The best starting 5 of all time – my picks
Since it’s a long summer, I thought I’d use an entry on my current choice for the best starting lineup I can possibly come up with out of all players in history. If you like visiting basketball message boards, this type of exercise is typically our 2nd favorite thing to do after ranking the “All Time List” numerically.
Now, my choices might surprise you. You may have seen a lot of all time starting lineups with simply the best player of all time at each position – A common list has Magic Johnson at PG, Michael Jordan at SG, Larry Bird at SF, Tim Duncan at PF and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at C. Since there is no way to actually test this, I’m not one to definitively say they’re wrong. But I believe they are. Most players used to having the ball the most on their team offensively, will find themselves far less effective when they have it the 4th or 5th most, roles typically reserved for either spot up shooters or putback scores. The 2011 Heat and their surprisingly stoppable offense were a great example of star redundancy at work. Teams were able to help off whomever of Lebron and Wade didn’t have the ball, bringing those defenders into the paint to guard against the ballhander’s penetration. Ultimately what makes the most effective offenses isn’t just having the most talented on ball players. It’s creating the most efficient shots – Which is a synergy of on ball creation and off ball oppurtunism. If you have only the former, I believe you may have a great offense, but not the best you can make. A little secret us basketball statistical nerds now know is that open 3 shots or put back baskets are often the best shot anyone will take in the game. A JJ Redick being left open from 3 or Tyson Chandler having an open lane to the basket is actually a superior shot by efficiency than a Michael Jordan turnaround midrange jumper or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skyhook, despite the latter having the noteriety. Naturally stars are often completley responsible for the former oppurtunist points as a part of their value, and unstoppable self created shots like the MJ turnaround or Kareem skyhook often open up these even better shots – But the point remains, creating a team of stars without those oppurtunist shots is robbing your team of efficient shots.
Therefore, here is my all time starting lineup:
The 1st player I take, is Michael Jordan. I consider Jordan the “Greatest of All Time”. He’s the best offensive SG ever, arguably the best defensive SG, and can play both on and off the ball. He’s also the most decorated clutch player in NBA history which is what you want in a hypothetical best ever tournament.
Now that I have Jordan, how do I surround him? I know exactly the PG I want: John Stockton. Stockton is a perfect compliment to Jordan. Like an improved version of Steve Kerr, Stockton shoots one of the best 3P%s in the history of PGs, making him an ideal spot up player beside Jordan and other stars. Stockton spotting up for 3s at well over 40% is arguably the best shot I will have on my team other than open scores at the rim. Furthermore, Stockton is a strong defender with superb hands and ball stealing ability. He can also create offense in the pick and roll on his own if you want, taking Jordan off the ball and creating a more unpredictable offense.
Beside the Stockton, Jordan backcourt, a common choice is to slot Scottie Pippen at SF beside Jordan. I’m not convinced. Despite their legendary success, I do think Jordan and Pippen had redundancies, which partly explains how the Bulls did so well with Jordan’s absence in 94. Like the inverse version of the 2011 Heat, Jordan’s absence allowed Pippen’s impact on the wing to rise, preventing a much larger drop in the standings. More importantly, what I want at SF is another deadly 3pt shooter. Teams with two purely spot up 3pt shooters tend to do very, very well offensively – The floor spacing they bring is incredibly valuable, plus the 3pt shot they give is a very dangerous option anyways. The more dangerous a team’s options on offense, the better they will generally be. If I want a pure 3pt shooter at SF, I can go a few directions. I can go with pure offense in a Glen Rice, Peja Stojakovic, Chris Mullin, Danny Granger, type, I can go with Bruce Bowen who is as strong a defender as you’d want there but who can’t do anything but hit 3s. Or you can go with my choice: Shane Battier. Wait, Shane… Battier? Let me explain. In his best 3pt shooting season he hits at 42% on 4.5 attempts a game, as dangerous a season from beyond the arc as anyong but the Rice and Peja’s for SFs. He’s a great defender with hands like Stockton’s, a smart passer, and extremely willing to be a 5th wheel. Remember, 5th options hardly touch the ball for most than a second. Battier doesn’t have on ball creation abililty, and I don’t want him playing on ball. All I want is the deadly 40-50% 3pt shots, in the few shots a game he gets in this lineup. With Stockton and Battier on the floor, double teaming any of my players is bad news for the opposition since with 1 pass or 2, the ball can find them waiting for an open shot, just as it always seemed to find the 2011 Mavericks’ open shooters.
