Ranking the NBA's Top 15 Players of All-Time
Maybe, it's the proliferation of all of those ubiquitous—if not sickening—LeBron versus Michael (no last names needed for either) comparisons.
Perhaps, it's the recent story of legendary power forward Karl Malone apparently putting Scottie Pippen on his all-time NBA first team, while leaving off his slightly more famous, tongue-wagging teammate. Did he really?
In either case, I couldn't resist adding my own opinion to the exercise of choosing the greatest players to ever lace them up on the hardwoods of the NBA. Who am I to make such a list? Just another NBA fan and sportswriter (albeit a sleep-deprived one) who wanted to take a shot at compiling a list of the greatest of the great.
Of course, some of you will be kind enough to tell me if I somewhat succeeded in this near-impossible task, or to be frank, if my selections somewhat matched up with yours.
For this list, I settled on my version of the Top 15 NBA Players of All-Time. Why? Maybe, it was a mini-homage to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list that was actually released 17 years ago. But, why only 15 players? For a couple reasons.
Fifteen is a nice, manageable number that allowed me to choose five centers, five forwards and five guards. After selecting these 15 immortal players, I was able to pick my first, second and third teams. Could I have done the same with 25 guys? Maybe, but I still would have left dozens of great players off that list, and I wouldn't have an even distribution from the three positions.(Yes, I realize that I could have broken the guards and forwards into smalls and bigs, but well, I chose to go a little old-school and just keep the three basic categories.)
Please read on for this list of the greatest players to ever suit up in the NBA.
There was just a little method to my madness here.
My first guideline was that I had to actually have seen all of these players play—if only a few times on TV. Clearly, I never saw the very best of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor, but I can lay claim to being old enough to have seen them in action. These rankings are difficult enough without trying to assess the likes of George Mikan, Bob Cousy and Paul Arizin. Hey, I'm not that old.
My second guideline is more common sense than pure methodology. All of the players on this list are well-known enough that I didn't provide, or comb, every possible statistic. Indeed, for me, picking these teams is more art than science, unless one simply wants to read off a list based on PER (rating), Win Shares or some other designer stat. One has to consider the totality of the players' statistics, how those stats aided their teams' efforts (although some of this is open to conjecture) and the general sense of how highly these players were regarded during (and if applicable, after) their playing careers.
And even then, it's a crapshoot of sorts.
In limiting the list to 15 players, I still felt that I had to include five centers, as historically (if not more recently), the center has been the most dominant position on the floor. That left only 10 positions for all of the superstar guards, forwards and swingmen to fight over. For those remaining 10 spots, I tried to choose the very best, without spending too much time sweating over whether the man was a "one" or a "two", etc.
Nobody will debate that even if these aren't the best 15 NBA players of all-time, these 15 players are absolute superstars. Before revealing them, let's stop and appreciate some other greats that any team would have wanted to play for them.
Subs and Snubs
Let me get right to it. My last cut was, arguably, my favorite NBA player of all-time. Charles Barkley (pictured) was and is a great quote waiting to happen, but he was an absolute beast, and perhaps, the the best rebounder (inch-for-inch, if not pound for pound) I've ever seen. Strong, fast, smart, tenacious and with explosive hops for most of his career, it hurt to leave Sir Charles off my Top 15.
He is in great company at the forward spot. Consider that players as accomplished as Rick Barry, Kevin Garnett, John Havlicek (swingman supreme), Elvin Hayes and Karl Malone fell just short.
If I were starting a mythical NBA team, I would have loved to have any of the following patrol the paint: Moses Malone, Willis Reed, David Robinson, Nate Thurmond and Bill Walton. Sorry, I just couldn't find any room for them.
Consider that any GM would love to have Walt "Cyde" Frazier, George "Iceman" Gervin, Pistol Pete Maravich, John Stockton or Isiah Thomas in their backcourt. What can I say? I think that my five guards were just a little bit better than them, or Clyde Drexler, Earl Monroe, Dwyane Wade and...
You get the idea. Let's see who did make the list. That will explain, or at least excuse, these all-world subs and snubs.
On the following pages, any stats cited were courtesy of basketball-reference.com.
The 5 Best Guards of All-Time
How terrific is our complement of guards? Look who's ranked number 5. No, not him.
5. Kobe Bryant
1996-Present, Los Angeles Lakers
Career Averages: 25.5 ppg; 5.3 rebounds; 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals
Kobe is one of the most lethal scorers and competitors in NBA history. Will he rebound from injuries to add to his 5 world championships and remarkable 220 playoff games? Don't count out the Mamba.
4. Jerry West
1960-1974, Los Angeles Lakers
Career Averages: 27.0 ppg; 5.8 rebounds; 6.7 assists
Much more than just "The Logo" and a highly successful general manager, "Zeke from Cabin Creek" had four seasons in which he averaged over 30 points per game. And, Mr. Clutch was even more explosive in the playoffs.
