CBS Sports’ 50 greatest NBA players of all time: Where do LeBron, Curry rank? – CBSSports.com
Twenty years ago, at the 1997 NBA All-Star Game, the NBA celebrated its 50 greatest players in history in a ceremony that remains one of the most iconic tributes we’ve seen in sports. The players out on that floor, in those jackets, made for a surreal collection of talent representing past and present.
Now, as we near the 20-year anniversary of that event at this year’s All-Star festivities in New Orleans, we thought it would be a good time to go back to that list and do some adjusting with two extra decades of evolving evaluation and new players to consider.
Taking the average ranking of our seven panelists, we came to the conclusion that nine active players have done enough to earn a spot on the all-time top 50 list, while 19 players from the original list — including Robert Parrish, Bill Walton, Tiny Archibald and James Worthy — have fallen out.
And so, without further ado, let the debating begin as we present to you a revised ranking of our 50 greatest players in NBA history.
50. Kawhi Leonard
At 25, he is the youngest player on this list, and he has already drawn Michael Jordan comparisons. This is absolutely nuts for a player who was drafted No. 15 overall and had the statistical profile of someone who is “destined to play a complementary role in the NBA, at least in his first few seasons,” per DraftExpress. Leonard won Finals MVP in his third season, has two Defensive Player of the Year awards already and has grown into not only the premier wing defender in basketball, but one of the best all-around offensive players, too.
There are some other current names that were just short of Leonard on our list — Tony Parker, Vince Carter, Russell Westbrook, but Kawhi got the nod for his all-around impact and hyper-efficient production. When his career is said and done, it’s not hard to imagine him going down as a top-20 player in history.
49. Dwight Howard
The winner of three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2009 to 2011, Howard was perhaps the most dominant defensive center since Bill Russell. While his prime seems relatively short now, he is one of three centers (Shaquille O’Neal, George Mikan) to be named to the All-NBA First Team for five straight seasons. While his post game has deteriorated as he has lost a few steps athletically, there was a time when he could destroy defenses with a simple drop step and a dunk. He had a strong case for MVP in 2011, the year that Derrick Rose won it.
48. Dominique Wilkins
His duel with Larry Bird in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals is well chronicled, and it is also representative of Wilkins’ competitiveness. He battled all of the greatest scorers of his generation, and he always held his own. Far from just an explosive dunker, he could score from just about anywhere. From 1984 to 1994 — 10 full seasons! — he never once averaged fewer than 26 points. Teammates marveled at his ability: Doc Rivers recently told ESPN they assumed he was working on his game in secret because of the way he improved all the time without doing much at practice.
47. Reggie Miller
Eight points, nine seconds. The Spike Lee feud. Reggie Miller’s career was filled with memorable moments, but the real testament to Miller’s greatness was his longevity. Miller shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range in 10 seasons, and still averaged 14.5 points per game in his final year. Miller was the NBA’s all-time 3-point champion until Ray Allen upended him, and will likely slip to fourth behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but that shouldn’t take away from his status as one of the greatest shooters the league has ever seen.
46. Ray Allen
The NBA’s all-time 3-point champ (for a while until Steph Curry knocks him off) definitely deserves to go on the list. A two-time champion, what people forget about Allen’s career is how great he was with the Bucks and Sonics. Allen in his prime could score with the best of them and he was never considered a minus-defender until age robbed him of his athleticism.
In fact, want a reminder of a young Ray Allen? Check out the first play on this clip:
Allen’s litany of incredible playoff moments is topped by his making “The Shot” vs. the Spurs in the 2013 Finals. Arguably the greatest shot in Finals history, it tied Game 6 in the waning seconds with Miami on the brink of elimination. Ray Allen was a killer who always made the teams he was on infinitely better.
45. Bob Pettit
You can argue that the modern stretch four was a joint creation of then-Hawks coach Red Auerbach recognizing the talent of young Bob Pettit, who subsequently won Rookie of the Year, the NBA’s first MVP award, and finished eighth in league history in scoring per game with 26.4 for his career. He made 11 All-Star teams despite lacking the reward of the 3-point line for his limitless range. Pettit’s legacy suffers in part because he did so much of his scoring in St. Louis, no longer an NBA city, and in part because he did it in the pre-television era for the NBA. Nor was he merely a scorer — despite playing mostly facing the basket, he grabbed 16.2 rebounds per game, and regularly averaged several assists per game as well.
