Monday, June 23, 2014

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

This was originally posted in 2014. It has since been updated to reflect Shaka Smart's new home and Kevin Johnson's newly unveiled depravity.

Last week while reading an article about VCU  Texas coach Shaka Smart, I was reminded once again that Smart has a history degree. Every time I find out that famous people studied history in college, I get excited.

As an NBA diehard, I also began to wonder what college degrees have been most popular among the NBA's best players. A few hours later, this post was the result: a list of the top 15 NBA teams of all time, if those teams were composed only of players who earned the same college degree.

But before I get to the list, a couple quick notes.

1) I'll let others cite Elden Campbell and the recent North Carolina academic scandal to pontificate on the legitimacy of NBA players' degrees. The fact is, most professional athletes do not receive degrees, and for good reason: they want to get out of the exploitative NCAA system as quickly as possible. I want to recognize and celebrate those players who managed to get a degree while also making some money for themselves with their basketball ability.

2) At the same time, I'm not trying to suggest that all NBA players need to get a college degree, or that a college degree is the best measurement of one's intellectual ability. It won't, for example, guarantee that you can tell the difference between a "2009" and "2012" New York Times story when pontificating about Lebron’s lack of a college degree. It also won't give you the good sense not to use the word "pontificate" in back-to-back paragraphs.

3) Finally, some quick notes on my rules for picking the teams:
  • To be represented here, at least 6 NBA players (from any era) had to have the degree.
  • Using my whims, biases, and limited knowledge, I ranked the teams ONLY on the quality of their top six players. I'm measuring quality, not quantity. 
  • If at all possible, teams were formed to make sure that two guards, two forward, and a center were represented, with a guard or forward as the sixth man. 
  • I attempted to put teams together based on "best fit" (i.e. how I think they would play together) rather than simply going off of stats or who was the best one-on-one player. 
  • Since degree programs are not uniform across all universities, I sometimes grouped similar degrees together. For example, I put social work with community studies, because there is often overlap between the two.
  • The teams are ranked in reverse order, from worst to first. 
  • If you'd like to know more about how I compiled this list and what sourced I used, shoot me a message. 

G - Royal Ivey
G - Stacey Augmon
F - Bob Dandridge
F - Chuck Cooper
C - Jerome Kersey
6th Man - Terrence Rencher

Nice guys finish last.

With no one over 6'7 on the roster, and with perennial reserve Ivey, one-and-done (in the NBA that is) Rencher, and journeyman Augmon, it's no surprise that this crew lands at the bottom. It's a shame, because I have a soft spot for the other three players. Dandridge was outstanding, a four-time All-Star who averaged nearly 20 points a game as the third-best player on two championship teams in the 1970s. Jerome Kersey was a tough-nosed scorer and rebounder in the late 1980s and 1990s, and Cooper was the first African American to be drafted in the NBA. Along with Cousy and Auerbach, he was on the ground floor of the beginnings of the Celtics NBA dominance.

G - Kevin Johnson
G - Doc Rivers
F - Jeff Malone
F - Danny Ferry
C - Roy Hibbert
6th Man - Sleepy Floyd

This guard-heavy team (with 5 All-Stars) would have serious trouble guarding taller wings and athletic forwards. They also would have absolutely no offensive post presence. And Danny Ferry is prominently involved, which is never a good thing.

But KJ, a four-time All-NBA 2nd-team performer who had career averages of 18 points and 9 assists while shooting 49%, would bring the offensive punch while Doc could take on the defense/secondary ball-handler role. Jeff Malone was a consistently good (but not great) SG. He'd bring scoring, but not much else. Sleepy Floyd had a better NBA career than Doc, but I put him as the 6th man so he could play a Jamal Crawford instant offense role off the bench.

As for the political game, it's tough to tell if KJ or Doc has made better use of their degree. On the one hand KJ is actually involved in politics, serving as mayor of Sacramento. On the other hand, few coaches politic the media and their players better than Doc. And KJ is probaly a sexual predator whose political career is now in shambles (then again, that might actually establish KJ's political bonafides more than discredit them).

G - Brandon Roy
G - Allan Houston
F - Jerry Stackhouse
F - Vince Carter
C - Antawn Jamison
6th Man - Craig Hodges
Missed the cut: Sean May

I can't decide if this team would be really fun to watch, or miserable.

Like the PoliSci team, five of these six players were All-Stars. Also like PoliSci, this team would have absolutely no offensive post presence.

There are other problems here: no rim protectors, only one basketball for the team to share, not much interest in defense. Yet, in a matchup with PoliSci, I think that this squad wins. Hibbert and Ferry are not offensive threats, which means Carter and Jamison would not be exploited down low. Carter, Houston, and Stackhouse would have their way with PoliSci's undersized wings and/or Danny Ferry. And Jamison would stretch out the D and keep Hibbert out of the paint. So while this team has plenty of weaknesses, I'm putting them ahead of PoliSci.

G - Rick Barry
G - Keith Askins
F - Cazzie Russell
F - Dave DeBusschere
F - Paul Silas
6th Man - Mel Davis

Apparently the marketing degree was much more popular in the 1960s. Seeing this crew makes me imagine them working in a Mad Men-style office where Rick Barry is the Roger Sterling of the office, but with none of the charm. In other words, he's just a prick. I'm not sure who gets to be Don Draper in this scenario.

The great things about this team: Rick Barry, one of the NBA's all-time greats, and DeBusschere and Silas, two oustanding defensive players and rebounders. DeBusschere was named to five first-team All-Defensive teams and has a spot in the Hall of Fame.

But there's a point guard problem and a Keith Askins/Mel Davis problem that is difficult to overcome.

