[All stats provided by basketball reference]
I love a good ranking as much as the next guy, but there is something so arbitrary about comparisons made between eras, between players that never competed against each other. On the other hand, forming an All-Decade Team is a much less daunting task, one that can be undertaken using direct comparisons between players that were peers. Indeed, it’s pretty simple to aggregate All-NBA honors from past individual seasons into All-Decade honors for past decades.
The Ground Rules
I’ve tried my best to draft the seven honorary teams in a fair and objective way. I don’t consider my opinion “expert” in any way, the teams are the result of a simple accounting of past NBA awards and championships. Still, there is some level of decision making involved in selecting the teams, so for the sake of transparency, I’ll lay out my ground rules below.
1. The All-Decade Point System
In selecting the All-NBA teams, the voting system awards 5 points for each first-team vote from qualified sports writers or broadcasters, 3 points for each second-team vote, and 1 point for each third-team vote. I used an analogous scoring system to rank players within decades (1949-50 to 1958-59, 1959-60 to 1968-69, etc.). Each first-team NBA selection within the decade was worth 5 points, second-team NBA selections were worth 3 points, and third-team NBA selections were worth 1 point (there were only two All-NBA teams until 1988 and three thereafter). A regular season Most Valuable Player Award was worth an extra 2 points in my point system, as was a team championship.
2. Allowable Roster Composition
Since 1956, each All-NBA team has consisted of two guards, two forwards, and a center. The All-Decade teams reflect the same roster composition (2G, 2F, 1C). Candidates for the All-Decade teams were generally assigned to the position which they played most commonly during the decade. However, individuals who played multiple roles within a single decade (e.g., shooting guard + small forward or power forward + center) were eligible for multiple positions on the All-Decade Team. In these instances, positions were assigned to optimize the total score of the five players selected for the All-Decade team. That is, players with positional flexibility were moved around to avoid positional log-jams and to fill positional gaps in the All-Decade Teams.
3. Only One All-Decade Team per Player
One quirk of the All-Decade Team concept is that some players had a ten-year period of productivity that coincided tidily with a decade (e.g., Larry Bird in the 1980s), whereas other players were productive at the end of one decade and the beginning of the next (e.g., George Gervin in the late-1970s and early-1980s). Moreover, some players had such long periods of sustained productivity that they could make legitimate claims at multiple All-decade-Team spots. I limited each player to a single All-Decade Team. Players who earned consideration for more than one All-Decade Team were assigned to the decade where they earned the higher score.
4. The ABA Counts
From 1967-68 to 1975-76 seasons, the ABA produced its own 1st- and 2nd-Team All-League selections. You could quibble with the relative worth of the ABA vs. NBA All-League selections, but I’ve treated them equally, here.
Below you can find a summary of the All-Decade point system for the 1950s. The colors range from highest (green) to lowest (yellow) scores. The colors help to illustrate the close calls and to show how talent was balanced across positions within a decade. I’m presenting the Top-15 most decorated players from each decade with five stars to indicate the All-Decade Team selections.
There are two standout, no-doubt-about-it selections: point guard, Bob Cousy, and power forward, Dolph Schayes. Cousy had eight 1st-team All-NBA selections during the decade (5*8 pts), plus an MVP (1*2 pts), and two rings (2*2 pts, 46 pts total, shown in dark blue above). In addition, Cousy chipped in two 1st-team and two 2nd-team All-NBA selections in the 1960s plus four championships (no points for out-of-decade merits, shown in light blue above). Schayes had six 1st-team (6*5 pts) and four 2nd-team (4*3 pts) All-NBA selections as well as a championship (1*2 pts, 44 pts total). He had two more 2nd-team All-NBA selections during the 1960s (again, no points for those).
The second guard position goes to Cousy’s Celtic teammate, Bill Sharman. The backcourt of Cousy and Sharman were jointly awarded four consecutive 1st-Team selections during the 1950s. Sharman added two additional 2nd-Team All-NBA selections during the decade.
Power forward, Bob Petit, had an eleven-year NBA career split nearly equally between the 1950s and the 1960s. He notched five 1st-Team All-NBA selections during the 1950s, the same number he garnered in the 1960s, when he had an additional 2nd-Team All-NBA selection. However, he won his lone championship and his two MVPs in the 1950s. As such, I’m including him here, in the 1950s team.
