B/R NBA Staff: Building Legendary Starting 5s from the Last 50-Plus Years
It's commonplace in basketball discourse to pit eras against one another. Old heads versus young bloods. O.G.s against the new school.
Today, we're putting generational debate aside to celebrate greatness within five NBA time frames.
Bleacher Report asked five writers to build the starting lineups for the following categories: pre-1980s, '80s, '90s, 2000s, 2010s. Think it's an easy task? Imagine having to choose between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Imagine having to not choose Karl Malone or Charles Barkley.
Our NBA experts have done all the hard work for you. Check out each starting unit and then hit the B/R app to share yours.
This was beyond difficult. Three of the top four in pre-1980 win shares are Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell, all of whom are centers. You can't go wrong with any of those selections, and there's even a temptation to cheat and slot the 6'10" Russell at the 4.
In the interest of balancing the rest of the roster, I'll go with Russell at the 5. Wilt was the most productive, and Abdul-Jabbar was probably the best all-around player, but Russell was the top defender of the bunch (though you could argue KAJ). And he wouldn't take many scoring opportunities away from the rest of the starting five.
Rounding out the group isn't quite as difficult as picking a center. Oscar Robertson and Jerry West feel like gimmes as the starting backcourt. They were third and fifth on the aforementioned win shares leaderboard. Both provided plenty of scoring and passing. At the 3, we'll go with John Havlicek, giving this group loads of playmaking around Russell. And finally, Elgin Baylor, who is listed as a 3, will slot in at power forward.
Check out the five-year peak of each:
- Robertson: 30.4 points, 10.7 assists, 8.6 rebounds
- West: 29.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists
- Havlicek: 25.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 6.9 assists
- Baylor: 32.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists
- Russell: 16.3 points, 24.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists
Starting Lineup: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, John Havlicek, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell
The superstar rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird both defined the NBA and elevated it to new heights in the 1980s.
The point guard virtuoso and do-it-all forward claimed a combined seven championships (four for Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers, three for Bird's Boston Celtics). Both took home three MVP awards. If a movie theater screened an '80s basketball biopic, Johnson and Bird are on the marquee.
Michael Jordan didn't reach the Association until 1984, and he's still a lock. He entered the league as a 28.2-points-per-game scorer, lost nearly his entire sophomore season to a broken foot and returned to average 37.1 points in Year 3. He had a 29.9 player efficiency rating for the decade; no one else topped 24.9.
The first real debate comes at center, since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won four titles and took nine All-Star trips in nine seasons. But the great Moses Malone snagged this spot with the same ferocity he used to clean the glass. He captured two MVP awards and a Finals MVP during the decade, which he led in rebounds (by more than 1,000) and ranked second in points.
The final spot could go different directions—Julius Erving, Kevin McHale, Dominique Wilkins—but Charles Barkley boasts the best combination of production and star power. He arrived in 1984, promptly snagged an All-Rookie first-team spot and closed the decade with five consecutive All-NBA selections (three first-team). He trailed only Jordan in PER.
Starting Lineup: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Moses Malone
The Chicago Bulls were clearly the team of the 1990s, with Michael Jordan arguably the best NBA player of all time. But as great as Jordan was, he wouldn't have won six titles without running mate Scottie Pippen.
Sandwiched between the Bulls' two sets of three titles were the Houston Rockets' pair of championships with their superstar center, Hakeem Olajuwon. Those three players are the easy answers; filling out the rest of the starting five was a lot harder.
With all due respect to Isiah Thomas (who was better in the 1980s) as well as Clyde Drexler, David Robinson and Tim Duncan (who only joined the league in 1997 but won his first title in 1998-99), the final two spots go to John Stockton and either Karl Malone and Charles Barkley.
Malone advanced to one more NBA Finals than Barkley. Neither got past Jordan. Since the Utah Jazz were honored with Stockton and the two elite power forwards are so close, give the final nod to Barkley.
Starting Lineup: John Stockton, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon
Jason Kidd was the better defender and Allen Iverson the more gifted scorer, but Steve Nash earns the nod for his passing and scoring efficiency. Winning back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and 2006, Nash had remarkable shooting splits of .494/.436/.905 for the decade while averaging 16.2 points and 9.1 assists. He transformed a lifeless Phoenix Suns team into one of the most exciting run-and-gun groups in NBA history.
Kobe Byrant won four of the decade's 10 championships, including a Finals MVP in 2009. Averaging 28.2 points over his 748 games, he was a force on the defensive end as well, earning All-Defensive honors in nine of the 10 seasons.
While Dwyane Wade, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter were all impressive, Bryant was the best shooting guard of the decade and the second-greatest of all time.
Not starting his career until 2003, James had established himself as the NBA's best player by the time the decade was over. James would win two MVPs, make five All-Star teams and lead the league in scoring in 2007-08. This wouldn't even be his best or most productive decade, yet he's still deserving of a spot on this list.
Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki deserve shouts here, but Tim Duncan narrowly edges both for his two-way impact and three titles. As the heart of the San Antonio Spurs' dynasty that peaked in the 2000s, Duncan averaged 21.4 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.3 blocks and shot 50.4 percent for the decade. He won two regular-season MVPs, two Finals MVPs and made an All-Defensive team every season.
No player was more dominant than Shaquille O'Neal in the early 2000s. He won league MVP in 2000 while taking home back-to-back-to-back Finals MVPs in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
A nine-time All-Star, O'Neal was unstoppable as his 7'1", 325-pound frame bullied opponents in the paint, leading to averages of 23.1 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks for the decade.
The first four spots were easy: Stephen Curry is the greatest shooter of all time, James Harden is the most unguardable one-on-one scorer of the decade, LeBron James is in the conversation for greatest player ever, and Kevin Durant is probably the second-best all-around player of the decade.
Between them, they won six of the nine MVP awards (counting the current season, which was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic), and they combined for 33 All-Star selections and 29 All-NBA selections in that span.
The center spot was tougher. There's no one at that position who was dominant for the entire decade. Dwight Howard tailed off after his early Orlando Magic peak, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic only emerged in the second half of the decade, and Anthony Davis hasn't had enough team success to justify his selection.
The best all-around choice among pure centers for decadelong consistency is probably Marc Gasol, but the 2010s were defined by the phasing out of the traditional center in favor of smaller, positionless players with more versatile skill sets.
Draymond Green exemplifies this better than anybody.
The Golden State Warriors were the most dominant team of the decade, and Green, while not starting at center, played that position in various iterations of the so-called "Death Lineup" that made them as unstoppable as they were. So he gets the nod.
Starting Lineup: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Draymond Green