44. Kevin McHale
Not just here because of his fine acting work on “Cheers”, McHale followed a stellar college career in Minnesota with a decade-plus stint as part of the greatest front court in the history of the game. Remarkably, despite the presence of Larry Bird and Robert Parish, McHale found a way to shine, earning seven All-Star appearances, scoring with remarkable efficiency (leading the league in field goal percentage twice), and generally doing everything required of the power forward position without getting in the way. He was a Karl Malone without the offensive centerpiece freedom.
43. George Gervin
So smooth, such grace and agility, so much more than that trademark finger roll. Gervin is one of those guys who wouldn’t look out of place in today’s league, that long 6-foot-7 frame playing up at shooting guard or small forward, four scoring titles, elite leaping ability leading and a rebounding rate uncharacteristically high for a volume scorer. Nobody could keep Gervin from getting to his spot, not at the hoop or from that deadly mid-range. Even in that final season for the 1985-86 Bulls, Gervin averaged 16.2 points per game, played in all 82, and showed how to be a superstar to a young guard named Michael Jordan.
42. Gary Payton
The Glove. Arguably the greatest point guard defender of all time, Payton led the Sonics to the Finals in 1996 and came the closest of anyone in the 90’s to beating Jordan in the Finals. He would make two more appearances late in his career with the Lakers and Heat, winning a title as a role player in 2006. In his prime, Payton was sheer havoc on both ends of the floor, and his combination with Shawn Kemp made the Sonics one of the most entertaining teams of the decade. Payton was a nine-time All-Defensive Team player, and the cherry on top is that he goes down as arguably the greatest trash talker to ever step on an NBA court.
41. Elvin Hayes
Nobody could stop Elvin Hayes. No one. He scored 39 and grabbed 15 rebounds against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1968, during his college days, to help Houston beat UCLA in the first nationally televised college basketball game, a game that put the sport on the map. He led the NBA in scoring with 28.4 points per game — in his rookie year. He averaged a double-double in 12 separate seasons, leading the league in rebounding twice. And nothing kept him from the court. His career low for games played in any of his 16 seasons? 80. Eight of those years, he played the full 82, the last time at age 36. The ultimate power forward.
40. Dolph Schayes
Schayes was an early draft miss by the New York Knicks. Offered significantly more money by the Syracuse Nationals, then of the Basketball Association of America, the Bronx-born Schayes chose the Nats instead, going on to 12 All-Star appearances and, once Syracuse joined the NBA, winning the 1955 NBA championship. Schayes, an ox-strong 6-foot-7, could bang with anybody, with his toughness and skill level best exemplified by the year he played with a broken shooting arm, learning how to shoot with his off hand and becoming even harder to guard. It is fair to wonder how Schayes would be regarded if he’d done all this in New York rather than Syracuse.
39. Rick Barry
The pride of Roselle Park, New Jersey, Barry was simply unstoppable, whether on the court (averaging 35.6 points per game in his second season) and defining the small forward position for a generation, or by fighting the NBA’s parallel fight to Curt Flood in MLB in bringing about what we know today as player free agency. Barry averaged 40.8 points per game in the 1967 NBA Finals, then jumped to the ABA. He’s primarily known today for his underhanded free throws and ability to sire NBA players, but Barry’s excellence defined the ABA and, really, every team he ever played for.
Long live the granny shot:
38. Paul Pierce
The Truth. No MVPs. No DPOYs. One title. No First-Team All-NBA selections. No historical seasons of statistical excellence relative to the rest of the league. No specific category he was dominant in. How does Pierce finish here? He won games. On his own, he dragged the early Boston teams to the playoffs, and late, making big play after big play for the Celtics and even the Nets and Wizards. Pierce is one of the most clutch players of his generation, and never failed to defend at a high level. A capable playmaker, shooter and finisher, Pierce was someone who could take over the game like few could.
37. George Mikan
It is difficult to overstate how dominant he was in his era. It is also difficult to overstate how different that era was to today’s NBA. These two facts make it almost impossible to rank Mikan, who completely destroyed defenses with a combination of height and skill that had never been seen before. Perhaps his greatness is most easily measured by his lasting influence on the sport: The league widened the lane and introduced a 24-second shot clock because of him, and every semi-serious basketball player knows what the Mikan drill is.
