THE CLOSEST thing nowadays to the perfect NBA team? Easy, the defending champion Spurs, whose mix of selfless stars and steady role players, youthful exuberance and veteran savvy--and a wisely managed payroll--is the NBA's gold standard. My orders were simple: to construct a team that could conquer San Antonio. The roster would, like the Spurs', place a premium on teamwork and chemistry. I could choose talent from any team except San Antonio, but my payroll couldn't exceed the luxury-tax threshold of $61.7 million. Initially I made the mistake most of us would: I greedily harvested superstars, from Shaq to Kevin Garnett to Jason Kidd, leaving me $75 million over the tax. ¬∂ So I enlisted the help of one of the league's top general managers, who offered to be my adviser in return for anonymity. First, he talked me out of building my team around Shaq, who would be a worthy combatant for Tim Duncan but whose $20 million salary would devour one third of my payroll. Instead the G.M. suggested the fresh (cheaper) legs of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. "Now we surround them with some older guys," said the G.M., who endorsed my suggestion to dump Garnett in favor of the more complementary Rasheed Wallace at a savings of $7.7 million. Kidd's salary of $16.4 million was also judged unwise with MVP Steve Nash available for $9.6 million. "This isn't easy," admitted the G.M. as he scoured NBA rosters for low-cost shooters and defenders who would embrace secondary roles. ¬∂ In the end we produced the following roster. "You have players with ability, their salaries fit," said the G.M. "The only thing you could use is a little more shooting." Even in a perfect world, you can't have everything.
PG STEVE NASH
A team like this must be fun to watch. (Why go to all this trouble to re-create, say, the '93-94 Knicks?) Nash is the perfect quarterback to push the tempo, break down defenses with clever penetration, and keep everybody happy by distributing evenly and plentifully. The perfect answer to Tony Parker.
SG DWYANE WADE
You can't go wrong picking a player with his rare combination of hops, skill, killer instinct and humility--especially at his salary. Consider him a silkier, smaller version of Manu Ginobili. Wade's scoring average may plummet into the low teens on this team, but you won't hear a peep out of him.
C YAO MING
Amaré Stoudemire would've been a terrific adversary for Tim Duncan, but knee surgery will shelve the Suns' big man until February. The 7'6" Yao provides much-needed low-post scoring. Destined to become the league's best-passing center, he ensures that the half-court offense is never stagnant.
SF LEBRON JAMES
LeBron plays to his full potential with this bunch, creating for others like Magic while attacking the rim against spread defenses like Michael. To keep up with his teammates, James is forced to confront his only shortcoming: defense. His backup, Ron Artest, will get him up to speed in practice.
PF RASHEED WALLACE
Mr. T may be a lightning rod for referees and enemy fans, but his teammates love him. His versatility at both ends of the floor makes for more favorable matchups up front. He doesn't care how many points he scores, and no big man has played better defense on Duncan over the last half-dozen years.
C NENAD KRSTIC
With three years left on his rookie contract, Krstic is the best value among centers. The 7-footer averaged 18.3 points in the Nets' opening-round playoff loss to Shaq and the Heat. He could be especially important in the postseason, coming off the bench to score in the half-court on those (rare) nights when the transition game isn't working.
C-PF ANTONIO MCDYESS
The 31-year-old McDyess is the type of veteran (see Finley, Michael) that the Spurs covet: high on talent, low on maintenance and salary. Despite a painful run of knee injuries, he's still rugged enough to defend fours and fives, he can score in the post, and he accepts any role as long as he's contending for titles.
PF DWIGHT HOWARD
Only 19, he already blocks shots and rebounds like a veteran. He still needs to improve with his back to the basket, but he is destined to become a dominant player--a big man who can score in transition and make plays in the post with equal skill. His talent, temperament and body type suggest the second coming of Duncan.
SF RON ARTEST
Deep down he's a team player who will happily accept coming off the bench as long as the starters are playing hard and the club is winning. On this squad he becomes a souped-up version of Bruce Bowen, able to clamp down on Ginobili while consistently scoring in double figures. Artest is, for all his problems, the classic Pat Riley player.
SG ERIC PIATKOWSKI
The younger Kyle Korver (six years at $25 million) is a good option as a shooter off the bench, but the 12-year veteran Piatkowski is the better value. He's a career 40.1% marksman from beyond the three-point arc--his instant offense recalls that of Steve Kerr during the Bulls' run of titles--and he will accept any role. To wit: He stayed with the Clippers for nine seasons.
PG CHAUNCEY BILLUPS
Nobody else on this squad can match his fearlessness in crunch time (not that there will be many close games with this group). He's cocky enough to come off the bench, demand the ball and beat the buzzer with a three-pointer. The 2004 Finals MVP with the Pistons, Billups is the perfect answer to Robert Horry, a.k.a. Big Shot Bob.
PG LUKE RIDNOUR
Entering his third season, this runner-and-gunner has the look of a young Nash. He needs to improve his jump shot, but he's a magical ball handler who makes brilliant decisions in the open court. For a 24-year-old, Ridnour also has exceptional leadership skills. His teammates will barely notice that Nash has left the floor.
"There are only two guys I'd trust to walk the fine line with a team this talented and deep," says the G.M. advising SI, "and one of them is with the Spurs." With Gregg Popovich off-limits, Riley will have to be talked out of retirement, which shouldn't be too hard; friends say he's eager to coach again. But shouldn't Phil Jackson be considered? "You have to be careful about ego," warns the G.M. "With a team like this, it can't be about the coach."
Gilbert Arenas, anyone? Raja Bell? NBA Insider Chris Mannix picks his perfect team at SI.com/basketball.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (NASH) ; JOHN BIEVER (WADE); BILL BAPTIST/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (MING); MANNY MILLAN (JAMES); BOB ROSATO (WALLACE) MANNY MILLAN (KRSTIC, ARTEST, RIDNOUR); ISSAC BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (MCDYESS); GLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (HOWARD); VICTOR BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (PIATKOWSKI); JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BILLUPS); BILL FRAKES (RILEY)
PETRIFIED COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES (CHALKBOARD BACKGROUND)