The Dominant 20: The teams that made the biggest impact

ByPeter Keating ESPN logo
Tuesday, March 20, 2018

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Behold our unassailable list of the most dominant champions of the past 20 years, headed by one very recent, very dominant basketball team. And by unassailable, we of course mean: Let the arguments begin!

To get to our list, we looked at the same collection of sports as our Dominant 20 athletes, then we adjusted data twice, once to normalize teams from a given sport across time and again to put top teams across different sports on a common baseline. This means all sports and all years can be considered equal.

In the final results, one Dominance Share equals one standard deviation of performance beyond that sport's average title team.

For example: The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors scored 115.9 points per game and allowed 104.3. After controlling for pace of play and quality of opponents, they were 11.35 points, or 2.71 standard deviations, above the NBA average that season. Among all NBA champions since 1997-98, that figure of 2.71 SD is 2.40 standard deviations above average.

There is one team that would have scored 3.60 SD, a result we would expect to see about once every 488 years. But that team is the 2007 Patriots, whom we could not include. Only teams that won championships could make our list. That's the one time the postseason matters in these comparisons. You can't truly be dominant if you lose your last game of the season.

1. 2016-17 Golden State Warriors (NBA)

Keating's score: 2.40

Key stat: Went 16-1 in the postseason, the best showing in a single NBA postseason, ahead of that of the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (15-1) and 1983 Philadelphia 76ers (12-1).

Keating's take: Your eyes aren't deceiving you. Golden State took a crew that went 73-9, added Kevin Durant and got even better. Last year's Warriors outscored opponents by a humongous 11.6 points per game, by far the biggest margin of any NBA team in the past 20 years. Golden State had an effective field goal percentage of 56.3 percent, highest in the league, while limiting foes to 48.6 percent, lowest in the league. The Warriors led the NBA in assists, blocks, steals, forced turnovers and plays after which fans rewound their DVRs to see them again. They went 16-1 in the playoffs. They're in the middle of the most dominant run you're ever going to see by any team.

2. 2002-03 Australian men's national team (cricket)

Keating's score: 2.09

Key stat: Extended their win streak to 16 Test victories and rolled into 2003 by winning all 11 matches at the Cricket World Cup.

Keating's take: If you want a global ranking of sports teams, cricket is in. The International Cricket Council expects to generate $2.5 billion to $3 billion during its current eight-year financial plan (2015-2023). Over the past two decades, one outfit played like Bill Russell's Celtics of the 1960s: From 1999 to 2007, Australia won an incredible 72 of 93 matches and went 24-2-2 in series.

3. 1998 New York Yankees (MLB)

Keating's score: 1.94

Key stat: Posted a 125-50 record, including the playoffs -- the most wins (regular- and postseason) in a season in league history.

Keating's take: Twenty years since their 125-win season means we've been hearing for two decades about how the Yankees' homegrown, good-guy core, led by Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, played the game right. Well, they did. They also outscored opponents by more than 300 runs. Has any other MLB team ever been above average at every position on the field?

4. 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)

Keating's score: 1.89

Key stat: Recorded a point in the first 24 games of the season (21 wins, three shootout losses), the longest streak to start a season in league history.

Keating's take: The Blackhawks finished the lockout-shortened 2013 season with an .802 points percentage, the highest of any NHL team in the past 20 seasons. An insanely dramatic postseason -- an overtime Game 7 versus Detroit, a double-OT clincher versus the defending champion Kings, an 112-minute opener versus Boston, two more OT games in the Stanley Cup Final -- stamped these Blackhawks as not just the most dominant but also the most exciting of recent hockey champions.

5. 2016 Chicago Cubs (MLB)

Keating's score: 1.70

Key stat:Led the league in wins en route to winning their first World Series title since 1908, snapping the longest World Series drought in major league history.

Keating's take: A 25-6 start got fans wondering if this could be the greatest team of all time, and they weren't far off: The Cubs outscored opponents by 1.57 runs per game while NL teams averaged 4.44, a ratio only slightly below that of powerhouses such as the '98 Yankees and Big Red Machine. Of course, the Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908. By marrying big-market resources to fully committed analytics, they also expanded the possibilities of dominance itself. Houston in 2017 was the first of many statistically progressive champions to follow.