36. Bob Cousy
Did you know he averaged 18.4 points over his 14 seasons? Cousy was not just the fancy passing whiz who confounded defenses with his ball-handling ability that was way ahead of its time; he could also get buckets for himself just about whenever he needed. He preferred to pass, though, and orchestrated awesome Celtics offenses on the way to six championships, one MVP and 12 All-NBA selections, including 10 straight appearances on the All-NBA first team. When you see all these whirling point guards of today with their fancy dribbling and flashy passing, think of Bob Cousy. He was one of the most influential guards ever.
35. Isiah Thomas
Thousands of words have been devoted to the redefinition of the point guard position in the last couple of decades, but Thomas’ early-80s game would have fit just fine in today’s NBA. He could dominate a game scoring and passing — in 1984-85 he averaged 21.2 points and a league-high 13.9 assists. He is also one of the best and most memorable playoff performers ever, with two championships, a Finals MVP, 12 All-Star appearances and five All-NBA selections on his resume.
34. Allen Iverson
The best “pound for pound” player label became a cliche long ago, but it was applied to him for a reason. Nobody his size took more punishment than Iverson, who had an unparalleled ability to get in the paint, challenge the giants, fall to the floor and jump right back up and do it again. His inefficiency on offense means he is viewed less favorably in the age of advanced statistics than he was during his prime, but there is no denying the impact he had on the game nor the fearlessness he displayed on the court. One spot ahead of Isiah, Iverson never had the team success that Thomas did, but he didn’t have near the team around him, either.
That 2001 Sixers team is in the conversation for least-talented teams to ever make the Finals. Iverson dragged them there, and even got them a win against a great Lakers team with the famous Tyronn Lue step-over. A great scorer, an MVP, a Philadelphia legend forever, and most importantly, the man who crossed Michael Jordan into oblivion.
33. John Havlicek
The foundational Celtic. Eight championships, a perfect 8-0 in NBA Finals matchups, far more than just the “Havlicek steals the ball!” moment from the 1965 Finals. A scorer astride multiple eras, starting his run of dominance while Dolph Schayes still roamed the court, and playing in all 82 games in his final season, earning an All-Star spot in Adrian Dantley’s NBA. Havlicek’s versatility was the real secret to his success as a sixth man — capable of defending guards or forwards and scoring in myriad ways.
32. Walt Frazier
The finest Saluki of all-time (ask contemporaries about that first moment watching his wizardry in college at Southern Illinois), Walt Frazier is the real hero of the Willis Reed Game. While a hobbled Reed scored the first two baskets, all Frazier did to seal New York’s championship was put up 36 points and add 19 assists. Frazier was a true combo guard, capable of getting his and finding everyone else as the situation dictated. Red Holtzman was a brilliant coach, but much of his brilliance and that system of sharing the ball, began with Frazier’s ability to do it.
Plus, his post-career work is the stuff of legend:
31. Patrick Ewing
I’d argue he is one of the few Knicks greats who is legitimately underrated — it’s not his fault he played in the Eastern Conference during the Jordan era and had to share the center spotlight with Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. His New York teams were built around his physicality, scoring ability and intimidating presence on defense. In retrospect, Ewing needed much more scoring around him, but that didn’t stop him from making the All-Star team 11 times and the All-NBA team seven times, with three All-Defensive team selections as well. If your first thought upon seeing his name is “Ewing Theory,” please spend some time on YouTube.
30. Clyde Drexler
The Glide is the best player in NBA history to dribble with his head down, and I wish he had played in a different era — I can’t help but think he’d be considered differently if he wasn’t in Jordan’s shadow. He was an incredible athlete and a near-unstoppable scorer who still doesn’t get enough recognition for his passing and rebounding. People tend to mistake his unorthodox jumper for a lack of fundamentals and skill. Aside from shot attempts and usage, his career stats are strikingly similar to Kobe Bryant’s.
29. Jason Kidd
He’s one of the best and most creative passers ever, but also so much more than that. Kidd has more career rebounds than any other point guard in NBA history, and he’s one of the best defenders to play his position. With 10 All-Star appearances, six All-NBA selections and nine All-Defensive team selections, he is one of the most accomplished players of his generation. He should get bonus points for adjusting to life as a role player late in his career, helping the Dallas Mavericks to a title and becoming an excellent spot-up 3-point shooter. Coming out of college, nobody would have imagined he’d be eighth all time in 3-pointers made.
