NBA Volleyball All-Stars

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A recent question appeared on the Volleyball Coaches and Trainers Facebook page asking:

You were assigned the task of recruiting 7 NBA players who never played vball…past or present…to train for 2 years and put up against team USA. Who would you take? What position would they play? Add an 8th man as the spark off the bench.

As it happens, I have thought about this question quite a bit, with the caveat that I don’t actually know that much about the NBA except what I learnt from Bill Simmons.

Like in every other activity, you need some guiding principles before you begin.  The first principle is to recognise the unique psychological requirements for each position and fit players to the those requirements.  The second principle is, to build a team the players must be complementary.  A team isn’t about choosing the best six of anything, but rather the six that fit best together.

The first selection issue that must be solved is what to do with Jordan.  The greatest player / competitor / winner in NBA history must be the first starter, but in which position?  As it happens, this is the easiest question to answer.  If ever in history there was a human being born to be an opposite it is Michael Jordan.  He can score fast balls, high balls, medium balls and when you absolutely have to score a point, you know he is clutch.   He would be more than comfortable with the responsibility of being the main scorer.  Now we have to fit the guys around him.

The recievers are the most difficult position to fill, as it is such a technical position and there are no basketball skills that you can confidently project to service reception.  I will make the assumption that ball handlers would be able to best make the transition.  The perfect receiver would be Kobe Bryant.  Except that he would be thinking the whole time that he should be opposite and would try to outdo Jordan during games.  We can’t have that in a functioning team.  For a primary receiver, Larry Bird.  He would fit himself into the group, pass perfectly and you could use him as a smaller or greater part of the offence, depending on need.  Plus he would be the greatest chiseler (block-out spiker) ever.  Luckily, because he can’t jump.  For the offensive outside, Lebron James.  He can do everything, and like Bird would be happy to do what was needed at a particular time.

As middles you need super athletic, defence minded, team-first players.  A lot of bigger guys, like Shaq just wouldn’t work athletically here, plus Shaq would pout if he didn’t get enough sets.  The obvious choices are Scottie Pippen and Kevin Garnett.  There is no question in my mind that Pippen would have been the greatest middle blocker of all time.  Unless Garnett was.  They would be happy with a couple of sets per set, and would organise the block and defence perfectly.

The libero in volleyball is the player who is almost never in the limelight.  By nature that excludes almost every single NBA player in history.  Except John Stockton.  Even as a member of the most hyped team of all time, he managed to stay out of the limelight (check this video).  Plus he checks the ‘ball handler’ box that we decided upon for the receivers.

That leaves the player who has to organise these guys and keep them, more or less, happy.  As Connor MacLeod says, there can be only one: Magic Johnson.  Only Magic could be genuinely happy setting the other guys.  Bird could do it too, but I feel like he would be a better spiker than Magic, and Magic needs the limelight more.

So my starters… Magic – Jordan, Bird – James, Pippen – Garnett, Stockton (lib)

For fun, lets fill out the bench.

Isiah Thomas would be a great second setter.  Except Jordan would refuse play with him.  So, Steve Nash.  Third middle, on the parameters set out above, Bill Russell.  If I wanted a fourth for practice, Dennis Rodman.  You would never need to set him and he would love playing against Jordan every day.  For my second opposite, I like a big, physical guy, someone like Shaq or Wilt.  I choose Shaq.  Even the fat Shaq would be good, a la Ganev.  For the backup receivers, Grant Hill and Allen Iverson.  Hill has all the skills and can fit in with anyone and Iverson would be great off the bench.  He would play a super fast ball outside and might be the greatest pipe hitter ever.  I’ll take a second libero for practice. Stephen Curry.  For no particular reason.

