My Greatest NBA Fantasy Team of All Time

August 13, 2013 in Basketball, Best Of, NBA, Sport by pacejmiller

MJ

I haven’t done any basketball-related posts on this blog for a while, and this is a topic I have wanted to tackle for some time. After recently reading Jack McCallum’s fabulous Dream Team (review here), a chronicle of the greatest group of talent ever assembled in team sport, I started thinking about which players I would pick for my personal fantasy dream team, comprising NBA players from any era at a certain point in their careers.

This is, of course, just a personal selection of players based on a subjective assessment of each player’s talent, ability and skill, as well as what I think they will bring to the table and how they might play off each other as a cohesive unit. So don’t get your knickers in a bunch if you don’t agree. I will, however, try to justify my selections with explanations, so feel free to comment and start up a healthy debate.

As this is MY dream team, I am going to only consider players I have actually watched play in full televised or archived games (ie late 80s), as opposed to basing selections purely on reputation or grainy highlights. I therefore offer my apologies upfront to the greatest winner of all-time, Bill Russell, the most dominant scorer (and womanizer) of all time, Wilt Chamberlain, and Mr Triple Double, Oscar Robertson.

Two of the greatest actors of their generation, Arnie and Wilt

Two of the greatest actors of their generation, Arnie and Wilt

Part of the decision to remove them from contention stems from my belief that players of the past, as good as they were, aren’t as good as the players of the modern era. I mean, Russell was only 6’9″ and 225 lbs, and Wilt was regarded as unmatched at 7’1″ and 275 lbs, and the level of competition they faced was not even close. It’s no question that players today are much bigger, stronger, more athletic and more skilled. Not to say Russell, Wilt and The Big O wouldn’t still be great players in today’s game (especially if they were given the same nutrition and training opportunities), but I just don’t know enough to make that assumption.

Starters

Selection philosophy

The majority of my starting five choices won’t be controversial. There’s at least one guy that will be on everyone’s list, and we all know who that is, and there’s two other guys that will be on most lists.

My philosophy was simple. The first factor was to consider the best all-round player in that position. The second consideration was whether that player addresses a need on a team, be it scoring, passing, rebounding, defense, shooting, shot blocking, and so forth. And the third consideration was whether those players would mesh well as a team. With that in mind, my greatest starting five of all time is…

PG Magic Johnson (1988-1989)

It wasn’t hard to choose whom many regard as the greatest point guard of all time, a 6’9″ maestro with possibly the best court vision the game has ever seen. With his incredible size at PG and ability to find the open man, especially on the break, Magic would be the perfect coordinator of this team. His supernatural passing ability has somewhat shadowed his scoring and rebounding, which were both fantastic, but the best thing about Magic is that he doesn’t need to score to control and dominate a game. And let’s not forget the intangibles — his leadership and will to win.

It’s hard to pick one version of Magic for this team. There’s 1981-1982, the year where he came closest to averaging a triple double with 18.6, 9.6 and 9.5. There’s 1983-1984, when he averaged a career high 13.1 assists to go with 17.6 points, or 1986-87, when he averaged a career high 23.9 points to go with 12.2 assists. Any of these would have been wonderful, but in the end I chose his 1988-1989 MVP season, during which he averaged 22.5 points, 12.8 assists (both second highest in his career) and still grabbed 7.9 rebounds (the highest since 1982-1983). He shot 51% from the field and came close to leading the league in free throws at 91.1%. He also posted his second-highest PER at 26.9 (just 0.1 below his best PER).

SG Michael Jordan (1988-1989)

The no brainer. Of course you would have the GOAT on your team. A perfect blend of size, strength, athleticism and skills matched with an unparalleled drive, determination, and desire to win at all costs. Unstoppable offensively and capable of stopping just about everyone defensively. Even on this team, the greatest of all time, MJ would be the unquestionable star.

The harder decision was choosing the best version of Jordan to fill my team. Do I go with the offensive prodigy who put up a staggering 37.1 points in 1986-1987, the highest single season scoring average of any player not named Wilt Chamberlain? Or do I go with the Jordan of the first three-peat, where he was better athletically, or the Jordan of the second three-peat, where he was smarter and developed that money turnaround jumper? Ultimately, I could not pass on the 1988-1989 Jordan who averaged 32.5, 8 and 8 (the latter two of which were career highs) and shot nearly 54% from the field and 85% from the line. It wasn’t his most efficient year (he posted a PER of 31.7 in 1987-88), but a PER of 31.1 and a career-high true shooting percentage of 61.4% is not too shabby.