Check out Kidd going head-to-head against the next guy on this list, two of the greatest point guards to ever play:
28. Steve Nash
Nash, despite being beloved by everyone who played with, coached or covered him, remains a divisive figure in any all-time conversations, be it for all-time players or point guards. Many consider his two MVPs to be robberies, particularly his 2006 award over Kobe Bryant. But while Nash finished third all time in assists, his lasting legacy is what the Seven Seconds or Less Suns did. The Golden State Warriors of 2015-(ongoing) don’t exist without Seven Seconds or Less. Neither do the 2013-14 Spurs. Nash was the engine of one of the greatest offenses of all time, and as much as people may roll their eyes, you can argue Nash was the best player of all time in “making teammates better.” A bad defender due to physical limitations, Nash nonetheless helped both Dallas and Phoenix to immense winning totals. Nash goes down as one of the most fun players to watch in history.
27. David Robinson
The Admiral. Robinson’s claim to a spot here is based on sustained excellence. He played at his peak level from 1993 to 1998, with one season lost to injury. In there was his MVP 1994 season, when he averaged 30 and 11 with three blocks per game. He’d win two titles once Tim Duncan showed up, and his class and integrity provided an all-time example for that organization to help establish their legendary culture.
26. Elgin Baylor
This 11-time All Star scored more than 27 per game despite playing without the 3-point shot and alongside stars like Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. You simply couldn’t block his shot. He’d hang in the air until a defender had already descended. Baylor was unfairly tagged with a reputation for failing to win the big one, ignoring things like his eight NBA Finals runs and going up against the Boston Celtics. He once scored 62 in an NBA Finals game — Game 5, 1962. Remarkable, classic small forward.
25. Dwyane Wade
Our Matt Moore is adamant… this is insanely low for Wade, whom he calls the third-best shooting guard of all time behind Jordan and Kobe. Obviously other panelists weren’t quite as high on him. Wade is a three-time NBA champion, though he was only the best player on one of those teams. His 2009 season (30 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 2.2 steals, 1.5 blocks per game) is one of the finest not just of his generation, but in NBA history. It’s not really a knock to say that Wade wasn’t as good as LeBron — pretty much nobody is, or ever has been, or maybe ever will be. But it’s also fair to say that LeBron doesn’t win those two titles in Miami without Wade, who helped construct that super-Heat team, and his willingness to sacrifice to win more titles next to James and Chris Bosh should be a plus and not a detriment. He is an undeniable future Hall of Famer.
24. Kevin Durant
Durant, much like Wade, might be underrated here. He has an MVP, a Finals appearance, four conference finals appearances (with another likely coming this season), four scoring titles and another second-place finish in 2013 while shooting the revered mark of 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3, 90 percent from the line. If Durant wins a title this season, and the MVP, he rockets up this list, likely past Stephen Curry, whose name you’ll also see here in just a second.
23. John Stockton
The correct entry here is simple: “All-Time Assists Leader by 3,700 assists. Mic drop.” Stockton’s status is always overlooked because he wasn’t spectacular. What he was was efficient, precise and mean-as-all-get-out. Players still shake their heads in awe of how, ahem, intense Stockton was on the floor. (Read: He could bend the rules from time to time.) Yes, he played next to Karl Malone, but just as Malone gave Stockton all those assists in the legendary Utah pick and roll, Malone equally benefited from Stockton’s passing. An Iron Man competitor who only missed 22 games in 19 years, Stockton also goes down as the all-time steals leader.
But again, the passing is what everyone will remember:
22. Scottie Pippen
How does a guy who wasn’t the best player on his best teams land this high? Well … he’s a six-time champion, seven-time All-Star, seven-time All-NBA selection and a 10-time All-Defensive team member. But more than that, Pippen’s combination of defensive excellence, athleticism, and playmaking unlocked what made those teams Bulls great. Jordan was always great, and in fact had better individual seasons before Pippen arrived. But Pippen was a sublime passer, maybe the best wing defender in NBA history, and he dunked on folks with no regard for their dignity. The second-best player on the best team of all time, with those credentials? Throw in the fact that he was the best player on good Blazers teams when he finally left Chicago? Yeah, he belongs here.
21. Chris Paul
More than anybody else on this list, you have to wonder how we’d talk about him if he’d won a championship or two. Paul is beyond a basketball genius. He’s one of those rare few players who can completely control a game with his mind. At 31 he’s nowhere near as quick as he was when he entered the league, but he’s still the best two-way point guard on the planet. An underrated scorer, his 2008-09 season in New Orleans stands out as one of the greatest ever at his position: 22.8 points, 11 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals while shooting 50.3 percent with a 59.9 percent true shooting percentage. How a player this good has never advanced to a conference championship is hard to comprehend.
