2015 Ultimate Standings: Spurs, Grizzlies lead NBA teams

ESPN the Mag's Ultimate Standings: NBA (2:22)

ESPN the Magazine's Peter Keating explains why the Spurs have become a model sports franchise -- and why the Knicks just may be the opposite. (2:22)

For four years now, an NBA team has finished first in our annual Ultimate Standings. There's something about what the Spurs (2015 and 2013), Grizzlies (2014's winner) and Thunder (No. 1 in 2012) are doing that is resonating with fans. Maybe it's the players: Four of this year's six top-ranked rosters are from the NBA. Maybe it's top-notch fan relations and social media: four of the top 10, NBA. Maybe it's the fact that the most affordable team in sports -- Memphis -- also happens to win. A lot. Whatever it is (likely all of the above), the Spurs continued the NBA's winning traditions this year, and it's hard to bet against the league in 2016.

1. San Antonio Spurs (1 overall)

The Spurs (1 overall) have finished in the top 10 every year since 2010, one of only two teams (with the Packers) to do so. How do the Spurs stay on top? In large part thanks to top-notch finishes in fan relations, players, coaching and ownership -- all of which placed No. 1 this year. Q&A with Manu Ginobili | Jackie MacMullan on Gregg Popovich | Michael C. Wright on Spurs fan Barbara Bowden

2. Memphis Grizzlies (2 overall)

The Grizzlies have been at the top of our franchise leaderboard for so long that they've started redecorating. They pulled the top spot in 2013, dipped ever so slightly to No. 4 last year and rebounded to runner-up position in 2015, sealing the deal. The Grizz just aren't going anywhere. Not in our franchise rankings and not in the standings that, you know, count (five straight playoff appearances). -- Morty Ain READ MORE

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (7 overall)

The Thunder are a model small-market professional franchise. They made an almost instantaneous connection with Oklahoma City upon moving in 2008 and have followed that up with exceptional on-court success. Meanwhile on the business side, they've built a worldwide brand and stayed in the black. -- Royce Young READ MORE

4. Indiana Pacers (13 overall)

No NBA fan base suffered a tougher break than Indy's last year: Due to superstar Paul George's shattered right leg in a Team USA scrimmage, dreams of a long playoff run dissolved before the Pacers' season even tipped off. But according to the team's strong Ultimate Standings finish, fans are keeping the faith. -- Morty Ain READ MORE

5. Golden State Warriors (16 overall)

The Warriors leaped from 52nd last year to 16th in the Ultimate Standings. How did Golden State become such a growth industry? It might have something to do with that whole championship thing. That result illustrates a wholly improved process that should serve the Warriors for years to come. -- Ethan Sherwood Strauss READ MORE

6. Miami Heat (21 overall)

Despite last season's hiccup resulting from injuries, and an unexpected trip to the NBA lottery, the Heat maintain legitimate expectations of competing for championships almost every season. Considering Miami's three titles and five Finals trips since 2006, legendary front-office stability and the on-court presence of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it's easy to see why the Heat are 21st overall -- they actually moved up 13 spots among fans with the departure of LeBron James. -- Michael Wallace READ MORE

7. Dallas Mavericks (22 overall)

The Mavericks continue to fare well in our rankings despite losing their top-10 status. The decline in the rankings follows a difficult few months that included the brief Rajon Rondo era, an early playoff exit and the high-profile failure to secure DeAndre Jordan. -- Tim MacMahon READ MORE

8. Atlanta Hawks (29 overall)

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who learned from the best as a longtime assistant to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, has led Atlanta to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons. Last year, the team amassed 60 wins before falling to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals. The Hawks set a franchise record with 25 sellouts; their 19-game winning streak tied for fifth best in NBA history; and in January, they became the first team in league history to go 17-0 in a month. No wonder they improved 19 spots in our rankings to crack the top 30. -- Anna Katherine Clemmons READ MORE

9. Cleveland Cavaliers (34 overall)

No team in our rankings of 122 professional franchises jumped more than the Cavaliers, who a year ago were rated 101st. That's fitting, because no other team remade itself as spectacularly as Cleveland did. -- Dave McMenamin READ MORE

