Part 1 of this series on the greatest NBA teams of all time ran on Nov. 18. Here’s the top five, with four teams separating themselves as the best.
#5 1964-65 BOSTON CELTICS
RECORD — 62-18
OFFENSE — 112.8 PPG (3rd)
DEFENSE — 104.5 PPG (1st)
DEE-FENCE!!! That was the cry that kept the leprechauns in the old Boston Garden awake. Since the Celtics shot a combined 41.1 percent from the field (the 2nd-worst in the league), they absolutely relied on their defense to create easy shots via fast breaks and turnovers. And that’s exactly what happened.
Bill Russell guarded the basket — 14.1 ppg; 24.1 rpg (1st); 5.3 apg (5th). Blocked shots weren’t tallied back then, but Russ must have registered from 7-10 per game, plus an equal number of “scares.” Timing was his secret — he could hold his ground until the ball left the shooter’s hands and still blast off, reach out and touch the shot. Russell also had the knack of keeping virtually all of his blocked shots in play where they could be recovered by his teammates. What else could he do? Play sinewy-strong mano-a-mano defense, hit an occasional left hook and foul line jumper. Throw a nifty outlet pass. Compete like his life was at stake. And it was Russell’s foot-speed that gave the Celtics a legitimate five-man fast break — an enormous advantage.
Sam Jones was the designated scorer — 25.9 ppg (4th); .820 FT% (6th). The bank was always open when Sam pulled up on the edge of a break and unloosened his jumper. He was an unselfish passer and an adequate defender.
John Havlicek — 18.3 ppg (14th) — played as though he had three lungs. If his outside shooting was streaky, he ran himself into easy shots and had a killer instinct in the clutch. One of the league’s finest defenders, he also led the NBA in floorburns. Watch Hondo run and run and run and …
Tom “Satch” Saunders — 11.8 ppg — scored with a squatty jumper, but earned his paycheck playing suffocating defense.
Tom “Tommy Gun” Heinsohn — 13.5 ppg — was the Celtics’ most inefficient shooter (38.3% from the field). But his line-drive hook shots from along either baseline, and his bully-boy work on the boards made him a valuable performer.
Willie “The Whale” Naulls — 10.5 ppg — was a fine mid-range shooter for a rather round big man. Larry Siegfried — 6.3 ppg — was Hondo lite. And the most important sub was K.C. Jones — 8.3 ppg; 5.6 apg (3rd). K.C. couldn’t shoot his way out of a paper bag (39.6%), but he could rebound, hustle and, above all, play killer defense.
With K.C., Havlicek, Saunders and Russ, the Celtics could field four defensive stoppers — and this was their transcendent advantage.
Why would the 1964-65 Celtics beat the 1983-84 version? Quickness. The confidence born of eight championships in nine seasons (and one more to come in 1965-66). And DEE-FENCE.
But now we get to the cream of the crop. So here they are: The four teams that stand above the rest. The teams that establish the standard for true greatness.
#4 1991-92 CHICAGO BULLS
RECORD — 67-15
OFFENSE — 109.9 (5th)
DEFENSE — 99.5 (3rd)
This was the second consecutive Bulls championship under the direction of Phil Jackson. By then, all the players were familiar with, and accepted the necessity of, the Triangle offense. This wasn’t the case in the previous season, in which assistant coach Johnny Bach undermined Jackson’s game plan, and Michael Jordan didn’t embrace the offense until the championship series against the Lakers.
MJ, of course, was the apex of the Triangle — 30.1 ppg (1st); 2.28 spg (6th). He was at the top of his game, and at the top of the league. There was nothing he couldn’t do on a basketball court.
Jordan’s main sidekick was Scottie Pippen — 21.0 ppg — an incredible defender and facilitator. With his length and athleticism, Pippen could excel at every position except center. Like a middle linebacker in the NFL, it was Pippen who called the defensive signals. While he seemed arrogant to the fans and the media, his teammates appreciated his encouragement and his help. His only flaw was his habit of taking one or two hasty perimeter shots per game.
Horace Grant — 14.2 ppg; .578 FG% (3rd) — was in his prime. An outstanding post-up defender, quick and sure on his defensive rotations, Grant was also a dependable jump shooter from the vicinity of the foul line, a relentless runner and a determined rebounder. Sure, sometimes he zigged when he should’ve zagged, and he was often Jackson’s scapegoat — but, through it all, Grant always came to play.
