This is the time of year when America’s attention turns to arguably the greatest athletes in the world competing for the NBA title using their seemingly superhuman blend of size, speed, strength, and grace. Meanwhile, the rest of the globe is transfixed by the conclusion of European football (“soccer”) season, particularly the Champions League, the final of which is the equivalent of the Super Bowl for the billions who believe football should be played with feet. With these simultaneous sports climaxes come the annual barroom debate over which athletes of each sport could play the other.
Because soccer doesn’t accommodate tall players except as strikers or central defenders — and even those are only shooting-guard size — it’s not possible to compose a viable basketball team of Champions League footballers. As such, the argument turns to which basketball players possess the rare combination of body type, athleticism, mental focus, and vision necessary to play soccer at the highest level (if hypothetically plucked from their families as pre-teens and raised in European football academies, a la Lionel Messi and countless others). Instead of shoehorning the best NBA superstars like square pegs into the round holes of a soccer team, the following is a realistic set of ballers in this year’s playoffs possessing the specific traits needed for each position on a football pitch.
(Note: excluded from this list are injured players not expected to return during the playoffs, like Rajon Rondo and Kobe Bryant, and those who haven’t played all season, namely Derrick Rose. Included are players who made the postseason but whose teams have already been eliminated.)
#9, Striker: Russell Westbrook (6’3”, 187 lb.) has all the physical gifts of revolutionary striker Didier Drogba in his prime, along with the direct attacking style and voracious scoring appetite required to lead a forward line in search of goals with the ball as well as on the end of crosses.
#7, Right Wing: Tony Parker (6’2”, 185 lb.), a former soccer player whose incisive cuts and sure finishing around the hoop translate perfectly to attacking from the right touchline in the style of the controversial, ultra-talented Luis Suarez — both creating opportunities for teammates and contributing with goals.
#11, Left Wing: Brandon Jennings (6’1”, 169 lb.) makes the starting lineup not just for his quick first step and attacking instincts, but also because soccer requires left-sided players that are naturally left-footed, which we can infer from him being one of the few southpaws in the playoffs.
#10, Center Midfield: Steve Nash (6’3”, 178 lb.) is the most experienced footballer in the NBA. Every year at his annual NYC “Showdown in Chinatown,” against top European soccer players, Nash displays the kind of vision and technical skills that could fill the void at his beloved Tottenham Hotspur left by Luka Modric’s departure.
#6, Center Midfield: Chris Paul (6’0”, 175 lb.) has the complete package physically, mentally, and as a team leader. His skills would make him the vital centerpiece of any winning eleven, pulling the strings on attack and man-marking on defense like a hybrid of the superbly deft passer Andrea Pirlo and physically prototypical defender Michael Essien.
#8, Center Midfield: Ty Lawson (5’11”, 195 lb.) is probably the fastest player in the NBA and strong enough to hold his own in traffic. At the same time, he’s focused enough on defending and passing to complement Paul in dominating possession in the middle third of the pitch and further forward.
#2, Right Back: Eric Bledsoe (6’1”, 194 lb.) has the prototypical fullback-of-the-future build and athleticism of Micah Richards, combining the strength to muscle smaller players off the ball, the speed to get up and down the wing, and the defensive mindset to prevent anyone getting between him and his own goal.
#4, Center Back: Tony Allen (6’4”, 213 lb.) has the size, muscle and single-minded defensive tenacity to be this team’s Nemanja Vidic, inspiring fear in opposition attackers while keeping the box clear of threats on the pitch and in the air, the same way he protects the Grizzlies’ lane against the NBA’s best perimeter players.
#5, Center Back: Avery Bradley (6’2”, 180 lb.) is the perfect partner to Allen, able to corral attacking players into ineffective positions as part of a team defensive scheme and then transition possession safely from the back before playing it to more creative players in the middle third.
#3, Left Back: Mike Conley (6’1”, 185 lb.) is the only other lefty in the playoffs small enough to play as a fullback aside from Jennings and by far the better defender of the two, while still offering the pace to make overlapping attacking runs on the left touchline a la Patrice Evra. If Jennings passes to him, of course.
#1, Goalkeeper: Dwyane Wade (6’4”, 220 lb.) has the wingspan, agility, and kamikaze body-sacrificing intensity to go and get the ball regardless of the risk involved or how far-ranging the cross into his box or shot on his goal happens to be. All the while, he would provide the vocal leadership to marshal his back line into shape.
The Bench of Honorable Mentions: James Harden (Striker), Steph Curry (Winger), Deron Williams (Center Midfield), Jeremy Lin (Center Midfield), Nate Robinson (Fullback), Andre Iguodala (Center Back), Iman Shumpert (Goalkeeper).
Manager: Phil Jackson is the only NBA coach who, if he were a football manager, could handle a team containing this many stars and huge egos. Jose Mourinho, having managed teams of superstars to championships at Chelsea and Real Madrid, is Jackson’s football doppelganger; unfortunately, Mourinho is still employed with the Spanish giants for the remainder of the season, so he can’t take the job.
Team Name: F.C. Silver Stern (named for the future and current overlord of the squad’s talent)
Home Stadium: Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, home of the Seahawks and Sounders, because Seattle is the city that both loves soccer and misses basketball more than any other in the country.
How would this hypothetical team of alternate-universe ballers-turned-footballers fare in this year’s Champions League season?
Let’s assume F.C. Silver Stern replace the most disappointing team in this year’s competition: last year’s champion, Chelsea, which didn’t even make it out of the group stage. And let’s assume that the extraordinary athletic talent of Silver Stern, Phil’s calm managerial hand, and massive home-field advantage in Seattle would carry them safely through to the knockout round as a group winner. The first home and away tie would go smoothly enough, if only because the visiting team would struggle to get a goal against Silver Stern’s back five after an incredibly long flight to Seattle, ensuring a clean sheet at home. Because attacking talent like Westbrook, Parker, Nash, and Paul should manufacture at least one away goal against a second-place team from one of the other groups, F.C. Silver Stern would move on.
But by the quarterfinals, the wheels would come off. The Zen Master, in a bid to make his players comfortable in Europe prior to the away leg, would foolishly repeat Sven Goran Eriksson’s mistake at the 2006 World Cup team by allowing the team to bring along their wives and girlfriends (“WAGs”) for the trip. Given the assortment of glamour models, actresses, and fashion bloggers dating the players, a WAG shopping trip, possibly in the context of filming one or more of their reality shows, would inevitably result in drama that then spills over to the pitch and completely destroys the team’s chemistry. (European football has a proud tradition of this, so the Americans are just trying to fit in.) And the resulting deficit from the away leg would be too much to overcome on the return match in Seattle, where even the singing hordes of soccer fans who desperately wish their players were on a basketball court instead would not embolden F.C. Silver Stern’s hopes enough to avoid crashing out of the tournament in the round of 8.