G - Rod Strickland
G - Raja Bell
F - Penny Hardaway
F - Jalen Rose
C - Julius Erving
6th Man - Kenny Anderson

I may be cheating by creating this hodge-podge category. The problem is that most of these degrees, which go under various names like Organization Leadership or Management Studies, were created within the last few decades as universities expanded their offerings to reach out to "adult learners" (or some other word for students who are not 18-22 years old). I decided to group them all together in one category, since they are not part of a business degree program but are all related to management and leadership. (As an aside, all these players went back to school during or after their NBA career to get their degrees)

As for the basketball part of this, the presence of a transcendent star like Dr. J helped move them ahead of the previous four teams. And although his career was cut short by injury, Penny Hardaway was a two-time All-NBA first-team player.

The other players do not really stand out from the previous teams. Strickland/Rose/Anderson were all good offensive players who dominated the ball and put up attractive numbers, but didn't offer much defense. Having a blue-collar, defensively-minded guy like Bell is a godsend; I put him in the starting lineup over Anderson. Clearly, Anderson was the more skilled basketball player, but his skills are redundant with this squad.

The lack of a big man on this team is a problem, but I still think they nudge out the Marketing squad. Rod Strickland could run circles around and through that point-guard-less team.  And even though Marketing has two solid bigs, neither one was over 6'7, and neither one was a great scorer.

G - Avery Johnson
G - Junior Bridgeman
F - Kurt Rambis
F - Bobby Jones
C - Tim Duncan
6th Man - Phil Jackson*
Missed the cut: Phil Walker

I'm probably stretching it by ranking this team at #10. They have only two All-Stars, less than every previous team except for Social Work. Kurt Rambis, who averaged less than twenty minutes per game during his career, is a starter. The team has no three-point shooting. And although Junior Bridgeman was a stellar sixth-man for the Bucks in the 80s, he's probably not who you want as a second-best scoring option.

But Tim Duncan.

Duncan is better than any players from the teams listed above. There would be no answer for him. Beyond his dominance in the offensive post, he would be bringing his 14 All-Defensive team awards and joining up with Bobby Jones, a 9-time All-Defensive team player.

Plus, Junior Bridgeman is now worth $400 million (that's relevant, right?), and Phil Jackson would make up for his comparative lack of ability with some sort of zen mind trick. More importantly, Johnson, Bridgeman, Jones, Duncan, and Jackson all had reputations for being team-first players. Julius Erving called Jones "totally selfless," Bridgeman willingly came off the bench, Avery Johnson was, well, Avery Johnson. And enough has already been written about Duncan and Jackson. The point is, maybe there's something about studying pyschology in college that makes one a great teammate. I'd like to think this squad would find a way to be much better than the sum of its parts.

G - Tiny Archibald
G - Earl Monroe
F - Sidney Moncrief
F - Fat Lever
C - Robert Parish
6th Man - Calvin Murphy
Missed the cut: Maurice Evans, Kevin Porter, Pat Riley, Stan McKenzie

Alright, so only one guy on this team is over 6'3. But how fun would this team be to watch? Imagine Archibald, Monroe, Moncrief, and Lever darting in and out of the lane making acrobatic plays while Parish worked the paint. And while the lack of height is a serious problem, they could at least partially make up for it with the defensive ability of Moncrief (a two-time defensive player of the year) and Lever (made one All-NBA 2nd team).

Plus, all six guys averaged 20 points a game at least twice in their careers. Four of the six are in the Hall of Fame (and Moncrief should be there). Monroe and Archibald were two of the most creative offensive players in NBA history. And Archibald has got to have some good karma.

G - Isiah Thomas
G - Tim Hardaway
F - Lionel Simmons
F - Ben Wallace
C - Dave Cowens
6th Man - Kenyon Martin
Missed the cut: Anthony Mason, James Posey, Corie Blount, Hubert Davis

The Criminal Justice squad's glaring weakness (Lionel Simmons) is much less glaring than all of the teams above. And they have three Hall-of-Famers: Thomas, Cowens, and Hardaway (I'm invoking the "Mitch Richmond got in, how is this guy not in" rule and counting Hardaway). Some might argue that Wallace, a four-time defensive POY, deserves a spot in the Hall as well.

This team also benefits from having all positions on the floor filled and a balanced inside/outside game. Hardaway and Thomas could work the perimter and run the offense, while Wallace and Cowens protected the paint and collected the boards.

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 (two 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.

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.

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 block shots because they’re big. 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, or slowing it down and driving and kicking to dead-eye shooters like Richmond and Ellis. Hollins would be the perfect complement for offense-first guards and wings like Nash, Ellis, and Richmond: Hollins could handle the ball when needed and also lock down the other team’s best guard (twice he was named to an All-Defensive team).

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.


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 Gary Payton and Maurice 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.

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****

After years of neglect the NBA finally stopped the charades and put Jo Jo White in the Hall of Fame. His place was long overdue: White was a seven-time All-Star, made two All-NBA second teams, and won a finals MVP. Yet somehow Joe Dumars and Reggie Miller got in before White.

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 Jordan-led 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 didn't receive his degree until 2012, fifty years after he first enrolled at Iowa.

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?

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?


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?


* Phil Jackson actually received a degree in psychology, religion, and philosophy. Since religion and philosophy did not have enough players to make a team, I put him in with psychology.
** The education team listed here does not include the physical education degree, which has its own team.
***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.

For more on NBA players and college degrees check out these two posts:
1) The Most Interesting College Degrees in the NBA
2) College Majors and College Degrees for the 2014 NBA Draft Prospects

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


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