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Peak NBA: Which Team Would Be Best If Every Player Were in His Prime?

Tom Thibodeau’s attempt at re-creating the early-2010s Chicago Bulls in Minnesota had us thinking: If every team had a time machine to retrieve their players’ best selves, what would the league look like?

Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, and Joakim Noah Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We heard you like rankings, so to kick off The Ringer’s 2018–19 NBA Preview, we’re devoting the week to evaluating (and slapping a number on) the players, the story lines, and the odds and ends that promise to make the upcoming season one to remember.

The jokes abounded when Minnesota majordomo Tom Thibodeau signed Luol Deng last week, increasing the count of his Timber-Bulls coterie to four. Jimmy Butler is still an All-NBA talent and Taj Gibson a sturdy role player, but Derrick Rose and Deng peaked before LeBron James won his first title. Knicks center Joakim Noah might join the Midwestern reunion soon, too, despite flashing more butt cheeks than basketball skills over the past year.

Blatantly trying to reclaim former glories is a mockable team-building philosophy in 2018, but what if Thibodeau found a way to reanimate his top players of yore? And what if it weren’t just Rose and Deng and Noah at their respective peaks? Imagine an NBA in which all active players were back in their prime today. Which team would be the best in a league that saw 2000-01 Vince Carter leading the Hawks, Gregg Popovich turning 2010-11 Pau Gasol into his offensive fulcrum, and the 2008-09 versions of LeBron James and Rajon Rondo joining forces in Los Angeles?

ESPN’s Sam Miller asked the same question for baseball earlier this year, and we’re doing the same now for the star-studded NBA. To begin, we searched for the 12 highest-peak players on each current NBA roster, where peak is measured by Basketball-Reference’s win shares model, which uses a host of statistics to measure how many wins each player contributed to his team’s ledger over the course of a season (a full list of all 30 12-man groups appears here). These measurements are entirely backward-looking, so all current rookies are excluded, and, even if a young player is still on the rise, his presumably pre-prime numbers are used by default. (Michael Beasley rates as better than Brandon Ingram on the Peak Lakers’ bench, for instance, as outlandish as that might sound, and rising sophomores like Dennis Smith Jr. and De’Aaron Fox miss their teams’ 12-man rosters entirely because of negative WS totals last season.)

Next, we ran each 12-man roster through a playing-time adjustment to simulate how an average team would allocate minutes to their starters and bench players over the course of a season, and finally, we converted the results to 82-game records. Which team would lead the Peak NBA in wins? Read on to find out—but for an early hint, know that the Warriors, for once, aren’t no. 1.

Note: The season listed by a player’s name corresponds with the year in which that season’s playoffs occurred.

Group X: The Worst of the Best

30. Chicago Bulls, 25.4 wins (best player: ’14 Robin Lopez)

29. Sacramento Kings, 26.7 wins (’11 Zach Randolph)

28. Orlando Magic, 27.7 wins (’15 Nikola Vucevic)

Even the peak versions of these rosters are unfathomably devoid of talent. With Vucevic (7.0 win shares) in pole position on the Orlando roster, the Magic have the worst best player of any team, and the next names in Peak Orlando’s talent pool—’14 D.J. Augustin and ’15 Timofey Mozgov—are somehow even less appealing. But the Peak Kings’ and Peak Bulls’ rosters look even worse holistically. The best player in Sacramento’s backcourt is ’18 Yogi Ferrell, and the Kings sneak ahead of Chicago only because of Randolph gritting and grinding his way to buckets in the frontcourt.

The Bulls, meanwhile, feature heavy doses of unremarkable big men, from Lopez to ’13 Omer Asik to ’17 Cristiano Felicio—all of whom rank among the five current Bulls with the highest peaks to date. The best point guard on the roster is Cameron Payne, who peaked in 2015-16 with just 1.4 win shares; Kris Dunn hasn’t even reached 1.0 WS in a single season. To be fair to Chicago, though, that’s because all its old stars are now in Minnesota with the team’s former coach.

