Later today, we’ll look into Franchises of the Decade—which is how most people define “Teams of the Decade.” But right now, we’re going to be specific with our terms and figure out who were the best single-season teams in each sport in the Aughts, along with the best teams that fell short of a title and the worst teams that happened to win one.
Their defense was the single best unit of the Aughts—good enough to overcome that weak offense. They won every game in which they scored a touchdown, which included their last 11 after a 5-4 start and a quarterback change.
The first iteration of a seemingly unbeatable Patriots’ squad and the only No. 1 seed to win the Super Bowl in the Aughts, this is the team that ran off 15 straight wins after a 2-2 start en route to their second Super Bowl in three years. It will be interesting to see if this decade’s Patriots are remembered more for this team—similar to the other title-winners, it possessed an excellent defense and a solid offense that wore you down on the ground and always made just enough plays to win—or the ’07 version that stomped teams and ran up the score.*
*Cool Stat: The ’03 Patriots opened the season with a 31-0 loss to the Bills and closed the season with a 31-0 win over the Bills. I wonder if that has ever happened before.
And this shows how I think New England will be remembered. I already mentioned that the 18-0 Patriots simply ran into a team that was designed—if not explicitly—to beat it. I can’t imagine any other team from this decade being favored to beat the ’07 Pats in a game, and the only one that would be particularly compelling (besides a rematch with those Giants, of course) would be to see that offense take on the 2000 Ravens’ defense. In a decade that gave us a bunch of fluky Super Bowl winners, the nod goes to the best regular-season team.
Best Team Not to Win a Title: 2007 New England Patriots
The greatest statistical seasons ever by a quarterback and a wide receiver, and the defense wasn’t too bad, either.
Worst Team to Win a Title: 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers weren’t any worse than the ’07 Giants (two franchises that won the Super Bowl in seasons that weren’t their best this decade), but they beat the Seahawks to win it all—not the undefeated Patriots. Plus, that was a pretty bad game.
After a 19-29 start, Florida went 72-42 down the stretch en route to a surprise World Series title. Still, the Marlins boasted Ivan Rodriguez, Derrek Lee, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Lowell, and Luis Castillo on offense and a pitching staff with Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, Carl Pavano, and Mark Redman—the last three all in the midst of career years.
Only a near-epic August/September collapse prevented them from being one of two teams this decade to win 100 games and the World Series, and the Pale Hose rampaged through the postseason with an 11-1 record. They also put together one of the greatest stretches by a starting rotation in playoff history in the ALCS, with their starters throwing 44 1/3 of a possible 45 innings.
The only team to win 100 games and the title in the Aughts, the ’09 Yanks had the decade’s best lineup—one that perfectly matched their new homer-friendly park to boot—and a top-heavy pitching staff that included CC Sabathia and the greatest closer ever, Mariano Rivera. It’s hard to see any other team from this decade being able to match these Bronx Bombers in a seven-game series.
Best Team Not to Win a Title: 2004 St. Louis Cardinals
Lost in the hubbub surrounding Boston’s curse-breaking title in 2004 is the fact that its four-game sweep of St. Louis in the World Series was a fairly significant upset. Those Cardinals won 105 games, received career years from Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen (combining with Pujols for a killer middle of the order), and had four 15-game winners in their rotation.
Worst Team to Win a Title: 2006 St. Louis Cardinals
With only 83 regular-season wins, they were one of the worst Cardinal teams of the decade—far worse than the ’04 and ’05 teams that lost in the playoffs. Pretty much a one-man lineup, St. Louis was boosted in the postseason by unexpected contributions from bit guys like Yadier Molina, Scott Spiezio, and Jeff Suppan.
The second Spurs’ title team was the only one that could boast Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and David Robinson. It was also Duncan’s finest year as a pro—which is saying a lot—topped off by his near quadruple-double in one of the greatest individual performances in Finals’ history in the clinching Game 6 victory over the Nets. A cameo appearance by Stephen Jackson—as the team’s third-leading scorer—is just icing on the cake.
The most dominant postseason team of the decade, these Lakers won 15 of 16 playoff games—following an eight-game winning streak to close the regular season. Shaq and Kobe were never better than they were the final two months of that season.
But there’s something to be said for doing it all year long. The first championship team of that turn-of-the-century dynasty went 67-15 in the regular season—the best mark for an NBA champion in the Aughts (only Dallas in 2007 matched it). A better defensive team and more balanced than its successor a year later, this Lakers squad was the best over 82 games.
