The Best NBA Teams of All Time

Can you truly determine which teams are, in fact, the best in NBA history? According to the fine people at FiveThirtyEight, you absolutely can. These folks are all about using statistical analyses to calculate objective answers. With regard to the best teams in NBA history, FiveThirtyEight determined their exact Elo rating. What’s that? We’re glad you asked. There is a more detailed explanation of this term, but simply put:

Elo is like the iPad of sports power ratings: Their design is quite simple, and they do a lot with a little, depending only on the final score of each game and where it was played. Teams always gain Elo points after winning games — although more for upset wins and for winning by wider margins — and lose ground after losing them. They account for both regular-season and playoff games.

When you want to dissect a team’s Elo rating, you only need to focus on the wins and losses. However, there is a lot that goes into those two categories. You must consider the margin of victory; whether the game was on the road; and the strength of the team’s opponent. You also have to consider so much more.

Fortunately, someone else did all the heavy lifting. Based on FiveThirtyEight’s calculations, if a team has an Elo rating over 1700, then that team is a legitimate contender. However, if a club scores over 1800, it’s among the best of the best. If you don’t like using statistics to come to this sort of conclusion, then you may not agree. But no matter what you think, this process certainly has merit. Based on Elo ratings, here’s a look at the 10 best NBA teams of all time.

10. 1997–98 Chicago Bulls

Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman walk up the floor.

Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman walk up the floor. | Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

Blend Elo: 1764

Final regular-season record: 62-20

After finishing the regular season with a 62-20 record and going 15-6 in the postseason, the 1997–98 Chicago Bulls took home the NBA title, while completing the second three-peat in franchise history. This group, led by Michael Jordan (who averaged 28.7 points in the regular season) was third in the NBA in opponents’ points per game (89.6), third in defensive rating (99.8), and ninth in offensive rating (107.7).

This team may have scored a composite Elo of 1764, however, at one point during the year this group achieved a peak Elo rating of 1788. When it was all said and done, these Bulls finished the year with an average Elo rating of 1719 and a season-ending tally of 1785. Of course, in the end, this team will always be remembered for Jordan’s game winner against the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals.

9. 1991–92 Chicago Bulls

Michael Jordan runs onto the floor.

Michael Jordan runs onto the floor. | Brian Bahr/AFP/Getty Images

Blend Elo: 1768

Final regular-season record: 67-15

The 1991–92 Chicago Bulls defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in six games in the 1992 NBA Finals. This win marked the second NBA championship in the organization’s history. The group had a peak Elo rating of 1782 and an average mark of 1759; they ended the season with a rating of 1762. This team averaged 109.9 points per game (fifth of 27) and led the NBA with an offensive rating of 115.5.

These Bulls were also talented on the defensive end of the floor, finishing the season with a defensive rating of 104.5 (fourth of 27) and only allowing opponents to score 99.5 points per affair (third of 27). With an eventual composite Elo of 1768, the 1991-92 Bulls played their way to the No. 9 position on the list of the best teams in NBA history.

8. 2008–09 Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol celebrate.

Kobe Bryant (L) and Pau Gasol celebrate. | Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Blend Elo: 1769

Final regular-season record: 65-17

The 2008–09 Los Angeles Lakers were a dynamic bunch. This team finished the regular season with a 65-17 record, went 16-7 in the postseason, and took down the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals in five games. At their best, this Lakers unit would have a 1790 Elo rating, which also represented the team’s season-ending rating. However, throughout the season, this group had an average Elo score of 1726.

This group was third in the NBA in offensive efficiency (112.8 rating) and sixth in the league in defensive efficiency (104.7 rating). After the Lakers suffered a disappointing loss in the finals the season before, this team became the group that finally helped Kobe Bryant return to the top of the NBA mountain.

7. 2015–16 San Antonio Spurs

LaMarcus Aldrige works in the post.

LaMarcus Aldrige works in the post. | Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Blend Elo: 1776

Final regular-season record: 67-15

The offseason addition of LaMarcus Aldridge (18 PPG and 8.5 RPG) may have helped the 2015–16 San Antonio Spurs reach a peak Elo rating of 1800 and finish the year with a final regular-season mark of 67-15. However, he wasn’t able to help the team achieve its ultimate goal: an NBA championship. Still, the numbers don’t lie; these Spurs, statistically speaking, are one of the best teams ever.

Under the sensational guidance of coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs limited the opposition to just 92.9 points per game (first of 30), finished with the best defensive rating (99) in the NBA. According to FiveThirtyEight, they had a season-ending Elo rating of 1759 to go along with an average tally of 1768. Had this group not been eliminated by the OKC Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals, contributing to a composite Elo mark of 1776, perhaps it’d rank higher than No. 7 on the list.

6. 1985–86 Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics in the huddle.

The Boston Celtics in the huddle. | Scott Cunningham/Allsport/Getty Images

Blend Elo: 1784

Final regular-season record: 67-15

K.C. Jones coached this 1985–86 Boston Celtics team to a 67-15 regular-season finish, a 15-3 record in the playoffs, and eventual championship over the Houston Rockets. Led by Larry Bird (25.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game) and Kevin McHale (21.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game), this group had the third-best offensive rating in the league (111.8) and the best defensive rating (102.6).