Bill Cartwright — 8.0 ppg — had aching legs and a balky back, yet he could still play forceful, elbow-flailing defense in the paint. He wasn’t the scorer he once was with the Knicks, but he could still sink enough of his spinning, wobbling jumpers to keep a defense honest. Passing was always a challenge for Cartwright, and this was the reason that MJ cited for not trusting him with the ball. The situation was resolved when Cartwright simply informed Michael that if he didn’t pass him the ball he’d knock MJ’s head off.
B.J. Armstrong — 9.9 ppg — was the weak link. His defense wasn’t up to snuff, and he so wanted to be like Mike that he frequently aborted the offense and went off on his own. Still, he was quick to the hoop, and the team’s best three-point maker (40.2%).
The bench was iffy. Craig Hodges — 4.3 ppg — was a three-point specialist (37.5%), but not much of a defender. John Paxson — 7.0 ppg — was always in the right place at the right time, and was also celebrated for his bullseye shooting (52.8%). Of the big men, Stacey King — 7.0 ppg — was usually in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Will Perdue — 4.5 ppg — was minimally talented (teammates referred to him as Will Per-doo-doo) and saved his best work for retrieving missed teammates’ shots.
The Bulls’ switching defense confounded most of their opponents. They were a hot-shooting bunch — their .508 FG% led the league. They played with heart and precision — and when in doubt, MJ was there to air it out.
#3 1971-72 LOS ANGELES LAKERS
RECORD — 69-13
OFFENSE — 121.0 (1st)
DEFENSE — 108.7 (6th)
This was easily the most versatile team ever. They wanted to run, and Wilt Chamberlain’s board control coupled with his accurate outlet passes to the likes of Jerry West and Gail Goodrich made their fast break irresistible. If necessary, they could utilize Chamberlain’s still formidable post presence to play grind-it-out basketball. They could play small-ball and big-ball. They could load their lineup with defenders or with scorers. They stormed through the regular season, winning a record 33 games in succession. And their average point differential (+12.3) was another record.
Jerry West — 25.8 ppg (7th); 9.7 apg (1st) — was the fail-safe scorer. His patented move was to dribble at full speed to his right and then instantaneously pull up and shoot. West was also an extraordinary finisher, and his leaping ability enabled him to snare more than a normal guard’s share of rebounds. His defense was so good that opponents had specific instructions concerning what to do when they enjoyed a 2-on-1 fast break advantage where West was the sole defender: Because of West’s long arms and quick hands, they were told to always take the ball straight to the rim and never risk passing it. He was a perfectionist who took full advantage every time his defender turned his head or made a misstep. Mister Clutch and Mister Logo.
Gail Goodrich — 25.9 ppg (5th) — was a quarter inch shy of standing 6-1, and his nickname was “Stumpy.” But he had 37-inch arms, huge hands and he was a lefty. Nobody could match his intensity, and only Bill Bradley could approximate his perpetual motion. Goodrich scored with clever moves to the hoop — flips and hooks — and an uncanny fall-back jumper. Defense, however, was his downfall.
The spotlight was always on Chamberlain — 14.8 ppg; 19.2 rpg (1st); .649 FG% (1st). At age 35, Wilt was convinced by coach Bill Sharman to play like his archenemy, Bill Russell. That meant playing defense, blocking shots (which weren’t yet officially recorded), rebounding, passing and setting teeth-rattling screens. When the fast break was derailed, Chamberlain could still fill the basket with a variety of fadeaway jumpers, spinning dunks and (from the right box) unstoppable finger-rolls.
Harold “Happy” Hairston — 13.1 ppg; 13.1 rpg — was a smallish 6-7, 225-pound power forward. Besides his prowess as a rebounder, Hairston was the rare player at his position who could fill a lane on the break. He never thought twice about diving headfirst for a loose ball, he learned how (and where) to pass and he played acceptable defense. The only flaw in Hap’s game was his penchant for taking too many shots.
Jim McMillian — 18.8 ppg — was a savvy small forward. The Lakers were 6-3 when Elgin Baylor was forced to retire — because Sharman hated Tick Tock’s lack of defense, lack of effort in practice sessions, as well as his unwillingness to get out and run. As soon as McMillian replaced Baylor in the starting lineup, LA was off on its 33-game undefeated streak. McMillian was a lights-out shooter from either baseline, and he utilized screens to perfection. He could run, make accurate passes, make judicious decisions and play hard-nosed defense. McMillian was so smooth and effortless that his teammates called him “Butter.”
