The Greatest Dynasties of All Time

by David Arkow, Julia Blank, Jordan Woods and Danny Blumenthal

Editor’s Note: HSAC is excited to partner with Sportico, an industry leader in
the coverage of sports business, law, and media. You can read a summary of this article, as well as all of Sportico’s outstanding reporting, on
the Sportico website.

Which teams were better: Tom Brady’s New England Patriots or Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics? Which GOAT’s squads were more dominant: Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls or Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers? 

These are, of course, unanswerable questions, but sports fans are unable to resist them anyway. It’s just part of any die-hard dialogue, debating these age-old questions: What’s the greatest team within each sport? And which team overall is the best of all time? With more than a century of records to lean on for some professional leagues, this question may seem vast and daunting. However, we gathered these statistics to identify the best dynasties across the four major North American sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL).

Methodology

When deciding how to rate dynasties, we chose to emphasize two factors: regular season dominance and playoff performance.

To measure regular season dominance, we gathered standings data for each team across the four major North American sports leagues. We then took the Z-score of each team’s winning percentage that season in order to determine how dominant they were. Unlike straight win-loss records, Z-scores represent how far above average a team is in comparison to their opponents within their year, giving a better look at a team’s dominance compared to their peers.

For example, two teams could both go 14-2, but one could do so in a year in which most other teams went 8-8, while the other could do so in a year in which half of the teams also went 14-2. By using Z-scores, we are able to rate the first team higher, since their performance stood out more above the competition.

To measure postseason performance, we assigned “dynasty points” with the following weights:

While these weights are subjective, we tried to balance between rewarding champions and ensuring that teams that lost out in a close final game weren’t penalized too harshly.

Then, we took a rolling average for three, five, ten, and fifteen-year intervals for both regular season and postseason performance. Finally, we rescaled the data across sports to put each team on a 0-100 scale and added up the regular and postseason scores to arrive at our overall “dynasty score.” These overall scores range from 0 to 200, with a maximum of 100 points coming from each regular and postseason performance.

Results

In terms of three-year “mini-dynasties,” the top five teams are all NBA and NHL teams. In fact, only two of the top 10 teams (1930s New York Yankees and 1940s St. Louis Cardinals) are not NBA or NHL teams. So, you might ask, why might the NFL and MLB struggle against the other two leagues? The answer likely lies in the way these teams accrue playoff points. In the NBA and NHL, there are more opportunities to gather playoff points than in baseball. These leagues always have had multiple rounds of playoff series, while for much of MLB history, only the pennant winners in each league advanced out of the regular season. As a result, many early MLB teams missed out on playoff points that they would have gotten had they played in other leagues.

Even in the modern era, the MLB and NFL postseasons are more random than the NBA and NHL playoffs. As former HSAC presidents Julian Ryan and Barrett Hansen found, the MLB playoffs produce the most “undeserving” champions, with Cinderella teams like the 1987 Minnesota Twins (19th out of 26 MLB teams in team WAR) and the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals (20th in team WAR) stealing championships from potential dynasties. In fact, more than half of the time, the best team in baseball, as measured by FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rating, does not win the World Series. With its single-game-elimination structure, the road to the Super Bowl also produces “undeserving” champions, as any team can win on any given Sunday. Finally, the NBA has consistently had much less parity than other U.S. sports leagues, making it a league ripe for dynasties to exploit. With harder paths to the title and a more even playing field, it’s no surprise that teams in the MLB and NFL struggle to match the playoff points of their NBA and NHL peers in this short timeframe.

Given that the deck might be stacked against them, it is even more impressive that the 1936-38 New York Yankees and 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals cracked the top ten list for the three-year period. Powered by a red-hot offense, the Yankees ran off three straight World Series (plus another in 1939). And between 1942 and 1944, brothers Mort and Walker Cooper led the Cardinals to three National League pennants and two World Series titles.

The best three-year dynasty of all was the 1975-77 Montreal Canadiens. With two of the top-ten seasons in NHL history, this set of Montreal squads was sensational. They boasted three of the five winningest seasons in NHL history, and ripped off three straight Stanley Cups (plus another one the following year). What might be most impressive about this dynasty is its depth of talent, as Montreal boasted nine future Hall of Famers during this run.

Speaking of exceptional talent, two of the top 10 “mini-dynasties” belong to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. The first three-peat ranks 8th across all sports, and the second three-peat sits in 3rd place. While Chicago had some outstanding seasons (such as going 72-10 in 1995-96), the only thing pulling these teams back was regular season performance. Compared to other elite teams, Chicago hardly stood out from its opponents most years. The Bulls finished as the two-seed in the Eastern Conference in 1992-93, and tied with Utah for the best overall record in 1997-98. To be the GOAT dynasty, teams need to truly differentiate themselves both in the regular season and the playoffs, so Jordan’s Bulls fall just short.

Many of the franchises at the top of the three-year interval also appear at the top of the five-year interval. Interestingly though, it’s different editions of these teams. The Showtime Lakers of the 1980s replace the Kobe-Shaq Lakers of the early 2000s; Bill Russell’s 1960s Boston Celtics move past the 1980s Celtics, and three different Yankees teams (but not the 1930s squad) rank in the top 10.

