Build the All-Time Greatest NBA Team

Don told me that he and Gregg had a discussion about this, and we started a discussion between us, but never finished it. I’m not sure about the parameters, but I think it involved choosing starters only, and choosing them with building the best team in mind, not just choosing the five best players. For example, if Kareem, Wilt, Russell, and Shaq made your top five all-time greatest NBA players, you probably wouldn’t choose them for your all-time greatest team (unless you’re willing to start four centers). Don, who did you and Gregg pick? Off the top of my head, here’s my selection:

1. Magic Johnson
2. Michael Jordan
3. Larry Bird
4. David Robinson
5. Hakeem Olajuwon

(Note: The numbers correspond with their positions.)

I had some doubts about the 4 and 5 position. I initially told Don that I would choose Rodman (the rebounding version) as my four. The perfect four is a guy who can rebound and defend. Rodman, even the better rebounding version, could go out on the perimeter to defend stretch fours. Still, I think Robinson would be decent at this, and he’s could reliably make 15 foot jump shots. It would be tough to score in the paint against them, whether the opponents had a great post player or penetrators.

I had trouble on the 5 position as well, wavering between Olajuwon and Kareem. Kareem’s skyhook is the greatest shot of all time. He’s also a really good passer. The one thing I worry about Kareem was how he would fare against more physical fives. What I have etched in my mind is the way Moses Malone gave him so much trouble. Still, Kareem was older at the time, and a youthful Kareem might be a different story.

The next position that gave me a slight pause was, believe it or not, the 2 position. Jordan not being a great three point shooter is the main reason for this. Don suggested Kobe, but I think he’s a ball-hog, not a good passer. He definitely has better range than Jordan, and he’s probably just as good a scorer. Another guy that is tempting as the 2 spot is Ray Allen. You want him to open up the middle with his threes? He’s your guy. You want to run picks for him, he’s great. He can take it to the hole when he has to and also be effective in transition. (I don’t know about his defense and rebounding, though. I’d say Jordan and Kobe would have an edge in both.)

As for Magic and Bird, my only reservations would be what might be lost defensively. In my ideal team, all five players would be great at defense, having the ability to completely shut down opponents. Putting LeBron at the 3 would dramatically improve the defense, but a lot would be lost, compared to if you had Bird there, in my opinion. Who would be a great defensive 1, particularly a player that wouldn’t give up a lot relative to Magic? I guess GP comes to mind, but I think he’d give up too much. Maybe CP3, but I don’t know how he is as a defender. No to John Stockton’s defense. Isiah—but I don’t think he’s defense is so much better than Magic’s. Bird and Magic are sounding better and better.

13 thoughts on “Build the All-Time Greatest NBA Team

  1. I didn’t complete my five in my discussions with Gregg.

    But the basis of the overall discussion is stuff like if you have Jordan how many more unstoppable scorers do you need. Could you have too many creators or passers? For example do you need Bird and Magic or can you never have enough? Do you need three-point shooting and a rebounding machine (Barkley?)? Should your best five have a ball-hog like a Kobe?

    I started pretty confident with Jordan, Magic, and Lebron, and was trying to build around them. Now I’m sort of leaning to have Lebron at the one and having Bird at the three. My contention is that any starting five needs at least one knock down three-point shooter. I was even thinking of putting Dirk Nowitzki with Magic, Lebron, and Jordan. I just think Nowitzki is a borderline knock down shooter. Without really seeing the Greek Freak play too much and not really knowing much about Anthony Davis’ future, I would love to have either of them at my four. Both are so versatile and athletic. But based on what I’ve seen so far I would lean Anthony Davis. Like Lebron, Magic, and Bird, I see Davis as a guy that can play with anyone. He doesn’t need to score or even get a lot of touches, and seems to be unselfish. The last spot was always between Hakeem and Shaq. Hakeem is a better all-around defender, but Shaq is a force. I think, thinking of a defensive match-up with a Golden State, I will lean Hakeem.

    I think Gregg sort of settled on Gary Payton, Jordan, Lebron, Duncan, and Wilt. I don’t know enough about Wilt to even consider him, but I was sort of arguing that he cannot be more dominating than Shaq. In Wilt’s time yes he was dominating, but up and up against Shaq, hard to believe.

  2. But the basis of the overall discussion is stuff like if you have Jordan how many more unstoppable scorers do you need. Could you have too many creators or passers? For example do you need Bird and Magic or can you never have enough? Do you need three-point shooting and a rebounding machine (Barkley?)? Should your best five have a ball-hog like a Kobe?

