Ranking teams by peak value.
It started innocently enough with a tweet from Insider's Amin Elhassan: "If everyone on every roster were in their prime, would the Nets be the best team in the NBA?" It's a fun question, and one my wins above replacement rating (WARP) can help answer.
For every player, I found their "prime" season -- their best by WARP, including 2013-14 prorated to a full 82 games -- and took the top 12 players on each team as their score, since we don't really care about how good the very end of the bench was in its prime. Full rankings follow at the end, but let's count down the top 10.
10. Denver Nuggets (79.2 WARP)
Befitting their old reputation as star-less contenders, the Nuggets edge out the Houston Rockets and their duo of James Harden (15.1) and Dwight Howard (20.5) for the last spot in the top 10, despite not having a single All-Star on the roster. Andre Miller's spectacular 2001-02 season (15.8 WARP), one of the best ever by an All-Star snub, is one reason. Beyond that, Denver does have admirable depth, with 12 players who have posted at least 2.7 WARP in a season.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder (82.5 WARP)
The issue with using stats to answer the question is that they can't look forward as easily as they can backward. More than any other team, the Thunder are hurt by this limitation. In time, Reggie Jackson (4.7) and Jeremy Lamb (4.0) will surely exceed their current production, but for now, Oklahoma City's best "prime" player after the Kevin Durant (23.6) -- Russell Westbrook (16.4) -- Serge Ibaka (10.3) troika is Derek Fisher (5.5 WARP in 2005-06).
8. Detroit Pistons (84.4 WARP)
While the Pistons owe much of their lofty ranking to veteran Chauncey Billups, who is far from the prime that saw him post 18.2 WARP in 2005-06, this figure still reflects how disappointing Detroit has been this season. The Pistons' other four starters should be in or very near their prime, yet the team has lost its last six games by an average of nearly 18 points per game. Yikes.
7. New York Knicks (84.6 WARP)
In terms of All-NBA and All-Star appearances on the roster, the Knicks rank an impressive sixth. Too many of those belong to Amar'e Stoudemire (16.0 WARP in prime) and Metta World Peace (9.7), who have been rendered limited by knee injuries, making New York one of the best examples of a team that would have been far better five years ago.
6. Los Angeles Lakers (86.6 WARP)
You'll recall that the Lakers were a popular answer to this question a year ago, when their starting lineup had combined for an incredible 32 All-NBA appearances. Without Dwight Howard, World Peace and reserve Antawn Jamison, this year's roster is slightly less star-studded. And the Lakers' two most accomplished players, Kobe Bryant (20.4) and Steve Nash (17.
, have played six games apiece, making this exercise a total hypothetical.
5. Los Angeles Clippers (89.0 WARP)
Of the teams at the top of the list, the Clippers are closest to prime production. The exception is Jamison (10.3 WARP), now a below-replacement reserve. Aside from him, Jamal Crawford (7.6 WARP in 2003-04) is the only other key player more than five years removed from his best season by WARP. Stars Chris Paul (25.6) and Blake Griffin (13.1) are at or near the top of their games.
4. San Antonio Spurs (92.1 WARP)
The Spurs would surely welcome the chance to battle opponents with prime Tim Duncan (23.4 WARP), Manu Ginobili (15.4) and Tony Parker (10.3). However, they suffer by this method from not having any other All-Stars on the roster. Their fourth-best player in terms of prime production is actually Boris Diaw (7.5), thanks to his impressive 2005-06 season in Phoenix, though Kawhi Leonard (6.
will surely eventually have something to say about that.
3. Dallas Mavericks (105.5 WARP)
Watching Dirk Nowitzki (19.7), Shawn Marion (19.2) and Vince Carter (16.5) in their primes with Rick Carlisle as their coach would have been incredibly entertaining. And don't forget that the Mavericks also get the benefit of an All-Star Devin Harris, from his 2008-09 season in New Jersey. A prime Dallas squad could score with anyone, though it would probably struggle at the defensive end of the floor.
The top two
That leaves us with the consensus top two teams left, who happen to face off Friday on ESPN ...
2. Miami Heat (124.9 WARP);
1. Brooklyn Nets (125.8 WARP)
If Friday's game was being contested by players in their primes (and, in the case of Brook Lopez, healthy), let's look at the rotations the two teams could throw out.
