Right now, as the NBA Labor nonsense and mishigas finally comes to an end, I can’t help but think of hoops history. And when that happens, almost immediately, I can’t help but think of one thing: If we took the greatest players from throughout NBA history at the absolute apex of their primes, created teams, and had them play a 3-game series for a million dollars who would win? So, in the absence of an actual NBA season with actual NBA games to watch, there was truly only one way to go. Make my dream game happen. But before I do that, I’m going to set the ground rules because after all, it’s not really a good game if we don’t have rules.
Rule #1: The two teams are pre-1981 and post-1981. Why 1981? A couple of reasons. It’s a big enough sample size that we can reasonably create a situation where there’s a good enough pool of talent to pick from. Secondly, I was born in 1981 so I’m a little biased.
Rule #2: We’re actually building this like a team, with a bench and everything. Also, in an idea I shamelessly am stealing from Bill Simmons, we’re taking our team members at their very best season. And in the case of players that overlap both eras, their best season will indicate which team they end up on.
First, before we get any further, the ancillary stuff. We need an arena to hold this, and announcers to announce the game.
The arena first is important. As a fan who has been to more than a few arenas in my life and watched games from every single NBA arena whether it be on Hardwood Classics or during actual NBA games, I know the kind of arena that we need. It can’t be a soulless empty pit like American Airlines Arena in Miami where they can’t even sell out playoff games. The arena we need to have is an arena where one legendary performance after another happened, and where every member of the audience knows hoops inside and out. We’re going to be playing at a super-high level here, and I think it’s only fair that we play in front of the smartest and best crowd that we can.
So where are we playing you ask? Simple. For my money, the absolute best arena to play basketball that ever existed. The Boston Garden.
Next, we’re putting this sucker on TV. All proceeds past the cost of paying our technical people is going to go to the NBPA Retired Player’s Association. But where to put it you ask? We’re not going to give ESPN the thing, because they’re likely to mess it up. The best answer is this:
As far as the announcers, Marv Albert and Hubie Brown. Again this game is going to be played at the highest level possible. What we need is announcers who can understand that high level, and tell us what we’re not seeing.
Now then, to the fun part: the teams.
We’ll do the pre-1981 team first. Keep in mind, this team’s cutoff date is the start of the 1981 season.
For my money, the most important player on any basketball team is and has always been the point guard. He’s the guy who has the ball in his hands, and controls the pace of the game so that his guys can do what they do best. He knows where his guys don’t want the ball, and how to make them successful.
Now, initially I was going to put down Oscar’s triple double season in ’61-’62 as his ultimate year. but as I thought about it further I realized that the ’61-’62 version of Oscar wasn’t going to fit on this team. Not because it wasn’t impressive as a statistical thing, but rather, it’s an indicator of just how much better he was than the rest of his teammates. That’s great over the course of an 82-game NBA season, but that’s not what he needed to do here.
Without spoiling my picks the rest of the way, I’m pretty sure I’ve given Oscar some pretty good talent to play with so I don’t want a guy on the team who feels like he has to dominate the ball to the degree Oscar did. So I searched his basketball reference page & found this masterpiece of a year: his 1964 season. he won the MVP while averaging 31 PPG, just under 10 rebounds, and 11 assists a game while also shooting 83 percent from the line. It, without doubt, is on the short list of the greatest single-season performance by a point guard ever. So that is why ’64 Oscar Robertson is our starting point guard.
But who joins Oscar in the back court? That’s another easy one too. Look, I love the work of Sam Jones, Earl Monroe, and David Thompson. Plus the idea of Oscar freelancing with Pete Maravich is, frankly, the kind of fun you should charge for. But to my way of thinking there’s really only one right answer.
While other 2-guards from this era have more talent, have games that are more friendly for television and florid remembrances by their peers, but truthfully there are very few guards who were as fundamentally perfect as Jerry West. Jumper? You could pour syrup on it and serve it for breakfast. You did not foul Jerry West in the last 2 minutes of a tight game, because make no mistake he was going to drain those clutch free throws. He was an elite defensive guard, even though for reasons no one has explained to me the NBA didn’t keep steals until he was near the end of his career. He could literally do everything. In fact, it was the knowledge that he would make just about every big shot that earned him the nickname Mr. Clutch. Bill Russell, maybe the single greatest winner basketball has ever known, called his 53 and 10 in game 1 of the ’69 Finals the “greatest clutch performance ever against the Celtics”. Let me say again, a 53-10 against the ’69 Celtics? There’s only one thing to say to that.
