The Ultimate NBA Fantasy Draft (and Michael Jordan Wasn't the First Pick)

What if you could assemble a roster from the best players across eras?

mj magic.png
Associated Press

Before I describe the ultimate NBA fantasy draft, it's important to set the scene: an afternoon in Portland, Oregon, where three friends joined me for my bachelor party; sitting at Metrovino's bar; each of using forks to scrape roasted marrow from sizable shank bones; and then, having spread it on grilled bread with parsley, onion, and fresh horseradish, using the concave bone as a funnel through which to pour a shot of premium alcohol (in my case, Dos Maderas aged rum).

In my limited experience, "the bone luge*" lends an epic quality to an otherwise ordinary afternoon. Had Mike, Cody, Ron and I confined our drinking to traditional glassware, we might've contented ourselves with a pedestrian debate about the best players now active in professional basketball. But we were guiding fine spirits laced with savory goodness into our gullets, via bone. Only a fantasy draft for all time could match the tenor of the occasion. So we took turns choosing centers, forwards, and guards. Players from any era were fair game. Everyone chosen would shoot, rebound, and defend as if at their career peak. The exercise seemed destined to end in a weekend-long dispute about the best team. And that made it all the more appealing.

ROUND ONE

In real NBA drafts, general managers are deciding among players with uncertain career prospects. Knowing what we know now, there's no way the order of players chosen in 1984 would be...

1) Hakeem Olajuwon
2) Sam Bowie
3) Michael Jordan
4) Sam Perkins
5) Charles Barkley

But that's how it happened at the time.

Our draft would have no Sam Bowie or Darko Miličić. As casual NBA fans, as opposed to basketball junkies, our memories for history's greats would be tested, as would our ability to choose a team with plausible chemistry. Still, whoever got first pick would be able to choose a sure thing—in fact, the best player in basketball history would be available, by definition, for the picking.

By general consensus, that's Michael Jordan. To dissent from that proposition is treated as blasphemy. But Mike, who chose first by virtue of his seat at the end of the bar, did not pick His Airness. Instead, he chose the guy I would've picked first, too: Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a man with one fewer championship ring. Perhaps Mike and I are biased by the fact that we both grew up in Southern California as the Showtime Lakers were winning five NBA championships. At one time, I liked to find reasons to argue that my hometown's hero was better than Michael Jordan.

I've long since made peace with the fact that I was wrong. If Magic himself admitted it, how could I hold out? If you could build an NBA team right now around a young Magic Johnson or a young Michael Jordan, you'd have to take the latter. He did more with less around him. Would you rather play with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy or Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant?

But here's the thing. We were putting together a team of superstars. And that changes everything. On planet earth, MJ is the best ever. But if the NBA has a league in heaven where all the greats play for eternity, Magic Johnson might well emerge as its MVP. He just makes everyone better. Unselfish and unsurpassed as a passer, he stands 6-foot-9 as a point guard, posing post-up nightmares for the other team; and unlike many other unselfish facilitator-play-makers, he has that Kobe-M.J.-West killer instinct. In his most epic game, he was a rookie, playing in the 1980 NBA Finals, when Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the center and team leader, missed game 6 with an injury. The Lakers were on the road, playing the Philadelphia 76ers. Stepping up for his short-staffed team, Johnson wound up playing all five positions during the game, guarding Julius Erving for stretches. His line: 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals.

Damn.

Cody picked next—and he didn't take Michael Jordan either. Figuring guards were plentiful and less important than scarce centers, he chose Bill Russell to anchor his team. The 6 foot 10 defensive monster won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons with the Celtics, defended and blocked shots prodigiously, and once grabbed 51 rebounds in a game. Like Magic Johnson, he was said to make everyone around him better too. How would he stack up against the best centers from other eras? It's an unanswerable question, which didn't stop it from being good debate fodder.

I picked third.

And I took LeBron James.

Sure, Michael Jordan tempted me. But would he play nice on a team of superstars? I had doubts. (What if someone else got Phil Jackson as their coach?) Whereas Lebron had two upsides: It's possible that we haven't yet seen his peak; and even if we have, he's phenomenal at his best in ways no one ever has been. His only apparent weakness is taking over games at the end, which he's never done as reliably as Jordan. On a team with four Hall of Famers, unreliable killer-instinct matters less, and the benefit of his passing skills are magnified. Or so I thought when I picked King James. But I couldn't help but wonder if I'd make a mistake when Ron, choosing last and getting successive picks as a result, chose Michael Jordan...

ROUND TWO

...and Shaquille O'Neal. Those two together in their primes? Terrifying. Talk about a scoring duo deadly in their efficiency. In one of Shaq's best seasons, he shot 60 percent from the floor (okay, 59.9 percent) while scoring 29.3 points per game. During the 1990-1991 season, Jordan did something as spectacular for a guard: scored 31.5 points per game while shooting 53.9 percent.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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