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The Ten Best Sports Seasons In Arizona History

We don't normally mention other sports or teams here on the 'Pit, even the local ones. But if you can't make an exception to the rule on Christmas weekend, when can you do it? This piece came about due to a discussion I was having about whether the Cardinals [then looking likely to go 4-12] were having a worse season than the Diamondbacks' 2010, which ended 65-97. That, in turn, led to a debate as to how the NFL team's trip to the Superbowl in 2009 stacked up against the MLB franchise's season of glory in 2001, or the NBA outfit's two near-misses in their sport.

In between munching on honey-baked ham and watching the Yule Log, I thought I'd dig a bit deeper into the topic, and see if I could come up with an objective measurement of how Arizona teams performed...

And this is an entirely gratuitous line of text, to stop the poll from breaking the layout. :-)

You could do it by looking at regular-season records. The first problem there is, how to compare numbers across different sports? You can't use straight win percentage. 12-4 in football and 121-41 in baseball are both a win percentage of about .750, but the latter would be near-unprecedented, while NFL teams go 12-4 every year. To get around this, I figured out the odds of a .500 team posting a certain record, and matched by that. For instance, a .500 NFL team, purely by chance would go 4-12 or worse, 3.84% of the time. A .500 baseball team, purely by chance, would go 69-93 or worse, 3.52% of the time. So we can, more or less, equate those two records.

The table below shows, for the four main sports, the regular season records that match up this way:

NFL MLB NBA/NHL
16-0 107-55 60-22
15-1 103-59 57-25
14-2 100-62 54-28
13-3 96-66 52-30
12-4 93-69 50-32
11-5 89-73 47-35
10-6 86-76 45-37
9-7 83-79 43-39
8-8 81-81 41-41
7-9 79-83 39-43
6-10 76-86 37-45
5-11 73-89 35-47
4-12 69-93 32-50
3-13 66-96 30-52
2-14 62-100 28-54
1-15 58-104 25-57
0-16 54-108 22-60

However, it seems fair to say that regular season record is now what make for a memorable or successful year. It's how far a team goes into the playoffs that really matter. A couple of baseball examples will illustrate that. Do you think Marlins fans remember the 91 regular-season wins the team got in 2003 - decent, but only good enough for second? Or do Mariners fans bask in the glory of the 116 wins posted in 2001 - before getting bumped by the Yankees in the ALCS. [As an aside, I wonder if we could have been Seattle in the World Series. Their team ERA+ was close to ours, and they had five everyday players with an OPS+ of 120 or more; we only had Gonzo]

So, to measure success, what I've done is work out the percentage of teams you "outlasted." An example will help. The 2007 D-backs made it to the NLCS, before being knocked out. Of the 29 other teams, 22 didn't make the postseason, and four lost in the Division series. We tied the Indians (who lost in the ALCS), so add half a point for them. That's a a total of 26.5 of the 29 teams we outlasted = 91.4%. That seems a better measure. As a tie-breaker, I use where the regular-season record ranked in the league, by the same percentage measure [to take different numbers of teams into account].

Note: while I'm sure the Rattlers and Mercury titles brought their fans joy, I've excluded them from the rankings, because they hardly registered on the greater consciousness of the overall population. I was spared this potentially tricky decision with regard to the Coyotes, by the simple fact that they've not won a playoff round since coming to the desert, so none of their seasons even came close to making the list. [However, this performance was apparently deemed sufficient for a $200 million bailout from Glendale, so I'm sure they aren't too upset...] Here's the overall listing of the ten best AZ seasons; regular season rating is in brackets, where applicable as a tie-breaker.

1. 100.0%: Diamondbacks 2001.
Still the only major sport to bring a trophy home to the desert, and I think even few fans of the other teams could argue with its position. Not just for its result, but the opponent against whom it came - the four-peat champion Yankees - and the manner in which final victory was achieved. A winner-take-all game, that goes to the bottom of the ninth inning, with our team prevailing in a heroic comeback? You couldn't script it any better.

2. 96.8%: Cardinals 2008-09
Of course, when the boot is on the other foot, and you're on the receiving end of a last-ditch resurrection, it's not so fun. After a ho-hum 9-7 regular season, the Cardinals stormed through the post-season, averaging 32 points per game on their way to the Superbowl. 13 points down in the fourth quarter, it looked over, but Arizona stormed back, only to see their lead overturned, with a mere 35 seconds to go. Heart-breaking stuff.

