What if you had a basketball time machine? What if you could go back through the history of the NBA and pull out the best of the best, bringing them all to the same location in the time-space continuum so they could play just one game?
Whom would you choose?
That's the question at the heart of this article, though it's important to set forth some context and rules before proceeding to the selections.
Think of this all-time All-Star squad as a team that has to compete against an extraterrestrial squad for galactic supremacy. Entertaining crowds doesn't matter, because the point is just to win the game for the sake of humanity.
Unfortunately, the aliens have a few rules:
- You have to specify which year you're drawing the player from.
- A single player can't be selected multiple times, so no teams comprised solely of Michael Jordans, LeBron Jameses and Wilt Chamberlains are allowed.
- Each player selected must have started the All-Star Game that year.
- Standard All-Star roster composition rules apply.
Basically, this isn't about selecting the biggest names nor is it about rewarding the legends who had the greatest careers. Single seasons are all that matter, and the playoffs don't count for anything, which could make for some interesting and surprising choices.
Legends will be omitted. Hall of Famers will be snubbed.
This isn't an easy task, but the fate of the human race depends on our selections.
To the time machine!
Team: Cincinnati Royals
Per-Game Stats: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists, 26.0 PER
Oscar Robertson is one of those legends who tends to be forgotten by younger generations of basketball fans. Fortunately, LeBron is pulling him back into the collective consciousness.
When the current Miami Heat superstar was asked during an interview with NBA TV's Steve Smith which four players would occupy his NBA Mount Rushmore, he first responded with what he called the "easy three," naming Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
After a little deliberation and a statement that this was a hard decision, he picked the Big O as his final legend.
Maybe you agree. Maybe you don't.
Regardless, you at least have to acknowledge that Robertson's 1961-62 season is one of the greatest in NBA history. There are multiple years by point guards that fall within that same realm, but the uniqueness of Robertson's season with the Cincinnati Royals is just legendary.
Throughout the annals of the Association, only he has ever averaged a triple-double for the entire season. Plenty of players have tried, few have come close, and he's the only one who has ever broken into double digits in points, rebounds and assists.
Team: Chicago Bulls
Per-Game Stats: 31.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.7 steals, 1.0 blocks, 31.6 PER
Obviously, Michael Jordan is going to be here.
The Chicago Bulls legend is the near-consensus G.O.A.T., and he has multiple seasons that belong in the top 10, regardless of position. If it weren't for the one-season-per-player restriction, you could easily see M.J.'s entire career featured on the All-Star squad.
Deciding he belongs on the team is easy. Deciding which season to pick is impossible.
Do you go with the 1986-87 campaign, when he averaged a ridiculous 37.1 points per game? Does 1987-88 get the nod, as his dip in scoring was made up for by the increase in efficiency and a Defensive Player of the Year trophy?
What about basically every other season in his prime? Heck, we can't even leave out the 1995-96 season, when he was in his 30s and still flat-out dominated.
There is no wrong answer. But in my book, the choice is 1990-91.
Although he wasn't scoring at the same level he did in the '80s, M.J. shot 53.9 percent from the field, which was the highest mark of his career. He also cut his turnovers to just 2.5 per contest and still dominated in every facet of the game.
It sneaks ahead by the smallest of margins. Remember, though, you could basically pick a Jordan season out of a hat and still have it featured in this exact spot.
Team: Miami Heat
Per-Game Stats: 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 31.6 PER
No forward has ever posted a season that can top LeBron James' 2012-13, though Kevin Durant is trying to do exactly that during the current campaign.
While playing stellar defense night in and night out, LeBron put all the pieces together on offense. His jumper clicked, and he played with undeniable confidence in the post. There was no longer a weakness to his game as a scorer, and he still managed to dish out 7.3 dimes per night.
Amazingly enough, he shot 56.5 percent from the field and 40.6 percent beyond the arc en route to winning MVP. Those are untouchable numbers for a player who goes to work on the perimeter and is tasked with carrying the scoring load for a competitive team.
Among the 316 players in NBA history who have posted at least 25 points per game and qualified for the scoring title, including those who are doing so this year, only 10 have ever submitted a higher true shooting percentage than James did in 2012-13.
However, it's not like scoring was LeBron's primary calling card. That would be his all-around play, as he was a dominant rebounder, premier passer and defensive ace from start to finish.
