5 of the Most Iconic Starting Lineups of the Past 20 NBA Seasons
The NBA is defined by its stars. When a few of them reside on the same roster, hoops history often happens.
The basketball gods have created those era-defining constellations several times over the last two decades. We're here to celebrate the most memorable among them with a close-up view of the five most iconic starting lineups from the past 20 seasons.
What makes a quintet iconic? That's open to interpretation, but these are the five most necessary lineups to tell the tale of the NBA's last 20 years.
Detroit Pistons: 2003-04
Lineup: Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace
If this isn't the best whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts lineup ever, it's at least the top in recent memory. It had a single All-Star and All-NBA selection (second team), and it was the same player: single-digit scoring, defensive specialist Ben Wallace. Hamilton was the leading scorer with 17.6 points per game. Billups was the assists leader with 5.7.
It was no-flash, no-frills, all-business basketball at its finest. Detroit's dominant defense held opponents to only 84.3 points per game on 41.3/30.2/74.4 shooting. Somehow, it grew even stingier in the Finals against a Los Angeles Lakers team that had Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. The Pistons limited the Lakers to 81.8 points per game on 41.6/24.7/64.0 shooting en route to their 4-1 series win.
Phoenix Suns: 2004-05
Lineup: Steve Nash, Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Shawn Marion, Amar'e Stoudemire
The NBA hasn't looked the same since Mike D'Antoni unleashed his fast five. This squad paced-and-spaced its way to 62 wins—a 33-win improvement from the prior year—and dismantled defenses in "Seven Seconds or Less." Steve Nash was the league's MVP, Amar'e Stoudemire was an All-Star and a top-five scorer, and the Suns were Western Conference finalists. Had Johnson not suffered an orbital fracture in the playoffs, perhaps they could have gone even further.
"We should've won it all that year," Marion told Paul Coro of AZCentral.com in 2015. "If it wasn't for [Johnson's injury], I think we would have."
Cleveland Cavaliers: 2015-16
Northeast Ohio will never forget this group for ending the region's 52-year championship drought. The basketball world will never forget it for the manner in which it made that happen.
Before these Cavaliers came around, teams that trailed 3-1 in the Finals were 0-32 in the series. Cleveland defied all odds in becoming the first to wiggle out of a 3-1 deficit—against the league's first 73-win squad, no less—and delivering iconic moments like James' block and Irving's dagger late in the series-clinching 93-89 Game 7 triumph.
Los Angeles Lakers: 2000-01
Lineup: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Rick Fox, Horace Grant, Shaquille O'Neal
The Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal combo was an NBA era in and of itself, and it never rampaged through opponents as ferociously as it did during the 2000-01 postseason.
O'Neal was in the heart of his prime. He was fresh off his first (and somehow only) MVP the previous season and right in the middle of a three-year run of Finals MVPs. Bryant had just made the jump to full-fledged stardom, adding six points per game to his previous career high (28.5, up from 22.5) and making his second straight appearance on the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams.
This lineup was top-heavy, as Derek Fisher was the only other double-digit scorer (11.5 per game), and an aging Horace Grant shot a brutal 38.5 percent in the postseason. But it was so absurdly talented at the top, it didn't matter.
Ahead of the 2001 Finals, Lakers head coach Phil Jackson remarked that Bryant's performance was "the best that I've seen a player of mine play with an overall court game." After that series, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Larry Brown dubbed O'Neal "as good as it gets" and said, "I've never seen a better player in my life."
These Lakers might have been more good than great in the regular season (56-26), but as soon as that marathon finished, they took a blowtorch to the playoff bracket. They swept all three of their Western Conference opponents, and after losing Game 1 of the Finals due to Allen Iverson's 48-point eruption, L.A. closed the series with four straight wins by an average of 10 points.
The Lakers remain the league's last team to three-peat.
San Antonio Spurs: 2006-07
Lineup: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan, Fabricio Oberto
There's no way to talk about the NBA's past two decades without a mention of the San Antonio Spurs' historic trio. It's tough to zero in on a specific season for a franchise that won five titles in a 15-year span but never went back-to-back, but this campaign arguably featured the best blend of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
It was Duncan's age-30 season, and he was still making annual All-NBA appearances. He was also the only player to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks that year. Parker booked his second All-Star trip. Ginobili, who started 36 games, set then-career bests in points, three-pointers and three-point percentage.
All three of them averaged between 16.5 and 20 points. They all supplied between 3.4 and 5.5 assists. They could all pilot the offense or shift into complementary roles. They all contributed to top-five efficiency ranks on offense (fifth) and defense (second).
