This past week, NBA TV released excerpts of an extended interview with LeBron James (airing in its entirety Monday night) in which Steve Smith asked “The King” to name his Mount Rushmore of basketball.
James offered a quartet of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. But it’s really an unfair question, because in addition to those four players, there are at least three more – centers Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell – who are in the “best ever” conversation. And that group doesn’t include active players who eventually will join the conversation as well, like Kobe Bryant and James himself.
A better exercise might be establishing a Mount Rushmore for each team.
For example, Kevin McHale is one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. But is he one of the four greatest Boston Celtics? Is Allen Iverson really one of the four greatest Philadelphia 76ers, who have a very rich history? And is James on Cleveland’s Mount Rushmore? Or Miami’s? Or both?
I feel like I’m kind of qualified to do this because, well, I’m old. I saw Chamberlain and Jerry West play live. I saw the city of New York celebrate a championship by the Knicks. I saw Julius Erving play on TV – for the Virginia Squires.
But I’m not your crazy old uncle who insists that Dave DeBusschere would shut down Dirk Nowitzki, even though he was a 6-5 power forward who couldn’t jump and would lose a race with a tree. Truly special players – like the ones James mentioned – transcend eras. But as a rule, NBA players generationally get bigger, faster, stronger and – yes – better. Much better.
So have fun reading. And feel free to disagree in the comments section. After all, why have one argument when you can have 30?
ATLANTA HAWKS: Cliff Hagan, Bob Pettit, Lenny Wilkens, Dominique Wilkins. Pete Maravich didn’t quite make it here but did elsewhere.
BOSTON CELTICS: Larry Bird, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek. Then they can find another mountain and etch in Sam Jones, Paul Pierce, Kevin McHale and Bill Sharman. Then they can find a third mountain for Robert Parish, Tom Heinsohn, Dave Cowens and JoJo White.
BROOKLYN NETS: Julius Erving, Jason Kidd, Buck Williams, John Williamson. Don’t forget this franchise won ABA titles. The guy who gets nosed out here is Brian Taylor, the point guard of the ABA title teams.
CHARLOTTE BOBCATS: One of a handful of teams whose Mount Rushmore is currently a Mount Needmore. Emeka Okafor and Gerald Wallace are a start.
CHICAGO BULLS: Michael Jordan, Bob Love, Scottie Pippen, Jerry Sloan. The Bulls of the 1970s were one of the best teams never to win a title. I picked Love over Chet Walker because he spent more of his career in Chicago.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: Brad Daugherty, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, LeBron James, Mark Price. Old-timers by the lake will say I’m short-changing folks like Austin Carr and Jim Chones. I’m not.
DALLAS MAVERICKS: Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki. Derek Harper had a strong argument but came up a bit short. Kidd’s desire to leave during his first stint worked against him.
DENVER NUGGETS: Carmelo Anthony, Alex English, Dan Issel, David Thompson. Anthony’s high ranking on all of the team’s all-time lists is difficult to ignore. Fat Lever’s knee woes and Kiki Vandeweghe’s brief stay prevented them from inclusion.
DETROIT PISTONS: Dave Bing, Joe Dumars, Bob Lanier, Isiah Thomas. It’s tough to leave off Bill Laimbeer, who won rebounding titles and championships. But Bing, Lanier and Dumars were better players.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: Paul Arizin, Rick Barry, Wilt Chamberlain, Chris Mullin. Chamberlain compiled 10 years of stats in five-plus years with the Warriors to squeeze out Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond. I really struggled with this one.
HOUSTON ROCKETS: Moses Malone, Calvin Murphy, Hakeem Olajuwon, Rudy Tomjanovich. Elvin Hayes put this franchise on the map but did his best work elsewhere. And Yao Ming would have bumped Tomjanovich if he could have stayed healthy.
INDIANA PACERS: Roger Brown, Mel Daniels, George McGinnis, Reggie Miller. A truly great ABA team with great players. If you saw Daniels, McGinnis and Brown play, then you know why Rik Smits isn’t here.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: Elton Brand, Blake Griffin, Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith. I chose Brand over Danny Manning because while both brought respectability to a laughable franchise, the Clippers were a little better with Brand. Five years from now, Chris Paul will be here instead.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Jerry West. Another franchise that needs multiple mountains. For all of its great centers, only Abdul-Jabbar makes the cut because Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal spent considerable time with other teams. O’Neal, Elgin Baylor, George Mikan and James Worthy are on the second mountain.
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: Another Mount Needmore franchise. The Gasol brothers and Shareef Abdur-Rahim are a start.
MIAMI HEAT: LeBron James, Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, Dwyane Wade. For a franchise that’s been around only a quarter century, it has a pretty deep tradition. O’Neal, Glen Rice, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem were also-rans.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Dandridge, Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief. I gave the last spot to Dandridge over Terry Cummings and Junior Bridgeman because he had comparable numbers and won a title. Oscar Robertson played just four seasons here but is recognized elsewhere.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: Another Mount Needmore franchise. Find me a viable candidate after Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: Dell Curry, Baron Davis, Alonzo Mourning, Chris Paul. There was more to pick from here than I thought. Glen Rice, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues missed the cut.
NEW YORK KNICKS: Bill Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed. Almost worthy of a second mountain, which would be Dave DeBusschere, Richie Guerin, Allan Houston and Earl Monroe.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: Kevin Durant, Gary Payton, Jack Sikma, Gus Williams. The SuperSonics teams of the late 1970s and mid-1990s were very good. Among those not quite there were Fred Brown, Dennis Johnson and Shawn Kemp.
ORLANDO MAGIC: Nick Anderson, Dwight Howard, Tracy McGrady, Shaquille O’Neal. Anderson stuck around longer than Penny Hardaway and was a better player than Jameer Nelson.
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Hal Greer, Allen Iverson. Another franchise that needs a second mountain, which would include Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks, Billy Cunningham and Dolph Schayes. (Yes, Danny, he gets it over Chet Walker.)
PHOENIX SUNS: Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Steve Nash, Paul Westphal. It was very tough choosing Westphal and Barkley over Alvan Adams, whose 13 years in the Valley were more than Westphal and Barkley combined. But Westphal and Barkley – not Adams – were the alpha dogs of teams that went to the NBA Finals.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: LaMarcus Aldridge, Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Bill Walton. On longevity, Porter got the nod over Maurice Lucas, a big part of the 1977 title team who only spent three-plus seasons in Portland.
SACRAMENTO KINGS: Nate Archibald, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson, Chris Webber. With five home cities and two nicknames, this franchise has a long history, if not a rich one. Archibald, Lucas and Robertson won titles elsewhere but were unbelievable individual players with the Royals and Kings, bumping Jack Twyman and Mitch Richmond.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS: Tim Duncan, George Gervin, Tony Parker, David Robinson. Pretty easy choices, although Manu Ginobili and James Silas were considered.
TORONTO RAPTORS: Another Mount Needmore. Perhaps they could meld with Minnesota and put Vince Carter and Chris Bosh alongside Garnett and Love.
UTAH JAZZ: Adrian Dantley, Karl Malone, Pete Maravich, John Stockton. While the Jazz weren’t anything special with Dantley or Maravich, both were prolific scorers, giving them a big edge over Mark Eaton, Darrell Griffith and Deron Williams.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS: Phil Chenier, Elvin Hayes, Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld. No team appeared in more NBA Finals during the 1970s, and these four guys were the primary reason why.
TRIVIA: How many of this year’s All-Stars went to four years of college? Answer below.