Theory of the Best Player
I strongly suggest checking out my previous articles about the nth best players on a team. Here’s a Sparknotes version: we make a mistake when we say that a player is “the best player” because his value is dependent on his role, so we need to differentiate between “first-best,” “second-best,” “third-best,” etc. players. This is why it would be smarter to pair Harden with Gobert instead of Harden with Westbrook (oops) because you want players who can maximize their own skills without encroaching on anyone else’s especially when building an all-time team.
Often, this sort of all-time team-building works because there simply aren’t that many “first-best” players in the league. But what if there were? What if you could choose literally any player like in Bill Simmons’ wine-cellar team or my Universe Cup team or my 2nd-Tier Universe Cup team. For the sake of a challenge, let’s look at my Universe Cup team. Here were the rules when I wrote about this three years ago:
1). I can only choose specific players/years from the 2000-2001 season onward and 2). Instead of a seven game series, I’m choosing a team for a full 82-game season along with the four rounds of traditional NBA playoffs. I dig the alien theme, so let’s imagine our teams are competing for intergalactic supremacy in the first ever Universe Cup season.
– Cody Houdek, “The Universe Cup: Part 1,” 2016
All-Time Team Building in Action
When you can select literally any combination of players over the last nineteen years, how do you do so while following my theoretical framework on building a cohesive team? Here, let me illustrate this for you. The following is a list of the best players from the 2000s:
Just from the guards list ALONE, you would have to cut four players to make a twelve-man roster. From the group in total, you would need to cut twenty-four players. TWENTY-FOUR!!!!!
Reconsidering My Original Team
When I originally made my team, I selected the following twelve:
Guards: Kobe (2008-09); Chris Paul (2008-09); Wade (2008-09); Curry (2014-15); Allen (2000-01)
Forwards: LeBron (2012-13); Garnett (2003-04); Durant (2013-14); Dirk (2005-06); Kawhi (2015-16)
Centers: Duncan (2002-03); Shaq (2000-01)
At first glance, that list looks great, but it looks a little unstable after careful scrutiny. Let’s list some of these off.
- Curry is bumped up to 2015-16. He stays.
- Kawhi has improved dramatically since 2016, but does his current skillset work with this group? Would it be better to choose younger, sprier Kawhi who was a menace on defense but produced about 80% on offense?
- Wait, where’s all-time offensive engine James Harden? Where’s Giannis? Do either of these guys mesh with the overall scheme?
- Does it make sense to have both Kobe and Wade?
- Does ball-dominant Chris Paul need to be there?
- How many actual point guards are necessary?
- Is Dirk’s shooting enough to make up for defensive and passing woes?
Is Kobe Bryant Always that Valuable?
Okay, let’s take a breather………………………………………………
In developing the concept of the “best, first-best player,” I conceived of the best teams only having one of these players (unless, of course, the players could also play a secondary role like Curry or Durant). In an ideal world, maybe Harden would like to take a break from iso-ing and spot-up in the corner. Maybe LeBron would like to set off-ball screens as a distraction. What if Durant, Curry, and Shaq were all on the floor with him? We’ve seen him take on a significantly higher pass-first, secondary role in the Olympics, so maybe he would excel as the not first option. Maybe.
Furthermore, if LeBron or Harden were to get injured (…like they were last year…), their teams would suck. Then the question becomes how many “first-best players” should ideally be on a team? Let me frame this question another way: if you had to only choose three of the following players (based on a single season peak), who would you pick: LeBron, Durant, McGrady, Harden, Wade, Kawhi, Paul, and Kobe?
Sure, you can go ahead and pick them all, but who’s doing the “second-best,” “third-best,” and “fourth-best” player responsibilities? Who is spotting up in the corner? Who is becoming the defensive powerhouse? Who is setting off-ball screens? Who is fighting centers in the paint? Who is NOT touching the ball for five-straight possessions?
Even though it’s sacrilegious, it is necessary to cut some of the greatest “first-best” players of all time to make room for guys who can fill those roles better. Is Draymond Green better than Kobe? No, but is Draymond Green better at taking three shots in a game, setting hard screens, and playing all-league defense on five positions? Yes, and it’s frankly not even close.
All-Time Team Building is a Long Process to Trust
What do we make all of this? What should the Universe Cup team look like? I honestly don’t know. Klay’s combination of shooting, defense, and off-ball movement make him a great option. I also think Giannis should make it, but that actually hurts the overall shooting. I’m leaning towards dropping Paul, and maybe I’d replace either Kobe or Wade with McGrady or Kawhi. Nash adds some solid spacing too if I can squeeze him in.
Hopefully, I’ll sit down one of these days and actually hash it out, but until then, I’ll let these thoughts marinate a little bit more.
Final thought: watch quarters 2-4 of the Spain vs. USA gold medal game from the 2012 Olympics to see a clear example of too many players whose skillsets encroach upon one another.