By now if you haven’t seen the Shaquille O’Neal vs. Scottie Pippen Instagram beef over whether the Lakers or Bulls have the better all-time starting five, then you’re really missing out. I’d summarize it here for you, but that would ruin the delight of seeing Shaq with the hard troll of reducing the Hall of Famer and six-time champion to the equivalent of Mase to Shaq’s Puffy.
I don’t need to come to Pippen’s defense, or to tell you that the Lakers’ all-time second team could win 75 games in a season with the embarrassing glut of talent at their disposal, but what I will do is continue figuring out the rest of the NBA organizations’ all-time starting fives. Today, we’ll look at the New York Knicks’ best combination of five players, in case one day we have the technology to use time travel to put all the great Knicks in a historic basketball tournament.
For the teams that already got the all-time starting five treatment here on Today’s Fastbreak, you can check the complete list so far here, in no particular order:
Thus far, some of those all-time starting fives are set up differently. For some the goal is to get the best player at each position, for others it’s to get the group that fits together the best. Some highlighted the best season by a specific player for the team, and others went on a total body of work.
For this starting five, I’m looking for the best player at each position based on their contributions wearing Knicks colors. By that token, I allowed for positional flexibility, so not to lock anybody out just because one spot is too competitive. Also, being beloved and revered by the fan base goes a long way. It wasn’t going to nab Jeremy Lin a spot, but when trying to separate the best of the best, it comes into play.
Point Guard: Walt “Clyde” Frazier, 1967-1977
The easiest choice on this list was going with Clyde, and that isn’t for the impeccable suits and crazy stories. Those are proof that you can get away with anything in New York if you’re wearing a championship ring, and Frazier wears two. He averaged about 19 points, six assists and six rebounds during his 10 seasons in New York. His individual accolades speak for themselves, making four All-NBA First Teams and two Second Teams between 1970 and 1975. He also spent seven consecutive seasons on the NBA All-Defensive First Team starting in 1969. He ended his tenure with the team as the all-time leader in eight traditional statistical categories, and is still the team’s all-time leader in assists.
His defining moment in orange and blue isn’t remembered as his moment. In Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Willis Reed wasn’t expected to play due to a torn muscle in his thigh. He missed Game 6 and Wilt Chamberlain scored 45 points and grabbed 27 rebounds as the Lakers tied up the series. Reed toughed it out to play in Game 7 against the odds, making his first two shots and playing good defense on Chamberlain before finishing 2-of-5 from the field with three rebounds. In what’s known as “The Willis Reed Game,” Frazier scored 36 points and recorded 19 assists. He was a member of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team, and his No. 10 jersey was retired in 1979.
Tip of the hat to Mark Jackson and Dick McGuire, but Frazier was a runaway at this spot.
Shooting Guard: Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, 1971-1980
Monroe came to the Knicks after their first championship in 1970, and he was one of the prevailing reasons the team was able to extend their run with a second championship in 1973. A playground legend, Monroe spent parts of five seasons with the Washington Bullets before being traded to the Knicks, where his ability to coexist with Frazier was controversially questioned. The two obviously meshed back in the ’70s, and he added 16 points per game as a Knick, complementing Frazier in every way. He made two All-Star teams in New York and joined his backcourt mate on the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team. His No. 15 jersey was retired in 1986.
Small Forward: Bernard King, 1982-1987
The love for those early ’70s championship teams could’ve carried me to make an entire starting five out of players from that era. “Dollar” Bill Bradley was a more than capable wing player on those teams, and he would extend the streak of awesome nicknames on this all-time starting five.
Unfortunately for Bradley, there’s one other player in Knicks history who has the same unconditional love as the champions of 1970 and 1973, and that’s the legendary King. The pure scorer spent five seasons bouncing between New Jersey, Utah and Golden State before landing with the Knicks in 1982. He put up 26.5 points per game during his four seasons in New York, including a league-leading 32.9 during the 1984-85 season. He put those numbers up with a high volume of shots, but did so efficiently with a field goal percentage of 54.3 percent during that time.
He missed the entire 1985-86 season to knee injuries that would eventually ruin his career, making him one of the ultimate “What If” players in NBA history. Still, in his four seasons in New York he made three All-Star teams, two All-NBA First Teams and an All-NBA Second Team.
