In the new issue of Dime Magazine, we took a look at the best â€“ and worst â€“ the game has offered since the turn of the century. From the players to jerseys to sneakers to teams to even trends, you can relive the past 12 years by scooping up the new issue currently on newsstands nationwide. In those pages, you’ll find the following feature…
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They say history is written by the victors â€“ usually as a reference to war. But in this 21st century, when ballgames capture our attention over battlefields, history is more often written by those who have the press passes to cover the victors. And too many times, our historians only remember the gladiators who walked away with the biggest trophies.
So with 13 years of ground to cover and 13 championship teams representing this era, it might seem odd that we’ve created a list of the 10 best NBA teams since 2000 that includes some teams that did not win a title.
But even though it goes against all we’ve been taught in this winning-is-everything society, we believe a team’s entire body of work has some weight in addition to the end result of their playoff run. We’re trying to consider the season â€“ not just the postseason. Because while championships undoubtedly help define a legacy, the truth is that a team can still be great without the gold.
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10. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES, 2003-04
Who would’ve guessed that a team based in Minneapolis that started a 34-year-old, ground-bound point guard would become this century’s most street credible NBA squad?
While Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell gave the Wolves more than enough authenticity with the asphalt and chain-net crowd, it was that cagey old point guard that took them from simply being a cool team to being a cool team that could win a championship.
Sam Cassell guided Minnesota to 58 regular-season wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals, dropping 19 points, seven assists and 12 trash-talk victims per night with his Baltimore playground swagger and deadly pull-up jumper. But when Cassell was slowed by a hip injury in the conference finals against the Lakers, Minnesota’s run ended prematurely.
Could the Wolves have gone all the way with a healthy Cassell? That’s the lingering question for a city that hasn’t won a major sports championship since 1991, and whose NBA team has never come as close as it did in 2004.
Sprewell raised his game in the playoffs that year (19.8 points per game), while Garnett capped an MVP regular season with an even better postseason, averaging 24.3 points, 14.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.2 blocks in the playoffs. KG’s highlight reel from that season alone makes a convincing argument that he might be one of the five most gifted and talented all-around basketball players of all time, and at the height of his powers, he was the face of one of the most underrated teams of all time.
9. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS, 2008-09
The best team LeBron James ever had in Cleveland wasn’t the one that made it to the NBA Finals (2007), nor was it one of the teams that lost in hard-fought series to the eventual conference champion Celtics (2008, 2010). In fact, LeBron’s best team in Cleveland was the one that lost to a relatively forgettable Orlando Magic squad in the ’09 Eastern Conference Finals, a series they were almost universally favored to win.
LeBron captured his first league MVP that year, putting up 28.4 points, 7.6 boards, 7.2 assists and 1.7 steals while leading Cleveland to 66 wins in the regular season. His supporting cast included All-Star point guard Mo Williams, creaky yet savvy veteran center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and twin energy guys Anderson Varejao and Delonte West. But make no mistake, LeBron was the be-all, end-all for this squad.
The Cavs swept the Pistons and Hawks in the playoffs before running into Dwight Howard and the Magic. LeBron was brilliant in the series, flirting with triple-doubles every game, hitting a buzzer-beater to win Game 2, and producing a 37-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist effort to avoid elimination in Game 5. But he couldn’t outscore the Magic by himself, nor defend every opponent on the floor. Cleveland’s shooters went cold, Orlando’s shooters got hot, and Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy simply out-coached Cleveland’s Mike Brown. The Cavs lost.
And so ended not just LeBron’s best chance at a championship with the Cavs, but also the best chance we had of seeing LeBron and Kobe Bryant go head-to-head in a playoff series in their respective primes.
8. LOS ANGELES LAKERS, 2008-09
In a year that seemed destined for Kobe-versus-LeBron, an unplanned and anti-climactic Finals series between the Lakers and Magic allowed many to forget just how good this L.A. team really was.
Still on the hunt for his first post-Shaq championship, Kobe Bryant led L.A. to 65 regular-season wins in ’08-09 while dropping 26.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.5 steals a night. He was flanked by All-Star big man Pau Gasol (18.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg), who dominated the frontcourt even with future All-Star center Andrew Bynum in and out of the lineup with injuries. Lamar Odom‘s versatility as a 6-10 point-forward made for constant matchup problems, Trevor Ariza drew praise as a poor man’s Scottie Pippen for his defensive playmaking, and veteran point guard Derek Fisher delivered timely clutch shots.
