Sometimes, you have to find beauty in a matchup even when the final result is inevitable. The NBA UCLA Bruins vs. NBA Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets is a mismatch, due to the brilliance of UCLA’s roster. However, Georgia Tech has some unique lineup combinations they can throw out to confound the more talented Bruins. Can they use their quickness and shooting to steal a game or two in this series? Or will UCLA brush them aside on their quest toward the championship? Here’s how the series will play out.
UCLA’s two-center lineup versus Georgia’s Tech’s frontcourt – UCLA has a massive Twin Towers lineup, featuring 7’2” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the 7’0” plus Bill Walton, whose listed height of 6’11” was known to be a gross underestimation. Georgia Tech will start each game off with a traditional power forward, Derrick Favors, and an undersized center, Chris Bosh. They also have a solid defender in John Salley coming off the bench, along with their biggest player, 7’0” Matt Geiger. However, none of these players realistically has a chance to stop either Jabbar or Walton. What can Georgia Tech do to make it interesting? They can play Thaddeus Young together with Bosh, and just try to outquick the UCLA duo on the offensive end of the court. Or they can play four perimeter players around Bosh and force one of UCLA’s centers to defend out to the three-point line. Georgia Tech will have to be creative, since playing UCLA straight up is a losing proposition.
UCLA’s size – The reason Georgia Tech will have to be creative is because they don’t have the personnel to even bother UCLA’s centers. Walton will be able to see over the top of his defenders in the high post, while Jabbar will face little resistance scoring inside and out. The big men will be staggered so each is paired with Kevin Love, who will provide a unique combination of spacing and rebounding on the offensive end, and Sidney Wicks, whose quickness and athleticism will help him on the defensive end of the court against Georgia Tech’s perimeter-oriented options. Outside of Bosh, Georgia Tech’s big men are more pedestrian than spectacular, and they don’t have the size or skill to compete.
Georgia Tech’s small ball – Since UCLA’s two best players are traditional centers, expect Georgia Tech to do everything possible to get them off of the court. Play Mark Price, Stephon Marbury, Jon Barry, and Dennis Scott alongside Chris Bosh, to have a three-point threat at every position? Sure! Try to utilize a breakneck pace to take advantage of the ball-handling skills of Marbury, Kenny Anderson, and Jarrett Jack? Absolutely! There’s no reason why this team can’t be entertaining, even if they’re getting blown out in the process.
UCLA’s star power – Despite these theatrics, UCLA has a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player at every position in their starting lineup, and all-star level talent from one through 12. If Georgia Tech wants to get into a three-point shooting contest, UCLA’s Reggie Miller, Gail Goodrich, Kiki Vandeweghe, and Kevin Love would likely make that a losing proposition. Get in an up tempo battle, and the irrepressible Russell Westbrook will attack with Marques Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, and those wonderful shooters at his disposal. Jabbar and Walton will doom them in the halfcourt game. There are no good options for Georgia Tech.
Jabbar and Walton – Two of the greatest centers ever facing a team with only one seven footer on its roster (the replacement-level Matt Geiger)? Goodnight.
Georgia Tech has some funky lineup configurations, and the underappreciated Price and Bosh, but this one was over before it started.
Our first profile details the top seed in our tournament, the NBA UCLA Bruins. Overall, 88 players from UCLA have played in the NBA, six of whom have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. They also feature arguably the two greatest players in college basketball history, who both went on to become an NBA Most Valuable Player and the best player on a championship team. With a mix of dynamic playmakers, long-range shooters, and unstoppable low-post forces, they field one of the best and deepest rosters in our field.
Russell Westbrook, the starting point guard, may be the most dynamic player in the current NBA. In addition to his triple-double exploits, Westbrook’s best attribute is his ability to get to the rim, and draw the defense with him. He’ll create many opportunities for his backcourt mate, Reggie Miller, who was one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. At 6’7”, Miller had the ideal height for a shooting guard, and both he and Westbrook will have to use their length and athleticism on both ends of the floor, instead of solely concentrating on offense. They’re backed up by Baron Davis, an erratic point guard whose talent was often overshadowed by his poor decision-making, and Gail Goodrich, a Hall-of-Famer who played both guard positions. Expect Goodrich to serve as the primary backup for both starting guards, and Davis to be used sparingly due to the depth on the roster.
Marques Johnson, one of the more underrated players in NBA lore, will start at small forward. Johnson was a tremendously efficient player in his prime, who also exceled on the glass for his position. While he was not a three-point threat, he was a master from the midrange and in, and his crafty game will allow him to find space despite the plethora of low-post options on this team. He’s backed up by Jamaal Wilkes, one of smoothest players of his time who exceled on the fast break, and defended his position stoutly. Kiki Vandeweghe, one of the best shooters and scorers of his era, will also see time on the wing.
The starting big men are the aforementioned college (and pro) legends, Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Both were natural centers who will have to adjust to playing off of one another in the starting lineup. Before his injuries, Walton led Portland to their only NBA championship, and then guided them to one of the great starts in NBA history the following year before his body broke down. He will man the high post on offense and utilize his world-class passing skills to direct the offense in half court sets. Abdul-Jabbar is one of the handful of greatest players in NBA history, and will serve as their primary offensive option throughout the tournament. Their minutes will be staggered to ensure that one big man is always on the court at all times, but when they play together, opponents will have no chance of scoring at the rim against them. Kevin Love will see plenty of minutes as the ideal stretch four who will create space for each big man to operate in the post. His phenomenal rebounding skills are also noteworthy, as he won’t let them slip on the glass when the Twin Towers are staggered. Sidney Wicks and Mark Eaton will play when needed as the fourth and fifth big men on the roster. Wicks was an immensely talented player who battled with teammates and played on losing teams in his time in Portland. However, his size, quickness, and passing ability were valuable assets, and he should be able to positively contribute when called upon. Eaton, the most prolific shotblocker in modern NBA history, will provide a massive defensive roadblock for opponents if Walton and Jabbar suffer from foul trouble.
