Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell – Perhaps the greatest rivalry in NBA history resurfaces in the Franchise Tournament. The greatest offensive force in league history faces the greatest defensive stopper. These two battled 57 times when Wilt was a Warrior, with Russell’s Celtics winning 41 of those encounters. Chamberlain averaged 35.4 PPG in those encounters, which, while obviously dominant, was less than the 41.5 PPG he averaged in his Warriors career. Russell’s ability to defend Chamberlain one-on-one with no help will be an essential part of Boston’s defense; they can’t afford to sag off of Golden State’s shooters if they have any chance of slowing the Warriors down.
Larry Bird vs. Rick Barry – An absolutely joyous matchup between an original (Barry) and his doppelganger (Bird). Both players were known for their transcendent shooting and passing skills, and each was the best player on a championship team (in Bird’s case, teams). Bird was a bigger player (6’9” and 220 lbs, compared to Barry’s 6’7” 205 pound frame), and can easily switch to power forward when needed. Neither player should be expected to stop the other, though Boston can switch the multitalented Kevin McHale onto Barry while Bird guards Neil Johnston. Expect John Havlicek to play heavy minutes on Barry as well, while Golden State’s best perimeter defender, Tom Gola, will often be tasked with guarding Bird and Boston’s other wings.
Bob Cousy vs. Stephen Curry – One of the first showmen in league history takes on the most recent. Cousy, one of the greatest passers in league history, led the league in assists for eight straight seasons, and was the second player in league history to win the MVP award. Curry, one of the greatest shooters ever, has led the league in made three point field goals for four years running, and has captured the last two MVP awards. Both are probably better defenders than they’re given credit for; Cousy accumulated more defensive than offensive win shares in his career, while Curry has become a solid defender over time, as detailed here. However, neither is a good bet to stop the other, but Cousy, in particular, must avoid defensive lapses against the explosive Curry, whose three-point shooting provides a unique challenge for opponents.
Boston’s versatility vs. Golden State’s – The Celtics have the ability to win any type of matchup with their depth and versatility. They can play big with any combination of Russell, Dave Cowens, Robert Parish, McHale, and Tom Heinsohn, or play small with Havlicek and Paul Pierce occupying the forward positions. They can also trot out a defensive lineup featuring Russell, McHale, Havlicek, and Sam Jones, and can space the floor on offense with Bird, Bill Sharman, and Pierce. They also have Red Auerbach on the sidelines, who got the most out of his players and popularized several strategic concepts, such as the sixth man. He’ll meld the extraordinary talent on the Boston roster and put them in position to succeed. Golden State has several solid wing defenders in Gola and Guy Rodgers, and two players who can protect the paint in Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond. However, their best lineup probably consists of one of Gola or Thurmond alongside Chamberlain, Barry, Paul Arizin, and Curry, which leaves them vulnerable to opposing perimeter threats. Expect Boston to hide their defensive liabilities better, and to benefit from the two-way ability of many of their stars.
Wilt the Stilt – One could argue that despite his gaudy numbers as a Warrior, Wilt’s best years were with the Sixers, where he served as the centerpiece of one of the great teams in NBA history. The Warriors’ version of Wilt was accused of being a stat-monger who cared more about individual glory than team success. Is that a fair assessment? Probably not, since his teams made one NBA Finals appearance and two Eastern Division Finals appearances in his five and a half years there. However, there are concerns about how he will mesh with Barry, a notoriously difficult personality who has lambasted Chamberlain in the past, and how he will react to playing alongside so much firepower. If coach Al Attles can channel him to play like he did with the Sixers, then Golden State has a chance to win this series. If he’s not interested in letting his teammates shine, they’re in trouble.
Despite the questions surrounding fit and personality, Chamberlain and Barry play brilliantly, and lead Golden State to several wins over the favored Celtics. Boston, however, has the deeper, more versatile roster, and their championship mettle comes through over the course of the series. Every single player on the Boston roster won at least one championship with the club, and the 17-time champions advance, as expected, to the Franchise Tournament finals.
Boston wins, four games to two.
Boston faces the winner of the All-Time Lakers vs. All-Time Pistons in the finals.
Recently, I had the privilege of participating in the #AllTimeNBADraft with 19 other basketball historians, the details of which can be found here. To recap, every player in NBA and ABA history was eligible to be drafted, and once selected, that individual was ineligible to be selected by any other team. We were also assessing peak value, so we had to select one season of that player’s career, with a maximum of four seasons per decade. Here are my selections:
My starting point guard was the team’s first selection (pick 15), ‘The Big O’ Oscar Robertson. While many identify him with the ’61-62 season, when he averaged a triple-double, I selected his sole MVP season, ’63-64, when he led the league in assists per game, free throw percentage, and offensive win shares, and carried the Royals to 55 wins. Oscar was able to punish the smaller guards of the 60s with his physicality (standing at 6’5” and weighing 205 pounds), but his skillset would translate to any era, and he’s as good as any lead guard in this draft. He’s joined in the starting backcourt by the 1982-83 Defensive Player of the Year, Sidney Moncrief. As heralded as Moncrief was on defense, he actually led the league in Offensive Box Plus/Minus that year, and is one of six players on the team with a 60 percent true shooting percentage in their selected year. Both starters can handle the ball, post up, and Moncrief’s athleticism will allow him to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter player. Chauncey Billups, the team’s first selection off the bench, is another do-it-all guard who can play with either of the starters. In 2007-08, Billups shot 40.1 percent from three on 4.4 attempts per game, and his great shooting, low usage, and high efficiency make him an essential part of the lineup. Michael Redd, who shot 39.5 percent from three on 5.2 attempts per game in ’05-06, will be tasked with standing in the corner and creating space for all of this team’s great mid-range and low-post options. While he’s the team’s most natural shooting guard, he’ll play sparingly due to the versatility of the other guards. Derek Harper, the team’s fifth guard, is another all-around gem can play both guard positions and shoot from long-range, while also serving as an ace defender (selected to the All-NBA Defensive 2nd team in ’89-90 when he averaged 2.3 steals per game).
