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21st Century NBA Power Rankings: Top 10


Earlier this week, theScore began counting down its rankings of all 30 NBA franchises based on how successful they've been in the 21st century - graded by a variety of objective (Best Season, Worst Season, Overall Record, Playoff Performance) and subjective (Franchise Player, Cult Appeal, Public Dysfunction) factors.

With 21-30 and 11-20 behind us, we look at the NBA's best of the best - including the one franchise that rules unquestioned as the greatest of the new millennium.

10. Cleveland Cavaliers

Best Season: 24
Worst Season: 11
Overall Record: 17
Playoff Performance: 24
Franchise Player: 29
Cult Appeal: 14
Public Dysfunction: 13

Total Score: 132

There's no surer way to the top 10 of these rankings than twice employing the greatest player of the century. We'll never know how the Cavs might've fared in these rankings had they not landed LeBron James with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft - and then again in free agency in 2014 - but, suffice to say, he's the primary reason they're in the top echelon here.

They haven't won more than 33 games in eight seasons this century without James, and haven't won fewer than 35 in 10 seasons with him - including seven 50+ win campaigns, four trips to the NBA Finals, and one of the most noteworthy championship upsets in pro sports history in 2016.

Of course, even James can't protect the Cavs across the board here. They still finish in the middle of the pack for Overall Record due to all the losing they did before and in between his Cleveland stints, including a 17-65 campaign immediately preceding his arrival in '03. They also never quite developed the Cult Appeal they should have for such a successful team.

James' supporting casts were routinely uninspiring during his first run, and rarely seemed to be jelling as they should during his second. And you can thank Dan Gilbert for the team's low Public Dysfunction score. Even without all the management turmoil the team seems to be constantly embroiled in, all you have to do is say the words "Comic Sans" to remind Cleveland fans of their owner's foot-in-mouth struggles.

9. Houston Rockets

Best Season: 10
Worst Season: 27
Overall Record: 26
Playoff Performance: 12
Franchise Player: 18
Cult Appeal: 21
Public Dysfunction: 27

Total Score: 141

One of the rare teams to avoid totally bottoming out this century, the Rockets only won fewer than 30 games in 2001-02, a 28-win season that ended with them netting Yao Ming with the No. 1 pick.

That refuse-to-totally-lose mentality leads to them scoring in the top five in both Worst Season and Overall Record here, a consistency underlined by the tidy house kept by longtime general manager Daryl Morey. If there's been a notable scandal with the team in the past decade, beyond what the hell happened when it totally fell apart in 2015-16, we haven't heard about it.

They've employed a trio of legitimate stars in Yao, Tracy McGrady, and two-time MVP runner-up James Harden, and they've become the toast of the analytics-minded NBA with their much-publicized embrace of basketball at its most efficient.

Yet, for all the team's continued success, its peaks have remained relatively low. Seven of Houston's 10 playoff appearances this century resulted in a first-round exit, and only once did they make the conference finals: In 2014-15, when they were bounced by the Warriors in five games. They're one of only two teams in the top 12 to have never made the Finals, and the only one to make the third round just once.

Whether they can add to their playoff success with the addition of Chris Paul - who, with his myriad regular-season accomplishments and lack of extended postseason success, is basically the player version of the Rockets - will surely be one of the biggest stories of the 2017-18 season.

8. Boston Celtics

Best Season: 27
Worst Season: 24
Overall Record: 23
Playoff Performance: 27
Franchise Player: 9
Cult Appeal: 11
Public Dysfunction: 28

Total Score: 149

By objective metrics, the Celtics have had an impeccable century. They've made the playoffs 13 out of 18 years, made the conference finals five times and the Finals twice, and won the '08 title following a 66-win regular season - one of the century's great single-season runs.

Even at their worst - the 2006-07 season, when they bottomed out for Kevin Durant and ended up three slots too late - they still won 24 games. And through it all, they've mostly stayed drama-free, at least internally - thanks to one of the strongest front offices and ownership situations (and, for a while, player cores) in the Association.

So where do the Celtics falter? Well, despite the combined star power of the Big Three (turned Big Four), the Celtics never really had an extended run with that league-defining franchise player. Paul Pierce was an all-time Celtic great but never quite a superstar, only finishing in the top 10 of MVP voting once, while Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen both showed up too late in their careers, and Rajon Rondo's All-Star peak was strangely short-lived.

