Who would win in professional basketballs All Alphabet league?
Today, we might have our answer. The J Team is a handful. They have some of the greatest defensive stoppers in league history, incredible scoring options, rebounding, play making, intensity, flair....and they have three of the best handful of players the sport has ever seen.
Point Guard – Earvin 'Magic' Johnson
Leading off our J Team lineup is the greatest point guard of all time: Magic Johnson.
The pilot of the Showtime Lakers, Magic is a megastar of the game. His accolades are amazing:
5 NBA Championships
3 Finals MVP's
12 All Star games
10 times All NBA
4 assist titles
2 steals titles
1992 Olympic gold medallist
As astonishing as that list of honours are, as much as he was a serial winner, Magic's influence over the way basketball is played – the style – is perhaps more profound. As a 6'9” point guard, Magic was something that the basketball world had never seen. His vision and flair were at that time perhaps only matched by Pete Maravich. Pistol Pete was a scorer at heart – Magic got his points, but his game was about the pass. The all time assists per game leader at 11.2, Johnson transformed passing from a functional part of offense, into an art form.
Magic used his size to create advantages that other guards simply couldn't. He could see over the defense; he would back down the smaller point guards of the era into areas where he could exploit them; he used his height to create unusual angles that led to some of the most artful bounce passes ever seen.
The flamboyance of Magic's game matched his larger than life personality. Magic's smile lights up a room, and his charisma, along with that of his great friend and rival Larry Bird, rescued the NBA from the dark days of the 1970's. Put simply, the NBA doesn't exist as we know it, without Earvin 'Magic' Johnson.
Of course, Magic's post prime was lost after an HIV diagnosis forced his retirement in 1991. Magic made a brief comeback as a 36 year old in 1996. This time playing in his 'natural' power forward position, Magic showed that he still had it.
Legend has it, Sprewell is still trying to find Magic.
Shooting Guard – Dennis Johnson
Say what? You’re doing an All Time team of players starting with the letter J and Michael freakin’ Jordan isn’t your starting 2 guard? Well, yeah. The J’s are loaded on the perimeter and thinner in the middle, so J’s Coach Phil Jackson is going to tinker with the positional spectrum a touch.
And by the way, shame on you for disrespecting Dennis Johnson. DJ is one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the sport, and perfectly compliments his back court teammate. His ferocious nature hid a sharp basketball intelligence – his telepathy with Larry Bird was remarkable.
Johnson was a winner. He won three NBA titles and picked up the Finals MVP in 1979, when the Sonics won their only NBA championship. In 1979, the Sonics lost 17 of their first 22 games when coach Lenny Wilkens inserted DJ into the starting lineup. The team flourished and the rest, as they say, is history. He was a notorious hot head who clashed with coaches frequently. Wilkens tired of DJ and he was traded to Phoenix; Seattle finished 22 games worse that next season.
Making teams better is the common theme of DJ’s career. When the Suns traded Johnson to Boston at the beginning of the 1984 season, they were 12 games worse off, whilst Boston immediately won a title (and another 2 years later).
The raw numbers – 14.1 points, 5.1 assists and 1.3 steals – don’t tell the story with Johnson. He was a rabid defender that made life easier for those around him.
All up, Johnson played 14 seasons in the NBA for Seattle, Phoenix and Boston (where his #3 has been retired), earning himself 9 All Defensive berths and playing in 5 All Star games. He was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013.
Small Forward – Michael Jordan
And here he is. You can’t have a J Team without the GOAT. Jordan nominally fills the ‘3’ in this lineup, but he’ll probably defend the ‘2’ spot.
What’s left to say about Michael Jordan? After the media saturation of The Last Dance, there's really not a lot! Jordan’s dominance over the game in his era was reasserted – even if it didn’t need to be – by the recent series. It also put his name firmly back at the top of the All Time NBA pyramid (for this writer, Jordan has always sat at the top of the pile) at a time when the debate about he and his J Team running mate LeBron James had been at fever pitch.
Even though they’re well known, we’re obligated to cover MJ’s career accolades:
6x NBA championships
6x Finals MVP
5x NBA MVP
14x All Star
11x All NBA (10 times as a first teamer)
9x All Defensive
10x scoring leader
3x steals leader
1988 Defensive Player of the Year
Highest career scoring average (30.1) in league history
And that’s just his NBA trinkets! There is also a pair of Olympic gold medals and a myriad of collegiate awards to MJ’s name. For all of his trophies, baubles and statistical dominance, Jordan’s cultural impact perhaps matches his athletic feats.