The starting forwards are two unstoppable forces who should provide great balance to the guard rotation. James Worthy, who can play either forward position, will start off at small forward. His athleticism made him one of the game’s greatest finishers, and in his selected season, ’85-86, it translated to a 57.9 percent shooting percentage and a 61.3 percent true shooting percentage, all while maintaining a low usage percentage for a player of his caliber (22.6 percent). Dirk Nowitzki, the starting power forward, achieved the shooter’s Holy Grail (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three point range, 90 percent from the foul line) in his ’06-07 campaign, when he won the league’s MVP award and led the Mavericks to 67 wins. Unfortunately, that season is best known for his team’s first-round flameout against the Golden State Warriors, but his remarkable efficiency and shooting prowess will perfectly complement Worthy and the other starters. While Worthy received the starting nod, this team will also have the option of starting all-around stud Bob Dandridge when facing high-scoring wings. Dandridge was a premier defender, who helped lead the Bullets to the NBA Finals in his selected season, when he made the All-NBA Defensive 1st team, while averaging 20.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 4.7 APG. Bernard King is the bench’s best scorer, with remarkable efficiency (57.2 percent shooting percentage and 61.9 percent true shooting percentage) and a proven ability to score under pressure (a league-leading 34.8 PPG and 27.6 PER in the ’84 playoffs). Dan Roundfield, the backup power forward, was another first-team All-NBA defender who also averaged a double-double and made the All-NBA 2nd team in his selected season (’79-80). The deep forward roster allows this team to play small (with Worthy at power forward), play for offense (with King and Nowitzki), play for defense (with Dandridge and Roundfield) or mix and match depending on the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.
The great Willis Reed will man the middle as the team’s starting center. In his standout ’69-70 season, he won every MVP award (regular season, finals, and all-star game), while earning All-NBA Defensive 1st team honors and leading the league in defensive win shares. He also provided one of the greatest highlights in sports history that year, and gives this team toughness, physicality, and leadership. The backup big men provide a mix of rim protection (Jermaine O’Neal) and offensive efficiency (Brad Daugherty), depending on the matchup. Daugherty, a remarkably efficient offensive force, led the league with a .635 true shooting percentage in the ’92-93 season, and did not dominate the ball to achieve this mark (21.1 usage percentage). O’Neal is the team’s best rim protector, who can complement Nowitzki or partner with Roundfield to provide maximum defensive resistance to opponents.
A team with this much talent needs a coach who can alter the rotation based on matchups, keep players engaged, and command respect in the locker room. Rick Carlisle is a remarkably adaptable coach who always finds a way to put his teams in the best position to succeed. He’s aided by the fact that this team is full of high-character individuals who weren’t known for creating problems. On a team where the talent discrepancy between many starters and bench players is negligible, he’s an ideal coach who will help them compete against any opponent.
Our next match features two of the greatest rivals in NBA history. They met in four straight playoffs from 1988 to 1991, with three of those matches occurring in the Eastern Conference Finals. They represented the East in six straight NBA finals from 1988 to 1993, winning five championships between them. They also feature two of the biggest names from a golden age of NBA basketball – Michael Jordan, the most marketable athlete in NBA history, and Isiah Thomas, the baby-faced assassin who was Jordan’s chief adversary in his early career. The battle between the All-Time Chicago Bulls vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons is steeped in tradition, and features a number of players who harbor ill will from this contemptuous rivalry.
Isiah Thomas vs. Chicago’s backcourt: Coach Phil Jackson values length in his starting backcourt, and earlier in the tournament, he eschewed starting a traditional point guard in favor of having Scottie Pippen serve as his primary ballhandler. While Pippen and Jordan make up the best defensive backcourt combination in the tournament, they are vulnerable to lightning-quick smaller guards who can penetrate. How will Jackson guard Isiah Thomas? He can stick with his starting lineup, and have Jordan chase around Thomas, or he can play the matchups and start Norm Van Lier, an eight-time all-NBA defensive selection who had the same listed height as Thomas (6’1”). If he starts Van Lier, Pippen would move to his natural small forward slot, and Chet Walker would slide into the sixth man role. This would create a bigger rebounding burden on the Bulls frontcourt, however, where they are already over matched, as described below.
Dominant defenses: These are two of the best defensive teams in the tournament. Combined, their players made 56 all-NBA defensive teams, and earned eight Defensive Player of the Year awards. Despite the plethora of scoring threats on each side, this series could feature a surprisingly high number of low-scoring games.
