Arguably two of the most stacked All-NBA First Teams came in 1988 and 2003. These teams both had top-25 players in the history of the game, with many of them claiming spots in the top-10 of all-time. In 1988, the NBA was run by the MVP in Michael Jordan, the superstar presence of Larry Bird, and the Finals MVP in Magic Johnson. Not to mention, Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon were the two most dominant big men in the game. Jordan led the NBA in scoring at 35.0 PPG and also captured the Defensive Player of the Year Award in a historically great season.
Meanwhile, the 2003 season was stacked with superstar talent. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade were all drafted into the NBA but they would be well behind the top-5 stars in the game at that time. Kobe Bryant was arguably the best player in the game alongside his teammate Shaquille O’Neal, although both players were simply not getting along with each other. Tracy McGrady, the Orlando Magic superstar, led the NBA in scoring at 32.1 PPG. Tim Duncan was the league MVP while Garnett would play all 82 games, averaging 23.0 PPG and 13.4 RPG.
If pitting both of these all-time great lineups against each other, who would come out on top? Would the old-school superstars overtake the modern players? Or would the raw firepower and athleticism overtake the 1980s squad? Here is the comparison and result between two of the greatest All-NBA First Teams ever.
1988 All-NBA First Team: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon
2003 All-NBA First Team: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal
Watching a game like this would cause fans to lick their lips with excitement. Starting with the 1988 First Team, it is obvious there are zero weaknesses. Magic Johnson is the greatest playmaker in NBA history, and quite possibly the best leader we have ever seen. Next to him is Michael Jordan, the man coming off arguably the most impressive individual season in NBA history. Averaging 35.0 PPG and locking down the best player in the game is something only Jordan could do, and he did it convincingly. Adding Larry Bird is simply ridiculous because he is one of the best shooters and rebounders to ever play the small forward position. In terms of two bigs that can dominate any defender, no matter who they are, it is Barkley and Olajuwon. How can this lineup lose?
The 2003 lineup is supremely talented, with a tremendous mix of offensive firepower and intangibles. Bryant and McGrady would have no problems scoring on the 1988 lineup, even if the Defensive Player of the Year is across the court from them. They would also take advantage in matchups against Magic and Bird, as neither are explosive athletes. Finally, Garnett, Duncan, and Shaq bring a ton of size and basketball IQ to the table. O’Neal will be a force to handle, especially with Duncan playing high-level basketball next to him. Garnett’s versatility makes him a suitable forward who can defend and use his size.
1988 All-NBA First Team Advantages
The advantage of the 1988 team lies in….their perfection. This lineup can pass, shoot, score, and defend at an elite level. While Magic and Bird were not lockdown defenders by nature, they had size. Jordan is by far the best player on the team and will prove that by dominating the series from Game 1. A prime Michael Jordan is almost inhuman, and no player will ever come close to what the GOAT can do on the floor.
Barkley plays larger than he is, and will not waste time outside the paint. “The Dream” is fittingly the best possible opponent to take advantage of Shaq’s size because his “Dream Shake” and footwork could cause Shaq trouble in the paint. By using a mix of passing, scoring, and shooting from their perimeter players and perfect interior offense from their bigs; this team literally has zero weaknesses.
2003 All-NBA First Team Advantages
The perimeter scoring and paint defense is ridiculous. Bryant and McGrady are a much better scoring pair than Magic and Jordan, mainly because Johnson looks to pass almost every time. McGrady and Bryant will take advantage of Magic at times, and their offense will be a big problem. Otherwise, expect the bigs down low to take advantage because Duncan is arguably the smartest power forward to have ever played the game.
Duncan’s passing in the post alongside the most dominant physical force in NBA history (outside of Wilt Chamberlain) means the 1988 lineup will constantly face a threat every time down the floor. The 2003 lineup does not have a perfect mix of talent like the 1988 lineup does, but they have a ton of smart players who are explosive and large enough to be a threat.
Conclusion: Who Wins?
While the 1988 lineup has no weaknesses, the 2003 lineup might have one. Kevin Garnett is a natural power forward who loves the mid-range jump shot, but playing in this lineup means he has to get away from his comfort zone. Playing near the basket means Duncan and Shaq do not have room to operate, and the genius 1988 lineup can take advantage of that. Garnett will adjust and use his defensive skills and mid-range game to be effective, but he is the one player who will not be at his best.
With that weakness, the edge goes to the 1988 lineup. There is no stopping a prime Michael Jordan when he has Magic and Bird beside him, no matter who is across from him. Magic and Bird are the ultimate leaders and competitors and will have no problem playing off the greatest of all time. Shaq and Hakeem will go toe-to-toe, but the latter’s skill in the post will frustrate the big man at times. That means Shaq will, unfortunately, find himself in a bit of foul trouble throughout the series, despite having monster performances on the stat sheet. McGrady and Duncan hold their own, but the 1988 lineup is beyond perfection.
The 1988 lineup takes the first 2 games before the 2003 lineup comes back to take Game 3 thanks to Kobe and Shaq. The 1988 lineup takes Game 4 thanks to a 40-point performance from Michael Jordan, while the 2003 lineup wins a nail-biter as McGrady hits a go-ahead bucket with 1 second left on the clock. Never to be outdone and kickstarting his legacy of never playing in a Game 7, Jordan would will his team to a 20-point victory in Game 6 to close the series. Game 6 is the best game that the 1988 lineup plays, with each player contributing in their best way. The 2003 team simply cannot keep up, losing in a 20-point blowout. It will be hard to bet against a prime Jordan with 4 Hall of Famers beside him, which is why a Game 7 won’t even be needed.
Result: 1988 All-NBA First Team vs. 2003 All-NBA First Team 4-2
Finals MVP: Michael Jordan