ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM WAITO
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM WAITO
The 1986 Fleer Basketball Card Set was a once-in-a-lifetime fluke. Topps ceased production of basketball cards in 1982, and none of the major card companies made basketball cards in the intervening years — as a result, the Fleer set released in 1986 ended up featuring the de facto rookie cards for players who entered the NBA from the 81-82 season through 85-86.
Those five years yielded a bounty of stars pretty much unparalleled in any five-year stretch in the history of the league. Many of these players have gone down as some of the all-time greats of the game. Isiah Thomas. “Sir” Charles Barkley. Karl “The Mailman” Malone and his running mate John Stockton. Dominique “The Human Highlight Film” Wilkins. Clyde “the Glide” Drexler. Patrick Ewing. And of course His Airness, Michael Jordan.
Just how great was the 1986 Fleer Rookie Class? To answer this question, we decided to follow the time-honored tradition of hypothetical barroom sports arguments, create a hypothetical team from the ‘86 Fleer rookies, and hypothetically pit it against the greatest basketball teams of all time. Here’s how it went down.
The ‘86 Fleer rookie class was so stacked that before we could even pit them against other great teams, we first had to decide who would even make our hypothetical twelve-man roster.
Looking at the list of all the rookies in the set, there were eight absolute shoe-ins. Roughly in order of importance:
Michael Jordan, Akeem Olajuwon (later Hakeem), Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton
All of these players were first-ballot Hall of Famers. The first four won MVP awards. Thomas was the best player on a back-to-back championship team. Ewing led the always-competitive Knicks for the better part of fifteen years. Wilkins was the second greatest scorer of the 80s after Jordan. Drexler was the best player on a Blazers team that made two finals and Olajuwon’s running-mate for the ‘95 championship. Stockton has a bazillion more assists than anyone else in NBA history. Legends, all of them.
Examining the list of other ‘86 Fleer Rookies, two additional names immediately jumped out as almost certain additions:
Chris Mullin: The latter half of his career he was a solid role player, but people forget that he was a member of the Dream Team and that from ‘88 to ‘93 Mully averaged 26, 6, and 4 for some really fun Warriors teams.
Joe Dumars: A lock-down defender for those great Pistons teams and Finals MVP in the ‘89 series against the Lakers.
The final spot was the toughest. I narrowed down the pool to these seven players:
Mark Aguirre (3x All-Star, 2x champion), Rolando Blackman (4x All-Star), Tom Chambers (4x All-Star, 2x All-NBA), Terry Cummings (2x All-Star, 2x All-NBA ‘83 ROY), Lafayette Lever (2x All-Star, 1x All-NBA, triple double machine), Xavier Mcdaniel (1x All-Star, purveyor of a million intimidating stares), Alvin Robertson (4x All-Star, 6x All-Defense, ‘86 DPOY)
Ultimately, I decided on Chambers, partially because he had one of the strongest resumes, partially because his mix of size and outside shooting would make him particularly valuable to my hypothetical ‘86 Fleer Rookies, and partially because he dished out one of the nastiest slams in the history of the league, which was later immortalized in the Lakers vs. Celtics video game.
So here’s how my ‘86 Fleer Rookies roster looks:
Starting Lineup: Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Karl Malone, Akeem Olajuwon
Reserves: Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Joe Dumars, Tom Chambers
With my roster set, it was then time to seek out some of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled.
I think most serious students of the game would cite three historical teams as having a case for being the greatest teams in NBA history.
Starting Lineup: Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Larry Bird, Kevin Mchale, Robert Parish
Key Reserves: Jerry Sichting, Bill Walton, Scott Wedman
Notes: 67-15 Regular Season (including 40-1 at home); 15-3 Playoffs; Larry Bird’s greatest Celtics team; Outscored opponents by an average of almost 10 pts/ game; the 80s Celtics at their absolute peak
Starting Lineup: Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley
Key Reserves: Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington
Notes: 72-10 Regular Season; 15-3 Playoffs; Record best win percentage for any team in NBA history; Outscored opponents by more than 12 pts/ game; Jordan’s first full season back from retirement number one, the 95-96 Bulls were on a mission to show they were still the best and they didn’t disappoint
Starting Lineup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia
Key Reserves: Andre Iguodola, Shaun Livingston, David West
Notes: 67-15 Regular Season; 16-1 Playoffs; Outscored opponents by over 11 pts/ game; take the 73-9 Warriors from the year before, add an all timer in Kevin Durant and you get this much-hated juggernaut of a team
Additionally, the 1992 Dream Team, while an Olympic team not an NBA team, is generally thought to be the greatest team ever assembled.
Roster: Michel Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler, Christian Laettner
Notes: The first time NBA pros were allowed in the Olympics, the Dream Team decimated its competition by an average of 43.8 pts/ game and spread a love of basketball around the world
With the competition set, it was time for some hypothetical matchups.