SF Larry Bird (1984-85)

Larry Legend is my favourite non-Pacers player of all time, so he was bound to be on the team somewhere. But even as an objective assessor, I would have put him on the starting lineup anyway, especially if you see my selections below. Bird is the kind of player you just have to watch to understand just how legendary he truly is. Apart from being possibly the greatest shooter of all time, Bird was a fantastic rebounder and effortless passer. He may not be the greatest one-on-one defender, but he uses his high basketball IQ and tenacity to his advantage and gets plenty of deflections and steals, plus his 6’9″ height is an advantage against smaller wing players.

But it’s the intangibles that make Bird a can’t miss player on my greatest team of all time. The ice cool confidence, that special ability to make his teammates better, and the clutchness — I’d have no problem with either him or Jordan taking the final shot every time. Bird might even be better because of his long range capabilities. With the creativity of Magic and Bird on the same team the possibilities are endless.

It’s not easy picking the best Bird (he did have three MVPs and two 50-40-90 shooting seasons), but I’ve decided on the 1984-85 season when he won his second MVP, posting averages of 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 52% from the field, 43% from three-point range and 88% from the line. He also posted the second highest PER of his career that year with 26.5.

PF LeBron James (2012-2013)

With LeBron playing the best basketball of his career after shifting predominantly to power forward in Miami, it made it easy for me to not have to decide between him and Larry Bird at SF. The best player in the game today — by far — LeBron is a unique player at 6’8″-6’9″ and 250 lbs (at least), freakishly athletic, strong as an ox and unstoppable on the break, with incredible court vision, an improving jumpshot and the ability to defend any position on the floor. So while there might be more conventional choices at PF, simply having LeBron anywhere on this starting lineup was a more important consideration for me.

The LeBron I chose for the team is the most recent version from the 2012-2013 season, when he led the Heat to their second straight title while winning his fourth MVP award. He posted his second highest PER at 31.6 and averaged a controlled 26.8 points, 8 rebounds and 7.3 assists while making it look easy. He also shot a ridiculous 56.5% from the field and 40.6% from three-point range. He may have had more eye-popping numbers in Cleveland, but there is no doubt that the LeBron of now is the much better player. To think he might not have reached his peak is a frightening thought.

C Hakeem Olajuwon (1992-1993)

Lots of great options at center, but in the end I went with the most complete player at both ends of the floor, the player with the unstoppable post moves (just ask David Robinson) and the NBA’s all-time top shot blocker. I chose Hakeem because he can do it all (he is only one of four players in NBA history to have recorded a quadruple double), but particularly because of his defensive prowess and longer shooting range compared to most centers. And he was a rare center who could actually hit his free throws, coming close to 80% in his prime. Hakeem didn’t overpower you, but he could score in an unlimited number of ways, whether it was faking you out down low, up and unders, hook shots or fadeaway jumpers. On the other end he was a menace with those long arms and exquisite footwork.

It was tempting to choose a Hakeem from the Rockets’ championship years in 1993-1994 and 1994-1995, but I think he was even better in 1992-1993, except he was overshadowed by Jordan, like everyone else. In that year, Hakeem recorded his best PER of 27.3 and averaged 26.1 points, 13 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 4.2 blocks. Just beastly.

Selection justification

I am confident my starting lineup of Magic, Jordan, Bird, LeBron and Hakeem can beat any starting five in history. You have tremendous size, with everyone except 6’6″ Jordan at 6’9″ or above. All are fantastic playmakers who make their teammates better, especially Magic, Bird and LeBron, and Jordan and Hakeem are both superior passers at their respective positions. All five are also excellent rebounders, and sound team rebounding is what makes a good team great. An interesting point to note is that all five are superb post players too, so they can take their man one-on-one to make the most of mismatch opportunities.

Defensively, Jordan and LeBron can shut down any wing player, and LeBron can take on most power forwards. Both of them, especially LeBron, are chase-down block specialists. Jordan, remember, was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1987-1988. Bird and Magic are not known for their D but are both clever players who can mask their deficiencies. And in the middle you have Hakeem challenging, blocking and changing shots.

If the game ever gets tight, as unlikely as that is, you have five of the greatest clutch players at their respective positions at your disposal. And if all else fails, just get the ball to Jordan and get the hell out of the way.

Whichever way you look at it, this is an unstoppable starting five! They have size and speed, they rebound and share the ball, can shoot and score and defend in a multitude of ways. With the way these guys play, you never have to worry about chemistry because they all just want to win.

See the rest of my selections and those who missed the cut after the jump!

