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How Close Did The Warriors Come To The Best NBA Season Ever?

By losing the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the regular season record-setting Golden State Warriors also lost their claim to arguably the best NBA single-season of all-time. Or did they?

by Todd Whitehead
Jun 21 2016, 6:27pm

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.

On Sunday evening in Oakland, facing the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors came within 53 seconds of capping off their record-setting regular season with a second-straight league championship. Only Stephen Curry came up short on a three-pointer, and the Warriors finally faltered.

Now that the 2015-16 NBA season is behind us, how will we ultimately remember this oh-so-close-to-great team? And how will failing to win the title impact Golden State's place in league history?

Let's look back, take in the bigger picture, and see if we can sort out some answers.

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The first thing to consider is this: what Golden State accomplished in the regular season was hard. And rare. Since 1950, only four NBA teams have broken the regular season winning percentage record, and the other three went on to capture the championship. A handful of other teams have come close to matching those high-water marks, and most of them captured championships as well.

Take a look at the best regular season records in NBA history by winning percentage, 1950-2016:

What can we learn? For one, nobody should hold their breath waiting for a NBA team to win 74 or more regular season games. If history is any guide, it might be a few decades before a new challenger can knock the Warriors off their best-ever regular-season perch.

In 1950, the Syracuse Nationals set the original bar with a 51-13 record. It took nearly two decades for Wilt Chamberlain and his Philadelphia 76ers to surpass Syracuse at 68-13. Just five years later, the Los Angeles Lakers—also featuring Chamberlain—nudged past that mark when an updated 82-game schedule allowed them to finish 69-13.

From there, over 20 years passed before Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls registered their 72-win 1995-96 season—and 20 more years went by before this season's Warriors managed to win 73 games.

So, yes, Curry and company deserve all the hype and kudos they received for their record-breaking regular season, even if Charles Barkley doesn't think so.

In happier times. Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately for Golden State and its fans, piling up regular season wins doesn't mean much without a championship. In losing to LeBron James and the Cavs, the 2015-16 Warriors join the 1972-73 Boston Celtics, 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks and 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs as the best regular season teams not to have won the NBA title.

Here's a semi-scientific plot of how close Golden State came to registering what many believed would end up as the Best Season Ever:

Of course, Best Season Ever assumes that only two things matter: regular season record, and a championship. In reality, though, any ranking of the top NBA single seasons ought to include postseason victories. After all, the wins matter more in the playoffs; the competition is tougher; the coaching and scouting is locked in; and health permitting, the best players are playing the most minutes at their maximum effort levels.

Put more succinctly: it's great to kick butt in January and February, but the very best teams do the same in May and June.

So, to get a sense for what the 2015-16 Warriors' legacy would have been if the last minute of Game 7 had played out differently—to see what, exactly, they missed out on—I've created a composite index that incorporates regular and postseason winning percentages. I chose to weight the two winning percentages equally—even though there are more regular season games—because I think playoff games are more important.

Using this index, here are the 20 best championship seasons in NBA history, including the 2015-16 Warriors' alternate universe title, which happened in a quantum timeline where James doesn't block every shot taken by everyone wearing blue, yellow and white:

*Imaginary champion

By this measure, the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers had the best composite winning percentage at 86.8 percent. Dr. J., Moses Malone, and the gang posted a very respectable 65-17 (79.3 winning percentage) regular season record and nearly backed up their "Fo, fo, fo" trash talk by finishing 12-1 (92.3 winning percentage) in three best-of-seven postseason series. The aforementioned 1995-96 Bulls were a close second, going 15-3 in the playoffs and finishing with a composite winning percentage of 86.6.

As for the imaginary champion 2015-16 Warriors? They would still be very good. But their postseason winning percentage—a function, perhaps, of an untimely Curry knee injury and strong performances from the Cavs and Oklahoma City Thunder—would not have been dominant. And that certainly would have cooled some of the Best Season Ever talk.

Not like this. Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

A third factor to consider: there's more to a great single season than ... a great single season. How so? Well, part of what made those 1995-96 Bulls so memorable—and what buttresses their continuing aura of greatness—is that they enjoyed sustained success.

In other words, their best season looked even better in the eyes of basketball fans and observers because of all the winning that came before and after it.

A simple way to gauge sustained success and separate the dynasties from the one-offs is to count the number of additional championships that the team won in the two years preceding and the two years following their historically great season, which is listed in the above chart under add'l rings. The 1982-83 76ers couldn't recreate their championship success. Neither could some of the other teams on this elite list: the 1966-67 76ers, the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks, and the 1971-72 Lakers.

To me, these one-hit wonders can't really stake a claim to the best NBA season ever. If you want credit for that, you need to provide some proof that it wasn't just a fluke, the product of favorable matchups, injury-riddled opponents, or a watered-down league. And the best way to avoid these sorts of criticisms is to come back the next year and do it again; as far as I'm concerned, the Best Season Ever title will always belong to a team with a track record of continued success.

Viewed through this lens, I think we can sort the Top 20 single seasons into three categories of historical NBA greatness:

Powerhouse teams without a signature season. This includes the 1960s Boston Celtics, who won 11 championships without cracking the 80 percent threshold for composite regular-and-postseason winning percentage; the 1950s Lakers, who won five rings without a truly dominant season; and the modern-day Spurs, whose best single season came in 1999, a lockout-shortened campaign that requires an asterisk.

Incredible single seasons without an enduring legacy. This is the somewhat ignominious label that I am—perhaps unfairly—applying to the 1967 Sixers, the 1971 Bucks, the 1972 Lakers and the 1983 Sixers. Each of these mini-dynasties only produced a single championship; in retrospect, the overall disappointment associated with these teams took some of the luster off of their lone trophies. Many of the star players from these teams—such as Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West— are the sort of highly-respected all-time greats who were (and are) criticized for their postseason struggles.

One of the best-ever seasons. These five teams had five of the most dominant seasons in NBA history—80 percent or higher composite winning percentage—and each one backed it up with at least one other championship during the two years before or after their signature season. We're talking he Larry Bird-led 1986-86 Celtics, the 1986-87 Showtime Lakers, the 1988-89 Bad Boy Pistons, the Jordan-led 1995-96 Bulls, and the 2000-01 Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers.

TFW it's good to (still) be king, and also the king of memes. Photo by Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The way I see it, those five seasons stand alone. They're as good as it gets. If the 2015-16 Warriors had pulled out a Game 7 win, they would have finished with a 16-8 postseason record, a 77.8 percent composite winning percentage, and back-to-back titles—good enough, I think, to be mentioned alongside those teams, if not seen as the clear-cut standout.

As it is, the 2014-15 Warriors are now in danger of becoming a member of the one-hit wonder group. So, that's the bad news for Golden State fans. The good news? The Warriors' core is still quite young, and still very good. Nobody wins 73 regular season games by accident. Barring any major, career-altering injuries, Golden State figures to have many more chances to compete for championships—and with that, more shots at the elusive Best Season Ever.

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