This is the Perfect NBA Offense

A Thought Experiment

Imagine I ask you to build the perfect NBA offense with any five players in NBA history. “Don’t worry about defense or positions,” I say. “Just build a lineup that would produce the highest offensive rating possible.” Remember that if your lineup doesn’t include Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, Nash, Kareem, Shaq, Curry, Harden, Magic, Bird, or Durant, you’re a blog boy heretic. Fine, let’s narrow that down to Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, Magic, and Kareem. This team has three of the greatest perimeter scorers, two of greatest playmakers, and possibly the greatest low-post threat. Clearly, this is the correct answer. Article over.

In discussing Team USA’s team-building philosophy in the past, I emphatically reject the notion that best teams are filled with the “best” players. Instead, offensive units need to adhere to some basic rules while perfectly complementing each other. My goal is to explain what the perfect offense looks like and which players would be included.

A Philosophical Detour

In his magnum opus The Republic, Plato discusses his idea of a utopia. However, the term “utopia” (an imagined, perfect world) wasn’t coined until 1,800 years later by British philosopher Thomas More. While these two texts differ in their imagined outcomes, they both still rely on certain similar rules such as a controlling elite. These overarching rules are meant to provide a framework for subsequent societies: if you use this structure, your municipality will be perfect.

Likewise, I plan on laying the groundwork for creating the perfect NBA offense by establishing rules that teams should follow. However, I must tread lightly because as we’ve learned from Bernard and John in Brave New World, rules that lead to “perfection” aren’t always perfect for everyone.

Searching for the Perfect NBA Offense

Before creating the perfect offensive lineup, I must establish some overarching guidelines. Despite many attempts at answering similar questions in the past, my guiding philosophy from four years ago still holds true:

…basketball is a game of diminishing returns meaning that the more players who both excel in a single skill and share the court with one another, the less the team will benefit from each individual’s skills…

NBA Theory: Player Archetypes and Team Construction Part 1, 2016

Accordingly, it’s necessary to identify the skills that coexist the best to create the perfect NBA offense. Let’s take James Harden for example. He’s clearly one of the greatest scorers of all time, but what would happen with a lineup of five Hardens? When Harden isolates at the top of the key and takes a step-back, how much value do the other four Hardens provide? When Harden screens for Harden, does the screening Harden provide more value than a screening Gobert? How about when Harden drives and kicks to Harden, does the spotting-up Harden provide more value than a spotting up Duncan Robinson? When Harden bricks a jumper, does a rebounding harden provide more value than a rebounding Steven Adams?

Simply put, Harden provides all-time level offensive impact when he has the ball, but it’s not clear that he would provide even a neutral impact on offense if he was relegated to a tertiary role.

Skills for the Perfect NBA Offense

When trying to answer the question regarding the perfect NBA offense, Nima Shaahinfar established the following maxim:

Ultimately, the evidence is compelling that teams should follow one overarching principle for maximizing offensive efficiency: narrowly focus the role of initiating the offense[2] where they can create the greatest advantage and threat to score (whether at the rim off penetration or through the post), and surround that facilitator/ball-handler with capable three-point shooters[3] with the athleticism to rebound[4] as well as attack and finish strong at the rim with the space created through ball movement.

BLUEPRINT FOR NBA SUCCESS: How To Build A Team Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts, 2012

While this establishes a good starting point, it doesn’t provide strict numerical values to these two rules. For instance, would a “narrowly” focused offense have one or two primary playmakers? Should the other players biased towards being great shooters or slashers? Where does screening come into play? How about offensive rebounding?

Rules for Building the Perfect NBA Offense

To make this more specific, here are my rules for creating this perfect NBA offense:

  1. One primary playmaker who is an all-time level passer, all-time level scorer, and has some off-ball value
  2. A secondary playmaker who EITHER is an all-time on-ball scorer or passer AND provides all-time off-ball scoring value
  3. The three players who aren’t the primary or secondary playmaker must provide all-time level three-point shooting (the primary playmaker can be average but must be at least average)
  4. Four of the players (including the primary playmaker) must be excellent slashers meaning they can quickly drive to the basket and efficiently kick, score, and draw fouls

Sadly, I don’t have a solid answer for what “all-time,” “excellent,” or “average,” mean, so that’s an excellent direction for somebody quantify these terms. What I do have is a set of rules that lets me categorize players to see which of these rules overlap. The overlapping players are the ones that need to be on this team.

Furthermore, notice that I have no space for traditional big man skills. This might be a huge blindspot for me, but I don’t believe that a player’s offensive rebounding or screening abilities are nearly as important as the ability to shoot, drive, and pass from the perimeter.