There's a serious case to be made that LeBron produced the greatest individual season of all time during the 2012-13 campaign.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Per-Game Stats: 31.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks, 30.9 PER
A lot can change between now and the end of the season, but Kevin Durant enters the All-Star break on pace to submit one of the two greatest years ever by a forward.
Just think about what he's done as an offensive player, especially with Russell Westbrook absent ever since the Christmas Day beatdown of the New York Knicks. Not only is Durant averaging a league-best 31.5 points per game, but he's also doing so while shooting 51.0 percent from the field, 41.0 percent beyond the arc and 88.2 percent at the charity stripe.
That said, it's not just scoring that pushes Durant into this spot. Yes, even though this is one of the most dominant point-producing players the NBA has ever seen.
K.D. has made major improvements to his passing, and he's now able to facilitate his way to victory. For the first time, he's actively looking to make the right play rather than generating assists by passing out of double-teams and finding open men in transition.
Sometimes it's come by focusing on his defense. Durant held New York's Carmelo Anthony to a season-low 15 points on five-for-19 shooting Sunday during a victory over the Knicks. His performance was emblematic of a team that is celebrated for scoring but also possesses one of the league's most underrated defenses, ranking sixth in efficiency.
On 82Games.com, it shows that the Durantula is holding opposing shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards to respective PERs of 6.1, 9.1 and 10.2.
He's more than just a scorer now; he's an all-around stud trying to solidify his place in NBA lore with one of the greatest seasons ever.
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Per-Game Stats: 34.8 points, 16.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 29.9 PER
The history of the NBA is littered with dominant centers. From George Mikan to Shaquille O'Neal, Wilt Chamberlain to Dwight Howard, Bill Russell to Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone to David Robinson, the Association has always been graced with the presence of at least one dominant big man.
There have been many sensational seasons by centers over the decades, but none can top what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did with the Milwaukee Bucks during his third season out of UCLA.
He was coming off a year in which he—joined by Oscar Robertson for the first time—led the Bucks on a 20-game winning streak, won MVP in both the regular season and the NBA Finals, led the league in points per game and then decided to change his name from Lew Alcindor to what everyone now knows him as.
Then he got even better.
The sky-hook was unstoppable, and Abdul-Jabbar led the league in scoring for the second straight season. But this time, he scored an additional 3.1 points per game, saw his efficiency rise to the highest of his career and posted better numbers on the glass and when passing the ball.
Not only did Kareem post a league-best 29.9 PER, but he also earned more win shares and win shares per 48 minutes than anyone in NBA history:
|Rank||Win Shares||Win Shares Per 48 Minutes|
|1||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1971-72 (25.37)||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1971-72 (0.3399)|
|2||Wilt Chamberlain, 1963-64 (24.98)||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1970-71 (0.3256)|
|3||George Mikan, 1950-51 (23.43)||Wilt Chamberlain, 1963-64 (0.3251)|
|4||Wilt Chamberlain, 1961-62 (23.11)||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1972-73 (0.3225)|
|5||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1970-71 (22.31)||LeBron James, 2012-13 (0.3220)|
Still have any doubt?
Team: New Orleans Hornets
Per-Game Stats: 22.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 11.0 assists, 2.8 steals, 0.1 blocks, 30.0 PER
Oscar Robertson's penchant for the triple-double gets him the nod in the starting lineup, but Chris Paul is the proud owner of the most statistically impressive season by a point guard in NBA history.
Still with the New Orleans Hornets, CP3 earned more win shares and win shares per 48 minutes than any other floor general who has ever graced the hardwood. His 30.0 PER ranks No. 18 on the historical leaderboard, regardless of position, and the closest point guard season is...CP3 in 2007-08, which ranks No. 44.
The closest non-Paul season would be 1963-64 Robertson (No. 65), then 1986-87 Magic Johnson (No. 83).
In 2008-09, Paul achieved the elusive 20-10, leading the NBA in assists per game. But it gets better, as he shot 50.3 percent from the field and 86.8 percent at the charity stripe, all while somehow pulling down 5.5 rebounds per contest.
He also led the league in steals, asserting himself as one of the leading two-way presences. Only five players in the NBA earned more Defensive Player of the Year votes, which is a stellar accomplishment for a point guard, as that position typically gets overlooked in the voting.