The Lakers were deep enough that Kobe didn’t have to dominate, even though he often did. After all, he is Kobe Bryant.
7. SACRAMENTO KINGS, 2001-02
Take an international melting pot of NBA players, throw in a dash of Brazilian soccer teamwork, a pinch of Fab Five bravado and a sprinkle of Hickory High small-town purity, and you get the ’01-02 Kings â€“ the NBA’s best answer to The Beautiful Game.
Chris Webber was the star, a 6-10 power forward who handled and passed the ball better than half the league’s point guards. He teamed with center Vlade Divac, a seven-foot passing wizard in his own right, to form an unprecedented big-man duo that blended the Twin Towers with Showtime. Then there was clutch-shooting point guard Mike Bibby, defensive stopper Doug Christie, three-point gunner Peja Stojakovic, and a bench mob featuring Bobby Jackson and Hedo Turkoglu that gave Sacramento enough depth to run teams out of the gym.
Head coach Rick Adelman and assistant Pete Carril devised a Princeton-style, high-post, passer-friendly offense that was fun for the basketball novice and refreshing for the hoops expert. The Kings were a cutting, screening, moving, dishing, shooting, backdoor-ing tribute to the art of finesse basketball.
Sacramento ran up almost 105 points a night, winning 61 games in the regular season before falling to the Lakers (on their way to a championship three-peat) in a controversial Western Conference Finals series that involved some suspect officiating. To this day, conspiracy theorists â€“ bolstered by the claims of ex-NBA referee Tim Donaghy â€“ believe the Kings lost the series mainly because it was in the league’s best interest that the team from L.A. advance. In essence, the accusation is that The Beautiful Game was taken down by the ugliness of money and politics.
6. LOS ANGELES LAKERS, 2001-02
Three words make it tough for any conspiracy theorist to discredit L.A.’s 2002 championship: Shaq and Kobe. Say what you want about the referees, the NBA’s front office, and the golden horseshoe that must have been attached to Robert Horry‘s body somewhere, but very few teams in history have had a 1-2 punch like Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in their prime.
Coming off back-to-back championships, Shaq (28 points per game in the playoffs) and Kobe (22 ppg) were in beast mode by 2002. They’d seen it all, been through it all. Despite two shining reasons to be content with an abbreviated postseason â€“ not to mention a starting unit that often included Samaki Walker and Lindsey Hunter â€“ they still ran through the regular season and then Utah, San Antonio and Sacramento to get to the NBA Finals, then swept Jason Kidd (in what was probably his best season as a pro) and the New Jersey Nets to clinch their third consecutive title.
5. DETROIT PISTONS, 2003-04
The last throwback team of the 21st century created a blueprint that may never again be used to win an NBA championship. Detroit discovered the perfect blend of purist-pleasing teamwork and critic-baiting griminess, without any “Big Three” or superstar summit necessary. In fact, the Pistons secured their title by taking down one of the era’s first attempts at a “super-team” â€“ the L.A. Lakers squad that started four future Hall of Famers: Shaq, Kobe, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
Chauncey Billups ran point for Detroit and earned Finals MVP, but this wasn’t an Isiah Thomas situation; there was no stand-above-all leader on this updated version of the Bad Boys. That was the beauty of the whole thing.
The Pistons were more like a football team. Ben Wallace led the defense like a middle linebacker; Chauncey quarterbacked the offense with an icy efficiency; Rip Hamilton was the lithe wide receiver whose primary job was to put points on the board; Rasheed Wallace was the half-crazy free safety with a knack for making the biggest play at the biggest time; Tayshaun Prince was the quietly deadly and ever-reliable tight end; and dedicated role players like Corliss Williamson, Lindsey Hunter and Elden Campbell fortified the offensive and defensive lines. Detroit played smash-mouth, ball-control, grown-ass-man’s basketball. And nobody was able to stop them.
We might never see another NBA champion like the ’04 Pistons. Unfortunately, a lot of people would be totally okay with that.
4. BOSTON CELTICS, 2007-08
Ironically, even though the ’08 Celtics are widely credited with starting the current trend of the NBA super team, they also managed to avoid most of the criticism that later iterations in Miami (LeBron) and L.A. (Dwight Howard) received for following the same game plan. Why? Probably because Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce had gone through so much adversity leading up to ’07-08 that most of us honestly didn’t care if they stacked the deck for once.
