The Dynasty Bracket Challenge Part III: The Finals

by David Arkow and Danny Blumenthal

HSAC is exploring the greatest dynasties in the Big Four sports leagues. We’ve covered the top teams of all time, but many of these teams played in an era with little parity and in smaller leagues. Therefore, we’ve dedicated a bracket to the best dynasties of the modern era – in which teams had to overcome obstacles like salary caps, drafts, and free agency to sustain their dynasties. In Part I of the Dynasty Bracket Challenge, we crowned the best modern dynasties in the NBA (2010s Golden State Warriors) and MLB (1990s New York Yankees). In Part II, the 2010s New England Patriots advanced out of the NFL region and the 1980s Edmonton Oilers topped the NHL region.

As a reminder, we constructed these dynasty rankings by examining two metrics – postseason success and regular season dominance. Teams were given postseason dynasty points based on the number of rounds they advanced in the playoffs, and regular season dominance was measured by evaluating Z-Scores of win-loss records. Finally, each team’s score was summed up, and the teams in each sport and decade with the best five-year runs were included in our dynasty bracket. Given that each league defines years differently, we chose to define dynasties as going from initial year to initial year (so the Golden State Warriors’ five straight Finals appearances are denoted as 2014-18, not 2015-19). For full details on our methodology, please read our overview article.

Since the 2010s Warriors were the top overall seed, they will face the lowest seed remaining; the No.6-ranked 2010s New England Patriots. In the other semifinal matchup, Wayne Gretzky’s 1980s Edmonton Oilers (No. 3 overall) will face off with Derek Jeter’s 1990s New York Yankees squad (No. 5). One thing which differentiates the Final Four from our previous bracket articles is that these are cross-sport comparisons. Luckily, by taking Z-Scores and identifying how much above average these dynasties were compared to their peers, we are able to develop a standardized method for evaluating teams across sports. We’ll dive into each dynasty’s run, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and then give a final verdict as to which dynasty is the most dominant of the modern era.

Semifinal Matchup #1: 2014-2018 Golden State Warriors (#1) vs. 2014-2018 New England Patriots (#6)

The first thing to consider when comparing dynasties in different sports is to see which sport lends itself better to creating dynasties. Is it easier to win back-to-back championships in basketball, baseball, football, or hockey? Most would think basketball, since performance is easier to predict season to season , there is less “regression to the mean”, and it is much easier for a superstar or super-team to dominate. Our dynasty rankings confirm this, as out of the Top 100 five-year dynasties, 32 are NBA franchises and a lowly 12 are from the NFL. This then creates another question: Is it more impressive for a team to excel in a sport designed to have few dynasties? Or is it more impressive for a team to have an easier path to becoming a dynasty, but emerge as the best of the best? There is no right or wrong answer here, but our answer to this question lies in our definition of a dynasty. In this bracket, we are considering five-year dynasties, and the Warriors had a much higher peak than the Patriots. If the dynasties were expanded to 10 years or 15 years, the Patriots would top the Warriors, as evidenced by our overall rankings, but we’ve chosen to focus on peak performance, and there is no challenging Golden State in this area.

Of the teams remaining in the Final Four, the Warriors rank No. 1 in both regular season (100) and postseason score (92). The Warriors had the best record in the league for three out of five seasons and when they didn’t, they finished 2nd and 3rd. The Patriots dominated the regular season as well. From 2014 to 2018, New England racked up 62 wins – a feat only two quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Peyton Manning) have ever been able to accomplish in five years’ time. But while the Warriors cruised against a mid-level strength of schedule, the Patriots did so against one of the weakest schedules in the league. Per Pro-Football Reference’s strength of schedule, they ranked in the top ten weakest schedules in all but one of the five years of their dynasty. This likely is due to playing in what was previously the weakest division in football, the AFC East (though that title was passed to the NFC East this past year). From 2014 to 2018, none of the other AFC East teams won a single playoff game and they all had losing records overall. In football, divisions matter much more, as teams play nearly 40% of their schedule against divisional opponents, whereas in the NBA, teams play only 17% of games within the division. 

