As expected, the Lakers and Celtics faced off in a classic battle in the NBA Franchise Tournament Finals. While these two franchises will likely retain their perch on top of the NBA food chain for years to come, they do not have any incoming prospects to boost their all-time teams. Which contenders have a chance to make up ground on these legendary franchises? Which other teams have enhanced their lineups since the construction of the Franchise Tournament?
Golden State – The All-Time Warriors team made a spirited run to the semi-finals, before falling to the seasoned Celtics. While they earned the third place medal in the tournament, no team has more potential reinforcements ready to enhance their roster. Draymond Green, now a two-time all-NBA Defensive first team selection, can slot in next to Wilt Chamberlain, Neil Johnston, or Nate Thurmond as a power forward who can set up his teammates and guard a range of opponents. Klay Thompson has vaulted into the discussion of best long-distance shooters in recent history, and his defense will greatly enhance a weakness of their second unit. Newcomer Kevin Durant has three more years until he’s eligible for inclusion; however, if he stays with Golden State, he has a chance to alter the balance of the franchise rankings. A potential starting lineup of Stephen Curry – Paul Arizin – Rick Barry-Durant-Chamberlain, with a bench of Johnston, Thurmond, Green, Thompson, Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, and Tom Gola (or Jeff Mullins) has a legitimate chance to upend the mighty 17-time champions and challenge the Lakers for supremacy. Even if Durant doesn’t stay, Green provides a more natural fit for their starting lineup, and makes them more versatile and better defensively.
San Antonio – While the composition of the Spurs roster will likely stay the same, the ascendance of Kawhi Leonard tremendously boosts their upside. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year can now start alongside Tim Duncan and David Robinson to form the greatest starting defensive frontcourt in the tournament. They can also cover up the defensive deficiencies of Tony Parker and George Gervin, who will start in the backcourt. Manu Ginobili will assume his familiar role of sixth man extraordinaire, and can replace Parker when more outside shooting is needed. There’s a good case to be made that the Spurs deserved to play Detroit in the third place game instead of the Warriors. This argument can still be made in spite of Golden State’s additions, due to Kawhi’s MVP-level upside.
Houston – James Harden is now eligible for inclusion on the All-Time Houston Rockets team, and he provides them with their most dynamic backcourt option. He will immediately slot into their starting lineup, next to either Calvin Murphy or Clyde Drexler. Harden’s usage rate will have to drop, and his off-the-ball defense will have to improve, but they’re a much stronger and more balanced team with him on the roster.
Milwaukee – Giannis Antetokounmpo’s breakout season creates a wealth of possibilities for the All-Time Bucks team. Imagine the 6’11” Greek Freak playing point forward alongside all of the talented wings on this roster? Imagine the defensive possibilities with Giannis, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sidney Moncrief, and Bob Dandridge? The Bucks are one of the more intriguing teams to watch going forward, mainly due to Antetokounmpo’s limitless ceiling.
Portland – The All-Time Blazers will be more dangerous with Damian Lillard starting alongside Terry Porter in the backcourt (with Clyde Drexler playing small forward in these configurations). His distance shooting adds another element to this offense, though his porous defense will be a detriment against the stacked rosters in this tournament.
Utah – Utah’s main problems, wing depth and defense, will be greatly mitigated by the arrival of two current stars: Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert. Hayward provides versatility and playmaking ability at the three, while Gobert gives them another Defensive Player of the Year-caliber center whose athleticism is greatly needed on this roster.
In the end, the results were inevitable. The NBA has been dominated by two franchises since its inception. One rose to power with the greatest dynasty in professional sports history, capturing 11 championships in 13 seasons from 1957 to 1969. The other was established with a selection of the highest profile players in league history, leading to the NBA’s best franchise winning percentage, and the most Finals appearances. The greatest rivalry in NBA history is reborn in the finals of the NBA Franchise Tournament: the All-Time Boston Celtics vs. All-Time Los Angeles Lakers.
