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Rosen: The Greatest NBA Teams of All Time, Part 1

Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

During the 59 years since the NBA first began play, many teams have totally dominated their competition. There have been seven repeat champs —  Minneapolis 1949-50; Boston 1968-69; LA Lakers 1987-88, 2009-10; Detroit 1989-90; Houston 1994-95; Miami 2012-13). Four three-peat champs —  Minneapolis 1952-54; Chicago 1991-93, 1996-98; LA Lakers 2000-02). And the Celtics had an unparalleled run from 1959 to 1966.

All of these teams (and more) are obviously among the most elite squads in NBA history. How, then, to evaluate which of them are the best of the best? Analytics aren’t the answer because the rules under which the game was played were periodically altered:

  • Hand-checking on defense permitted then outlawed.
  • Defensive double-teaming not allowed then instituted under certain conditions.
  • The definition of illegal “zone” defense constantly changed.
  • The introduction of the 24-second shot clock.
  • The rules governing bonus free throws changed — remember one-and-one, and three-for-two?
  • 10-second backcourt violations reduced to eight seconds.
  • The three-point line.
  • The charge-block arc.
  • Instituting the Charles Barley rule prohibiting excessive dribbling.
  • The setting of screens reinterpreted to reduce holding, moving and untoward aggressiveness.
  • The two- have become the three-blind mice, which theoretically means that fouls that are called nowadays previously went undetected.

Therefore, the only viable to rank these elite teams way is to try to project how they’d fare against each other.During my time as a passionate hoop-o-phile I have seen — either live or on the tube — all of these ball clubs play. After studying the rosters, the records, the styles of play, as well as the available competition, that’s exactly how the following rankings have been determined. Check back for the top five teams tomorrow. 

#13   1949-50 MINNEAPOLIS LAKERS

RECORD — 51-17     

OFFENSE — 84.1 PPG (4th in league)  

DEFENSE — 75.7 (2nd)

The bulwark of the team was George Mikan — 27.4 ppg (1st) — the most unstoppable pivot-man of the pre-shot-clock era. Rebounds weren’t recorded until the following season, but Mikan was also a big-time board-man.  

The power forward was Vern Mikkelsen — 11.6 ppg — another powerhouse force in the shadow of the basket. In addition to his scoring prowess, Mikkelsen was also a top-notch rebounder and defender.

Jim Pollard manned the other frontcourt spot — 14.7 ppg (9th), 3.8 assists (7th). Noted for his leaping ability, Pollard was the Lakers’ most electric player — and one of the few in the pioneer days of the NBA who could’ve succeeded in the modern game.

Three guards received the important playing time: Slater Martin — 4.0 ppg; Arnie Ferrin — 5.4 ppg; and Herm Schaefer — 5.1 ppg. They were all smart and swift, possessed accurate shots and trustworthy entry passes into the big man.

The most noteworthy substitutes were whichever guard didn’t start, plus Bob Harrison — 4.5 ppg; Don Carlson — 4.7ppg; and Tony Jaros — 3.9 ppg. A rarely used bench player was Bud Grant — 2.6 ppg — who was destined to become an outstanding coach in the NFL.

The Lakers’ game plan was simple: Play head-banging defense, control the boards, then feed the rock in to Mikan. With Mikan and Mikkelsen, Minneapolis simply out-sized and over-powered their opponents. Sure, their guards (and Pollard) were quick, but fast breaks were verboten.  

There’s no way this team could’ve kept up with today’s uptempo game.  Also, Mikan and Mikkelsen were the only big men on the roster — the next tallest player was Pollard at 6-5.  

Too small, too slow and not enough depth to compete with the other outstanding teams. Still, the Minneapolis Lakers were a powerhouse team and, because they so totally dominated the early days of the NBA, they deserve a place on this list.

#12   1993-94 HOUSTON ROCKETS

RECORD — 58-24       

OFFENSE — 101.1 (13th)

DEFENSE — 96.8 (5th)

The Rockets were essentially a one-man team, and Hakeem Olajuwon’s talents covered every aspect of the game — 27.3 ppg (3rd); 11.9 rpg (4th); 3.71 bpg (2nd); .528 FG% (10th); and he was also Houston’s third-leading playmaker. A unique blend of strength and quickness, Olajuwon also had the heart of a lion.

Otis Thorpe manned the power-forward slot — 14.0 ppg; 10.5 rpg. Active and tough, Thorpe never took bad shots and always played hard.