The Lakers also had a potent bench: Pat Riley — 6.7 ppg — played defense with a vengeance, and hit enough open jumpers to be a limited threat on offense. Flynn Robinson — 9.9 ppg — could bury his rainbow jumpers at any time and against any defender. LeRoy Ellis — 4.6 ppg — was the fastest big man in the league, and his mid-range jumpers and driving hooks made him a dangerous scorer as well. John Q. Trapp — 5.7 ppg — was an enforcer with a jump shot.
Sharman’s full-speed-ahead game plan was a perfect blend of quickness and precision, of self-expression combined with responsibility. He paid attention to every detail and convinced his players to do the same.
WHY THE 1971-72 LAKERS WOULD’VE BEATEN THE 1991-92 BULLS: The Lakers had much better team speed, and a vastly superior bench. Chamberlain would’ve overwhelmed Cartwright at both ends, and Hairston would’ve out-quicked Grant. With neither Goodrich nor Armstrong being especially defensive-minded, the former’s offense would easily have trumped the latter’s. Also, since McMillian worked off screens and used misdirection cuts, he would’ve avoided challenging Pippen’s smothering one-on-one defense. Yes, MJ was bigger and stronger than West, but Zeke From Cabin Creek had that one unstoppable pull-and-pop move. The biggest factor, though, would’ve been Chamberlain’s total command of the boards.
#2 1995-96 CHICAGO BULLS
RECORD — 72-12
OFFENSE — 105.2 (1st)
DEFENSE — 92.9 (3rd)
Michael Jordan — 30.4 ppg (1st); 2.6 spg (3rd) — was a better long-range shooter (42.7%) than he’d previously been. Also a better turnaround jump shooter from the low post. If he had to pick his spots to play all-out defense, he always picked the right spots. At age 33, he was still Mister Wonderful.
Scottie Pippen — 19.4 ppg — still insisted on taking too many ill-advised shots, but he and MJ were as comfortable in the Triangle offense as Br’er Rabbit was in the briar patch.
Luc Longley — 9.1 ppg — was a gifted passer and was therefore a considerable upgrade over Cartwright. Luc had the bulk (7-2, 320) to clog the middle, and to bang with the other behemoths. But it was his ability to read defenses and make precise passes that helped make the Triangle difficult to defend.
Ron Harper — 7.4 ppg — was a cagey veteran. Although he couldn’t score points by the dozen as he once did, he saved his shots for clutch situations. His defense was remarkable as was his court awareness. Harper rarely made foolish moves.
Dennis Rodman — 5.5 ppg; 14.9 rpg (1st) — solved the mysteries of the Triangle offense in a matter of weeks. He was smart and quick (vertically and horizontally). He willingly sacrificed his body, ran the court and played madcap defense.
Toni Kukoc — 13.1 ppg — was defenseless, but at 6-10, he handled like a guard and could create shots against almost anybody. If he also demonstrated sticky fingers, he was a dependable scorer whenever a game was on the line.
His teammates were amazed whenever Steve Kerr missed an open shot — 8.4 ppg; .515 3FG% (2nd). A gutsy player whose decision making was impeccable.
Bill Wennington — 5.3 ppg — was a seven-footer who could hit mid-range jumpers all day long. Jud Buechler — 3.8 ppg — was another three-point specialist (44.4%) who could sit on the bench for long stretches and still hit his mark.
The Bulls overwhelmed the rest of the league with their precision offense, their explosive scoring, their suffocating defense — and with His Airness performing routine miracles.
WHY THE 1995-96 BULLS WOULD’VE BEATEN THE 1971-72 LAKERS: Better team speed. Better overall defense among the starters. Kukoc would’ve been too much for any of the Lakers’ subs (or starters) to handle. Wennington would’ve gotten all the open jumpers he desired against Chamberlain’s stay-at-home defense. Rodman could run with Hairston, and would’ve reduced Chamberlain’s mastery of the boards. Harper’s long-armed defense would’ve made Goodrich sweat for his shots.
WHY THE 1995-96 BULLS WOULD’VE BEATEN THE 1991-92 BULLS: Better rebounding and team defense. Better team speed and bench players. Much better execution of the offense. MJ’s offense was more versatile than before. Wennington would force Cartwright away from the hoop. Harper would’ve negated Armstrong. Kukoc’ve have his way against any of the second-stringers.
#1 1966-67 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
RECORD — 68-13
OFFENSE — 125.1 (1st)
DEFENSE — 115.8 (3rd)
This was the most powerful team ever, and as with every team he’d ever played for, it all started with Wilt Chamberlain.
