Are the San Antonio Spurs of the 2000s the better dynasty than the Boston Celtics of the 1960s?

Assessing two different generations of NBA powerhouses ought to give us an idea of how much the game has involved over the last 50 years.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com tried to delve deeper into the issue of the modern Spurs and the Celtics of old being the better dynasty in his May 26 article.

Silver uses the so-called “Elo rating” to determine which was the better team.

An Elo rating has the following essential features:

  • The ratings depend on the final scores and the venue of the games, which include both regular-season and postseason ones. FiveThirtyEight.com refers to Basketball-Reference.com for the data.
  • Teams earn Elo points when they win games and lose points when they lose games. Upset wins and bigger margins of victory result in more points earned.
  • Ratings are based game by game and not season by season.
  • The long-term average Elo rating is 1500. Silver and his colleague Reuben Fischer-Baum say “more than 90 percent of team ratings are between 1300 (awful) and 1700 (really good).
  • Silver and Fischer-Baum also note teams can fall outside that range if they’re really bad (an Elo rating below 1300) or really good (a rating higher than 1700).

In his May 26 update, Silver defines a dynasty “as ending when a team’s Elo rating falls below 1500.”

Here’s how the top 10 NBA dynasties fared in Silver’s survey

(CEAA stands for “cumulative Elo above average”):

  1. San Antonio Spurs (1998-present), average Elo: 1664, CEAA: 269,286
  2. Los Angeles Lakers (Dec. 27, 1977-Feb. 14, 1992), average Elo: 1641, CEAA: 192,189
  3. Chicago Bulls (March 29, 1987-March 21, 1999), average Elo: 1660, CEAA: 178,965
  4. Boston Celtics (March 14, 1956-Nov. 12, 1969), average Elo: 1634, CEAA: 160,922
  5. Boston Celtics (Oct. 31, 1979-Feb. 16, 1989), average Elo: 1663, CEAA: 151,152
  6. Dallas Mavericks (April 2, 2000-Nov. 14, 2012), average Elo: 1628, CEAA: 142,644
  7. Philadelphia 76ers (Oct. 27, 1976-Jan. 20, 1988), average Elo: 1623, CEAA: 131,895
  8. Los Angeles Lakers (Nov. 14, 1995-Feb. 9, 2005), average Elo: 1633, CEAA: 115,842
  9. Utah Jazz (March 23,1993-Jan. 17, 2004), average Elo: 1619, CEAA: 114,519
  10. Seattle SuperSonics (Feb. 14, 1992-April 15, 1999), average Elo: 1644, CEAA: 92,299

Silver’s findings reveal Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs’ Elo rating went up to 1500 on Jan. 3, 1998 and hasn’t fallen below that number ever since.

It’s a period that covers 17 years—the equivalent of 1,644 games. During this span, San Antonio’s average Elo rating is 1664, per Silver.

The Spurs drafted Duncan first overall in the 1997 NBA draft. That means their dynasty began during the latter part of his rookie year and has yet to end.

Think about that for a moment.

On the other hand, the Celtics of Bill Russell’s era had a dynasty that lasted 13.5 years (1,198 games). Their average Elo rating was 1634, per FiveThirtyEight.com.

Silver says the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s’ streak (1,363 games) was longer than the 1960s Celtics. The former’s Elo rating of 1641 was slightly better than Russell and Co.

As for the issue of the 1960s Celtics winning 11 titles in a 10-team league as opposed to the 30-team league the NBA is today, here’s what Silver had to say:

But they weren’t that dominant in the regular season. In Russell’s tenure with the team, they averaged the equivalent of a 58-24 regular-season record. That’s very good—but not much better than, say, Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks over the past 15 seasons. They weren’t even especially dominant in the playoffs! In their 11 championship seasons, Russell’s Celtics won 67 percent of their playoff games. Other NBA champions throughout history have won 73 percent of theirs.

 

The Parting Shot

Silver certainly presents a very interesting analogy.

Give him plenty of credit. He puts a lot of things in perspective, especially the issue about the Celtics winning 11 NBA titles back when the league was composed of just 10 teams.

Even if we set Silver’s Elo ratings aside, the San Antonio Spurs have arguably been the NBA’s best dynasty. For one, the Spurs extended their streak of winning at least 50 games in a season to 16 after they routed the Denver Nuggets, 123-93, on April 3, per MySanAntonio.com’s Dan McCarney.

By virtue of that key win, San Antonio also ran its streak of winning at least 60 percent of its games to an amazing 18 seasons, per McCarney.

When Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard both made the 2014-15 All-NBA Defensive Team on May 20, it marked the 12th time in team history the Spurs had multiple players earn the honor in the same season, per their official website.

The Spurs.com press release makes it clear defense has been the key to the team’s dynasty: It has held opponents under 100 points per game (just 97.0 ppg) for the 20th straight year.

Head coach Gregg Popovich and Co. have also set this standard for excellence by means of excellent scouting.

Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Sean Elliott, David Robinson, Avery Johnson, Bruce Bown and of course, Kawhi Leonard have all had a hand in the Spurs’ unparalleled run.

We should also state the obvious: The Spurs have five NBA titles. The last time they failed to make the playoffs was in 1997, per LandOfBasketball.com.

On the other hand, the Celtics of the 1960s were also a very good team. After all, nobody else has won win 11 titles in 13 years like they did from 1957-69.

But as Silver mentioned, they competed in a 10-team league. They were good in the regular season and the playoffs, but not as good as their successors.

Still, the Celtics of old deserve plenty of credit. After all, they were the first real NBA dynasty. Even FiveThirtyEight.com’s findings attest to this fact.

Needless to say, they set the standard of excellence for today’s teams to follow.

However, when it comes to the best dynasty, the San Antonio Spurs reign supreme.

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