Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Fifteen Best NBA Teams Of All Time...If Those Teams Were Organized By Players' College Degrees (PART TWO)

Continuing on from part one, here are the seven best college degrees for producing star NBA players.  

7. ECONOMICS
G - Dave Bing
G - Lenny Wilkins
F - Adrian Dantley
F - Jamaal Wilkes (now Jamaal Abdul-Lateef Wilkes)
C - Bill Laimbeer
6th Man - Kiki Vandewedghe
Missed the cut: Joe Barry Carroll, Festuz Ezeli, Jeremy Lin

From here on out, it’s incredibly difficult to find glaring weaknesses. Each team is solid 1 through 6, has a good inside/outside balance, and has no out-of-position players.

I really like the balance that this roster would provide. They’ve got four Hall-of-Famers (Bing, Wilkins, Dantley, Wilkes), and two guys who are on the near-miss HOF list. The problem with this team, compared to some of the teams in the top six, is that even though all of these players were great, none of them were truly elite. They’re like the 2001–2008 Pistons. And even though Wilkes (2 All-Defensive teams) and Laimbeer were both recognized for their play on the defensive end, neither player was especially adept at blocking shots.

Also, there is some degree drama with this team. Dave Bing, who eventually became mayor of Detroit (maybe not something you want on your resume), lied about having an MBA and also claimed that he received his economics degree thirty years before he actually completed it. But I won’t hold that against him: whenever it happened, he’s still got an economics degree.

6. GENERAL STUDIES
G - Norm Nixon
G - Jason Terry
F - Alex English
F - Buck Williams
C - Shaquille O'Neal
6th Man - Xavier McDaniel
Missed the cut: Ervin Johnson, Steve Kerr, Keith Jennings

As with the Psychology team, my bias in favor of elite big men is coming out with this ranking. Besides O’Neal (who will be in the HOF), only English currently has a place in the Hall. So how can I put General Studies ahead of teams with multiple Hall-of-Famers?

First, all six players had long, consistently good careers, and all but Terry made at least one all-star game.

Second, the pieces fit incredibly well. You’ve got guards in Nixon and Terry who are dangerous offensively but don’t constantly need the ball, which frees up O’Neal to dominate. English would be a great wing scorer to play the Hardaway/Bryant/Wade role for Shaq, and Buck Williams was a four-time All-Defensive team player who could focus on defense and rebounding. McDaniel would provide great scoring punch off the bench.

Third, Shaq. Don’t forget how dominating he was.

One potential problem: Norm Nixon famously got into a tiff with Magic back in the early 1980s. Given Shaq’s history of intra-team rivalries, that might not bode well for team chemistry. On the other hand, Shaq and Kobe did win three rings together.

5. SOCIOLOGY*
G - Steve Nash
G - Lionel Hollins
F - Dale Ellis
F - Nate Thurmond
C - Alonzo Mourning
6th Man - Mitch Richmond
Missed the cut: Larry Johnson, Rolando Blackman, David Lee, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Andre Miller, Jameer Nelson, Brent Barry, Christian Laettner, Dell Curry, Keith Van Horn, Johnny Newman

A deep pool of players to choose from certainly helps, and sociology was a popular degree choice, especially among more recent players (it was the third most popular degree overall).

I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, but I love how this team fits together. Any defensive weaknesses brought by Nash and Ellis would be completely obliterated by the terrifying tandem of Thurmond and Mourning. Those two aren’t plodding big men who wait around the rim and occasionally happen to blog shots because they’re big (a la Shaq). They’re athletic and rangy. They’ll hunt you down.

On the offensive side you’d have Nash running the break with bigs who can actually run, and in the half court set driving and kicking to dead-eye shooters like Richmond and Ellis. Hollins, meanwhile, was no slouch. He was a perfect role player, handling the ball when needed and locking down the other team’s best guard (twice he was named to an All-Defensive team). In short, he’d be the perfect compliment for guards and wings like Nash, Ellis, and Richmond.

As for other accolades: all six players were All-Stars, and if you count the not-yet-inducted Nash, four of the six are Hall of Famers.

