by John Ellis
This past weekend, Nick Wright, host of Fox Sports’ First Things First, released his number three pick on his top fifty NBA players of the last fifty years. He chose Michael Jordan. The GOAT. At number three. Beyond ridiculous!
I really like Nick Wright. Among all the hosts of debate styled sports shows, I think he’s the best. He understands sports, showmanship, and how TV works. He’s incredibly smart, witty, and doesn’t take himself too seriously – a combination that makes for great TV. Even those times I disagree with him, he makes me think and often wins me over to his side. Except about MJ. His MJ takes are infuriatingly bad. However, I’m not convinced that Nick Wright isn’t doing some sort of genius level trolling with his MJ takes because the release of his number three pick was trending on Twitter and was picked up by several national news organizations. My fear, though, is that this take (we all knew he was putting Lebron ahead of Jordan but putting the real GOAT at three was beyond absurd) will overshadow his brilliance and cause people to tune him out. It’s only recently that I warmed up to him because his MJ takes were so frustrating. With this pick, Nick Wright may have outsmarted himself. But my purpose isn’t to praise or criticize Nick Wright; it’s to pick (repick, because I’ve done this before) the most unbeatable basketball team of all time. Wright’s list is what got me thinking about it.
As stated, I’ve done a list like this before. This list is similar; three of the five are the same. Besides the two changes, though, my reasoning is fleshed out more. Plus, it’s been nearly a half of a decade since I compiled the other list. Also, and more importantly, I love the NBA and enjoy having an excuse to write about it. Something to keep in mind, though: While the greatest basketball player of all time is on my list, this is not a compilation of the greatest basketball players of all time. That’s a different list. These are the five players who I believe would make the best team in any era, meaning that the bigs require size, strength, and the ability to play with their backs to the basket as well as their ability to shoot and stretch the floor. Chemistry and fit are also vital. So, for a counterexample to my list, a team with both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant on it would be a weaker team, I believe, even though Kobe was a better player in most peoples’ estimation than three of the players on my team (and maybe better than four). Complimenting skills, spacing, defense, and overall attitude/ability to play together are important for teams. Although you can assemble a more talented team, I believe that my team will still beat your team.
Obviously (to almost everyone but Nick Wright), putting together the most unbeatable team of all time starts with the GOAT. Jordan was unstoppable, in any era. That’s indisputable. He was a scoring machine. Furthermore, he was first team All-Defense nine times; that’s tied for the record! Add in his athleticism, will to win, and his clutch gene, and the most unbeatable team ever has to be constructed around MJ. This means that players who have to be ball dominate are likely not going to make the cut for the other four spots. And for those who are going to argue that my team doesn’t have enough 3point shooting, Jordan could shoot the three.
I have a love/hate relationship with Pippen. He was the second-best player on my favorite sports team of all time. Of late, though, he’s attempting to be a one-man wrecking ball to MJ’s legacy. Whatever. His current foolishness doesn’t take away from the fact that he was a great player in his own right. He’s one of the greatest defensive players of all time and could guard any position. His ability to attack the rim could get you buckets, and while he wasn’t a great shooter, he was an efficient scorer. Part of his efficiency is owed to the fact that he didn’t have to be a high-volume shooter/scorer, which speaks to why he’s on this list. We know without question that Pippen can play well with MJ, and that’s important for this team. His stellar defense, court vision, and ability to pass combine with his proven ability to be the best Robin to the greatest NBA Batman of all time make Pippen a no-brainer for inclusion.
I imagine that NBA fans intuitively understand why Klay has earned a spot on this team. The casual fan may be a little confused as to why I chose Klay over Steph if I’m stealing someone from the Warriors. Well, like Pippen, Klay not only knows how to play his role, but he does it far better than most people realize. And here’s where the rubber meets the road between picking between Klay and Steph. Obviously, if I want a team that is unbeatable in today’s NBA, I need to have great 3point shooting. But if I want that same team to compete in the 80, 90s, and 00s, Steph Curry becomes a defensive liability. He also becomes a little more limited on the offensive end, too. While I don’t doubt that Steph could put up good numbers in earlier, more physical eras, the way he plays combined with his (lack of) size would be problematic and would (likely) prevent him from scoring like he does. Klay, on the other hand, is an excellent defender – he can defend multiple positions – and is almost as good of a 3point shooter as Steph Curry. In fact, Klay is a better catch-and-shoot shooter than Steph which is more important to my team than what Steph brings to the table. Essentially, on this team, Klay Thompson would play the same role as he does on the Warriors. He’s earned his spot because he’d be a great fit alongside Jordan, giving the team a lethal 3point shooter without surrendering anything on the defensive side of the ball.
This may be the most controversial pick on this list. Out of all the great centers – Shaq, Hakeem, Kareem, Jokic, Moses Malone, Dwight Howard (don’t sleep on Howard’s prime), etc. – why Giannis? Well, he’s as physically imposing as anybody I just mentioned with the possible exception of Shaq. His defense is great, and unlike the great centers from the past, he can guard multiple positions. I will concede this, by selecting Giannis, I am tilting the center position heavily to the current era. I believe I have to do this because as great as some of the centers in the previous era were, they would be a bigger liability in today’s NBA than Giannis would in yesterday’s, and Giannis wouldn’t be a liability in previous eras. Giannis could easily transition to playing center in the 90s; he has the size and skills to do it. And his unselfish, team-first approach is a necessary ingredient if he’s going to share the floor with MJ. My ace card in defense of picking Giannis is the 5th player I’ve selected, who also might be my most surprising pick for those who know me but who is a great complimentary piece beside Giannis on the frontcourt.
