The theory: I believe that the 2009-2010 NBA season has the greatest collection of FIVE teams competing in the same season
I have alluded to it in the comments and some of the articles since the NBA off-season has ended... that the Lakers, Magic, Cavs, Celtics, and Spurs ("The 5 NBA Superpowers of 2009-2010") are the greatest collection of five teams in any one season. While I have made this subjective proclamation, it is a very difficult to prove or even evaluate the past seasons. How in the world does one evaluate how many "bona fide" contenders an NBA season has or how "good" the top 5 teams are in any season? Who do we identify as the top 5 teams?
Well, after debating this dilemma, I discovered the Simple Rating System ("SRS") on Basketball Reference.com. Briefly, SRS uses point differential in addition to strength of schedule to determine a team's rating. Zero corresponds to an average team, positive numbers mean the team is above average, and negative numbers correspond to a below-average team.
I then decided the best thing to do would be to go back through the modern era beginning with Magic and Bird's rookie season (1980 - present), and see what the top 5 teams were by SRS and also chart their win totals.
Interestingly, the numbers almost break out into two groups: a post-expansion set of data (1989 - present) and a pre-expansion set of data (1980-1988). The average SRS of the pre-expansion data (5.32) is considerably lower than the post-expansion data (6.36). I assume that with a larger amount of teams (27 to 30 teams from 1989-present compared with 23 teams) it is easier for more teams to be considerably above the average. Below is the graph for the data.
Please note that the Bulls actually have the top-3 rated teams from the modern era (1996, 1997, 1992) at 11.8, 10.7, and 10.07. The next best team is the 2008 Celtics (9.31).
I will highlight some of the top seasons:
Top Average SRS Years:
#1 1995-1996 Season Average SRS: 7.362
Bulls=11.8 (Jordan, Pippen, Rodman);
Sonics=7.39 (Payton, Kemp, D. Schrempf);
Jazz=6.24 (Stockton, Malone);
Spurs=5.98 (D. Robinson, S. Elliott, Avery Johnson, Chuck Person);
Magic=5.40 (Shaq, Penny, D. Scott, N. Anderson, Horace Grant)
The top-rated season of 1995-1996 is actually a rather remarkable season. The Bulls swept the Magic in the conference finals and the Sonics edged out the Jazz in 7. I would love to see some computer simulations of these teams against the 5 NBA Superpowers of 2009-2010. The Magic of today vs. the Magic of 1995-1996 would be really interesting, with the two young centers (Howard and Shaq) and the plethora of 3-point shooters.
#2 1996-1997 Season Average SRS: 7.332
Bulls = 10.7 (Jordan, Pippen, Rodman);
Jazz=7.97 (Stockton, Malone);
Sonics=6.91 (Payton, Kemp, D. Schrempf);
Heat=5.56 (T. Hardaway, Mourning, J. Mashburn, D. Majerle);
Hawks=5.52 (S. Smith, Laetnner's All-star season, Mookie Blaylock, Dikembe Mutumbo)
This 1996-1997 season is actually pretty interesting, especially when you look at the surprising collection of team members of the Sonics, Heat, and Hawks. I had forgotten about those teams!
#3 2007-2008 Season Average SRS: 7.13
Celtics = 9.31 (KG, Pierce, Ray Allen, Rondo)
Lakers = 7.34 (Kobe, Gasol, Odom)
Utah=6.87 (D. Williams, Boozer, M. Okur)
Pistons = 6.67 (Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince)
Hornets=5.46 (C. Paul, D. West, Stojakovic, T. Chandler)
Highest rated "Team Number Five" 1992-1993 Season; Average SRS: 6.258 (which is actually below-average for the post-expansion era of 6.36); Team #5 = 5.87; Average value for Team #5 = 4.79 in Post-Expansion Era)
Sonics=6.66 (Ricky Pierce, Kemp, Eddie Johnson, Derrick McKey, Sam Perkins, Nate McMillan, M. Cage)
Cavs = 6.3 (Daugherty, Nance, Price, Gerald Wilkins, Ehlo, Hot Rod Williams, Terrell Brandon)
Suns = 6.27 (Barkley, Majerle, Ainge, Kevin Johnson, Cedric Ceballos, Tom Chambers, Richard Dumas w/o drugs)
Bulls = 6.19 (Jordan, Pippen, Horace Grant)
Knicks = 5.87 (Ewing, John Starks, Anthony Mason, Oakley, Doc Rivers)
Best Pre-Expansion season 1986-1987 Season Average SRS: 6.338
Lakers = 8.32 (Magic Johnson, Worthy, Green, Kareem, Byron Scott)
Hawks = 7.19 (Dominique, K. Willis, Doc Rivers)
Celtics = 6.58 (Bird, McHale, Parrish, Ainge, D. Johnson)
Dallas = 5.55 (Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Sam Perkins, D. Schrempf, James Donaldson)
Bucks = 4.05 (Ricky Pierce, Terry Cummings, Jack Sikma, John Lucas)
I think the 5 Superpowers of 2009-2010 could easily take down this top-5. Yes, the Lakers of 1987 are one of the greatest teams... but the 4th and 5th best teams from this group aren't even close to the level of the 5 superpowers of 2009-2010.
Worst Post-Expansion season 2002-2003 Season Average SRS: 5.53
Dallas = 7.91 (Dirk, S. Nash, M. Finley, Nick Van Exel)
Kings = 6.69 (Webber, Stojakovic, Divac, Bibby, D. Christie)
Spurs = 5.65 (T. Duncan, T. Parker, D. Robinson, Ginobili, Stephen Jackson)
Nets = 4.42 (J. Kidd, R. Jefferson, K. Martin)
Pistons = 2.98 (Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace)
In summary, as the 2009-2010 season progresses, I will be checking on the progress of the 5 superpowers, and seeing how they stack up against the past.
CHALLENGE TO THE LAKERS, MAGIC, CAVS, CELTICS, AND SPURS:
Can they top the average SRS of 7.362 from 1996-1997? I don't know... but I assume that Kobe, Dwight Howard, LeBron, KG, and Duncan will be up to the challenge! I will also say that if the 5 Superpowers had a higher MINIMUM than any past year, that may also prove that this is the best 5-team set. The goal would be to top the minimum value of 5.87 from the 1992-1993 season for the "Team #5."