Group IX: Still Bad, but Far More Entertaining

27. New York Knicks, 29.4 wins (’14 Joakim Noah)

26. Phoenix Suns, 31.0 wins (’15 Tyson Chandler)

25. Atlanta Hawks, 31.5 wins (’01 Vince Carter)

New York has a comical lack of depth, but its crop of peak players includes ’16 Enes Kanter, ’17 Tim Hardaway Jr., ’17 Kristaps Porzingis, and ’18 Mario Hezonja, who could theoretically combine to scatter a few 120-plus-point nights throughout the season. The Suns have even less of a bench but could at least field a decently constructed starting unit by surrounding Chandler with ’12 Ryan Anderson, ’14 Trevor Ariza, ’17 T.J. Warren, and ’18 Devin Booker. Like its actual NBA team, Peak Phoenix doesn’t have a true point guard, but that’s a fairly well-rounded lineup.

There’s no need for a “fairly” qualifier in Atlanta, where the mere thought of a Linsanity–Vinsanity backcourt is justification for this entire project. A quick ranking of the most tantalizing new backcourt pairings teased by this exercise:

5. ’09 Devin Harris and ’18 J.J. Barea, Dallas—This pairing includes Harris’s lone All-Star season, when he averaged 21.3 points in his first full season with the Nets. With a fun-size Barea as his backcourt partner, the duo would probably score about as many points as it gives up.

4. ’18 Victor Oladipo and ’10 Tyreke Evans, Pacers—Two do-everything guards with size could make for an interchangeable nightmare for opponents.

3. ’17 Isaiah Thomas and ’18 Will Barton, Nuggets—What’s better than one swashbuckling guard who can score in bunches and pump up a crowd? How about two swashbuckling guards who can score in bunches and pump up a crowd?

2. ’16 Kemba Walker and ’07 Tony Parker, Hornets—This is a more polished version of the Thomas–Barton duo.

1. ’13 Lin and ’01 Vin, Hawks—The dunks! The clutch shots! The immeasurable swagger! This imaginary pairing would be the most enjoyable moment of Hawks fandom in years.

Group VIII: Not Notably Bad, but Not Inspiring Either

24. Portland Trail Blazers, 31.8 wins (’18 Damian Lillard)

23. Brooklyn Nets, 33.3 wins (’13 Kenneth Faried)

22. Philadelphia 76ers, 35.6 wins (’18 Ben Simmons)

21. Los Angeles Clippers, 35.6 wins (’15 Marcin Gortat)

20. Memphis Grizzlies, 36.3 wins (’13 Marc Gasol)

19. Indiana Pacers, 36.6 wins (’18 Victor Oladipo)

Let’s zoom through these sub-.500 teams. Outside the expected candidates, the Peak Blazers surprisingly have the least depth, as ’17 Seth Curry ranks fourth on the roster in highest peak. Brooklyn’s roster is a collection of players you didn’t realize played in Brooklyn, as four of the five projected starters—’13 Kenneth Faried, ’15 DeMarre Carroll, ’16 Ed Davis, and ’11 Jared Dudley—are better known for their stints on other teams. Philadelphia would almost assuredly rank better on this list if it were forward-looking as well as retrospective, because the likes of Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid—all of whom qualify with their 2017-18 seasons—are still climbing toward their eventual peaks.

The Peak Clippers represent a delightful League Pass team, with Gortat flanked on the perimeter by ’13 Danilo Gallinari, ’18 Lou Williams, ’17 Tobias Harris, ’17 Patrick Beverley, and ’16 Avery Bradley, among others; ’16 Boban Marjanovic makes a welcome appearance in this rotation, as well. The Peak Grizzlies are the ideal version of the actual Grizzlies, who are hoping that Chandler Parsons can resemble the dynamic player he was earlier this decade and that Marc Gasol’s stumbles last season aren’t indicative of a longer-term decline. And Indiana doesn’t boast much excitement beyond the aforementioned Oladipo-Evans backcourt duo, though a frontcourt combination of ’17 Myles Turner, ’13 Thaddeus Young, and ’18 Bojan Bogdanovic gives the team a flexible style that could match up against any opponent.