And despite some fun years at the height of Celtics-Lakers III, and some early-internet fun during the Antoine Walker days, the C's never really became a cult team, with too much squad turnover for casual fans to really get attached. It's enough for their longtime rivals to end up getting the slightest of edges in our rankings here.

7. Los Angeles Lakers

Best Season: 29
Worst Season: 12
Overall Record: 28
Playoff Performance: 29
Franchise Player: 30
Cult Appeal: 17
Public Dysfunction: 5

Total Score: 150

Only No. 7? Seems low for a team that's won five championships this century, no? Well, the Lakers do score brilliantly in Playoff Performance, Best Season, and Overall Record, and they're tops overall for Franchise Player, having employed the biggest single-team star this millennium has known.

(When your team enjoys peak Shaquille O'Neal for three Finals MVP seasons and he doesn't even enter into the Franchise Player discussions, you've probably had a pretty successful century.)

But as high as the highs have been for the Lakers, the lows have been damn low, on and off the court. Let's not forget that the Lakers are just two seasons removed from going 17-65 - not unprecedented crappiness, certainly, but unmistakable crappiness nonetheless.

And even at their winningest, the Lakers were the very picture of locker-room melodrama, encompassing enough soap operatics for its own Wikipedia page, which you have to read every year or two just to remind yourself how wild those days were. And with Lonzo and LaVar in town - with more Balls possibly on the way - that bottom-five Public Dysfunction score ain't getting any higher.

6. Phoenix Suns

Best Season: 17
Worst Season: 23
Overall Record: 21
Playoff Performance: 16
Franchise Player: 22
Cult Appeal: 29
Public Dysfunction: 24

Total Score: 152

Conversely, No. 6 seems high for a team that's never made the Finals, doesn't it? Well, the Suns don't score spectacularly for Best Season or Playoff Performance for that reason - though they're still in the top half of the league, having made the conference finals three times and the second round twice.

And that's the consistent theme with the Suns: They're top half in all seven categories, without that one dud to really sink them out of the top tier.

And they do score spectacularly in at least one category: Cult Appeal. The Seven Seconds or Less Suns were undoubtedly the cult team of the 2000s, captivating casual fans with their explosive, fluid offense.

That team's leader, two-time MVP Steve Nash, also gets them into the top 10 for Franchise Player, and the perennial good vibes around the team lead them to a strong Public Dysfunction score as well - despite the best efforts of owner Robert Sarver, who gets them docked a couple points for his infamous penny-pinching at the team's peak.

Could you really say it all adds up to more than the Lakers' five rings? Debatable, but for this exercise, they come out on top.

5. Golden State Warriors

Best Season: 30
Worst Season: 10
Overall Record: 16
Playoff Performance: 21
Franchise Player: 28
Cult Appeal: 30
Public Dysfunction: 17

Total Score: 152

Remember how the Warriors only made the playoffs once in the first 13 years of this century? Neither do they. The last five seasons have seen them ascend to such absurd success so quickly that the fact they were once a perennial NBA laughingstock couldn't seem like more ancient history.

They've won 207 games and two titles across the last three seasons, they've seen their 2009 first-round pick grow into the league's biggest star since LeBron James (and paired him with the second-biggest), and they've seen their public relations - once so poor that owner Joe Lacob was booed at a jersey retirement - grow into such an echo chamber of applause that the only time they really catch heat is when Lacob forgets to at least feign humility.

The Warriors can't totally escape their past in these rankings - they catch a bottom-10 Worst Season score for a 17-65 campaign at the beginning of the century, and all their lottery-bound campaigns in the 00s do result in their overall record being fairly mediocre.

But even when they were bad, the Cult Appeal was strong - culminating in the We Believe squad of '07-'08, perhaps the greatest single-season bandwagon team in modern NBA history - and only in the past year or so have the Warriors officially transitioned from people's champs to just plain champs. Don't expect them to slide from this top five anytime soon.

4. Miami Heat

Best Season: 28
Worst Season: 8
Overall Record: 27
Playoff Performance: 28
Franchise Player: 25
Cult Appeal: 20
Public Dysfunction: 22

Total Score: 158

No team has swung on the NBA's pendulum of success quite like the Heat this century. They won the title in 2006, had the worst record in the league two years later, and within three seasons were back in the Finals again. Of course, a lot of things happened in between to explain those peaks and valleys, but in total, no team outside of the Lakers has combined such staggering success with such unavoidable embarrassment.