3. 96.2%: Suns 1992-93
Highlighted by the triple-overtime Game 3 thriller, won by Phoenix 129-121, but the Suns were unable to withstand Michael Jordan. He averaged 41 points per game as the Bulls proved unstoppable, beating Phoenix 4-2. However, the Bulls only avoided Game 7 by a single point, thanks to a three-point shot from John Paxson with 3.9 seconds left - the sole non-Jordan points Chicago scored in the entire fourth quarter.

4. 94.1%: Suns 1975-76
Back in the day - when the Suns were, literally, the only game in town, and they played at the Vet - the Suns' first trip to the NBA finals also resulted in a triple-overtime game. This time Phoenix came up short, 128-126 in the fifth contest, against the Celtics in the Boston Garden; some still call it the Greatest Game Ever. If they'd won, it might have been different, but as in their other finals trip, the Suns set in six.

5. 91.4%: Suns 2004-05 (100.0%)
Was this the team's best chance? They blazed through the season with a 62-20 record, the best in the NBA - that's off the top of the chart above, maybe equivalent to better than a 110-win season in baseball. They won eight of ten games in the first two play-off rounds, then their defense barely showed up against the Spurs, losing the first three and conceding an average 111 points per game, as they lost 4-1.

6. 91.4%: Suns 2005-06 (89.7%)
The following year saw Phoenix back in the Conference Finals, beating both LA teams on the way. A desperation three-point shot by Raja Ball, with 1.1 seconds left in Game 5 against the Clippers, took the game into its second overtime and the Suns eventual win, paved the way to take the semi-final series in seven. But the curse of Texas proved too strong again in the Finals, the Mavericks beating Phoenix in six.

=7. 91.4% : Diamondbacks 2007 (86.2%)
The grand illusion of 2007 was how Arizona had the best record in the National League, despite allowing more runs than they scored. This didn't stop the team in the NLDS, as they swept the Cubs, outscoring them by a margin of 16-6. But the wheels fell off against Colorado, the D-backs being swept in their turn, managing only eight runs in four games. It's been more less downhill for the franchise, ever since...

=7. 91.4%: Suns 2009-10 (86.2%)
One wonders if this was the last hurrah for the Suns, at least in their present incarnation, because the 13-15 record of the current team doesn't suggest a return trip to the final four will be happening any time soon. They beat the Lone Star jinx, going 4-0 over the Spurs to reach the Conference Finals, but went down there 4-2, to eventual NBA champions, the Los Angeles Lakers.

9. 90.4%: Suns 1989-90
While they reached the same stage of proceedings here too, this ranks lower, since back in those days, the NBA was smaller - there were no team in Memphis, Toronto or Charlotte at that point. Phoenix over-achieved this year, being the #5 seed, but beating both the #4 Jazz, and the top-seeded Lakers. They couldn't quite make it 3-for-3, Portland defeating them in six.

10. 89.6%: Suns 1988-89
And finally, add Minnesota and Orlando to the list of "not yet playing," as sixteen of the 25 franchises made the post-season this year. Phoenix dominated early on, losing only once as they whizzed past Denver and Seattle. Then, it was Kareeem Abdul-Jabbar, in his last year, and MVP Magic Johnson, of the Lakers. While not out-classed - the margin was no more than eight points in a game - the Suns got swept.

It's no surprise our local basketball team dominate the list. Even with the relatively easy route to the post-season present in the NBA, it's still impressive the Suns have made it 29 times in their 42 seasons, including 19 of the last 22 years [even as it has become a little harder, compared to, say, 1984, when 70%, all but seven, got in!].You could cross off the first round, which reduces the number of teams to a number comparable with the baseball playoffs, and Phoenix has made it past there half the seasons over that time-frame. That's an impressive fear of long-term franchise management.

It's the Conference Finals that have been their bete noire: while they've reached those a total of eight times since 1979, only once have the Suns won there. Let's hope that's not some kind of omen for the Diamondbacks perpetually losing the corresponding Championship Series. But, until the Suns - or one of the other teams - can win it all, their next-door neighbors at Chase will have the honor of the only major prop sports title in the state's history.