Ball handlers: Each team is guided by the greatest point guard of his generation. The Celtics have multiple points of attack on offense, but their starting lineup will primarily be led by Bob Cousy. The Houdini of the Hardwood brings elite court vision and ample big game experience, but his slight frame will create issues on defense. The Lakers high-scoring attack will be guided by Magic Johnson, a 6’9” anomaly who can physically dominate Boston’s backcourt. Neither player was known for his outside shot; expect each team to put the ball in their playmaker’s hands and surround him with scorers.
Johnson’s size will cause Boston to cross-match defensively. When the starters are in, expect Sam Jones and Larry Bird to take turns checking Johnson. Cousy will primarily defend Jerry West, and will struggle with West’s length and athleticism advantage. Johnson will primarily guard Cousy on defense, but will also spend time on his archrival Larry Bird, due to their size similarities.
Each team will go stretches without a traditional point guard on the floor. Jo Jo White is Boston’s theoretical backup point guard, but he’ll struggle to crack this talented squad’s rotation. Bill Sharman, John Havlicek and Larry Bird will split time initiating the offense when Cousy rests. They’ll also look to get on the break whenever possible, with Bill Russell and Dave Cowens expertly throwing outlet passes to initiate this action. Jerry West and Gail Goodrich will initiate L.A.’s attack when Johnson sits. While both are capable of filling this role, expect Johnson, the only true floor leader on a team with many mouths to feed, to play heavy minutes throughout the series.
Wings: Boston has a deep collection of wing players that will present matchup problems for Los Angeles. Sam Jones was one of the great clutch players in NBA history, and his constant movement with and without the ball may tire his defenders out over the course of the series. Sixth man extraordinaire John Havlicek, who may have been the most tireless player in the NBA, will split time off the bench at shooting guard and small forward. Havlicek was one of the great all-around players in league history, and he stands as Boston’s best wing defender against L.A.’s high-powered attack. Larry Bird, the centerpiece of Boston’s offensive attack, will start each game at small forward, but will frequently play as a stretch four, especially if Los Angeles goes large stretches without a traditional power forward, as expected. Paul Pierce was another deadly scorer whose firepower will be needed in this series.
Los Angeles counters with three legendary wing scorers in their starting lineup. Jerry West will stretch the floor and serve as L.A.’s secondary ball handler on offense, while doubling as their best wing defender. Kobe Bryant will also be tasked with focusing more on defense, which he exceled at during his prime. Elgin Baylor will also start, and though he lacks great size, he’ll help the Lakers stay competitive on the glass against Boston’s bigger frontcourt. Off the bench, Jim Pollard will contribute with his athleticism and long-distance shooting ability. He’ll stretch the floor and help to guard Boston’s plethora of wing options. Like Baylor, James Worthy will primarily play at power forward, and will boost L.A.’s athleticism advantage whenever he’s on the court. Both Pollard and Worthy will balance the Lakers lineup as lower usage players who will fit in alongside any combination they’re paired with.
Big Men: Boston will start three players who stand between 6’9” and 6’10”. The aforementioned Bird will split time between the forward positions, while Kevin McHale and Bill Russell will man the interior for the starting lineup. McHale will have a distinct advantage on offense against L.A.’s smaller forwards, and will be one of Boston’s primary options as a result. He’s also skilled and versatile enough on defense to guard Baylor and Worthy, and will be utilized in Boston’s most effective defensive lineups. Russell, the greatest defensive player in NBA history, will face the greatest challenge of his career in this series, matching up against three behemoths who are all among the greatest scorers of all time: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, and his old adversary Wilt Chamberlain. He’ll use his uncanny motor to try to beat them down the court on offense, but his effectiveness on defense will be compromised by their sheer size and talent levels. Dave Cowens, another 6’9” undersized center, will use his bulk and will to attempt to slow this trio down. Robert Parish, Boston’s only true seven-footer, will also get plenty of minutes, but does not have the bulk to stop any of L.A.’s threats. Russell and Parish will need to use their quickness and speed advantage to score easy baskets on offense, and tire their counterparts out.