10. Houston Rockets (35 overall)

The Houston Rockets moved up to No. 35 in the Ultimate Standings after a deep playoff run, which included beating one of their in-state rivals, the Dallas Mavericks, in the first round and a thrilling seven-game victory in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. -- Calvin Watkins READ MORE

11. New Orleans Pelicans (36 overall)

Let the good times roll, indeed. The Pelicans improved in every single category we track this year, cashing in on citywide optimism with a 160-spot climb across the board. And that's without winning a single game in their first-round playoff series against eventual champion Golden State. New Orleans, we salute you (and your optimism). -- Maya Jones READ MORE

12. Utah Jazz (40 overall)

Utah made an impressive 28-spot climb in our rankings, landing at No. 40. Despite a third-place finish in the Northwest Division, the Jazz didn't make the playoffs for the second year in a row. Still, they improved by double digits in nearly every category in the Ultimate Standings. -- Bianca Hock READ MORE

13. Los Angeles Clippers (42 overall)

Five years ago, the Clippers finished last in our rankings: No. 122 of 122. Now the rebirth of the Clippers continues. With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as a foundation, Doc Rivers calling the shots, and Steve Ballmer replacing Donald Sterling as owner, it's a good time to be a Clippers fan, even if the playoffs bring an annual dose of frustration. -- Andrew Han READ MORE

14. Boston Celtics (57 overall)

The Celtics, after a second-half surge to the playoffs last season, are trending upward -- on the court and in the Ultimate Standings. -- Chris Forsberg READ MORE

15. Washington Wizards (63 overall)

The Washington Wizards continue their rise in the rankings, moving up for the fourth consecutive year. This mirrors their rise in the Eastern Conference from perennial lottery team to conference semifinalists the past two seasons, making their 20-win season three years ago a distant memory. -- Ohm Youngmisuk READ MORE

16. Milwaukee Bucks (65 overall)

Suddenly, the Bucks have it. There is an aggressive new ownership group, an impressive collection of young talent and a popular coach. So it's no surprise that among NBA franchises in the Ultimate Standings, only the LeBron Cavaliers made a bigger leap than Milwaukee, which vaulted 55 spots. -- Bradford Doolittle READ MORE

17. Chicago Bulls (66 overall)

The Bulls are a winning team with a worldwide brand that maintains a high level of popularity because of the lasting image of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen taking championship trophies. That continues to offset the high cost of being a Bulls fan and the unsettled feeling that comes with injuries and a high-profile coaching change. -- Nick Friedell READ MORE

18. Orlando Magic (70 overall)

A slight improvement for the Magic in this year's rankings, mostly in the off-court categories, can only help so much when the on-court performance is, well, lacking. A third straight sub-.500 season in 2014-15, a coach fired midway through it and a roster that was depleted by injuries had the Magic fan base looking ahead to this season -- or, sigh, maybe even further into the future. -- Bianca Hock READ MORE

19. Portland Trail Blazers (71 overall)

Fifty-one wins and a fourth seed in the Western Conference? Good, but not good enough to ward off the Trail Blazers' dramatic aggregate 269-spot drop across our eight main categories. After landing in the top 40 in ownership, coaching, players, fan relations and stadium experience in 2014, Portland boasts zero such rankings this time around. Maybe, just maybe, this new-look Ultimate Standings profile has to do with the new-look Blazers? Thanks to free agency and trades, they lost four members of the 2014-15 season-opening starting five ... including big man LaMarcus Aldridge. Yep, that'll do it. -- Anthony Olivieri READ MORE

20. Charlotte Hornets (83 overall)

As the Hornets learned last season, what seems like a good idea -- like signing Lance Stephenson -- sometimes isn't. A borderline contender entering the season, Charlotte went 33-49 and dropped 54 spots in our rankings. -- Anna Katherine Clemmons READ MORE

21. Detroit Pistons (84 overall)

It's been a quarter century since the Bad Boys conquered the NBA, and to honor the milestone, the 21st century Pistons lived up to half that moniker. For much of the season, they were just plain bad. Nary a cylinder fired out of the gate last season, with the Pistons stalling at 5-23 before dumping Josh Smith (and his $45 million contract) in the junkyard. So how in the name of Andre Drummond's free throw shooting did the Pistons rise 21 spots in our ranking? -- Morty Ain READ MORE

