Ranking the 10 greatest lineups in NBA history

Ranking the 10 greatest lineups in NBA history

June 27, 2019 0 By zazolin

Free agency begins next week. Chapters will close and others will open. With Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson set to be free agents, we may have witnessed the end of one of the greatest chapters in NBA history.

When Durant joined the Warriors in the summer of 2016, Golden State’s already infamous “Death Lineup” got a serious upgrade.

The “Hamptons Five,” as it became known in honor of Durant’s free agency hub, featured a current or former All-Star at every position, including two former MVPs still in their prime in Durant and Curry. One of them, Curry, was the first-ever unanimous MVP, and the other, Durant, is a two-time Finals MVP. Then there’s Iguodala, who is also a Finals MVP and a two-time All-Defense recipient. Thompson, meanwhile, is a two-time All-NBA player and one of the greatest shooters ever. And to top it all off, Green is a former Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-NBA player.

That’s a lot of hardware, and it got me thinking: Has there been a lineup that good in NBA history?

Answering that question was a mammoth undertaking that required hours and hours of research as well as the expertise of NBA historian Curtis Harris, who runs the delightful @ProHoopsHistory Twitter account. Go follow him if you haven’t already.

With Harris’ help, I whittled down the list to 10 five-man lineups. To qualify, these lineups had to play substantial minutes with each other but did not necessarily have to start games together (though all likely finished). One obstacle was that lineup data wasn’t kept until 2000, but with Harris’ expertise and some common sense, we have a pretty good idea of which 20th-century lineups actually played together.

While winning a title helps, it’s not a requirement to be on this list; some juggernaut lineups fell apart due to injury, not ability. It also matters if lineups played together in the players’ prime years (ahem, 2003-04 Lakers). This isn’t just a collection of Hall of Famers that just so happened to play on the same team. They also had to actually play together as a five-man group.

This is also not a list of superstar duos (shouts to the 1990s Chicago Bulls) or incredible trios (LeBron’s Heat with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; LeBron’s Cavs with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love). It’s also not about Big Fours with a so-so role player or teams with deep rosters that won a ton of games. Though the San Antonio Spurs sported some incredible teams, they were rarely built on a starry five-man unit with multiple players firmly in their primes. This is a look at the all-time best five-man lineups, with an emphasis on five.

Lastly, some notes on the honors listed: the Defensive Player of the Year award started in 1982-83 and the Finals MVP award began in 1969. In other words, Bill Russell’s zero in each category is not a typo; he might have won more of each award than any other player in history if they were invented before or during his career. They literally call it the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.

Now, with all that throat-clearing out of the way, let’s take a stroll through memory lane and rank the best five-man lineups of all-time.

10. 2010-11 Boston Celtics

PG: Rajon Rondo
SG: Ray Allen
SF: Paul Pierce
PF: Kevin Garnett
C: Shaquille O’Neal

Total All-Star appearances: 54
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 1
Finals MVP players: 2
Titles won together: 0

Look at that lineup. Despite Shaq laboring through right-leg injuries in what became his final season, this group was just about invincible when the Big Aristotle was on the court. In 266 minutes on the floor, this lineup outscored opponents by a whopping 18.3 points per 48 minutes, by far the largest differential of any Celtics’ Big Four lineup during that era. Crazy fact: With this five-man crew on the court, the Celtics shot 58 percent as a group, the highest field-goal percentage of any unit in the NBA (minimum 250 minutes played) since NBA.com began tracking lineup shooting percentages in 2007. Fifty-eight percent! Unfair.

The Celtics went 19-3 when Shaq played more than 20 minutes that season, but his body couldn’t hold up. After a series of injuries and cortisone shots, he shut it down for good in the playoffs and called it a career. Who knows what would have happened if Shaq was healthier, but this lineup featured jaw-dropping starpower, and did enough damage in his 37 games to deserve a spot on this list. No team on this top-10 list featured a five-man unit that accumulated more than 40 All-Star appearances in their respective careers … except this one, which totaled 54.