Group VII: The Teams With One Standout Old Guy Apiece

18. New Orleans Pelicans, 40.1 wins (’15 Anthony Davis)

17. Charlotte Hornets, 40.7 wins (’16 Kemba Walker)

Peak Charlotte has Parker jitterbugging his way to baskets next to Walker, and in New Orleans, ’15 Anthony Davis teams up with ’09 Emeka Okafor, the second-best peak player on the Pelicans’ roster. Before appearing in 26 games with New Orleans last season, Okafor hadn’t played in the NBA since 2013, but that absence doesn’t matter for this exercise—and even though this is an NBA-based project, the notion of two of the most dominant college centers of the 2000s teaming up is itself enough to get Dick Vitale excited.

Group VI: Young Teams With Upside

16. Milwaukee Bucks, 42.1 wins (’17 Giannis Antetokounmpo)

15. Boston Celtics, 42.2 wins (’10 Al Horford)

14. Denver Nuggets, 42.2 wins (’17 Isaiah Thomas)

Giannis finally gains a supporting cast commensurate with his talent with ’13 Brook Lopez, ’15 Eric Bledsoe, and ’13 Ersan Ilyasova joining ’18 Khris Middleton, and Peak Boston ranks surprisingly low compared with its real-life standing as one of the league’s premier competitors. But the Celtics fit the 76ers’ profile of a team with enough young players that they would likely rank better a year from now; besides Horford and ’15 Kyrie Irving, every member of the team’s 12-man unit peaked within the past three seasons.

Boston has nothing on Denver, though, as every player on the Peak Nuggets’ roster appears because of a performance within the past three seasons, making the Nuggets the “most present” team in the league. Of course, as Thomas’s presence indicates, that doesn’t mean they’re all still at their prime. Denver is the most extreme example of a broader trend. Of the 360 players spread across the 30 rosters, more than 70 percent hit their peaks within the past three seasons, and only a dozen—just 3 percent—did so before the 2010s. As Sam Miller wrote about his baseball exercise, “One thing that stood out putting these rosters together is how few ‘old’ seasons made it—which is another way to say how quickly the young replace the old in this sport. … Most major leaguers are either in their prime or were very, very recently.” The same is true in basketball, where the vast majority of post-prime players disappear in short order.

Group V: Fringe Contenders Who Dream of More

13. Utah Jazz, 42.6 wins (’17 Rudy Gobert)

12. Detroit Pistons, 43.0 wins (’14 Blake Griffin)

11. Oklahoma City Thunder, 44.2 wins (’16 Russell Westbrook)

This new version of the Jazz tweaks the actual version by just enough to give them additional punch, from ’13 Thabo Sefolosha providing 3-and-D savvy to ’14 Alec Burks and ’15 Derrick Favors adding extra scoring to a defensively sound team. Utah also benefits from a high-achieving top player: With 14.3 win shares in 2016-17, Gobert has the second-highest peak season of any active center, just a sliver behind Dwight Howard’s 14.4-WS 2010-11 campaign. Even after he won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season, it seems that the greater basketball world doesn’t fully appreciate how valuable the Jazz center is.

The Pistons are a surprise this high up the list, which they manage because of an unexpectedly strong support system for Griffin. Jose Calderon had one superlative season a decade ago, and anyone who knew that Zaza Pachulia once ranked second on a playoff team in win shares deserves a prize. The Peak Pistons actually boast a modern-looking roster, though, with rangy and athletic wings rounding out the team’s depth instead of being forced into more vital starting roles; that’s something to dream on, at least, while the real team suffers through the next few years of cap mishegas.

