Commentary

Is this Kobe's best team? How about Spurs, Pistons, Celtics?

Originally Published: May 23, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Charles Barkley is no stranger to controversy, and it appears the Round Mound of Profound has done it again.

In a preview of the Western Conference finals, the TNT analyst said the current edition of the Los Angeles Lakers is the best team Kobe Bryant has been on.

"This is the best team he's ever had ... even counting Shaquille O'Neal," said Barkley. "They had him and Shaquille O'Neal, and the rest were role players. But this team with Gasol ... and Odom and Kobe, I think those three are better than Kobe and Shaq."

Barkley's studio cohorts ridiculed him, wondering how he could rank a team that has yet to win a single title ahead of the three-peating Shaq and Kobe squad.

Fortunately, we have a method to judge exactly how crazy Barkley is.

Last year I developed a formula that rated all 60 NBA Finals teams from 1977 to 2007 (since the NBA-ABA merger). We can plug in this year's Lakers using the same system and see what they would need to do in order to outrank Shaq and Kobe.

While we're at it, let's extend the fun. Three other traditional powers remain in the playoffs besides the Lakers, and all three have won multiple titles since the merger.

So before we get to the Lakers, let's take a look at those clubs as well, and see what they would need to do -- besides, obviously, winning the title -- in order to outrank their predecessors.


San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are probably the one team with the least chance of outranking the franchise's champions. San Antonio's titlists in 1999 and 2007 were among the best on my chart of NBA finalists, and all four of its winners crack the top 20.

It's already virtually impossible for this year's Spurs to rank that highly. At the moment they have only 166.3 points in this system, which would put them just 47th among recent NBA finalists (1977 to now). They have only a +0.5 point scoring margin in the playoffs, and they already have five postseason losses. Also, their +4.8 average scoring margin in the regular season, while solid, doesn't hold a candle to that of their their previous four title teams.

Obviously, if they were to roll to the championship this season, their score would improve. To see how much it could improve, I included a "best-case scenario" in the chart that assumed they closed out the playoffs by winning the rest of their games by double digits. Even in that unlikely scenario, this year's Spurs would end up with only 220.2 points. That would put them 26th on the list, right behind the 1997 runner-up Utah Jazz.

2007-08 Spurs vs. Past Spurs Champions (Since ABA-NBA merger)
W-L Margin Playoff W-L Playoff Margin Points Rank
1999 37-13 8.1 15-2 7.2 268.2 8
2007 58-24 8.4 16-4 3.5 243.3 14
2005 59-23 7.8 16-7 4.5 239.4 17
2003 60-22 5.4 16-8 5.5 231.8 20
2008 (current) 56-26 4.8 8-5 0.5 166.3 47
2008 (best case) 56-26 4.8 16-5 4.1 220.2 26



Detroit Pistons

The Pistons are another team that will be hard-pressed to match its predecessors, though if Detroit were to win the championship, it would come closer than San Antonio would.

The Pistons thus far have earned 205.7 points in the system, which is good for 27th overall. While this year's Pistons sported a better regular-season victory margin than that of their championship predecessors, their postseason marks aren't up to the same level -- at least not yet.

Looking at their best-case scenario, they can still move past two of their championship teams. If they run the table from here with seven straight double-digit wins, they'll finish with 252.4 points, good enough to move past the 1990 Bad Boys and the 2004 champions, but not quite impressive enough to topple the 1989 squad, which ranks in the top 10.

2007-08 Pistons vs. Past Pistons Champions (Since ABA-NBA merger)
W-L Margin Playoff W-L Playoff Margin Points Rank
1989 63-19 5.8 15-2 7.7 262.7 10
1990 59-23 6.1 15-5 7.0 246.6 13
2004 54-28 5.8 16-7 6.4 230.1 22
2008 (current) 59-23 7.4 9-4 3.5 205.7 27
2008 (best case) 59-23 7.4 16-4 5.8 252.4 13



Boston Celtics

Boston's new "Big Three" is quite competitive when compared to the original trio's three championship teams from the mid-80s. This year's edition won more games than two of those three title teams and had a better regular-season scoring margin than all of them.