Jabbar will anchor L.A.’s big man rotation, and will serve as the centerpiece of their dynamic offense. O’Neal’s brute force will provide a devastating contrast for L.A.’s second unit, which Boston will have difficulty countering. Chamberlain’s Laker years were characterized by lower usage, high efficiency, and dominating defense, and coach Pat Riley will utilize him in their best defensive lineups. Expect the legendary George Mikan to play sparingly as the fourth center, but he will provide another dominating offensive presence when called upon.
Coach Red Auerbach will likely use a combination of the following five five-man lineups most frequently throughout series:
John Havlicek and Paul Pierce will play two of the biggest roles on the team off the bench, as swingmen who can match up with Los Angeles defensively. Late in games, Auerbach may turn to his best defensive lineup of Jones-Pierce-Havlicek-McHale-Russell for key stops.
Coach Pat Riley will be tempted to try two-center lineups, but will ultimately stay away and utilize his wing depth. Each center will be surrounded by shooting, which will force Boston to make a difficult choice – leave Russell, Cowens, and Parish alone on an island defensively, or double-team and try to recover on the perimeter. Gail Goodrich and Pollard provide elite shooting off the bench, while West, Bryant, Worthy and Baylor will be used together in their defensive lineup, with Chamberlain in the middle, to form a dominant athletic quintet.
The size and bulk of L.A.’s centers – Boston’s centers are all physically overmatched, and will struggle to contain the Laker big men. They’re also in danger of falling into foul trouble, and must avoid taking the easy way out early in games, especially with O’Neal and Chamberlain. Boston’s big men will not require the same level of attention on the other end of the court, and each Lakers center should be able to hold their own in their defensive matchup.
Boston’s passing offense – Boston’s offense will flow through the unselfish hands of their playmakers, Cousy and Bird. These are two of the best passers in league history, and together with Russell, a great passing big man, their offense will hum. The Lakers have Magic Johnson, so they won’t be devoid of playmaking, but their offense has a greater chance of stalling with some of the high-volume scorers on their roster.
L.A.’s athleticism advantage – Both teams boast tremendous depth and versatility, but L.A. has a greater collection of athletes on their roster. West, Bryant, Pollard, Worthy, and Baylor can disrupt Boston on both sides of the ball, and will cover ample ground on defense. Boston has Havlicek, who will see starter’s minutes in this series, but the rest of their perimeter players fall short of L.A.’s in this department.
History – These teams have met 12 times in the Finals, with Boston winning nine of those matchups. West and Baylor were famously never able to defeat Russell, which haunts them to this day, as West eerily described in his autobiography. However, Johnson, Jabbar, and Worthy were able to win two of their three finals matchups against Bird, McHale, and Parish, and Bryant split his two finals series against Pierce. Does any of this matter? Is Boston’s “mystique” actually something that Los Angeles fears, or does their recent success render this meaningless?
Los Angeles comes out in full attack mode, and wins the first two games of the series against a shell-shocked Celtics team. Boston, however, refuses to wilt, with Bird and Russell leading the way to two close wins to tie the series up. In the critical game five, Magic Johnson orchestrates a perfect game, and Shaquille O’Neal, a destroyer of worlds in his Lakers Finals appearances, overwhelms his smaller counterparts in a comfortable victory. Los Angeles leads throughout the sixth game, but down the stretch, key plays by Jones and Havlicek save Boston and set up a winner-takes-all game seven.
In the final game, both teams play inspired basketball. Russell and Jones lead Boston to the brink of a championship, using their collective will and clutch team play. Down the stretch, however, Magic finds Jerry West repeatedly behind the arc, where he hits multiple clutch three-pointers. The curse is lifted, as West and Baylor finally get to celebrate against their tormentors.