CP3 remains on pace to be one of the all-time legends at his position, but nothing he's done can top the 2008-09 go-round by the bayou.
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Per-Game Stats: 22.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 12.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 26.9 PER
You knew Magic Johnson was going to make the squad, but which season deserves the honor?
Much as was the case with Jordan—it must be something about those M.J. initials—the greatest point guard of all time has myriad seasons that make a legitimate case for a featured spot on the all-time All-Star squad.
Everything about the 1988-89 campaign stands out in a positive way, with the slight exception of Magic's turnover numbers.
Not only did he shoot over 50 percent from the field, but he also spent a lot of time at the charity stripe and shot a league-best 91.1 percent from the line. Additionally, Magic dominated on the glass and stood out on defense more than he did during any of the surrounding seasons.
Magic's three-point shooting in 1989-90 almost gives it the edge, but the all-around play in the year prior still trumps everything else.
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Per-Game Stats: 35.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, 28.0 PER
Get used to seeing Los Angeles Lakers stars making up the reserves.
Kobe Bryant makes it two in the backcourt, and we're not done yet. There's one more Laker featured on the bench, and a fourth player has connections to the legendary franchise, even if he's wearing a different jersey on this team.
The Mamba has had a number of impressive seasons, but he was just a scoring machine during the 2005-06 campaign. He led the NBA with a career-high 35.4 points per game, and he still found time to dish out 4.5 assists during the average outing.
That's an unspeakable amount of offensive contributions during the modern era, especially since Kobe actually maintained solid efficiency levels while posting a 38.7 usage rate that remains the highest mark of all time.
He was just on a tear from start to finish, although the lackluster nature of the Lakers roster still prevented L.A. from earning anything more than a No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. That's one of the only reasons he trailed Steve Nash, LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki in the MVP voting, but we're not holding his teammates against him here.
If anything, the fact that Kobe did this while playing alongside legends like Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, Devean George, Brian Cook and Chris Mihm makes his numbers even more impressive.
Team: Orlando Magic
Per-Game Stats: 32.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks, 30.3 PER
Tracy McGrady's 2002-03 season may well be the most underrated in NBA history.
When Grant Hill went down, this was unquestionably his team, and he didn't let the burden weigh him down. Slashing and attacking the hoop at all times, T-Mac won the scoring title by averaging 32.1 points per game, and it's not like the rest of his contributions lagged too far behind.
His postseason collapse has no bearing here, because we're only looking at the numbers produced in the regular season. And that means that once Kevin Durant and LeBron James are out of the equation, thanks to their inclusion in the starting five, T-Mac's '02-03 season is the top performance by a forward in NBA history.
Yes, it's better than anything Larry Bird ever did, though his career overall does not compare to Larry Legend's. Bird had roughly 172 seasons that were ever so slightly behind this campaign and light years ahead of McGrady's No. 2 season, but that doesn't earn him the nod as the top forward reserve in this article.
Here's a breakdown, courtesy of Stats.NBA.com:
In 2002-03, not only did McGrady post a career-best scoring average, he also posted the highest effective field goal percentage of his career (50.5%), his highest usage rate (35.0%), his highest PIE rating (19.2%) and his highest PER (30.3). He also posted the third highest assist percentage (28.2%) of his career, leading the Magic in assists at 5.5 per game.
In the last 16 years only Kobe Bryant (35.4) and Allen Iverson (33.0) averaged more points in a single season than Tracy McGrady's 32.1 average in 2002-03. Bryant and Iverson's performances both came in the 2005-06 season when Bryant bested Iverson for the scoring title.
To post a 50.5 effective field-goal percentage with a skyrocketing usage rate is nothing short of sensational.
McGrady's season deserves far more credit than it typically receives, even if the rest of his career never came close to matching what he did in 2002-03.
Team: Boston Celtics
Per-Game Stats: 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks, 26.5 PER
It's not like Larry Bird will fail to earn credit, though.
In 1984-85, the "Hick from French Lick" didn't join the 50-40-90 club, as he did during both the 1986-87 and 1987-88 campaigns, but he was actually even more impressive. Though his free-throw shooting almost kept him from gaining entry, the rest of his numbers make up for the difference.
First, Bird played better defense than he did later in his career. Still relatively young and spry, Bird wasn't yet plagued by chronic back pain, so he was able to make a significant impact on the less glamorous end of the floor.
