When you tune into the 2013 NBA All-Star festivities in Houston, you're witnessing one of the greatest collections of basketball players ever assembled.
The All-Star Game has always been designed to put the best of the best in action against one another—even if defense normally isn't played—and both the fans and coaches have done a fantastic job assembling talent for the latest edition.
Throughout the history of the Association, there have been some incredible groups of players gathered together to show off their skills for fans eagerly awaiting jaw-dropping highlights.
As far back as 1961, we have some serious competition for the coveted title of "Best All-Star Class Ever," which will hereby be referred to as the BASCE.
That year, the 11th time the game had been played, a number of future Hall of Famers gathered together in Syracuse, N.Y.
Led by 29 points from Bob Pettit, the Western Conference came out on top. And just look at all the legends who took part: Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Clyde Lovellette, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor for the West, among others, and Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Dolph Schayes, Tom Heinsohn, Hal Greer and Paul Arizin for the Eastern Conference.
There's no doubt that this 1961 roster was completely stacked from top to bottom in both conferences. However, I'm going to exclude it from the competition for the BASCE.
While certain players could certainly compete in the modern-day NBA, basketball was just different back then. As great as Pettit was, for example, could you imagine him making it against the physical and brutally athletic big men in today's game?
Additionally, the league just wasn't as deep.
The BASCE will only be competed for by teams that were assembled after the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. It's admittedly an entirely subjective starting point, but let's roll with it. As you'll come to see, that's almost entirely irrelevant because the All-Star classes just keep getting better and better.
I'm also going to avoid ranking teams from years too close in proximity to each other if there are only slight differences from year to year.
With those caveats in mind, how does this year's class stack up against the best?
No. 5: 1996 All-Star Class
Eastern Conference starters: Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Scottie Pippen
Eastern Conference reserves: Vin Baker, Terrell Brandon, Patrick Ewing, Juwan Howard, Reggie Miller, Alonzo Mourning, Glen Rice
Western Conference starters: Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Shawn Kemp, Jason Kidd, Hakeem Olajuwon
Western Conference reserves: Sean Elliott, Karl Malone, Dikembe Mutombo, Gary Payton, Mitch Richmond, David Robinson, John Stockton
To realize this All-Star class is fantastic, all you have to do is look at the benches. Obviously, the starters are going to be great, but look at the legendary names littered throughout the list of reserves.
In the East, you have Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller and Alonzo Mourning coming off the pine. And it's not like these guys were out of their primes in 1996 either.
Ewing was starting to decline, but still posted a 20.9 PER that season while averaging 22.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.
Reggie Miller was squarely in the midst of the best stretch during his career, and Zo was playing for the Miami Heat for the first time in his career, averaging a double-double and career highs in both assists and points.
For the West, the bench was even more stacked, although not stacked enough to help overcome the East's superior starting lineup when the game was actually played.
John Stockton, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Dikembe Mutombo and David Robinson could form a top-notch starting five for the All-Star Game—albeit a unique, oversized one—but they all failed to earn starting nods in 1996.
When you add in all the legends who were both starting and playing at the heights of their careers, it should be rather obvious why this is one of the better candidates out there for the BASCE.
No. 4: 1988 All-Star Class
Eastern Conference starters: Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins
Eastern Conference reserves: Danny Ainge, Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks, Brad Daugherty, Patrick Ewing, Kevin McHale, Doc Rivers
Western Conference starters: Alex English, Magic Johnson, Fat Lever, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon
Western Conference reserves: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mark Aguirre, James Donaldson (injury replacement), Clyde Drexler, Steve Johnson (injured) Xavier McDaniel, Alvin Robertson, James Worthy
What happens when you get three of the 10 best basketball players of all time together in the same All-Star class? You get one of the better candidates for the BASCE.
Now, what happens when all three are in the midst of some of their finest seasons? Well, that's when you check in at No. 4.
This was vintage Larry Bird, and his 1987-88 season was one of the best of his career. He joined the 50/40/90 club for the second season in a row, posting better numbers in each of the three categories than he did in 1986-87. Bird also produced the best PER of his career: a rock-solid 27.8.
Joining him for the Eastern Conference, among many other notable players, was Michael Jordan.
MJ also posted his best PER ever during the 1987-88 season, blowing Bird out of the water with a staggering 31.7 mark. It's not tough to argue that this was Jordan's most impressive year as a individual, even if it didn't result in one of his many rings.
Of course, who could forget about the other MJ? Magic Johnson, the same one who had 17 points and 19 assists during the actual contest, was at the tail end of his prime, but still playing some of the best ball in the league.
Johnson wasn't the only one who showed up, even though the results of the game are technically irrelevant when determining the BASCE. Jordan was the game's MVP with his 40 points on 17-of-23 shooting, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals and four blocks.
As for Bird, he lagged behind, but still put up six points, seven rebounds, an assist and four steals in the East's 138-133 victory.
The benches don't quite live up to the same standard as the one the 1996 class produced, but the type of talent 1988 brought together in the 10 starting spots was just on another level.