Another astounding feature of these teams is that they were both largely built on home-grown talent. Each of the 15 players with the most Approximate Value for the Patriots over this “mini-dynasty” was either selected by New England in the draft or was immediately signed as an undrafted free agent. In contrast, rivals such as the Denver Broncos (8 home-grown players out of the top 15) were much less reliant on developing talent. Like New England, Golden State excelled in player development. The Warriors did sign Kevin Durant as a free agent, but they had already built their core of Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green before Durant arrived in the Bay Area.

Not only did these teams rely on home-grown talent, but they did so by finding diamonds in the rough. Tom Brady is famous for being the 199th overall pick, but other Patriots, such as Shaq Mason (131st overall), Malcolm Butler (undrafted), and recent retiree Julian Edelman (232nd) took similar surprise paths to stardom. Still though, the Warriors can compete with the Patriots in this area as well. Klay Thompson was the fifth guard taken in the 2011 NBA Draft, and Draymond Green was a 2nd-rounder in 2012. Even Curry, drafted 7th overall, was seen as “not a natural point guard” and having athleticism “far below NBA standard”, yet the Warriors developed him into one of the greatest NBA players of his generation while revolutionizing the game at the same time. 

One factor which distinguishes the Warriors is their depth of talent. The Patriots were largely reliant on Tom Brady, and without a star quarterback, they may have performed significantly worse. For example, only Brady and Rob Gronkowski (T-58th) ranked among the top 100 NFL players in AV during the Patriots’ “mini-dynasty”. The Patriots did well to collect role players and put them in positions to succeed, but there is little chance they would have been as dominant without Brady. Meanwhile, the Warriors were loaded with talent and had a deep, balanced team even before Kevin Durant arrived. During their run, they had three players in the top 30 in win shares, and then added Durant, another top-ten player. Even if one of these stars was removed, the Warriors still could have done well. 

The most surprising fact about this matchup is that both dynasties took place at exactly the same time. A closer look shows that the success of these teams might be even more intertwined. Warriors coach Steve Kerr has highlighted that he learned a lot from Bill Belichick, and he has been known to utilize similar coaching techniques. On top of this, the Warriors and Patriots have matching highs (having both won championships in their 2014 and 2016 seasons), and matching recent lows. After the Warriors lost in the 2019 NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors, the departure of Kevin Durant in free agency and early-season injuries to Curry and Thompson caused the Warriors to have their fourth-worst season in franchise history. They finished dead last in the NBA with a record of 15-50 (.231). Similarly, after the Patriots lost in the 2019 AFC Wild Card game to the Tennessee Titans and lost franchise legend Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they finished with their first losing record (7-9) since 2000. Interestingly, the teams that both their superstars departed for, the Brooklyn Nets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, sit near the tops of their respective leagues. Nevertheless, on account of the Warriors’ depth and regular season dominance against a tougher schedule, we see Steph Curry drain a deep three buzzer beater to send the Warriors to the finals.

Semifinal #2: 1983-1987 Edmonton Oilers (#3) vs. 1996-2000 New York Yankees (#5)

Many New York Yankees fans may point to the team’s 1998 season, in which New York cruised to the first of three consecutive World Series titles, as a reason why the Yankees deserve to be the greatest modern dynasty. The Bronx Bombers went 114-48 in the regular season (only the 1927 Murderers’ Row Yankees had a higher winning percentage in franchise history at .714), boasted one of the highest-scoring offenses ever, and only lost two games in the entire postseason. Per our dynasty rankings, this is one of the greatest combined regular and postseasons in baseball history, ranking 3rd all-time (1984 Detroit Tigers rank No. 1, and the 1986 New York Mets, who topped the entire MLB by 12 games, are No. 2). Still, Edmonton’s top seasons were elite as well, as the Oilers boast two of the ten winningest regular seasons in NHL history. In addition, Edmonton’s march to the 1988 Stanley Cup matched the Yankees’ dominance, with the Oilers going 16-2 in the postseason to cruise to the title. While the Yankees’ 1998 season may have had a higher peak in terms of winning percentage, the Oilers’ top performances were comparable to the Yankees’ overall.

