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.


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.


  1. Oh boy oh boy oh boy. I need to go do a couple of meetings, but I am already salivating at responding to this in detail later.

  2. This was requested from me,

    Point Guard: (86-87) Magic Johnson. Maybe the 2nd most important player in the history of Basketball. A League MVP this year. And c’mon, it’s MAGIC. He’s huge, fast, and can pass if not better than anyone, at least on the same level. The beauty of this is that he doesn’t even have to have the ball in his hands all the time, and he makes everyone on the court with him that much better.

    Shooting Guard: (89-90) Michael Jordan. That’s 2 Michael Js who had career high PPG in the 86-87 season, but I decided to go with an older, more experienced, more patient Michael, who could still dominate a game, and who would benefit the most from having Magic tossing him the ball. With a dream-team level ball handler like Magic, you need a Jordon who can make spot up 3s.

    Forward: (01-02) Tim Duncan. An insane .799 shooting percentage over the course of the season, good for 12.7 rebounds per game, and I think most importantly a player so sound that he wouldn’t be shaken by the star power or the lack of touches. We’re talking about a guy nicknamed “The Big Fundamental”, and he’s exactly what I want in my dream team, a guy who I can count on, not a guy who can win me the game by himself because I have those around him.

    Forward: (86-87) Charles Barkley. I’m starting to think I might as well just take the 5 best players from 86-87. Not his best scoring season, but the most Rebounds Per Game of his career, a staggering 14.6 for a guy who was 6’5″. His PPG would go up by 5 the following year, but he shot a better percentage in 86-87, and he was much younger than his MVP year, 92-93. 6 Years is a lot of time off of those knees, and with the consistent Duncan and Magic and the Explosive Jordan, I don’t see any way to improve this team other than to add a mean physical threat.

    Center: (99-00) Shaquille O’Neal. This selection is very, very simple. The token response here is to take Kareem or Wilt or Russell, but the fact of the matter is none of those 4 can guard Superman. The best defender of the four is Russell, and he gives up 4 inches and 85 pounds to O’Neal, an un-winnable match-up.

    Backup Guard: (63-64) Oscar Robertson. A point scoring machine, which is perfect for a pure bench player, as I’d keep Magic in as much as possible.

    Backup Guard: (86-87) Michael Jordon. When old tired Jordon needs a rest, I put in young springy Jordon and have him and Magic run fast breaks every play.

    Backup Forward: (86-87) Kevin McHale. The Perfect sub for Duncan.

    Backup Forward: (85-86) Larry Bird. Oh crap, Magic needs to come off the floor, who can make enough incredible passes to keep me in this game? Limited time means limited chance of horrible injury.

    Backup Center: (00-01) Shaquille O’Neal. The slightly less Shaqtastic Shaq. Same reasons for the first one.

    Bench #1: (68-69) Jerry West. If I have 2 minutes in the game and am down by double digits.

    Bench #2: (91-92) Hakeem Olajuwon. Purely a defensive move. If I need somebody who can block a sky hook, he’s my guy.

    • take away “2nd” in the Magic reasoning.
      should be “none of those 3” on the Shaq reasoning.

    • > Bench #1: (68-69) Jerry West. If I have 2
      > minutes in the game and am down by
      > double digits.

      That’s a good way to justify Jerry, right there.

  3. For my All Time Team, I am going a slightly different direction than Pat. I like his choices – a lot – but there are two factors I am giving more weight than he is. The first is I am less concerned about stats than mindset. So the Wilts, Amares and Dominiques aren’t even in the running for my team. I have always believed that in basketball, more than any other sport, statistics can be misleading. All my choices have that killer instinct, with one notable exeption.

    The second is I probably am taking athletic development over time more than Pat. For example, I am very tempted to have Bill Russell as a center – but Bill was dominant in the 1960s. By the 1980s, he would be considered slow and small. Likewise, (to take two players I did not choose), I would pick Chris Paul over Oscar Robertson. Oscar was a beast for his time. But if those two were going for a defensive rebound, Paul’s ability to jump about a foot and a half higher than Robertson would give him the edge – plus, he would be laying the ball up at the other end before Oscar got to the center court line.