Our third place game features two teams who both advanced further than expected based on wildly different approaches. One team used an unstoppable offense to upset a great Spurs team. The other used a dominant defense to vanquish Michael Jordan and the third-ranked Bulls. While both teams were tamed by the top seeds in our tournament, the third-place battle between the All-Time Golden State Warriors vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons promises to be a classic.
Physicality vs. finesse – The Bad Boys made it to the Final Four largely due to the toughness and physicality of their roster. Dennis Rodman, Bailey Howell, Ben Wallace, and Bill Laimbeer were known for battering opponents, and getting under their skin in the process. They have size, athleticism, and support from other solid defenders, including Joe Dumars and Chauncey Billups, on their roster. However, they again face an offensive juggernaut that may be able to overcome their stifling defense. Golden State’s offense presents a unique challenge to their opponents, with six former scoring champions, including all five in their starting lineup. Expect Detroit to try to slow the pace of each game, and rough up Golden State’s perimeter stars whenever possible. Stephen Curry will be specifically targeted, as Detroit will test his pain threshold throughout the series.
Wilt vs. Worm – One could argue that the two greatest rebounders in NBA history are facing off in this battle. Wilt Chamberlain, the all-time leader in rebounds and rebounds per game, towered over opponents and used his elite athleticism to dominate the boards. Dennis Rodman, who dominated his competition on the glass even more than Chamberlain, used his superior instincts and basketball IQ to win seven straight rebounding (per game) titles in the 1990s. Rodman has experience guarding much larger foes, such as Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning, so expect Chuck Daly to use him on Wilt at times. In these instances, Dennis will try to get inside Wilt’s head with a combination of trash talk and cheap shots. Detroit will also use Bob Lanier, Ben Wallace, and Bill Laimbeer to frustrate Chamberlain and send him to the foul line as often as possible.
Detroit’s athleticism advantage – Detroit has a vastly superior team defense, which is partly due to the athleticism on their roster. Rodman, Grant Hill, Billups and Dumars can switch aggressively and cover plenty of ground to contest Golden State’s jumpers. Golden State’s roster is filled with players who were more advanced on the offensive end, and they do not have the team athleticism on the perimeter to thrive on the other end of the court.
Golden State’s firepower – Luckily for Golden State, they can make up for their lack of defense with a completely unstoppable offensive attack. They have several ways they can beat their opponents, specifically with either a Twin Towers lineup featuring two of the best offensive centers the game has ever seen (Chamberlain and Neil Johnston), or with one big man surrounded by a bevy of shooters and passers (with Tom Gola and Rick Barry playing as the forwards in this setup). Although Detroit’s perimeter defenders can cover a lot of ground, Curry’s limitless range alongside Paul Arizin, Barry, and Chris Mullin will help to negate that advantage.
Offense vs. Defense – NBA history is littered with examples of unstoppable offenses facing off against dominant defenses. Since 1950-51, basketball-reference.com has team data on offensive rating (an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions). There are 19 instances where the league’s top offense by this metric met the top defense in a playoff series, with the defensive team winning 12 of these encounters:
This data shows that there’s no discernible pattern to be drawn from these matchups. Typically, the better team prevails, with a dominant player leading the way to victory.
The Detroit Pistons advanced to the Final Four of our tournament through team play, relentless effort on the defensive end, and a diversified offensive attack. They finally met their match against a team with too much high-end talent for them to handle. While Golden State is not as good as Los Angeles, they have the same ability to elevate their offensive game to a level that Detroit can’t replicate. The Bad Boys fight to the very end, but Wilt, Barry, Steph, Arizin and company prove to be too much to handle.
On the surface, our second semifinal is a mismatch. One franchise has the greatest collection of individual talent in NBA history, while the other is known more for its championship-team ensembles than for the excellence of its star players. However, the past three decades of Pistons basketball have shown that team play can prevail in such matchups. Specifically, the 1988, 1989, and 2004 NBA Finals between these two franchises illustrated the effectiveness of team defense, rebounding, and hustle against high end individual talent. While the battle between the All-Time Los Angeles Lakers vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons seems lopsided, the complementary nature of Detroit’s roster, and the relentlessness of their stars, will create many issues for L.A.
