The Greatest Basketball Team of all time

So my buddy and I were talking about the NBA whilst pretending to do homework, as we do often. The argument came to who was the greatest center in NBA history. He foolishly said Shaq, where the answer is clearly Kareem. However, in the process of convincing him of his errant ways, we started talking about whom you would want on a team if you could pick any player from the history of the NBA.

This is an argument that any basketball fan worth his salt gets into at least once in his life, probably more than once. The problem is, the average person will go about this all wrong. They forget that basketball is a team sport, and that having different combinations of players will make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. For example, someone could conceivably pick this starting 5:

  1. Michael Jordan
  2. Kobe Bryant
  3. Lebron James
  4. Charles Barkley
  5. Wilt Chamberlain

And this is a legitimate choice. Those guys are consensus 5 of the top 20 basketball players to ever play the game; however, their potential would be wasted because they wouldn’t be able to play together. Kobe and Michael would get through maybe an hour of practice before wanting to tear each other limb from limb. Lebron would try to play point guard mid game if things weren’t going well, and play hero ball. Barkley would get approximate 0.4 post ups per game (trying telling MJ to give it to his big man), and he would start to pout. Chamberlain would take garbage shots in order to try to cement himself as the Alpha dog. If this team shot 100 times a game people would still be complaining they’re not getting enough shots.

Even more, this list is lacking information! When you say Michael Jordan, do you mean 1989 MJ who was dragging a mediocre Bulls team to the playoffs, 1992 MJ, still at his athletic peak winning for the first time, or 1996 MJ, who might be just 96% of the athletic ability that he was, but has a much better understanding of what it takes to play as a team? All three of those years, MJ was a different player, and the same can be said for any of the other people on this list.

All that being said, I’ll go over a few of the rules I have for this list:

  1. You need to specify which year you want the players from

Like I said, if you don’t say what year, I don’t really know how that player is going to look on the court. ’07 Lebron and ’15 Lebron play completely differently on the court.

  1. No having 2 competitive freaks in the same role

This is the Kobe-MJ corollary. I love competitiveness, I think its one of the most underrated qualities in a basketball player. However, these are some of the most competitive guys in the world. If I have 2 people trying to play the same exact role, they might start playing more against each other than the other team.

  1. Floor geometry is important

Nobody who watches the modern NBA would disagree with me on this point. We’ve entered the future and the future of the NBA is the three point shot. WE can’t have Charles Barkley and Wilt Chamberlain on the court at the same time, because they both want a post up, and that would gum up our offense.

With all of that exposition, here’s the team I came up with:

Starting:

  1. ’87 Magic Johnson
  2. ’96 Michael Jordan
  3. ’86 Larry Bird
  4. ’13 LeBron James
  5. ’72 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Bench:

  1. ’06 Steve Nash
  2. ’06 Ray Allen
  3. ’92 Dennis Rodman
  4. ’04 Kevin Garnett
  5. ’07 Dirk Nowitski

Explanations:

Starting:

  1. ‘87 Magic Johnson

Any all-time team that doesn’t start with Magic Johnson is garbage. Not only is he one of if not the best point guard of all time, he has demonstrated he can distribute the ball if he has an all time talent with him when he played with Kareem. ’87 Magic is at the height of his physical power, could get anywhere on the court he wanted and ran the fast break better than nearly anyone else ever.

  1. ’96 Michael Jordan

I need no explanation why I’m including MJ. I chose ’96 MJ because he understood the team game more, and I really want the ball zipping around rather than MJ taking people one on one. In general, team basketball is always better than hero ball.

  1. ’86 Bird

People have forgotten how good Bird was, and especially ’86 Bird. The ’86 Celtics were so good that they literally got bored (even while playing some of the best basketball ever) and decided to just set themselves goals to keep it interesting. Bird played a whole game left-handed. He’d tell people exactly where and how he’d score and go do it. ’86 Bird could give you anything you needed at any time, whether its distributing, rebounding, or crunch time scoring. One of the best trash-talkers and competitive freaks of all time, there’s no way he doesn’t make my team.

  1. ’13 Lebron James

I feel like we’re getting to MJ-level consensus on Lebron. He can do anything anyone else can on the court: shoot, post-up, lock down on the perimeter and even a little bit of rim protection. But even in ’13, Lebron had moments where he just became a cyborg and did something nobody else in the world can do. At the same time, he coexisted with two other legitimate stars in ’13, and did everything his team needed and took nothing away.

  1. ’76 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

There is no argument against Kareem as the best center of all time. That’s an article for another day (one that I will certainly get to; everybody forgetting about Kareem is a travesty), but the cliff notes are here: the most sure 2 points of all time in his sky hook, the best defensive player in the league for maybe 10 years, and so dominant that two different institutions changed the very rules of the game in order to adjust for him. I’ll admit I’m guessing on the year as there are very little advanced stats from that era, but ’76 was his best statistical year box-score wise.