Whereas Bill Sharman would use psychology to get Chamberlain to play a team game, coach Alex Hannum used the threat of physical force to accomplish the same end. In any case, The Dipper was still in the prime of his career — 24.1 ppg (3rd); 24.2 rpg (1st); 7.8 apg (3rd); .683 FG% (1st) — and he single-handedly controlled just about every aspect of any given game.
Chet Walker — 19.3 ppg (11th); .561 FG% (6th); 7.9 rpg — was a brawny 6-7 small forward, whose favorite moves featured backing, banging and leaning into his defender in order to create space for his jumper. He was relentless on either baseline (but preferred the left), and could also post with the same kind of blast-away maneuvers.
Lucious Jackson — 12.8 ppg; 8.9 rpg — was a combination of brute force and athleticism that was usually found on a football field. But Jackson happened to be 6-9, 250. He played hard, he fouled hard and sometimes his shots were as heavy and hard as stones. With Jackson and Chamberlain assaulting the boards, opposing bigs were mostly reduced to spectators. (The exceptions being Bill Russell and Nate Thurmond.) And by the waning minutes of a game, the big guys wearing the wrong-colored jerseys would be too bruised and too exhausted to run, jump and play hard.
At one guard spot, Hal Greer’s sheer strength — 22.1 ppg (6th) — was matched only by Oscar Robertson. Greer could shoot springers, back his man into the paint and drive like hell-on-wheels. He played bone-to-bone defense, made clever passes and rebounded like a big man.
The point guard was Wali Jones — 13.2 ppg; .838 FT% (7th) — a tough little guy with a weird one-and-a-half-handed-wrist-snapping jumper. He mostly played aggressive defense, carried the ball safely over the time-line and initiated the offense. Solid, steady, but an inconsistent shooter.
Dave Gambee — 6.5 ppg — was another bruising big man off the bench. Larry Costello — 7.8 ppg — was an intense, strong-bodied guard. Bill Melchionni — 4.3 ppg — was mostly a speedster.
But it was Philly’s dynamic sixth man who created the lopsided matchup that made the team virtually unbeatable. Billy Cunningham — 18.5 ppg; 7.5 rpg — was called “The Kangaroo Kid,” but besides reaping the benefits of his exhilarating hops, he was a left-handed slasher who was seldom denied entrance into the paint. It mattered little that his jumpers (and his free throws) were brickish, because Billy C could always run, drive and/or jump his way into a host of easy buckets. He was the oomph in the offense. The pace-changer. The swift and lethal dagger that mortally wounded an opponents’ chance to salvage a tight ball game.
WHY THE 1966-67 SIXERS WOULD’VE BEATEN THE 1995-96 BULLS: The Bulls were essentially a finesse team and susceptible to bully-boy tactics. The top-rated 76ers would’ve pushed the Bulls around like they were hollow. Chamberlain would’ve turned Longley topsy-turvy. Rodman might’ve gotten into Jackson’s head (as he habitually did with Karl Malone), but since Lucious was a banger and not relied upon to score, the ploy would’ve had a minimal effect. If Pippen would’ve out-quicked Walker on one end, Walker would’ve put lumps on Pippen’s chest at the other end. MJ surely would’ve contained Greer, and Harper would’ve limited Jones’s effectiveness. But Cunningham would’ve obliterated Kukoc. Meanwhile, Rodman would’ve been out-muscled in the paint and Philly would’ve played volleyball on the offensive glass.
WHY THE 1996-67 SIXERS WOULD’VE BEATEN THE 1971-72 LAKERS: Power, power and more power. The 31-year-old Chamberlain would’ve out-energized, out-lasted and out-performed the 35-year-old model. Walker would’ve had his way with McMillian on the baseline. Jackson couldn’t run with Hairston, but whenever he caught him Luke wouldn’t have let him loose. West and Greer were a toss-up — sometimes speed would have the advantage and sometimes strength would. Goodrich would’ve torn up Jones. But none of the Lakers’ scrubs could’ve dealt with Cunningham. Power translates into rebounds, which translates into more shots and also easy shots. The Lakers would’ve had difficulty gearing up their fast break with total command of the boards. No contest here.
WHY THE 1966-67 SIXERS WOULD’VE BEATEN THE 1991-92 BULLS: See above. And add these facts: Jones was tougher than Armstrong. Young Wilt would’ve sent Hospital Bill to the emergency room. Jackson would’ve worn Grant to a nub. Plus the Sixers’ bench was greatly superior to Chicago’s. The Bulls could’ve triumphed only if MJ shot over 70% and scored 80+ points. Highly improbable but not entirely impossible.