Thankfully, ELO provides a clear and intuitive tool for judging the strength of a given league, so I set out to collect the season opening and closing ELO for each 1995-1996 NBA team, and each 2015-2016 NBA team. The 2015-2016 NBA had 30 teams, while 29 played in 1995-1996 (hereafter 1516 and 9596). My hypothesis was simple: the 1995-1996 NBA, despite its expansion era, would prove to have stronger teams than the 2015-2016 NBA. My findings challenge this, but there are a boatload of interesting facts and interpretations in-between.
(1) Elite Teams.
Let's cut straight to the chase: who were the best teams in 1995-1996? Since the "average" ELO is 1500 points, I used a 10% above average threshold (or, 1650 points) to define "elite" teams at season's end. The 1516 Warriors could be poised to overtake the Bulls, who are currently the most elite team of the bunch. However, the 1516 Spurs, Thunder, and Cavs all are currently rated stronger than the 9596 Sonics and Jazz.
|Elite Teams ELO||Opening||Closing|
This list doesn't tell the whole story, however. Entering the 1516 season, the NBA featured two elite teams (Warriors and Spurs). By contrast, there were no elite ELO teams entering the 9596 NBA. Instead, there were nine "very good" teams, or teams that were 5% to 9% better than average ELO. In the 9596 NBA, those teams were the Spurs, Rockets, Sonics, Jazz Knicks, Pacers, Bulls, Sun, and Magic. Interestingly enough, the 1516 NBA began the season with the two elite teams (Warriors and Spurs) and four very good teams (Clippers, Cavs, Rockets, and Grizzlies).
As an aside, looking at actual opening and closing ELO development, one can make a better argument for the 1516 Thunder as a comp for the 9596 Bulls, rather than the 1516 Warriors. But that's another day.
(2) League Picture
So, take your pick: entering the season, the 9596 NBA featured no elite teams, but a ton of very good teams (31% of the league entered the season as "very good"). In 9596, the league finished with three elite teams (see table above) and three very good teams (Magic, Lakers, Spurs, Pacers). By contrast, the 1516 NBA opened with a solid number of elite and very good teams (20% of the league fell under these classifications), and finished the season with four elite teams (see table above) and five very good teams (Blazers, Clippers, Heat, Hawks, Raptors).
Elite: 1650+ ELO
Very Good: 1575-1649 ELO
Good: 1500-1574 ELO
Mediocre: 1425-1499 ELO
Bad: 1350-1424 ELO
Terrible: -1349 ELO
|Category of Team||Opening||Closing|
|9596 Very Good||9||4|
|1516 Very Good||4||5|
In the broadest terms possible, or the "Big Picture," the 1516 NBA is almost the exact inversion of the 9596 NBA. First, the 9596 NBA, where five good teams declined and produced one mediocre and one bad team (the Lakers ascended to very good); six mediocre teams split into two good, two mediocre, two terrible teams; and nearly half the bad teams became terrible teams (the Pistons became good, the Warriors and Bullets mediocre). Perhaps most tellingly, the 14 very good and good teams nearly split equitably, producing 3 elite, 4 very good, 5 good, 1 mediocre (#LOLHornets), and 1 bad (#LOLNuggets) teams.
|Spurs||Very Good||Very Good|
|Pacers||Very Good||Very Good|
|Magic||Very Good||Very Good|
In harsh terms, the 9596 NBA saw its teams' talents redistributed throughout the year, where a bunch of very good and good teams scattered in several different directions, all while the bottom of the league flat-out dropped out. The best thing that can be said about the 9596 NBA is that at least its redistribution was balanced, as nearly a third of the league either improved, remained the same, or declined (see table below).