Bench:

Just a disclaimer: you might disagree with every player on my bench. There are good arguments for probably 10-15 guys to take the final five spots. These are just the ones I decided on. These will have longer explanations as I try to make my case.

  1. ’06 Steve Nash

I actually asked a couple of my buddies to create their own teams, and the only player we all had on our benches was Steve Nash. Right now, he just retired after several years of back problems and virtually no impact on the Lakers whatsoever. This means he’s almost definitely criminally underrated. Let’s look at the pros. He has a case for the best all around shooter of all time. His career shooting averages are .490/.428/.904. Those aren’t typos. He nearly averaged 50/40/90 for his entire career! That’s ridiculous. As of this writing there are only 6 guys to do that for a season, and only Nash and Bird have done it more than once, and Nash did it a ridiculous 4 times to Bird’s 2 (although Kevin Durant will almost definitely do it again, assuming this injury isn’t too bad – an injury that I will probably write about this summer). And that’s not even the most celebrated part of his game: Steve might have been the best of all time at making his teammates better. He is 3rd on the all time assists leaderboard, behind Stockton (who narrowly missed this spot) and Kidd. He dragged mediocre Suns teams to one win away from the finals on more than one occasion, and led some of the best offenses of all time (in fact, the 2010 Suns have the fourth most efficient offense of all time).

The universal complaint on Steve Nash is his lack of defensive skill. That I have no answer to, it’s just a fact: he was bad on defense. His career DWS is 16.1, which is extremely low for someone who played so long, and his career DBPM (an awful stat, I know, but I can’t find good ones for defense) was -2.7. But literally every other player on this team is at least decent on defense, so I think we’d be able to hide him.

That’s not even considering how much better he would be offensively on this team! Imagine a Steve Nash-LeBron James pick and roll. Is that not the most disgusting play you’ve ever heard of? What do you do? If you go under the pick Nash will either be able to turn the corner and get into the heart of the defense, which with Nash meant an almost sure 2 points, or you get Nash open for three which as we just mentioned is an awful outcome. Or you can try to go over the pick in which case, assuming Nash can get the ball to James, you’re giving a human cyborg a change to play 4 on 3. Good luck.

I’m picking ’06 Nash because it was his best statistical year (26.7/6.0/14.8 on .51/.44/.92. Good lord!), and his body began to degrade as the Phoenix kept going deep in the playoffs (and get bounced before the finals). There are also arguments for ’07 and ’08 Nash.

  1. ’06 Ray Allen

This might be the most controversial pick on my whole line up. I can already hear the Kobe lovers complaining. Or Allen Iverson, Dwayne Wade, or Jerry West, and probably some other guards that have a case. But these people don’t understand what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to create a basketball team. All of the guards I mentioned don’t fit my plan, for one reason or another.

Ray Allen, on the other hand, fits perfectly. Rule number two states that we can’t have two competitive freaks in the same role, and Ray Allen has more than demonstrated in the past couple of years that he’s willing to take a backseat role to create something great. In addition, he is one of the all-time “I can’t afford to leave this guy open anywhere, ever, so I’ll just stand over here in the corner with him guys” (Think Kyle Korver this year). Any defender who left him open for one second would see why people like Klay Thompson or Steph Curry watch old tapes of him to practice off-ball movement.

Defensively, young Ray Allen was consensus one of the best perimeter defenders of his time, which is important to a couple of our line-ups as well (which I’ll get to later). This is why he gets the nod here over people like Kyle Korver or Steph Curry.

He’s also clutch. I’m sure everyone remembers this.

’06 might be his best year in that he did the most with the biggest role, but that’s not what we’re looking for here. We’re using him to space the floor with his 3 pointers and to play defense. His best year from that perspective was ’11 in Boston.

All that being said, there were some close seconds for this spot. ’06 Kobe isn’t what I really want to be doing on a team like this, and he breaks one of my rules, but there’s no denying he was spectacular that year. Also, my buddy pointed out to me that Paul Pierce could fit into a very similar role. 3 pointers, defense and leadership is pretty much what Pierce did.

  1. ’92 Dennis Rodman

I didn’t come up with 99% of this section. This guy convinced me that Rodman is one of the most unique players of all time – and that makes him one of the most valuable players of all time. We’ll never see another Dennis Rodman. In fact, we’re never going to see anyone ever even getting 90% of where Dennis Rodman got. His rebounding was better than you even thought. His true rebounding percentages were 10+% better in his best seasons than the best seasons of Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain, commonly considered far and away the best rebounders of all time (his rebounding numbers were better than anyone else, for that matter). He also had the best win percentage differential of all time (18.1%), and he’s a complete outlier in every sense.