    I think I know you guys are getting at. You guys are getting at the way filling certain roles is more critical than just getting the five most talented players. For example, a great rebounding and defending 4 who has little offense is better than a great offensive 4 who can’t really rebound and defend. I’d also argue even if you’re great offensive 4 could rebound and defend well, that might not be a great pick. The player would have to be unselfish, willing to be content with not shooting or scoring very much. This is one of the reasons Rodman would be ideal. He’s not going to care if he didn’t score any points. (But I chose Robinson because I think he’d be content not scoring and he’s taller/bigger, better shot-blocking force, and you probably wouldn’t lose much rebounding.)

    The guys I chose takes the issue of filling their roles. Jordan is your gunner, but he can pass and knows how to play in a team context. Magic is a classic 1–i.e., pass first mentality–but he can do so much more. I also don’t think you can just give him open 3s. (Only issue: defending quicker players.) Bird is similar. Perfect 3, but also unselfish and a great passer. He’s probably an underrated rebounder as well. As for Hakeem, he developed into a much better passer, so I choose him. If I had to choose pre-Rudy T version, I’d choose Kareem. (Shaq can’t make free throws.)

    Some other thoughts:

    Rebounding is critical to me. The team I chose would kill on the boards. Bird-Robinson-Olajuwon would be formidable rebounding. I’d be happy swapping Rodman for Robinson or Shaq/Kareem for Olajuwon, although the one thing I like about Robinson-Olajuwon tandem is that if they had to defend modern 4s and 5s, they be able to do an adequate job of this.

    Defensively and 3 point shooting are the two aspects that dissatisfy me the most about my lineup.

    I started pretty confident with Jordan, Magic, and Lebron, and was trying to build around them. Now I’m sort of leaning to have Lebron at the one and having Bird at the three. My contention is that any starting five needs at least one knock down three-point shooter. I was even thinking of putting Dirk Nowitzki with Magic, Lebron, and Jordan. I just think Nowitzki is a borderline knock down shooter.

    Choosing Nowitski makes sense, given the problem you’re trying to address, and taking Bird and moving LeBron to the one makes sense–only I think LeBron wouldn’t be a very good 1. He doesn’t have the mentality nor is he that good of a passer in my opinion.

    I think Gregg sort of settled on Gary Payton, Jordan, Lebron, Duncan, and Wilt. I don’t know enough about Wilt to even consider him, but I was sort of arguing that he cannot be more dominating than Shaq. In Wilt’s time yes he was dominating, but up and up against Shaq, hard to believe.

    I like Duncan and I could live with that pick. He seems like a good team player and pretty low maintenance. He doesn’t seem as athletic as Robinson or Rodman, though.

  3. If I had a spot up shooter (Bird), a post player (Hakeem), and a scorer (Jordan), I doubt there is any other player I could add to make my team significantly better on offense. I guess a Magic or Stockton could make my team better on fastbreaks, but really if I had those three I originally spoke of, I don’t need to have a great fastbreaking team. Therefore, my team has to be versatile on the defensive end. Nobody can guard as many positions as Lebron and Anthony Davis. They both have great mobility and strength. I’ll also add my weak link on defense would be Bird, but he can guard the post pretty well and he definitely can stay with any spot up shooters. He would do fine.

    Reid, I think your team would do great guarding the 80’s and 90’s teams, but I wonder if they can guard a Golden State team. Of course Golden State wouldn’t be able to guard your team, but I think you are overrating Robinson’s lateral quickness and his ability to guard the mid-range players.

  4. I guess a Magic or Stockton could make my team better on fastbreaks, but really if I had those three I originally spoke of, I don’t need to have a great fastbreaking team.

    I think you might be slightly underselling the importance of the 1, and what they bring. Maybe the value of a good 1 would be less with Bird, but still, you want a 1 that can run the offense, make sure there’s the right flow to the ball movement and people get in the right place and time. Plus, Magic is big plus for rebounding, and he’s a guy that can get make the big shot or play when you need it–and, crucially, he’s not selfish; he can be in the background as well.

    Therefore, my team has to be versatile on the defensive end. Nobody can guard as many positions as Lebron and Anthony Davis.

