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The 16 greatest teams in sports history

Bill Russell's Celtics captured an unprecedented string of NBA titles. Sporting News/Sporting News/Getty Images

Want to start an argument?

Here's a surefire method. Sit down on a barstool anywhere in the world, clink your glass until everyone's listening, and then announce the name of a sports team or two you consider to be the greatest of all time.

From there, god help you. You're in for a long night.

One reason this debate is so contentious is that no two lists are ever the same. People tend to let their allegiances blind them to reason (I'm talking to you, Cowboys fans) or get carried away by national pride (Allez les bleus!). But the chief problem is something more fundamental. We're not even arguing about the same things.

Take the notion of excellence. How do you define it? Do you look at the number of championships a team has won throughout its entire lifespan (Yankees fans would say absolutely) or do you focus on teams like the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors that achieved unmatched results in a single season?

Beyond that -- where do you draw the line? Does European pro basketball warrant the same consideration as the NBA? Do you include Irish hurling teams? And what about ice dancing? Is that a team sport? (Don't laugh: Some people think Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean belong on the list.)

When I set out reporting my book, "The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World's Greatest Teams," I realized there were no shortcuts. I would have to consider every global sports dynasty in history from Australian rugby league to Uruguayan soccer. First, however, I knew I had to set some parameters.

Here are the six qualifying tests I used to determine whether a team deserves to be considered:

  1. It wasn't small. On teams with only a few members, an individual can easily determine the outcome. To make sure that a team's results were mainly a function of collective teamwork, I axed every team with fewer than five members. This eliminated curling, polo, beach volleyball, doubles luge, and, yes, ice dancing.

  1. Its members interacted. For a group of athletes to be a genuine "team," they have to cooperate, or at least coordinate their efforts, during competition. This rule knocked off teams from individual sports like Olympic boxing and wrestling and Ryder Cup golf, whose members compete separately toward an aggregate score.

  1. It engaged an opponent. In most team sports, the outcome depends both on how a team plays and also how well it defends against an opponent. But in swimming and track relays, rowing and bobsled (among others) the real race is against the clock. The two sides never come into direct contact. These sports are missing that crucial element of defense, so off they went.

  1. It played a "major" sport. To separate sports where the athletes are truly world class from small, regional ones where they aren't (hurling, for instance, or that undefeated Ultimate Frisbee team of yours) I limited my pool to sports that have hundreds of thousands of global participants at all levels and TV audiences that routinely creep into the millions.

  1. It competed at the highest level. There are dozens of sports leagues, from American college sports to Russian pro hockey, where the level of play is inferior to that found in another league somewhere else. I eliminated teams whose success occurred in these substandard arenas.

  1. It achieved lasting success. With a little luck, lots of teams can win a single championship, even two. To make sure a team's record was the product of a winning "culture" rather than a lucky bounce or two, I restricted my list to dynasties that lasted for at least four years.

These six filters cut my list down from many thousands to just 122 "finalists" from 24 categories of sport.

To distinguish the "freak" teams from the merely great ones, I quickly realized that statistics alone were not the answer. Whether it's winning percentage, wins above replacement, standard deviation from the mean or even the Elo rating system, no single metric applies equally to every kind of sport. Besides, isn't it more impressive if a team won lots of championships without being statistically exceptional?

In the end, I came up with two claims any truly elite team would have to make:

  1. It had no major holes in its resume. Twenty-eight of these finalist teams missed out on some major opportunity to prove themselves. Some, like the 1961-67 Green Bay Packers, did not always meet the champions of a rival league. Others, like the dynastic men's field hockey teams from India in the 20th Century and the 1992 U.S. Olympic men's basketball "Dream Team," rarely competed outside the Olympics. Others won Olympic titles or World Cups in years when some of the top teams didn't participate.

  1. Its accomplishments were unique. This was the simplest claim, but also the toughest one to make. To rank among the all-time greats, a team must have achieved some streak of wins or titles that is unmatched in its sport. This test narrowed the list from 106 to just 16 -- and that's where I stopped.

Here is my list of the top 10 percent of the top 1 percent of teams in sports history, in chronological order:

• Collingwood Magpies Australian rules football (1927-30): This Melbourne team, known as The Machine, won a record four consecutive Grand Finals.

• New York Yankees MLB (1949-53): The only team in baseball history to win five straight World Series titles.

• Hungary International soccer (1950-55): The "Golden Team" lost only twice in 53 straight matches, outscoring opponents 222-59.

• Montreal Canadiens NHL (1955-60): The only team to win five straight Stanley Cups.

• Boston Celtics NBA (1956-69): Won an unparalleled 11 titles in 13 seasons, including eight in a row.

• Brazil Men's soccer (1958-62): The only team to win consecutive World Cups when all the world's top teams participated. Went undefeated in three of five seasons.

• Pittsburgh Steelers NFL (1974-80): Won an unrivaled four Super Bowls in six seasons. (The 2001-17 New England Patriots and 1981-95 San Francisco 49ers each won five Super Bowls over long stretches of excellence, but neither team's record was unique).

• Soviet Union International ice hockey (1980-84): The Red Army team went 94-4-9, winning an Olympic title and three straight world championships. Once defeated a team of NHL All-Stars 8-1 in an exhibition.

• New Zealand All Blacks Rugby union (1986-90): This All Blacks team won the World Cup and went undefeated in 23 straight international tests.

• Cuba Women's volleyball (1991-2000): Won three straight Olympic gold medals, four World Cups and back-to-back world championships.

• Australia Women's field hockey (1993-2000): The Hockeyroos won two Olympic gold medals, back-to-back World Cups and four consecutive Champions Trophies.

• United States Women's international soccer (1996-99): The "99ers" won the Olympics and the World Cup, posting an 84-6-6 record and a 31-match unbeaten streak.

• San Antonio Spurs NBA (1997-2016): Reached the playoffs a record 19 straight times (winning five titles) and posted an unmatched 71 percent long-term win rate. No NBA team has ever sustained excellence for so long.

• Barcelona Club soccer (2008-13): Won 15 overall trophies including four Spanish titles and two Champions League crowns while winning or drawing 92 percent of its league matches.

• France Men's handball (2008-15): Les Experts won three of four world championships, two European crowns and back-to-back Olympic titles.

• New Zealand All Blacks Rugby union (2011-15): The only team to win consecutive Rugby World Cups amassed a 55-3-2 overall record over this time span.

I know what you're probably thinking. Where are Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, Tom Brady's New England Patriots and the UConn women's basketball team? And what about Derek Jeter's Yankees and Roy Keane's Manchester United?

The reasons these teams were excluded, along with a full list of the finalists, can be found in my book, "The Captain Class." The book also examines the characteristics of these 16 teams to determine the one and only thing they had in common (spoiler alert: It wasn't a brilliant coach).

In the meantime, I'm sure you have some "feedback" to share, which might not be entirely polite. I'll see you in the comments section. Or better yet, save me a stool.

Sam Walker founded The Wall Street Journal's daily sports coverage. This piece is adapted from his new book, "The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World's Greatest Teams," published May 16 by Random House.