In those days, Robert Horry — 9.9 ppg — was considered to be a softie who took too many threes and could be overwhelmed in the low post. Still, he was quick, smart and a big-play guy.

Kenny Smith — 11.6 ppg — was a clever passer and an outstanding long-ball shooter at .405 3FG% (8th). He had quick feet and quick hands. But it was his three-balls that made opponents pay for double-teaming Olajuwon.

Vernon Maxwell — 13.8 ppg — would rather shoot than pass or defend. Good shots, bad shots, they were all the same. He was a streak shooter who could shoot the Rockets into, and out of, any game.  

The most important subs were Mario Elie — 9.3 ppg — a solid defender and improving three-point shooter; and Sam Cassell — 6.7 ppg — who couldn’t defend, but could create his own shots.

This team could run and rebound, but depended more on finesse than on muscle. Also on the debit side of the ledger was the erratic play of Maxwell, Cassell’s lack of defense and the lack of front line depth.  There’s no way this edition of the Houston Rockets could quick-and-slick their way to more than a modest share of wins against the NBA’s upper-echelon teams.

#11    1970-71 MILWAUKEE BUCKS

RECORD — 66-16           

OFFENSE — 118.4 (1st)

DEFENSE — 106.2 (3rd)

The Bucks had been called “the greatest team in history” by a prominent sports magazine — and the primary source of the team’s greatness was its young center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — 31.7 ppg (1st); 16.0 rpg (4th); .577 FG% (2nd). With his incomparable sky hook, Abdul-Jabbar was a monster in the middle.  If, in his second NBA season, Kareem lacked the bulk of Wilt Chamberlain or the coiled reflexes of Bill Russell, he played with an effortlessness that bordered on contempt for his opponents.  

What, then, did Kareem lack?  Power and endurance.  

The second of Milwaukee’s dual carburetors was Oscar Robertson — 19.4 ppg; 8.3 apg (3rd); .496 FG% (11th); .850 FT% (2nd). At age 34, the Big O was on the downside of a fantastic career, yet he could still do everything at the highest level. Rebound. Pass. Set picks. Dribble. Box out. Run. Create, and make, his own shots. Shut anybody down on defense. Play virtually errorless ball. O was so strong that his teammates called him “Horse.” He could do everything but jump and touch the sky.

At one forward position was 6-5 Bobby Dandridge — 18.4 ppg; .507 FG% (7th).  Tricky, tough, a deadly mid-range shooter and an above-average defender.

The other half of Milwaukee’s pint-sized brace of forwards was Greg Smith — 11.7 ppg; .512 FG% (6th). Smith provided speed and defense.  

Working beside Robertson was Jon McGlocklin — 15.8 ppg; .535 FG% (4th) — the Bucks’ only perimeter threat, but slow afoot and defensively challenged.

Off the bench came Lucius Allen — 7.1 ppg — whose forte was quick slashes into the paint. Unfortunately, Allen’s favorite real estate was usually occupied by Abdul-Jabbar, so Allen was reduced to wild shots and reckless gambles.

Bob Boozer — 9.1 ppg — was a rock-steady power forward and deadly shooter from either baseline. Defense was Boozer’s main problem.

The coach was Larry Costello, a nagging, always intense presence who inspired loathing on the part of his players. Precision was Costello’s constant theme, and the team literally had over 50 ways in which to get the ball inside to Kareem.  Costello shunned the running game. His one and only game plan was to hold the ball and wait for Abdul-Jabbar to settle into the pivot.

Robertson’s strength notwithstanding, this was another finesse team.  When faced with an opposing center who could bang and lean on Kareem, the youngster would inevitably be so exhausted come crunch time as to be virtually useless.  Smith and Dandridge were grossly undersized, and the Bucks’ frontcourt could too easily be overpowered.

#10     1986-87 LOS ANGELES LAKERS

RECORD — 65-17            

OFFENSE — 117.2 (2nd)

DEFENSE — 108.5 (12th)

The Showtime Lakers were led by Magic Johnson — 23.9 ppg (10th);  12.2 apg (1st) — the team’s do (almost) everything point guard. Magic was irresistible in a broken field. He could also penetrate and post, rebound and run, and even overpower most of the league’s big men.  What he couldn’t do was shoot from the perimeter or play a lick of defense.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar manned the middle — 17.5 ppg, .564 FG% (5th). With his sky hook intact, abetted by an increasingly effective arsenal of turnaround jumpers, Kareem remained a potent scorer. Even so, Magic triggered such an effective fast break that the Lakers had a thick playbook full of early offense — innumerable options for shots on the run before Abdul-Jabbar crossed the timeline. Only when the break was unavailable did Kareem become the focus of LA’s offense.