By contrast, the 1516 NBA was a story of stasis and improvement. While the 1516 NBA opened with more terrible teams than the 9596 league, two of the four terrible teams improved in 1516. Otherwise, teams remained rather steady across categories: the two elite teams entering the season remained elite; the very good teams scattered into elite, very good, good, and mediocre (#LOLGrizzlies) placements; five of eleven good teams remained just that (only the Bulls and Pelicans declined from that category. OUCH!); three of eight mediocre teams remained in place (two teams declined, #LOLBucks & #LOLNets); the Magic, the lone bad team, improved.
|Clippers||Very Good||Very Good|
Here are how these charts look when they are compared to one another:
|Teams Remaining the Same||9596||1516|
|Overall||10 / 29 (34%)||13 / 30 (43%)|
|Overall||10 / 29 (34%)||7 / 30 (23%)|
|Overall||9 / 29 (31%)||10 / 30 (33%)|
(3) League Strength
It's tempting to argue that the presence of an even distribution of improving, static, and declining teams makes the 9596 NBA the more competitive league. However, the presence of nine bad or terrible teams (out of 29) simply makes that case more difficult. In terms of basic statistics, the 1516 NBA finished with fewer bad or terrible teams (8 of 30), and had a higher percentage of their preseason bad or terrible teams improve (the Magic, Twolves, and Knicks, here). The 9596 NBA had the Warriors, Pistons, and Bullets improve, but that simply was not enough to tilt the numbers in their favor.
There's also a grand sense of possibility about the 1516 NBA going forward: 22 of 30 teams are mediocre or better, and it's a top-heavy list (16 of those teams are good). Two of those mediocre teams (Bulls, Pistons) are within shouting distance of the league average ELO, and the Magic are trending upward. These numbers are ultimately close to the 9596 NBA, but just a tick better (I feel like that matters, too, as a mediocre team can sell "trying to win" to its fanbase, and the more teams that can do that, better for the league). It is simply better, or more competitive, if 22 teams can fight for playoff spots, instead of 20.
On the other hand, there remain arguments in favor of the 9596 NBA. At the very least, since fewer teams remained the same, the league was at least more interesting, arguably, than the current NBA. Furthermore, nearly as many teams improved in 9596 as in 1516, which means that some of the moves within the league were equally as exciting as the current league.
Isn't it interesting how many franchises have similar arcs within a 20 year span? The poor Rockets: both teams declined from Top 5 openings in 9596 and 1516. That's neither here nor there, really, but still interesting: the 1990s Rockets descending from their Championships, the 2010s Rockets never really succeeding in the playoffs (1st round exits in 3 of their last 4 trips). Teams that were (approximately) within 37 ELO points, or 2.5%, in both their 9596 and 1516 ratings? Rockets (1503 to 1536), Washington (1498 to 1530), Pistons (1528 to 1494), Nets (1327 to 1289), Kings (1431 to 1425), Hawks (1556 to 1593), and Nuggets (1404 to 1427). That's seven teams that have played nearly a generation of basketball, only to come 'round and land almost in exactly the same spot.
Notably, the Sixers missed the cut, but they were nearly as bad in 9596 (1256 ELO) as their current "Process" (1203 ELO). The current Sixers finished this season with a worse performance than both the expansion Grizzlies and Raptors, which alone should disqualify them form their Draft Lottery. The Sonics / Thunder also missed the cut by a small margin, but they are equally fascinating from the other end of the spectrum: this franchise finished Top Three in both years, elite teams both years, and (arguably) in a transitional season both years. This year's Thunder potentially closed out Kevin Durant's era with the club, closing their attempt at a dynasty; the Sonics weren't quite there in 1996, but they were close to winding down; they wouldn't return to the Western Conference Finals in Seattle.
It remains to be seen if the Warriors can top the Bulls dynasty of the mid-1990s. One might wonder whether that team will become as universally loved or hated as the Bulls (I wonder if video game programmers will tank the Warriors, a la the hideous Bulls in NBA Jam). The one thing that remains extremely interesting about those 1996 Bulls is the return of Michael Jordan, which adds a completely different arc to the story. Moreover, even in the midst of their dynasty run, even including the "break" from the Finals between 1993 and 1996, the Bulls responded to adversity and rebuilt their club; their ELO climb from 1592 to 1853 (!!!) in 9596 alone proves this. So, one only needs to ask of Golden State, what will their adversity be, and will they beat it?