George Mikan, Five 1st-Team All-NBA Selections during the 1950s
The closest call from the 1950s was George Mikan over Neil Johnston for the center position. During his seven-year NBA career from 1949-50 to 1955-56, Mikan dominated the nascent league, winning five championships. However, he retired after the first half of the decade. Mikan’s five 1st-Team All-NBA selections in six 1950s seasons still edged out Johnston’s four 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA selections.
Point guard, Oscar Robertson, posted nine 1st-Team All-NBA selections during the 1960s and an MVP award. Guard, Jerry West, had a similarly impressive six 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-NBA selections during the decade. West’s Laker teammate, small forward, Elgin Baylor, had nine 1st-Team All-NBA selections during the 1960s.
As discussed above, Bob Petit was included on the 1950s squad, leaving the second forward spot open. Tommy Heinsohn was slotted in on the back of his six championships with the Celtics and his four 2nd-Team All-NBA selections.
Russell vs. Wilt is a classic NBA argument. The pair went head-to-head during the 1960s, with each earning All-NBA honors nine times.
Wilt had seven 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-NBA selections, whereas Russell had two 1st-Team and seven 2nd-Team All-NBA selections. Each player had four MVPs during the decade, which is a bit astounding, because, again, Russell only earned 1st-Team honors twice. So, paradoxically, Russell was considered the best player in the league despite being the second-best center. At that time, MVP voting was the responsibility of the players, and Russell’s peers seemed to have appreciated his championship success, regardless of any statistical deficiencies compared to Wilt, the walking box score. I have to agree: Russell won a championship ring nine times in the 1960s. Nine times. Nine rings, nine All-NBA selections, and four MVPs, now that’s a decade.
The only player more decorated than Bill Russell in NBA history is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem garnered six 1st-Team and three 2nd-Team All-NBA selections during the 1970s plus five MVPs and a championship. In the 1980s, he added four more 1st-Team and two more 2nd-Team All-NBA selections, another MVP, and five more championships with the Showtime Lakers. He clearly outpaced his rival NBA centers, Dave Cowens and Bill Walton, and his contemporaries from the ABA, Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, and Dan Issel.
Small forward, Julius Erving, dominated both the ABA (shown in purple above) and the NBA during the 1970s. Dr. J had two 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA honors to go along with his four 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-ABA honors. He also won two ABA championships. Any doubts about the level of Dr. J’s competition in the ABA were put to sleep when he returned to the NBA to produce four 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA selections, a MVP, and a championship.
Knicks’ point guard, Walt Frazier had plenty of individual and team success at the beginning of the 1970s, earning two NBA championships, four 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-NBA selections. He also had an amazing collection of fur clothing.
Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Four 1st-Team All-NBA Selections during the 1970s
There was a real log jam at the forward position in the 1970s with fully seven forwards earning at least 20 points. On the contrary, Frazier and West (already on the All-1960s Team) were the only guards to reach 20 points during the decade. As such, John Havlicek– who was listed as a small forward eight times during the decade and as a shooting guard only once — was included as a guard on the All-1970s team. Havlicek earned four 1st-Team and three 2nd-Team All-NBA selections and two championships during the 1970s. He won eight rings with the Celtics in all.
Small forward George Gervin had the poor fortune of splitting his NBA and ABA accolades across two decades — the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, the Ice Man missed the cut in both decades.
There was a trio of forwards, Rick Barry, George McGinnis, and Elvin Hayes who all had similar scores. Each was a champion during the 1970s. Rick Barry earned the All-1970s nod, partly due to his ABA resume. He earned three 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA selections plus three more 1st-Team All-ABA selections during the 1970s. This is one instance where the relative weight assigned to the NBA vs. ABA awards became a determining factor for the All-Decade Team selections.
Kurt Rambis, Zero All-NBA Team Selections, One 1st-Team All-NBA Haircut
Small forward, Larry Bird, and point guard, Magic Johnson, battled for dominance of this decade trading MVPs and championships on-and-off from year-to-year. Bird had nine 1st-Team All-NBA selections, three MVPs, and three rings. Magic had seven 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA selections, two MVPs, and five rings.
