by John Ellis
For those of you who follow this blog and are regular readers but aren’t interested in sports, my apologies. And don’t worry; this isn’t turning into a sports blog. I promise (I think) this will be the last sports-centered article for a long time. However, for those who do love sports, especially the NBA, you’re welcome. Now to the task at hand.
My afternoon and evening yesterday were swamped, wonderfully so, by text message conversations (and the comment section on Facebook) about my last article “The Most Unbeatable Basketball Team of All-Time.” Sports fans are passionate (by definition) and greatest/best of lists rile us up like little else. Friends and now ex-friends (joking … maybe) took umbrage at my team. Not all of them, though. A few friends expressed near full agreement with my team. Other friends, the majority of those who responded, believe I have lost my mind for leaving, specifically, Shaq and/or Magic Johnson off the team and including Klay Thompson. To them (and especially my friend Ray), I dedicate this article.
As I explained in the original article, the team I constructed isn’t meant to represent the greatest players of all-time nor the best player at each position of all-time. While those teams would be a lot of fun to watch and great in their own right (see the original Dream Team), they technically wouldn’t be a great TEAM. And that’s the key. My goal was to construct a cohesive team with players that have complementary strengths that offset whatever weaknesses they may bring to the court. A large part of that cohesiveness is dependent on how you account for the fact that there is only one basketball used in a game. Kobe Bryant demanded (with good reason, to be sure) for the ball to be largely in his talented hands. Because of that, he and Michael Jordan would not make for a good fit. Could they make it work? I don’t know; that’s a tough call. The thing(s) that made both of them great would cause them to clash if they were on the same team. Making it work would require one of them to surrender a large part of what makes him great to begin with. You can only have one alpha-dog per team and you can definitely only have one primary scorer. This is why I think Lebron would make a great teammate for Jordan. The (likely) second best player of all-time would make for a better Pippen than Scottie Pippen even. And we know how the duo of Jordan and Pippen worked out. Lebron is an unselfish player with great court vision, excellent passing abilities, and the desire to make the best basketball play even if that means the ball isn’t in his hands and he doesn’t get the credit.
Now, I realize that nobody (that I’m aware of) questioned the inclusion of Jordan and Lebron on the team. But I think the reasons why they would make for great teammates help underline why I excluded other great players. In constructing a team, especially one that will be unbeatable in any era of the NBA, spacing and ball movement have to be considered as well as size and strength. Likewise, perimeter defense is a must but without sacrificing the ability to shoot the 3. Magic Johnson doesn’t fit the bill.
Think about it: What made Magic great? His court vision, leadership, and passing abilities. For many people, myself included, he’s the greatest point guard of all-time. Depending on the day, Magic is in my top-five players of all-time, although those days are become fewer and farther between. But what he brings to the table isn’t needed by my team. His deficiencies, though, would chip away at my team’s invincibility.
Until late in his career, Magic Johnson was a horrendous 3point shooter. But I acknowledge that while he never averaged more than 23 points in a season and only averaged over 20 points a season four times in his thirteen-year career, Magic could get buckets when needed. However, with Jordan, Lebron, Pippen, and Giannis, my team is loaded with scorers. It doesn’t need someone who get buckets. What it needs is a 3point shooter. Actually, that’s not really accurate. What my team needs to make it invincible is a deadly marksman who – and this is important – can also guard the perimeter at an elite level. Not only was Magic Johnson a terrible shooter, but he had some pretty major defensive limitations. And my team doesn’t need his passing, no matter how great he was at it (and he was GREAT at it). Both Pippen and Lebron make for excellent hybrid point-forwards (the two best of all-time at it) but with the bonus of being two excellent defenders; there’s not a position on the court they can’t defend. All that’s left, in terms of what the team needs is a deadly marksman who plays great perimeter defense. I can’t think of any player other than Klay Thompson who checks off those boxes with a bigger sharpie. Seriously, point to a greater 3point shooter who was/is also as elite of a perimeter defender as Klay Thompson.