Let’s see what this looks like.

Categorizing Players

Like a training camp, let’s look at a roster of potential players who fit these categories

  1. Primary playmaker – LeBron James (I sort of rigged the deck here because I think that LeBron is the only player in history to fit this description. Harden is probably the second closest, but this is mostly because this style of playing wasn’t popularized when Jordan, Bird, or even Kobe played).
  2. Secondary playmaker – Kyrie Irving, Steve Nash, Stephen Curry, Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant
  3. All-time three-point shooters – Klay Thompson, Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Peja Stojakovic, Duncan Robinson, Craig Hodges, Stephen Curry, Larry Bird, Kevin Durant
  4. Excellent slashers – Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Clyde Drexler, Dwyane Wade, Baron Davis, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Paul Westphal, Kevin Johnson, Russell Westbrook, Larry Bird, Tracy McGrady.

You might already see that many of these players are starting to appear in multiple lists which probably spoils the upcoming lineup to a degree. However, this is actually the main point of the article where I want you to review what I have laid out and disagree with me. Do you think that the lineup construction should look different? What skills am I biasing towards? Are there any skills that I am ignoring too much at the moment?

The Perfect NBA Offense

Based on the above rules and categorizations, the following would be the perfect NBA offense using any player in history:

  • Primary playmaker: LeBron James
  • Secondary playmaker: Michael Jordan
  • 1st Tertiary offensive player: Stephen Curry
  • 2nd Tertiary offensive player: Larry Bird
  • 3rd Tertiary offensive player: Reggie Miller

In no uncertain terms, LeBron James is the best on-ball offensive player in NBA history.  In other words, if you had to run every single possession through a single player, LeBron would be your best option. While players like Magic Johnson or Steve Nash might unlock more from their teammates with their passing, LeBron’s truly GOAT-level combination of scoring and passing has vaulted lineups that include tertiary and superstar teammates alike into the stratosphere (best offensive lineups in the last decade coming soon). Even if a team decides to completely lock down the other four players, LeBron can single-handedly score against the greatest teams ever assembled.

Now, some of you might be shaking your head at Jordan being a “Secondary playmaker,” but to me, this is the greatest compliment of his abilities. Sure, he played point guard with astounding statistical results in 1989, but it wasn’t until Phil Jackson unlocked Jordan’s off-ball game with the triangle that he started winning championships. Pippen actually led the Bulls in assists every year that they won a championship. Jordan was tremendous at making off-ball cuts, curling for jumpers, and making a quick drive off a catch. Moreover, he was tremendous with the ball and obviously would’ve thrived in a more heliocentric model, but he was better off the catch.

The Other Three Players

Just like Jordan in a secondary playmaking role, Bird and Curry playing tertiary roles is not an indictment of their skills. Instead, it speaks to the fact that their skills are so portable that you could essentially insert them into any offense without encroaching on other players’ skillsets.

With the addition of Kevin Durant, Curry in 2017 showcased what might be the most impressive example of ceiling-raising in NBA history. We often award floor-raising offensive talents such as James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but the fact is their impact is significantly mitigated next to other high-end talent. Curry thrives next to players like that and honestly probably prefers to not be the focal point of an offense.

Bird’s shooting gravity wasn’t anywhere near Curry’s (nobody’s is), but his constant movement on offense is severely underrated. He bullied his way to post position, had a psychic connection with point guard Dennis Johnson, and mercilessly buried contested jumpers from everywhere. Had he played in today’s league, he would easily be shooting ten three-pointers a game at a 40% clip.

Additionally, Bird’s all-time passing ability sets him apart from other options at this position such as Durant, Klay Thompson, and Ray Allen. Durant and Ray are definitely quicker and more athletic slashers, but neither even approached Bird’s vision and utter audacity with his passes.

Miller requires less defense as his off-ball exploits have been discussed ad nauseam by Ben Taylor. Perhaps if I were choosing a primary offensive option, I’d rather go with Ray Allen (and definitely Durant or Jerry West) because of Miller’s weaker passing and driving, but as a 5th option whose main job is to run around and shoot open threes, nobody is as efficient as Miller.

In Defense of the “Snubs”

You don’t actually think the 99.9% of players who didn’t make a lineup of five players are snubs, do you? If you made it this far, probably not.