Reserves

Selection philosophy

Having picked the greatest starting five ever, choosing the 7 reserves on this 12-man squad becomes a gap-filling exercise to address flaws and needs. Having versatility is good, but sometimes you also need specialists to adapt to specific situations. With that in mind, by 7 reserves are…

PG Isiah Thomas (1984-1985)

One of the problems the 1992 Dream Team allegedly had was with quick, penetrating point guards, which is understandable considering Magic is 6’9″. So naturally, I would want my dream team to have a quick, penetrating point guard who can step in for Magic should the need arise. The best man for that job, in my opinion, is Isiah Thomas, who really should have been selected for the original Dream Team but was snubbed because of Jordan. I’m going to ignore any personal issues between them for the purpose of this exercise because Isiah is just too good to deny. And if Bobby Hurley gave the Dream Team problems, just imagine what Zeke can do.

At 6’1″ Zeke is a little undersized but his ridiculous quickness and tenacity make him a perfect candidate for my team. And based on my viewings of NBA TV’s Open Court, it appears Zeke regarded as one of the greatest ball handlers of all time, with insane dribble moves that are not just fancy but also practical and effective. With all due respect to John Stockton, Isiah is just better. It’s just a fact.

I’m gonna go with the Isiah Thomas from the 1984-1985 season, his most effective season in the NBA (22.2 PER) where he averaged 21.2 points and league-leading 13.9 assists. He also had 2.3 steals per game and shot nearly 46% from the field and 81% from the line.

SG Ray Allen (2005-2006)

This might come as an interesting choice because Jesus Shuttlesworth is regarded as a relatively one-dimensional player and shouldn’t really be in the conversation as one of the greatest shooting guards of all time. But my dream team really needs a three-point shooter, so why not the greatest long-range marksman of all time? As much as I want to pick Reggie Miller, even I have to admit that Allen has surpassed Miller as the more efficient, consistent and reliable three-point shooter in history. The fact Allen just essentially saved Miami’s championship hopes with that perfect game-tying three in game 6 puts him over the top.

It was tempting to choose another all-round SG like say Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade, but for me it was more important to fill a need on the team, which is why I picked Allen. Besides, with Jordan starting, there won’t be many minutes to spare for whoever backs him up. Makes sense, right?

Ray Ray averaged as many as 26.4 games as a Sonic in 2006-2007, but I’ve decided to choose the version of him from a year earlier, 2005-2006, when he nailed a then-NBA all-time record 269 three-pointers in single season at 41.2% and shot 90.3% from the foul line. He also averaged 25.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists, which isn’t too bad either.

PS: It would have been awesome to pick new single-season three-point leader Steph Curry, but he hasn’t earned his stripes yet.

SF Scottie Pippen (1991-1992)

Scottie was not just Jordan’s sidekick — he was a bona fide superstar and the second best player in the league during many of those Jordan years. With his 6’7″ frame and orangutan arms, Pippen was not only a superb all-round offensive player but was also arguably the best lock down wing defender of all time.

Since Bird is not known for his defense, Pippen can easily step in to suffocate the opposing team’s best offensive player from point guard to small forward. He can also play point forward, a position he played so well in facilitating Bulls’ offense during its best years. Can you imagine Pippen, Jordan and LeBron playing together? The ball handler probably wouldn’t even be able to get the ball past half court.

The Pippen I chose for my team was the one from the Bulls’ second championship season in 1991-1992, the year he really stepped into his own by averaging 21 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7 assists to go with 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting 50.6% from the field and 76% from the line (one of his better years). He was so good at the Barcelona Olympics after that Jordan apparently raved on about him to Phil Jackson upon their return.

PF Tim Duncan (2001-2002)

As good as LeBron is, my dream team still needs a fundamental post player with enough height and length to guard the taller power forwards. That justified my decision to pick the Big Fundamental himself, Tim Duncan, who is not flashy but delivers in every way at both ends of the floor. He has great height at 6’11” and the requisite foot speed to handle any power forward on the defensive end, and has a stellar array of post moves and that reliable 15-foot bank shot to allow him to score on anybody. His rebounding and shot blocking are also masterful. Just the most reliable player you could hope for.

I’m going with the 2001-2002 MVP Duncan that averaged a career high 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.5 blocks per game while shooting nearly 51% from the field and 80% from the line (where he has tended to struggle at times in his career). He also recorded a PER of 27 that year, the second best in his career by just a shade.

C Shaquille O’Neal (1999-2000)

To me, there is no question that Shaq is the most dominant physical specimen to ever play in the NBA. Maybe he didn’t live up to his full potential, but at 7’1″ and 325 lbs, with superhuman strength and speed and agility never before seen in a player of this size, I just can’t leave Shaq off my team — especially not after watching him dismantle my Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals.

