The 2016-‘17 Golden State Warriors could statistically be the best NBA team in history, with one mathematical catch.
In order to pass the all-time greatest 1995-‘96 Chicago Bulls as statistically the best basketball team, the Warriors have to either win Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday at Oracle Arena in Oakland by eight points, or lose only one game in the finals.
By what statistical measure could this Best Team Ever title come through? The Elo ratings system, developed by the data-science journalists at FiveThirtyEight. Elo ratings basically take into account how many games a team wins, whether they won at home or away, and the final score. Based on this measure, the Warriors this year are only a few three-point shots behind the 95-96 Bulls team.
And while that sounds ridiculous since the Warriors only won 67 games in the regular season and swept the playoffs until now, the team has been particularly dominant this year. Notably, the Warriors are beating better teams by more points this year compared to last year, a stat measured as the schedule-adjusted point differential. And it matters more than total wins because it’s a good measure of the strength of a team and the difficulty of the schedule.
This is where Elo comes in. Essentially, the Warriors want to win in as few games as possible by as many points as possible. We’re talking five games or less, because of how Elo weights points and recent games. Since Elo cares a lot about whether you win and by how much, losing to Cleveland in the finals heavily impacts the Warriors chances of getting that statistical title.
Based on the analysis at FiveThirtyEight, if the Warriors win game one of the finals by eight points, they have won more games by more points than the Bulls (essentially), making them statistically the best team ever. They can still catch the Bulls if they win by closer margins, but losing more than once will basically kill their chances.
Of course, if you’re from Cleveland, all this just adds up to a second chance for the Cavaliers to block the hopes and dreams of the Warriors. Perhaps literally. Again. We’ll just have to watch that shot clock to find out.