On top of this, Edmonton was much more consistent than New York. Between 1983-84 and 1987-88, the highpoint of the Oilers’ dynasty, the team never ranked below 3rd in the NHL in points percentage. In addition, the Oilers’ underlying numbers suggest that they may have been even stronger than their standings suggest. Edmonton topped the NHL in Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS) in four out of five seasons, and ranked 2nd to the Calgary Flames (a team they swept come playoff time) in 1987-88. As such, Edmonton earned a 97.2 regular season score in our dynasty rankings, good for No. 8 all-time across all sports.

While the 1996-2000 Yankees were talented, they were not nearly as consistent as Edmonton. The Bronx Bombers were the top team in the league once (compared to Edmonton’s three No. 1 finishes), and in 2000, they were only 9th in baseball. And while the Oilers may have played better than their standings suggested, the Yankees likely got lucky. New York outperformed its Pythagorean wins expectation, a method for determining a team’s true talent level based on its run differential, in four of the five years of their dynasty. Similarly, the team finished outside the top five in SRS in three of five seasons, topping the league only in 1998. Most notably, the Yankees never led the league in wins above average. In fact, they fell all the way down to 13th in baseball in 2000. While the Bronx Bombers were able to turn it on come playoff time, baseball is notorious for having undeserving champions. Simply put, the Yankees were not consistently dominant enough to compete with Edmonton for the title of greatest modern professional sports dynasty.

While the Yankees did have some legends, they don’t stack up to the Oilers’ 6 Hall of Famers (Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, and Glenn Anderson) and 11 MVPS (9 for Gretzky, 2 for Messier). And those Oilers are the best six players in franchise history according to Hockey Reference’s Point Shares. The Oilers also have three players in Gretzky (#1), Paul Coffey (#10), and Mark Messier (#30) who rank in the Top 30 all time point shares for all NHL players. For the Yankees, only Derek Jeter (#5) and Mariano Rivera (#10) rank in the Top 10 in WAR in Yankee history. Jeter is the 92nd ranked player in MLB all-time WAR, Andy Pettite sits in 185th, and Mariano Rivera is 224th. 

Finally, one point must also be made for the markets of these teams. New York is the biggest sports market, with 9 professional sports teams in the Big Four leagues. In all but one season of their dynasty, the Yankees had the highest payroll in baseball, and the team has ranked in the top three in the league in payroll for the past 20 years. As such, they can afford to splurge and be inefficient with their money, since they can still cover up mistakes with more signings. North of the border, Edmonton is one of the smallest markets in the Big Four leagues, ranking 44th in population among the U.S. and Canada. In the NHL, only the Winnipeg Jets and Carolina Hurricanes have smaller hometowns, and yet, Edmonton still was able to reel off four titles in five years and has five Stanley Cups in all. Led by their homegrown dynamic duo of  Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers made the playoffs this year, finishing 2nd in the Scotia North Division. In our dynasty bracket, the Oilers advance to the championship matchup, hoping to end their drought and making this final matchup an international contest.

Final: 2014-2018 Golden State Warriors (#1) vs. 1983-1987 Edmonton Oilers (#3)

This is it – the finals of the greatest modern sports dynasty bracket. After narrowing the field to twenty teams, only the 2010s Warriors and 1980s Oilers remain. This might be the “Canadian” rematch that Stephen Curry and the Warriors are looking for after falling to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, the year before their dynasty collapsed. While this Canadian opponent is not from the same city (Toronto Maple Leafs), the Oilers will still give them that Candian matchup they’ve been waiting for.

The 1980s Edmonton Oilers and the 2010s Golden State Warriors boasted some of the greatest offenses ever. No team before or after the 1980s Oilers scored 400 goals in a season, but Edmonton did so five years in a row. And while some of these seasons fall just outside of Edmonton’s top five-year dynasty, six of the highest-scoring individual seasons in NHL history came from players on the 1980s Oilers. Jari Kurri tallied 71 and 68 goals in consecutive years, and Wayne Gretzky racked up over 70 goals in four different seasons. But while Edmonton’s offense was elite, they benefited from one of the highest-scoring eras in NHL history. Goaltenders had smaller equipment and used less effective techniques, and teams had yet to adopt new defensive strategies meant to slow down opposing offenses. When examining adjusted goals, which compare scorers to the league average, Gretzky’s record-setting 92-goal season falls to 68 adjusted goals (6th in NHL history), and Kurri’s top seasons drop outside the top 30 all-time.