Unfortunately, those numbers haven't held up in the playoffs. With the Celtics just 9-7 in the postseason, and with a scoring margin that can't touch that of the 1986 juggernaut, it's apparent they're going to fall short of those legendary '86 Celtics. Even closing the playoffs with the best-case scenario doesn't get them within hailing range. There's no embarrassment in that, of course: The '86 squad is the third-best team of the past 30 years.

The two other Bird-era title teams appear to be much easier targets, as the 2007-08 Celtics are most of the way there already. If they were to win the championship -- even by "winning ugly" -- they would almost certainly outrank those two squads.

Boston Celtics vs. Past Celtics Champions (Since ABA-NBA merger)
W-L Margin Playoff W-L Playoff Margin Points Rank
1986 67-15 9.4 15-3 10.3 301.1 3
1981 62-20 5.9 12-5 5.5 235.9 19
1984 62-20 6.6 15-8 3.7 228.8 24
2008 (current) 66-16 10.3 9-7 4.9 232.7 20
2008 (best case) 66-16 10.3 16-7 6.5 279.0 7



Los Angeles Lakers

As it turns out, the Lakers have a chance to make Sir Charles look very smart.

L.A. already has 216.9 points according to this system, thanks in part to a regular season scoring margin that's better than that of two of their three recent championship teams.

But what really sets them apart, at least so far, is the postseason.

Two of L.A.'s three title runs with Shaq featured series in which the Lakers were outplayed at times and were fortunate to survive -- most notably the 2002 series against Sacramento. As a result, they had pretty unimpressive playoff numbers for a champion in those two seasons.

This year's edition, however, is 9-2 out of the gate with a +6.8 scoring margin. That helps their overall score enough to put them pretty close to two of the three teams, and with a strong finishing kick they could even outdistance the 2001 team that ranks as the best of the Shaq-Kobe squads.

But that best-case scenario is very unlikely. So it seems that it's safe to say Barkley will be proven wrong, right?

Er, not so fast.

There's one other element to consider -- the team's performance with Pau Gasol in the lineup since he arrived in February. With Pau on the floor, the Lakers are 30-6 (including the postseason); in regular-season games they were 21-4 with a +10.7 scoring margin.

Plug the regular-season results with Gasol into the formula and prorate it over 82 games, and you get a 69-win team with a scoring margin that dwarfs that of the three champion teams. Suddenly, the statement that this is Kobe's best team doesn't seem so preposterous.

In fact, once we plug those numbers in for the regular season, the Kobe-Pau Lakers are already ahead of two of the three champions and closing in on the third.

Furthermore, if they were to manage to play out the best-case scenario, the Kobe-Pau Lakers would rank second overall, behind only the 1996 Chicago Bulls among all teams in the past 31 seasons, beating out not only all of Shaq's championship teams, but all of Magic's, too.

Of course, this is cherry-picking to a degree -- Gasol was injured and missed some games, and those games should count on L.A.'s record (just as they would on any other team's).

But as much as Barkley's colleagues derided his point about Kobe having his best team right now, the man had a point. Even with rising star center Andrew Bynum sidelined by knee surgery, Kobe's supporting cast is good enough that it may very well help him roll to his first ring post-Shaq.

And, at least to this point, the current Kobe-Pau version of the Lakers is doing it in a fashion that's about as dominant as anything Kobe did with the Big What's-His-Name.

2007-08 Lakers vs. Past Lakers Champions (Shaq-Kobe era)
W-L Margin Playoff W-L Playoff Margin Points Rank
2001 56-26 3.4 15-1 12.8 258.9 11
2000 67-15 8.5 15-8 2.3 241.1 15
2002 58-24 7.1 15-4 3.8 236.1 18
2008 (current) 57-25 7.3 9-2 6.8 216.9 26
2008 (best case) 57-25 7.3 16-2 8.1 263.6 10
With Gasol in lineup
2008 (current) 21-4 10.7 9-2 6.8 259.3 11
2008 (best case) 21-4 10.7 16-2 8.1 305.9 2

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.