The All-Star starting lineups are supposed to honor the best of the best in the NBA.
But who are the best of the best of the best in NBA history?
That's the question at the heart of this analysis, as we're attempting to pinpoint the greatest starting lineup in All-Star Game history. It's a tricky one, because legacies and reputations change in years after the lineup came together and thus alter our perception of the starters at the time they all came together.
Lineup score takes away the haze.
To calculate it for any given starting lineup, all you have to do is add together the win shares per 48 minutes of each of the five players. After all, that's hypothetically the amount of wins that group would contribute if they spent an entire game on the court together.
But the beauty of this is that win shares per 48 minutes capture how effectively a player was playing that season. Reputation and subjectivity are taken out of the equation.
Here's an example of how it works, given the expected starting five for the Eastern Conference, based on the latest voting returns:
- Kyrie Irving, 0.113 win shares per 48 minutes
- Dwyane Wade, 0.151
- Paul George, 0.244
- Carmelo Anthony, 0.155
- LeBron James, 0.27
That adds up to a lineup score of 0.933, which would rank the 2014 Eastern Conference at No. 31 among the 123 starting lineups in NBA history that have available win-share data. Meanwhile, the Western Conference, thanks to the stupidity of putting Kobe Bryant in the starting five, checks in at No. 95.
I can pretty much guarantee you'll be surprised as we count down the top 20 starting groups in All-Star Game history. It's rather difficult to divorce perception from reality when looking at individual seasons in the lengthy history of the Association.
Note: All statistics, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.
No. 20: 1959 Eastern Conference , 1.015 Lineup Score
Paul Arizin, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Kenny Sears and Bill Sharman
No. 19: 1953 Eastern Conference, 1.018 Lineup Score
Bob Cousy, Harry Gallatin, Ed Macauley, Dolph Schayes and Bill Sharman
No. 18: 2003 Western Conference, 1.019 Lineup Score
No. 17: 1990 Eastern Conference, 1.02 Lineup Score
Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas
No. 16: 1993 Western Conference, 1.025 Lineup Score
Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, David Robinson and John Stockton
No. 15: 2005 Western Conference, 1.028 Lineup Score
Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming
No. 14: 1952 Western Conference, 1.031 Lineup Score
George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, Jim Pollard, Paul Walther and Bobby Wanzer
No. 13: 2009 Western Conference, 1.034 Lineup Score
Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Chris Paul and Amar'e Stoudemire
No. 12: 1971 Western Conference, 1.035 Lineup Score
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Bing, Connie Hawkins, Jerry Lucas, Jerry West
No. 11: 2011 Eastern Conference, 1.039 Lineup Score
Players: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Steve Francis, Kevin Garnett, Yao Ming
Result: 136-132 victory
This team would rank even higher if Steve Francis weren't holding back the starting lineup.
He's the only weak link, as he spent the 2003-04 season averaging 16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game for the Houston Rockets. Problem is, he was shooting only 40.3 percent from the field and 29.2 percent beyond the three-point arc.
Francis was still a valuable player, just not as valuable as the four men joining him in the starting lineup.
Kevin Garnett was actually the top contributor to the lineup score, as he was adding 0.272 win shares per 48 minutes that year with the Minnesota Timberwolves. That's what happens when you post 24.2 points per game while leading the league in rebounds and dishing out 50 cents worth of dimes during the average contest.
Players: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki
Result: 153-132 victory
At first glance, there are no holes in this lineup.
All five players should be future Hall of Famers, and there are multiple guys who seemed to compete for MVP year in and year out during the Western Conference. So, why do they check in at No. 9 rather than earning an even more stellar spot?
Well, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady failed to make the contributions you might expect.
KG had one of the worst shooting performances of his career, shooting just 47.6 percent from the field during his last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. T-Mac was at the tail end of his All-Star run, becoming more of a distributor than ever before, and his numbers suffered slightly.
Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant were the driving forces behind this lineup, but it's not like there were any true weak links.
Players: Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade
Result: 146-119 loss
If Allen Iverson were replaced by a more deserving candidate, this 2009 lineup for the Eastern Conference would have a serious shot at rising all the way up to No. 1.
"The Answer" was still insanely popular at this stage of his career, but he wasn't particularly effective during a season that saw him play for both the Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons.
He averaged only 17.5 points per game, and he shot just 41.7 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from beyond the three-point arc. Those aren't particularly efficient numbers, especially when paired with 2.6 turnovers each contest.
Iverson's 0.066 win shares per 48 minutes lag well behind the other four players in this starting five. In fact, if he'd been replaced by Joe Johnson, who played the most minutes off the bench, the lineup score would rise up to 1.093, boosting the 2009 Eastern Conference All-Stars into the No. 3 spot.
Of the 605 eligible players in this analysis, only eight were less valuable than Iverson when calculating lineup score.
Players: Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade
Result: 141-139 victory
This LeBron James guy was pretty good in 2009-10.
It was his last season before taking his talents to South Beach, and he was clearly still in "Cleveland Mode." LeBron averaged 29.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game, and his 0.299 win shares per 48 minutes paced the entire NBA.
This time, it's Joe Johnson who gets the negative spin. Although the 2009 squad would've benefited from him stepping into the starting lineup, he was clearly the worst starter in 2010.
LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard were all absolutely dominant during the final year before the formation of the Miami Heat's Big Three, but Johnson and Kevin Garnett weren't quite up to snuff.
Players: Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Michael Jordan, Dikembe Mutombo, Scottie Pippen
Result: 132-120 victory
It's time to leave the 2000s for a little bit.
Here's your first Michael Jordan sighting, as the greatest player of all time led the 1997 Eastern Conference to the No. 6 spot in our countdown.
Even though he was 33 years old, MJ led the league in scoring with 29.6 points per game, and he also added 5.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists per contest. Oh, and he did that while shooting 48.6 percent from the field and turning the ball over with less frequency than in any other season of his incredible career.
But it's not like Jordan was the only stud in this lineup.
Grant Hill and Scottie Pippen both topped 0.2 win shares per 48 minutes, and Dikembe Mutombo wasn't far behind.
Players: Elgin Baylor, Walt Bellamy, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Pettit, Jerry West
Result: 115-108 loss
Now it's time for the oldest lineup in the top 10.
If you haven't heard of Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Pettit and Jerry West, you need to brush up on your basketball history. All of them were absolute studs in their day, and it shouldn't be in any way surprising to see them pop up this high in the rankings.
I'll forgive you if the name Walt Bellamy eludes you, but it still shouldn't.
The Hall of Fame center was playing for the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962-63, and it was only the second season of his career. He averaged 27.9 points and 16.4 rebounds per game that year, and he actually wasn't the least-valuable contributor in this starting five.
That dishonor goes to West, who was still getting established as a superstar for the Los Angeles Lakers. And when a 24-year-old West is the least-valuable player in the lineup...
Players: Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade
Result: 152-149 loss
The 2012 Eastern Conference All-Stars might not have been able to pull off the victory, but they still boasted one of the most dominant starting fives in basketball history. For comparison's sake, the Western Conference lineup of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul checks in at No. 23 in the rankings.
LeBron James was once more the driving force here, but it's not like he was the only stud.
Joined by Derrick Rose in the starting lineup, who has surprisingly started just two All-Star games during his career, he was a completely dominant force. So too was Dwyane Wade, but the inefficient shooting of Carmelo Anthony held this team back slightly.
This was 'Melo's first full season with the New York Knicks, and he was only able to shoot 43 percent from the field and 33.5 percent from three-point range. Plus, he scored just 22.6 points per game.
When we're talking about Anthony, the word "just" is necessary for such a statement.
Players: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul
Result: 143-138 victory
Interestingly enough, this is the first lineup since the No. 9 entry in the rankings that only has two players on the right side of 0.2 win shares per 48 minutes.
First is Kevin Durant, who was absolutely phenomenal during the 2012-13 campaign. Not quite as phenomenal as he's been recently, but still pretty darn good.
Second is Chris Paul, who earned 0.287 win shares per 48 minutes. When he's second with such a gaudy number, that's when you know you have a dynamic duo capable of carrying an entire lineup. CP3 did average 16.9 points, 9.7 assists and a league-best 2.4 steals per game, after all.
It's not like Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin were bad, though.
Griffin didn't deserve a starting spot last year—though he's making a serious case in 2013-14—and the D12/Kobe combination in Los Angeles was struggling, but the whole trio was still quite valuable.
Players: Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Scottie Pippen
Result: 129-118 victory
During the 1995-96 season, Michael Jordan earned 0.316 win shares per 48 minutes.
Let's take a minute to put that in perspective.
Since the NBA started tracking win shares and putting together All-Star teams, there have been 121 different starting lineups. And with five players on each one, there are 604 opportunities for players to top '95-96 Jordan's mark.
Well, here are the only seven win shares per 48 minutes among All-Star Game starters throughout NBA history to top 0.3:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 0.340 in 1971-72
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 0.326 in 1970-71
- LeBron James, 0.322 in 2012-13
- Michael Jordan, 0.321 in 1990-91
- LeBron James, 0.318 in 2008-09
- Michael Jordan, 0.316 in 1995-96
- Michael Jordan, 0.308 in 1987-88
Not bad, huh?
It makes the lineup quite strong, especially when coupled with the remarkably impressive season enjoyed by Penny Hardaway.
Players: Kevin Johnson, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, David Robinson
Result: 116-114 loss
Only three lineups in All-Star history have featured four players who broke past 0.2 win shares per 48 minutes: this one, the 2004 Western Conference and the 2011 Eastern Conference.
But this is by far the most impressive since Chris Mullin barely missed making it a perfect five and both David Robinson and Magic Johnson were completely dominant.
This might not be the lineup you expected to see at No. 1, especially because it prominently features lesser superstars like Mullin and Kevin Johnson. But it's important to remember that we're talking about performances within the context of the season that led to an All-Star berth.
Both Mullin and KJ enjoyed career years in 1990-91, and that's what allows this lineup to move so far ahead of all other starting fives in NBA history.
With a lineup score of 1.136, they're 0.038 points ahead of the 1996 Eastern Conference, which checked in at No. 2. That's larger than the gap that exists between the East in '96 and the 1997 Eastern Conference, which sits at No. 6.
The players in this starting five might not be as dominant as you'd expect, but this is—by far—the most dangerous starting lineup in All-Star Game history.