20. Charles Barkley
The Round Mound of Rebound has a legacy that’s hard to unwrap. He’s unquestionably one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game, and his MVP 1993 season with a 26-12-5 line is one of the most dominant of its era. He beat out Michael Jordan for that award and not many people complained, for crying out loud. His questionable defense and inability to space the floor look like detriments in retrospect, but those criticisms are marred by a lack of context of where the league was at the time. Known as much for his gregarious personality and brash comments as a player (and later as a studio personality for TNT) as he was for his game, Barkley was still a guy you never wanted to run into for 48 minutes on the floor. Barkley’s ability to dominate the glass at a listed height of 6-foot-6 remains one of the most remarkable stories in league history.
19. Stephen Curry
Millennial bias? Perhaps a bit, as Curry’s appearance in the top 20 will likely ruffle some feathers based on his short, five-year run as a truly top-level star, and only three seasons as an elite player. But his 2015-2017 run quite simply obliterated historical expectations of what is possible for a shooter. His 2016 season in which he hit 402 3-pointers, a number that quite frankly causes aneurysms for NBA historians, stands as arguably the greatest individual offensive season in history. Think of Curry as the Terrell Davis currently of the NBA. If he retired tomorrow, fans would still speak of his peak seasons with not so much awe as worship. He hasn’t done it for as long as a lot of these guys, but few, for any length of time, have done it as well as he has on this current run. For that, combined with his title and two MVPs, he lands higher on our list than some would’ve expected.
18. Julius Erving
We now recognize what Dr. J turned out to be — next-level athleticism that foreshadowed where the NBA was headed. His acrobatics have kept him on highlight reels decades after he played. But don’t miss his all-around game. Get lost in the behind-the-basket flight and you miss things like his top-ten finishes in ABA rebounding and blocked shot leaderboards (part of why he led the circuit in PER each season and is the ABA’s all-time leader in the catch-all stat). He was efficient and deadly from all over the court. He transitioned into a veteran leader of the 1982-83 NBA champion Sixers after leading Philadelphia to the NBA Finals three other times. Even at age 36, Erving still filled the box score in his final season. Greatness from start to finish.
17. Dirk Nowitzki
The Greatest European NBA Player Of All Time. Nowitzki’s influence on the game is starting to be felt more and more, as tall forwards like Kevin Durant show how a 3-point shooting big man can alter spacing in ways no one could have imagined 20 years ago. A gentle soul with a competitive fire, Nowitzki’s MVP season in 2007 will stand up to any in history, and his 2011 Finals MVP performance should probably go in the top 10. Nowitzki’s durability and consistency only add to his 12-time All-NBA status.
16. Karl Malone
For being such a bad ass, Karl Malone goes down as a sympathetic figure in many ways. The NBA’s second all-time leading scorer played 19 years and averaged more than 20 points per game in 17 of them. He averaged double-digit rebounds in 10 of them. He shot over 50 percent from the field in 11 of them. He was a two-time MVP, a 14-time All-NBA player, and a four-time All-Defense player. But he played in the Jordan era. Malone was a beast on both ends, and along with Jerry Sloan and John Stockton, formed the foundation of one of the most consistent stretches by any team of sustained win percentage excellence. Malone gets overlooked now, but like many players, had Michael Jordan never played basketball, we’d view him a lot differently.
15. Kevin Garnett
There may never have been as complete a player as Kevin Garnett in NBA history. LeBron James’ defensive greatness has never quite reached Garnett’s level, and no defensive specialist has ever come anywhere close to Garnett’s peak transformative game inside and out. Everything that makes Draymond Green amazing? Think about that amped up with nuclear steroids and you have the prime Big Ticket. KG’s greatness wasn’t just his prime, though — it was the way he anchored the championship team in Boston and adjusted his game to help the Celtics win. Garnett also goes down as maybe the most intense competitor to ever step on the hardwood floor.