Try as I might, I can’t hate Lebron James. He’s a great athlete and an equally great basketball player – his basketball IQ is off the charts. Not to mention, he plays the game unselfishly. He can score, as attested by the fact that he’s going to break Kareem’s all-time scoring record sometime this season, barring injury and another pandemic shutting the season down, but he doesn’t have to score and that’s important for playing alongside MJ (see Pippen). In fact, an argument can be made that he’d rather pass than shoot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it can be in clutch moments when you’re supposed to be the leader of the team, which won’t be his job on my team. On this team, his role will be to always make the correct basketball decision, play great defense (which he can do), and score when needed. In other words, be another Scottie Pippen, only Lebron would make for a better Pippen than Pippen. Add in the fact that he has the size and strength to play in the frontcourt in any era, and he’s the perfect fit next to Giannis. I have no doubt that Lebron could play with his back to the basket in the 80s, 90s, and 00s. And I have no doubt that like Pippen, he’ll make a great scoring complimentary piece next to Michael Jordan.
One of the areas in which I’ve improved this team over my previous team is the ability for the bigs to stretch the floor. And I’ve done so without surrendering size and strength. Giannis and Lebron’s skills, size, and strength translate across all NBA eras. Plus, they are both incredibly unselfish and are willing to do what’s needed for the team to win even if that means lesser individual stats.
Astute readers will notice that I do not have a true point guard on this team. Think about it, though, did MJ’s Chicago Bulls have a true point guard? No. Did it matter? Of course, not. And with Lebron on the team, there is essentially a point guard anyway. Not to mention that all five players are above average to great in court vision and passing. I briefly considered Chris Paul for his passing and defense but concluded that Klay Thompson’s otherworldly shooting ability is more important to this team’s construction than what Paul brings to the table.
The scoring ability of this team should be obvious to even the causal basketball fan: Michael Jordan is going to get his 30 plus on a nightly basis. The other four are going to score as well and score a lot. While there are no true weaknesses on the offensive end, the amount of focus and energy required to defend Jordan is going to create severe defensive issues. Who do you leave open? And that’s not to mention that you’re going to be hard-pressed to assemble a team that doesn’t have defensive mismatches beyond the obvious one in trying to guard Jordan.
As great as this team’s scoring ability is, it’s not their strength. Defense is. There are zero holes on defense, in any era. Giannis is arguably the best rim protector in the league at the moment. And his speed/quickness allow him to switch out without surrendering much defense at all on the perimeter. It’s going to be hard to find a center that matches both abilities equally well. Lebron and Pippen can guard any position on the court and do so better than almost anybody in the history of the NBA. Jordan’s lightening fast hands and ability to get to spots quicker than anybody else is a nightmare for opposing guards. Pre-injuries, nobody questioned Klay Thompson’s defensive prowess. The amount of energy required to get buckets against my team is going to pay dividends on the other side of the court (and vice-versa – it’s almost like a chicken and egg thing).
I’ve already mentioned Chris Paul, but a few of the other players that I seriously considered are Shaq, Dennis Rodman, Kareem, Gary Payton, Tim Duncan, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, Kevin McHale, Dirk, and Hakeem. Players I didn’t consider either because I don’t think they’d compliment Jordan well or because I don’t believe their game would translate as much as I would need/want across multiple eras are Draymond Green (I don’t believe he’d be able to do what he does in past eras – Rodman would eat him alive), Kobe, Drexler, Elgin Baylor, Karl Malone (I flat-out don’t want him anywhere near my team), Stockton, Moses Malone, Dr. J, Iverson, and every other NBA player not mentioned …. except one.
Picking Klay Thompson over Steph Curry makes sense, almost obviously so, I believe. Picking Klay over Bird? I’m not 100% sure. That was the most difficult decision I made when constructing the team, and the one decision I continue to second guess myself over. Larry Bird and Klay Thompson are obviously not in the same league. Again, though, my team isn’t comprised of the best players of all time – that team would be Jordan, Lebron, Kareem, and … I’m undecided on the 5th player, but while Bird is a long shot for that spot, Klay isn’t even in the conversation. The reason I went with Klay over Bird is that I needed a great shooter (which Bird was, too) but I also needed a role player that can purely be a role player in any era. I’m not sure that Larry Bird had the temperament to be a role player in any era, nor should he. While I believe that I could insert Bird over Klay and still be unbeatable, I’m afraid that the possible chemistry issues would make the team less unbeatable.
One final thought, I’m fully aware that it’s a contradiction of terms to add qualifiers to unbeatable. NBA fans know what I mean, though. And I’m curious if anyone thinks they can assemble a team from the remaining players that could beat mine and who is on that team.
 I would add with the exception of PTI’s Wilbon and Kornheiser, but I don’t really think of that show as a debate show. Maybe it was in its infancy, I don’t remember even though I watched it – I do remember Kornheiser having hotter hot takes – but PTI is now more of a well-informed and interesting podcast.
 It needs to be pointed out, because kids today don’t seem to understand this, but MJ’s objective measurables – vertical jump, speed/quickness, strength, etc. – are better than today’s players. The “athletes are bigger, stronger, faster now” doesn’t hold water with MJ and the players in his era.
 For the record, my bench would be Kobe, Jokic, Bird, Chris Paul, and Dennis Rodman. I’m putting this in a footnote so that those who are so inclined can fill free to use these players in constructing a team that they think could beat mine.