4. COMMUNICATION


G - Gus Williams
G - Gary Payton
F - Magic Johnson
F - Maurice Lucas
C - Elvin Hayes
6th Man - David West
Missed the cut: Derek Fisher, Vin Baker, Juwan Howard, Danny Ainge, Mark Jackson, Danny Manning, Michael Adams, B.J. Armstrong, A.C. Green, Ralph Sampson, Theo Ratlif, Al Horford, Charles Smith, Bruce Bowen, Byron Scott, Mark Alarie, Jim McKilvane, Jayson Williams, Landry Fields, Thurl Bailey, J.R. Reid, Muggsy Bogues, Tyrone Hill, Brian Grant, Damon Stoudamire

More players have a communications degree than any other degree, so it’s a little bit difficult to wade through roughly equivalent players and nail down a six-person team. I feel absolutely confident about the starting five. But West as the Sixth Man? I’m just throwing darts. You could easily make a case for Horford or Hawkins as the better pick.

Some might argue that Mark Jackson deserves the PG spot. But I’d rather have a more multidimensional player to go alongside Payton. Williams may not be a household name, but he was one of the NBA’s best guards in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Plus, his inclusion brings back happy memories for Seattle’s NBA fans, and Lord knows they need it.

The great thing about this team is that it combines Magic Johnson’s brilliance-with-a-smile with the one-two swagger/intimidation punch of Payton and Lucas. Johnson is in the GOAT class of NBA standouts, which immediately makes this team difficult to deal with. Not far below him is Gary Payton, who won a defensive POY and was named to nine All-NBA and All-Defensive teams. There’s also Elvin Hayes, an all-star in three different decades. On top of that, six players went to at least one All-Star game. There’s just not much of a weak link, other than three-point shooting.

This team would have the guards to handle Nash & Co from Sociology, and the bigs to battle Zo. But I can’t put them ahead of the Bird-led Physical Education squad, and not just because of my pro-Celtics bias.

3. PHYSICAL EDUCATION
G - Jo Jo White
G - Jerry West
F - Paul Pressey
F - Larry Bird
C - Wes Unseld
6th Man - Ron Harper
Missed the cut: Vinnie Johnson, Don Nelson, David Wesley, Mike Woodson, Alvin Attles**

First, can we stop the charades and put Jo Jo White in the Hall of Fame already? Back in 2007, ESPN discussed five players who have been snubbed by the Hall. Four of those five have subsequently gotten in, but not White. The guy was a seven-time All-Star, made two All-NBA second teams, and won a finals MVP. If we're letting Joe Dumars and Reggie Miller in, it's time to let White in as well.

Another underrated player on this team: Paul Pressey, who some claim was the "original point forward." Rick Barry and Marques Johnson might have something to say about that claim, but at the very least Pressey was unique. A 6'5 forward who could pass like a point guard, he was also an efficient scorer (shooting 48.5% for his career), and an excellent defensive player (claiming three spots on NBA All-Defensive teams).

Joining White and Pressey would be lunchpail-carrying Hall-of-Fame pivot Wes Unseld and two of the top fifteen players in NBA history. There's a reason I don't have to write much about Bird and West. You already know.

Harper is a good-but-not-great sixth man, but people who remember him only from his days with the Bulls underestimate what a solid career he had. The main weakness with the team isn't Harper, but the lack of height and/or rim protectors. Unseld was great, but he was only 6'7 and never averaged over one blocked shot per game.

As a final note, even though he didn't make the top six it's worth mentioning that physical education grad Don Nelson (yes, that Don Nelson), didn't receive his degree until 2012, fifty years after he first enrolled at Iowa.