14. Moses Malone
The NBA’s forgotten great. No one talks about Moses Malone among the all-time legends. And that, my friends, is stupid. Malone was a three-time MVP, who in the Sixers’ 1983 championship season averaged 24.5 points, 15 rebounds, and two blocks per game. Malone goes down as arguably the greatest offensive rebounder of all time, and played an incredible 21 seasons in the league. He was also revolutionary as a preps-to-pros trail blazer, and a man beloved by everyone who played with him. The best trivia piece about Malone? He had a deep love and devotion to red soda pop.
13. Jerry West
Another legendary Laker is three spots above him on our list, but there’s still an argument that West is the second-best shooting guard of all-time. You can’t fault him for only winning one championship in eight trips to the Finals, as he earned the Mr. Clutch nickname by consistently dominating in the playoffs. In the 1965 postseason, West averaged 40.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists, but it wasn’t enough to beat the Boston Celtics in the Finals with Elgin Baylor injured. In his final few seasons, The Logo proved he could have been one of the best point guards ever, too — he led the league with 9.7 assists in 1971-72.
12. Oscar Robertson
He’s known as the triple-double guy, but he was more like LeBron James than Jason Kidd — he should also go down as one of the best scorers in NBA history. The Big O averaged 25.7 points on 48.5 percent shooting in his 14-year career, and defenses had few answers for his ability to get to the basket, score in the post or shoot from midrange. When he was in college, NYU coach Lou Rossini summed up his strategy against Robertson succinctly, via Sports Illustrated: “Put your four best men on Oscar. Then tell your fifth man to cover his teammates.”
11. Hakeem Olajuwon
Olajuwon rarely is discussed as one of the greatest centers of all time, but look at his resume. Two-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP, an MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, 12-time All-Star. Olajuwon was truly a two-way great, something you can’t say about most of the other centers on this list. Olajuwon’s post moves were spectacular, and his ability to pass out of double-teams to 3-point shooters were kind of the archaic beginnings of the 3-point revolution.
10. Kobe Bryant
His place on this list is all the more impressive when you consider he wasn’t a freak athlete in the same way Jordan and James are. Bryant doesn’t have massive hands or arms that stretch forever, and he couldn’t just bully his way to the basket over and over. He simply worked on his craft to the point where none of that stuff mattered. He is the closest we’ve ever seen to Jordan in terms of skill, footwork and the near-psychotic devotion to winning. Elite guards generally don’t have 20-year careers, but the obsessive Bryant did it, with 17 All-Star appearances, 15 All-NBA selections and five championships to his name. No one has ever relished making tough, contested shots more.
9. Shaquille O’Neal
Probably the most dominant physical force in league history, Shaq not only reshaped what people thought of when they thought of a center, defining it as a mountain of a man, but O’Neal’s gregarious personality and nimble feet and touch made him unlike anything we’d ever seen. O’Neal was a phenom in the early 90s with Orlando, a fire-breathing dragon with a wide gluteus maximus in L.A., and a wise elephant protecting the herd in Miami. In his prime, there was simply nothing you could do against him except hope he’d miss at the line, hence Hack-A-Shaq.
A four-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, it’s surprising that Shaq won just one league MVP, in 2000, when he was off-the-charts dominant in garnering all but one vote. In his prime you could pencil him in for 27 points and double-digit boards on around 60 percent shooting. His power has yet to be matched by anyone else and likely never will be. If you’ll recall, he actually made the original list of the 50 greatest NBA players in 1996 after just four years in the league, and indeed, though he wouldn’t become one of the greatest players ever until he made his way to the Lakers, young Shaq in Orlando was something beyond human. Enjoy:
8. Larry Bird
Imagine if Bird had played in the 3-point volume era? The 3-point line was a gimmick back in Bird’s day, so he didn’t use it as much as he would now. Yet still, Bird shot 50-40-90 in 1985. In fact, you could argue that nobody has ever played basketball better than Bird did from 1984-86, when he won three consecutive MVPs and two of his three championships. His ‘84-85 season was downright ridiculous — 28.7 points, 10.5 boards, 6.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks. The ‘85-86 team that lost just once at home in a 67-win season is considered by some to be the greatest team ever.
And Bird wasn’t just one of the best scorers and passers to ever play. Nine times he was a top-10 rebounder. Three times he was top-10 in steals. Four times he led the league in defensive win shares, two times he led in overall. His numbers are just eye-popping, and yet, they don’t do him justice. There’s a legend to Larry, as the nickname goes. An all-time trash talker who you can’t really, truly appreciate unless you sort of grew up watching him play.
