In the last post, I looked at a few statistical measures to get at just how exceptional the 2014 San Antonio Spurs were in relation to previous NBA champions, particularly in regards to their approach to scoring. By those measures, they had the least ‘top-heavy’ distribution of points of any NBA champion, and it wasn’t really very close.
Another way to look at scoring balance is to examine the raw point differentials between the top scorers on a given team. If I had more time, I could have gathered more data, but I only gathered data on the three leading scorers for each NBA champion. In the first graph, you can see the NBA champions with the smallest variation in point totals between their top three scorers (teams point differential between the leading and third leading scorer was less than 410 points, ~5ppg):
There are 25 teams on this list. If we narrow the point differential between 1st and 3rd to 328 points (~4ppg), we’re left with the following 15 teams:
Since 1954, the median number of wins for an NBA champion is 57.41. The median number of wins for these teams is 57.08, so they don’t seem to be exceptionally good or lucky. Is there anything particularly noteworthy about these 15 teams? Well, yes, I’d say. Here are some interesting observations:
- Only four franchises appear on this list: the Boston Celtics (10x), the San Antonio Spurs (2x), the Detroit Pistons (2x), and the Seattle Supersonics (1x).
- The Boston Celtics teams from 1957-1963 had exceptional scoring balance among their top three: the only time they don’t appear on this list is 1958, when they lost the title to the St. Louis Hawks.
- Both ‘Bad Boys’ Pistons champions made the list, as well as the 2005 (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili) and 2014 (Parker, Duncan, Belinelli) flavors of the Spurs, almost a full decade apart.
Suppose, however, that we’re less interested in the gap between the top three scorers and only want to know about the team’s top two scorers. Here’s a similar graph showing the NBA champions with the smallest point variation between the top two scorers (less than 164 points, ~2ppg):
Some observations about the 13 teams on this list:
- The highest scoring duo on this list are Gail Goodrich (25.9 ppg) and Jerry West (25.8 ppg) from the 1972 Lakers. They’re the third highest scoring duo (in terms of raw points) to ever win an NBA title (behind Kareem and Oscar Robertson in 1971, and Michael and Scottie in 1992), and one of just two teammate pairs to average more than 25 points per game on an NBA champion (the other pair to accomplish the feat were Shaq and Kobe, who did it twice: in 2001 and 2002).
- There are 5 Red Auerbach teams (3 that he coached, 2 he was GM of) and 2 Gregg Popovich teams on this list.
- This list presents a really interesting mix of teams from different eras. Teams on this list by decade:
1951-1960: 1 (1957 Celtics)
1961-1970: 4 (3 Celtics teams and the 1970 Knicks)
1971-1980: 3 (1972 Lakers, 1976 Celtics, 1978 Bullets)
1981-1990: 2 (1982 Lakers, 1990 Pistons)
2001-2010: 2 (2004 Pistons, 2005 Spurs)
2010-present: 1 (2014 Spurs).
So these are, by one measure at least, the most balanced teams (in terms of scoring) to win NBA titles (note that the 2014 Spurs appear on both lists, with the sixth smallest variance between their top three scorers, and second smallest variance between their top two scorers).
Let’s take a look now at the other end: the most offensively imbalanced teams, or the teams with the largest variation between their largest scorer and the rest of the team. Here’s a graph of the NBA Champions with the largest variation in scoring between their leading and second leading scorers (at least 680 points, ~8.5ppg):
There are fourteen teams that meet the criteria specified above. Some interesting observations:
- All 6 of Jordan’s Bulls championship teams appear on this list.
- Rick Barry’s 1975 Warriors team comes in second, though would be first if you measure by difference in PPG between the two leading scorers (Scottie Pippen missed more than half the season in 1998, which meant that in terms of raw points, Toni Kukoc was the Bulls’ second leading scorer that season).
- Though we probably most commonly think of the 1980s as the beginning of the NBA’s ‘star era,’ that descriptor is probably best applied to the 1990s: Every NBA champion from 1991 through 2000 appears on this list, except for the 1999 strike-shortened season champions San Antonio Spurs.
- Teams on this list by decade:
1961-1970: 1 (1965 Boston Celtics)
1971-1980: 2 (1971 Bucks and 1975 Warriors)
2001-2010: 2 (2006 Heat and 2010 Lakers)
Now let’s take a look at the teams with the largest variation between the first and third leading scorers. In this case, we’ll use a cutoff of a 1066 point differential between the team’s first and third leading scorer (~13 ppg). Here’s the corresponding graph:
There are 14 teams that meet this criteria. Some interesting observations about this graph:
- Jordan (and Pippen)’s Bulls teams again dominate this list, filling the top 5 spots and 6 of the first 9.
- Shaq and Kobe’s 2000-2002 Lakers teams all made this list, as did Kobe’s 2009 team (mostly because Andrew Bynum, the team’s third leading scorer by points per game, missed almost half the season).
- Olajuwon’s two Jordan retirement years teams are here, as are the 1975 Warriors (Rick Barry’s one man offense) and the 1971 Bucks (Kareem and Oscar and Bob Dandridge).
- 11 of the 14 teams (all but the 1971 Bucks, the 1975 Warriors, and the 2009 Lakers) won their titles in the 12 seasons between 1991-2002. The only title winner from this era not to make this list? The 1999 Spurs, who played a strike shortened 50 game season.
- If we were to set a the cut-off a little higher, at 1230 points (15ppg), the list would include Jordan (6x), Kobe (3x)/Shaq (2x), and Rick Barry (1x), and that’s it.