9. 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks

PG: Jason Kidd
SG: Jason Terry
SF: Shawn Marion
PF: Dirk Nowitzki
C: Tyson Chandler

Total All-Star appearances: 29
MVP players: 1
DPOY players: 1
Finals MVP players: 1
Titles won together: 1

Don’t be surprised. This group didn’t just take down James, Wade and Bosh in the Finals. It annihilated everybody in its path. After taking down the Blazers in the first round, the Mavs swept Kobe Bryant’s Lakers and then took care of the OKC Thunder in five games. With four All-Stars and Terry, who won Sixth Man of the Year that season, this Mavs lineup wasn’t short on starpower or veteran poise.

Don’t believe this lineup deserves a spot on this list? Know this fact: This five-man unit had easily the best point differential of any lineup since 2000 if we look at lineups that played at least 300 minutes together. In 351.1 minutes on the floor, this Mavs lineup outscored opponents by a whopping 195 points, which translates to a margin of plus-26.7 every 48 minutes. That’s mercy-rule type stuff.

Who knows what would have happened if the Mavs didn’t let Chandler sign with the New York Knicks in free agency. Maybe the aging crew doesn’t bounce back after the long 2011 lockout layoff even with Chandler manning the back line. But for that one season, the stars were perfectly aligned.

8. 1970-72 Milwaukee Bucks

PG: Oscar Robertson
SG: Jon McGlocklin
SF: Bob Dandridge
PF: Greg Smith
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Total All-Star appearances: 36
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 1
Titles won together: 1

This was the rare time when two players in the G.O.A.T. discussion played on the same team. But don’t think this was just a two-man unit. McGlocklin and Dandridge were both All-Stars at one point in their careers. Though Smith never made it to an All-Star Game himself, he averaged an impressive 10.0 points and 8.3 rebounds in a Finals sweep over the Baltimore Bullets. He’s no slouch.

Robertson — who was traded by the Cincinnati Royals in 1970, marking one of the most lopsided deals in history — was just coming out of his prime, while Kareem was just entering his. With Oscar and Kareem at the helm, the Bucks beat the living daylights out of opponents, going 66-16 in the regular season — the second-most wins in NBA history at that point. They also went 12-2 in the playoffs that year and won at least 60 games in each of the next two seasons.

Though Smith was only a member of this version for one-and-a-half seasons, the 1971 championship team was won of the most dominant in NBA history. With four All-Stars, two all-timers and an elite role player in Smith, this represents one of the greatest lineups of the 70s.

7. 1971-74 New York Knicks

PG: Walt Frazier
SG: Earl Monroe
SF: Bill Bradley
PF: Dave DeBusschere
C: Willis Reed

Total All-Star appearances:27
MVP players: 1
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 1
Titles won together: 1

How good was this lineup? In 1973, it helped take down the mighty Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals and then the juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, despite Wilt Chamberlain playing every single minute of the series. The Stilt was so spent, he decided to retire after the Knicks were done with him. (Maybe he should have gotten a breather, after all).

This five-man unit delivered the Knicks’ only championship after 1970, but that’s not the reason it’s on here. The 1973 team featured three players that suited up in the All-Star Game that year (Frazier, Bradley and DeBusschere) with Earl the Pearl and Reed rounding out the unit. All five players went onto the Hall of Fame, with Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas also part of the supporting cast. No wonder New York won it all.

The 1973 championship was also memorable because it was Reed’s final full season in the NBA. After winning Finals MVP, he played just 19 games in the 1973-74 season due to an assortment of injuries and hung it up for good after that. You can argue the 1969-70 Knicks team was better top to bottom, but Monroe’s addition in 1972 created this vaunted lineup.