In Oklahoma City, it is certainly notable that Russell Westbrook achieved his highest single-season win-share tally in his last season with Kevin Durant as a teammate, rather than the two subsequent seasons, when averaged a triple-double. Besides ’10 Raymond Felton, who joins Westbrook in the backcourt, the Peak Thunder are full of near-prime players—but they’re missing one very important former MVP and thus below the league’s upper crust even in an idealized scenario.

Group IV: Prestigious Franchises in Divergent Directions

10. Los Angeles Lakers, 44.8 wins (’09 LeBron James)

9. San Antonio Spurs, 46.4 wins (’11 Pau Gasol)

8. Cleveland Cavaliers, 46.4 wins (’14 Kevin Love)

With ’10 Rudy Gay, ’11 LaMarcus Aldridge, and ’16 DeMar DeRozan joining Gasol in the starting lineup, the Peak Spurs would single-handedly bring the midrange jumper back to the NBA. The most interesting aspect of this section, though, is LeBron James’s former team nudging ahead of his current group. With a 20.3-win share ’09 season—the best for any player since Michael Jordan put up 20.4 on the 72-win Bulls—James gives the Lakers the biggest head start of any team, but even the presence of ’09 Rondo (9.9) can’t fully compensate for the roster’s lack of proven depth, which forces ’11 JaVale McGee into the starting lineup as well and means minutes for the likes of ’17 Ivica Zubac and ’18 Alex Caruso.

The Cavaliers don’t have the Lakers’ star power, but ’14 Kevin Love, who produced a 26-13-4 stat line in his final season in Minnesota, serves as a solid first piece, and the team is deep enough that ’10 Channing Frye, ’16 Rodney Hood, and ’18 Larry Nance Jr.—all of whom produced more win shares than peak McGee—can come off the bench. For fun: If James had stayed in Cleveland and every other roster remained the same, the Peak Cavs would have ranked third in the league with 59.5 wins, just a hair beyond the top two, while the Lakers would have plummeted to the bottom five with 30.6, nestling them between the Suns and Knicks.

Group III: Getting Warmer ...

7. Dallas Mavericks, 47.8 wins (’06 Dirk Nowitzki)

6. Washington Wizards, 47.9 wins (’11 Dwight Howard)

5. Miami Heat, 49.1 wins (’09 Dwyane Wade)

4. Toronto Raptors, 50.0 wins (’16 Kawhi Leonard)

The Mavs’ starting unit might be the most balanced in the Peak NBA, with Harris running point, ’14 Wesley Matthews and ’15 Harrison Barnes manning the wings, and Nowitzki and ’15 DeAndre Jordan forming a potent high-low duo. The only factor holding Dallas back from a better spot in the standings is a shallow bench, which slates unheralded names like Salah Mejri, Maxi Kleber, Gian Clavell, and Jalen Jones for an undesirably large workload.

The Wizards are a less discriminating version of the Wolves, with president Ernie Grunfeld desperate to add any notable player from the beginning of the decade, regardless of their affiliation at the time. Peak Howard gives Washington an MVP candidate in the middle, while ’10 Jeff Green, ’11 Jodie Meeks, and even ’14 Markieff Morris provide important depth for a franchise that hasn’t managed any in the real world in years. Of course, even the Peak Wizards finish just shy of 50 wins, a mark the organization hasn’t reached since 1979.

Peak Miami jumps from 17th place over the weekend to fifth now with the news that Wade is returning for one final season. The Peak Heat’s starters are among the least modern in the league—the anti-Nuggets—with Wade and ’14 Dragic in the backcourt and ’05 Udonis Haslem, who ranked third in win shares behind Wade and Shaquille O’Neal on a conference finalist, menacing the paint alongside an engaged and dominant Hassan Whiteside circa 2016. But Miami’s bench is full of recent bloomers: Outside that top four, every member of the Peak Heat’s 12-man roster reached his prime in either 2016-17 or 2017-18.

