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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : To Each His Own Greatest Team Ever

April 21, 1996|MARK HEISLER

OK, let's get this best-team thing settled once and for all.

There is no best team ever.

Or there are as many as there are people who feel like naming one. It's unprovable and an entirely personal choice, based on one's criteria and preconceptions.

Bill Sharman thinks the 1971-72 Lakers he coached would beat this season's Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan, the star of this season's Bulls, plays pretend games and "somehow we always win."

There are a few things we might consider:

--The best team isn't the one with the most stars.

Adding up matchups has no predictive value, as we learn every spring. The best teams blend players, not just stack them atop one another. The '68-69 Lakers with Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were great on paper but had rifts--Baylor-Chamberlain, Coach Butch van Breda Kolff-Chamberlain--and lost to the ancient Boston Celtics.

--One can argue teams should be judged against their own eras but today's players are demonstrably bigger, suggesting modern clubs would have an edge.

In 1972 when the Lakers won 69 games, the NBA had 17 teams and nine 7-footers, three of whom started. Now there are 29 teams and 40 7-footers, 19 of whom start.

What would Bill Russell be like today? People who played him say there has never been anyone like him. However, he was a 6-9 1/2, 220-pound center. That's light for a power forward now.

Here are the contenders:

1964-65 Celtics--My personal choice. They were 62-18, 14 games ahead of the field, the second-greatest spread ever. There were only nine teams in the league, but they played Chamberlain's Philadelphia 76ers 10 times and went 5-5. They had five Hall of Fame players, the nucleus of the dynasty that won 11 titles in 13 seasons.

1966-67 76ers--Chamberlain decided to pass instead of shoot that season and was No. 3 in the league in assists at 7.8 a game. There was a fearsome front line with 6-8, 240-pound Luke Jackson--power forwards then went 6-5--Chet Walker and Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham. They scared people to death.

1971-72 Lakers--Sharman got a fading Chamberlain to play defense, a la Russell. West was aging but he was still West. They weren't awesome--journeyman Pat Riley was the sixth man--but the parts fit.

1982-83 76ers--Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Mo Cheeks and Bobby Jones. They won 65 and went 12-1 in the playoffs. They didn't last, but they were hell for a season.

1984-85 Lakers--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott with Michael Cooper and Bob McAdoo off the bench. High-water mark for a franchise that won five titles in the '80s.

1985-86 Celtics--The deepest front line ever with future Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton. They could have won a title with Beavis and Butt-head at guards. High-water mark for a franchise that won three titles in the '80s.

1991-92 Bulls--They were 67-15, 10 games ahead of the field. In '93 they became the first back-to-back-to-back champions in 27 years. In postseason play those three seasons, they went 45-13. If Jordan hadn't quit, they might be working on six in a row.

1995-96 Bulls--Terrific season, so far, but it's a down year. Seattle may win 65, for heaven's sake. The Bulls are only eight games ahead of the field--a figure topped by four teams and equaled by four more.


Magic Johnson was right--when he apologized. Of course, barely a week went by before his teammates were haranguing another officiating crew during a loss--imagine that--at San Antonio and the same old bull was heard again.

"A veteran referee would handle it better."

Veterans are good--since no one would have dared jump in the face of Jake O'Donnell or Earl Strom or, heaven help them, Mendy Rudolph. Mendy would have paralyzed them with a ray from his eyes and then ejected them.

"The referees have attitudes too."

Well they should. They'd be dead meat without them. Picture the game through their eyes.

The center is trying to back the defender through the basket support. The defender clings to him like an octopus. Every so often, someone swan dives, uttering a guttural OOOOF! or AWWWWW! as if he's been assaulted. Former coach Don Nelson, a Barrymore as a player, said he would fine anyone who didn't make appropriate noise upon contact.

A player takes a 20-footer. As all eyes go to the rim, the defender jabs him in the solar plexus.

Or the defender gets too close and the shooter nicks him with one leg and goes down in a heap, looking for a foul call.

Or a player drives and a defender jumps in front of him, takes the hit and flops, bellowing and snapping his head back as if hit by a rhino, trying to pick up the charge.

Or the driver draws contact and throws the ball at the rim, or windmills his arms, as if shooting, while TV commentators remark on what a wily veteran he is.

Or, as in the Nick Van Exel case, things aren't going well and he's in a bad mood.

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