Prime Heat vs Nets
Player WARP Year Player WARP Year
Kevin Garnett 26.3 2004 LeBron James 26.9 2009
Andrei Kirilenko 19.9 2004 Dwyane Wade 23.8 2009
Paul Pierce 18.4 2002 Ray Allen 17.8 2001
Deron Williams 13.4 2010 Chris Bosh 12.4 2010
Jason Terry 12.7 2002 Rashard Lewis 11.1 2008
Brook Lopez 10.2 2013 Shane Battier 7.6 2006
Joe Johnson 9.1 2009 Chris Andersen 6.9 2009
Andray Blatche 6.5 2013 Mario Chalmers 6.1 2009
The Nets are slightly deeper, with six All-Stars -- not counting Jason Terry, who easily could have made it in his prime -- to Miami's five. And they have an MVP of their own in Kevin Garnett, who was not far off LeBron James' rarified air back in 2003-04. Lastly, Brooklyn benefits from Kirilenko's 2003-04 season. Since his game fell off shortly thereafter, it's easy to forget how good a young Kirilenko was. In 2003-04, he led a post-John Stockton/Karl Malone Utah team without another 1,000-point scorer to an improbable 42-40 record.
At the same time, Miami improves as well. Not only would Dwyane Wade's knee problems disappear, the Heat could throw out an All-NBA Ray Allen and an All-Star Rashard Lewis as part of a lethal smallball lineup that the Nets would struggle to defend with both Garnett and Lopez on the floor.
Back in reality, Brooklyn will be without Williams and Lopez tonight because of injuries, and Garnett, Kirilenko, Pierce and Terry will all be limited to some extent or another. That's the trouble with loading up on big names who are no longer near their primes. Injuries and minute restrictions can force a veteran team deep into its bench. The Nets thought they had that covered, but so far they've been unable to make up for Garnett's sudden decline and a season-ending injury to Lopez, one of their younger players.
If the story sounds familiar, it's because something similar happened to last season's Lakers, who would have ranked third on this list. That doesn't necessarily mean any "superteam" is destined to fail, especially if the stars are in their early 30s rather than their late 30s, but it does suggest caution is in order with veterans ... unless your general manager has a time machine that can put everyone in their prime.
Complete prime WARP rankings
Team WARP All-NBA All-Star Best Player WARP Year
Brooklyn 125.8 16 36 Kevin Garnett 26.3 2004
Miami 124.9 20 38 LeBron James 26.9 2009
Dallas 105.5 16 24 Dirk Nowitzki 19.7 2003
L.A. Clippers 89.0 7 11 Chris Paul 25.6 2009
San Antonio 92.1 19 21 Tim Duncan 23.4 2002
L.A. Lakers 86.6 25 28 Kobe Bryant 20.4 2003
New York 84.6 12 14 Amar'e Stoudemire 16.0 2008
Detroit 84.4 3 5 Chauncey Billups 18.2 2006
Oklahoma City 82.5 7 7 Kevin Durant 23.6 2014
Denver 79.2 0 0 Andre Miller 15.8 2002
Houston 79.0 8 8 Dwight Howard 20.5 2011
Atlanta 76.3 2 4 Elton Brand 18.9 2006
Golden State 75.6 5 9 Stephen Curry 16.8 2014
Memphis 73.3 2 3 Zach Randolph 12.2 2011
Chicago 73.0 2 6 Derrick Rose 16.6 2011
Indiana 71.0 1 5 Paul George 17.2 2014
Portland 67.3 1 2 Damian Lillard 11.7 2014
New Orleans 66.5 0 1 Anthony Davis 14.5 2014
Phoenix 65.0 0 0 Emeka Okafor 10.0 2007
Milwaukee 61.9 0 2 Ersan Ilyasova 9.4 2012
Minnesota 60.5 1 2 Kevin Love 21.9 2014
Washington 57.5 0 0 John Wall 11.9 2014
Toronto 57.0 0 0 Kyle Lowry 14.8 2014
Utah 56.6 0 0 Richard Jefferson 10.1 2006
Boston 55.3 1 5 Rajon Rondo 13.6 2010
Sacramento 54.5 0 0 DeMarcus Cousins 16.0 2014
Charlotte 53.9 0 0 Al Jefferson 11.0 2008
Cleveland 37.5 0 1 Kyrie Irving 9.7 2014
Philadelphia 35.5 0 0 Jason Richardson 10.6 2008
Orlando 31.7 0 1 Arron Afflalo 8.3 2014