22. Toronto Raptors (94 overall)

The No. 94 Raptors' collapse in last season's NBA playoffs gave Drake yet another woe with which to run through the 6. After entering the postseason as Atlantic Division champions -- and exiting after getting swept by a lower-seeded team -- the Raptors fell 20 spots in our rankings. Man, how quickly fans forget that this is a team that broke its franchise record for wins in a season (49) in 2014-15. -- Bianca Hock READ MORE

23. Sacramento Kings (96 overall)

A year ago, the Kings were still riding a high from the purchase of the team by Vivek Ranadive, and it helped them climb 37 spots in our rankings, from dead last in 2013 to 85th last year. Well, the high is not quite so high anymore, as Ranadive's reign has proved unconventional, difficult and at times downright dysfunctional. A 29-win season last year -- the franchise's seventh straight with fewer than 30 wins -- also saw them drop back down in our standings. -- Maya Jones READ MORE

24. Minnesota Timberwolves (97 overall)

The perennially wretched Timberwolves won a grand total of 16 games last season, which somehow ranks as only the third-worst total in franchise history. But finally there's some good news: The team broke its 25-year run of unbelievably bad luck in the NBA lottery to land No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns, who will pair with 2014-15 Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins to form potentially the best on-court duo in downtown Minneapolis since the days of Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury. -- Maya Jones READ MORE

25. Philadelphia 76ers (98 overall)

How dire are Philly's straits? The Sixers narrowly skirted historical ignominy in 2014-15, losing 17 straight to begin the season, falling just one loss short of the 2009-10 Nets' start of shame. Still, general manager Sam Hinkie remains stalwart in his lose-to-win approach to basketball, taking 10 steps back in order to (hopefully) take one giant leap forward someday soon. Color the City of Brotherly Love skeptical: The fans' faith in ownership -- and its ability to produce a championship -- both took hits in our rankings this year, falling 19 and 15 spots, respectively. --Anthony Olivieri READ MORE

26. Los Angeles Lakers (101 overall)

Not even the No. 2 overall pick in 2015 -- Ohio State phenom D'Angelo Russell -- and a healthy Kobe Bryant can stave off the Lakers' biggest Ultimate Standings drop in three years (minus-14) or their sub-100 rankings in four of our eight categories. Yes, a .254 winning percentage (worst in franchise history) last season will do that to a team. -- Anthony Olivieri READ MORE

27. Phoenix Suns (107 overall)

Just one year after the Suns gave fans the warm fuzzies -- the Morris twins inked team-friendly deals! Jeff Hornacek put together 48 wins! -- they've lost that loving feeling. Marcus Morris was shipped off to Detroit in July (for even more cap space!); his brother, an unhappy Markieff, publicly demanded a trade in turn. And those 48 wins from 2013-14? Nine more than the Suns managed last season. But even that drop-off is tame compared with Phoenix's tumble down our rankings, falling by double digits in ... Every. Single. Category. -- Anthony Olivieri READ MORE

28. Brooklyn Nets (111 overall)

With Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov's five-year championship plan ending in failure, the Brooklyn Nets have decided to change course. And a new direction is a wise choice, most Brooklyn fans would say, given that the franchise has slid 40 places over the past two years toward the bottom rung of our rankings. -- Mike Mazzeo READ MORE

29. Denver Nuggets (119 overall)

The Nuggets are bottom-dwellers this year, ranked the second-worst franchise in the NBA (ahead of only the lowly Knicks) and the third-worst franchise in all of pro sports. Not an enviable spot, especially since Denver's other pro sports franchise ranks in the top 20 (hat tip, Peyton Manning). -- Anna Katherine Clemmons READ MORE

30. New York Knicks (121 overall)

Anyone who endured any portion of the New York Knicks' 2014-15 season probably would agree with their ranking in these Ultimate Standings (121st out of 122 teams). The Knicks set a franchise mark for fewest wins in a season (17), enduring two double-digit losing streaks en route to the second-worst record in the league. Not exactly what fans were hoping for in the first full season under team president Phil Jackson. -- Ian Begley READ MORE