Now I’m no Bob Ryan, and I haven’t been around that long. Even so, I’d like to try to create a more modern team with players who I would put together from my time as a fan – Mid-1980s to today. I’m not just thinking of a list of who the best players were or even of who the best players were by position. I’m thinking of line-ups, style of play, match-ups, and on the court synergies. To that end, I’m going to look at an 8 Man Rotation first and then consider backups.
8 Man Rotation
PG Magic Johnson – Magic Johnson is by far the best point guard I’ve ever seen, and that’s not giving him enough credit. He is quite possibly the most effective offensive player I can remember. Magic was a perpetual mismatch. Nobody ever really covered him effectively one on one. He pushed a fast break as well as any player ever has, and when the game slowed, he could back his man down and create offense for the whole team. He was a great entry passer, hit the wing in stride, and he had great physical strength to make full-court passes. With his combination of size and ball-handling, he could look and pass over the defense without losing control of the ball to smaller defenders. He was also one of the best rebounding guards of all time and could take the ball from the paint to paint incredibly well. He controlled the pace of the game completely. Magic was a great leader who kept everyone enthused and on the same page, and he had that point guard sixth sense that let him know what player needed a touch when. My all-time offense has to begin with Magic dishing the ball.
SG Michael Jordan – The rest of the offense needs to fit Magic to be most effective. They need to run. Michael Jordan is the premier slashing scorer of all time. He gets down the floor and gets up to the rim with tremendous explosion. He is also a strong catch and shoot player who moves into open spaces extremely well, and he cuts to the rim and goes backdoor as well as anyone. He can create his own shot from anywhere on the court, and he is possibly the best high post scorer of all time. He is a great playmaker in his own right and is highly versatile. He can defend three positions at an extremely high level and allows Magic to cover the lesser of the two opposing guards and focus on defensive rebounding. He’s also a great leader in practice and can keep a team focused and intense. Put the ball in his hands at the end of the game if you want to win. It works.
SF Larry Bird – This team needs a shooter, somebody to trail on the break and space the court for the slashers and post scorers in the half court set. Larry is a three time 3-Point shoot out champ and the only 25 point per game scorer to ever shoot 50% from the field, 40% from 3, and 90% from the free throw line in the same season. He did it twice. He’s a great defensive rebounder, and one of the best outlet passers ever. In fact he’s one of the best passers ever, period. Defensively he’s not great one on one, but he’s comfortable in the paint or on the wing, and he played disciplined team defense with great poise and anticipation and made a number of all-defensive second teams. He’s another hugely versatile player, capable of scoring inside and out and making big plays in a multitude of ways. With Larry and Michael at the wings, clutch scoring at the end of games is as good as it gets. Bird was a different type of leader from Michael or Magic. He made sure that everyone was in position on all plays like a coach on the floor and really held his teammates accountable so that the Celtics functioned like a machine.
PF LeBron James – I know he’s played his whole career at the 3, but this kid is 6′ 10″, 270+ pounds, and he can play any position on the court. He’s so quick, so strong, so explosive that he can defend anyone. His only weakness is shooting and fighting over screens. Putting him at the 4 takes that pressure away. No he’s not a great post scorer, but Magic, Michael, Larry, and our center are. LeBron will team with MJ as the other defensive stopper on the team a la Scottie Pippen. He’s another player who can go end to end in the blink of an eye and finish the break with authority, a perfect fit with Magic. Like Michael he’s capable of being the primary playmaker or slashing to the rim from the wings. Nobody finishes through contact like LeBron. Just picture the two of them coming at the rim from different angles with Larry or Magic throwing the backdoor lob. LeBron keeps his teammates energized and positive and believes in them, making them believe in themselves. Along with Larry, he’s one of the premier passing forwards ever.
C Hakeem Olajuwon – What does this unguardable fast-breaking offense need? The best defender I’ve ever seen. The Dream. He’s not the all-time leader in shotblocking for nothing, and he’s also top 10 in steals for a reason. Hakeem’s got the speed and reaction time this team needs to protect the rim from the smaller, quicker players who might sneak by Magic and Larry. He defended the pick and roll as well as any center could, poking the ball away, jumping the ball and recovering to defend not just his man but the whole paint. On offense he was completely unstoppable in the mid and low post. He also led the league in rebounding twice (once simultaneously leading the league in blocks which is just incredible), but he wouldn’t have to dominate the glass with such great perimeter rebounders surrounding him. Hakeem can even hit a catch and shoot jumper to 15 feet.
