double-digit margins in three out of their four wins and even held the Lakers to a franchise low of 68 points in the third game.
Heads didn’t know it at the time but the Bad Boys were back in town. Their brand of close-fisted defense seemed even more effective than that of their predecessors and became the team’s hallmark during their championship runs during the next few seasons. Cynics scoffed at the teams’ prospects of repeating in 2005, especially after the now infamous arena-clearing Brawl broke out a month into the season against their mortal enemies the Pacers. But I still had my money on my hometown heroes all the way.
Despite losing a couple pivotal bench players in Mehmet Okur and Corliss Williamson, Detroit still posted 54 wins, the fourth consecutive year they’d hit the mark of 50-plus in a season. They rolled over the Sixers and Indiana and tore into the Miami Heat. I personally think they were robbed by the refs in the Finals and nearly came to blows with one of my homeboys from San Antonio who wouldn’t shut-up about being from Texas and kept repeating Eddie Murphy’s often-repeated admonition about effing with the Lone Star state ad nauseam.
The following season when Joe Dumars dumped Larry Brown and put Skip Saunders on, I didn’t know what to expect and had serious doubts about the Pistons even getting back to the Finals and was genuinely surprised (but still overjoyed) when the team got off to a league-leading 37-5 start which was the best of any Detroit franchise ever and the second-best 42-game start in League history. It was such a phenomenal year that four of their five starters (Chauncey, Rip, Sheed and Ben Wallace) were named to the All Star team and Skip Saunders was their coach. The Pistons went on to win 64 games, setting a franchise record for overall and road wins at 27. The team also set a League record by starting the same lineup in 73 consecutive games from the start of the season. But alas, they struggled in the playoffs against the emergent Cavs and, in my opinion, got robbed again by the refs in the conference finals against the Heat in 2006.
I was so disgusted and thrown by the loss that I questioned my faith in my all-time faves like a lot of others, but I held out hopes in the bottom of my that they’d capture another title. Boy was I in for yet another rude awakening! They made if back to the conference finals for the fifth time in a row to equal the streak set by the Bad Boys in the late eighties but they went out with a whimper in 2007 when Bron desecrated their vaunted defense and beat them four straight to advance.
To me that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The team posted the second-best record in the league at 59-23 but they didn’t have the stones to take it all and I certainly didn’t possess the stomach to see the past play out again in the 2008 playoffs. Their record-setting sixth straight conference finals appearance put them second all time behind the Lakers (surprise) at eight (1981-89), but those achievements were purely for the record books.
Their heartbreaking loss to the Celtics that year killed it for me but not completely because I’m still a believer. As sure as the Pistons rebuilt after their back-to-back titles in the late eighties and claimed a championship in the new millennium, I’m optimistic that they’ll bounce back next decade to reign stronger than ever.
No. 4: ’02-03 Spurs
by Nick Rattner
An ex-spy who majored in Soviet studies helms a pack of cagey, veteran mercenaries cloaked in black executing a protocol as perfectly as a clock tower in Kiev. Their leader, an ex-navy man known as The Admiral, makes alliance with three unstoppable foreign agents including a 7-0 robot, crafted in secret in the Virgin Islands, who has no discernible weakness or trace of emotion. A man called Captain Jack is brought in to provide extra firepower. Crafted from so many unusual components, one would not expect precise, bloodless execution but that’s exactly what these Spurs delivered.
Looking back at the great teams in NBA history, you realize how much easier it is to be a great team of a decade. The latter category is where these Spurs reside. Nevertheless, they provided two things that very few teams can claim to have provided: team basketball and championships. Consider that if in 1976 you’d told an ABA fan that the Spurs and Nets would battle in what would be called the “Least Watchable NBA Finals Ever,” they might have smashed your disco ball. Yet, miraculously, a quarter century after joining the association, the Spurs stood strong as the final exemplars of old-school NBA play. History might be boring, but it has a way of pointing out trends: in this case, consistency and repetition produce excellence.
Truly, any of the championship Spurs teams from this decade could justifiably make this list so perhaps it is better to see them as the first in a perennial exhibit, the kind you and the family might travel to see at a D.C. museum. But, in capturing the franchise’s first legitimate (does anyone count pre-asterisk titles?) title, the 2003 Spurs confirmed David Stern’s worst fear: playing well-managed, fundamental hoop assures excellence. As such, they own exclusive rights to the last vestiges of a pre-hype NBA in which individual talent was honored only insofar as it benefited the team. They won without ego. Who else could bring in Stephen Jackson for a season without any fear of disrupting team order and chemistry? Who else could get stars in their prime like Ginobli to come off the bench? Who knew that Steve Kerr would prove an invaluable off-season acquisition? Ironically and amazingly, the Western champions arguably provided the mold for great Eastern Conference teams of the decade such as the Celtics, Pistons, and Cavs (Mike Brown as an assistant for Pop in ’03).
Consider the rundown: Pop was coach of the year; Duncan was MVP; Ginobli was fourth in rookie of year voting behind Amar’e, Yao and Caron; Parker was fourth in most improved player; they were the only team in the League to have two players in the top ten for defense: Duncan (4th) and Bowen (7th); Parker, Jackson, and Bowen in the backcourt with Duncan and Robinson closing the skies above the lane; Rose and Ginobli coming off the bench with bland assassins Kerr, Ferry, and Smith coming off the pine. Whatever you want to say about their style (or lack) of play, it worked and teams that win go with what works no matter what sacrifices that entails.
Pre-season, David Robinson announces his retirement; in retrospect, given that the Spurs took gold that year, it’s a gesture similar to that of the Bambino’s point. It could the most dignified, grand exit from the NBA a superstar has ever pulled off. Many current Spurs players were on the squad during Robinson’s final go-round, and I strongly suspect that his example informs most subsequent Spurs play.