The No. 2 team from the three-year rank, the 2014-18 Golden State Warriors, take the top spot here. Stephen Curry and company only won three titles, but they reached two other finals and dominated the regular season. In fact, the Warriors’ performance ranks as the top five-year regular season stretch of any team across the Big Four sports leagues (as denoted by their 100 out of 100 regular season score).

Following the Warriors are the only four teams to win five straight titles. What stands out about these teams is that they all played in roughly the same era—one with an extreme lack of parity. Without free agency, there was little player movement, allowing teams to stockpile talent and never let go. As a result, the 1950s was one of the low-points of parity in MLB; only three teams won Stanley Cups between the end of World War II and 1960, and the Cleveland Browns were so dominant that the new All-American Football Conference (AAFC) collapsed after Cleveland’s fourth-straight title.

Some could argue that this diminishes the magnificence of these dynasties, saying they should not be ranked so highly because of their easier paths to titles. While these are valid concerns, teams could only play the opponents on their schedules, so we chose to use only on-field performance, rather than make adjustments, which could stack the deck the other way. Once again, though, this makes the Warriors’ perch atop the rankings even more impressive. They were able to dominate with a (mostly) homegrown roster, even in an era with protections for weaker teams like salary caps and drafts. For an in-depth look at the most talented recent teams, check out our upcoming bracket of the best “modern” dynasties across sports.

The Boston Celtics were special in the 1950s and 1960s. They won a record nine titles in 10 seasons, including eight straight. However, the Celtics weren’t a team that only got hot come playoff time. Boston was also one of the greatest regular season teams ever, with only the 1990s Atlanta Braves, 2000s Detroit Red Wings and 1970-80s Montreal Canadiens performing better in comparison to their peers. As a result of their all-around excellence, the 1956-1965 Boston Celtics rank as the best dynasty in any of the four timeframes we examined, with a grand total of 196.1 points out of 200.

After the Celtics are the aforementioned Browns, who maintained their excellence even after dismantling the AAFC, reaching the title game in each of their first six NFL seasons. Outside of the Browns, though, almost all of the top teams come from big markets. Three New York Yankees teams rank in the top 10, while the next-best NBA teams come from Los Angeles and Chicago. Given the “big-market effect,” in which teams from bigger cities can get more revenue from ticket sales and local TV deals than teams from smaller cities, it’s no surprise that the best dynasties come from major metropolises. Therefore, when a small-market team, such as the 16th-ranked San Antonio Spurs, is able to reel off sustained success, its accomplishments are all the more impressive. 

A couple of notable teams missed the 10-year rankings. First, while the New England Patriots put together an outstanding run of dominance in the 2000s, their (relatively) poor performance around 2010 cut the overall dynasty in half, and the Patriots’ best 10-year run finished only 14th in our rankings. Additionally, there is no “100” regular season score in the top ten, indicating that the best regular season dynasty did not make it. While the Atlanta Braves reeled off 11 division titles in a row (14 if the strike-shortened 1994 season is excluded), they struggled mightily in the playoffs. Since Atlanta only won one World Series in their nine postseason trips between 1991 and 2000, they only finished 12th in the dynasty rankings.

The 15-year leaderboard, the longest time frame we examined, looks quite similar to the 10-year rankings. The same five dynasties are represented at the top, with the Bill Russell-era Celtics once again leading the way. However, a few more modern teams emerge, with the 2000s New England Patriots, 1990s Detroit Red Wings, and the 2000s New York Yankees all finishing in the top 10. And while none of these teams won more than five titles during their run, they excelled in the regular season. New England’s 15-year regular season run ranks first in NFL history, the Yankees are second in MLB history, and the Red Wings had the best regular season performance of any team in the history of the Big Four leagues. As postseasons have expanded over time, it has become harder for teams to repeat as champions and sustain dynasties. Still, these teams have dominated the regular season and done enough in the playoffs to warrant a spot among the best teams ever.

In a similar vein, the spread of teams is much larger in the longer timeframes than among the three- or five-year dynasties. While the top teams in this chart put up comparable scores to the top teams in the other time frames, the next-best teams are not as talented. For example, the gap between first and sixth place in the 15-year timeframe is about 26 points. That 26-point gap is comparable to the one separating first (Montreal, 194 points) and 50th (Toronto, 168 points) in the three-year timeframe. Simply put, it’s harder to sustain an elite dynasty for 15 years than it is for only three. 

CONCLUSION

Everyone has a different definition of a dynasty. Some people look for the highest peak, while others search for long-term consistency. Some people say that a team can’t be a dynasty without a certain number of titles. Others believe that greatness is more than just rings. Since defining dynasties is so subjective, we’ve tried to take a more holistic perspective, combining regular season and postseason performance and including all teams, regardless of era or sport. Therefore, our analysis can serve as a foundation to enable fans to draw their own conclusions, and then make adjustments based on what they value. Hopefully, we have settled some cross-sport, cross-town and cross-generational arguments (and maybe started some new ones, too).

Editor’s Note: If you have questions about this article, please feel free to contact the authors at 
harvardsportsanalysis@gmail.com or leave a comment below. 
Thank you for reading!

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