Collectively, they were a cheat code.
"I don't care where we fall in history," Parker told reporters after the Spurs won the title. "I just feel blessed, honored and privileged to play on a team like this."
San Antonio lost four games throughout the entire postseason. While the Spurs might've been helped by the Dallas Mavericks' upset loss in the first round, the suspensions of Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in the conference semis and LeBron James' lack of support in the Finals, the Spurs arguably needed none of it. After trudging to a 33-18 start, they closed the year going 41-10 through their championship-clincher.
Boston Celtics: 2007-08
The modern superteams can all trace their roots back to the Boston Celtics and their overnight powerhouse.
The Shamrocks went 24-58 in 2006-07 and struggled to support Paul Pierce with a collection of intriguing but inexperienced youth. Since the draft lottery didn't lead them to Kevin Durant, whom they desperately wanted, they flipped their draft pick for a similarly stranded Ray Allen. Not even a month later, the Celtics traded more picks and prospects to free Kevin Garnett from the floundering Minnesota Timberwolves.
These were headlining deals, but they weren't without risks.
"All three players were in their 30s, Pierce and Allen were coming off injury-plagued campaigns, and none had ever ventured as far as the Finals," SB Nation's Paul Flannery recapped in 2017. "The analytic assessment was skeptical, and the local reaction was measured. No less an authority than the great Bob Ryan asked in the Globe: Is that all there is?"
Conventional wisdom held that if the experiment ever worked, it would probably take years to come together. Instead, Boston's Big Three laughed off that assessment by opening the season with eight straight wins and sprinting through a 29-3 start.
Just like that, the Celtics were the best team in basketball. They won 66 games, had the league's stingiest defense and posted the best net rating by 2.5 points per 100 possessions. Pierce took the scoring lead, Allen supplied the shooting and Garnett earned Defensive Player of the Year honors. Rajon Rondo spread the basketball around, and Kendrick Perkins supplied the interior muscle.
Boston had to grind out seven-game victories in the first and second rounds of the playoffs, but it survived and advanced to escape the East and conquer Kobe's Lakers in six games in the Finals.
Miami Heat: 2012-13
This squad was as super as a superteam could get. Or so we thought at the time, at least.
The Miami Heat were loaded at the top with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Even with Wade's production and availability trending down, he remained a nightly source of 21.2 points, 5.1 assists and 5.0 rebounds. Bosh was losing volume in his third-wheel role, but his defensive versatility and floor-spacing were invaluable two-way assets.
And, oh yeah, this was probably James at his absolute best. His counting categories were predictably comical—26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists—and his efficiency was absurd. Not only did he shoot a ridiculous 56.5 percent from the field, but he also buried 103 triples at a 40.6 percent clip.
"That Miami Heat team is the greatest team I have ever played," Kawhi Leonard told Lori Ewing of the Canadian Press in April 2019.
This season—the second of the Heatles' two championships—had so many memorable moments, highlighted by the jaw-dropping 27-game winning streak and Ray Allen's miracle make in Game 6. But it perhaps best captured how helpless James can make even all-time greats look. The Spurs did the best they could to contain him, and he still walked away with Finals MVP after totaling 69 points, 22 rebounds, 15 assists and five steals between Games 6 and 7.
Golden State Warriors: 2017-18
This was technically a closing group, but it did open five games together in the 2017-18 playoffs. And if we're talking NBA significance, this quintet is as notable as any to appear in the last 20 years.
Coined the Hamptons Five by The Athletic's Tim Kawakami, it was overloaded with star power, versatility and two-way skill. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have MVP awards on their resume. Durant and Andre Iguodala have won Finals MVPs. Draymond Green captured a Defensive Player of the Year. Klay Thompson broke the record for most points in a quarter (37). Each has made at least one All-Star appearance, and they collectively have 25 trips between them.
"It's not outlandish to look at the manner in which they won two titles and made three straight Finals appearances and consider them unrivaled in skill and versatility," Jerry Brewer wrote for the Washington Post.
This lineup defines the Dubs' dynasty, as teams had no answer for it. It was almost to the point you wondered why anyone else would bother building for the present. Jeff Van Gundy set Golden State's bar at "eight to 10 straight Finals," and that felt reasonable. Injuries and departures eventually spelled this group's demise, but not before it made it to the mountaintop.
The Warriors won both Finals they entered with this group at full strength. During the 2018 playoff run, these five rocked their opponents by 23.4 points per 100 possessions. That was actually an improvement from 2017 (plus-22.0), when the team went 16-1 in the postseason.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.