No. 3: 2013 All-Star Class
Eastern Conference reserves: Chris Bosh, Tyson Chandler, Luol Deng, Paul George, Jrue Holiday, Kyrie Irving, Brook Lopez (injury replacement), Joakim Noah
Western Conference reserves: LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, James Harden, David Lee, Tony Parker, Zach Randolph, Russell Westbrook
The current All-Star class, hard as it is to believe given the way we tend to mythologize the past, has the same level of star power at the top that the 1988 class possessed 25 years ago.
LeBron James is playing at a level that only Michael Jordan—and possibly Wilt Chamberlain—ever reached. Kevin Durant appears poised to assert his name in the discussion for all-time top-10 status as he continues to develop.
What will Chris Paul's historical legacy be down the road?
Chris Paul is playing point guard at a level that few at his position have ever reached. If his career continues to progress as one would expect based on his first eight seasons, CP3 should go down as the second-best point guard in basketball history.
It's a little-known fact that Paul (per Basketball-Reference.com) has the seventh-best career PER of all time: 25.52. That's 1.41 better than Magic Johnson's mark, and the former Los Angeles Lakers floor general is No. 13 all-time and No. 2 in the historical point guard PER rankings.
Then add in Kobe Bryant's defying old age and continuing to play in a semi-prime state, Carmelo Anthony playing the best basketball of an already storied career and both Dwyane Wade and Kevin Garnett playing terrific ball.
Now, just for good measure, throw in two solid benches filled with young players who have plenty of time to assert themselves historically, and you've got one heck of a BASCE contender.
Given the fact that we have seven first-time All-Stars, this is pretty incredible.
No. 2: 2000 All-Star Class
Eastern Conference starters: Vince Carter, Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Eddie Jones, Alonzo Mourning
Eastern Conference reserves: Ray Allen, Dale Davis, Allan Houston, Reggie Miller, Dikembe Mutombo, Glenn Robinson, Jerry Stackhouse
Western Conference starters: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Shaquille O'Neal
Western Conference reserves: Michael Finley, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, David Robinson, John Stockton, Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber
If you need reminding of just how good and athletic Vince Carter was during the All-Star break, may I suggest that you watch him dominate the Slam Dunk Contest just prior to the actual game? While you're doing so, remember that Vinsanity wasn't even close to being the biggest attraction in 2000.
As good as Vince and the Eastern Conference All-Stars were in 2000, they just pale in comparison to the Western Conference starters.
I mean, take a look at the five men they sent out on the court. Each and every one of the starters will be a Hall of Famer as soon as he's eligible, and all five of them were young and—with the exception of a still-developing but still-potent Kobe—at the peak of their powers.
And coming off the West's bench? Just some guys named Karl Malone, Gary Payton, David Robinson, John Stockton and Chris Webber. You know, some pretty solid players even if a number of them were starting to succumb to the miles on their wheels.
Honestly, there's no need to say anything else. The West was just that good from top to bottom.
No. 1: 1990 All-Star Class
Eastern Conference starters: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas
Eastern Conference reserves: Joe Dumars, Kevin McHale, Reggie Miller, Robert Parish, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Dominique Wilkins
Western Conference starters: A.C. Green, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, James Worthy
Western Conference reserves: Rolando Blackman (injury replacement), Tom Chambers, Clyde Drexler, Kevin Johnson, Fat Lever, Karl Malone (injured), Chris Mullin, David Robinson
Only one thing mars the overall picture of the 1990 All-Star class, and that's the inclusion of A.C. Green in the Western Conference's starting lineup. If Los Angeles Lakers fans hadn't given him the spot by swarming to the polls and selecting a guy who averaged 12.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game with a 14.7 PER, this team would have been even more incredible.
If Terry Porter had been on the Western Conference reserves and Clyde Drexler pushed into the starting lineup, can you imagine how good the starting 10 would have been in 1990?
James Worthy and Isiah Thomas would have been the weakest members of their respective starting lineups. Stop. Read that sentence again. Think about it.
Whenever you're searching for a who's who of the NBA's golden era, you might as well turn to these rosters.
We've already established how good these starting lineups are, but just take a look at the Eastern Conference reserves as well. Those guys would all be starters most years, but they're all relegated to the bench because of the five legends in front of them.
Who wins the BASCE?
Remember, the Dream Team, commonly referred to as the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled, played just two years later in Barcelona. Of that 12-man roster, 11 of them were selected to come play at Miami. Those 11 have also all made the Hall of Fame.
Christian Laettner was the only member of the Dream Team who wasn't a part of this class, and he was still playing ball at Duke.
So, take the Dream Team, subtract its worst player and add Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dominique Wilkins, Kevin McHale, Reggie Miller, Robert Parish, Dennis Rodman, Hakeem Olajuwon, James Worthy, Kevin Johnson, Fat Lever, Rolando Blackman, Tom Chambers and—sigh—A.C. Green to the picture.
Now you see why this is the easy choice for the BASCE.