6. 1982-85 Philadelphia 76ers

PG: Maurice Cheeks
SG: Andrew Toney
SF: Julius Erving
PF: Bobby Jones
C: Moses Malone

Total All-Star appearances: 40
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 1
Titles won together: 1

The Fo, Fo, Fo Sixers didn’t actually sweep their way to the 1983 title like Hall of Fame big man Moses Malone predicted before the playoffs, but Dr. J and Big Mo were good enough to go Fo, Fi, Fo, dropping just one game along the way to finally destroying the Lakers in the championship.

On one of the greatest teams ever, this five-man group played prominently together with Jones filling the Iguodala role as the defensive menace who popped in and out of the starting lineup. For perspective on how good this lineup was, Cheeks, Erving and Malone started the 1982-83 All-Star game with Andrew “The Boston Strangler” Toney coming off the All-Star bench. Meanwhile, Jones had been on the previous two All-Star teams and became the Sixth Man of the Year for the ‘85 season. Four Hall of Famers in their prime and a two-time All-Star in Toney. Not bad.

Oh, and then a rookie named Charles Barkley joined them in 1984 just as Toney’s career was derailed by foot injuries. Though Barkley’s inclusion looked superior on paper, the team undoubtedly peaked in 1983 with Toney and the rest of the group in its prime. Take it from Barkley, who once declared, “Andrew Toney is the best player I ever played with.” OK, that’s settled.

5. Philadelphia 76ers 1966-67

PG: Larry Costello
SG: Hal Greer
SF: Chet Walker
PF: Luke Jackson
C: Wilt Chamberlain

Total All-Star appearances: 37
MVP players: 1
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 1
Titles won together: 1

This squad was stacked, starting the season 38-4, with all five players being All-Stars and an eventual championship ring in its bag. Costello, a six-time All-Star point guard, was limited due to injury for a chunk of the season, but the Sixers had enough talent to take down a San Francisco Warriors team featuring Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond in the NBA Finals.

Walker, Greer and Chamberlain were each Hall of Famers, clocking in with 30 All-Star appearances between them. Jackson may have had the least decorated career of this championship bunch, but he was an All-Star and a member of the 1964-65 All-Rookie team. What’s downright mean is that this group had young Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham as the sixth man off the bench. This is Harris’ pick as the greatest lineup ever, though he admits, as the proprietor of @SixersHistory, he has a strong personal connection. “I’ve talked to almost all the guys from that team so I’m probably super biased in their favor.”

4. 1978-83 Los Angeles Lakers

PG: Norm Nixon
SG: Michael Cooper
SF: Jamaal Wilkes
PF/PG: Magic Johnson
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Total All-Star appearances: 36
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 1
Finals MVP players: 2
Titles won together: 2

Like the great Celtics teams of the 60s and 80s, it’s hard to pick which five-man group is the best of this Lakers era. But this one has it all: two players in the GOAT discussion in Magic and Kareem; a two-time All-Star point guard in Nixon, a Defensive Player of the Year in Cooper and a three-time All-Star in Wilkes. Together, they won two championships in 1980 and 1982 before Nixon was traded to the San Diego Clippers for Byron Scott.

The Showtime Lakers would go on to win three more championships under coach Pat Riley with a different iteration of this core, but in terms of 1-through-5 talent, this group with Nixon, Wilkes and Cooper formed the pinnacle lineup. The 1986-87 team that won the title after going 65-27 might have been the best roster with the addition of James Worthy, but there wasn’t a five-man group that could flaunt the kind of starpower that the 1980 and 1982 teams did. Though Scott, Kurt Rambis and Mychal Thompson were great players, none of them ever received an All-Star bid during their fine careers, and A.C. Green was just starting his Ironman tenure.

3. 1984-88 Boston Celtics

PG: Dennis Johnson
SG: Danny Ainge
SF: Larry Bird
PF: Kevin McHale
C: Robert Parish

Total All-Star appearances: 34
MVP players: 1
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 2
Titles won together: 2

Of the 1980s Celtics teams, this lineup was the best. It featured four Hall of Famers and Danny Ainge, who made a record-breaking 148 3-pointers in the 1987-88 season, earning a spot on the All-Star squad that year. No Celtics team has won as many games since this team’s 67-15 record in 1985-86, largely on the back of this powerful starting unit that began regularly playing together after the 1984 championship.