James Worthy was the small forward — 19.4 ppg. He could scoot, shoot and make big baskets. Defense and rebounding were his main weaknesses.

A.C. Green was the only above-average defender in the starting five — 10.8 ppg. He couldn’t shoot, run or handle, but he did all the up-front dirty work. Setting picks. Boxing out. Diving for loose balls.  

Byron Scott was the resident outside shooter — 17.0 ppg; .436 3FG% (4th). He was smooth, jet-footed and high-stepping on offense. Knowing that Abdul-Jabbar had his back, Scott routinely gambled for steals on defense.

The only effective backcourt defender came off the bench. Michael Cooper — 10.5 ppg; .385 3FG% (8th) — was, in fact, a quick-handed, lockdown defender. He could also ride the crest of a fast break, jump, pass and take care of the ball. The bonus in Cooper’s game was his ability to stroke three-balls. Cooper was the X-factor in the team’s success.

Kurt Rambis — 5.7 ppg — was quicker than Green, but had the same game plan. Mychal Thompson — 10.1 ppg — was a substitute big man with scoring on his mind.

This outfit was one of the best running teams ever. Their team-wide unselfishness was likewise admirable — their total of 2,428 assists led the league. In the current rarified competition, however, their problems would be magnified whenever their fast break couldn’t get rolling. With the notable exceptions of Green, Cooper and Rambis, their individual defense was poor. Also, since Magic was their only power player, the Lakers would be pounded from baseline to baseline by the better-balanced squads that top the list.

#9   1969-70 NEW YORK KNICKS

RECORD — 60-22       

OFFENSE — 115.0  (9th)

DEFENSE — 105.9 (1st)

Most veteran NBA watchers agree that this was the most intelligent team ever. They were resourceful, unselfish and by virtue of their savvy were able to control the tempo of most games.

The heart of the Knicks was Captain Willis Reed — 21.9 ppg (15th), 13.9 rpg (5th); .507 FG% (11th). In the pivot he could swing his lefty hooks into the middle or split the net with fadeaway jumpers. His mid-range jumper was also a deadly weapon. In addition, Reed was an accurate (and willing) passer for a center. His crushing screens (especially along the baseline) were instrumental in creating the corner jumpers that were such a significant part of Bill Bradley’s offense. At the other end of the court, Reed used his big chest and long arms to great advantage.

Dave DeBusschere was the power forward — 14.6 ppg. He was an uncanny shooter from long range, he could run the court like a guard (which he actually was during an earlier incarnation with the Pistons) and his rare drives to the hoop were accomplished with surprising power. But DeBusschere earned his paycheck with his Velcro defense.  He was ornery, persistent and incredibly strong — so much so that he could totally disrupt an opponent’s offensive schemes.

Bill Bradley was the small forward — 14.5 ppg. Always in motion, his all-out hustle wore out even the most determined defenders. He wasn’t very strong, or very fast, or very big — but he rarely missed open shots, was an incredible passer and could anticipate the unfolding of a play a heartbeat before anybody else. His defense was relentless and clever. An argument could be made that Bradley was the smartest player the NBA has ever seen.

Walt Frazier was the bellwether of the backcourt — 20.9 ppg (20th); 8.2 apg (2nd), .518 FG% (8th). If Reed was the heart of the Knicks, Clyde was the team’s soul man. He was strong, quick enough, deadly from 18-20’, a creative driver and finisher, and an overwhelming defender. (Frazier was the only player who could shut down Jerry West.) When Frazier dribbled, the ball flashed in his hands like a golden coin. But, more than being capable of making astounding passes, Frazier was also a facilitator.

Dick Barnett — 14.9 ppg — was a much more complete player than he was ever given credit for. He scored most of his points with a driving lefty hook and his renowned Fall-Back-Baby jumper. But Barnett could also pass and defend. Mark him as the team’s unsung hero.

Cazzie Russell — 11.5 ppg — provided instant points off the bench. He was a powerhouse swing man and a dynamic streak shooter. The only drawback in his game was his poor defense.