Advanced statistics vs. The Eye Test: Although Detroit features a slew of Hall-of-Famers, the advanced statistics of their superstars are not overwhelming, particularly Thomas, as described here. Despite this, their team members should complement each other well, with a nice mix of penetrators (Thomas and Dave Bing), shooters (George Yardley, Chauncey Billups, Joe Dumars, and even Bill Laimbeer), all-around dynamos (Grant Hill), low post scorers/rebounders (Bob Lanier, Bailey Howell, and Larry Foust), and dominant rebounders/defenders (Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace). Chicago, meanwhile, features Michael Jordan, who is not only regarded by experts as one of the greatest players of all time, but who is the GOAT of advanced statistics, standing as the all-time leader in PER and WS/48. He’s surrounded by a mix of Hall-of-Fame and all-star level competitors, who don’t appear to fit as well with one another as the Detroit club. The Bulls lack outside shooting, which will make it easier for Detroit to employ a modified version of The Jordan Rules. Artis Gilmore, their best center, will also have a difficult time, since he will have to find a way to avoid clogging the lane for Chicago’s penetrators while working as their best low-post scoring option.
Chicago’s perimeter length: The long arms of Jordan and Pippen will loom large in this series, particularly when they share backcourt duties. Jerry Sloan and Luol Deng provide additional perimeter options who can use their length for defensive and rebounding advantages. Detroit’s perimeter options are not as long or athletic as Chicago’s (outside of Grant Hill, who will match up with Pippen frequently), which will help the Bulls make up for their lack of dominant frontcourt rebounding. Speaking of which…
Detroit’s rebounding advantage: Detroit should control the glass in this series. They feature four players who led the league in total rebounds for at least one year as a Piston (Foust, Laimbeer, Rodman, and Wallace), and two others who averaged in double figures in their time in Detroit (Howell and Lanier). While Chicago’s wings will try to help mitigate this advantage, Rodman, in particular, could go off in this series. The Bulls may again have to adjust their starting lineup for matchup purposes, with Horace Grant taking the place of Bob Love. However, benching Love and Chet Walker in favor of Grant and Norm Van Lier will put a much greater scoring burden on Jordan, and Chicago’s offense may stall without multiple shot creators against Detroit’s dominant defense.
Chicago’s spacing: The Bulls face several lineup dilemmas, as outlined above. If Phil Jackson starts Van Lier, Jordan, Pippen, Grant, and Gilmore, Detroit will pack the paint and force Chicago’s mediocre shooters to beat them from long-range. Chicago doesn’t have much shooting coming off the bench, either. Deng and Toni Kukoc were pedestrian three point shooters during their times in Chicago (shooting 33.1 percent and 32.7 percent, respectively), while Derrick Rose was below average, particularly for a guard. Phil Jackson’s triangle offense will help to create space for the Bulls scorers, but Detroit features a number of smart defenders who will try to cut off Chicago’s strengths.
Recently, the good folks at the Over & Back Podcast asked what the third greatest rivalry in NBA history was, conceding that the first two were Wilt vs. Russell and Magic vs. Bird. A good argument could be made for Isiah vs. Jordan, especially considering how impactful their teams were to the championship chase in the late 80s and early 90s. Neither of these stone-cold competitors would want to lose this historic matchup, which should be closely contested. Despite Jordan’s brilliance, the flaws of the Bulls roster are too much for him to overcome, and he suffers another heartbreaking defeat to his nemesis.
Lakers’ firepower vs. Philadelphia’s defensive versatility: The Lakers feature six of the top 28 scorers in NBA history, four of whom spent the prime years of their career with the franchise (a fifth, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, may not have reached the heights that he did with Milwaukee but still won three MVP awards in Los Angeles). Sixers player/coach Billy Cunningham has several options: he can try to outscore L.A. with his own Hall-of-Fame offensive weapons, or play his defensive lineup, featuring Maurice Cheeks, Andre Iguodala, and Bobby Jones, in hopes of slowing the Lakers’ offense down. Cunningham will likely mix and match his offensive playmakers with his defensive stoppers. The Sixers will also have to figure out how they guard 6’9” Magic Johnson; Allen Iverson, who stood almost a foot shorter, seems ill-suited for this role, so they may have to start Cheeks or Iguodala in his place.
Battle of the Boards: The Lakers do not start a traditional power forward, relying on the versatility of Elgin Baylor and Magic Johnson to help Abdul-Jabbar on the glass. Abdul-Jabbar will also have his hands full trying to keep Philly’s Wilt Chamberlain off the glass, as Baylor and Johnson will with the irrepressible Charles Barkley. Philly’s ability to seize an advantage on the glass will be an important indicator of their ability to win this series. The Lakers have behemoths George Mikan, Shaquille O’Neal, and their own version of Wilt Chamberlain coming off the bench, but they would be awkward fits alongside each other or Jabbar, so they will likely play one at a time. Philly’s Dolph Schayes and Billy Cunningham can take advantage of the Lakers forwards, and give the Sixers a rebounding advantage off the bench, assuming Moses Malone can hold his own against L.A.’s fleet of backup big men.