All in all, this formidable Celtics group went 137-37 (.787) as a starting lineup over four seasons from 1984-85 to 1987-88 and won the 1986 title with another former MVP and Hall of Famer, Bill Walton, coming off the bench to win Sixth Man of the Year. If Walton made more than one start with this group, he’d be included on this list of all-time great fives but Parish, a freakin’ nine-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA center, will just have to do. What a group.

2. Golden State Warriors 2016-2019

PG: Stephen Curry
SG: Klay Thompson
SF: Andre Iguodala
PF: Kevin Durant
C: Draymond Green

Total All-Star appearances: 25
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 1
Finals MVP players: 2
Titles won together: 2

This lineup has everything you need, except for maybe elite rebounding. Shooting, passing, dribbling, defense and high basketball IQ. Among the 138 lineups that have played at least 500 minutes together since 2000, the Warriors’ Hamptons Five lineup was the third-most unstoppable five-man unit on record, outscoring opponents by 19.9 points per 48 minutes in the regular season and playoffs, per an analysis of lineup data from Basketball-Reference.com.

So, which lineups fared better?

Turns out, the original Death Lineup and the Andrew Bogut version, by a hair. Plot twist! Bogut, playing in Durant’s spot, posted the best-ever differential (plus-20.8) and Harrison Barnes in Durant’s spot (plus-20.6) tops the Hamptons Five by a smidge. But the Hamptons Five won two championships as a unit while the others only won one.

The Hamptons Five is one of the few lineups of the modern era that features an All-Star at every position, complete with four players in their prime. Though Iguodala is 35 years old, he remains a vital piece of the puzzle. Coach Steve Kerr tasked him with defending reigning MVP James Harden this postseason, and Iguodala had enough energy to average 13.5 points on 59 percent shooting on the other end, mimicking the performance that won him a Finals MVP. When the fifth guy is a Finals MVP, it’s clear we may never see a group like this ever again.

Though Durant is a clear upgrade over Barnes as a player, it’s notable that the original Death Lineup and the Bogut version fared better on the scoreboard overall. This postseason, the Hamptons Five only outscored opponents by 12 points (406 to 394), nothing to write home about. Cumulative fatigue and aging may have dented their performance, but they could have three-peated were it not for the injuries to Durant and Thompson. Then again, injuries have wrecked plenty other historic lineups on this list.

1. 1954-1961 Boston Celtics

PG: Bob Cousy
SG: Bill Sharman
SF: Frank Ramsey
PF: Tom Heinsohn
C: Bill Russell

Total All-Star appearances: 39
MVP players: 2
DPOY players: 0
Finals MVP players: 0
Titles won together: 4

Take your pick of any Celtics team from 1955-56 to 1968-69, a 14-year period in which Boston won 12 championships. You can’t really go wrong. This particular five-man group featured five Hall of Famers that won four of five championships together before Sharman retired at the end of the 1960-61 season. An absolute machine.

If there’s a knock, it’s that Ramsey was never an All-Star, but The Kentucky Colonel was a Hall of Famer and is credited as being the first star to voluntarily play in the sixth-man role under legendary coach Red Auerbach. John Havlicek would later embrace that position for Auerbach, but by the time he hit his prime, Cousy had already retired. Iguodala, Terry and Manu Ginobili built championship legacies by coming off the bench, but it was Ramsey who started it all.

The 1963-64 Celtics with Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Havlicek alongside Russell and Heinsohn deserve honorable mention here as Harris calls it “probably the best defensive iteration of the dynasty.” But Cousy, Sharman, Ramsey, Heinsohn and Russell won four championships together and featured Hall of Famers at every position. They get the nod for both starpower and longevity.