Dave Stallworth — 7.8 ppg — was quick, long and a hustle-player behind DeBusschere. Mike Riordan was a spare guard — 7.7 ppg — a robust defender and heady passer with an afflicted jumper. Nate Bowman — 2.9 ppg — was Reed’s backup. Nate “The Snake” was one of the fastest big men in the league and a valuable rebounder.

Coach Red Holzman’s mantra became famous — “Hit the open man.” That’s why the Knicks were such a cohesive ball club, the whole being greater than the sum of their parts. The Knicks were also smart enough to understand that the Russellian Celtics had proved that an outstanding defense could generate enough offense to win a championship.

What did the Knicks lack? Overwhelming speed. Size up front. And power players off the bench.

Here’s the mid-level grouping of the NBA’s most outstanding teams, none of which were one-season wonders. All of them, in fact, played at either the beginning or the end of mini- or maxi-dynasties.

#8      2000-01 LOS ANGELES LAKERS

RECORD — 56-26           

OFFENSE — 100.6 (3rd)

DEFENSE — 97.3 (23rd)

This team showcased a pair of mega-superstars, a roster full of role players and a system that harmonized and maximized everybody’s skills.

The biggest star in the NBA heavens was Shaquille O’Neal — 28.7 ppg (3rd); 12.7 rpg (3rd); .572 FG% (1st); 2.76 bpg (4th) — the mightiest, most intimidating center in the league. What couldn’t he do? Make free throws. Rotate quickly on defense. Launch himself off the floorboards quickly enough to beat spring-legged bigs to rebounds.  

A shade behind Shaq was Kobe Bryant — 28.5 ppg (4th) — the best non-center in the game. A MJ-like combination of strength, shooting range, hops, ability to pass, defend, run, ‘bound and take over clutch situations. Kobe’s only drawback was his rampant narcissism, a drawback that caused unnecessary disharmony. Credit Kobe, however, with putting a lid on his selfishness once the money games commenced.

Rick Fox — 9.6 ppg —was an outstanding defender, tough to shake with a screen or on even the trickiest of solo moves. Fox could also nail big-time treys whenever a game was on the line. He was a model of unselfish play and understood every nuance of the offense. What couldn’t he do?  Maintain a game-to-game focus.

Even in his declining years, Horace Grant — 8.5 ppg — was still one of the league’s best post-up defenders. Mid-range jumpers and flawless execution were also highlighted in his repertoire.

Derek Fisher — 11.5 ppg — was a sturdy, right-minded, left-handed point-guard, who recovered from an injury to be a major factor (replacing the injured Ron Harper) in the playoffs. If he lacked the lateral quickness to contain his opposite numbers, Fisher’s uncanny anticipation allowed him to draw charging fouls. A clutch shooter, an excellent teammate, Fisher totally understood and accepted the requirements of the Triangle offense.

Of the subs, Brian Shaw — 5.3 ppg — was a long-limbed defender and clutch three-point shooter off the bench. As usual, Robert Horry — 5.2 ppg —  was Mister Big Shot.  

There are three main reasons why this edition of the LA Lakers is shut out of the ultimate winners’ circle. Shaq’s miserable free throw shooting rendered him useless in the clutch. Plus the team’s failure to play consistent defense. And the overall lack of team speed that kept them from scoring easy hoops.

The 2000-01 Lakers and the 1970-71 Bucks are similar in that each had a dreadnaught center as well as an incredibly talented guard, and that each was basically a half-court team. Why, then, are the Lakers rated higher? Because a mature Shaq would’ve worn out a young Jabbar. Because a young Kobe would’ve been more than Dandridge, Smith or even an aging Oscar could’ve handled. Because the Bucks’ offense was as predictable as the Triangle was unpredictable.

#7     1988-89 DETROIT PISTONS

RECORD — 63-19           

OFFENSE — 106.6 (16th)

DEFENSE — 100.8 (2nd)

The Bad Boys were bad indeed. Late hits by Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman. Surreptitious undercuttings by Isiah Thomas. The selective brutality of Rick Mahorn and John Salley. Their tactics may have been brutal and over-the-line dirty, but they were also highly effective.