Los Angeles’s backcourt advantage: The Lakers have the best starting backcourt in our tournament, with three MVP-level performers in Magic Johnson, Jerry West, and Kobe Bryant (who will masquerade as a small forward at the beginning of the each half). Philly features former MVP Allen Iverson, along with Hall-of-Famer Hal Greer and versatile defensive stoppers Maurice Cheeks and Andre Iguodala. While the Sixers’ backcourt is excellent, none of these players can match the accomplishments of the Lakers’ trio. Magic Johnson will create tons of matchup issues, and West and Bryant have the ability to take over any game they play in.
Defensive matchups: If Philadelphia starts Cheeks or Iguodala, then Magic Johnson has a logical resting place on defense. If they start Allen Iverson, the cross-matches will be fascinating. Expect Pat Riley to have Jerry West guard Iverson, with Magic either checking Hal Greer or Charles Barkley (while the latter suggestion seems bizarre, it creates logical matchups for Elgin Baylor (Julius Erving), Kobe Bryant (Greer) and West). On the other end of the court, Philly would have the 6’2” Greer guarding Johnson, and likely offering him little resistance. The 6’6” Iguodala is best suited to guard Magic, and will see a large increase in minutes from the previous series.
While the Sixers have championship-worthy talent, they drew a brutal matchup in the Elite Eight. Even though they’re one of the best teams in our tournament, they struggle to contain L.A.’s backcourt, particularly Magic Johnson. The Lakers struggle with Philadelphia’s deep and talented frontcourt, but they finish out Philadelphia in six competitive games.
Our next match features two powerhouse franchises who have won the past two NBA championships. They’ve taken different approaches in earning their nine combined rings: Golden State has had intermittent periods of success spread out over 70 years of franchise history, while San Antonio has had one sustained run of dominance, where they secured five championships over 16 seasons. Who has the advantage in the highly anticipated matchup between the All-Time San Antonio Spurs vs. All-Time Golden State Warriors?
Golden State’s firepower vs. San Antonio’s defensive might: Golden State is one of the most explosive teams in our tournament, with ALL FIVE STARTERS having led the league in scoring at some point in their Warriors career, along with a sixth scoring champion off the bench from the league’s earliest days (Joe Fulks). They feature perhaps the greatest shooter in NBA history (Stephen Curry), along with arguably the greatest inside scorer ever (Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 41.5 PPG in his six seasons with the franchise). They have a wealth of shooting depth beyond Curry (Paul Arizin, Rick Barry, Chris Mullin), and a Hall-of-Fame offensive (Neil Johnston) and defensive (Nate Thurmond) big man to support Chamberlain. They also have perimeter playmakers (Curry, Barry, Tim Hardaway, Guy Rodgers) who will facilitate ball movement and offensive flow. No team can contain this group, but San Antonio is better equipped than most to withstand a potential offensive onslaught. Tim Duncan and David Robinson are two of the greatest defensive big men in NBA history; in their six seasons together, the Spurs ranked first (2 times), second (3 times), and third (one time) in defensive rating. Kawhi Leonard has developed into the best defender in the current NBA, and will see time on all of Golden State’s perimeter options. Alvin Robertson was the greatest thief in modern NBA history, standing as the all-time leader in steals per game and steals percentage, which will cause problems for Curry and his sometimes loose ball protection. Even though the Spurs have two former scoring champions on their team (Robinson and George Gervin), they must slow the games down to have a chance to win this series.
Battle of the Big Men: Duncan and Robinson were perhaps the greatest ‘Twin Towers’ duo in NBA history, capturing two titles together and dominating opponents defensively. While those two are used to playing with one another, Chamberlain and Johnston will have to adjust to each other’s tendencies. Chamberlain will also have to adjust to playing with a team with so much perimeter firepower; his later days with the 76ers and the Lakers proved he could take a back seat, but the Warriors version of Wilt was a one-man wrecking crew who was the most dominant offensive force in league history. He won’t get the ball on as many possessions as he’s used to, and will have to help set up his teammates for easier baskets.
Golden State’s three-point shooting advantage: The Warriors have the ability to blow opponents away from long range. Curry, Arizin, Barry, Hardaway, Jeff Mullins, and Chris Mullin have the ability to spread the floor like the modern-day Warriors team. San Antonio will be forced to play Chamberlain straight up without double-teaming, to avoid leaving these shooters open, though they are better equipped to deal with him than most teams. The Spurs have Manu Ginobili and Leonard as their best outside threats, but their other perimeter stars were more comfortable with penetrating and breaking down opposing defenses (especially Tony Parker and James Silas).
San Antonio’s coaching: Gregg Popovich has ascended to the top of the all-time coaching ranks. He has continually remade San Antonio’s offense over a nineteen year period, and kept them in contention throughout. Al Attles experienced great success with Golden State, but Popovich has a proven ability to maximize talent and get the most out of his players.
Pace: Though San Antonio can play different styles, they don’t want to run-and-gun with the Warriors. While Golden State will start two big men, expect them to utilize a few lineups where Chamberlain is surrounded by four perimeter players. Barry and Tom Gola can both initiate the offense from the forward position, and they have a slew of guards and wings to space the floor. Will San Antonio stick with their Twin Towers lineup when Golden State goes small? Who would Duncan or Robinson guard in this scenario? How would Golden State guard San Antonio in this setup? Speaking of which…
Golden State’s defense: While the Warriors are known for their offensive exploits, their defense will play a key factor in this series. Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, and Gola are their best defenders, and they’ll be tasked with slowing down San Antonio’s explosive frontcourt. San Antonio’s perimeter players will face less resistance, however, as Golden State’s guards weren’t known for their work on the defensive end of the floor.
