Among connoisseurs of the NBA’s long history, it can be fun to determine your all-time team. But at the same time, it can also be a tiresome and repetitive exercise. After all, most people would select the same players: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain. And to be sure, that would be a remarkable team. But it wouldn’t be much fun to watch, nor would there be any real point in assembling such a team. If you could get the all-time greats gathered from their respective primes, it would be like the Dream Team from 1992 but even moreso: they would dominate any game they could possibly play to an extent that it would no longer be fun to watch, because the soul of all athleticism is competition.
So, suppose I and maybe 9 other guys had access to a time machine, and we could bring together players from their 3-year prime, each as prone to injury, error, and hubris as they were in real life. Assuming that we are all assembling different guys, this would add a level of competition and parity to any games we might play against one another. Let’s assume this league would have two months of training to get classic-era guys up to speed with the modern league, 3 seasons of 60 games, each followed by a small playoff among the top 4 teams. Your goal is to win a championship in that time, multiple championships if possible.
To keep the teams competitive and different from one another, let’s say that the other GMs and I agree that each one of us can pick just one of the top 10 NBA players of all time. And then, to add even more tough decision-making, you can only pick two of the next 20 all-time greats, or to put it differently, those who occupy spots #11-30. Let’s call this the 1-2 rule. The other 9 players on your list must not be on the “consensus list” of the top 30 NBA players of all time.
Who might those top ten be? For me, there were 11 possible figures deserving of that honor. Intelligent people of goodwill might disagree, but I think a strong agreement among fans would emerge for, in some order or other: Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Oscar Robertson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Lebron James. I have to knock out someone to make ten, and for me, it’s unfortunately Oscar. Despite jaw-dropping numbers, he is one of only 3 guys on that list who was MVP only once, and he is the only one who was never the best player on an NBA championship team. In fact, he was never even the best player on an NBA finals team.
So let’s move Oscar to our #11-30 category. Who fills out the other 19 spots is a bit trickier, but I ultimately think a consensus would emerge around Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Jerry West, John Havlicek, Bob Pettit, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, Isiah Thomas, and Hakeem Olajuwon; again, not necessarily in that order, for the first ten spots in this group. And for the other ten? I’d say Charles Barkley, Kevin Durant, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Rick Barry, David Robinson, and Bob Cousy. Knicks fans would be pissed that I don’t have Frazier, Reed, or Ewing, but too bad. I think most NBA experts can agree on these men being the 30 greatest NBA players ever, or the first 30 players picked in an all-time draft, or however you want to splice it.
So- again- only 1 from the top 10, and 2 from the second list, and other than that, I can fill out my 12-man roster however I want. In forming my team, I tried to reconcile both skills on the court, with the delicate mix of personalities and psychological roles on the team. I therefore need one and only one genuine, unquestioned leader, and I need a bunch of guys who are fundamentally okay with playing complementary roles on a team, don’t need the ball all the time to be effective, and can co-exist and even thrive with great teammates. Not every player plays every element of the game perfectly, but together, I think my team will make some basketball of unsurprising excellence.
Who to pick from the top 10? Out of the possibilities, I dismissed some out of hand: Shaq? Too inconsistent, was barely on the list, and sometimes wants to entertain more than win. Kobe? Doesn’t always play nice with teammates. Wilt? Terrible in the fourth quarter of big games, and if you take him out of the early 60s, he’s not going to score 50 points a game against modern players. Obviously, picking Michael Jordan, a man with no weaknesses in his game and who is hands-down the best player in the game’s history, was a big temptation. It was tough, but I went in another direction; Jordan quit the game three different times, got frustrated with his teammates, and has an almost maniacal competitive streak that might be just as likely to make a team combust as it is to propel it to victory. While his game is virtually flawless, his temperament made him a poor fit for an a team of this sort. I ultimately chose Bill Russell. Sure, in the modern era, he won’t be nearly so effective and may not put up those gaudy rebound numbers, but his ability to lead a great team is unrivaled; he led the Celtics to 11 championships in his career, a feat unrivaled in professional sports in the United States. His ability to wreck havoc defensively, to psychologically intimidate, to get the best of out his teammates, and his instinct to see victory as a team prerogative rather than an individual accomplishment makes him ideal for a project like this. His only real weakness to speak of are his unimpressive offensive numbers, but I’ve got my choice of other prolific scorers on my team. Shouldn’t be a problem.
What about the other two players I’m allowed to pick from list #2? I thought a lot about Dwyane Wade; I could have used a Jordan impersonator who brought many of his best qualities to the table. I also could have used Kevin Garnett’s raw power. I ultimately decided on Scottie Pippen and Jerry West, two modern players who did fine on their own, but thrived when surrounded by great teammates. Think of West’s keynote year in 1972 (33 game winning streak?) and his ability to coexist with Elgin Baylor and even selfish head cases like Wilt Chamberlain. Think of Pippen’s career as an all-purpose utility man, who could shut down any player, and even play point forward if necessary- the perfect second banana to Jordan’s Bulls. Both players are tough, resilient, versatile, offensive and defensive threats, who won’t challenge Russell’s leadership of the team.