Zeke was the ostensible leader of the pack — 18.2 ppg; 8.3 apg (9th). If his shooting range was somewhat limited (only 27.3% from beyond the arc), Thomas was a terrific finisher in an open court and a great pull-up jump shooter. On defense, he was lavish in the use of his elbows, and also infuriated opponents by stepping on their feet as they tried to elevate for a shot. Zeke would, could and did do anything to win.

Joe Dumars — 17.2 ppg — provided stability, clutch shooting and ferocious defense. Credit Dumars with being the mainspring of the Pistons’ triumphs.

Mark Aguirre — 18.9 ppg — was the weakest defender in the starting five. But at 6-6 was the team’s best low-post scorer. Aguirre was also a beast on the offensive glass.

Bill Laimbeer — 13.7 ppg; 9.6 rpg (9th)— was the meanest and nastiest of the crew. He couldn’t block shots or keep up with quick bigs who could face-up and go, but he compensated by being a cheap-shot artist. He was also adept at hitting long-range jumpers and hitting defensive players with moving picks. Laimbeer was a beloved teammate and a detested opponent.  

Vinnie Johnson — 13.8 ppg — was called “The Microwave,” because he could heat up a scoreboard in a hurry. Powerfully built at 6-2 and 200 pounds, VJ was fearless in the paint, and his ability to stop-and-pop could always ignite the Pistons’ offense. Johnson’s defense was belligerent but less than average.

The team’s best defender (and one of the best in the NBA) was Dennis Rodman — 9.0 ppg; 9.4 rpg (12th); .595 FG% (1st). He was simply an incredible offensive rebounder. He could run like a sprinter, and his pants-pulling-late-hitting-relentless defense infuriated his opponents. He shot only layups and put-backs, and was a perfect role player.

James Edwards’s role was even more specific — 7.3 ppg — assume the proper position in the low post (usually the left box) and score (usually with fadeaway jumpers). Too bad Edwards’s defense wasn’t up to par. Both Rick Mahorn and John Salley were vicious enforcers who picked up where Laimbeer left off.

A notoriously arrogant and physical bunch to say the least.  The Pistons had great depth (especially up front), were loaded with outstanding perimeter shooters and had several awesome one-on-one scorers.   

However, fast teams that refused to be intimated by the Pistons’ mean-spirited tactics could triumph.  But sometimes the bad guys do win.

#6    1983-84 BOSTON CELTICS

RECORD — 62-20                

OFFENSE — 112.1 (7th)

DEFENSE — 105.6 (4th)

The team earned high grades for intelligence, unselfishness, discipline, rebounding power (they led the league with 3,697 total caroms) and an incredible front line.

Leading the Celtics’ honor roll was Larry Bird — 24.2 ppg (7th); 10.1 rpg (9th); .888 FT% (1st); and the team leader in assists. He could do everything but run fast, jump high and play man-to-man defense. Instead, he read the court like it was an ABC primer, he mastered team defense and he had a sixth sense for anticipating where the ball wound wind up on any given sequence. There’s never been a better clutch player before or since. Bird was a one-in-a-generation player — a non-point guard who made his teammates better.

Kevin McHale — 18.4 ppg — could do everything but pass. He had the most effective variety of inside moves since Gypsy Rose Lee. He could rebound and was an excellent defender.  

Robert Parish — 19.0 ppg; 10.7 rpg (7th) — did most of his scoring in the initial 40 minutes of a game. He scored with his high-release jumper, and his long arms also helped him control the boards. Parish was good, mind you, but never as good as either Bird or McHale.

Dennis Johnson — 13.2 ppg — could do everything but shoot from long range. He was one of the finest defenders of his time. Rebounding, passing, free throws, big plays at the right time — Johnson did all of these as good as any of his peers.

Gerald Henderson — 11.6 ppg — took the ball-handling pressure off Johnson, was a dead-eye shooter and a pesky defender.

Cedric Maxwell was the top scorer off the bench — 11.9 ppg — and perhaps the worst defender on the team.  But Cornbread could fill the basket, handle the ball (sometimes overhandle) and clean the offensive glass.

Danny Ainge — 5.4 ppg — played hard both ways, hit open shots and moved the ball. Scott Wedman — 4.8 ppg — was a one-time All-Star, a sharpshooter and ace defender. Quinn Buckner — 4.1 ppg — mostly played husky defense.

Bird was stronger than he looked, but McHale was the only real power player. Yet Bird was the wild card — he’d rise to every occasion and give the team whatever it needed to get straight A’s. 

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