The Warriors can come close to matching Edmonton’s offensive excellence, but they too are a product of their era. As Benjamin Morris highlighted for FiveThirtyEight back in 2015, Stephen Curry and Golden State kicked off the three-point revolution. Curry followed up his 2015 MVP season with a unanimous MVP season in 2016. That year, he shattered the NBA record by burying 402 threes, more than any team in the first 15 years of the three-point line. Curry is well on his way to breaking the all-time three-pointers record, and in three of the Warriors’ five dynasty seasons, he tallied 300 or more threes – seasons which rank in the top five all-time.

Learning from his example, now every team launches threes, and in turn, offensive efficiency has skyrocketed. In the first season of their dynasty in 2014, the league average percentage of shots taken as threes was 24.4% (Warriors shot 29%). This season, the league average share of shots from deep is up to 36% (Warriors shoot 41%). Entering the 2020-21 season, Golden State’s dynasty owned seasons with two of the NBA’s three highest offensive ratings and each of the top four seasons in effective field goal percentage. However, as of May 12, all of the seven highest offensive ratings in NBA history were taking place in 2021. Both Edmonton and Golden State scored in bundles, but their highlights must be taken with a grain of salt based on the eras in which they played. 

On top of superlative offense though, the Warriors did well defensively. Piloted by Draymond Green, who holds three of the 10 greatest defensive NBA seasons per FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, Golden State racked up three top-five finishes in defensive rating over the course of their dynasty. But while Golden State was able to complement its superlative offense with above-average defense, Edmonton’s defense was mediocre at best. The Oilers never finished in the top five in fewest goals allowed, and finished in the bottom half of the league in this category twice. Golden State’s versatility on both ends of the floor gives them the initial advantage over the Oilers.

Some may point to Edmonton’s 4-3 advantage in titles as a reason why they should knock off the Warriors in this matchup. While this is certainly valid, playoff performance in the other seasons should be considered too. Golden State reached the NBA Finals in five straight years (one of only two NBA teams to do so), falling in seven games to LeBron James’s Cavaliers in 2017, and losing with a hobbled squad to Toronto in 2019. Meanwhile, Edmonton entered the 1986 playoffs as the top team in the NHL, but lost in the quarterfinals. Even the Great One’s 13 points were not enough for the Oilers, since the team was -3 in the series with Wayne Gretzky on the ice. The early exit cost the Oilers in our dynasty rankings dearly, as they were only able to secure one dynasty point for a quarterfinal elimination. Therefore, even though Edmonton won more titles during their five-year run than Golden State did, they actually have fewer playoff points (21) than the Warriors (23).

And in the regular season, Edmonton is no match for Golden State. While the Oilers’ dynasty boasts two of the ten winningest seasons in NHL history, the Warriors can one-up the Oilers – Golden State has three of the ten winningest seasons in NBA history. In terms of peak performance, the Warriors again pull ahead of the Oilers. Per our dynasty rankings, the 2016-2017 Warriors put together the greatest single season in NBA history, pipping Michael Jordan’s Bulls as a result of excelling in a deeper, more balanced league. Over their five-year dynasty, the Warriors posted the greatest regular season run of all-time in any Big Four sport, as denoted by their perfect 100 out of 100 regular season score. Edmonton was elite, but their regular seasons place them merely 8th all-time across all sports.

As a result of Golden State’s excellence on both ends of the floor, regular season dominance, and higher peak performance, they are able to overcome the deficit in titles to knock off the 1980s Edmonton Oilers. We crown the 2010s Golden State Warriors as the greatest modern sports dynasty.

Editor’s Note: Do you have questions about this article? Let us know in the comments section below or reach out to the authors on Twitter @Harvard_Sports. Thank you for reading!

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