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Roundtable: NBA alltime starting five?

Michael? LeBron? Bird? Magic? asked its NBA writers who would be in their alltime starting five. 
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On the heels of naming our 50 greatest players in NBA history, paneled its NBA writers to ask them who is in their alltime starting five. Some went with pure star power, others with personal favorites, and almost everyone went with Air Jordan. Scroll down to check out the five-man lineups and explanations from Lee Jenkins, Chris Ballard, Ben Golliver, Rob Mahoney and Andrew Sharp.

Lee Jenkins's five: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Bill Russell

I feel very comfortable with this backcourt, the consensus best point guard and best shooting guard ever. I thought about going smaller down low, with LeBron and Bird, to space the floor for all these drivers. In this era I think that’s what most GMs would do. But LeBron and Bird are both listed as small forwards and will be remembered as such. The toughest call was the center. Statistically, Kareem gets the nod, but there’s so much scoring in this group I opted for the best defensive center ever and the biggest winner.

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Chris Ballard's five: Stephen Curry, Ray Allen, Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan (6th: Manu Ginobili, 7th: Draymond Green)

As you can tell, I warmly embraced NBA editor Matt Dollinger’s encouragement to be “completely subjective.” Primarily because McCallum already did a fine job of ranking players. You needn’t look further than Jack’s top 6 for a dream lineup: Magic, MJ, LeBron, Bird and Wilt (or, if you prefer, Kareem).

Rather, I chose a team I’d really love to watch. My biases are clear: chemistry, shooting, passing, desire, teamwork and players I’ve seen in my lifetime (I was tempted just to list the current Warriors, with a lineup of Curry, Klay, Iguodala, Draymond and Bogut, if all were in their primes). Players who almost made the cut include Jason Kidd, ArvydasSabonis (a wonderful passer whose best years came pre-NBA), Dennis Rodman, Chris Mullin, and Charles Barkley. It was hard not to include Jordan or LeBron, but for some reason that felt like cheating.

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Instead, I went with Curry because, really, how can you not if you love basketball? Allen’s jump shot is life-affirming, and people forget how versatile he was early in his career. Pippen gives you a Swiss Army knife on both ends of the floor and a lockdown wing defender, Bird is Bird, and Duncan is the perfect complement to, well, anybody.

I’m also adding a sixth and seventh man, seeing as this is my imaginary team. Ginobili is the ultimate competitor, a wonderful passer and allows Curry to play off the ball for stretches (I’ll live with the occasional flopping). And Green allows the squad to go small ball, is a heart and fire guy, and provides a third elite defender, along with Duncan and Pippen. It’s a group that conjures visions of ping-ping passing, a deluge of long balls, and all manner of clutch shots, all topped off by Timmy’s incredulous foul face.


Ben Golliver's five: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Bill Russell

Twenty-nine combined championships. Nineteen combined MVP awards. All five rank in the top 20 in career Win Shares. Need I say more?

I tried to take into account each player’s peak dominance, longevity, impact on both offense and defense, and his team’s success. This squad starts, as any team should, with Jordan, the Greatest of All Time, who sets the tone from a competitiveness standpoint and takes every big shot. Surrounding him are four of the most unselfish and intelligent winners that basketball has ever seen: Magic sets the pace and keeps the flow going, James dazzles in transition and makes defenses pay for overloading on Jordan, Duncan cleans the glass and orchestrates from the elbow, and Russell protects the paint and starts the breaks.

Johnson remains an easy pick at the point position, although John Stockton’s ferocity and lengthy career earned some consideration. James gets the nod at the three, over Larry Bird and others, due to his staggering consistency (10 straight seasons of 26/6/6 production) and the reasonable assumption that he has many more great seasons to come. Similarly, Duncan locked down the four spot thanks to his role driving quality offenses and stingy defenses for nearly two decades. The Russell/Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar/Wilt Chamberlain/Shaquille O’Neal debate at the five is never-ending, but Russell fits best with the other pieces here: the three perimeter players will dominate the ball, and I wanted both of my big men to be able to contribute without scoring.  