What about the frontcourt? Clearly, I’m going to need strong interior defense. What I’m thinking of at the C position is someone who can do what Tyson Chandler did on the 2011 Mavericks, but at an even greater level. What I mean is that aside from giving me great defense, someone who can score at an extreme high efficiency whenever I give them clean up baskets at the rim. The best version of Tyson Chandler ever is an obvious name to me: Dwight Howard. I know that I can count on 8-10 FGA a game at an incredible efficiency from Dwight in this game. He already scores at an incredible effiicency, but playing off Jordan? He could shoot 70% from the field. My biggest concerns with him here is he is questionable shooting FTs and is not a great passer, albeit the latter is not a huge issue if he’s solely a finisher here. Is there someone I could plug in the same role with better FTs? Perhaps David Robinson. But I’m wary of Robinson stepping up in a playoff series mentally, and he’s not as ferocious as a pure finisher as Howard. Teams are going to be picking up enough fouls playing a team like this, if they want to intentionally hack just so he’ll hit “only” 50% of free points, they can go ahead. I’ll go with my gut and take Howard in this role over everyone else.
Finally – PF. At this point, I still need someone who can take 2nd option levels of volume as a scorer and create enough to take pressure off Jordan to do so. An obvious choice for a lot of people is Kevin Garnett at PF due to his versatility. Yet when I looked at it, Garnett’s offensive contributions on this team would likely be midrange jumpshots off pick and pop plays. This seems like the weak link among offensive options on the floor behind: Michael Jordan attacking the rim, open Stockton 3, open Battier 3, Howard clean up at the rim. Midrange jumpshots are typically the worst shot in the game, at best you’re looking at 50% FG, which is far below my other options in efficiency. So I began to look for a player who could dominate at the rim and play as more of a hyper efficient oppurtunist than Garnett does. My first thought was Kevin McHale, one of the most efficient interior scorers of all time. Yet McHale has questionable passing and despite having both Jordan and Howard, I would like one more physically dominating player on my defensive rotations. The perfect fit: Karl Malone. Young Karl Malone can finish at the rim almost as well as Dwight Howard can, is a great fit playing off both Jordan and Stockton and can roll off them to the rim, while helping their penetrations by setting great screens. He’s a good enough passer to move the ball outside if defensive attention comes. Mentally he’s also always seemed more of a fit as a 2nd option, so he won’t have a problem differing to the alpha dog Jordan. Defensively, he’s an excellent fit – He doesn’t need to be a shotblocking anchor with Dwight there, just an extremely athletic and large player who can rotate as hard as anyone, and foul and cheapshot as hard as anyone to discourage offensive opponents in a way Dwight is perhaps too nice to.
So recapping, here’s my attempt at making the best starting 5 of all time, with the corresponding seasons I’m taking them in:
PG: John Stockton (1994-1995)
SG: Michael Jordan (1990-1991)
SF: Shane Battier (2006-2007)
PF: Karl Malone (1991-1992)
C: Dwight Howard (2009-2010)
I’ll admit, it’s not the sexiest team you’ve ever seen. But the fundamentals are in play. On offense you can expect a steady stream of the following: Jordan getting to and finishing at the rim (hyper efficient), Malone finishing at the rim (hyper efficient), Howard finishing at the rim (hyper efficient), Stockton open 3 (hyper efficient), Battier open 3 (hyper efficient). That’s a lot of hyper efficiency, which is really what I’m looking for. Frankly, all of those options are basically the most efficient shots you can take on a basketball court. You can’t really beat Jordan, Malone and Howard when they have the ball at the rim or a Stockton and Battier being left open from 3 for points per shot. Ideally, I don’t need to take any other shots than those, but if I do to create shots at the end of the shotclock, I still have Jordan and Karl Malone’s midrange and post games. Those aren’t bad backup plans.
Defensively, I have a physically massive Howard and Malone combo anchoring my interior defense, with the former protecting the rim and the latter stepping out to rotate on the perimeter. I have one of the most explosive perimeter defenders in Jordan and beside him Stockton and Battier who are not as physically imposing but have outstanding defensive instincts. Importantly, I believe this team forces a ton of turnovers as my 3 perimeter players have abnormally phenomenal defensive hands and instincts tipping passes. If my team picks off a pass, I can get transition baskets since Stockton, Jordan and Malone run the break extremely well. Since my team is strong at passing and has a clear set of roles and spacing between Jordan, the shooters and the big man finishers, I believe offensive turnovers should be kept low. Remember, the mid 90s Bulls were one of the greatest “turnover dynasties” ever – having the lowest offensive TOV% in the league during 4 of their 6 titles seasons, and top 4 for the other two. If Jordan could lead that team, hopefully he’d do the same here.
On the boards, I have a very strong rebounding frontcourt with Malone and Howard, and Jordan and Battier are above average and importantly, have a smart nose for the ball. I may not be as good at rebounding as a team who plays Magic, Bird, and a Duncan/Jabbar type frontcourt, but I believe I wouldn’t need it to have the best team.
That’s my team. It’s not the best offensive team you can possibly make, if you want that, substitute in Peja Stojakovic for Shane Battier and Charles Barkley for Karl Malone. It’s not the best defensive team you can make, if you want that, substitute in Gary Payton for John Stockton, Scottie Pippen for Shane Battier, Kevin Garnett for Karl Malone, and Bill Russell for Dwight Howard. But in my mind, it’s the best possible combination based not on noteriety, but my belief of efficiencies and hotspots that truly make the great teams great.