2. BUSINESS
G - John Stockton
G - Bob Cousy
F - Oscar Robertson
F - Bob Pettit
C - Bob Lanier
6th Man - Joe Dumars
Missed the cut: Jerry Lucas, Michael Finley, Phil Ford, Reggie Theus, Calvin Natt, Matt Bonner, Kevin Grevey, Dan Rounfield, Etan Thomas, Rick Mahorn, Clarence Weatherspoon, Kerry Kittles, Matt Harpring, Jeff Mullins, Larry Smith, John Salley*

Before we get into how great this team is, and how all six players are Hall of Famers (and a seventh, Jerry Lucas, didn't even make the cut), let's face facts:

Bob Cousy and Bob Pettit, as great as they were, still did most of their damage in an era in which black players were only allowed to enter the league in limited numbers. In 1962, for example, less than a third of the NBA's players were black and no team had more than four. The same caveat applies to Robertson, but to a much lesser extent because he didn't start his career until 1961 (Cousy and Pettit played the bulk of their careers in the 1950s).

Also, Cousy (37.5%) and Pettit (43.6%) would have been miserable shooters by today's standards. Granted, it was a different era, the game was played differently, and so on and so on. But when you're comparing players across eras, you have to at least take those sorts of things into consideration.

With that out of the way, let's recognize the greatness here. Pettit, Robertson, Cousy, and Stockton were all 11-time All-NBA performers. Robertson's career averages are insane. Not only did he shoot 48.5% for his career (in an era when the FG% was generally much lower), but he also put up 25.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 9.5 assists per game. Stockton's numbers are amazing as well: he shot at a 51.5% clip while averaging 10.5 assists and 2.2 steals per game. Even the weak spots on this team had stellar careers. Lanier never made an All-NBA team, but he averaged a 20/10 for his career. Dumars was an outstanding three point shooter who doubled as a lock-down defender (he was named to 5 All-Defensive teams). Simply put, it's tough to find a weakness.

So what sort of juggernaut could possibly defeat this team?

1. HISTORY
G - Grant Hill
G - Reggie Miller
F - Billy Cunningham
F - Bill Walton
C - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
6th Man - Bill Bradley
Missed the cut: Raef LaFrentz, Andrew Declercq, Adonal Foyle, Alvin Attles**

Was this entire countdown just history boosterism dressed in the guise of NBA fandom?

Perhaps.

But let me submit my case for why History is number one.

First: Kareem is the second-best NBA player to receive a college degree. And the best (Michael Jordan) is not represented on any of these teams (more on that here). I'm a firm believer that if you have an unstoppable big man, then all other things being somewhat equal, the unstoppable big man wins. Kareem, a six-time MVP, is clearly superior to Lanier. The only question is if the rest of his team can compete with the Business squad. Which leads me to...

Second: all six players are Hall of Famers. Billy Cunningham, nicknamed the "Kangaroo Kid" for his leaping ability, was named to four All-NBA teams, then switched to the ABA and won an MVP. At 6'6 and rangy, he could match up with Oscar Robertson. Grant Hill, named to five All-NBA teams, would take on the primary ball-handling role, something he did for the first seven years of his career anyway. Reggie Miller's penchant for clutch shots and his reputation as one of the best three-point shooters in NBA history is well known. Bill Walton's NBA career was cut short by injury, but he is still known as one of the best passing big men of all time.

Imagine an offense centered on a high-low game with Walton at the elbow and Kareem working the low post. Cunningham would be screening, cutting, and hitting the boards, Miller would be the floor spacer, and Hill would take on the PG duties. Off the bench you'd have Bradley, the well-rounded SF who was good at most aspects of the game.

While Business would still have the advantage at the guard and wing spots, surely History would make up for it with its dominating play in the paint, its superior critical thinking skills, and/or its leftist critique of the bourgeoisie capitalism embraced by Business. Right?

Right.

*Three guys in the "Missed the cut" list for the Sociology team actually had Social Science degrees.
**Alvin Attles had degrees in both history and physical education.

Coming tomorrow, part three: a look at the unique college degrees that NBA players have received, and a statistical overview of the distribution of degrees.

Links to three other basketball-related posts I've done:
1) A look back at the Kansas City-Omaha Kings
2) Reflecting on the 1990 NBA Draft
3) Jesse 'Cab' Renick, the American Indian U.S. Olympic Basketball Captain