7 game series
The Competition (i.e. not the Fleer team) always has homecourt advantage (to make things interesting)
Rules (vis-a-vis zone defense, etc.) follow the era of whoever is at home
Assume the version of the players we get on the ‘86 Fleer Rookies is the “average” version of that player. For instance, if you look at, say, Charles Barkley, don’t assume you get him in 92-93 (his MVP peak), but rather that you get some median version of Barkley. This won’t really come into play, but I did want to clarify how I was thinking about this.
How it would go down:
These same ‘86 Celtics actually swept Jordan and the Bulls out of the first round of the playoffs in a series where Jordan famously dropped a playoff-record 63 points and Bird exclaimed of Jordan, “It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.” However, Jordan’s best teammates on those Bulls teams were Orlando Woolridge and Charles Oakley, not a crew of all-timers, so the results here would be different. These Celtics would have the advantage of chemistry and their vaunted frontline of Bird/ Mchale/ Parish would be able to hold their own against the Fleer Rookies, but the backcourt of MJ and Stockton/ Thomas would be too much, and things would get even worse when the Celtic bench faced off against wave after wave of great players. The Celtics would take one of the first two games in front of the Boston crowd, but then would lose the next three, including a nail-biter game five that goes down to the wire.
‘86 Fleer Rookies in a competitive 5 games.
How it would go down:
This is an interesting matchup because Fleer Jordan would be going head-to-head with Bulls Jordan and they would largely play each other to a standstill. Bulls Jordan would have the slight advantage in that he would be able to keep his rhythm going, not having to share as much playing time with the deep Fleer bench. The other advantage the Bulls would have would be at small forward where a peak Pippen would slow down both Dominique and Mullin. In turn, Rodman would hold his own against whoever the Fleer Rookies threw at him at the power forward spot. Where things would break down though is at center. Akeem and Patrick Ewing would take turns destroying Luc Longley down low. Eventually the Bulls would be forced to double team opening up scoring opportunities for the rest of the Fleer team. In game 3 Olajuwon would notch a 20/ 15/ 12 triple double in a blowout. The Bulls would take one game on the back of a herculean performance by their Jordan, but most of the games wouldn’t be close.
‘86 Fleer Rookies in a 5-game beatdown
How it would go down:
The ‘17 Warriors were one of the most hated teams of all time. They were also one of the best. On the heels of an historic (and disappointing) season where they broke the aforementioned ‘96 Bulls’ regular season win total but then lost in the finals to the Cavs, the Warriors pulled off the unthinkable by signing arguably the second best player in the league, Kevin Durant. The result was an unstoppable offensive machine that brought together two of the greatest shooters to ever play in Curry and Thompson with one of the best offensive players of a generation in Durant. In game 1 of our hypothetical series, the Fleer team, unaccustomed to seeing such an onslaught of outside shooting, would get blown out of the water. They’d make game 2 more competitive, but the three-point barrages of the Warriors would prove too much to overcome. It would only be after their second loss, that the Fleer team would hold a players only meeting during which Fleer MJ would berate his teammates saying: “We have to get out on those m*****f******!”
In the ensuing games, Jordan would personally guard whichever of the splash brothers was having the best night. On offense, the Fleer team would relentlessly pound the ball inside to Akeem and Karl Malone in order to get Durant into foul trouble. The Fleer team wouldn’t be totally successful at slowing down the Warriors, but the difference would be their bench, led by a frontline of Mullin, Barkley and Ewing.
‘86 Fleer Rookies in a very close 6 games
How it would go down:
The fascinating thing about this matchup is that nearly two thirds of the players on both teams were the same. MJ, Barkley, Malone, Stockton, Ewing, Mullin, and Drexler were on both rosters, so in order to determine how their series would go down, you really have to look at the players not on both rosters.
Fleer Rookies: Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Akeem, Dominique Wilkins, Tom Chambers
Dream Team: Bird, Magic, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Christian Laettner
On first glance it appears that the Dream Team clearly has the advantage. Bird and Magic are two of the top ten players in the history of the game. HOWEVER, what you have to remember is that by the time the Dream Team came around in ‘92, Magic was already post HIV diagnosis (he’d sat out the season prior to the Barcelona Olympics) and Bird had a bad back and was a shell of his former self. Probably the real advantage the Dream Team would have would be at small forward where Pippen could put the clamps on anyone the Fleer team could field at that position. Additionally the size and playmaking of Magic and Pippen would make it difficult for the Fleer team to play some of their smaller guards like Thomas and Dumars. The one clear advantage the Fleer team would have would be down low (where Akeem proved he was the greatest center of his generation):
Each game would be close. Through three games, the Dream Team would be up 2-1, but in a must-win game 4 the Fleer team would bring Tom Chambers off the bench (having played very little in any of the series up to this point) and his outside shooting at the center position would prove the difference. Bird would come up big (and hobbling) for the Dream Team in game 5, and Barkley’s scoring off the bench would help the Fleer team take game 6. In a nail-biter of a game 7 though, size in the backcourt would be the difference with Magic winning on a soaring hook shot over Isiah reminiscent of his shot against the Celtics in ‘85.
Dream Team in 7 games in OT
So there you have it. Someone finally beats the ‘86 Fleer Rookies. They aren’t the greatest team ever assembled.
But they’re damn close.
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