The Greatest Offensive Teams in NBA History

The second most-popular post in the history of this site, according to my analytics, is “The Greatest Defensive Teams in NBA History”, where I took a look at Defensive Rating relative to league average to crown teams like the Jeff Van Gundy-coached Knicks, glory-days Spurs, and the 2008 Celtics as owners of the greatest defensive seasons of all-time.

More recently, the subject came up on Twitter about where the championship-winning Warriors in recent years or the Mike D’Antoni-coached Rockets rank among the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history.

Sure, those guys keep shattering records year in and year out for Offensive Rating, but when the whole league has discovered how to play efficient basketball and score more pace-adjusted points than ever before, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

How about Michael Jordan‘s Bulls? Or the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant Lakers, who had their score artificially held down by playing the slowest-paced era in the history of the league?

Or, for that matter, the teams that played in the 1970s, before there was a 3-point line at all and when generating high Offensive Ratings often relied on having a dominant center to most efficiently score the 2-point shots that counted the same whether the ball was dunked or heaved from the other team’s free throw line 75 feet away?

We have the data since 1973-74, when the NBA officially started counting team offensive rebounds and turnovers, giving us all the pieces of the puzzle required to calculate Offensive Rating.

And as with the defensive version of this concept, we’re going to standardize on Offensive Percentage, that is (Team OffRtg/Lg OffRtg)*100. Higher is better. For example, if your Offensive Rating is 99 and league Offensive Rating is 90, your Offensive Percentage is 110. And if league Offensive Rating is 90, those poor, poor fans in the seats, but I digress.

Simple, right? Just like last time, sorted by year (including 2019-20 through March 11 when the coronavirus shut everything down), bold teams won the title, italicized teams made the Finals and lost:

2019-20: Dallas (105.7)
2018-19: Golden State (105.0)
2017-18: Houston (105.6)
2016-17: Golden State (106.3)
2015-16: Golden State (107.6)
2014-15: LA Clippers (106.4)
2013-14: LA Clippers (105.1)
2012-13: Oklahoma City (106.1)
2011-12: San Antonio (106.0)
2010-11: Denver (104.7)
2009-10: Phoenix (107.2)
2008-09: Portland (105.2)
2007-08: Utah (105.9)
2006-07: Phoenix (106.9)
2005-06: Dallas (105.3)
2004-05: Phoenix (107.9)
2003-04: Dallas (108.9)
2002-03: Dallas (106.9)
2001-02: Dallas (107.4)
2000-01: Milwaukee (105.6)
1999-2000: Indiana (104.2)
1998-99: Indiana (106.4)
1997-98: Utah (107.3)
1996-97: Chicago (107.2)
1995-96: Chicago (107.1)
1994-95: Orlando (106.3)
1993-94: Phoenix (105.1)
1992-93: Phoenix (104.9)
1991-92: Chicago (106.7)
1990-91: Chicago (106.2)
1989-90: LA Lakers (105.5)
1988-89: LA Lakers (105.6)
1987-88: Boston (106.9)
1986-87: LA Lakers (106.7)
1985-86: LA Lakers (105.7)
1984-85: LA Lakers (105.7)
1983-84: Detroit (103.6)
1982-83: LA Lakers (105.5)
1981-82: Denver (106.9)
1980-81: Denver (103.7)
1979-80: LA Lakers (104.0)
1978-79: Houston (104.7)
1977-78: Philadelphia (104.1)
1976-77: Houston (105.0)
1975-76: Houston (102.8)
1974-75: Golden State/Houston (tie) (102.8)
1973-74: Milwaukee (103.6)

So What Have We Learned?

Well, for one thing, we learned that Steve Nash is amazing whether he’s got Mike D’Antoni or Don Nelson coaching him. Those Mavs and Suns teams he was on revolutionized the league and ultimately brought it out of the Dark Ages.

You can see it in those sky-high Offensive Percentages. No team in NBA history has come close to matching that astonishing 108.9 the Mavs put up in 2004, the same way the Spurs set the NBA record for greatest defensive performance that year with a Defensive Percentage of 91.5, an equal and opposite reaction of sorts. That was the rookie year of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony. The league put up its worst offensive season in a non-lockout year in history and reached the lowest of the low.

But the Mavs showed us a brighter future, even though their gods-awful defense (26th out of 29 teams) proved their undoing in the very first round of the playoffs against Sacramento.

Then again, Dallas won a title two years later with Avery Johnson continuing Nelson’s offensive brilliance with a little help from Dirk Nowitzki, so there’s that.

Nine teams led the league in Offensive Rating in a season and went on to win the title, thanks largely to seven of them having either Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson involved. The other two teams are Warriors squads, but oddly, of the three times the Dubs led the league in offense in recent years, two of them are years they lost the Finals. Overall, nine teams lost the Finals after posting the league’s best offense, making the tally nine out of 18 vs. eight out of 15 for Defensive Percentage.

So the notion that defense wins championships is true to an extent (a third of Finals appearances between 1974 and 2018 per this article’s companion piece, and eight rings—Toronto, for what it’s worth, was fifth in Defensive Rating last year), but no more so than the idea that if you run your opponent off the floor and score a ton of points, you can win titles that way too—nearly 40 percent (18 out of 46, 39.1%) of NBA Finals since 1974 have involved the top offense. It helps if you’ve got a transcendent Hall of Famer at the controls of your offense, like Jordan, Johnson, or Stephen Curry.

Also a little weird fun fact involves the Western Conference being home to the league’s best offense for what is so far in 2020 the 19th straight year. Overall, the vast majority of the best offensive teams in league history have come out of the West.

But your top 5 offenses in NBA history, in order? The 2004 Mavericks, 2006 Suns, 2016 Warriors, 2002 Mavs, and the 1998 Last Shot victim Utah Jazz.

Pour out a 40 for classic Don Nelson basketball, and pile on the accolades for the amazing Steve Nash, huh?