Bullets Forever founder Mike Prada has embarked on a search to find the NBA’s best team not to win a championship. I like his criteria, which I won’t recite here, and his two picks to represent Washington/Baltimore — both in the “Flame Out Division.”
One of those teams was the 1946-47 Washington Capitols which Albert Lee wrote about yesterday. Though they were based in D.C., the Capitols aren’t part of Wizards/Bullets history. The Wizards and Bullets teams of the past are what I will focus on today.
At first glance, this seems like an exercise where maybe the Wizards/Bullets could have some “success.” The franchise has one championship, way back in 1978, but they also had a good run in the 1960s and 1970s where they were pretty good most seasons though not a exactly a power.
Alas, this is a team with a deserved reputation for futility. When I ran a search on Basketball-Reference to see where they stood in winning percentage throughout NBA history, the franchise ranked 31st. There are currently 30 teams in the league.
I re-ran the search with a screen to eliminate teams that folded after a few seasons and the Bullets/Wizards rose all the way to 25th. Only the Charlotte Hornets, New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves have done less winning than Washington/Baltimore through their histories.
Let’s look at this another way. The San Antonio Spurs have the NBA’s best all-time winning percentage at .618. In its 59 years competing, Washington/Baltimore has just four seasons as good or better than the Spurs’ average over their 44 years in the NBA. Fans often refer to this franchise as mediocre. The record shows mediocre would be an improvement.
When it comes to selecting the best Bullets/Wizards team to not win a championship, Prada zeroed in on the only real option. Here are Washington’s all-time best teams as measured by strength of schedule adjusted scoring margin:
- 1974-75 — 60-22 with a +6.53 SRS — Swept in the Finals by the Golden State Warriors, who were led by Rick Barry with major contributions from Butch Beard, Jamaal Wilkes and Clifford Ray. But, they don’t qualify because the core of Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes won a title three years later.
- 1978-79 — 54-28, +4.75 SRS — Back in the Finals against the Seattle SuperSonics for a second straight year, the Bullets got beat 4-1. This was a stronger team than their title team because of better health and improvement from second year forward Greg Ballard. They don’t qualify for Prada’s quest because of the 1978 Finals victory.
- 1968-69 — 57-25, +4.05 SRS — They went 36-46 the previous season, fired GM Buddy Jeanette, and got the second overall pick in the draft, which they used to select Unseld. Elvin Hayes went first. In a rarity for Washington basketball, Unseld was, without doubt, the correct choice. That season he became the second (and last) player to win MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season. (The only other player to do it is Wilt Chamberlain.) They won the East, earned the top seed in the playoffs and got ousted in the first round by the New York Knicks, which is why Prada put them in the Flame Out Division. I’ll come back to this.
- 1972-73 — 52-30, +2.85 SRS — The only other semi-realistic possibility for best Bullets/Wizards team to go title free. However, a) this group wasn’t as good as the 68-69 squad, and b) it was Hayes’ first year with the team, which marks the beginning of the Unseld-Hayes era — which included a championship.
- 1975-76 — 48-34, +2.20 SRS — Leaving aside how sad it is that Washington/Baltimore’s fifth best team all-time won just 48 games (for comparison, the Spurs have averaged 50.6 wins per 82 games for its history), this core won a title and wasn’t close to being as good as the 68-69 Bullets.
Using winning percentage as the measuring stick shuffles things a bit — the 75-76 Bullets drop to seventh (replaced by the 69-70 Bullets) and the 74-75 Bullets slide into the top spot. The 68-69 Bullets climb to second, which means they’re still the best candidate to represent Washington/Baltimore in this titleless showdown.
Which teams of more recent vintage are among the best in franchise history? Going by winning percentage here’s where they rank:
- 7. 2016-17 — 49-33
- 10. 2014-15 — 46-36
- 11. 2004-05 — 45-37
- 12. 1996-97 and 2013-14 — 44-38
- 15. 2017-18 — 43-39
Yes, in a 59-year history, two games over .500 is tied for 15th “best” in Washington history.
Using SRS (strength of scheduled adjusted scoring margin), here are the “strongest” recent teams:
- 7. 1996-97 — 44-38, +1.77 SRS
- 8. 2008-06 — 42-40, +1.57
- 9. 2016-17 — 49-33, +1.36
- 11. 1997-98 — 42-40, +1.11
- 13. 1995-96 — 39-43, +0.99
The Spurs have a phrase for the better Bullets/Wizards seasons: “off year.”
While Prada definitely picked the right team, he may have placed them in the wrong division. The Baltimore Bullets in 1968-69 won the East and lost in the first round, but they were actually a relatively weak team.
That season, the Eastern “Division” (they weren’t called conferences until later) was akin to today’s Western Conference. The NBA’s top four teams (using SRS — strength of schedule adjusted scoring margin) were all in the East. Despite winning the division, Baltimore’s +4.05 SRS was just fourth best.
The strongest team in the East that season? The New York Knicks at +5.48 — the same team that swept the Bullets in the first round. The Knicks would go on to lose to the Boston Celtics, who Bill Russell led to one last championship as player-coach.
Using modern analysis tools, the Bullets — despite having home court advantage — would be decided underdogs with just a 41% chance of winning the series. The most likely series outcome was Knicks in six.
To me, this is a fitting result of Prada’s quest. The Washington/Baltimore Wizards/Bullets’ best team to never win a title was a more realistic bet to lose in the first round than win the championship.