So the final team…

Setters – Johnson, Nash

Opposites – Jordan, O’Neal

Receivers – Bird, James, Iverson, Hill

Middles – Pippen, Garnett, Russell (Rodman)

Libero – Stockton (Curry)

Some fun things that would happen in the preparation… Bird tooling Shaq, every single time, while Shaq gets madder and madder and Bird just laughs.  Jordan screaming at Iverson all day for not practicing hard, and Iverson not caring.  Lebron hitting over Nash as if Nash wasn’t even there.  Stockton digging Shaq on the line.  The trash talk, oh, the trash talk.  Jordan demanding to play against James so he had more of a challenge at the net.  Bryant sitting in the stands not so quietly fuming.  Isiah sitting next to him smiling and pretending not to care.

And to return to the original question… I think volleyball is really difficult to master and two years wouldn’t be enough.  USA men’s team beats NBA Volleyball All-Stars 3-1.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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  1. You forgot “The Mailman”, Karl Malone. His build and his athleticism and quickness. Karl at the pins would be deadly.


    1. Didn’t forget. With those arms he would never be able to make a platform. At opposite or middle he has no chance with the other guys.


  2. Nice team – though I would have Nash setting ahead of Magic.

    One other thing though. After 2 years USA would smash the NBA All-Stars. Basketball is played predominantly above the waist so it will be very difficult to become competent at any skills requiring judgement and movement below the waist. I just don’t see anyone learning to pass in two years – no matter how talented an athlete.

    On that note – I’d also pick Wilt, because he can already play the game.


    1. Wilt could only play opposite and not ahead of Jordan. You can swap him for Shaq, except then you miss the Bird tormenting in practice.


  3. I think Allen Iverson’s height at 1.83m would make it hard for him to make the team as a receiver. I agree with most of those selections and have thought about this too, only from the point of view of what would USA’s men’s team look like if they had the BEST current athletes available? Other players I considered:
    – Could Lebron be a better opposite?
    – Could Tim Duncan or Dwight Howard beat out any of the guys in middle?
    – I also looked at NFL players too. Peyton Manning would be my quarterback


    1. I think I may have jumped the gun on Iverson. I’m not sure what I was thinking. His height wouldn’t be a problem. He can jump and would be really fast. I think Duncan might be a better choice for outsides. To your other questions…
      – I do not think any person who ever lived would be a better opposite than Jordan could have been. A few people on the facebook page picked Lebron as opposite and Jordan as outside. I am completely perplexed by this. Jordan is the perfect opposite from mentality through to athleticism and back again. Name one person in human history you would rather have hit a high ball for your life?
      – I like the idea of a someone who could defend further from the basket as a middle blocker, because of the lateral movement aspect. I don’t think centres move that well. Although I could be wrong. I don’t think Howard is tough enough to beat out Pippen or Garnett. And as I mentioned about, I feel like Duncan might be a receiver.
      – Peyton would be a setter.
      – But seriously, Jordan is opposite. All other positions are up for grabs.


      1. Adjusting for training …
        An actual volleyballer… I would probably go with someone like Bernardi or Zorzi.


  4. Shaq is too heavy for any position. The same for the mailman. MB: Garnett, Duncan, Tyson Chandler, Kareem (all long, athletic and in their prime fast – for their size). Outside: Jordan, Bird, Lebron, Kobe (this teams wins with outsider ;-); Opposite: Blake Griffin (just because he is so brutal), Wilt can score in every situation); Setter: Magic, Jason Kidd, Libero: Rondo, Curry (both because of defense and ballhandling)


      1. You don’t ‘have’ to be anything. There are big guys and fast guys. Plus Jordan had some decent hops.


      2. If opposites have to be 6-10 then I feel sorry for Brazil’s Wallace, poor guy is only 6-6, he obviously can’t play Opposite. What? 😀


  5. Hmm, Mark. Looking at your (real) team i would say strong attackers are most important. Does not matter if they are opposite or outside.. If you got both (like u do in Berlin) it is almost ideal..


  6. Vince Carter was the star of his high school volleyball team. He received some sort of player of the year honors in Florida. Current NBA player Chase Budinger also played in high school. There was talk of Jud Buechler was rumored to use his fifth year of college eligibility to play volleyball at UCLA, but was drafted and played basketball professionally instead. Don’t know how good Jud and Chase were, but they already have a base skill level.


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