But when I went back through the crates for his best year, I didn’t go with the 1969 season. In fact, as I looked through everything, it’s stunning how many years he put together that would be the envy of shooting guards who laced up sneakers long after he was done. But I went and looked anyway. The 1966 season was unbelievable. 31 points a game even, 7 assists a game, and led the league in free throws made while shooting an astonishing 86% from the line. Good lord. That’s a year.
’67 Jerry West joins ’64 Oscar Robertson in our back court. Two elite defensive guards, two beautiful scorers, and two guys who could handle the ball and be relied upon to make clutch free throws.
But who’s the front court? Unlike our guards, we have a whole boatload of guys to go with here. But as we look closer, there’s really only one answer. Only one guy was so good, so much better than his peers than to make it so that he can’t start for this game would be a crime.
Look, Elgin Baylor was doing things that people not just hadn’t seen, but couldn’t even imagine comprehending up to that point. For a point of reference, because sometimes it’s difficult to imagine what the entirety of the Baylor experience would have been like if you weren’t there, imagine if a dude came in right out of college and was hitting three’s from the 8th row of the crowd or dunking from half court on the regular. That’s just how ridiculous this whole thing was at the time it as happening.
But sadly, Elgin’s explosive innovation has largely been consigned to the mists of history save some good work like. A good part of this is because Baylor’s best work has been built upon to the point that it’s difficult to truly understand what Baylor was actually doing. But it does need to be understood. Because it’s a kind of brilliance that can only be improved on. It can’t be recreated, by anyone.
And the best example of this is his 1961 season where he put together this jaw-dropping year: 35 ppg, 20 rebounds, with 5 assists a game. I can’t properly explain what his career would have looked like. I’d love to try. But I can’t do it. But that 1961 season is a good place to start.
Now then to our big men. This task should be easy. I mean it’s not like there’s a load of quality candidates here.
I mean goodness gracious. Imagine picking from a list that includes prime seasons from Walton, Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Pettit, Malone, and Mikan just to name a few. That’s a pretty awesome list of post players isn’t it? Every one a member of the Hall of Fame, and every single one the envy of coaches throughout the league even now. Just imagine if you got Erik Spoelstra in a room and told him, “Yo, Erik, you could have Moses Malone on your front line right now. You want it?” He’d run backwards to find him.
But who can I put on the front line of this pre-1981 team? the power forward spot is pretty much locked down. Who did I go with you ask? The answer is simple. The best way to describe him is a Bugatti Veyron during a time in the NBA when everyone else was a Volkswagen Golf.
Simply put, he was the Celtics. When you thought of that hegemonic dynasty, that “we will win, and you will lose, and there’s nothing you can do about it” aesthetic was embodied in Russell. His superior rebounding and defensive transcendence was part of it. But what was bigger was the knowledge from his teammates, his friends, that he cared only about them. He was going to hang massive, unbelievable, rebounding numbers because he knew that’s what his team needed. And that’s why when I picked his best year, it was so hard because you have to change the way in which you evaluate the greatness of a player. Russell never could have become the offensive force of nature that Wilt was, but he did things his own way.
So, after much research, the best year I came up with was 1965. It is as close to the template Russell year as one can get. He led the league in total rebounds, rebounds per game, total minutes played, and was in the top 5 in minutes per game and assists per game. Oh, and he was 1st-team All-NBA, won the MVP, and won the Championship in a 7-game series over the Lakers. The West and Baylor Lakers.
Speaking of the Lakers, now we get to the center position. I could have gone so many ways with this. I could have given you Wilt Chamberlain. I could have even given you the original Laker, George Mikan. But I couldn’t do it. As hard as I wanted to, I just couldn’t accept it. I needed to have a sure thing.
The Captain. The NBA’s all-time scoring leader. The man with, bar none, the most unguardable shot ever. And yet he wasn’t just a big man who scored and did nothing else. He actually was an underrated rebounder and defender until we got to the point where we were basically carbon-dating him in the 80’s.
And just as a side note, from the time Oscar left him in Milwaukee until he found Magic in LA, it’s not as though Kareem was balling for teams that were even the equivalent of what he was doing at UCLA. So considering that let me give you his best year, and the year that allows him to fit in this team. 1976. He won the MVP this year, was 2nd team all-defense, and 1st-team all-NBA.
Numbers? Ok. Here are his numbers. 27 points a game, with 16 rebounds a game, 5 assists a game, and 4 blocks. He led the league in rebounds and blocks both total and per game, and was 2nd in the league in scoring. He also shot 53 percent from the floor and 70 percent from the line. It’s a year you can be proud of. A year any center can be proud of.
Now, I’m not going to put down the benches for both this team and the post-81 team in their respective articles. Not because I don’t know what they are, but because quite frankly, this is already a bear of a piece and I don’t want to distract you.
Thank you for reading this in advance and commenting. I appreciate it and I hope I left you entertained.