One-on-one, there is no player in league history that can stop Shaq when he gets close to the basket. Too much power, too much strength, too much ferocity. Defensively, he has been criticized, but in the prime of his career just his presence was enough to make guys shoot over the backboard. You may not know this, but Shaq is seventh on the NBA’s all-time shot blocker list.

No doubt, Shaq’s best year was the year he won his first title with the Lakers, 1999-2000, when he averaged a league-leading 29.7 points, 13 rebounds 3.8 assists and 3 blocks on 57.4% shooting. Against opponents without a physically dominant defensive big, Shaq will have a field day and demand double and triple teams, which would open up the court for everyone else.

C Kareem Abdul Jabbar (1971-1972)

After choosing 10 players, the last two selections are really wildcards who can provide that extra something the team could use. With that in mind, my 11th pick is the NBA’s all-time scorer and third all-time rebounder, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the 7’2″ giant (who is reportedly actually 7’3″) with the most unstoppable shot in all of basketball — the sky hook.

If you need a basket in the post, your best bet is Kareem, especially as he is also a relatively decent free throw shooter at the center position. So if opponents are employing the Hack-a-Shaq and Hakeem can’t get it going for whatever reason, the Abdul will step up and get you buckets.

Lots of years to choose from for the man formerly known as Lew Alcindor, but a good bet is 1971-1972, when he averaged a ridiculous 34.8 points, 16.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists while shooting 57.4% from the field and 69% from the line (one of his weaker years, admittedly). They didn’t have block stats back then, but it’s a good bet that he averaged at least 3-4 blocks per game.

PS: I managed to catch the final year or two of Kareem’s career, so he barely squeezed under my eligibility requirements.

PF Dirk Nowitzki (2010-2011 playoffs)

Probably the hardest to pick: the 12th and final member of the team. I thought long and hard about what this team needed. Was it more shooting? Was it more size? In the end, I concluded that what my team was still missing was a stretch four. Someone with size who can consistently hit long range shots and free throws. And in that regard, there is no one better than the Diggler.

Despite being a 7-footer, Dirk is one of the best shooters in league history, a rare member of the 50-40-90 club. Dirk adds a third deadly outside threat to Bird and Ray Allen, and when he is on his game like he was in the 2011 playoffs, he just might be the most offensively unstoppable power forward on this team.

The inclusion of Dirk gives more room for the centers on this team to operate, and it forces opponents to pick their poison — give single coverage to Hakeem/Shaq/Kareem or give Dirk open jumpers all night long?

This is cheating a little bit, but I am going with the Dirk from the 2010-2011 playoffs, where he averaged 27.7 points and 8.1 rebounds. He had better statistical seasons and playoff runs, but anyone who saw him in those playoffs has got to come to the same conclusion because that Nowtizki was just ridirkulous.

Selection justification

Some controversial decisions, perhaps, but I am happy with my selections in the end. With this squad of 12, my team can handle any opponent and be ready to take on any situation.

If you want size, keep my starting lineup but replace Hakeem (whom some say was really only 6’10” or 6’11” at most) with Shaq or Kareem. Or if you want to go super big, shift Hakeem to PF (which he has played before during earlier stages of his career) or insert Duncan or Dirk at PF off the bench.

If you want speedy small ball, relatively speaking, you can put together a lineup of Isiah, Jordan, Scottie, LeBron and Hakeem, or if you want, insert Ray Allen and put LeBron at center.

If you want defense, how about Scottie on the point, Jordan, LeBron, Duncan and Hakeem? If you want to simply overpower opponents, go with Magic/Bird, Jordan, LeBron, Duncan and Shaq.

For an offensive outburst, you can go with either Magic/Isiah, Jordan, LeBron, Dirk and Kareem. For a shooting clinic, the perfect lineup would be Jordan at the point (which he was actually successful at when he did play there), Allen, Bird, Dirk and Kareem. It wouldn’t be fair.

Missing the Cut

Unfortunately, a bunch of great players had to miss the cut and, truth be told, I’m still not sure I made the right decision to exclude some of them. Nonetheless, here are my reasons.

PG John Stockton (1989-90: 17.2 points, 14.5 assists)

The NBA’s all-time assist leader would have been a fine addition to the team. He is quick and tough and can shoot the ball well, but like I said before, Isiah is just better.