This series lives up to the hype. The teams go back and forth as both coaches make adjustments to their rotations. Kawhi Leonard and Nate Thurmond are both inserted into the starting lineups for defensive purposes as the series progresses. The seventh and final game goes into overtime, as these two teams prove to be dead even. Although the Spurs have one of the best defensive units in the tournament, the Warriors have too many weapons to contain. Golden State advances.
This week, Stephen Curry became the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. There are many reasons for this distinction, including Golden State’s record-breaking win total, transparency in the voting process, and, above all else, Curry’s dominance on the court. Although Curry was the first unanimous MVP, he wasn’t the first player who deserved to be honored as such. Considering that voters have traditionally valued a mixture of individual and team dominance, how many other players in history deserved this honor? I identified eight players who should have earned this distinction over 11 dominant seasons.
Stephen Curry, 2015-16
Team Record: 73-9 (NBA record for wins)
Key Stats: 30.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 6.7 APG, 2.1 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 50.4 FG%, 45.4 3FG%, 90.8 FT%, 31.5 PER, .318 WS/48
League Leader in: PPG, SPG, FT%, FG, 3FGM (NBA record), PER, WS, WS/48, TS%
Commentary: One of the most awe-inspiring seasons in NBA history.
Team Record: 66-16
Key Stats: 26.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 56.5 FG%, 40.6 3FG%, 75.3 FT%, 31.6 PER, .322 WS/48
League Leader in: FG, PER, WS, WS/48
Commentary: We don’t have to go too far back to identify another player who deserved this distinction. LeBron was on top of his game that season, and he led Miami to a 27-game winning streak and the best record in basketball through his dominant play. He fell one vote shy of unanimity, as one voter somehow cast a first-place vote for Carmelo Anthony. However, his performance was deserving of a unanimous MVP selection.
LeBron James, 2009-10
Team Record: 61-21
Key Stats: 29.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 8.6 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 50.3 FG%, 33.3 3FG%, 76.7 FT%, 31.1 PER, .299 WS/48
League Leader in: PER, WS, WS/48
Commentary: Unfortunately, this season is not remembered fondly, due to the shocking upset that Cleveland suffered at the hands of the Celtics in the Conference Semifinals. Since MVP awards are only based on regular season performance, this still makes the list. Cleveland had the best record in the league, James was the best player in the league, and he even set an NBA record for assists per game by a forward while averaging close to 30 points per game. Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard split the seven votes that LeBron did not receive, but it’s hard to make a case for anybody but LeBron in his last season before taking his talents to South Beach.
Shaquille O’Neal, 1999-2000
Team Record: 67-15
Key Stats: 29.7 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 0.5 SPG, 3.0 BPG, 57.4 FG%, 0 3FG%, 52.4 FT%, 30.6 PER, .283 WS/48
League Leader in: PTS, PPG, FG, FG%, PER, WS, WS/48
Commentary: A healthy, motivated Shaq was one of the scariest players in NBA history. He put it all together in 1999-00, leading the Lakers to the best record in basketball and embarrassing opponents on a nightly basis. One lonely voter inexplicably voted for Allen Iverson over O’Neal, but everyone else recognized that nobody could touch Shaq that year. This is an absolutely clear-cut case.
Team Record: 72-10
Key Stats: 30.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 4.3 APG, 2.2 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 49.5 FG%, 42.7 3FG%, 83.4 FT%, 29.4 PER, .317 WS/48
League Leader in: PTS, PPG, FG, WS, WS/48
Commentary: Though this wasn’t Michael’s best season, it marked his first full one since his baseball sabbatical, and he led the Bulls to a then-NBA record for wins. Proving that he was still the best player in the game, Jordan surpassed the 30 PPG barrier for the final time in his career, and added another all-NBA first-team defense honor to his mantle. Anfernee Hardaway, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Karl Malone split the votes that did not go to Jordan, but it’s hard to make a case for any of them to have won the award.
Michael Jordan, 1990-91
Team Record: 61-21
Key Stats: 31.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.7 SPG, 1.0 BPG, .539 FG%, 31.2 3FG%, 85.1 FT%, 31.6 PER, .321 WS/48
League Leader in: PTS, PPG, FG, PER, WS, WS/48
Commentary: The start of the Bulls dynasty. Jordan was in peak form, blending his individual talents into a team framework expertly. His advanced statistics from this year were some of the greatest ever, which wasn’t appreciated by voters at the time (19 votes were cast for other candidates).
Team Record: 67-15
Key Stats: 25.8 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 6.8 APG, 2.0 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 49.6 FG%, 42.3 3FG%, 89.6 FT%, 25.6 PER, .244 WS/48
League Leader in: FT%, 3FGM, PER, WS, WS/48
Commentary: In 1985-86, Bird led the Celtics to a league-leading 67 wins, and an NBA record 40-1 home record. This was the last of the three straight MVPs he won in the mid-80s, and also the most convincing; Dominique Wilkins was the only other player to receive any first-place votes (five).