    With an All-star lineup, I wasn’t so concerned with scoring. So you will see a heavy prejudice toward higher end defenders. I also wanted a team full of players that could both run and play slow effectively. I also want a team where every player has a strong post game; therefore, they all need to be strong passers. Lastly, I want a team where everyone has a reputation for being clutch in big games.

    That being said, here are my 12:


    Starting: Hakeem Olajuwan, 1994. Listed at 7’ (but slightly less) he was an all-time top ten in scoring, rebounding, blocks and (amazingly for a center) steals. MVP. Two-time Finals MVP. Two-time Defensive Player of the year.

    Bench: Bill Walton, 1977. Two time NBA Champ, and considered the best passing big man of all time. Injuries kept him on the bench most years after he single handedly won the Blazers first and only championship, but in that one year he might have been the best center ever.


    Starting: Tim Duncan, 2003. Boring to watch, but devastating nonetheless. Every PF I have ever heard says he is the greatest ever, and I will not disagree.

    Starting: Larry Bird, 1988. I almost didn’t pick Larry because I thought other fantasy teams would have 3s that were too fast for him. But his ability to win and beat everybody that was more physically talented than him is just too great to ignore. I want him starting.

    Bench: LeBron James, 2006. BLJ is the one guy without the killer instinct on my team. But I have always believed he would really thrive in a role where he was not expected to be a star, and this would be that team. Plus, along with Magic, it gives me two guys off the bench that can play the 1 through 5 on any given night. He is also the most physically gifted NBA player of all time, by far.

    Bench: Kevin McHale, 1986. For all the same reasons Pat gives.


    Starting: MJ, 1995. You want me to explain picking Jordan? Really?

    Starting: Kobe Bryant, 2008. (Not his best statistical year, but his best year as an all round player.) The second best player of all time. The guy Wade, LBJ, Kidd and Company turned to in the Olympics when they were suddenly afraid they might lose to Spain. The hardest working guy in the NBA ever – like, to the point of it being a mental illness.

    Bench: Magic Johnson, 1987. The greatest point guard ever, in his best overall year ever. Bonus: I can sub him in for any of my starting five. Extra bonus: Imagine him passing no look behind the backs to any of the other guys on this team. It makes me tear up.

    Bench: Isiah Thomas, 1990. Leader of the Bad Boys, tenacious and quick defender, and clutch in the final seconds of close games. And I want a small quick guy should we need to play the Pauls or the Iversons. Admittedly, I will have to sit he and Magic on opposite ends of the bench.


    This is going to seem like an odd pair of choices, but I feel like I have all bases covered, and am pretty sure I don’t need any more statistical additions. So I am going to choose two players known primarily for their ability to get under opposing players skins, making many an All-star completely lose their cool (and the game). With that said, I want the ability to insert Dennis Rodman, 1991. His fame really came with the Bulls, but he was actually a better rebounder and defender in his Pistons days. (He also hadn’t really gone bat shit crazy yet.) For my small guy, I want Bruce Bowen, 2005. Most 2s and 3s of the 00s peg him as the hardest person they have ever had to score against, including Kobe and Wade. Good enough for me.


    Perhaps the oddest thing here is that I am not starting a point guard, despite having the greatest ever on my team. This is not an oversight. On this team, there are two players that would be horrible to deal with were they not to start. And they both play the 2. So I am happy to start each, knowing that Duncan is perhaps the only guy in the starting lineup that couldn’t effectively take the ball up and start the offense.

    That’s my 12. And you know what? It will kick your 12’s ass.

    • Hakeem of ’94 can’t beat Shaq of ’00.

      That would be one hell of a game to watch, though. Funny how close our overall picks are.

      • I wanted everyone to be inside outside. I also didn’t want anyone that has a reputation for giving half assed efforts much of the time, even if he is as dominant, likable, and Laker-ish as Shaq.

      • I watched most of the games of 99-00. Phil lit a fire under him that season. Afterwards, he reverted to form, granted.