Neither Washington nor Miami can catch Toronto for the top Eastern Conference spot, though. This placement assumes that Leonard will play NBA games next season, but no team is scoring on an outfit with Leonard, ’14 Kyle Lowry, ’14 Serge Ibaka, and ’15 Danny Green prowling the perimeter, no matter if ’15 Jonas Valanciunas or ’16 Greg Monroe is stationed at the 5. The Peak Raptors have better options for that position if they need a spot, anyway, in the form of ’18 OG Anunoby.

Group II: The Team That Sparked This Whole Endeavor

3. Minnesota Timberwolves, 58.1 wins (’18 Karl-Anthony Towns)

Moving from fourth place to third involves a giant leap in wins; Toronto is closer to the no. 15 team than it is to the Wolves. But the fact that Thibodeau’s roster ranks so high in this convoluted hypothetical exercise only highlights how outlandish his vision is in real life: The Peak Wolves’ top seven players include four former Bulls, post-prime guards in Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Andrew Wiggins (4.2 win shares in 2016-17), by the way, is the 10th man on this roster, which perhaps says less about the collection of players Thibodeau has added and more about the insufficient production from the Wolves’ max-contract man. Even ’18 Anthony Tolliver (5.3 WS) outranks him on the depth chart.

Group I: The Unsurprising Best

2. Golden State Warriors, 60.6 wins (’14 Kevin Durant)

1. Houston Rockets, 60.9 wins (’09 Chris Paul)

The margin between these two teams couldn’t be slimmer. Here is the full breakdown of their 12-man rosters:

Peak Warriors vs. Peak Rockets

Player Win Shares Season Player Win Shares Season
Player Win Shares Season Player Win Shares Season
Kevin Durant 19.2 2013-14 Chris Paul 18.3 2008-09
Stephen Curry 17.9 2015-16 James Harden 16.4 2014-15
Draymond Green 11.1 2015-16 Nene Hilario 10.8 2009-10
Andre Iguodala 9.6 2007-08 Carmelo Anthony 10.7 2013-14
Klay Thompson 8.8 2014-15 Clint Capela 10.2 2017-18
DeMarcus Cousins 7.9 2013-14 Gerald Green 6.1 2013-14
Shaun Livingston 4.6 2015-16 P.J. Tucker 6.1 2013-14
Jonas Jerebko 4.4 2009-10 Eric Gordon 5.3 2010-11
Jordan Bell 2.9 2017-18 Brandon Knight 4.5 2014-15
Kevon Looney 2.8 2017-18 James Ennis 3.1 2017-18
Quinn Cook 1.6 2017-18 Marquese Chriss 1.8 2016-17
Danuel House 0.6 2017-18 Michael Carter-Williams 1.3 2013-14

The Warriors have a slightly better starting five and DeMarcus Cousins gives them an undeniable edge as the sixth man, but Golden State’s bench lags behind Houston’s at each spot from 7 to 12. That might not matter as much in a Peak NBA playoff series, but it does in the regular season, where teams must go 12-plus-deep to survive a full schedule. The final difference is small enough, though, that even a minor adjustment to how minutes are allocated would flip the result.

Of note for the actual 2018-19 season is that the bulk of the Warriors’ roster consists of players either in or near their prime, while the top of Houston’s depth chart is full of players who peaked a half-decade or longer ago. That could prove impactful as the two teams battle for Western Conference supremacy again following their seven-game playoff series last spring; Carmelo Anthony might not be the answer for Houston in a real NBA game over the next nine months.

He’s the answer in fake NBA games, though—remove Melo from the Peak Rockets and the Warriors edge comfortably ahead of Houston, while the Rockets tumble to third place behind Minnesota, too. It’s as we all predicted last month: Carmelo Anthony would make the difference in the next Warriors-Rockets duel.

There’s only one more player who could make a bigger difference—just one more wrinkle worth mentioning about the final standing order. If the Wolves did add Noah to round out their Timber-Bulls core, their peak complement would leap to first place, with 62.5 wins. Do it, Thibs; this is the closest you’ll ever come to a title with that long-aged group.