6. 2013-14 Connecticut Huskies (Women's college hoops)

Keating's score: 1.69

Key stat: Rolled to a 40-0 record, outscoring opponents by more than 34 points per game and winning as many games by 50-plus points (eight) as by fewer than 20 points.

Keating's take: Playing the women's game doesn't make things easier in our methodology; on the contrary, comparing dominant teams to champions from their own sports punishes UConn by measuring the Huskies against other incarnations of their perpetually great program (such as their 2002 team, which went 39-0 but couldn't make this list). In 2014, the Huskies truly outdid themselves, going 40-0, winning every game by double digits and crushing previously undefeated Notre Dame in the national title game.

7. 2002 Los Angeles Sparks (WNBA)

Keating's score: 1.66

Key stat: Led the league in wins and scoring and finished the season with their second straight WNBA crown. No team has won back-to-back titles since.

Keating's take:The Sparks swept every playoff series, beating opponents by an average of a dozen points, to win the second of back-to-back championships. Lisa Leslie had nearly 50 more rebounds than anyone else in the league -- and on June 30, she became the first woman to dunk in a pro game.

8. 2008 Florida Gators (College football)

Keating's score: 1.65

Key stat: Led by Heisman Trophy-winning QB Tim Tebow, Florida's roster had 19 players eventually selected in the NFL Draft.

Keating's take: Beat nine -- count 'em -- nine bowl teams by an average of 31 points, including No. 1 Alabama to win the SEC and No. 2 Oklahoma to win the national championship. Twenty-four members of the team went on to play in the NFL, including a collegiate legend you might have heard of named Tim Tebow. Choosing the most dominant college football team of the past 20 years is a very close call, but maybe it shouldn't be: The biggest mark against the Gators is supposedly that they lost a game (by one point, to Ole Miss). To our spreadsheets, that's just one more week of data.

9. 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings (NHL)

Keating's score: 1.64

Key stat:Recorded a plus-31 goal differential in the 2008 playoffs, the best by any team since the 1995 Devils (plus-33; also won the Stanley Cup).

Keating's take: This was the fourth and final championship club of the rosters Detroit started building in the late '90s around the then-revolutionary idea of maximizing puck possession. These Red Wings outshot their opponents in a ridiculous 70 of 82 games -- and outscored them by 73 goals in the season.

10. 2000-01 Duke Blue Devils (Men's college hoops)

Keating's score: 1.54

Key stat: Won all six NCAA Tournament games by double figures, including a national semifinal in which Duke rallied from 22 points down to beat Maryland.

Keating's take: The 1999 Blue Devils, who had five top-15 NBA Draft picks, were Duke's best team in the past 20 years, but after 32 straight wins, they lost the national championship game (by three points against UConn). This edition closed out, averaging 90.7 points per game in Shane Battier's senior season and winning each of its NCAA Tournament games by at least 10 points.

11. 2013-14 Real Madrid (UEFA)

Keating's score: 1.49

Key stat: Outscored opponents 21-5 in the knockout stage alone.

Keating's take: In their eternal battle with Barcelona for dominance of the Champions League, Real Madrid have fielded many all-time great sides. By the numbers, this was the best: Led by Cristiano Ronaldo's absurd 17 goals in 13 games, Real pitched five shutouts and outscored opponents 41-10.

12. 2013 Seattle Seahawks (NFL)

Keating's score: 1.46

Key stat: One of the most dominant defenses in NFL history, the Seahawks' D led the league in points allowed, yards allowed and takeaways -- the first team to do so since the 1985 Bears.

Keating's take: The best defense in the NFL in at least the past 15 years (8.9 points per game better than league average, according to Pro-Football-Reference's Simple Rating System), a quarterback entering superstardom and a running back nicknamed "Beast." Throw in a 35-point Super Bowl win, and it all adds up to utter dominance, but we'll probably always think of this team as a dynasty that wasn't.

13. 2002 Brazil (FIFA)

Keating's score: 1.44

Key stat: Trailed for only five minutes during this World Cup, and in the final, beat Germany 2-0 after Germany had conceded just one goal in the entire tournament to that point.