PG Steve Nash (2006-2007: 18.6 points, 11.6 assists)

The two-time MVP, when at his best, could control the game like few point guards ever could. And he is one of the best shooters in NBA history. But Nash’s lack of defense and athleticism negates a lot of his positives, and with Magic already in the team I needed someone with more explosiveness to back him up.

PG Jason Kidd (2002-2003: 18.7 points, 8.9 assists, 6.3 rebounds)

At his prime, Kidd was the best all-round PG in the league by far and was a triple-double waiting to happen every night. He also had excellent size and was a sound defender, which makes his absence that much more difficult. But still, Isiah had that extra gear of quickness and explosiveness, which is why I picked him over Kidd in the end.

PG Chris Paul (2008-2009: 22.8 points, 11 assists, 5.5 rebounds)

Another tough omission because Paul has not completed writing his legacy yet, but he’s already going to be regarded as a top PG in NBA history for the way he controls the game with his deft passing and scoring. However, being torched by Tony Parker on a regular basis and his lack of success in the postseason sets him back somewhat. But dang, check out his stat line from 2008-2009.

PG Gary Payton (1999-2000: 24.2 points, 8.9 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.7 steals)

The Glove is one of the most underrated point guards of all time, and I was dying to find a spot for him on the team. He would have been the best defensive point guard of the lot, and his all-round game would have been a perfect complement to Jordan in the back court. I still went with Isiah in the end because of his quickness, but Payton was close to making it. If I had chosen three injury reserves to fill a 15-man roster he probably would have made it.

SG Kobe Bryant (2005-2006: 35.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists)

If I’m being honest, the Black Mamba deserves a spot on the team because he is the closest thing to Jordan we’ve ever seen. But since Jordan is already on the team and he is better than Kobe in just about every way, no matter how slim the margin, it makes it hard for me to justify putting Kobe on the team so he could spot Jordan for a few minutes here and there. Instead, I thought it would be better to give those minutes to someone who could provide a different skill set, like Ray Allen. Yes, I know Jordan has never scored 81 points in a game or hit 12 threes in a game, but Kobe is more of a streaky volume shooter, and that’s not really a good thing for a loaded team like this.

SG Reggie Miller (1989-1990: 24.6 points, 51.4% FG, 41.4% 3P)

It hurts to not be able to put Reggie on my dream team, but even I have to admit that Ray Allen is the right choice. If this was just one shot, or one quarter, or one game, I might go with Reggie, but if you’re looking at consistency in a fantasy team environment then you’d have to go with Ray Ray. It would have been great to have both guys on the wing with someone like Isiah and Shaq on the pick and roll, but alas, it’s not meant to be.

SF Kevin Durant (2012-2013: 28.1 points, 8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 51% FG, 41.6% 3P, 90.5% FT)

KD missed out on the scoring title last year to Carmelo Anthony, but it’s unheard of for the league’s second leading scorer to make the 50-40-90 club. As good of an offensive player Melo is with his unstoppable scoring moves, I’d go with the dynamic Durant any day when it comes to getting buckets. That said, on a team with as many dominant scorers as this one, Durant’s importance takes a dive. If he were a better defender and passer then maybe he could eke out a spot on the bench, but as of now he misses the cut.

PF Charles Barkley (1992-1993: 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists)

I was really tempted to add Sir Charles to the team, not just for the laughs but also because he is one of the most unstoppable scoring and rebounding power forwards ever. Don’t forget, he was the leading scorer on the 1992 Dream Team, and even those who said Jordan was the top dog admitted that Barkley wasn’t far behind. The main reason I went with Duncan over Barkley was height and defense, especially as Barkley was generously listed at 6’6″. The team already had enough scoring prowess so I had to let Sir Charles go, unfortunately. This was a similar reason for me skipping on Karl Malone, though if it were between Barkley and Malone I’d go with Barkley.

PF Kevin Garnett (2003-2004: 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5 assists, 29.4 PER)

Picking Garnett over Duncan wouldn’t have been a terrible choice, particularly now that I’ve seen the numbers from KG”s 2003-2004 MVP campaign. In fact, I almost wish I had picked Garnett over Dirk for the final roster spot as the stretch four, given he is a better rebounder and passer and a much better defender. In the end I went with my gut: while KG’s mid-range jumper is solid, Dirk’s is downright money and he can step out to the three-point line as well. Still, it was probably the toughest choice I had to make in picking the reserves.

Recap

Man, that was an epic post. To recap, my fantasy dream team members are:

Starters: Magic, Jordan, Bird, LeBron, Hakeem

Reserves: Isiah, Ray Allen, Pippen, Duncan, Shaq, Kareem, Dirk

Looks good on paper and in my mind — but how does it compare to yours?