That gives me the rest of NBA history to pick from. Rounding out my starting lineup are:
Stephen Curry: I may be a Warriors homer, but since Curry hasn’t made it to the Top 30 players yet, now’s the time to take him. He’s led Golden State to what is, as of this writing, a 24-game winning streak (28 games if you count into last season), and is on track to beat his own record for most three-pointers made in a season.
Maurice Lucas: He won’t factor into any discussions of the Greatest NBA Player of All Time, but someone like Lucas is exactly what every championship team needs: a banger, an enforcer, someone who can defend his teammates. Bill Walton swears that Lucas was the true key to the magical Trail Blazers season in 1977, and who am I to disagree? Although largely forgotten and underrated, he was a 4x All-Star, and showed up multiple times on All-Defense teams, but his contributions to the game are the sorts of things that don’t show up in the statistics.
So that’s my starting lineup. Every man is an NBA champion, four of my five are world-class defenders. You can’t win– I’ve got Russell and Lucas on the inside, but I’ve also got West and Curry spreading the floor, with Pippen toggling between these two modes.
What about the bench, then?
Kevin McHale: If I need to switch to a finesse power forward, we’ve got McHale. More of an offensive threat than Lucas, his arsenal of post moves and keen basketball IQ makes him the perfect sixth man for this team.
Russell Westbrook: If I need a more muscular, aggressive point guard, it would be hard to go wrong with triple-double machine Russell Westbrook if I can’t have Oscar.
Joe Dumars: Jordan-insurance, and a solid hybrid guard. When Dumars and the Pistons were in their prime, they managed to stop Jordan nearly every year, unless the Celtics got to them first.
Chris Mullin: A third long-distance threat, Mullin will also double as the workout/practice leader, given his reputation as the league’s most notorious gym rat. Ultimately, Mullin’s work ethic gives him the edge over Reggie Miller and Ray Allen. He’s probably the weakest defender on the team, but as a guy who’s coming off the bench for instant offense, I’m not terribly worried.
Bill Walton: I’m deeply concerned about his injuries, but as a backup center, I’m sure Walton will thrive as he once did with the Celtics, coming off the bench. Perhaps the greatest passing center of all time, Walton is more of an offensive threat than Russell, and hits every other mark for this team: unselfishness, defense, winning, and infectious teamwork.
Kahwi Leonard: With a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year award under his belt, Leonard has arrived. He’s observed what made those Spurs teams work in the past, and given it a fresher, more visceral edge.
Robert Horry: The twelfth man, Horry is sort of the team’s good-luck charm: a clutch player who always seems to have a remarkable game when his team most needs it.
So, to recap, my team is:
- Bill Russell (Center- starter, 1960-63)
- Maurice Lucas (Power Forward- starter, 1976-79)
- Scottie Pippen (Small Forward- starter, 1990-93)
- Jerry West (Shooting Guard- starter, 1969-72)
- Stephen Curry (Point Guard- starter, 2013-16)
- Bill Walton (Center- reserve, 1976-79)
- Kevin McHale (Power Forward- reserve, 1984-87)
- Chris Mullin (Small Forward- reserve, 1989-92)
- Joe Dumars (Shooting Guard- reserve, 1987-90)
- Russell Westbrook (Point Guard- reserve, 2012-15)
- Kahwi Leonard (Small Forward/Shooting Guard- reserve, 2013-2016)
- Robert Horry (Power Forward/Small Forward- reserve, 1999-2002)
How’s that? No Michael Jordan, No Magic, No Larry, and yet I still found multiple ways to beat your team. I’ve got three legendary outside shooters, two of the most inventive post players in McHale and Walton, and multiple world class defenders who can adapt to any opponent’s strategy. Although only three guys on my team were MVP, 8 showed up on an All-Defense team, 10 were NBA champions, and all 12 played in the NBA finals during their careers. I think victory hinges on three elements:
- As I said earlier, there’s a clear team hierarchy. Russell is the leader, Curry is the offensive general, Lucas is the enforcer, McHale is the comic relief, and Walton, Pippen, and Dumars are the classy public relations face of the team. Everybody knows their place and aside from Russell, every last player has thrived in a complementary role at some point in their career.
- Sportsmanship. Russell is arguably the most respected athlete of his day. And the NBA’s sportsmanship award is named after Joe Dumars, for pity’s sake. Add the all-around acclaim earned by the other players on the team, and this is not just a first-rate basketball team, but it is stocked with first-rate character as well.
- Just about every great dynasty in NBA history is covered: the Jordan Bulls, the 60s Celtics, the 60s/70s Lakers, the Bird Celtics, the Popovich-era Spurs, the Shaqobe Lakers, the Bad Boys Pistons, the ascendant Golden State dynasty, and the magical late 70s Blazers are all represented. Only the Showtime Lakers and maybe the early 70s Knicks are missing. (I thought about Worthy in place of Mullin or Horry, but I don’t think it’s necessary.)
What do you think? If you had to play by the same rules (1 of the top 10, 2 of the next 20)- who would you pick?