Late Wednesday night, I was asked a question that I have not been able to stop thinking about since. It came from a person named Alex Cooke. It appeared plain and direct at first, but was actually layered and nuanced, which is to say it was my favorite kind of question. The bones of it were as such: What is the best basketball team you can put together if you’re allowed to include only players who all have the same first name? That’s it. That was the whole thing.
Now, if we’re going to extend that into something bigger here, then we’re going to need to do some fence-building first to help the conversation keep its shape. So when thinking on the question, the following six rules need to be considered and followed:
- Let’s pretend like this is going to end up in a tournament where all of the identified teams have to play against each other for a championship.
- There’s no mixing of first and last names. We’re talking about only first names. You don’t get to put LeBron James on the James team (James Harden, James Worthy, James Silas, etc.) or Chris Paul on the Paul team (Paul George, Paul Pierce, Paul Millsap, etc.) or anything like that.
- Names that are homonyms get to be grouped together. The Seans (Sean Elliott, Sean Rooks, Sean May, etc.) are fine to mix with the Shawns (Shawn Kemp, Shawn Marion, Shawn Bradley, etc.). Isiah Thomas (the only Isiah in league history) is fine to join in with the Isaiahs. So on and so forth. (FYI, the Shawns would goddamn crush the Seans if they played against each other.)
- If a player has a name that he’s known as that isn’t actually his real name, then that’s the name that gets used here. For example, Steph Curry’s real name is Wardell Stephen Curry. He’s eligible to be on the Stephs team (and he’s probably eligible to be on the Stephens too because occasionally an announcer will call him that during a game), but he’s not eligible to be on the Wardells.
- Situations where a player has a version of a name that could double as a different name are treated on a common-sense basis. You can’t take Steph Curry and stick him on the Steves team, but you could definitely take a Mike and stick him on the Michaels team. (Fun fact: Steve Kerr’s real name is actually Stephen Kerr.)
- The game is being played today, which means anyone who’s selected has to survive in today’s game. That’s important to think about. You can grab Bill Russell for the Bills team and he’d be fantastic because his game from back then translates well to today. Someone like, say, Bob Cousy, however — whoo boy. Imagine this guy …
… trying to do anything at all against this guy …
The main team this rule has an effect against is the Davids. They’ve got David Robinson, Dave Bing, David Thompson, Dave DeBusschere, and Dave Cowens. If we take them relative to their perspective time periods, then yes, it’s really a great group. But I’m not convinced that Bing, Cowens, and especially DeBusschere could keep up if you dropped them in front of the Michaels.
So those are the rules. The whole thing is really a fun exercise to think about. Look at some of the teams that are out there:
You’ve got the Lukes, an all-white team of hardworking, sneakily quick, coachable hustle players (Luke Ridnour, Luke Walton, Luke Babbitt, Luke Harangody, and Luke Zeller). They could be a good matchup with the up-and-coming team of Franks.
You’ve got the Steves, who sound like they’re either going to be super-entertaining or a total disaster (Steve Nash, Steve Francis, Steve Kerr, Steve Smith, and Steven Adams).
You’ve got the Bobs, who would get blown the fuck out every game but at least they’d be fun to watch (Bob Cousy, Bob Lanier, Bob McAdoo, Bobby Jackson, and Bob Sura).
The Garys would be worse off than the Bobs (of the 26 Garys that have played in the NBA, only Gary Payton ever even made it into an All-Star Game). You’ve got the Isaiahs, whose lineup starts out sounding strong (Isaiah Thomas, Isiah Thomas, Isaiah Rider) and then just turns to dust (Isaiah Canaan and Isaiah Whitehead).
You’ve got the Tonys, and they’d be a decent team (Tony Parker, Tony Allen, Toni Kukoc, Tony Delk, and Tony Massenburg), but they likely wouldn’t even get past the Anthonys (Anthony Davis, Anthony Mason, Anthony Peeler, Anthony Morrow, and Anthony Tolliver). (If we combined the Tonys and the Anthonys, then we’d be onto a truly tough lineup.)
There’s a very interesting guard-heavy John team that would very quietly pose some real problems. They’ve got John Stockton (genius point guard), John Starks (I’ll always root for a guy with a lisp), John Wall (the angriest bumblebee I have ever seen), John Salley (he played with the Bad Boy Pistons, the 1996–97 Bulls, and the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, which is fascinating to think about), and John Henson (a player I have grown to just absolutely love).