Team Record: 53-29
Key Stats: 26.2 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 3.2 BPG, 57.9 FG%, 70.1 FT%, 27.8 PER, .283 WS/48
League Leader in: FG, FG%, REB, BLK, PER, WS, WS/48
Commentary: In his second season in Los Angeles, Kareem led the Lakers to the best record in basketball. A look at the voting that year shows how different basketball analysis was before the advent of advanced statistics. Jo Jo White and Norm Van Lier both received first-place votes with PERs that were below league average. A whopping 14 different players received first-place votes, despite Jabbar’s dominance. Even though the Lakers would get swept by Portland in the Western Conference Finals, Kareem’s regular season was (by far) the most impactful in the league.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1970-71
Team Record: 66-16
Key Stats: 31.7 PPG, 16.0 RPG, 3.3 APG, 57.7 FG%, 69.0 FT%, 29.0 PER, .326 WS/48
League Leader in: PTS, PPG, FG, PER, WS, WS/48
Commentary: Kareem kicked off one of the most dominant three-year stretches in NBA history with his first of six MVP awards. The Bucks had 14 more wins than their next closest competitor, and Jabbar had the second highest WS/48 in league history (his 71-72 campaign is the highest, while his 72-73 season is the fourth highest). Somehow, teammate Oscar Robertson received five first-place votes, and three others received a combined 15 more first-place votes.
Team Record: 68-13
Key Stats: 24.1 PPG, 24.2 RPG, 7.8 APG, 68.3 FG%, 44.1 FT%, 26.5 PER, .285 WS/48
League Leader in: FG%, REB, RPG, PER, WS, WS/48, TS%
Commentary: Can you imagine if the internet existed in 1967? Players were still voting for the league’s MVP, and 15 somehow voted for Nate Thurmond over the best player on the best team in league history (at the time). Fans would have gone crazy, and basketball twitter would have been insufferable. Chamberlain did it all that year, and finally earned his first NBA championship in the process.
Team Record: 44-24
Key Stats: 28.4 PPG, 14.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 42.8 FG%, 80.3 FT%, 23.4 WS
League Leader in: PTS, PPG, FG, FT, WS
Commentary: Back in the day before PER and WS/48 could be calculated, and before MVPs were awarded, George Mikan stood above his peers. In 50-51, he led the Lakers to the best record in basketball, though it wound up being the only season in a six-year stretch where they did not win the championship. Only three players that season averaged more than 20 PPG, and Mikan averaged almost seven PPG more than his closest competitor. He also led the league in both offensive and defensive win shares.
Others under Consideration
Several other noteworthy seasons can be argued for inclusion as well, though they were omitted from this author’s list.
LeBron James, 2011-12
LeBron’s first championship season came during the 2012 lockout. He was clearly the best player in the world, but his team had a pedestrian 46-20 record, which was fourth best in the league.
LeBron James, 2008-09
This was a tough omission; LeBron led the Cavaliers to a league-best 66-16 season, and had one of the great advanced statistical seasons in history. However, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade also had otherworldly seasons, and Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to 65 wins (and an eventual championship).
KG led the Wolves to the best record in the Western Conference, and led the league in points, rebounds, RPG, field goals, PER, win shares, and WS/48. The Spurs were only one game off their pace, however, and Tim Duncan put up another stellar campaign, so it was conceivable for him to get a few first-place votes that year (in reality, Duncan didn’t receive any votes, while Jermaine O’Neal and Peja Stojakovic combined to earn three).
Michael Jordan, 1991-92
Jordan’s Bulls won 67 games that year, and he took the mantle as the undisputed biggest star in basketball with Magic Johnson’s premature retirement that preseason. While this was his lowest scoring output (30.1 PPG) of the stretch where he won seven scoring titles in a row, he was still the most efficient player in basketball, leading the league in PER, WS, and WS/48. However, advanced stat marvel David Robinson was very close to him in these categories, and Clyde Drexler had a fantastic season as well.
Magic Johnson, 1986-87
In Magic’s first MVP season, he led the Lakers to a league-best 65-17 record and averaged a career-high 23.9 PPG along with a league-leading 12.2 APG. This was a compelling case for a unanimous selection, but brilliant seasons from Larry Bird and young Michael Jordan prevented it from being included on the above list.
Larry Bird, 1984-85
Bird led the Celtics to the league’s best record in 1984-85, and had the best advanced statistics in the league. However, Magic Johnson’s Lakers were only one game off their pace, with Magic putting up 18.3 PPG/6.2 RPG/12.6 APG. Michael Jordan and Terry Cummings (!) also received two first-place votes each.
In Moses’s first season in Philadelphia, he led the Sixers to the best record in basketball and a dominating playoff run that ended in a title. While he could have been unanimously selected, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were also carrying their teams to high win totals, and it’s not egregious that they received a few votes (Julius Erving’s three first-place votes are harder to defend).
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1971-72
How does one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history not get included? Kareem averaged 34.8 PPG, 16.6 RPG, and 4.6 APG, and led the Bucks to 63 wins. However, the Lakers were historically great that year, winning 33 games in a row on route to a then-record 69 victories. L.A.’s Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain split 80 first-place votes between them, while Kareem garnered 81 to take home the trophy.