At least Miami has mostly kept it out of the locker room. Outside of Stan Van Gundy's controversial ousting at the beginning of the '05-'06 season, and some upsettingly ignominious ends to the team tenures of Chris Bosh and face-of-the-franchise Dwyane Wade, the Heat have mostly stayed solid behind the scenes.

And despite going 15-67 in '07-'08 - a bottom-10 Worst Record - their Overall Record is still one of the league's very best, as are (of course) their Best Season and Playoff Performance. The Heat haven't had the organizational consistency to avoid the occasional horror-show season, but they've had the organizational excellence to always bounce back impressively quickly.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

Best Season: 21
Worst Season: 19
Overall Record: 25
Playoff Performance: 22
Franchise Player: 26
Cult Appeal: 24
Public Dysfunction: 25

Total Score: 162

And so a team with one Finals appearance and no wins finishes ahead of three teams with multiple titles to their names. The Thunder's ranking should be especially impressive when you consider the team won one playoff series total in the century's first decade. Indeed, their Best Season, Worst Season, and Playoff Performance ratings are all strong but unexceptional, largely as a result of that inconsequential 10-year run.

So how do they finish top three? They don't have one bum category bringing them down, and they score well in the intangibles. They essentially succeeded the Suns as the NBA's bandwagon team of choice, thanks to the consecutive draft selections of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, and though the trade of the latter will likely haunt GM Sam Presti for his entire career, he's otherwise kept the Thunder a largely humiliation-free franchise.

And so the team formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics - for eight years this century, about which most NBA fans probably couldn't recall a thing - stands as one of the league's marquee franchises, though whether that's enough to get the league's brightest stars to stay in OKC remains unproven.

2. Dallas Mavericks

Best Season: 25
Worst Season: 29
Overall Record: 29
Player Performance: 26
Franchise Player: 24
Cult Appeal: 19
Public Dysfunction: 26

Total Score: 178

What more could an NBA fan possibly ask from the Mavericks this century? Well, multiple titles, no doubt, and perhaps a more stout defense of the one title they do have than the lackluster campaign they mounted in 2011-12.

But otherwise, the Mavs have done it all: playoffs 15 out of 18 seasons, multiple finals and conference finals appearances, consistently entertaining basketball, and arguably the league's greatest international star (and inarguably the Mavs' all-time face of the franchise) in Dirk Nowitzki.

Outside of the unprecedented DeAndre Jordan mess and some moments of general Mark Cuban loud-mouthedness, the Mavs have stayed clean in the headlines. Their coach and GM have been there forever, at least by NBA standards. They just had their worst season in two decades, but even that one wasn't really that bad (32-50, the second-best Worst Season in the Association), and they already appear bound to bounce back.

They'll look to do so with the point guard steal of the draft, a Warriors castoff who they've turned into a first-option scorer, and a disgruntled-but-talented young big with as much to prove as anyone in the league. If Cuban has proven one thing to us since taking over in the late '90s, it's that smart money never goes on Dallas staying bad.

1. San Antonio Spurs

Best Season: 26
Worst Season: 30
Overall Record: 30
Playoff Performance: 30
Franchise Player: 27
Cult Appeal: 13
Public Dysfunction: 30

Total Score: 186

Only slightly - slightly - less predictable than the Charlotte Hornets coming in last place in this exercise is the Spurs coming in first. I mean, good lord. Forget the five championships. Forget Tim Duncan, two-time MVP and one of the three or four greatest single-team players in the sport's history.

Forget that their overall winning percentage is 71.2, nearly nine points higher than the second-place Dallas Mavericks. Even forget that they've made the playoffs every season since before "The Sopranos" premiered. Here's the best stat for demonstrating the Spurs' dominance in these rankings: In 2009-10, the Spurs went 50-32. THAT WAS THEIR WORST SEASON.

That record is better than the best regular seasons of the Wizards and Hornets. The Mavs' second-best Worst Season is way down there at 33-49.

What else is there to say about a franchise that tops our rankings in four out of seven categories? The only category that even begins to hold them back is Cult Appeal - absent for most of the '00s and early '10s, though in later years, affection for the individual players (and the increasingly free-flowing style of play) became so great that they developed some late-life bandwagonability.

Beyond that, there are no shots to take at the Spurs. Their management and ownership stay rock solid, they win every year, and they continually retool without ever totally rebuilding. They're the best franchise of the century the way Beyonce is the best pop star: Maybe there are little nits you can pick if you absolutely insist on doing so, but when you look at the whole resume, there's no point in arguing anything but who should come in second.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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