Seriously, just read that guy’s blog. Maybe it’s because I’m a stats junkie, but its one of the most well written case for a player ever. In fact, that guy got picked up by FiveThirtyEight. He did a better job than I ever could.

  1. ’04 Kevin Garnett

KG, like Steve Nash, is another veteran who is underrated now because of his recent decline. Prime KG was a thing to behold. Let’s look at this statline from the ’04 season:

24.2/13.9/5.0 on 50% shooting with a 29.4 PER and .272 WS/48

That’s really absurd. He absolutely carried those Timberwolves teams for years on end. And more significantly, I think, he actually made the playoffs in many of those years, unlike many other superstars with high stats on bad teams (cough Kevin Love cough). IF you’re still not convinced, let’s look at the list of people who have a higher than .272 WS/48 for a season in the history of the NBA since the merger:

  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  2. LeBron James
  3. Michael Jordan
  4. David Robinson
  5. Kevin Durant
  6. Chris Paul
  7. Shaquille O’ Neal
  8. Dirk Nowitski

And… that’s the list. Not bad company if you ask me.

More than that, prime KG passed the eye test in a way that I’ve never really seen in any other player. That guy is a murderous psychopath on the basketball court. He wanted to win more than any other guy on the court (except maybe Kobe) for his entire career. If you were betting your life on a basketball game, if aliens came down and wanted to play the human race in basketball for property rights to the Earth, I want Kevin Garnett on the court, if only because he would make his teammates play harder (maybe because they’re scared he’ll murder them if they don’t give 100%).

’04 KG is the only choice for vintages of KG. It’s the best by far.

  1. ’07 Dirk Nowitski

Dirk is definitely not the second best center of all time. I’d argue for Bill Russell, Shaq, Hakeem, probably even Moses Malone over him. Why’s he on my team then? One word: spacing. Dirk is the best 3 point shooting center of all time; that much is pretty undeniable. Having Dirk on the team allows the team to be more flexible than if I had any of the other guys that I mentioned. It allows me to have a center have to be guarded and still leave the block wide open for Michael or LeBron to post up. It allows just about the best fast breaking team ever to be formed when he plays with Steve Nash and LeBron (seriously, imagine Nash, LeBron and Nowitski are coming at you 3 on 3. You have to be absolutely perfect or its 2-3 points for the other team).

Still, I thought hard about putting Hakeem in this spot over Dirk, Hakeem does occupy the same area as Kareem does on offense. This isn’t really an issue, though, as they would rarely if ever be playing together (the “Twin Towers approach very rarely works in basketball. I’m not entirely sure why). And Hakeem is without a doubt better than Dirk on the defensive end. However, what it does cost us is flexibility. A team with Dirk on the floor (a line-up I’ll show later) would score way more points than an equivalent line-up with Hakeem on the floor. The all offense line-up is good to have in your back pocket (down 5 with a minute left to go?), and it’s something that, I think, tips the scales in Dirk’s favor.

Next I’ll go over a few of the line-ups that I’d throw out with this team. This is obviously not an exhaustive list; more just what I’m excited about

The “You’re never scoring, ever” Line-up

(Big)

  1. Michael Jordan
  2. Dennis Rodman
  3. LeBron James
  4. Kevin Garnett
  5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

(Small)

  1. Michael Jordan
  2. Ray Allen
  3. Dennis Rodman
  4. LeBron James
  5. Kevin Garnett

Imagine you’re playing basketball, and you’re the point guard. You dribble past half-court, and you’re greeted by… Michael Jordan. Well, shit, I guess you’ll pass it to your 2 guard… until you see he’s furiously darting back and forth across the court with Ray Allen looking more like his shadow than another human. While you watch your overmatched shooting guard, you glance past your 3, who’s sitting in the corner being guarded by Dennis Rodman. He looks at you as if to say “what the hell do you want me to do?” Meanwhile, LeBron is sagging just off your power forward, daring you to try to make a pass so he can jump the lane and become a runaway train down the court. Lastly, your center is trying to get position on KG, but you can see his heart isn’t into it; maybe he’s just afraid of bodily violence.

Seriously, what can a team do against this squad? You’re never scoring against either of these lineups. The average NBA team would score 45 points on 20% shooting against this squad.

Crunch Time (up 1-3 points)

  1. Steve Nash
  2. Ray Allen
  3. Michael Jordan
  4. Dirk Nowitski
  5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

This one is mostly just for free throw shooting – no player on this squad is a minus free thrower, and they can all defend and make smart decisions. But, on second thought, this is actually just a great crunch time lineup. Each and every single one of these guys can and have made ridiculously clutch plays. Michael’s “the shot” I and II. Ray Allen’s 3 to tie against the spurs, Steve Nash had countless clutch 3’s (he was the Suns’ only real closer, Dirk has his fader, and Kareem has a 65% chance at 2 points at all times when’s he on the court. This team doesn’t give up the lead with a minute left to go, I just can’t see it happening.