If there’s a knock on this squad, it’s that the traditional construction and lack of true three-point threats make it slightly out of step with the style of play in today’s game. Needless to say, that’s a risk I’m willing to take with Johnson putting pressure on defenses, James flying around and making plays, Duncan and Russell forming the greatest big–man duo one could imagine, and Jordan closing out any opponent that manages to push these guys into crunch time.  ​


Rob Mahoney's five: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Bill Russell

The alltime point guard decision is open-and-shut for a reason. Nobody ever played the position like Magic Johnson, who turned the fast break into an outlet for his endless creativity. His mesmerizing vision should only benefit him more in a lineup of this caliber, as it’s hard to imagine this group leaving many points on the table. As for his backcourt mate,  not a lot of room for debate here. Any alltime lineup is going to put up points, but Jordan doubles his value as both one of the most lethal scorers in NBA history by also being one of the game’s most dogged defenders. 

Small forward was the most difficult spot on my team to fill, as Bird is almost something of a luxury on a team like this one. Ultimately, I preferred him to other legends as a matter of fit; a group like this could use his shooting and passing to keep the offense well-spaced, not to mention the competitive bonus of having a rival to prod Magic and a third trash talker to round up what’s becoming a pretty chatty lineup. I chose to put James at his most effective position rather than his most common one, in part for the favorable way he matches up with the best power forwards in NBA history. I trust so much more in James’s ability to defend burlier post threats than in their capacity to deal with all that LeBron brings to the table. Prime LeBron would be a nightmare matchup even for fellow Hall of Famers, and he fits the spirit of the offense beautifully as my lineup’s fourth brilliant playmaker. 

At center, I’ll take my chances with an amazing athlete who just so happened to be the most dominant player in league history. There’s room for Chamberlain’s play to regress as a function of his competition and still completely overwhelm opponents in volume if this team happens to need it. He’ll be a monster in the middle regardless and a game-changing force on the glass—so much so that I fear for James, Magic, Bird, and Jordan’s rebound averages. Fortunately, a group this versatile and heady on defense should be able to force more than enough misses to go ‘round.


Andrew Sharp's five: Stephen Curry, Ray Allen, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, Hakeem Olajuwon

I have a soft spot for point guards. Everyone from Magic Johnson to Chris Paul, to John Stockton, to Nick Van Exel and Jamal Crawford, right on down to Omar Cook, Andre Barrett, and Taliek Brown (NYC class of 2000!). So, it feels strange to choose someone who's barely a point guard at all. He may technically perform the same duites, but if every other point guard is like oil and gas, and a few are even nuclear, Curry is cold fusion.​He had 51 last night and made it look like nothing. Again. If he's not in every "greatest" conversation already, he probably will be in a few years when someone comes back and finds this article. This is for that person.

At the two, we have to account for chemistry, right? If that's the case, here's to betting that literally, at this very moment, Michael Jordan and Charles Oakley are smoking cigars and lecturing some poor 23-year-old caddie about Steph's toughness. "He'd never do this 20 years ago, just knock him on his ass." etc. I just can't see any world in which MJ's ready to share the ball with Steph. So give me Curry (the greatest shooter ever) and Ray Allen (the other greatest shooter ever), and let's make teams absolutely miserable.

With apologies to LeBron James and Larry Bird, my team needs defense on the wing. Let's go with the greatest perimeter defender ever: Scottie Pippen.  

It bugs me how easily everyone has conceded "greatest power forward of all time" to Tim Duncan. Put Tim Duncan in Minnesota for the first 10 years and see how many titles he wins. In any case, that's a different discussion. Give me KG's historically good defense, 20-foot range to space the floor, and psychotic pep talks. 

At center...look, Shaq at his peak was as unfair as anyone in history. He averaged 38 and 17 in an NBA Finals. Peak Shaq was so dominant that he never totally got his due, because people ran out of things to say. But that's not what this team needs right now. We need a guy who can run, pass, block everything, and score from anywhere. So, sorry Shaq and Russell and Wilt. But what do you do when someone asks you to look at history and build the perfect starting five? DREAM.