Rebounding mavens – Statistically, Los Angeles features four of the top 25 rebounders in NBA history (Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, and Elgin Baylor). Detroit, however, has a chance to win the battle of the boards, thanks to Dennis Rodman, the league’s all-time leader in offensive and total rebounding percentage (since the 1970-71 season, the first year this statistic was tracked). Detroit also has Ben Wallace, who ranks 11th all-time on the total rebounding percentage list, and Bob Lanier and Bill Laimbeer, who will be tasked with guarding the Lakers’ centers. If Lanier, Laimbeer, and Wallace can hold their own, Rodman and Bailey Howell should wreak havoc against the Lakers’ forwards, and create second and third chance point opportunities.
Detroit’s defense vs. Showtime – The Lakers have the greatest collection of skill players ever assembled. Their offense is led by arguably the greatest passer in NBA history, and features many of the league’s greatest scorers. There’s no way Detroit can compete offensively with this group. The Pistons will counter with a slew of excellent defenders who will make life difficult for the Lakers’ scorers. In addition to his rebounding prowess, Rodman was one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history, and should expect to spend time on Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Elgin Baylor, and the Lakers’ hall-of-fame centers at different points in the series. Wallace won four Defensive Player of the Year awards with the Pistons, and keyed their 2004 title run against Bryant and O’Neal. Dumars was a five-time selection to the All-Defensive team. Billups and Hill were known as solid defenders throughout their careers. If they need a stop, Detroit can play a lineup featuring these five, though the Wallace-Rodman combination would be perilous on offense. Expect Check Daly to utilize his versatile personnel to throw off L.A.’s offensive machine.
The Lakers scoring punch – With that being said…this Lakers team can really score. Magic Johnson has an almost unfair amount of weaponry at his disposal. They should be able to get hard baskets by throwing the ball into Abdul-Jabbar or O’Neal, leaning on West and Gail Goodrich to space the floor, and allowing Baylor and Bryant to operate from mid-range. The Pistons scorers (specifically Thomas, Dave Bing, and George Yardley) are going to have to have the series of their lives to compete.
The Lakers’ size – Los Angeles features superheavyweights O’Neal, Chamberlain, and Abdul-Jabbar, three of the biggest and baddest men in league history. They also have George Mikan, the league’s first dominant center, and Magic Johnson, the biggest point guard in our tournament. If Detroit plays the three behemoth centers one-on-one, they’ll get destroyed, but double-teaming them will lead to the other Laker Hall-of-Famers going off. Detroit’s players do not present the same matchup issues for L.A.
Detroit’s Toughness – Calling this a mismatch is inaccurate, since the Lakers have some tough hombres on their team, but expect the Pistons to live up to their ‘Bad Boy’ moniker in an attempt to unnerve their Hollywood counterparts. Rodman, Wallace, Howell, and Laimbeer will have a green light to make this series as physical as possible and rough up the Lakers’ stars. While this may work on some players, it’s hard to believe these tactics will affect the Herculean tandem coming off L.A.’s bench (O’Neal and Chamberlain).
Will the referees let them play? – You hate to bring up a topic like this in a fantasy tournament, but basketball history is littered with examples of referees impacting important series. If the refs call the games tight, Detroit has no chance to compete. However, if they allow some physicality, and aren’t too stringent with the rules, that works to the Pistons’ advantage. Expect Rodman and Laimbeer to test the limits, and see what they can get away with.
As mentioned above, Detroit has thrived in the underdog role against the mighty Lakers in the past quarter century. They have enough unique pieces and big-game performers to make the All-Time Lakers team sweat over the course of a seven-game series. However, the Lakers high-end talent is too much for the scrappy Bad Boys to overcome. Even though the referees swallow their whistles, which allows Rodman to avoid major foul trouble, Los Angeles punches their ticket to the finals in six hard-fought games.
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.
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.