So that’s how the starters break down in my head. We run and run and run. The half court offense could take advantage of anything. If the guards are small, Michael and Magic destroy them in the post. If the forwards are slow, LeBron and Bird can embarrass them with their perimeter games. Bird and Michael can keep the defense honest with outside shooting (FYI Jordan shot 37% from 3 every season he averaged at least 3 attempts). Hakeem is a guy who nobody can cover one on one. They can run pick and rolls with any player combination (and the Jordan / LeBron combo is horrifyingly quick and explosive – put Larry on the wing where the extra defender needs to rotate, and that’s an impossible cover). Every starter is a great passer, and everyone plays multiple positions. The versatility is insane. The only true gunner is Jordan. Everyone else is really known for unselfish play, so keeping MJ fed would take care of itself naturally. Defensively they can press trap and recover with their great length, or switch screens, and with Hakeem in the backline and Michael and LeBron in the wings, no shot is safe from a giant swat.
F/C Tim Duncan – What can I say about Tim Duncan? He’s not the world’s best free throw shooter, but other than that, he’s basically the ideal big man. He’s got the size, post skills, shot blocking, and rebounding of an all-time great center, and mobility and shooting range of a great forward. He defends the 4 and the 5. He passes on the move better than any big man I can think of and makes the best decisions. He’s a fantastic leader who is willing to do the dirty work and give the spotlight to his teammates. He will gladly spend the game playing physical d, controlling the paint, and passing the ball out to his guards to let them get the glory and do the scoring. At the same time, he has the ability to be the number one option for a champion. Tim could play the 4 next to Hakeem or the 5 as his substitute and fit with any possible combination of other starters or subs.
G/F Kobe Bryant – Here’s another versatile, explosive wing who can play end to end, space the floor, and score from any position on the court. When he’s not asked to carry an offense single handedly, he’s a great defender at 1, 2, or 3. He can operate as a primary playmaker or away from the ball, moving well off of screens and finding open spaces. His skill level is unsurpassed, and his decision making improves every year. He can back up Michael and Larry on the wings and be the primary scorer for the second team. Kobe has a great understanding of strategy and does a great job keeping on his teammates and making sure everyone knows their responsibilities at both ends. He’d be the biggest threat to implode on this team as a reserve who might not like being a reserve, but he’s also a great historian and lover of the game who idolizes Jordan’s game and calls Magic his favorite player. I think he would push the starters without losing his composure.
PG John Stockton – I considered Kevin Garnett for this spot for the defense and rebounding, but I think we need another full-court point guard and another great shooter to help maintain spacing for all our slashers. John is another completely selfless player who makes all the right decisions when he’s on the floor. He can push the pace with great full court look-ahead passes and drop offs when he gets into the paint. He takes smart shots and makes them; he led the league in true shooting percentage 3 times and offensive rating 4 times. He is a gritty defender who pressures the ball and strips bigs with such success that he’s the all-time leader in steals. He sets excellent screens and makes great cuts, a huge skill considering the quality of passers at every position on this team. In the half court, he is the pick and roll king, and with LeBron and Duncan filling in for Malone, he stands to hold onto that throne. He is not versatile as a player who can be moved to multiple positions or cover multiple positions, but his skillset is so complete that he can play alongside Magic as a shooter and allow Magic to move to forward as a primary creator.
That’s my rotation. If I went for 12 guys, I guess I’d add a defensive point guard like Gary Payton, a versatile defensive forward like Kevin Garnett, and David Robinson, but I’m not sure how I’d find minutes for them. There aren’t even enough minutes to go around for 8 players.
The one player from the last 25 years who I didn’t take and I think could really make me pay for it is Shaquille O’Neal. I didn’t take Shaq because I would have had to build around him. His game requires that he be the featured scorer in order to maximize his talent. He’s a great, willing passer, but if he’s not getting the ball in the deep post most of the time, he’s not effective. I feel that would pull some of the versatility out of the squad. Plus Shaq has two major weaknesses in his game. He shoots free throws like his hands are asleep, and he defends the pick and roll like the rest of him is asleep. BUT, Shaq is a phenom who demands a double team more regularly than any other player I’ve seen, and that alone means his teammates are always open, and his teams are often contenders.
Looking at the 8 man squad, it’s interesting how evenly distributed the generations are. Larry, Magic, Michael, and Hakeem represent the latter half of the ’80s. Michael, Hakeem, and Stockton represent the ’90s. Timmy, Kobe, and Bron represent the ’00s. I think that’s a good thing, though it’s not on purpose. The salient features of the team are versatility, unselfishness, passing skills, leadership, and clutch play. Those traits seem to be universal among great players of any era.
That’s my best attempt at a dream team playing rotation using players I’ve seen extensively. I think they could score with anyone, defend like demons, and would have the attention to detail and passion to win against anybody. Or did I miss something? Is there a combination out there that could take them apart? It’s open for debate.