In the National Basketball Association, you are allowed to have twelve players on the active roster. There are five guys on the court at any given time, so you have typically have a team that has 2 centers*, 2 power forwards, 2 small forwards, 2 shooting guards, 2 point guards, and 2 guys who are switch hitters between the small forward and shooting guard positions, or between the shooting guard and point guard positions.
(* almost nobody can afford 2 real centers)
This rule of thumb is violated quite a bit because often you have a division rival with a superstar at a particular position, and you compensate by getting a specialist at that position who is great at half the game, and this skews your overall personnel makeup more than somewhat. Also, often times you get players who are great enough to play up in size or fast enough to play down (Barkley as a Power Forward when he really was built too short and Magic as a Point Guard when he was 6’9″ are two good examples). But, I digress (as I do often).
Tod’s post on the main page about the lockout generated a bit of back and forth in the comments that led to this post. I started thinking: people argue about who was the greatest this or that in professional sports, but usually the discussions start to fall apart because “the greatest” is such a subjective term. Is it more important to have a long great career (think Kareem as the poster child here), or one year where the player is obviously more dominant than anyone ever was at that position? Do you need both, for true greatness? Do the numbers tell most of the story, or only part of the story, or not much of the story at all? Finally, and most telling, basketball is a team sport, after all… so “greatest” is always hard to judge unless you’re plonking a guy down inside the context of four other people on the court, which makes “greatest ever individual player” discussions sort of silly.
Anywho, often times the discussion about greatness is predicated on what the participants regard as great. I enjoy writing posts where I’m trying to tease out something in particular in the way of response, by framing the original post in a way that leads the discussion into a particular path. Here’s the gimmick for this post:
Pick your twelve players for your all-time greatest NBA team. But, the catch is, “greatest” has nothing to do with career, per se. You get to jump into a time machine, travel back in time to a particular year, and kidnap your player from that year in his career. Then we all jump into the present and put our lineups up against each other and the winner of the tournament gets to be emperor of the universe. Note there’s a coaching issue here. You can’t just pick 12 guys from the peak of your career, you have to pick 12 guys who give you on-court arrangements that you can use, as a coach.
Here’s my team.
Starting Center: Shaquille O’Neal, from the 1999-2000 season. This was the year that Phil got everything out of Shaq that Shaq was ever going to be able to give, and when you’re 7’1″, 315 lbs., and in the best shape of your career, that’s something to see. The one year he was nimble enough to keep up with the faster, skinnier centers while simultaneously the giant brute that only Shaq ever was. Far and away better than he was any other year, unfortunately.
Backup Center: Bill Russell, from the 1959-1960 season. Bill grabbed 40 rebounds in Game 2 of the Finals that year, playing against Wilt Chamberlain. Forty freakin’ rebounds! This isn’t against some chump, either.
Starting Forward: 1985-1986 Larry Bird. Larry wins his third consecutive league MVP, and the Finals MVP, averaging 24 points on .482 shooting, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game for the series. He’s a bit short for a modern power forward, but with Shaq as my starting center, I’m okay with having Larry in as forward.
Starting Forward: 1979-1980. Julius Erving. The year he did this, ’nuff said:
Backup Forward: Kevin McHale, from the 1986-1987 season. Scored over 60% from the field and shot over 80% from the free-throw line, the first time a player hit both of those numbers in a season. In one nine-game stretch he shot over 70% from the field. That’s murderous accuracy, no matter where you are on the court. Have to get him before March when he broke his foot, although he played pretty damn well through the playoffs on that broken foot. So I’m taking him even knowing his foot might break on me, that says something about this season. Oh, and he’s a damn good defender, as well, so if I have trouble with taller bodies on the other team, I take out Larry or Julius and I put in Kevin. If that’s not enough…
Backup Forward: Charles Barkley, 1989-1990. The 76ers lost to a superior Bulls team in the playoffs, winning only one game out of the five played. But in game 3, Barkley did something that you don’t see very often in the NBA: Sir Charles willed that victory into existence. I don’t think there’s a single score made by his team in this game where Charles isn’t involved in the play. It’s here:
Starting Guard: Michael Jordan, 1995-1996. I call this “the year that Jordan could shoot threes”. After this year, his steals count started to drop as he lost a step, but this is Jordan at his most experienced, and before his body starts to give.
Starting Guard: 1985-1986, Magic Johnson. At 6’9″, this is a monster matchup for just about any other potential point guard you can pick, and the ’86 Magic was Magic at his best. Seriously, no matter who else you might take as a guard, remember that it’s hard to pass up on Magic because the guy can actually play center if you need him to do so. You can’t do that with Jordan!
Backup Guard: 1968-1969 Jerry West, the year he won the Finals MVP despite being on the losing team. Jerry scored a triple-double in the last game of the series (42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists) despite playing on a gimpy hamstring he’d injured two games before. There’s a reason he’s called “Mr. Clutch”. Jerry was “Mr. Clutch” before Jordan was.
Backup Guard: Oscar Robertson, 1961-62. Averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 boards, and 11.4 assists per game. Life his hard when Oscar Robertson is your fourth guard, ain’t it?
Bench player One: Michael Jordan, 1987-1988. Shot 53% from the field, 84% from the line, had a whopping 259 steals and a crazy high 131 blocked shots. 131 blocked shots as a shooting guard. Not as patient or calculating as he was later in his career, but this is where he was at his best, physically.
Bench player Two: 2002-2003 Kobe Bryant. His best defensive year, and if I’m pulling him off the bench I’m probably putting in both him and the 87-88 Jordan as my guards and going full court press on the opposing team’s ballhandler with these two guys.
Coaching decisions: If I have to go Big, I have that covered. Russell can play as the big forward and Russell plus Shaq means I can have a decent shot at getting a block if anyone tries to go into the paint. If you’ve taken Wilt, I put Shaq on him because Wilt can’t muscle Shaq, but I can always throw Bill on Wilt as Bill has shown that he can beat Chamberlain, if it turns out that Shaq can’t handle him (I really doubt it, though). My down-low weakness is Kareem and Hakeem -> if you’ve got those two guys, you’ve got a skyhook in the middle that is unblockable and a 14 foot jumper from a beanpole. If I need to swamp the ball, I’ll take that Kobe/Jordan combo off the deep bench and let them eat your ballhandlers alive; unless you’ve gone with two ridiculous speed demons, you’ve got troubles there. McHale, Bird, and Magic can all play at least three positions, and they call can play in the post or out on the court, so I don’t have spacing problems. If you go Small, I put in Russell at center, let Barkley play as power forward, put Julius in at small, and put in Oscar and Jerry as the guards. That’s good speed at the guard position, great speed at one forward and the center, and Barkley has enough hustle that he won’t get beat badly enough for it to matter; if he does, I sub in Magic.