    I don’t know about Davis, but Lebron would definitely make the defense a lot better. But if you got him at the 1, that’s kinda going against the spirit of the question in my view, unless you think he’s a legitimate 1. I mean, I could put Jordan at the 1, too, but he’s not a 1 in my view.

    …but I think you are overrating Robinson’s lateral quickness and his ability to guard the mid-range players.

    Who’s G-State’s 4? Are the 4s really so quick that they would be driving around Robinson with ease? I think the bigger question would be, can the 4s and 5s play the pick and roll and get out to the 3 point shooters? I think Hakeem and Robinson have the athleticism to do both.

    The match-up between my team and G-State would come down whether my G-State could consistently make threes in a way that offset’s my team’s ability to score in the post. As I mentioned to you, on the offensive side of the court, I’m thinking my team’s shooting percentage is going to be pretty high, partly because I envision a lot of offensive rebounding. If my team can also dominate the defensive glass, G-State would have to be unreal at the shooting threes, I think–and they would have to be able to keep this up.

  5. Lebron has been playing the one ever since he returned to Cleveland, especially in the last couple years.

    How is that different from Robinson playing the four? He never ever played the four.

    So I’m guessing you don’t buy the fact that if I had Bird, Hakeem, and Jordan that the other two guys can be college level guys and the team would be unstoppable and that any improvements to the two other guys wouldn’t be that significant? What if the other two guys were Kenny Anderson (not a great pro) and Dennis Scott (another not a great pro)? You don’t think that would be enough to dominate on offense and any improvement to Anderson and Scott would be gravy.

  6. Lebron has been playing the one ever since he returned to Cleveland, especially in the last couple years.

    But you really think Lebron is a 1? Jordan played a 1 for a little while under Doug Collins. That doesn’t make him a 1, though.

    As for Robinson, I really think he’s a 4 in a 5’s body. When Duncan joined the team, didn’t Duncan basically play like a 5, especially on offense, while Robinson was more of a 4?

    So I’m guessing you don’t buy the fact that if I had Bird, Hakeem, and Jordan that the other two guys can be college level guys and the team would be unstoppable and that any improvements to the two other guys wouldn’t be that significant?

    No, they would be–if the team was going against any normal team. But you don’t think that’s going against the spirit of the question?

    Also, a part of me sort of built the team with the idea that they would go against another great team. For example, could the team you assembled beat another team that was assembled in a similar way (i.e., drawing from great players throughout history)?

    1. No, they would be–if the team was going against any normal team. But you don’t think that’s going against the spirit of the question?

      Actually in and of itself it’s against the spirit of the question, but basically because I have those three on offense, I could take the liberty and use the other two positions to take guys with defense in mind. Unlike offense, there could be significant impacts if I had guys like Kenny Anderson and Dennis Scott playing the last two spots. So when picking Lebron and Davis, a big reason why I chose those two guys is because of how well they will make my team defensively, with the thoughts that those last two positions couldn’t have that great of an impact on offense.

      For example, could the team you assembled beat another team that was assembled in a similar way (i.e., drawing from great players throughout history)?

      Yes, this is probably right. But I think it’s easier to compare your imaginary team against a real team just to give it some context, because it also adds in the element of style of play. Add to the style of play but it’s also easier to compare over eras at least in my mind.

  7. Actually in and of itself it’s against the spirit of the question, but basically because I have those three on offense, I could take the liberty and use the other two positions to take guys with defense in mind.

    That’s reasonable–and it’s why I understand Gregg choosing GP as his 1. My bigger issue is that I don’t think LeBron is a 1. To be fair, I guess someone can claim that Robinson isn’t a 4. In that case, I’ll put Rodman there.

    So is this your lineup:

    1. LeBron James
    2. Michael Jordan
    3. Larry Bird
    4. Anthony Davis
    5. Hakeem Olajuwon

    Yes, this is probably right. But I think it’s easier to compare your imaginary team against a real team just to give it some context, because it also adds in the element of style of play. Add to the style of play but it’s also easier to compare over eras at least in my mind.

    I did both–I considered both existing teams as opponents and assembled teams.

  8. Reggie Miller on Dan Patrick said his starting five would be:

    Magic
    Jordan
    Lebron
    Hakeem
    Kareem

    Reggie said it pains him to replace Bird with Lebron.

    I didn’t go back to read what my reasoning was, but I think Shaq is a tougher player to guard than Hakeem (what?). But I think my reasoning was Hakeem was a better defender in a open court (ie: against the Warriors). Just based on him talking, Reggie would have Kareem, Hakeem, and then Shaq. Hard to argue, but I think I would have them in the reverse order.