Wilt Chamberlain, 1965-66
Wilt was the best statistical player in the league that year (averaging a comical 33.5 PPG, 24.6 RPG, and 5.2 APG), and led Philadelphia to the best record in the league. Dominant seasons from Jerry West and Oscar Robertson put his unanimous MVP claim into question.
Wilt Chamberlain, 1961-62
Considering Wilt didn’t even win the MVP award that year (finishing far behind Bill Russell), it’s hard to make a claim that he deserved unanimous selection. However, averaging 50.4 PPG and 25.7 RPG means you at least deserve honorable mention for this list.
Pettit was far and away the most efficient player in the league that year (his league-leading 28.2 PER was 4.6 points ahead of the next closest competitor). The Celtics, however, had the best record in the league, and it’s conceivable that Bill Russell received first-place MVP votes.
George Mikan, 1952-53 (no award given)
George Mikan, 1949-50 (no award given)
It’s unfortunate that the league did not award an MVP until the 1955-56 season. Mikan surely would have cleaned up during this time, and two of his most dominating seasons are highlighted here. However, in 1952-53, Bob Cousy would have likely garnered some votes, and in 1949-50 Alex Groza may have siphoned some away as well.
Our next matchup represents the greatest generational divide in our tournament. The Miami Heat’s first year of operation was 1989, while the Boston Celtics have been in existence since 1947. Eleven of the twelve players on Boston’s roster were either retired, or near retirement, before Miami ever existed. However, since that time, Miami has won the Eastern Conference five times, which is three more times than Boston. Miami has three titles, while Boston has one. Does this give Miami any sliver of hope in the battle between the All-Time Boston Celtics vs. All-Time Miami Heat? Here’s a breakdown of our first Elite Eight matchup.
Larry Bird vs. LeBron James: The two greatest small forwards in NBA history square off in a dream matchup. Both were elite passers who will serve as the fulcrum of their team’s offenses. James was a better defender, while Bird was a better outside shooter. James won two MVP awards in his four years in Miami, while Bird won three MVP awards in a row from 1984 to 1986. Expect LeBron to guard Bird for large stretches of each game, while Boston will make Kevin McHale their primary LeBron defender. Miami also has to deal with a couple of other Hall-of-Fame small forwards off Boston’s bench: John Havlicek, the perpetual motion machine, and LeBron’s old nemesis Paul Pierce. Miami will play James at power forward at times, meaning Dwyane Wade, Eddie Jones, and Glen Rice will be needed to slow Boston’s trio down.
Red Auerbach vs. Erik Spoelstra: Both coaches will have several matchup dilemmas to figure out. How will Boston adjust when LeBron James moves to power forward? They can put Larry Bird at the four, and bring in one of their wings off the bench, or they can stay big and have Bird guard one of Miami’s wings (preferably Glen Rice). Who will be left out of Boston’s rotation? It’s almost impossible to play 12 players, so expect Jo Jo White and Tom Heinsohn to stay glued to the bench, and to only be used if others are in foul trouble. Expect Spoelstra to go primarily with an eight-man rotation, with his starting lineup, Jones, Rice, and Shaquille O’Neal. Spoelstra has a decision on how to use his big men in this series. Chris Bosh can play the five when they go small, but he’d be at a severe disadvantage on the boards against Bill Russell, Dave Cowens, or Robert Parish. On offense, O’Neal will give any of Boston’s big men fits, but he won’t be able to protect the paint as well as two-time Defensive Player of the Year Alonzo Mourning. Expect Spoelstra to play stretches with a deadly defensive lineup of Jones, Wade, James, Bosh, and Mourning to slow down Boston’s offense.
Celtics bench vs. Heat bench: Much like the real-life playoffs, expect teams to shorten their rotations to feature their best players in this tournament. Miami’s eight-man rotation should create issues for Boston. However, depth is still important, and Boston’s players should be less taxed than Miami’s as the series goes on. James and Wade may play 40 plus minutes per game, and will be working hard on both ends of the court. The fact that they have to play against two players who were known for their constant movement, Sam Jones and John Havlicek, will only exacerbate Miami’s problems.
Miami’s wing athleticism vs. Boston’s wing athleticism: While Boston has a great athlete on the wing (Havlicek), they also have several others who weren’t known for their athleticism (namely Bird and Pierce). Miami’s greatest strength is the athleticism of their dynamic duo, Wade and James. Eddie Jones is another terrific athlete for Miami off the bench, and expect him to get heavy minutes alongside Wade and James to smother Boston’s perimeter players defensively, and to create mismatches on the other end of the court.
Generational comparisons: One of the guiding principles of this tournament is to consider the relative dominance of players from previous generations, so the results aren’t skewed toward the bigger, more athletic players in the modern era. Bob Cousy and Bill Russell are two of the greatest players ever, and will be favored to win their matchups in this series against Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning, respectively, even if the latter looks like the Incredible Hulk next to the players that Russell faced in his era. This helps to provide some context for Boston’s depth advantage, and the problems their opponents will face trying to stop them.
The battle between the All-Time Detroit Pistons vs. All-Time Los Angeles Clippers features a point guard matchup for the ages. The historical rankings of these players are highly dependent on the factors that are valued by the ranker. One is a statistical marvel who hasn’t had the team success that other stars of his stature have earned. The other is a two-time champion who doesn’t have the (advanced) statistical profile of other legends. Who’s better? Let’s take a deeper look at our key matchup.