Imagine the open looks Klay would get when on the court with Jordan and the other three. His proven ability (and willingness) to move without the ball combined with the fact that he may be the greatest catch-and-shoot 3point shooter of all-time will make him lethal beyond the arc on this team – more lethal than he already is. He won’t have to be a high-volume shooter to get his 15 to 18 a night. And, again, because this is an important point, his presence on the court doesn’t create any defensive gaps like Magic’s presence would. While Magic is, without question, a better player than Klay, he’s not a better fit for the team I’ve constructed. In fact, his weaknesses and deficiencies are really all he’d bring to the team because they don’t need his strengths, they already have those covered.
Leaving Shaq off, though, is a harder argument to make. In his prime, Shaq was probably the most physically dominant player to ever play the game. He was unstoppable. What pushed me to pick Giannis over Shaq are free throw shooting and perimeter play. Giannis has never shot less than 63% from the free throw line in a season and Shaq never shot as high as 63% in a season. In fact, Shaq only shot over 60% from the free throw line once in a season during his entire career while Giannis is currently a 72% career free throw shooter. As for stretching the floor, Giannis has proven he can play on the perimeter. I’m not sure about Shaq; while he was great defensively in the post, he was a defensive liability on the perimeter. Does Giannis give up something to Shaq under the basket? Sure, but in the scales what Shaq gives up to Giannis on the perimeter outweighs what Giannis gives up to Shaq under the basket. Constructing a team that is invincible across all eras of the NBA requires me to have bigs who can play with their backs to the basket and can stretch the floor. Shaq was great at one of those, but Giannis is great at both. That being said, I’ll admit that I think my team would be okay if I had Shaq instead of Giannis.
Do I think that any of the greats I’ve left off could be plugged in and they’d figure out how to make it work? Sure, for the most part with some possible notable exceptions (see my Kobe comments above). But the team I’ve constructed wouldn’t have to figure it out. Their skills and strengths already work great together in ways that will translate across various styles of play. They have the size and strength to play in the 80s and 90s and the quickness, shooting, and ability to stretch the floor needed to play today. And, let’s be honest, a team with Jordan and Lebron on it really only needs two good 3-and-D guys and a decent rim protector to be nearly unbeatable. You’d be hard pressed to come up with a team that could beat Jordan, Lebron, two 3-and-D guys, and a rim protector four out of seven. The three players I’ve teamed with them, I believe, make my team invincible against any other combination of players.
There was one player that I didn’t even mention in the previous article that I expected to get pushback about but didn’t. I thought for sure that my failure to even bring up Joel Embiid’s name would draw foul cries, especially from millennials and Gen Y’ers. The brilliant play of Embiid, Giannis, and Jokic is putting to rest the notion that the game has passed by big men. If he stays healthy, I can see myself arguing in the future that Embiid and Giannis are basically interchangeable on this team. Embiid is big and strong but plays well on the perimeter. This past season, he shot 37% from beyond the arc while shooting almost four 3pointers a game! He did that as a 7-footer. An excellent rebounder and defender, on offense Embiid creates mismatch problems for most teams; he’s a nightmare to defend. So why did I not even mention him? Well, because he’s really only had one truly great season, owing in large part to injuries. I mean, I’ll begrudgingly give you three seasons – last season, which was phenomenal and for which he should’ve won the league MVP, and the 2020/21 and 2018/19 seasons – but he missed a total of 38 regular season games during those two seasons and had his effectiveness in the playoffs hindered owing to injuries. For me, I want to see Joel Embiid play at a league MVP caliber level for at least one more season and be highly effective and efficient in the playoffs. I know he can do it if he stays healthy, but he needs a little more meat on his resume before I consider him for a spot on the most unbeatable basketball team of all-time.
There you have it. Even after all the pushback, I stand by my team. In fact, the many arguments I had yesterday helped solidify in my mind that I made the correct decision in choosing Klay Thompson while leaving Magic Johnson off the team. You’re wrong, Ray.
 To be honest, the older I get the less eager I am to overlook defensive limitations when ranking the greatest of all-time.
 The last few seasons he played, and even with more 3point shots, Magic became a serviceable 3point shooter. I’m willing to countenance the argument that since the 3point line was only introduced to the NBA his rookie year and based off his improvement at the end of his career, he could’ve been a better 3point shooter than he was. Fine. And this is basically repeating what I say about Klay after this footnote in the meat of the article, but there would still be a huge gap between Magic and Klay Thompson when it comes to being a 3point shooter. I’m not looking for a merely good shooter; I’m looking for an otherworldly one.