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Basketball: Top of the Rim

After considering all the data, we rank the all-time greatest NBA teams
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
10th Anniversary Issue, Nov/Dec 02

(continued from page 1)

In his rookie NBA season, Alcindor didn't need time to adjust. He finished second in the league in points scored ( 28.8) and third in rebounds ( 14.5). Milwaukee won 56 games and lost 26. In his second pro season, Abdul-Jabbar led the Bucks to 66 wins, won the scoring title and MVP award, and carried Milwaukee to the Finals against the Baltimore Bullets. Winning just 42 games that year, Baltimore was pesky nonetheless and reached the Finals by beating New York in a seventh game at Madison Square Garden. The Bullets brought Earl Monroe, the man with no vertical but a million fakes and feints to make up for it.

At 7-foot-2, Jabbar dropped his sky hook at will over 6-7 Wes Unseld. Averaging 27 points and 18 rebounds, he took Finals MVP honors as the Bucks breezed to four straight wins.

 

#7 1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers
Unlike Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal didn't find his stride until his eighth pro season. In 2000, O'Neal took a giant step toward becoming a legend. By now he is undoubtedly one of the five or six greatest centers of all time, with the third highest scoring average ( behind only Jordan and Chamberlain). Known early on for playing on teams that got swept from the NBA playoffs in five different seasons, O'Neal dominated the 1999-2000 season, leading his team to 67 wins and snatching scoring and MVP honors as well. He meshed just long enough with Kobe Bryant, and the twosome helped the Lakers rally from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit against Portland in Game 7 of the conference finals. L.A. then took Indiana in six games for the championship.

#8 1985-86 Boston Celtics
Few would dispute that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish made up the most formidable front line ever. The threesome stayed together for 12 memorable years; the 1985-86 season was their finest as they led Boston to its 16th title in 30 years.

Besides the "Big Three" on the front line, Boston had heady guard Dennis Johnson -- whom Bird called "the smartest and best player I ever played with" -- and Danny Ainge. Backing up Parish, Bill Walton managed to play 80 games -- the most in a career filled with 30 stress fractures to his feet -- showing Bostonians a glimpse of his old self during Portland's 1977 title run.

Boston posted a 67-15 record, including an otherworldly home record of 40-1 ( then 10-0 in the postseason, when the Celtics won every home game by more than 10 points except a first-round contest in which Jordan scored 63 points). Bird carried Boston, winning his third consecutive MVP and leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. Against Houston and then-Akeem Olajuwon, Boston closed out the Finals in six games.

#9 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
It was a sign of things to come when the Lakers traveled to Boston and broke the Celtics' 48-game home-winning streak. Former Detroit Piston John Salley recently asked Magic Johnson to compare his team with the current Lakers. "Do you think that squad could beat us," Johnson shrieked. "We had three stars," meaning Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and himself, one more than the present-day Lakers.

The '86-'87 Lakers could play it your way or theirs: Magic playing back to the basket, pounding the ball, directing traffic while looking over and around shorter guards; Jabbar's indefensible sky hook; Worthy posting up -- Los Angeles could work the halfcourt game with anyone. Led by Johnson's Showtime, no-look charge -- with Worthy, Byron Scott or Michael Cooper on the wing -- the Lakers shoved the fast break down your throat. They employed Cooper, the Sixth Man of the Year and a three-point specialist, to shut down scoring forwards like Larry Bird. Rebounding help came from A. C. Green and Kurt Rambis, making the Lakers arguably the most balanced team of all time. They simply had no weakness.

The season turned on Game 4 of the Finals in Boston. With 29 ticks left, Bird broke Worthy's grip on his jersey to drop a three-pointer for a two-point Boston lead. Jabbar missed one of two free throws with eight seconds remaining, but the ball deflected out off McHale. Guarded on the perimeter by McHale, Johnson stutter-stepped, broke for the lane and elevated from 12 feet, netting a mini sky hook over McHale and Parish. The Lakers won, 107-106, and took the series in six games.

#10 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
After leading the New York Nets to two American Basketball Association championships, Julius Erving made believers of the NBA doubters and carried the 76ers to three Finals in his first six NBA seasons after the ABA-NBA merger. Each time the promised land led to promises broken.

In the 1977 Finals, Portland rode Bill Walton and his off-the-charts versatility at center to its only championship. Los Angeles ( 1980 and 1982) had Abdul-Jabbar. Meanwhile, Philadelphia came to a shoot-out with pivot popguns, using shot blocker Caldwell Jones and chronic window shatterer Darryl Dawkins.

After losing three six-game Finals, Philly management had had enough and supported Erving by getting three-time MVP and six-time leading rebounder Moses Malone from Houston. An irrepressible, shoulders-first bull, Malone consumed offensive rebounds and scored points. "The more they push me, the stronger I get," Malone said. With James Toney, Moe Cheeks and Bobby Jones, Philadelphia ran and hid from the circuit, winning 65 games and 12 of 13 in the playoffs.

Malone dominated the Finals with 26 points and 18 rebounds a game as Philadelphia swept Los Angeles.

As NBA basketball enters its 57th season, it remains to be seen whether teams to come can break into this select company.

Kenneth Shouler, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, is the author of The Experts Pick Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years ( AllSport Books, 1996). Steven Shouler helped analyze the data for this story.


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