Wayback Wednesday: The Lost Retro Teams

Bulls vs Blazers in NBA 2K11

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at the retro teams that we’ve lost in NBA 2K.

It’s easy to take the retro teams in NBA 2K for granted. They’ve been a staple of the games since the introduction of The Jordan Challenge back in NBA 2K11, to the point where a lot of gamers no longer consider them bonus content; they’re something we expect to see in the games. There was a time, however, when it didn’t seem likely due to the hurdle of likeness rights. Indeed, a few years before 2K made it a reality, EA Sports made some preliminary steps towards including retro teams in NBA Live 08, ultimately scrapping the idea when they couldn’t license all of the players.

While it does seem like the concept of retro teams is here to stay – and there are plenty of ideas for new ones that could be added – not all of the previously included squads remain in NBA 2K. Over the years, a total of ten retro teams have been cut after being included in at least one game, though four of them would be replaced by a squad from around the same era. Let’s take a look back…way back…

1995 Chicago Bulls

Lost Retro Teams: 1995 Chicago Bulls

We’ll begin with what is perhaps the most disappointing omission: the 1995 Chicago Bulls. Originally included as part of The Jordan Challenge, specifically the Double Nickel game against the New York Knicks, the 1995 Bulls were one of the first retro teams to be cut. They wouldn’t appear in NBA 2K12, as the 1995 New York Knicks were instead used for Patrick Ewing’s NBA’s Greatest challenge, squaring off against Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and the rest of the 1995 Orlando Magic. It made more sense than simply repeating the matchup from NBA 2K11, but it would’ve been nice to keep the ’95 Bulls in NBA 2K12 as an extra.

Obviously, there is no shortage of Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls squads among NBA 2K’s retro teams, with four of their championship teams along with a few from earlier on in MJ’s career accounted for in NBA 2K19. The uniqueness of that ’95 team makes it stands out, though. Apart from being the season of MJ’s first comeback in which he briefly wore number 45, its roster is basically the bridge between the first and second threepeats. Horace Grant is gone, but Dennis Rodman isn’t there yet. Key players like Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, and Toni Kukoc have arrived, but Will Perdue and B.J. Armstrong are still around. It’s an oddball team, and I miss having it in 2K.

1985 Philadelphia 76ers

Lost Retro Teams: 1985 Philadelphia 76ers

One of the strangest choices for NBA’s Greatest was the 1985 Philadelphia 76ers, a team included for Julius Erving’s challenge. It was certainly a notable squad, going 58-24 in the regular season before losing to the Boston Celtics in the Conference Finals, and Dr. J was still a star player. The 1983 squad seemed like a much better choice however, given that they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, and The Doctor was a little closer to his prime years. Several of the key players from the 1983 championship team also played for the 1985 squad, so it would’ve been quite feasible to feature that squad instead.

Doing so would’ve also avoided spotlighting the absence of Charles Barkley, who was a rookie on that 1985 76ers team. Barkley and Visual Concepts remain at an impasse as far as him appearing in the games, so it was always going to be an issue. With 2K also briefly losing the likeness rights for the late Moses Malone in 2016, the ’85 76ers were ultimately removed from the game’s roster of retro teams in NBA 2K17. Malone is now back in the game and appears on the All-Time squads (including Philadelphia), but the ’85 76ers have not been restored, nor does he appear on any other retro teams. It’s still a shame to have lost them, but they were always an unusual choice.

1971 Atlanta Hawks

Lost Retro Teams: 1971 Atlanta Hawks

Another team that was added for NBA’s Greatest, the 1971 Atlanta Hawks were the opponent for Jerry West’s 1971 Los Angeles Lakers. The roster featured eight players in NBA 2K12 including “Pistol” Pete Maravich, but within a few years, real players were outnumbered by placeholders. By the team’s final appearance in NBA 2K18 they were down to just five players, with one of the placeholders actually having a higher Overall Rating than a couple of them. That’s a problem that could’ve been remedied by lowering the ratings of all the placeholder players (or simply not having them to begin with), but it’s also a sign that they’d become a prime candidate for removal.

It’s unfortunate on one hand as the 1971 Hawks were an interesting team to include, especially as there aren’t many pre-three-point era retro teams in NBA 2K to begin with. On the other hand, most basketball gamers in the core age demographic likely don’t have a lot of nostalgia for them, and without a wide variety of opponents from around the same era, they arguably weren’t that fun to play with. They were a decent choice for Jerry West’s challenge; they got Pete Maravich into the game, they have one of the most distinctive jerseys in team history, and they were also moderately successful. Once players had to be dropped, however, they were an easy cut.

1992 Chicago Bulls

The Shrug Game in The Jordan Challenge (NBA 2K11)

When Lutz made the old Champs rosters for NBA Live all those years ago, he had a rule: no back-to-back champions. It was a solid approach as it avoided doubling up with repeat champions that tended to have the same roster, give or take a couple of players. When it came to the Chicago Bulls’ two threepeats, Lutz included the first and third teams, but not the second. Now, 2K has never officially announced having such a policy with their retro teams, but seeing as how they kept the 1991 Bulls while dropping the 1992 squad as they expanded their focus beyond The Jordan Challenge, similar logic likely factored into their decision.

Although it’s a logical approach, it must have been a tough choice. The 1991 team is special for being their first championship squad (and matches up with the ’91 Lakers who are also still in the game), but the 1992 team is also significant, going 67-15 in the regular season before repeating as champions. The Shrug is also an iconic moment in Michael Jordan’s career, which is why it was represented in The Jordan Challenge. Their rosters are similar though, so there is some redundancy there. The 1993 Bulls were added in NBA 2K12, which also brought us the 1993 Charlotte Hornets. The ’93 Suns would’ve been better, but we didn’t need another team missing Sir Charles.