Not surprisingly, shooting guard, Michael Jordan, was nearly good enough to be included on the All-1980s Team in addition to the All-1990s teams. However, his score from the 1990s (55 pts) was better than for the 1980s (20 pts). It’s fitting that Jordan was edged out by his 1980s rival and recurrent playoff road block, Detroit Pistons’ point guard, Isiah Thomas. The Bad Boys’ baddest little boy had three 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-NBA selections during the decade plus a ring.
Given that Dr. J was included in the All-1970s team, power forward, Charles Barkley, didn’t have that much competition for the second forward spot in the 1980s. Sir Charles entered the league in 1984-85, but quickly managed two 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-NBA selections in his five seasons played during the 1980s. Based on his career merits, he really belongs in the 1990s with his contemporary, Michael Jordan; however, as you’ll see below there was no room for him. I’m glad we could find a spot for him here in the 1980s.
I’m pretty happy with how this team turned out. But, the closest call of the 1980s was, once again, at the center position. Moses Malone is a fine candidate and an NBA champion. He earned three 1st-Team and four 2nd-Team NBA selections during the 1980s, plus two MVP awards during the 1970s. The only drawback of his selection is that it edges out another worthy All-Decade honoree, Hakeem Olajuwon. Of course, Dream will have another chance in the 1990s.
Where else could we expect to find Jordan, the greatest player in NBA history, but at the top of the 1990s scoreboard? His 55 points is all the more impressive given that he compiled his resume in a little over seven years, sitting out 1993-94, 1998-99, and most of 1994-95 seasons.
Aside from never winning an NBA championship, power forward, Karl Malone, had a fantastic decade, too. The mail man delivered a perfect-ten 1st-Team All-NBA selections during the decade (the only player to accomplish this feat) and two MVPs.
Having Barkley slotted in the All-1980s Team avoids any controversy at the second forward position. Jordan’s six-time champion teammate, small forward, Scottie Pippen, earns the spot with his three 1st-Team, two 2nd-Team, and two 3rd-Team All-NBA selections. Pippen benefits from timely decade alignment, whereas Barkley split his time between two decades.
Point Guard John Stockton appears to have a pretty big cushion over his closest All-1990s Point Guard, Gary Payton. But, if you were to define the “1990s” a bit differently (i.e., 1990-91 to 1999-00 rather than 1989-90 to 1998-99), the Glove (see what I did there?) would have eclipsed Stockton for the second guard spot. Payton had a 1st-Team All-NBA selection in 1999-00 and Stockton was not honored that year, whereas Stockton had a 2nd-Team All-NBA selection in 1989-90, before Payton entered the league. With a different definition of the decade, Payton would have gained 5 points and Stockton lost 3, giving Payton the nod by one point. I have no regrets though. Stockton had two 1st-Team, four 2nd-Team, and three 3rd-Team All-NBA selections during the 1990s, he battled the Bulls in two memorable championship series, he has the most career assists in NBA history, and he was a Dream Team member.
The 1990s offers an opportunity for some serious debate! As discussed above, Hakeem just missed out on the All-1980s center spot and he finds himself second-best in the 1990s too (by two measly points!). This is really too bad, because Dream scored eight All-NBA selections: three 1st-Team, two 2nd-Team, and three 3rd-Team in this decade to go with his four previous selections from the 1980s. Moreover, Olajuwon led the Rockets to two championships in the 1990s, one of those during an MVP performance. Of course, his competitor, David Robinson, was no slouch. The Admiral outpaced Olajuwon with four 1st-Team, two 2nd-Team, and two 3rd-Team All-NBA selections and he added his own championship and MVP. However, there’s something a bit unsatisfying about this pick. In the 1994-95 season, the two players were basically in their primes — Olajuwon was 32 and Robinson was 29 — when they faced off in the Western Conference Finals. Olajuwon, who was infamously upset about Robinson’s MVP award that season, owned the matchup, the playoffs, and the championship.
There were three pretty solid selections for the All-2000s team. Tim Duncan had seven 1st-Team and three 2nd-Team All-NBA selections, two MVPs, and three rings during the 2000s. Kobe Bryant had seven 1st-Team, two 2nd-Team, and one 3rd-Team All-NBA selections, an MVP, and four rings. Kobe’s long-time teammate, Shaq O’Neal, had seven 1st-Team and one 3rd-Team All-NBA selections, an MVP, and four rings.