The peak Elo rating for this team was 1816. However, it finished the season with a rating of 1801 and, throughout the season, ended up with an average mark of 1735. And yet, by managing to have a composite Elo rating of 1784, these Celtics are easily among the best teams of all time.

5. 2014–15 Golden State Warriors

Stephen Curry reacts to a play.

Stephen Curry reacts to a play. | Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Blend Elo: 1796

Final regular-season record: 67-15

Led by the great Stephen Curry, the most recent NBA Champion 2014–15 Golden State Warriors are easily the most interesting case on this entire list. As pointed out by FiveThirtyEight, “They may rise or fall a couple of slots depending on how the rest of the playoffs go…”

Heading into Game 4 of the 2015 Western Conference Finals the Warriors had a composite Elo rating of 1773, based on a peak score of 1791, an average Elo of 1737, and an end rating of 1791. At the time, these numbers put the Golden State Warriors in the fourth position.

However, by destroying the Rockets (115-80) in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, the Warriors reached a new peak Elo rating of 1813. With this score, the Warriors’ season-ending mark increased and the team’s average Elo jumped to 1738. After they demolished Cleveland, the Dubs finished up with an Elo of 1796, making them the fifth-best team in NBA history.

It will take some time, and the appropriate degree of nostalgia, before we can really place this group among the greatest NBA teams of all time. Still, no matter how things eventually play out, we can’t deny the talent of this championship-winning squad.

4. 2015–16 Golden State Warriors

Golden State Warriors react on the bench during Game 5 of the WCF. |

Golden State Warriors react on the bench during Game 5 of the WCF. | Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Blend Elo: 1798

Final regular-season record: 73-9

Even as the 2015–16 Golden State Warriors achieved history by compiling a now-record 73 regular-season victories, we claimed that they still weren’t the best team ever. This argument became further etched in stone once the Dubs blew a 3-1 lead to Cavs in the NBA Finals, failing to capture a second straight title and shot at immortality. Little did we know, however, just how much this stumble would affect their place in history.

Based on FiveThirtyEight’s numbers, the Warriors’ finished the year with a composite Elo rating of 1798, placing them at No. 4 on the all-time list. Despite setting the bar for regular-season excellence, the Dubs’ season-ending Elo rating of 1756 dragged everything down, preventing Golden State from even earning a spot in the top three.

3. 1996–97 Chicago Bulls

Michael Jordan drives to the basket.

Michael Jordan drives to the basket. | Vincent Laforet/AFP/Getty Images

Blend Elo: 1802

Final regular-season record: 69-13

The 1996–97 Chicago Bulls were an impressive squad, especially on the offensive end of the floor. This group led the NBA in points per game (103.1) and offensive efficiency (114.4). With a regular-season record of 69-13 and a postseason mark of 15-4, it’s no surprise that Chicago ended up with a composite Elo rating of 1802.

At its best, this club reached a peak mark of 1811. However, throughout the season, the Bulls had an average rating of 1792 and ended the year with a tally of 1802. Still, this Bulls group was a force to be reckoned with, and the Utah Jazz had no answer for them — losing in the NBA Finals in six games.

2. 1995–96 Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls celebrate winning the NBA title.

The Chicago Bulls celebrate winning the NBA title. | Jonathan Daniel/AllSport/Getty Images

Blend Elo: 1815

Final regular-season record: 72-10

If you take Elo ratings out of the equation, most people would agree that the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls are the best team in NBA history. This group achieved a then-record 72 regular-season wins and, of course, tied its season up with a pretty bow by defeating the Seattle SuperSonics in the finals in six games.

This team averaged 105.2 points per game (first of 29), allowed 92.9 points per contest (third of 29), had the top offensive rating in the league (115.2). This Chicago team was also the most defensively efficient bunch in the NBA (101.8 defensive rating). However, we are supposed to look at the Elo rating. And wouldn’t you know it, this group dominated in that respect as well.

Chicago ended up with a composite Elo rating of 1815. It got to this point by having a peak rating of 1853, an average score of 1770, and a season-ending rating of 1823.

1. 2016–17 Golden State Warriors

The Golden State Warriors are champions again.

The Golden State Warriors make history. | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Blend Elo: 1828

Final regular-season record: 67-15

Based on Elo ratings alone, the 2016–17 Golden State Warriors are the greatest team of all time. This group, which finished 67-15 in the regular season and went 16-1 in the playoffs, averaged 115.9 points per game (first of 30) and had the top offensive rating (115.6) and the second-best defensive rating (104) in the league this season.

On their way to winning a second title in three seasons, the Dubs had the highest peak Elo rating (1865) ever posted; an average score of 1772; and an end-of-the-year Elo rating of 1846 (also the best in history). With the addition of Kevin Durant to an already stacked Warriors roster, the 2017 NBA champs amassed a blended Elo rating — or a composite rating — of 1828, topping the high mark previously held by the 1995–96 Bulls.

Statistics courtesy of FiveThirtyEight and Basketball-Reference.

To see the rest of “The Best NBA Teams of All Time, According to Elo,” click here.