Two quick sidebars: (1) Per Mike Lynch of Sports-Reference.com, the Johns have the all-time highest win share totals of any name in the history of the NBA (1,230). I’m sure that’s mostly because "John" is a very common name. It’s still an interesting stat, though. (2) If we lean the other way and use players who were the only ones to have their particular names in NBA history, that team would be almost unbeatable (LeBron, Kawhi, Kobe, Shaq, Giannis).
We don’t have enough Karls to field an entire team, but I figure Karl Malone and Karl-Anthony Towns playing two-on-five could at least beat the Bobs and the Garys. I like the Pat team a lot (Patrick Beverley, Patty Mills, Patrick Ewing, Patrick Patterson, and a young Pat Riley just to be cute), but they probably wouldn’t be a serious contender. I also like the Tims a bunch (Tim Duncan, Tim Hardaway, Tim Thomas, Tim Legler, and Tim Donaghy as the referee for each of their games). The Bills are great as well, though only because anyone who tries to wiggle into the lane against them is going to get his head removed from his shoulders (Bill Russell, Bill Laimbeer, Bill Cartwright).
If we’re arranging all of the teams, though — like, if we were seeding them for the tournament — the top four seeds seem clear (as does the team that would eventually win all of everything).
The Fourth Seed: The Larrys
There’s Larry Bird (the White GOAT). There’s Larry Nance (three-time All-Star, three-time All-Defensive first- or second-team pick, could jump to Jupiter). There’s Larry Johnson (he was a two-time All-Star and an All-NBA second-team pick, but maybe the best part of him is he would get dressed up like an old woman occasionally). There’s Larry Hughes (All-Defensive first team; the league leader in steals in 2005; was on a team with LeBron James for a while, which has to count for something). And just for fun, there’s Larry Nance Jr., too (I probably watch that clip of him dunking Brook Lopez into another time zone at least once a week). The Larrys are coming for your throat.
The Third Seed: The Chrises
It’s Chris Paul (probably the sixth-greatest point guard of all time), Chris Bosh (who’s built perfectly to serve as a complementary piece on a team like this), Chris Mullin (five-time All-Star; four-time All-NBA first-, second-, or third-team pick; had the cleanest white-guy flattop), Chris Webber (five-time All-Star; five-time All-NBA first-, second-, or third-team pick; dated Tyra Banks), and Chris Kaman (he one time got grabbed in the genitals by Reggie Evans, which is like the opposite of dating Tyra Banks). (Actually, did you know Chris Kaman was an All-Star once? That’s true. It happened in 2010. It’s wild to think about. Some guys who never were selected as All-Stars: Jalen Rose, Arvydas Sabonis, Mike Bibby, Lamar Odom.)
The Second Seed: The Michaels
The marquee player is (of course) Michael Jordan, and him even just by himself makes this team already a formidable one. But you’ve also got MJ alongside Michael Cooper, the best defender on that Showtime Lakers team from the ’80s (five-time NBA champion, Defensive Player of the Year in 1986–87, eight-time All-Defensive first- or second-team pick). And there’s Michael Finley, too (he won an NBA championship with the Spurs in 2007, but he was also a two-time All-Star when he was with the Mavericks during the best part of his career). You can put Mike Conley Jr. at point guard, which is an extremely solid pick. (Somehow, Mike Conley has never been an All-Star, and I’m honestly just super-offended by that. He’s a fucking killer, man.) And if you want a big man in there, you’ve got Michael Olowokandi (fart noise) or, if you want a slightly smaller big man, then you’ve got Michael Cage, a journeyman player who actually led the league in rebounds in 1987–88. Ultimately, though, they’d lose out to …
The Winners: The Kevins
They’re the only team where every player is (a) a multiple-times All-Star, while also (b) possessing the type of game that would do perfectly fine in today’s NBA. You’ve got Kevin Johnson (three-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA second- or third-team pick). You’ve got Kevin McHale (seven-time All-Star, All-NBA first team in 1986–87, six-time All-Defensive first- or second-team pick, two-time Sixth Man of the Year award winner, three-time NBA champion). You’ve got Kevin Garnett (15-time NBA All-Star; MVP in 2003–04; nine-time All-NBA first-, second- or third-team pick; Defensive Player of the Year in 2007–08; 12-time All-Defensive first- or second-team pick; four-time league leader in rebounds, NBA champion). You’ve got Kevin Durant (MVP in 2013–14, eight-time NBA All-Star, seven-time All-NBA first- or second-team pick, four-time NBA scoring champion, NBA champion, Finals MVP). And you’ve got Kevin Love (a four-time NBA All-Star, two-time All-NBA second-team pick, the league leader in rebounds and Most Improved Player in 2010–11, and an NBA champion who is somehow the weakest link of the group). The Kevins are dusting everyone.