Best Team Not to Win a Title: 2004-05 Phoenix Suns
With five players averaging 15 points per game (fine, Quentin Richardson averaged only 14.9), these Suns possessed the decade’s best offense. It’s worth wondering how different their Conference Finals loss to the Spurs would have been had Joe Johnson been able to play.
Worst Team to Win a Title: 2005-06 Miami Heat
I like Dwyane Wade, but I’m pretty sure the refs called me for a foul on him during that series. Any team that needs big-time production from Jason Williams and Antoine Walker doesn’t stack up as a champion in my book.
The repeat Gators possessed the most well-rounded starting five of the decade, with a pure point guard in Taurean Green, a sharpshooter in Lee Humphreys, an athletic get-to-the-basket wing and lockdown defender in Corey Brewer, a classic postman in Al Horford, and an energetic defender, rebounder, and finisher in Joakim Noah.
Raymond Felton was a better version of Ty Lawson, Rashad McCants a better Wayne Ellington, and Sean May a better Tyler Hansbrough in leading Roy Williams to his first title. UNC lost its season-opener to Santa Clara (without Felton), but only dropped three more games at Duke, at Wake, and to reigning runner-up Georgia Tech in the ACC Tourney. The Tar Heels survived a Sweet 16 scare from Villanova (with some help from a dubious travel call) and knocked off Illinois in a thrilling title game behind the superhuman efforts of May (26 and 10).
The champion Blue Devils had three players who would go in the top six of the NBA Draft, and that doesn’t include a two-time All-Star in Carlos Boozer. Jason Williams was the single best player in college basketball this decade, and he was running alongside National Player of the Year, Shane Battier. All five starters played in the NBA, and all but Williams, who suffered a career-ending motorcycle accident, still get regular time in the league. Duke’s season did include four losses—all to teams ranked in the top 16—and a remarkable comeback at Maryland. The Blue Devils won all six of their Tournament games by double digits, although they did require another astounding comeback to beat the Terrapins and never quite pulled away from Arizona in the national championship.
Best Team Not to Win a Title: 2004-05 Illinois Fighting Illini
The best backcourt of the Aughts, and maybe the team basketball purists–like myself of course–had the most fun watching. The Illini’s pursuit of an undefeated regular season in the Big Ten was more impressive than the similar regular seasons of Saint Joseph’s, Stanford, or Memphis, and it took one of the decade’s best teams to deny Illinois the title.
Worst Team to Win a Title: 2005-06 Florida Gators
It’s slim pickings in this category, with 2002-03 Syracuse as the only other competitor. These Gators, though, were not yet at the level that would carry them to a second title the following season, and they were never considered a legitimate threat to win it all. Until they did.
With Vince Young and an underrated defense, the Longhorns survived a road trip to Columbus in their second game of the season, were not tested during the rest of the regular season, won the Big XII title game by 67 points, and then beat USC in the game of the decade.
With six All-Americans and two Heisman winners, the Trojans went 13-0 (with a few scares along the way against Cal and UCLA), capped off by a 55-19 destruction of Oklahoma to win their first first BCS championship.
It’s not even close. A Miami team that boasted Clinton Portis (with backups Willis McGahee and Frank Gore), Andre Johnson, Jeremy Shockey, Bryant McKinnie, Jonathan Vilma, D.J. Williams, Phillip Buchanon, and Ed Reed won its 12 games by an average of 32.9 points—and it could have been higher if Larry Coker didn’t often take mercy on teams at halftime. The Hurricanes beat No. 14 Syracuse and No. 12 Washington 59-0 and 65-7 in back-to-back weeks. They won all but one game by double-digits and led Nebraska 37-0 at halftime of the national championship. They were unbeatable.
Best Team Not to Win a Title: 2000 Miami Hurricanes
With many of the same players as the ’01 squad (plus Santana Moss), these ‘Canes didn’t get a shot at the title due to an early-season loss at No. 3 Washington. Even though the U beat Florida State during the season, the Seminoles were chosen for the national championship, where they lost to unbeaten Oklahoma.
The first didn’t deserve it (USC was better); the second had two losses. They were quarterbacked by Matts Mauck and Flynn. Both would have been beaten handily by the four teams mentioned above.