His impact upon basketball culture is immeasurable. He was famously drafted at #3 because of the long held belief that a guard couldn’t lead you to a championship (whoops!). Even Magic Johnson played his prime with the greatest centre of all time; Jordan played with an ageing Artis Gilmore, a washed up Bill Cartwright or a journeyman in Luc Longley. Jordan led the league in scoring for 10 straight completed seasons; a record that nobody will ever come close to breaking.
MJ changed the game by making the basketball chess pieces move in ways they never had. He initiated offense from the wing, he made point guards peripheral ball handlers or spot up shooters, he made his bigs into rollers rather than centrepieces – essentially the prototype of modern team structures. He also showed that guards could dominate on offense and defense. To that point, few guards or wings had been able to dictate the game at both ends of the floor. He remains the only player to win Defensive Player of the Year and lead the league in scoring in the same season – he also won MVP that year, just for good measure. As he aged, his mid post turnaround jumper became almost unstoppable. Again, he made the big man’s zone his own. For all the talk of Jordan’s insane athleticism, it’s his body control that will never be matched. You hit him, and he adjusts. The amount of spectacular 3 point plays that Jordan earned through his career is incredible.
Off the court, Jordan’s effect on pop culture was unparalleled. Air Jordan’s – both modern and retro - are still the most revered of basketball sneakers, some 17 years after he retired for the final time. The Jumpman logo is instantly recognisable. It’s 2020 and you can still say ‘Be like Mike’ and people know exactly what you mean.
Perhaps the best indication of the grip that Michael Jeffrey Jordan still holds over the NBA world? We just watched 10 hours of a documentary where we all knew the ending. There is literally no other person in the world that could command that sort of attention.
Power Forward – LeBron James
Three of the greatest four players in history? This team just isn’t fair!
LeBron is – unbelievably – the 3rd best creator on this team. That’s absurd. But imagine LeBron as the finisher, taking sweet dimes from Jordan and Magic as he thunders dunk after dunk on the fools that stand in his way.
Physically, there hasn’t been another specimen like LeBron. He’s essentially Karl Malone, with Dominique Wilkins' explosive leaping and Steve Nash’s speed and agility. Throw in point guard skills and vision and you wonder how on Earth you stop him. The short answer is that you can’t, as the NBA has discovered over the past 17 seasons.
For all of his ability to put points on the board you almost want more from LeBron. Even at age 35, he can get to the bucket at will against literally any defender. Yet he’s only led the league in scoring once, way back in 2008. James’ mindset is closer to Magic than MJ, however. He has always been a willing and able passer who makes it clear he’d rather get his teammates involved than take every shot himself. Assuming we ever finish the current season, LeBron will surely walk away with his first assists crown.
LeBron is as close to a complete basketballer as the world has ever seen, with perhaps his 3 point shot – still a solid 34.4 for his career – the only chink in King James’ armour. His career averages of 27.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 made three pointers and 1.6 steals are testament to his dominance.
James has experienced some well documented playoff meltdowns, but 3 championships – and a matching Finals MVP for each ring - including the dethroning of a juggernaut Warriors, show that James has put any early career playoff yips to bed.
Sixteen All Star games, 15 All NBA awards, 6 All Defensive nominations and 4 MVP trophies. Even if LeBron isn’t the Goat, he’s amongst the very best ever to lace ‘em up. We should feel privileged to witness his greatness.
Centre - Bobby Jones
On a team with so much offensive firepower, Bobby Jones and Dennis Johnson are prefect compliments….not that the other three are exactly defensive negatives! This squad is almost comically loaded.
Jones earned his Secretary of Defense nickname with 11 All Defensive awards in his 12 season career. Whilst he was a capable offensive player, scoring in the mid teems regularly through his prime, Jones took rare pride in his work at the defensive end of the floor and never demanded touches on the other end. As his legendary college coach Dean Smith once said, Jones is ‘a man at peace’ with his place in the game, to the point where coaches had to beg him to be more assertive on the offensive end of the court.
Jones was an unscrupulously fair player. He always picked up opposition players when they hit the floor, always raised his hand when he committed fouls, never threw elbows or engaged in the darker arts of the game. That being said, he did play the game with frightening intensity. A gifted athlete, Jones was one of the fastest big men in the game. His ability to fill the lanes led to streaking dunks on one end, and a series of highlight reel rejections at the other. He averaged 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks through his career. Remarkably, he put up over 2 blocks and 2 steals per game in the 1976 and 1977 seasons.
Like all of his J Team mates, Jones was a chronic winner – his teams in Denver and Philadelphia never missed the playoffs.
As well as his All Defensive awards, and a championship in 1983, Jones played in 5 All Star games, and was the league’s very first winner of the 6th Man of the Year Award.