The Worst of the Best

We often debate who is the best?  Occasionally we talk about the worst.  But what about the worst of the best?

Back in 1973 the NBA began tracking all the statistics for teams that are reported in a typical box score (statistics for players would not be fully reported until 1977).  These statistics can be used to measure each team’s offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and efficiency differential (offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency).  In June I noted the efficiency differential of each team that has participated in the NBA Finals since 1974.  These results are once again reported in Table One.

Table One: Efficiency Differential of the NBA Final Participants

As Table One notes, the best team since 1973-74 – in terms of efficiency differential – was the Chicago Bulls of 1995-96.  Given a differential of 13.0, we were not surprised to see this team win a title in 1996.

The same story would not be told in 1978.  That year the Washington Bullets posted a differential of 0.8 while winning only 44 games. Looking over Table One we see that no team has won the NBA championship since 1974 with a differential this poor.  To add further perspective to this number, ten teams this past season had a better differential.  The Orlando Magic had a 0.8 differential, and this team was swept out of the first round in 2007.

Okay, how about a bit more perspective?As Table Two indicates, the 1978 title team was only the 10th best edition of the Bullets-Wizards since 1974.

Table Two: Basketball in Washington

There are many stories one could tell starting with the Table Two (such as how this franchise could historically be this bad), but I want to focus on the story of the 1978 title team.  Clearly this was not a team for the ages.  Still, unlike many “better” teams, the Bullets of 1978 were NBA champions.

The Path to a Title

Certainly luck played a role in the building of this champion.  The top team in the NBA – the Portland Trail Blazers – lost its top player with about 20 games left in the regular season.  As detailed two months ago, before Bill Walton was hurt the Blazers were on pace to win 68 games.  Without Walton, the team only won eight of its last 22 contests and was subsequently bounced in the second round the playoffs.

Still, it wasn’t all luck. Or at least, the Bullets had to defeat a few good teams to reach the finals.  In the Eastern Conference semi-finals the Bullets took down a San Antonio Spurs, a team that won 52 games with a differential of 3.0.  In the conference finals, the Bullets defeated Dr. J. and the Philadelphia 76ers, a team many expected to take the title.

In the Finals, though, the Bullets were lucky to face a surprisingly weak foe.  The Seattle Super Sonics finished the regular season with only 47 victories and a differential of 1.6.  Although Seattle was a bit better than Washington, the Sonics were still one of the worst teams ever to reach the NBA Finals. 

Unfortunately for the NBA, these two teams met again in the 1979 finals.  This time, Washington was the better team, at least in terms of regular season record and efficiency differential. And once again, the worst team prevailed as the Sonics took their only title in franchise history.

Luckily for the NBA, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived with the 1979-80 campaign.  And the Bullets-Sonics rivalry – which spawned two of the worst NBA champions in league history – was put to rest.

The Star Bullet

Although the Bullets of 1978 were not an all-time great team, Washington in the 1970s was a top NBA team.  Four times it reached the Finals in the 1970s.  The best of these teams – the 1974-75 edition – won 60 games before being swept in the Finals by the Golden State Warriors.  The second best team – the 1978-79 team – was, as noted, also defeated in the NBA Finals.

As Table Three reports, the 1977-78 and 1978-79 teams played virtually the same roster. 

Table Three: The Washington Bullets in 1977-78 and 1978-79

The latter team, though, received eleven more wins from Bob Dandridge, Greg Ballard, Mitch Kupchak, and Tom Henderson.  Although these players improved, the star player in each campaign – and throughout the 1970s – was Wes Unseld.

Unseld produced 19.6 wins and posted a WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) of 0.355 in 1977-78.  The next season his WP48 rose to 0.366, but because he played fewer minutes, his wins production fell to 18.4.  Unseld was not alone in Washington.  The aforementioned four helped.  And of course Elvin Hayes was also a major contributor.  But the star – and I do mean Super-Star – was Unseld.

After the 78-79 campaign this team declined.  Much of this was due to age. Hayes was 34 in 1979-80 while Unseld was 33.  Although Hayes did not retire until after the 1983-84 campaign, his production was quite a bit less after the 1978-79 season. As for Unseld, he was productive until the end.  Unfortunately, the end of his career came in 1981.  After that Unseld went on to work in the front office of the Bullets and also as the team’s head coach.  His bio at NBA.com, though, says it all when it states: Coach Unseld didn’t have any players like himself…” 

Without Unseld on the floor playing, the Washington franchise has failed to eclipse the 45 win mark.  Although it’s not the case that a team needs a Super-Star to win in the NBA, Unseld demonstrated in the 1970s that it certainly helps.  At least, without such a star, building a team that is actually one of the best of the best is quite difficult.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

Wins Produced and Win Score are Discussed in the Following Posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

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