Throughout NBA history there have been countless star players and star lineups. That raises the question: what would the best possible lineup or starting five look like, featuring any combination of players in NBA history?
At first, it’s tempting to simply name the best player at each position and combine them into a starting five. But basketball’s a team sport, and there’s so much more than just individual star power. Things like teamwork and cohesiveness are just as valuable.
It’s also important to acknowledge how the roles of each player complement each other. Having a surplus of players that all play the same role can be detrimental in some cases. Instead, teams with a mix of scoring, ball movement, rebounding and defense will almost always be better suited for success.
With that in mind, here is the best possible starting five in NBA history.
Note: All players are assumed to be in their prime.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com/
Point Guard: Stephen Curry
Magic Johnson is the clear-cut best point guard of all-time. But considering the players that this team would end up building around, Stephen Curry fit in much better.
For one, Curry doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He’s arguably one of the best off-ball players ever, as evident by his success in 2017 & 2018 with the star-studded Warriors. This is particularly important in this lineup because of the surplus of ball-dominant scorers.
The defining aspect of Curry’s game is his shooting. In his historic 2016 season, he shot splits of .504/.454/.908 en route to a unanimous MVP selection. Curry’s been so efficient that he’s never dropped below 40% shooting from beyond the arc in a full season.
Curry’s shooting is so incredible that it causes teams to completely restructure their traditional defense in order to contain him. This opens up so many things for the rest of Curry’s teammates and for the offense as a whole.
According to The Basketball Economist on Twitter, the 2018 Warriors’ offensive rating with Curry playing was 120.4, a mark that would’ve led the league by a sizable margin. Contrarily, this number without Curry on the floor dropped to a mere 106.4, worse than 23 other NBA teams that season.
There are other factors beyond Curry that played into this discrepancy, but it’s a margin that’s too hard to ignore. Curry’s presence on the court translates to immense offensive success. Magic Johnson is still the best point guard ever, but Curry’s offensive impact and exceptional shooting can’t be passed up.
Shooting Guard: Michael Jordan
This pick comes with little debate. Michael Jordan is not only the greatest shooting guard of all-time, but he’s the greatest basketball player of all-time. Unlike Magic Johnson, that unquestionable greatness alone earns him a spot on this team.
For starters, Jordan was an electrifying scorer, one most would consider the best to ever do it. He captured a record ten scoring titles in just fifteen seasons.
Jordan’s defense was also elite. He captured the 1988 Defensive Player of the Year and made the All-Defensive team 10 times. His 2.35 steals per game average ranks third in NBA history.
Since Curry lacks elite perimeter defense, Jordan’s prowess in that area makes him all the more valuable to this team. If there’s an elite offensive talent at the opponent’s guard spot, Jordan would be the one to neutralize them, while giving them all they could handle with his unstoppable offensive game.
MJ’s pure talent as a player was undeniably great. But it was his competitive demeanor and winning mentality that was responsible for so much of his success. Jordan was nearly unstoppable in the playoffs, and set countless postseason records that still stand today. His six NBA championships and several clutch shots were no accident. Jordan was the ultimate competitor and always came up big when it mattered.
Small Forward: LeBron James
Like Jordan, LeBron James is too good to leave off most teams. This lineup is no exception.
LeBron’s reputation precedes itself. He’s widely regarded as the greatest of his generation, and one of few players on Michael Jordan’s level. A case can even be made that no one else can do so many different things at such high levels (scoring, playmaking, rebounding, defending, leadership, etc) like LeBron can.
In relation to this team, James can fill a number of needs. His time with the Cavaliers, Heat, and Lakers have all featured James assuming different roles and responsibilities at high levels. He can work as the primary facilitator or as a score-first wing while adding versatility on the defensive end. Or, if need be, James can take over as the team’s undisputed do-it-all leader.
He’s displayed this ability several times, whether it was scoring his team’s last 25 points, scoring 41 in back-to-back elimination games in the finals, or recording eight 40-point games in a single playoff run.
