If They Were All in Their Primes…
July 8, 2014 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
Who was the best team of all-time?
It's a question that in the major U.S. pro sports seldom generates much discussion, simply because there's not a wide range of disagreement. In baseball, most knowledgeable fans point to the '27 Yankees. Oh sure, you'll get some mentions for '39 and '98, or maybe the Big Red Machine, but no one's going to argue too hard against '27. In the NFL, take your pick of the '72 Dolphins or '85 Bears. Most fans are behind one of those two. In the NBA, it's widely accepted that the 1995-96 Bulls were the best ever, end of story.
Several years ago, the Sports Central Message Boards played host to a brief, but lively and interesting discussion: who would be the best NBA team of all-time ... if everyone on the team was in his prime?
I don't presume to provide a definitive answer, but here are 12 contenders. I'm omitting the Celtics' Bill Russell Dynasty, because most of those guys really did play together in their primes, and they won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons. Here are some teams that get a more obvious boost from the timeline adjustment:
1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers
69-13 (.841), 12-3 playoffs, 4-1 Finals
The Lakers were a dominant team. They had two of the top three in NBA MVP voting (point guard Jerry West and center Wilt Chamberlain). Chamberlain led the league in rebounds, West finished second in assists, and two-guard Gail Goodrich led the team in scoring. The Lakers dominated the league and breezed to a championship. But this team could have been even better. Wilt was 35, and West 33. Hall of Fame forward Elgin Baylor only played nine games. How good would Los Angeles have been with a young Wilt Chamberlain and a healthy Elgin Baylor?
Starting five: Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Elgin Baylor, Happy Hairston, Wilt Chamberlain
Also on the team: Pat Riley
1984-85 Philadelphia 76ers
58-24 (.707), 8-5 playoffs, lost to Celtics
Two years removed from their Fo' Fi' Fo' championship run, the Sixers featured aging stars like 35-year-old Julius Erving and 11th-year veteran Moses Malone. They were still fine players: Dr. J averaged 20 points a game, while Malone averaged 24.6 with 13 rebounds. But neither was the player he had been a few years earlier, and a rookie forward — not yet round, but already a mound of rebound — hadn't yet come into his own. Take them all in their best years, and this team might have really lived up to Malone's prediction of three straight sweeps.
Starting five: Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Moses Malone
Also on the team: Clint Richardson
1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
65-17 (.793), 15-3 playoffs, 4-2 Finals
This was a sensational team. Magic Johnson won his first MVP award, the Lakers won nearly 80% of their games, they swept two of their three playoff series, and they convincingly beat Larry Bird's Celtics in the NBA Finals. But it's easy to see a way in which this great team could have been even greater. Starting center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 39 years old. He averaged 17.5 points and 6.7 rebounds. In the 1971-72 season, Kareem averaged 35 ppg, 16.6 rpg. The Lakers were dominant with a center who was 15 years past his prime. With the young Kareem, they would have been utterly untouchable.
Starting five: Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper, James Worthy, A.C. Green, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Also on the team: Kurt Rambis
Mychal Thompson also joined the Lakers as part of a mid-season trade from the Spurs. A 1981-82 Thompson would make this roster even more devastating.
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs
60-22 (.732), 16-8 playoffs, 4-2 Finals
This team had the dynasty core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, but it also had David Robinson. Ginobili was a rookie, Parker hadn't peaked yet, and Robinson was clearly past his prime. Add those four to Stephen Jackson and Malik Rose, plus Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry (whose prime may well have been in college, but still counts), and everyone else from that incredibly deep team (11 players with 10+ minutes per game), and you've got a group that could probably compete with any team in history.
Starting five: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan, David Robinson
Also on the team: Steve Kerr
2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers
56-26 (.683), 13-9 playoffs, 1-4 Finals, lost to Pistons
The last gasp of the Shaq-and-Kobe mini-dynasty. Following a three-peat from 1999-2002, the Lakers loaded up for one more run before Shaq went to Miami, coach Phil Jackson left the team, and the Lakers fell apart. The '04 Lakers lost to Detroit in the Finals, but if everyone on the team had been in his prime, it would have been a sweep the other way. Note the Glove and the Mailman, added to the core of a team that had won three straight titles without them.
Starting five: Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Bryon Russell, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal
Also on the team: Horace Grant
2005-06 Miami Heat
52-30 (.634), 16-7 playoffs, 4-2 Finals
A championship team loaded with players past their primes. Dwyane Wade was in his third season and coming into his own, but Shaquille O'Neal was 34, Alonzo Mourning was 36, and Gary Payton was nearly 38. The Heat won a championship with a roster full of stars, but if you put Wade in a time machine and sent him back to 1999 with Shaq, 'Zo, and Payton, they might have won 72 games instead of 52.
Starting five: Gary Payton, Dwyane Wade, Antoine Walker, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal
Also on the team: Jason Williams
I know that's two centers, but if you had Zo and Shaq in their primes, you'd find a way to put them both on the floor. The 2003-04 Lakers and 2005-06 Heat have Payton and O'Neal in common. It's interesting to compare the remaining talent and try to figure out who's ahead. I guess I lean towards Los Angeles, but it's close.
2007-08 Boston Celtics
66-16 (.805), 16-10 playoffs, 4-2 Finals
The team indirectly to blame for The Decision, the '08 Celtics featured 30-somethings Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Sam Cassell, P.J. Brown, James Posey, and Scot Pollard. The Celtics won a championship, but Allen and Garnett had peaked five years earlier. The in-their-primes treatment also gives Boston an incredibly strong and deep bench. Even without a time machine, this team put together a trio of established superstars and convinced LeBron James that he couldn't win a title in Cleveland, sending him and his talents to South Beach.
Starting five: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, P.J. Brown
Also on the team: Sam Cassell
2011-12 Dallas Mavericks
36-30 (.545), 0-4 playoffs, lost to Thunder
This team was not particularly successful, but it followed on the heels of the Mavs' 2011 championship team, and this year's roster included Vince Carter and Lamar Odom. The 2011-12 Mavericks had eight players with over a decade in the NBA, including 35-year-old Carter and 39-year-old Jason Kidd. Take those two at age 25, on a team with Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion, and you've got a monster.
Starting five: Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Brendan Haywood
Also on the team: Lamar Odom
2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers
45-37 (.549), 0-4 playoffs, lost to Spurs
This is the era of superteams, with great players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh courting supporters based as much on the perceived likelihood of a championship as on any other factor. The 2012-13 Lakers added Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to their existing roster, a team that had won the Pacific Division the year before. But Nash was 38, and Howard never showed the same level of play that made him a perennial MVP candidate in Orlando. With a young Nash and Kobe, and Howard at his best, this superteam really would have been super.
Starting five: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Also on the team: Antawn Jamison
2012-13 Miami Heat
66-16 (.805), 16-7 playoffs, 4-3 Finals
This team doesn't need any more help. Many fans were disappointed by the Heat's success, but Miami could have been even better with a little help from Father Time. Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade were starting to slow down a little, but Game 6 hero Ray Allen was almost 38, and had slowed down a lot. Juwan Howard turned 40 during the season, and only played 51 minutes, but 10 years earlier, he had routinely averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds.
Starting five: Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh
Also on the team: Juwan Howard