He also made quite a few contributions without scoring the ball, averaging a strong double-double and racking up 6.6 assists per game at the same time. There's a reason he still took home the NBA MVP during this fantastic season.
Actually, there are a lot of reasons, according to a critique from Doug Sibor of Complex.com, which ranked this No. 10 among all MVP-winning seasons in NBA history:
Larry Legend's MVP-winning 1985 campaign was the Hall of Famer's best all-around season. He set career bests in points and blocks per game, while finishing in the top five league-wide in minutes played, made field goals, made three-pointers, defensive rebounds and points scored.
It's hard to disagree with the legendary nature of this 1984-85 performance.
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Per-Game Stats: 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 3.0 blocks, 30.6 PER
In a book called Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball, noted statistician Elliott Kalb makes a case for Shaquille O'Neal as the No. 1 player in NBA history:
As for not placing Jordan ahead of O'Neal, I just feel that O'Neal was so much better than the second-best player in the game during the early 2000s than Jordan was against the next best player in the 1990s. Jordan wasn't that much better than Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, and Karl Malone in respective seasons. That's what made Jordan so compelling to watch. The outcome was frequently in doubt.
There were only a few close to Shaq from the moment he entered the league. Beginning in 1998, his dominance was so superior that it was often overlooked. It will not be overlooked, or discounted, here.
I don't agree with the conclusion, but I do agree that the "Diesel" was unbelievably dominant during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Particularly during the 1999-00 campaign, which is featured here as one of the reserve seasons.
Not only did Shaq lead the league in scoring, posting 29.7 points per game, but he also paced the NBA in field-goal percentage. The big man pulled down 13.6 rebounds per contest, and he had the best defensive season of his career, which often gets overlooked.
Shaq blocked three shots per game, more impressive than the numbers posted in any year but his rookie season. He also led the NBA in defensive win shares, posted the best defensive rating of his career and helped the Lakers to the best defensive rating in the Association.
He was basically two-way dominance personified.
Team: Philadelphia Warriors
Per-Game Stats: 50.4 points, 25.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 31.7 PER
Just look at the per-game stats.
Though Wilt Chamberlain had the distinct advantage of playing 48.5 minutes per game—yes, more than the 48 minutes that are allotted during the average contest—he posted numbers that just make you shake your head and wonder if you're seeing things.
Here are the top five players ever in points per game during a qualified season:
- Wilt Chamberlain, 1961-62 (50.36 points per game)
- Wilt Chamberlain, 1962-63 (44.83)
- Wilt Chamberlain, 1960-61 (38.39)
- Wilt Chamberlain, 1959-60 (37.60)
- Michael Jordan, 1986-87 (37.09)
And now, the same exercise for rebounds per game:
- Wilt Chamberlain, 1960-61 (27.20 rebounds per game)
- Wilt Chamberlain, 1959-60 (26.96)
- Wilt Chamberlain, 1961-62 (25.65)
- Bill Russell, 1963-64 (24.74)
- Wilt Chamberlain, 1965-66 (24.59)
Don't come here with arguments about the quality of his competition. Don't worry about the low shooting percentages of the '60s producing more rebounding opportunities. Forget about 1963-64 being an even more efficient season.
Fifty points and 26 rebounds per game.
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.6 blocks, 27.1 PER
We have to find a way to honor Charles Barkley for the incredible season he put together in 1989-90. Quite frankly, you could make a convincing argument that this year belongs in the reserves rather than Larry Bird's 1984-85 campaign.
Fortunately, there's a loophole I can exploit. After all, I like giving credit where credit is due.
Most All-Star squads end up having an injury replacement, simply because basketball takes its toll on star players and leads to some of them sitting out during the festivities. Between Bird's back and Tracy McGrady's overall fragility, our squad could use a security blanket.
Who better than Chuck?
The "Round Mound of Rebound" dominated on the glass this season, as expected, but he also scored 25.2 points per game while shooting 60.0 percent from the field. The emphasis is necessary, as that's just unheard of.
Seriously, it is.
Including the current campaign, only 66 players have ever qualified for the scoring title while posting a field-goal percentage on the right side of 60. Only Kevin McHale has ever done so while scoring more points than Barkley did in 1989-90, but the Boston Celtics legend wasn't able to make as much of an impact in other facets of the game.
Barkley might not get to play, but he at least deserves what amounts to an honorable mention.