Carmelo Anthony by the numbers could easily have taken this spot, and he actually would remind people of King due to his excellent scoring touch. Ultimately, it’s tough to put him over the beloved King with a large portion of Knicks fans (unfairly) thinking the team is better off without him. Another extremely loved player that was considered both here and at power forward was Anthony Mason, who won Sixth Man of the Year for the 1995 team and battled with the heart of a champion for the Knicks. He tragically passed away in February of this year at the age of 48.
Power Forward: Willis Reed, 1964-1974
I already brought up “The Willis Reed Game,” and even if Frazier was the real star of the game, Reed’s gutty appearance was the stuff of legends. Even if he didn’t light up the box score like Frazier, getting out there and going toe-to-toe with Wilt is about as valuable as anything he could’ve done offensively.
Reducing his career to that one game actually shortchanges how great he was. He played 10 seasons in the NBA, all with the Knicks, making the All-Star team in each of his first seven years in the league. For his career, he averaged nearly 19 points and 13 rebounds, and while he’s remembered for appearing in that Game 7, he was the best player on the team and in the league during the 1970 season that ended in an NBA title. He was the MVP of the All-Star Game, the regular season and the NBA Finals that year. Like teammates Frazier and Monroe, he was a member of the 50th Anniversary Team. His No. 19 jersey was the first ever retired by the Knicks (in 1976).
Reed played center for most of his career, including both championship years, but was primarily a power forward between 1965 and 1968. That was just enough for me to qualify him here, and open up the center spot for another all-time Knick. Unfortunately, that meant that a number of great power forwards never really had a shot at this team. The most notable omission is Dave DeBusschere, who’s another one of the NBA’s all-time greats who won two championships in New York. Charles Oakley might not have been a Hall of Famer, but his toughness will always be remembered by the fan base, and the same goes for Larry Johnson. I guess Amar’e Stoudemire deserves mentioning, but he was never, ever, ever getting serious consideration from me.
Center: Patrick Ewing, 1985-2000
After 15 years with the Knicks, the team’s all-time leading scorer made 11 All-Star Games, which is more than the amount of total seasons either Frazier or Reed spent in New York. The big fish of the 1985 NBA Draft, Ewing was a Rookie of the Year, a six-time All-NBA Second Team member, a three-time All-NBA Defensive Team member and the All-NBA First Team center for the 1990 season. He won two Olympic gold medals, the second as a member of the 1992 Dream Team.
He averaged 22.8 points and 10.4 rebounds during his time with the Knicks. His No. 33 jersey was retired by the team in 2003, and he was selected to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team. Everything about his career shines a light on him as the best player in Knicks history, and anyone purveying the Internet for “best Knicks of all time” lists will see him at the top more often than not.
However, the love isn’t quite there the way it is for Frazier and Reed and Monroe and King. In his 15 years, Ewing was rarely acknowledged as the best center in the league, taking a backseat to Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaq.
Consulting my father, a Knicks fan since the ’60s, he thought Reed should be a lock as the all-time center, with DeBusschere as the power forward — although he gave significant consideration to Oakley just for the toughness. When asked about Ewing, his first reaction was an audible “No way!” Then he immediately brought up the finger roll against the Pacers.
Many longtime Knicks fans see Ewing as a broken promise. The Knicks went to two NBA Finals during his tenure, losing both times. Ewing was injured and unavailable during part of the Eastern Conference Finals and all of the NBA Finals in 1999, cementing the “Ewing Theory” made popular by Bill Simmons that was shorthand for a star player whose team actually played better without him. He does get bonus points for being in Space Jam though, for sure.
Still, the body of work is more than enough to put him alongside Reed to make a big-time frontcourt for the Knicks’ all-time starting five. Obviously for this team, the only other option at center would’ve been Reed, which would’ve opened room for DeBusschere at power forward. Just know that even though he isn’t Reed or Ewing, Bill Cartwright’s eight seasons with the Knicks would make him an excellent choice if not for the all-time greats at the center position. Cartwright is remembered for being a part of the Bulls’ championship teams, but his best years individually were all with the Knicks. He deserves at least a mention here.