        Side note: on this

        > The second is I probably am taking athletic
        > development over time more than Pat.

        That’s a valid critique, especially in the case of Bill. My rejoinder is, as it always is when people discuss athleticism as a function of basketball success: John Stockton and Shawn Kemp.

        Stockton had a vertical leap of about 5″. He wasn’t anywhere near as fast as the guards of his era. But talk about basketball smarts. Knowing your body mechanics and positioning is (in my mind) more important than sheer athleticism (especially if you can take a punch, rhetorically speaking). Compare Kemp, who at his peak was a monstrous physical talent, but his basketball smarts were less than Elden Campbell (which is why the Lakers always beat the Sonics, those years).

      • I feel like you’re stuck with Shaq in this format. None of the legendarily good centers could deal with a 7’1″ 300 pound guy inside, which leaves Shaq as the only really good center who could guard Shaq with any effectiveness.

        • You can maybe make the case that Hakeem could nullify him by beating him at the 12-14 foot distance (because he did), making it a wash. You can make a similar case for Kareem, I think. Wilt was pretty darn strong, but I think he’d fare badly going up against Shaq just because he would give up so much weight.

          • Sure Hakeem might be able to create a mismatch in that instance, but he HAS to foul to deny Shaq position in the low post. Alternatively, you could build a team based around defeating Shaq by running with Hakeem as your center, taking advantage of spot passers on the move like Bird and Magic, but if you run into more modern teams with faster legs you’ll simply be outran.

    • I love the Bowen and Rodman picks.

      I find your group completely un-coachable from an offensive perspective though. You’d have to create an entire scheme that would work only for that team, which means you couldn’t get Phil to coach it, which means you couldn’t handle the ego’s.

      • I dunno.

        Magic, Larry, Barkley, and MJ played together just fine on the Dream Team. Duncan can probably play with anybody, but he’s less effective without the ball (but then, who isn’t).

        I’m not terribly fond of how soft T-dog’s big guys are, taken en masse, though. Rodman is an entertaining enforcer, but he never could play Barkley and Shaq would just ignore him.

        • I like Rodman more for the novelty.

          2 things I thought of since my post:

          I think an intriguing possibility is having say Russell or Kareem play forward instead of center. This solves the size issue of guarding Shaq, but I feel like they could handle Duncan or another traditional power forward quite handily.

          My other idea is that you move Magic to small forward and put him on a team with Shaq, AI, MJ, and either Duncan or my previous idea as your other forward. Essentially what you do is you look at the opposing team and wherever you have the scoring advantage you essentially feed that player, and then you still have fantastic defense on your end. You’re either going to put the other team in atrocious foul trouble, forcing them to readjust their lineup, shattering their game plan but leaving yours untouched.

          • I can’t imagine any team with Allen Iverson winning. He’s just too much of a ballhog.

          • Firstly, I totally understand your point. Secondly, I’d probably have to go with Coach K for this team.

            The reason I went with AI is anyone who any other team picks at Point Guard is going to get creamed(which goes along with the strategy, I mean hey if they can’t guard him give him the ball all he wants), and no one else would be stupid enough to pick him. Some people might pick a more modern point, and for that you’d want AIs relentless speed.

    • I considered Isiah over Robertson, I think I can pull the trigger on that move. Luckily, I have Magic starting, so I won’t have to make the longest bench in NBA history.

  4. Here’s a proposition for discussion. Among the major move-a-ball-toward-a-goal-on-a-horizontal-plane sports, basketball is the one in which there is the most frequent and extreme divergence between winning strategies and strategies that produce sustained periods of “beautiful” or “exciting” offensive play. Obviously, this can be assessed only via entirely subjective, even personal, criteria. But, to the extent anyone has a set of such criteria that he to some extent adheres to as to these latter categories, and considers them to be of interest in his sports spectatorship, would anyone like to agree or disagree with this proposition and give reasons?

    I’m not even sure I think this proposition is true according to my own criteria, but what inspires the idea is the fact that, while I can hardly disagree with taking Shaq as a first-team center over Russell, the sports-watching aesthete in me rebels at the idea.