Mike D’Antoni’s/Daryl Morey’s Wet Dream a.k.a. the all-spacing lineup

  1. Steve Nash
  2. Ray Allen
  3. Larry Bird
  4. Lebron James
  5. Dirk Nowitki

This is the one I’ve been planning for pretty much the whole time. Every single one of these guys can shoot the 3 above 40%, and three of them are considered some of the best shooters of all time. The spacing would be immaculate. Every defender would be on an island by himself, and, against Nash, Bird, and James, three of the highest basketball IQ guys of all time, that’s going to end badly for them.

More than that, imagine running with this team. We’ve got 3 of the 5 or so most dangerous fast breakers of all time in Bird, Nash and James (with Barkley and Curry being the other two definites). Oh, and for trailers you’ve got Ray Allen and Dirk Nowitski.

This team might average 150 points a game, including 100 on three pointers alone. This team could go 50/40/90 as a lineup. Sure, they have two minus defenders in Dirk and Nash, but if they play 10 minutes a game together and score 40 points in those 10 minutes? I’m willing to take that trade.

The “Form a Fucking Wall” a.k.a. the All-Height squad

  1. Magic Johnson
  2. Dennis Rodman
  3. Lebron James
  4. Dirk Nowitski
  5. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar

This is mostly a joke lineup (the spacing wouldn’t be great) but imagine coming out of a timeout and lining up against this team. The average height on this team is 6’10”. Every position would create a mismatch on offense (barring Rodman, he would just go get the offensive board), and 50% of the possessions would end in a post up. Sure, maybe that’s not pretty basketball, but we’ve got 3 of the top 10 post guys of all time, and Magic isn’t a slouch either. The spacing wouldn’t be great, but we’ve got Magic and LeBron.

Actually, I’m convincing myself now! On defense, no pass you made would be safe, and you’d have to fade away on every jumper. The combined wingspan of these guys is comparable to a commercial airliner.

The space would be tight, but we could make it work.

The “We’re not fucking losing” a.k.a. the All-Energy squad

  1. Steve Nash
  2. Michael Jordan
  3. Larry Bird
  4. Dennis Rodman
  5. Kevin Garnett

This lineup would be for about halfway into the first or third quarter. Let’s say we get into the action, and we look lazy and complacent, and we get down by 5-10 points due to a quick run. Imagine this team’s response. The competitiveness, will to win, fire, whatever you want to call it, of this team is off the charts. Jordan, after his first championship, famously never lost 3 games in a row in his career. He just hated to lose, even if the game didn’t matter at all. Nash played through a broken nose, and drove his body to career ending back injuries by playing 35+ for four years in his mid-thirties. Larry Bird cost himself easily 4-5 years of being the best old man ball player of all time (seriously, his style is basically the epitome of old man ball: no athleticism, all smarts) by going for every single loose ball and playing through every injury he could walk through (and some where he really couldn’t). Rodman and Garnett, frankly, probably have some mental issues. But if you’re looking for some energy for winning a basketball game, I’m not sure there are a better two people in the world. I wish there was a stat for percentage of loose balls chances picked up (LB%), murderous stares per game (MSPG) and games played through injury (GPtI) because this lineup would double the rest of the league combined.

Total Minutes

Magic Johnson – 24 minutes

Michael Jordan – 36 minutes

Larry Bird – 24 minutes

Lebron James – 32 minutes

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 24-28 minutes

Steve Nash – 18 minutes

Ray Allen – 16 minutes

Dennis Rodman – 24 minutes

Kevin Garnett – 18 minutes

Dirk Nowitski 20-24 minutes

Well, that’s it. I meant to make this about 1200 words: as you can see, I tend to get carried away.

If I had a time machine and had to bet my life on the outcome of a basketball game, this would be my lineup. Can you do better?

Bonus section:

Head Coach: Gregg Popovich

Assistant Coaches: Alvin Gentry, Tom Thibodeau and Mike D’Antoni

GM: Red Auerbach with a cigar and a rolled up program in his hand

Owner: Jerry Buss

Medical Staff: Phoenix Suns’ staff from 2006-2010

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2 thoughts on “The Greatest Basketball Team of all time

  1. Nicely done, Mark! I don’t follow basketball as much as I used to, but you certainly made some great arguments. I liked your bonus section at the end, too! “Best Medical Staff” lol keep it up!

    Like

  2. Jim says:

    Good read and I like many of your points. However, you are overvaluing Rodman. He was a goon who mastered the ability to play mind games and flop on queue. You should consider Anthony Mason and Billy Laimbeer if Rodman’s foulplay antics grade so highly.

    Like

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