Magic Johnson and Bird went from bitter rivals to the best of friends, and Magic even went so far as call Bird the greatest basketball player ever. Magic Johnson said that. Watch the following video and you’ll get a glimpse as to why.
7. Tim Duncan
The Big Fundamental made major strides in this list over his final four seasons, securing his fifth championship. Duncan’s numbers don’t pop off the page, but he was always ready to lead his team with whatever they needed. Desperately need a bucket to break a run? The turnaround bank shot is there. Need a stop on the road in a playoff game? Duncan’s defense would rise to the challenge. Duncan remained an impact player all the way through 2014 as the Spurs returned to the Finals after losing to Miami the year before and cemented his legacy as one of the all-time greats.
6. Bill Russell
Maybe the most beloved player in NBA history, Russell carries with him far more than his 11 championships. Russell literally invented the blocked shot and opened doors for African-Americans in the league. Russell is most widely known as being the ultimate winner, and that matters on a list like this — where talent, and to some degree production (particularly across eras) is almost impossible to differentiate in some cases. You just can’t argue with 11 titles and that kind of leadership.
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
The NBA’s all-time leading scorer notches a top-five spot, and admittedly, that seems low for his resume. “Cap” played a remarkable 20 seasons in the NBA and shot over 50 percent in all of them except his last at age 41. His patented skyhook is maybe the most iconic and most indefensible shot in NBA history, and his six championships and six MVPs, along with an incredible 19 All-Star appearances boggle the mind. Kareem was as close to “unstoppable” as anyone outside of Jordan in the modern era, and to be honest, it’s kind of strange that he’s rarely talked about as the best player ever. Always among them, but never the best. Perhaps we’ve made that same mistake in undervaluing him on this list, but we’re pretty comfortable with the next four names.
4. Magic Johnson
The greatest point guard of all-time and to this day the man most identified as the ultimate Laker (though Kobe is in that conversation, too), which gives him the slight edge over his former teammate Abdul-Jabbar. Think of it this way: In Johnson’s rookie season, he led the Lakers to the Finals and in Game 6, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out with a bad ankle, Johnson stepped in and played point-forward-center. A five-time champion and a three-time Finals MVP, Johnson also helped pave the way for Jordan with his charm and star power, and likewise paved the way for James with his combination of athleticism, vision, leadership and versatility.
3. Wilt Chamberlain
We could stop with “Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds per game for 80 games in 1962.” Just think about that for a second. Done? OK, then I hope we can all agree Chamberlain was the most dominant statistical player of all time. I mean, the man averaged 30 points and 23 rebounds for his career! Chamberlain always stood in contrast to Bill Russell, who was the dominant defensive player defined by his winning attitude, whereas Chamberlain was instead maybe the first prototypical “superstar.” Either way, his production was undeniable, his legend uncompromising, and you can see the rise of advanced analytics in sports analysis in his reflected ranking here.
2. LeBron James
The guy who was anointed “The Chosen One” in high school not only embraced the hype, but exceeded it. Even at St. Vincent-St. Mary, his combination of size, athleticism and feel for the game let you know he had the potential to be an all-time great. He delivered on all that promise by evolving in every facet of the game, taking care of his body and becoming arguably the smartest and most complete player in basketball. With three championships (and three Finals MVPs), four Most Valuable Player awards and perhaps the greatest three-game run in NBA Finals history last June, James is the first true threat to Michael Jordan’s supremacy. Watch the throne.
1. Michael Jordan
The Greatest Of All Time. Michael Jordan wasn’t just the greatest scorer we’ve ever seen, on top of being an All-Defense player and the greatest competitive spirit we’ve ever known. He fundamentally changed the nature of sports, becoming a one-man brand that transcended not only his team, but his sport. Jordan made the NBA popular and redefined the very nature of what it meant to be a cool professional athlete. A six-time champion (with six Finals MVPs), a five-time MVP, a 14-time All-Star and a 10-time scoring leader, Jordan’s greatness still casts a shadow over the league, one that LeBron James continues to try and escape.
*** The next 10 in: Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Vince Carter, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, Nate Archibald, James Worthy, James Harden, Manu Ginobili, Dennis Rodman
*** The 19 originals who fell out: Nate Archibald, Paul Arizin, Dave Bing, Dave Cowens, Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, Hal Greer, Sam Jones, Jerry Lucas, Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe, Robert Parish, Willis Reed, Bill Sharman, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, Lenny Wilkens, James Worthy