After one of the darkest periods in Celtics history, GM Danny Ainge spent the summer of 2007 putting together a juggernaut. He acquired Garnett from Minnesota and Allen from Seattle in a pair of trades, putting the future Hall of Famers alongside Boston lifer Pierce to form a trio that was as hungry as it was talented. Of course the road wasn’t easy: After bullying through the regular season with 66 wins, Boston was taken to seven games in each of its first two playoff series, outlasting an upstart young Hawks team and outslugging LeBron and the Cavs in the second round. After winning another alley brawl with the Pistons, the Celtics had a relatively easy time with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the NBA Finals, clinching the title with a 39-point rout in the decisive Game 6.
With a supporting cast that included veterans James Posey, P.J. Brown, Eddie House and Sam Cassell, and youngsters Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Tony Allen, Boston was the deepest team of its era and arguably the best defensive team of its era.
3. MIAMI HEAT, 2011-12
Too much talent. Too much speed. Too much defense. Too many shooters. Too much to prove. Too much riding on this title run for it to go any other way.
And, of course, too much LeBron.
After the first year of their grand experiment ended in disappointment (can’t quite call it a disaster when you make the NBA Finals), the pressure placed on LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to deliver a championship was greater than any NBA team had ever faced. And despite a hiccup or two along the way, Miami handled it with a surprising ease.
Facing a 2-1 deficit to Indiana in the conference semifinals, LeBron put up 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists in Game 4, then 30 points, 10 boards and eight assists in Game 5 to give Miami control of the series. Facing elimination against Boston in the next round, LeBron put together a 45-point, 15-board, five-dime performance on the road to force a Game 7. Then, after losing Game 1 of the Finals to Oklahoma City, LeBron and Co. swept the next four games.
This year will be remembered as the year LeBron reached the mountaintop, and how he got there by averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals in the Finals, and how he did that by practically playing all five positions on the court. But LeBron doesn’t get to that peak without the contributions of Wade, Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Udonis Haslem, and the rest that made Miami a team more than decoration around one player.
2. SAN ANTONIO SPURS, 2004-05
The thing about the Spurs dynasty that makes it tough to put in perspective is that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were never in their primes at the same times.
When Duncan was in MVP form in ’03, Parker and Ginobili were just coming into their own as NBA stars. By the time Parker blossomed into one of the best point guards in the world and Ginobili was the best bench player in basketball, Duncan was beginning to slow down a bit. And Parker and Ginobili weren’t even in the U.S. when Duncan led San Antonio to its first title in 1999.
For the closest example of what it would’ve been like to see the Hall of Fame-bound trio at their collective peak, you’d have to go with the 2005 championship team. That was the team that outran the Steve Nash-led Suns in the Western Conference Finals, then out-fought the rugged Pistons in the NBA Finals.
Duncan (20.3 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 2.6 bpg), Parker (16.6 ppg, 6.1 apg) and Ginobili (16.0 ppg) were clicking on all cylinders. All three of them raised their numbers in the playoffs, and with role players like Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, Nazr Mohammed and Brent Barry playing their roles perfectly, the Spurs laid another brick on the foundation of one of basketball’s true dynasties.
1. LOS ANGELES LAKERS, 2000-01
Eleven years later, the league still hasn’t seen a playoff team as dominant as this. You know that thing we said earlier about the entire body of work counting for something? Well, these Lakers were so good in the postseason, it didn’t matter that they weren’t exactly a juggernaut in the regular season (Although 56 wins isn’t quite sneaking into the playoffs.).
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant led L.A. on a 15-1 playoff march, sweeping through the best the Western Conference could offer â€“ Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio had all won 50-plus games in the regular season â€“ before finally proving less than perfect: Game 1 of the NBA Finals against Philadelphia, when league MVP Allen Iverson went off for 48 points in what might’ve been the best game of his life. With the concept of a spotless playoff run out of the picture, L.A. merely proceeded to destroy the 76ers and stake their claim as one of the best teams in NBA history.
Shaq averaged 30.4 points and 15.4 rebounds during the ’01 postseason, and made one of the greatest defensive players of all time, Philly’s Dikembe Mutombo, look like an overmatched fossil in the Finals. Kobe went for 29.4 points, 7.3 boards and 6.1 assists per night, including lighting up every so-called defensive stopper put in front of him. Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Horace Grant and Brian Shaw filled in the gaps as the Lakers won their playoff games by an average of 12.5 points.
Was it exciting? Not always. Were they excellent? No question.
Who do you think was the best team from the last dozen years?
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