Honestly, Steve Nash was my most difficult omission. His quarterbacking of some of the greatest regular and post-season offenses in history should grant him automatic entrance into this squad. However, I would’ve had to slot him in the “Secondary playmaker” role meaning that he was up against Michael Jordan. Nash is by far a superior shooter and passer, but looking at the other four players on the team, I wanted a more potent scoring punch through slashing. This was also my line of reasoning for not taking Magic (who also is a significantly less damaging off-ball threat than Jordan or Nash).

I could’ve also given that secondary playmaker spot to any of Jerry West, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, or Chris Paul, but, again, you’d have to argue that they belong more than Jordan.

Ultimately, the only other player that I truly considered for the last three spots was Ray Allen because I figured that he would psychologically be more amenable to a tertiary role than Bird, but I think that Bird would relish playing next to such high-end talent, and I couldn’t pass up his passing.

Like I said above, my biggest blindspot might be about the value of rim-running, screening, and offensive rebounding bigs. Would this team be more unstoppable on offense with Shaq instead of Miller or Bird? Does Kareem’s skyhook provide a unique and potent look? Teams couldn’t double them with the all-time spacing around them, so maybe that would provide a more formidable attack.

The Best Offenses of the Last Decade

Now that I have established the perfect NBA offense, let’s see if the best offenses in the last decade have followed my rules. Based on 5-man lineups that played at least 150 minutes, here are the top ten offensive ratings in the last decade (from stats.nba):

5-Man Lineup Offensive Rating Year
A. Iguodala, .S. Curry, .K. Thompson, .H. Barnes, .D. Green 135.1 2016
L. James, .K. Love, .K. Irving, .T. Thompson, .D. Liggins 129.6 2017
C. Paul, .D. Gallinari, .D. Schroder, .S. Adams, .S. Gilgeous-Alexander 127.9 2020
C. Butler, .A. Tolliver, .R. Jackson, .A. Drummond, .K. Caldwell-Pope 126.7 2015
T. Ariza, .E. Gordon, .R. Anderson, .J. Harden, .M. Harrell 126.6 2017
A. Iguodala, .K. Durant, .S. Curry, .K. Thompson, .D. Green 125.3 2019
T. Ariza, .R. Anderson, .J. Harden, .P. Beverley, .C. Capela 125 2017
E. Davis, .D. Lillard, .M. Harkless, .C. McCollum, .M. Plumlee 123.9 2017
K. Durant, .S. Curry, .K. Thompson, .D. Green, .K. Looney 122.8 2019
S. Ibaka, .D. Green, .K. Leonard, .P. Siakam, .F. VanVleet 122.7 2019

Do the Best Offenses Follow the Guidelines?

First of all, can somebody please go back and watch every possession of that 2015 Pistons lineup? How did that lineup have a near 127 offensive rating? I’m so confused.

Second, the triumvirate of Curry, Thompson, and Green make the list in three different lineups across three different seasons including an absurd 135.1 offensive rating pre-Durant. I mean, maybe I should just go back and start with that lineup…

What actually stands out the most is the lack of high-level three-point shooting in the lineups. Except for the 2019 Raptors and 2016 Warriors, every single lineup has a player that outright didn’t shoot threes. Even so, teams playing the Warriors would be more than happy to have Iguodala, Green, or Barnes shoot a three every possession.

Since each of these lineups was an actual group that played big minutes, they were built knowing that they would have to worry about defense. In an interesting twist though, does defense feed into a good offense? Looking at players like Scottie Pippen or Andrei Kirilenko historically, the most efficient offensive plays (transition dunks/layups) are created through strong defense which those Warriors teams boasted.

Maybe, and I don’t mean to spit in your face 2,300 words into this, but perhaps ignoring defense in trying to build the perfect offense misses the point. The two are inextricably connected, and maybe that feeds into offensive efficiency even more than somebody being a good three-point shooter.

Seeking a Utopia

Just like More and Plato trying to start from a place of a conceptually perfect society, so to have NBA teams since the Warriors. Teams scrambled to find the next Draymond Green, but that has proven to be a failed mission. Instead of looking at the specific personnel on teams and using that as a starting point, teams should look at the rules governing those all-time teams. For me, those rules were simple:

  1. The primary playmaker must be an all-time scorer/creator
  2. The secondary playmaker must be either an all-time on-ball scorer or creator along with being an all-time off-ball threat.
  3. The other three players must be all-time three-point shooters and slashers (meaning that they can drive and kick, score, and get fouled)

Approaching these values will bring an NBA lineup as close to offensive Nirvana as possible.

Cody Houdek is a writer for Premium Hoops. He is also a senior writer at Overtime Heroics where he also runs their YouTube channel. You can find all of his work (articles, videos, and podcasts) here.

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