The NBA UCLA Bruins have a complete and balanced roster with great high-end talent. In order to reach their peak, their point guards, particularly Westbrook, must run the offense through their big men and avoid dominating the ball. Their shooters will thrive with the looks that Jabbar, Walton, and Westbrook will create for them, and their defense should flourish, particularly on the interior, with three of the great rim protectors in the tournament.
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.
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.
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.
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, the All-Time Los Angeles Lakers vs. All-Time Portland Trail Blazers, features two annual Western Conference contenders who have engaged in a fairly one-sided rivalry over the past 45 seasons. Things started off promising for Portland in their magical 1977 season, when they swept the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals on their way to the only championship in franchise history. Since then, however, they’ve lost nine of 10 playoff series to L.A., including two brutal Western Conference Finals losses in 1991 (when they had the best record in the league) and 2000 (when they blew a 16 point lead in game seven and launched the Shaq-Kobe mini-dynasty). Will things be any different in our tournament? Here’s how the franchises match up.
L.A.’s wings vs. Portland’s power forwards: The Lakers have one natural power forward on the roster, Vern Mikkelsen, and two other players who can play at the four (James Worthy and Elgin Baylor). Portland features a deep collection of power forwards (LaMarcus Aldridge, Rasheed Wallace, Maurice Lucas, and Sidney Wicks), who will all earn minutes alongside their pair of centers (Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis). The Lakers will experiment with certain Twin Towers lineups, but will generally have one big on the floor with their collection of wings. Can Portland exploit the Lakers when they play small? Magic Johnson, the Lakers’ jack-of-all trades, will help to minimize any size disadvantage that Baylor or Worthy have against Portland’s power forwards.
Walton and Sabonis vs. L.A.’s Hall-of-Fame big men: The Blazers feature the best passing big man duo in the tournament. Bill Walton, their great but oft-injured center, was also an elite defender, and Sabonis was one of the bigger players in NBA history. They’re going to have their hands full with the greatest collection of centers ever assembled. The Lakers feature legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Mikan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Wilt Chamberlain, who will all share minutes and provide different looks for the opposition. Walton will have to avoid foul trouble for Portland to have any realistic chance of competing.
L.A.’s star power vs. Portland’s star power: The Lakers feature eight of the greatest players in NBA history. Their other four roster spots belong to four run-of-the-mill Hall of Fame players. The Blazers feature the Hall-of-Fame duo of Clyde Drexler and Bill Walton, surrounded by a mix of all-star players, but they’re outmatched by L.A.’s dominant legends.
How will the Lakers’ high-scoring stars co-exist with one another? The Lakers have many players who are used to having the ball in their hands, particularly in their starting lineup. Coach Pat Riley has a unique challenge getting them to blend their talents together. Who will willingly take on a supporting role? Will Kobe Bryant, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor complement each other, or will their minutes have to be staggered to maximize their effectiveness?
After getting a bye in the first round, Los Angeles uses this round to work out the kinks and settle their rotation. The Magic Man leads them to an expected victory.
Bill Russell, Dave Cowens, and Robert Parish vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Vin Baker: Milwaukee’s biggest strength, the play of their legendary big man, will be tested by Boston’s trio of Hall-of-Famers. Russell never had a chance to play against Jabbar, but Cowens and Parish had extensive experience going against him. Cowens played against the Milwaukee version of Jabbar in the 1974 NBA Finals, and unsurprisingly struggled to slow him down (Jabbar averaged 32.6 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 5.4 APG, and shot .524 from the field, while Cowens averaged 22.7 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 4.6 APG, and shot .439). Jabbar doesn’t have a true backup center, however, so he’ll have to play big minutes in this series. The fastbreak ability of Russell and Parish, along with the bruising relentlessness of Cowens, may wind up wearing him down.
Boston’s bench vs. Milwaukee’s bench: The Celtics feature a bench without any weaknesses. Milwaukee has a solid bench, led by their dynamic point guard duo (Oscar Robertson and the underrated Sam Cassell), but they’ll be hard pressed to stay with the Celtics’ Hall-of-Famers.
Boston’s big man depth vs. Milwaukee’s big man depth: In addition to their three centers, the Celtics have Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, and Tommy Heinsohn, all of whom can play power forward. Milwaukee only has Vin Baker and Terry Cummings besides Jabbar, so they’ll have to play some small-ball lineups featuring Marques Johnson or Bob Dandridge at the four.
The first season for Milwaukee was 1968-69, which was the final year of Bill Russell’s Celtics dynasty. Six players on the All-Time Celtics team had already established themselves in Boston before the Bucks even existed. Boston had a 22 year head start on Milwaukee, and won 10 titles in that time (and an 11th in the Bucks’ first year of existence).
The Celtics use their great depth to outlast a game Bucks team. The old guard celebrates another playoff victory.