As most of you who have spent any time on the interwebs knows, we all love a good list. And those that know me are well aware of my love of basketball history, and debating about all things basketball.
The Last Dance documentary has inspired the basketball world to yet again argue the merits of players from different eras. How would an all 1990's team fare against the best of today? In reality, it's an unanswerable question. So instead of comparing eras, how about we combine eras? I've put together what is – in my eyes, at least – the strongest five for each letter of the alphabet.
Why? For a few reasons. Firstly, I love a good debate (see above). Secondly, I truly believe that to understand the present state of basketball, you need to learn about the past. Thirdly, I hope that a few of the players of yesteryear brought up in these lists can give you a more educated view of the origins of the sport we all love.
Starting with the letter A (as is traditional), we'll work our way through the alphabet. I've stuck to one basic criteria: I try to put a team together that would work positionally. That means you won't get Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Oakley on the O's team, for instance. Oh, we also won't have an letter 'X' edition, as there has literally never been a NBA player with a surname starting with the letter X.
So let's get to it! If you miss basketball, if no one else can help you, and if you can find them.....maybe you can hire The A Team.
Point Guard: Nate 'Tiny' Archibald
New York is famed for it's Playground Point Guards, and Archibald might be the very best of them. He almost didn't make it out of the Bronx, being mentored by fellow playground legend Pablo Robertson to stay in school and improve his grades, which eventually led him to Texas El Paso.
Archibald spent his most of professional career with the Royals/Kings and Celtics, earning six All Star appearances and five All NBA nominations, as well as a title in 1981 as the steady veteran hand amongst the talented young Celtics.
The lefty had a fine mid range game, but it was his incredible speed and agility, aligned with shifty ball handling that made Tiny's game shine. He could get to the bucket against anyone and, despite his diminutive frame, was a tricky finisher around the hoop.
In 1973, Archibald became the only NBA player to lead the league in both scoring (34.0) and assists (11.4) per game in the same season.* Archibald was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.
*Oscar Robertson achieved this feat in the 1968 season, but it wasn't officially recognised as totals were used to measure season statistics, not per game averages.
Shooting Guard: Ray Allen
When you think of Ray Allen, you probably automatically think of this:
On This Date: Five years ago, Ray Allen hit one of the most clutch shots in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/TWBDq6P8uF— ESPN (@espn) June 18, 2018
That's fair – it's arguably the most famous play of the entire millennium. But to boil Ray Allen's career down to a single shot he made as a 37 year old is grossly unfair. In Seattle and Milwaukee, Allen was one of the best all round offensive players in the NBA. In the clip below, he hits clutch shots (of course), makes gorgeous passes and he scalps fools who dare to meet him at the rim.
Allen could do it all through his storied Hall of Fame career. The 10 time All Star finished his time in the league with over 24,000 points and his 2,973 made three pointers is far and away the most in NBA history.
He's 6'5”, incredibly athletic, alongside Steph Curry and Larry Bird the best shooter I've ever seen (his form is textbook), and an excellent play maker. If Ray Allen came into today's league, he'd play like the illegitimate spawn of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Small Forward: Paul Arizin
Paul Arizin is a name that I'd expect most readers under the age of 40 to have never heard of. That's fine. Arizin's career stretched from 1951 to 1962; it's not an era that really catches the attention of Gen Y'ers and Millennials. However, I'm here to tell you that Arizin was a superstar. Along with George Mikan, Arizin was the face of the NBA in the 50's. He only played 10 season, so his all time totals are lower than some of his peers, but an indication of his standing in the league is how many All Star games he played: 10. That's right; he was an All Star in literally every season he suited up in the league.
Arizin was as Pennsylvanian as they come. Born in Philadelphia, High School in Philly, college at Villanova, and – via the 1st pick in the 1950 draft – a career Philadelphia Warrior. He even died in Pennsylvania back in 2006.
The 6'4” wing was one of the first players to utilise the outside shot (the 3 point line wasn't even a concept at this stage) and that in turn allowed him to use a quick first step to get to the basket. Arizin led the league in scoring twice, and alongside his scoring title in 1952 was named NBA MVP. Remarkably, Arizin spent the two season immediately after his MVP campaign in military service with the US Marines. Imagine the media coverage these days if Giannis Antetokounmpo didn't play the 2021 and 2022 seasons to do military service in his native Greece!
Arizin won an NBA championship in 1956, and was named to 4 All NBA teams. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978.
Power Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo
So we venture from the 50's to the present day. Giannis Antetokounmpo will (Greek military service pending, of course) fill our other forward spot, alongside Arizin.
Giannis is likely to be awarded his 2nd consecutive MVP if this season ever gets finished, and could conceivably combine it with a Defensive Player of the Year trophy. Giannis is, quite simply, like nothing the basketball world has ever seen before. He possesses a condor like wingspan, an impossibly long stride, an incredibly quick leap, and – despite what James Harden might have you believe – excellent basketballing acumen.
I don't need to tell you how good this man is at the game – we're all fortunate to bear witness – but I will ask you: what is Giannis' peak? Considering the exponential growth he's shown season upon season so far in his career, what could he be in five years, when he'll still only be 30? Let's just whisper it for the moment, but we may be looking at a new entrant at the very peak of the NBA mountain top, along side LeBron James, Michael Jordan and the man that rounds out our 'A' team.
Centre: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
The artist formerly known as Lew Alcindor is, undoubtedly, one of the most decorated basketballers to ever walk the earth:
Hall of Fame inductee
19 time All Star
6 time MVP
15 time All NBA
11 time All Defensive
2 time Finals MVP
2 time scoring champion
All time NBA leader in points scored
3rd All time in blocks*
And this doesn't even cover his rebounding and block titles, his Rookie of the Year award, or his legendary college career at UCLA (where the NCAA banned dunking to try to curtail his dominance). Amongst the endless MJ vs LeBron debate, people forget about ol' Murdock.
Kareem is famous for his skyhook – the borderline unstoppable low post move that he unfurled time and time again. Automatic over either shoulder to about 15 feet, it became the signature move of the league through the 70's and 80's.
To focus solely on his signature move paints Kareem as one dimensional, and doesn't do the great man justice. Abdul-Jabbar was the best player in the NBA for a full decade, up to the point where Larry Bird and his young Lakers teammate Magic Johnson took the mantle. His six MVP awards is more than any other player in history. Whilst his scoring number speak for themselves, and his passing was revolutionary (he averaged 4+ assists on nine different occasions) Kareem's defense was his truest strength. Listed at 7'2” (although many suspect he's closer to 7'4”), he was a lithe and graceful athlete, able to move quickly around the court and envelope players with his length.
Kareem's only sin was timing – he was at his peak when the NBA was at it's lowest. The NBA was a drug addled mess in the 70's and public interest in the game reflected that. Kareem has often credited acclaimed martial artist and film star Bruce Lee with giving him the physical and mental training to prevail through the cloud that had descended upon the league. That strict physical regimen meant that Abdul-Jabbar was fit and fast enough, even in his late 30's to keep up with his Showtime Laker teammates, remaining a solid contributor up until his final season in 1989.
*Blocks were not recorded through Kareem's first four NBA seasons. If we assume he averaged three blocks per game through that period (for contrast, he averaged 3.5 blocks per game over his next four seasons), that adds 1,086 rejections to his total and takes him 445 ahead of official all time leader Hakeem Olajuwon)
So that's your A team, folks. A very, very strong lineup, too. Will there be another squad in my All Time Alphabet league that could match them?