Zeke vs. CP3: The battle between Isiah Thomas and Chris Paul is a fascinating one. ESPN’s recent All-Time #NBARank had them as the fifth and sixth best point guards of all time, respectively. What distinguishes these two legends?
As previously mentioned, Chris Paul may be the greatest statistical point guard in NBA history. Thomas’s value was not captured by advanced statistics (Kevin Pelton explained this well in his insider piece about Zeke). In fact, here’s a comparison of their statistics (as of 03-25-16), along with their all-time rank in several key categories:
Their surface statistics are very similar, although Paul’s numbers came in a league where less points per game were scored, on average, than when Isiah played (at the midpoint of Thomas’s career, 1987-88, the Pistons averaged 109.2 PPG with a pace of 98.3, while at the midpoint of Paul’s career, 2010-11, the Hornets averaged 94.9 PPG with a pace 88.7. While that’s not entirely fair, since the Hornets were one of the slowest-paced teams in the league, there were fewer possessions per game, and subsequently less scoring, on average, in the NBA at that time). The true difference lies in their shooting, protection of the ball, and overall efficiency. Thomas had a career true shooting percentage of .516, compared to Paul’s career .578 mark. Thomas committed an estimated 16.8 turnovers per 100 possessions, compared to Paul’s 13.0 turnover percentage. Paul’s career PER ranks 6th in basketball (NBA and ABA) history, in between Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Pettit. Thomas’s career PER ranks 139th in basketball history, in between Antawn Jamison and Kyle Lowry. Paul is also third ever in win shares per 48 minutes, behind only Michael Jordan and David Robinson. Thomas doesn’t rank in the top 250 ever. While Paul still hasn’t entered his decline phase, he’ll still likely have an almost incomprehensible lead over Thomas in these measures by the time his career is finished.
Isiah is known as one of the greatest clutch players in NBA history, while Paul is infamous for never making a conference finals appearance (thus far) in his career. Paul still has a sizable advantage over Thomas in his playoff advanced statistics, though it is less pronounced than their difference in the regular season (Paul’s career advanced playoff numbers: .584 TS%, 25.2 PER, .200 WS/48; Thomas’s career advanced playoff numbers: .520 TS%, 19.8 PER, .143 WS/48). These two have both had several noteworthy playoff moments, both positive and negative.
Memorable playoff moments
Isiah had a flair for the dramatic like few others. One of his finest showings came in the deciding game of the first round of his first playoff appearance (1984), when he scored 16 points in the final 90 seconds to force the game into overtime (where Detroit wound up losing). His magnum opus came on the grandest stage of them all, in his first NBA Finals appearance in 1988. With Detroit on the verge of a series win, Thomas scored a Finals-record 25 third quarter points, despite spraining his ankle mid-way through the period. To this day, there hasn’t been a finer performance in NBA playoff history.
Paul had his signature playoff moment in Game 7 of the 2015 opening round series against the defending champion Spurs. Despite playing with a hamstring injury, he hit the go-ahead shot with one second left in the game. It appeared that he finally shed the baggage of his teams’ playoff failures, until…
Memorable playoff blunders
In the next round, the Clippers were about to advance past the Rockets and go the first Conference Finals in franchise history. They were up by 19 points in the final moments of the third quarter of Game 6, with a three to two series lead. Then all hell broke loose. This was a team collapse that is difficult to pin solely on Paul, but it’s alarming that his team had so little poise. A year earlier, he melted down in Game 5 of the semi-finals against the Thunder, costing L.A. a chance to go ahead in the series. In 2008, Jannero Pargo was confusingly the most aggressive Hornets player down the stretch of game 7 of the conference semi-finals against the Spurs, which they lost at home. Paul has been brilliant in his postseason career, and his shortcomings are mostly related to losing to superior teams. However, there are warts on his resume.
Thomas isn’t without fault in the playoffs either, with one of the most infamous gaffes in playoff history during Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. He must get credit for consistently performing above his regular season baseline in the playoffs, but his overall playoff statistics still pale in comparison to Paul’s.
Isiah Thomas played in an environment where efficiency wasn’t as well understood as it is today. Could he have adjusted his game if advanced statistics were more prevalent during his time? It’s entirely plausible. What we do know is that Chris Paul has mastered the art of efficient basketball, like no point guard before him. His lack of playoff success, while overblown, does impact his legacy. This would be a fantastic matchup, and even though the statistical evidence favors Paul, I believe that Thomas would be able to match him in a high-stakes series based on his amazing playoff resume.
Pistons’ bench vs. Clippers’ bench and Pistons’ wings vs. Clippers’ wings: Oh yes, there’s an actual matchup outside of Paul vs. Thomas. Detroit is a deeper team, with every player on their bench having made multiple all-star teams, compared to the Clippers’ bench, where only three of the seven players ever made one (during their time in L.A.). Detroit also has outstanding wing depth, with Grant Hill, George Yardley, and Joe Dumars holding a big advantage over L.A.’s lineup.
Isiah answers the big-game challenge. He leads a balanced Detroit team over L.A. in five relatively easy games.