    1. I listened to part of the clip. It almost sounded like he’s giving LeBron the nod because of longevity. If that’s true, that’s not a good reason to me.

      To me, has there been any other players with the same level of skills as Magic and Bird. I’m talking scoring, passing, and rebounding–especially the passing? If there’s anyone like that playing now, let me know, because I’d like to see them play.

      Has LeBron surpassed Pippen in terms of moves and passing ability?

      I didn’t go back to read what my reasoning was, but I think Shaq is a tougher player to guard than Hakeem (what?).

      Just based on Shaq’s height, strength, and even athleticism and compare that to Hakeem, and almost any other center, including Kareem, and you’d think Shaq is way better. (Shaq has good footwork and good enough touch, too.) But when I watched him play, I felt like he didn’t dominate as much as he should have. Given his physical qualities and skills, I would expect him to dominate more than Moses, Kareem, Hakeem, McHale, etc. But, to me, he didn’t. Watching him play, he didn’t seem significantly tougher to guard than those other centers. (I think his brute power made him seem tougher, though. A drop step dunk looks more dominant than a turnaround jumper. Dream could give you that baseline turnaround all day, and you couldn’t stop that.)

      Reggie would have Kareem, Hakeem, and then Shaq. Hard to argue, but I think I would have them in the reverse order.

      It’s a toss up. Each had strengths and weaknesses. In his earlier days, Dream couldn’t pass. I don’t think Kareem was a dominant rebounder, but that was based on watching him when he was older–and against more physical players. Shaq struggled at the free throw line. If a younger Kareem could board, I think I’d choose him. However, if we’re talking about playing against the current players, I’d choose Dream.

      1. In this interview I agree, he seems to imply that longevity plays a role in choosing Lebron over Bird, but in past interviews, I never got that impression.

        Man, I think you sit on an island thinking Pippen had exceptional moves and could pass really well. I would say most wouldn’t say Lebron has moves either, but I don’t think anyone would say Lebron cannot pass better than Pippen. I don’t really recall Pippen handling the ball all that much. Wasn’t Kukoc more of the main ball handler when Jordan retired? I mean outside of the point guards.

        I would say I almost believe the direct opposite of you in terms of Shaq. I don’t recall a guy being as dominate as Shaq. I would guess Wilt was that guy, but I never saw him play. The closest thing to physically dominating the NBA to Shaq would be Lebron. Yes, Shaq played with Kobe, but Kobe was a kid and wasn’t the Kobe that he became. Shaq carried those early championship Laker teams and carried those Orlando teams sort of how Moses Malone carried his team.

        1. Man, I think you sit on an island thinking Pippen had exceptional moves and could pass really well.

          I’m not saying that. I’m saying that in terms of moves and passing LeBron and Pippen are a similar level. So unless LeBron has surpassed that, I’m not sure how you can say he’s better than Bird.

          Wasn’t Kukoc more of the main ball handler when Jordan retired?

          Yes, but I’m not saying Pippen is a better point forward type of player. I’m just saying that in terms of passing ability LeBron doesn’t strike me as particularly better. I never understood the hype around LeBron’s passing. I don’t think he was or is a bad passer, but Mark Jackson would compare him to Magic, and that just seems way overboard. I’m not sure LeBron is better than Jordan or Barkley. And here’s the thing–being a good passer isn’t just about having the ability, but also passing at the right time. In the past, I feel like LeBron would pass when he shouldn’t. In those moments, I feel like he should be taking the shot or trying to create his own shot. I feel like people would be crediting LeBron for his passing in these situations, but they really should be criticizing him. With guys like Barkley and Jordan, not only where they good passers, but I feel like the passed at the appropriate time.

          I would say I almost believe the direct opposite of you in terms of Shaq.

          But if you take away the physically impressive plays–like the power dunks–was he really that much more dominant that Hakeem or Kareem? When he would do things on the court, I think he did look more dominant than some of the other players. And based on that, I would think he could average 40 points and 20 rebounds. But obviously he didn’t do that. I don’t think he was significantly more unstoppable than Kareem or Hakeem or Moses in his prime.

          1. I guess you standing alone on Lebron’s abilities…

            I see what you saying about Shaq. He should have numbers closer to Wilt’s. Hmmm, maybe… He was still ridiculous though.

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