James was also a tremendous defender in his prime. He finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting twice. In his 2012 MVP season he was at or near the top of the league in nearly every defensive statistic. LeBron can also guard just about every position, which allows for a wide array of defensive schemes and game plans.
It’s also worth mentioning that James being picked for this lineup was a big reason why Stephen Curry got the nod at PG over Magic Johnson. James & Johnson are essentially both ball-dominant point forwards that would have difficulty competing for enough touches with Jordan already on the team. Johnson also doesn’t spread the floor like Curry does, nor compensate for the lack of elite 3-point shooting from Jordan or James.
With that in mind, it was either between Magic or LeBron on this team. LeBron got the edge because he has few weaknesses in his game and provides flexibility on both ends.
Power Forward: Larry Bird
This position is where it gets interesting. On one hand, pairing together two traditional bigs in a ‘Twin Tower’ setting would be a nightmare for opponents to defend. There are so many great centers in the history of basketball so it’s very tough to settle on just one rather than two.
However, doing that would compromise the opportunities for other players in this lineup. Having two big men clogging the lanes wouldn’t bode well for the driving opportunities that make Jordan & LeBron so effective.
Additionally, Curry, Jordan, and LeBron have all thrived when surrounded by shooters. And there’s no forward in history who’s a better outside shooter than Larry Bird.
Bird played in a less-modernized era that featured far less three-point shooting than today’s game. However, he made the most of his chances. Bird topped the 40% mark from three in half of his twelve full NBA seasons and is a two-time member of the 50/40/90 club.
If Bird played in today’s game which values the three ball so much more, it’s scary to think how much he would have benefitted. He was far ahead of his time.
Bird also fits well because he’s not a ball stopper. His Celtics squads in the 80’s were known for their tremendous ball movement. Bird was a huge part of that, averaging 6.3 assists per game for his career.
Center: Hakeem Olajuwon
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell all have a strong case to be a part of this lineup. But it’s Hakeem Olajuwon who gets the nod at center.
For one, Olajuwon played amazing basketball in the playoffs against stifling defenses and top-notch centers. He led his Rockets in all five major statistical categories in the 1994 playoffs, topping it off with a ring. Hakeem somehow bested that performance the very next year with another championship win, this time averaging 33 points per game throughout the run. He beat an impressive total of seven 50-win teams through the course of each postseason.
Olajuwon’s offensive dominance is easy to see. But it’s only part of the reason why he’s on this team.
Unlike most traditional bigs, Olajuwon could hit jump shots. This would allow for better spacing, which is essential for this team to maximize its potential. Olajuwon’s decent free throw shooting also eliminates any chance of opponents successfully pulling off a ‘hack-a-Shaq’ strategy.
Furthermore, Olajuwon is one of the best defenders ever. In his prime, he neutralized some of the game’s best big men in the postseason. Olajuwon held Patrick Ewing to 36% shooting in the ‘94 finals and MVP David Robinson to 44% in the ‘95 conference finals.
A consistent big-game performer that brings the complete package on both ends of the floor, Olajuwon rounds out the team at center.
To summarize, this lineup is proficient in nearly every possible facet of the game. On offense, there’s little to no flaws. Curry & Bird provide elite outside shooting while being able to contribute to cohesive ball movement. Jordan is the best scorer of all-time and can get a bucket from anywhere on the court. The same goes for LeBron to a lesser extent, who adds another capable ball handler and playmaker. And finally, Olajuwon’s low-post game combined with his ability to hit a jumper is exactly what this team needs at center. He provides elite scoring in his own right while not compromising the offensive flow because of his floor spacing and free throw shooting.
Defensively, this team isn’t as flawless. But it still features some of the best defenders ever. On top of his unstoppable offense, Jordan was a defensive pest that would wreak havoc on the opponent’s best guard or wing. LeBron’s a proven lockdown defender as well, and can switch onto every position with ease. Olajuwon’s big-time performances against great centers hints that no one in history would be better suited to defend the interior than Olajuwon himself.
Like most things in sports, this lineup is all subjective and completely debatable. Fans will never know what the best hypothetical team is, but it’s nevertheless worth speculating.