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This statement is sure to sting regional pride from sea to shining sea, but on the off chance that you had not noticed: American professional sport is suffering from a shortage of super-teams. The Baltimore Orioles are playing in Japan, a tour that would have been a whole lot more triumphant if the Best Damn Team in Baseball had been able to convince the Pittsburgh Pirates. Back on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Colts have yet to establish that they can beat the Miami Dolphins in their own division. As for the fabulous Boston Bruins, they went for the Stanley Cup again—and could not even get into the semifinals of the NHL playoffs. So much for superteams.
Where have all the giants gone? Where are the teams to compare with the 1927 Yankees, the 1941 Bears, the 1956 Canadiens? It happens there is one around, and it plays professional basketball in Milwaukee. Last season, the team's first in ascendancy, the Bucks wrung all the juice out of the rest of the NBA. Losing just 16 times during the regular season, Milwaukee ravaged the toughest division in its league by 15 games, outscored its opponents by a far wider margin (12.2 points per game) than any previous champion and then loped easily through the playoffs, winning the final round in the minimum four games. And neither Milwaukee's enthusiasm nor its dominance seems dampened so far this season. After two intradivisional wins over Chicago and Detroit last weekend, Milwaukee (10-1) had opened a two-game lead while overwhelming the opposition by an average of 20.4 points.
None of today's professional basketball teams can approach the Bucks, and if one recognizes a steamroller when it comes down the road, probably few teams of the past could match them, either. These are the new giants of basketball, and a good way to realize how big they have grown is to go back and look at the old-model superteams.
Go back to 1948-54, when the Minneapolis Lakers, led by George Mikan, first of the overpowering pro centers, won five of six NBA championships. Their best season was 1949-50, when the Lakers took 51 of 68 games and were 10-2 in the playoffs. Bill Russell's Boston Celtics were the champs 11 times between 1956-69, a record of consistent superiority unparalleled in pro sport. None of those Celtic teams was more punishing than the 1964-65 club, which ran off a 62-18 regular season record, then knocked Los Angeles out of the postseason finals 4 games to 1. And while Boston was certainly grand, many experts feel that Philadelphia in 1966-67—with the massive front line of Wilt Chamberlain, Luke Jackson and Chet Walker—was even better. The 76ers' record of 68-13 remains unsurpassed, and Philadelphia easily won the playoffs, even though both Boston and San Francisco were exceptionally strong that year.
The most notable attribute shared by all three early teams—and last year's Bucks—was a fine balance of offense and defense. Although Milwaukee and Philadelphia were powerful scorers, each leading the league, neither gave up too much at the other end of the court, where they finished third in points allowed. With Russell dominating at both ends, Boston's top-rated defense received unanimous acclaim, often at the expense of the Celtic scoring, which ranked third.
Thus the per-game difference between points scored and points allowed is a fine index for identifying giants. Good clubs compile positive averages, bad clubs negative ones. For example: last season the good Chicago Bulls had a plus 5.2 while the bad Cleveland Cavaliers were minus 11.2. But great teams have overpowering margins.
Sure, championships belong to teams that win the important games, but outstanding champions win the big ones—and most all the others, too—by impressive scores. And while comparing average scoring margins of great champions from different eras is a tricky business because playing conditions have changed, there is a way. In the finest Laker years, the 24-second clock was not yet in use; scores, and consequently margins of victory, were lower. But a reliable comparison involves determining how thoroughly each team dominates its league in its own time. Call this relationship the Dominance Index, since it compares the average margin of the champion with that of the next best team in the same year and yields a percentage figure. The D.I. thus takes into account differences in playing conditions and overall league strength.
Some observers downgrade the Milwaukee achievements of last season because the NBA diluted the playing talent by adding three new franchises. Still, the other good teams, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, received comparable advantages from expansion. So it figures that a comparison holds the same validity as a similar computation involving the Celtics and second-best St. Louis Hawks in 1964-65, when the league had not expanded in four years.
According to the Dominance Index, the Bucks are already far better than many experts are willing to concede. Milwaukee's 235 figure stands well above the 104 for Minneapolis or Philadelphia's 117. It is exceeded only by the Celtics' percentage of 277. But it should be remembered that the Bucks, after just one championship season, rank only slightly behind Boston—which reached its peak in its eighth title-winning year. In fact, if Milwaukee maintains its early pace of this season and decisively wins another championship, the Bucks could pass the Celtics and become statistically the most dominant NBA team ever.
So how about a few dream games? Although most coaches and former players agree that today's Bucks would defeat the old Lakers, they reject arguments favoring the Bucks over the old 76ers or Celtics. " Milwaukee doesn't have the kind of depth you need," says K. C. Jones, the former Boston guard who is now ex-teammate Bill Sharman's assistant coach at Los Angeles. "That one team in Philly, I thought, was the best in the league, with Wilt, Jackson, Walker, Hal Greer and Wally Jones. All of them could score. With us in Boston, we had three guys who could score. One year we had four—we were a tough club. The Bucks've got Jabbar and they've got Oscar Robertson at guard—but they don't have that forward who's worth 20 points all by himself. If they had one, then they'd have the nucleus. But, as of now, they're not stronger than the other clubs."