NBA: Ranking the 7 Greatest Offensive Lineups of All Time
Defense might win championships, but the real joy of basketball comes at the offensive end of the court. NBA fans were reminded of this last year, when Miami was in the midst of its epic 27-win streak, and they were reminded again when the Spurs’ pass-happy offense blew through everyone that wasn’t the Dallas Mavericks during the 2014 playoffs. Good ball movement is awesome. Scoring is awesome. Teams that play as teams are awesome.
Whether it’s LeBron and Carmelo Anthony putting a new spin on the undersized power forward, watching a well-executed outlet pass into a fast break, or witnessing Chris Paul operate in the half court, the best offenses culminate in jaw-dropping flashes of skill and precision. They also only get more fun when matched up against a competent defense, which is why some fans barely bother with the NBA until the playoffs arrive.
That’s fairly indefensible, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. No, now that we’re one series away from being stuck watching Summer League highlight videos and wishing that preseason would just hurry up and start already, let’s celebrate the best offensive juggernauts in the modern history of the NBA — only teams that played with a three-point line are included.
7. Dallas Mavericks, 1987
- Offensive rating: 114.9
First and foremost, what is an offensive rating? Simply put, it’s an aggregation of how many points a team scored per 100 possessions — you can find a mathematical breakdown of the team O-rating at Basketball-Reference, which is also where we’ve sourced our data — throughout a single season. This past year, the Los Angeles Clippers had the highest offensive rating in the NBA, clocking in at 112.1 points per 100 possessions. For the curious, defensive rating is exactly what you’d imagine it to be: points given up per 100 possessions. The Clippers gave up 104.8 points per 100 while scoring 112.1 per 100, which is why they won 57 games. Make sense?
Now, let’s look at the 1987 Dallas Mavericks, one of the few bright spots in the pre-Cuban era history of the club. Behind the strong scoring of Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman, plus a precocious Detlef Schrempf, the ’87 Mavericks won 55 games on their way to the playoffs, where they were roundly stomped by the Seattle Supersonics 3-1 in the first round (this was back when the first round was a best-of-five series; it was expanded to best-of-seven in 2003). Not unlike the Mavericks of the last decade, really.
6. Orlando Magic, 1995
- Offensive rating: 115.1
The pinnacle of the Shaq and Penny Magic era, the 1995 Orlando Magic made it all the way to the NBA Finals, upsetting Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals before falling to Hakeem and the Houston Rockets on basketball’s biggest stage. Shaq would bail for Los Angeles and Penny’s body broke down, but in 1995, there wasn’t a team that was more fun to watch than the Magic.
5. Chicago Bulls, 1996
- Offensive rating: 115.2
It’s universally agreed that the Chicago Bulls’ early exit against the 1995 Orlando Magic lit a fire under the whole squad and propelled them to the best regular season in basketball history — 72 wins and 10 losses — as well as the first of three successive championships. The ’96 Bulls, with key addition Dennis Rodman bringing his defensive toughness and rebounding acumen to complement Michael Jordan’s otherworldly scoring and Scottie Pippen’s perpetually understated brilliance, ran through absolutely everyone.
4. Phoenix Suns, 2010
- Offensive rating: 115.3
Not the first Suns team that’s brought up when it comes to the best offenses in basketball (that would be the teams with Joe Johnson earlier in the decade), the 2010 team was actually scoring more points per 100 possessions than its more famous Seven Seconds or Less variation. The Nash-Amar’e pairing was fully synched up and played in 81 games together, while fan favorites like Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, and Goran Dragic filled out the edges of an uptempo team that ignored defense entirely in order to score as many points as humanly possible. Fifty-four wins and a Western Conference Finals berth later, the team would fall to the eventual NBA champions that year, the Los Angeles Lakers.
3. Boston Celtics, 1988
- Offensive rating: 115.4
This is oddly familiar to the Phoenix listing — the best Boston team is almost universally hailed as the 1986 squad, and yet the 1988 team was significantly better on the offensive end, posting a 115.4 compared to the ’86 team’s 111.8 (70th on the all-time list). The ’88 squad, which still featured Boston’s mega frontline of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, would eventually fall to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Bird would later say that his back injury and ailments began to affect his game that year. McHale was battling injuries of his own, although his infamous Finals series, when he played on a broken foot, took place the year before.
2. Chicago Bulls, 1992
- Offensive rating: 115.5
While Jordan’s best team would come in 1996, he was arguably at his peak in 1992, when a 28-year-old Airness averaged 30 points, six rebounds, and six assists. This was the second year of the Bulls’ first threepeat, and they faced their most difficult challenge in any of their winning seasons, playing 22 games on their way to the title. Fire up some Alan Parsons Project (even if that was most famous during their second threepeat, the vibe is eternal) and soak in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals, which is posted, in full, above. Jordan and the Bulls are still the best.
1. Los Angeles Lakers, 1987
- Offensive rating: 115.6
The best offensive team of the Showtime Lakers era — and the best offense in NBA history — the 1987 Los Angeles squad was built around the twin talents of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a ying and yang of personalities that combined to obliterate teams with precision passing and post moves galore. We would be doing a disservice if we didn’t mention the contributions of James Worthy, A.C. Green, and Kurt Rambis, whose signature hornrims and mustache can be seen above. The ’87 Lakers, who would win 65 games in the regular season, marked the arguable pinnacle of Johnson’s career, as he averaged just under 24 points, over 12 assists, and a hair over six rebounds.
The Lakers would blaze through the postseason, losing only one game before the NBA Finals, when they dispatched the Boston Celtics 4-2, a series that included the immortal shot missed by Larry Bird in Game 2, when a wide-open Larry Legend missed a wide-open shot, clanking it just barely off the rim. Game over. Lakers win, and the series wasn’t the same after that, by everyone’s admission. The best offense in NBA history prevailed.