    • Context: I never followed basketball really until I was in college. I was at LMU in the Hank Gathers year, and that team was insane to watch. They won one game my freshman year 181-150, the highest combined point total in NCAA history. They scored 186 points in another game while I was there, still an NCAA record.

      Those are not typos. They still didn’t win at Madness, although they got to the 8. So my LMU experience taught me two things: basketball is crazy fun to watch when it’s at its craziest, but you don’t win in the long run without a great half court defense.

      I became a Laker fan when they drafted Eddie Jones.

      Watching Eddie, Ceballos, Van Exel, Elden, and Vlade run around was hugely entertaining, even when they lost. Half-court basketball pounding it inside isn’t nearly as fun as Showtime or Dr. J or any of the other run and gun sort of teams out there. When the Lakers got Shaq I enjoyed watching every game less than I did before, but it was nice to finally win in the playoffs against those bastards in Utah.

      Switch the format from a series based tournament to single-game eliminations, I can see picking on style. My choices would definitely change, that’s for sure.

      • In the post-Magic/pre-Phil era, Eddie was hands down my favorite Laker. I still say that trading him was a joke; he would have fit well in Phil’s system.

  5. You’ll understand why I picked who I did when I explain my coaching.

    Starting Center: Hakeem Olajuwon from 93-94.
    Starting Power Forward: Shawn Kemp from 95-96
    Starting Small Forward: Dr. J from 79-80
    Starting Shooting Guard: Reggie Miller from 93-94
    Starting Point Guard: Magic Johnson from 89-90


    Shaquille O’Neal from 99-00
    Dirk Nowitzki from 00-01
    Larry Bird from 84-85
    Michael Jordan from 87-88
    Kevin Johnson from 90-91
    Gary Payton from 95-96
    Scottie Pippen from 94-95


    First, offense: Seeing how easy it is to torch an opposing defense when you have the combination of a clear paint threat surrounded by 3 point shooters, I deliberately picked Magic from his best year from the arc so in the half-court he could legitimately bookend with Reggie out there. Olajuwon would be my first option, being so nimble for a big man and also having more range than people give him credit for. Employ the old Rockets “torture chamber” technique, and when the D panics over The Dream they’re just guaranteeing either a jumper from Reggie or Magic or a cut to the basket by the other front court players. Cool thing is my main offensive scheme wouldn’t have to change much when Shaq came in because he’s such a force in the paint the decision of collapse-or-not still exists.

    Yes, you read that right. Nowitzki AND Bird. Both super deadly from 3, and I picked ’em young so they can still keep up in the open court. If I really want to confuse the opposition, slide Dirk to center and enjoy the matchup problems — or even outright overwhelm with outside shooting by pairing him or Bird with Miller. Imagine having to worry about them and needing to deal with MJ or KJ blowing past you towards the rim. Also, Payton can both distribute and create his own shot, giving me yet another versatility point.

    Defense: I know Magic and Reggie aren’t exactly the most threatening backcourt defenders, but in my starting 5 they don’t have to be. They’re long enough to disrupt, Dr. J is in peak defensive form, and with Hakeem & Kemp in the paint (or Shaq when he’s in), anyone getting past the perimeter will wish they didn’t. I’d run a very scrappy, trapping style defense which I could dial up to total insanity for any opposing backcourt by bringing in any combination of Jordan, Pippen or Payton.

    All that leads to the real thing this team was built for: transition. Get back too slow, and I turn the game into a dunk contest. Rush back, and you probably just watch a trailer hit yet another 3. Trap, get ball, and RUN! Stop penetration, get ball, RUN! Rebound, RUN!! I want those shoes practically bursting into flames at the final buzzer.

    BTW: Notice that of my 7 bench players, 5 of them can conceivably play multiple positions. I can plug and play, mix up looks like mad.

      • When thinking about the 4 position and a high-tempo offense without sacrificing interior strength, the list gets pretty short. It was either him or Barkley, and I wanted another shot blocker.

  6. I look at some of these lineups and wonder how one basketball would be enough when it wasn’t for just Kobe and Shaq.

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