1997 Chicago Bulls & 1997 Utah Jazz

1997 NBA Finals in NBA 2K11

I’m putting these two retro teams together as they’re obviously linked as NBA Finals opponents, but they were also clearly removed for the same reason the 1992 Bulls were cut: redundancy. With the 1996 Bulls and Seattle SuperSonics also in the game for Scottie Pippen’s NBA’s Greatest challenge, and the 1998 Bulls and Utah Jazz arguably more significant as The Last Dance, there’s no need to include near-identical Bulls and Jazz retro teams from the year in between. It was necessary in NBA 2K11 as The Flu Game was too important to skip over, and for the sake of accuracy, both years needed to be included. From NBA 2K12 onwards, it would’ve been overkill.

There is a downside, of course. The 1997 Miami Heat were added to the roster of retro teams in NBA 2K18, and they’re currently the only squad from that season. That’s not a huge problem as they’re still worth including, and it’s possible to play matchups from around the same era with the 1998 retro teams. All the same, it’s a tad unfortunate that NBA 2K currently doesn’t have any other 1997 squads for them to go up against, with the removal of the Bulls and Jazz. I know I’ve spoken at length about the retro teams I’d like to see added, and if there’s one approach I’d really like 2K to consider, it would be ensuring all teams have at least one rival from the same year.

1990 Atlanta Hawks (replaced by 1986 Hawks)

Lost Retro Teams: 1990 Atlanta Hawks

We’ve arrived at the first of four teams that were included for The Jordan Challenge, and subsequently replaced with different squads when the focus of including retro teams moved beyond celebrating MJ’s career. Originally, the 1990 Atlanta Hawks were included for a challenge representing a non-specific regular season game with the Chicago Bulls. It made sense there, and they were still a fun team to use as many of the key players from a few years prior were still around, but historically speaking, they were far from the most successful team in club history. They went 41-41 that year, just missing out on the Playoffs. It wasn’t Dominique Wilkins’ best year, either.

It made a lot more sense to include the 1986 Hawks. Not only was it Nique’s best season, one in which he led the league in scoring with 30.3 ppg, but it was one of the team’s best since moving to Atlanta in 1968. They won 50 games for the second time, and had their first of two memorable clashes with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In hindsight, The Jordan Challenge included too many teams from the 1990 season anyway, and the Hawks in particular were likely included because several of their players were already licensed for other retro teams as well. It’s the same reason NBA 2K now includes the 2013 Memphis Grizzlies.

1990 Detroit Pistons & 1990 Chicago Bulls (replaced by the 1989 teams)

Bulls vs Pistons in NBA 2K11

These two retro teams were included for the Bad Boys game in The Jordan Challenge, which was Game 6 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls won that game, but the Pistons would take the series, and go on to win the championship. 2K decided to roll the rosters back a year for NBA’s Greatest in NBA 2K12, in order to create a new game for Isiah Thomas’ challenge. They couldn’t really go wrong either way here as both years saw epic Conference Finals clashes between the two bitter rivals, and the NBA’s Greatest challenges weren’t meant to represent real games anyway. The ’89 team also featured Darryl Dawkins, who had been licensed for the bonus 1977 Sixers.

If there’s one problem with the switch, it’s that it leaves the 1990 Cleveland Cavaliers out in the cold. That squad is also left over from The Jordan Challenge, where they were included for MJ’s career-high 69-point game. Similar to the 1997 Heat, there are enough teams from 1989 and 1991 to provide the 1990 Cavs with a matchup that’s fairly accurate for the era, but it probably would’ve made sense to roll them back to 1989 as well. After all, that was the year of The Shot, and including the 1989 squads for all of those teams would’ve been a great tribute to that season’s Playoffs. As it stands though, it was a sensible change given the focus was now on Isiah Thomas.

1992 Portland Trail Blazers (replaced by 1991 Blazers)

Lost Retro Teams: 1992 Portland Trail Blazers

Fortunately, when the 1992 Bulls were cut, we didn’t lose a Clyde Drexler-led Portland Trail Blazers team. Instead, they got the same treatment as the 1990 Bulls and Pistons, and were rolled back a season. They became the opponent for Magic Johnson’s NBA’s Greatest challenge, which is only fitting as they were beaten by the 1991 Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. As I noted above, it was a shame to lose the two teams involved in The Shrug game, but if desired, that matchup can basically be played with the ’91 Bulls and Blazers. If the goal is to include one of Drexler’s best Blazers teams, any squad from around that time is quite viable.

Of course, we could still debate whether or not they were the best option for Magic’s featured challenge. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s challenge was essentially a game from the 1987 NBA Finals (though the 1986 Boston Celtics were reused), by which point the Lakers were Magic’s team. That was also the series that he capped off with his famous gamewinning “Baby Sky Hook“. Looking back, it probably would’ve been better if it had been Magic’s challenge, with Kareem’s challenge being set a few years earlier. At least The Glide was still featured in one of the challenges though, and at the end of the day, it was still a meaningful matchup in a fantastic historical game mode.

Ideally, we’d never lose any retro teams from NBA 2K. New teams would simply be added as necessary, and the roster would continue to expand. However, likeness rights are always going to be an issue, so it’s inevitable that a few teams will be dropped here and there when key players have to be removed. Overall, 2K has handled the situation quite well, mostly removing less popular teams or swapping them with a squad from the same era. With any luck, the biggest names will remain signed on, and we’ll continue to have a wide variety of retro teams to choose from. If a new challenge mode was to accompany them, I’m sure many of us could get on board with that, too.

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Alexandre Achutti (senhorxxx)
Alexandre Achutti (senhorxxx)
June 5, 2019 4:39 pm

Another great post, Andrew.