Keating's take: From 1998 to 2005, Brazil's national team had six of the 10 most dominant seasons by any international squad in the past 20 years, according to year-end FIFA ratings. In 2002, the Selecao won seven games in the World Cup, outscoring opponents 18-4. Ronaldo ("O Fenomeno"), Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos all finished among the top 10 in Player of the Year voting.

14. 2014 Phoenix Mercury (WNBA)

Keating's score: 1.42

Key stat: Set an WNBA record with 29 wins in the regular season en route to winning their third championship.

Keating's take: Fans, talking heads and other would-be GMs, take note: How many of the teams on this list grew to dominance through tanking? Maybe just this one because the WNBA has such high-impact rookies and low salary caps. In 2012, Phoenix went 1-8 after Labor Day and finished 7-27. The next year, Diana Taurasi returned from injury, and Phoenix drafted Brittney Griner. The year after that, the Mercury blew through the playoffs, with Taurasi as Finals MVP.

15. 2004 New England Patriots (NFL)

Keating's score: 1.40

Key stat: Won their first six games to extend their win streak to 21 games (including postseason) since 2003, the longest such streak in league history.

Keating's take: This is where they became legendary: The first of coach Bill Belichick's teams to lead the NFL in scoring margin, these Pats won their third championship in four seasons. Tom Brady threw for nearly 3,700 yards without any of his targets gaining even 900; WR Troy Brown intercepted three passes; LB Mike Vrabel scored two touchdowns. Of course, three years later, the Patriots were better -- far more dominant, in fact, than any team in any sport anywhere in the universe over the past 20 years. But the 2007 Patriots lost their last game.

16. 2007 Boston Red Sox (MLB)

Keating's score: 1.37

Key stat: Set an MLB postseason record by outscoring their opponents 99-46, the greatest run differential in postseason history.

Keating's take: It's hard to remember now, but even after the improbable championship run of the "Idiots" in 2004, the Red Sox didn't have permanent big-market swagger to rival the Yankees. It was this second of three titles after 1918 that cemented their entitlement. The 2007 Sox never fell below .500, led their division for 172 days and made Colorado look like a Pacific Coast League team in the World Series.

17. 2015 New Zealand All Blacks (rugby union)

Keating's score: 1.37

Key stat: Became the first team to win back-to-back Rugby World Cups.

Keating's take: The eight most dominant international rugby teams of the past 20 years are all Kiwis. The 2015 edition of the All Blacks had the highest end-of-year World Rugby ranking ever and won another World Cup. Fly-half Beauden Barrett went on to win World Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017.

18. 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs (NBA)

Keating's score: 1.36

Key stat: Allowed 322 points in the NBA Finals against the Cavaliers, the fewest points allowed in a Finals series.

Keating's take: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker played together for 14 seasons with San Antonio (which in itself is amazing and instructive, as is the fact that all three were born outside the continental United States). In 2007, their peak as a trio, they improved the Spurs by a whopping 14.1 points per 100 possessions, or 38.1 games, according to VORP. (Similar metrics, such as Win Shares and PER, also say 2007 was the Big Three's best season.)

19. 2007-08 Kansas Jayhawks (Men's college hoops)

Keating's score: 1.35

Key stat: Set a school record with 37 wins.

Keating's take: Remembered today mostly for a Mario Chalmers 3-pointer that forced overtime in the NCAA championship game against Memphis, the Jayhawks were better than that one shining moment. They went 37-3, with their three losses coming by a combined 13 points. They outscored opponents by 35.2 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for strength of schedule, the second-largest margin of the past 20 years (behind that of Kentucky in 2015). And they won the title in the only NCAA tournament in which all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four.

20. 1999-2000 Connecticut Huskies (Women's college hoops)

Keating's score: 1.29

Key stat: Led the nation in field goal percentage shooting (.539) and field goal percentage defense (.339).

Keating's take: UConn earned its first national title in 1995, but this was the season the Huskies began a dynastic run that hasn't ended. Sue Bird, Swin Cash & Co. went 36-1, with their sole loss coming by one point against Tennessee, a defeat they avenged by beating the Lady Vols in the national championship game and by permanently usurping their national prominence.

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