An interesting vector: the retirement of Robinson and the inauguration of Ginobli and Parker; the cementing of the R.C. Buford-Popovich alliance; the tension between good sound basketball and what the NBA wants; the first Spurs championship after the strike-halved season (and so the first one that really counts); a playoffs book-ended by two insane Duncan data read-outs; the first proof, in the form of Stephen Jackson, that somehow anyone who joins the Spurs becomes a Spur.
No. 3: ’00-01 Lakers
by Sean Sweeney
A good movie climax never happens 30 minutes into the script. Every great director knows that. There’s no drama.
The 2000-2001 Lakers were an entertainment rarity because their largest tests came in the regular season. Would Kobe pass the ball? Would Shaq concede a share of the focal point? Would this potential dynasty explode into pieces, a divorce between two All-Timers?
If Shaq was always Vito Corleone, Kobe was Michael. The chosen son. The anointed. But early in the season, Bryant seemed intent on exploring his inner Sonny. He wanted it all. PJ wanted him to turn it down.
Turn it down? Hell, I’m blowing everyone up. Kobe drove himself so hard that he almost sunk everything around him.
Poor movie comparisons aside, the second Laker team of the decade’s only three-peat revealed their ending very early. Once the two heads figured out their differences, it was a wrap.
No team this decade was as dominant from the last month of the regular season through the Finals. The slapping of Sacramento in the second round was followed by an absolute annihilation of the regular-season champion Spurs to win the west.
Shaq in his prime with Kobe playing like “the best player in the League…by far,” Fox doing the dirty work and even Fisher dropping threes like he was Dale Ellis, these guys went 23-1 (15-1 in the playoffs) to finish the season. Their only loss came when AI had possibly the best game of his career in Game 1 of the Finals. And it still took overtime.
Worse yet, that game was just eye-candy. Everyone already knew what was going to happen: a second L.A. parade.
And everything was set up for yet another sequel in the trilogy. But nobody figured this would be as good as they would get.
No. 2: ’99-00 Lakers
by Graham Flashner
Phil Jackson’s first year as coach of the Lakers may have been his greatest. The Lakers had been swept out of the playoffs two years in a row and were coming off the Dennis Rodman debacle. Under Jackson’s guidance, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal matured into the most devastating 1-2 punch in the League, and L.A. crowned the new Staples Center with its first title since the Magic/Kareem glory years.
It took time for the Lakers to hit their stride, but once they did, they were unstoppable. After a 15-5 start, the Lakers went 52-10, including win streaks of 16, 19, and 11. Like he did in Chicago, Jackson employed the triangle offense, and opponents had to pick their poison. When they double-teamed Shaq, Kobe (22.5) and Glen Rice (15.9) made them pay. And like he did with the Bulls, Jackson took full advantage of a supporting cast of gritty, defensive-minded role players like Ron Harper, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, and A.C. Green. O’Neal, approaching his peak as the self-proclaimed “M.D.E.” (Most Dominant Ever) averaged 29.7 points and 13.6 rebounds, and was named MVP.
After cruising to the Pacific Division title, the Lakers saved their best drama for the playoffs. They staged the biggest fourth-quarter comeback ever in a Game 7, coming from 15 down to stun Portland in the Western Conference Finals. The exclamation point was provided by a Kobe-to-Shaq alley-oop that brought the house down. Shaq’s open-mouthed look of joy as he ran back upcourt remains one of the most iconic Lakers images ever.
Having survived the Portland scare, the Lakers disposed of the Indiana Pacers in six games to win the franchise’s 13th NBA championship. It would be the first of three straight titles for the most dominant team of the decade.
No. 1: ’07-08 Celtics
by Brett Callahan
The ‘07-08 Boston Celtics historic turnaround from league pushover to Larry O’Brien Trophy-holder makes them the number one team of the decade. Their ability to mesh a star-studded roster without compromise, successfully integrate youth and cast-off veteran role players, and hold off fierce competition while having a league-wide target on their back, helped them to capture Boston its 17th title, the most in NBA history.
After finishing with the second-worst record in the NBA in ‘06-07 at 24-58, including an 18-game losing streak, General Manager Danny Ainge needed to make some moves, if for nothing else then to save his own job. Ainge seemingly struck out when his hopes of acquiring Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in the upcoming 2007 NBA Draft were dashed by the ping-pong ball gods, which left Boston with the fifth pick. Making some lemonade out of the situation, Ainge completed two of the most epic trades in NBA history that offseason, welcoming both Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett into the clover-clad community.
Joining Paul Pierce to form the “Boston Three Party,” the perennial All-Stars dominated the League with the help of second-year point guard Rajon Rondo, center Kendrick Perkins, veterans James Posey and PJ Brown, and playoff energy man Leon Powe. The Cs played with urgency from the first tip off of the season and finished the year at 66-16, logging the largest single-season turnaround in NBA history.
Still, no one lied down for Boston come the Playoffs. Their opening series with the Atlanta Hawks extended to a full seven games, followed by another seven-game series with Cleveland and LeBron James in the second round, before making quicker work of the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals with a six-game series win.
In the Finals against the Lakers, the Celtics displayed their desire and perseverance by overcoming a 24-point Laker lead in Game 4 to set the tone for their upcoming decisive 39-point Game 6 pounding that clinched the NBA Title.
What sets this team narrowly apart from others in the decade is the fashion in which the entire season came together. Starting as a lock for another terrible season, Ainge’s moves cemented a championship caliber roster that played cohesively, throwing ego aside for the ultimate team goal of raising another banner in Bean Town and giving Allen, Garnett and Pierce their first respective career titles.
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