The competition for the second guard spot features four players separated by only three points, two of whom are inter-decade ‘tweeners. Jason Kidd was a rookie in 1994-95 and he earned a 1st-Team All-NBA nod during the 1990s prior to his four 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA selections during the 2000s. Likewise, Allen Iverson entered the league for the 1996-97 season and he collected one 1st-Team All-NBA selection in the 1990s prior to his two 1st-Team, three 2nd-Team, and one 3rd-Team All-NBA ranks during the 2000s. In other words, if we were ranking by career honors rather than decade-specific honors, Kidd (28 pts) and Iverson (27 pts) would match Nash (27 pts). But, alas, these are the All-Decade Teams, so Nash is in.
This was the closest score of any of the All-Decade Team competitions — just one point separated Garnett from Nowitzki. Both players had four 1st-Team, three 2nd-Team, and one 3rd-Team All-NBA selections plus a MVP award. Garnett’s championship ring gave the edge to the Big Ticket by a nose, just beyond Dirk’s additional 3rd-Team selection. Too bad for Dirk that his own championship season came just outside of the 2000s.
LeBron James has posted six straight 1st-Team All-NBA appearances during the first half-decade of the 2010s (8 straight, total) and he has a chance to become the second player to earn ten 1st-Team All-NBA selections during a decade. LeBron also earned three MVPs and two championships in the past six years.
Kevin Durant is right on LeBron’s heels with five 1st-Team All-NBA selections and a MVP in the 2010s. Only last year’s foot injuries could keep KD off the 1st-Team ballot.
Chris Paul and Dwight Howard are at the top of their respective heaps for 2010 guards and centers, each with three 1st-Team, one 2nd-Team, and one 3rd-Team All-NBA selections during the last six years.
Kobe was included as the captain of the All-2000 Team, so he’s left out, here. It may eventually be a moot point, since Kobe’s 22 points may not hold up over the remainder of the decade.
Russell Westbrook, Four 2nd-Team All-NBA Selections
For now, Dwyane Wade steps into Kobe’s void for the second guard spot, with his one 1st-Team, one 2nd-Team, and two 3rd-Team All-NBA selections and MVP. It’s not clear who will own the second guard spot at the end of the decade. A trio of the league’s best guards — Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden — are within striking distance of D-Wade’s 14 points. It’s shaping up to be Curry and Westbrook on the 1st-Team this year with Paul and Harden on the 2nd-Team (although Kyle Lowry might see it differently). If Steph also wins the MVP, as I’d expect him to do, the updated All-2010s guard scores would be: Paul (22 pts), Curry (19 pts), Westbrook (17 pts), Harden (14 pts), and Wade (14 pts), pending the 2-point bonus for the championship.
- 1950s: Cousy, Sharman, Schayes, Petit, Mikan
- 1960s: Robertson, West, Baylor, Heinsohn, Russell
- 1970s: Frazier, Havlicek, Erving, Barry, Abdul-Jabbar
- 1980s: Johnson, Thomas, Bird, Barkley, M. Malone
- 1990s: Jordan, Stockton, K. Malone, Pippen, Robinson
- 2000s: Bryant, Nash, Duncan, Garnett, O’Neal
- 2010s: Paul, Wade, James, Durant, Howard
A Comparison to Bill Simmons’ Pyramid
To me, Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball is the most authoritative ranking of NBA players. My simple accounting of All-NBA honors did a reasonable job of recapitulating Simmons’ pyramid. Humbly, I might suggest that he would need to make only one change to the proposed All-Decade Teams: slotting Olajuwon over Robinson in the 1990s. Most of the other tough calls would carry the Pyramid’s seal of approval: Mikan over Johnston (check), Russell over Chamberlain (check), Barry over Hayes, Gervin, McGinnis (check, check, check), Nash over Kidd, Iverson (check, check), and Garnett over Nowitzki (check). Simmons might prefer Barkley to Pippen in the 1990s, but I’ve avoided this argument by giving Sir Charles a spot in the 1980s.
Anyways, forget about Simmons, who do you think I got wrong? Who was the biggest snub? The least deserving honoree?