3. Oscar Robertson
1960-1974, Cincinnati Royals, Milwaukee Bucks
Career Averages: 25.7 ppg; 7.5 rebounds; 9.5 assists
In his first eight seasons, "The Big O" had only two seasons in which he averaged fewer than 30 points per game. In 1961-62, Oscar averaged a triple-double, and smashed those plateaus with 30.8 p/12.5 r/11.4 a. He also came very close to averaging a triple-double in four other seasons. I wouldn't argue too strongly against anybody who says he should be ranked higher.
2. Magic Johnson
1979-1991; 1995-1996 Los Angeles Lakers
Career Averages: 19.5 ppg; 7.2 rebounds; 11.2 rebounds; 1.9 steals
Magic was, perhaps, a slightly bigger, modernized version of Robertson, without all of The Big O's scoring prowess. Still, Johnson averaged (rounding) 22 points or more in four different seasons, and his career shooting percentage was a sizzling 52%. You know about his 5 championships and almost unparalleled versatility.
1. Michael Jordan
Career Averages: 30.1 ppg; 6.2 rebounds; 5.3 rebounds; 2.3 steals
We all know nearly everything about the six-time world champion and 10-time scoring champion, who also excelled defensively. Did you know that he even averaged over 20 points per game in both of his largely forgettable seasons in Washington.
The 5 Best Forwards of All-Time
I love all these five forwards, but really struggled with how to rank them, as they are such different types of players.
5. Larry Bird
1979-1992, Boston Celtics
Career Averages: 24.3 ppg; 10.0 rebounds; 6.3 rebounds; 1.7 steals
Larry Legend was one of the deadliest shooters and most astute passers to ever play. Among his myriad accomplishments, he led the NBA in free-throw shooting four times and twice led all players in minutes played.
4. Julius Erving
Career Averages: 24.2 ppg; 8.5 rebounds; 4.2 rebounds; 2.0 steals, 1.7 blocks
For my money, Doc was the most regal, majestic player of all-time. This high-flying wonder finished in the top ten in blocked shots seven times and was top ten in steals eight times.
3. Elgin Baylor
1958-1972, Los Angeles Lakers
Career Averages: 27.4 ppg; 13.5 rebounds; 4.3 rebounds
Baylor is considered the forerunner of mid-air marvels such as Connie Hawkins, Dr. J and Michael Jordan. At only 6'5", he averaged 15 or more rebounds per game in each of his first four seasons.
2. Tim Duncan
1997-Present, San Antonio Spurs
Career Averages: 20.2 ppg; 11.2 rebounds; 3.2 assists; 0.7 steals; 2.3 blocks
"The Big Fundamental", presently seeking his fifth NBA title, has never led the NBA in points, rebounds or blocked shots. That speaks to his almost mind-numbing consistency—game after game and year after year. He gets the slight nod over the other great (and much flashier) forwards listed above him based primarily on his amazing defensive presence.
1. LeBron James
Career Averages: 27.8 ppg; 7.3 rebounds; 6.9 assists; 1.7 steals; 0.8 blocks
LBJ does not turn 29 till December, and he has several more seasons to (supposedly) define his legacy. Having said this, he has been in the NBA for 10 seasons and is as versatile a player as we have ever seen. One measure of his greatness is that he is not considered a pure scorer a la Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony, yet his career points per game is higher than any active player, and third all-time.
The 5 Best Centers of All-Time
Some powerful, almost surreal forces, have patrolled the middle for NBA teams. Some did not make the list, but can you argue with any of these five men?
1992-2011, Orlando Magic; LA Lakers; Miami Heat; Phoenix Suns; Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics
Career Averages: 23.7 ppg; 10.9 rebounds; 2.5 assists; 2.7 blocks
The four-time champion Shaq had three postseasons (all with the Lakers) in which he averaged over 30 points. Just imagine if he were a better free-throw shooter.
4. Hakeem Olajuwon
Career Averages: 21.8 ppg; 11.1 rebounds; 2.5 assists; 3.1 blocks; 1,7 steals
The Dream actually improved upon his impressive regular season stats when he reached the postseason, averaging 25.9 points, 11.2 boards and 3.3 rejections.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1969-1989, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers
Career Averages: 24.6 ppg; 11.2 rebounds; 3.6 assists; 0.9 steals; 2.6 blocks
The NBA's all-time points leader led his teams to six world championships and also racked up six regular season MVP Awards. Am I nuts for ranking him third, or giving proper deference to the next two on this list? Rhetorical question.
2. Bill Russell
1956-1969, Boston Celtics
Career Averages: 15.1 ppg; 22.5 rebounds; 4.3 assists
During the days of Russell and Wilt, blocked shots and steals were not kept. One would presume that Russ and his biggest rival would have had big numbers in both categories. Russell's stats are very strong (especially when you consider that his primary job was not to score), but the big stat, of course, is his 11 championships in 13 seasons. His five MVPs and 11 top four finishes also serve as strong testimonials to his greatness.
1. Wilt Chamberlain
1959-1973, Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors; Philadelphia 76ers and LA Lakers
Career Averages: 30.1 ppg; 22.9 rebounds; 4.4 assists
In 1961-62, his third year in the NBA, Wilt averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game. He also played more than 48 minutes per game that season. Everything about this man was astounding. He was, in all probability, the strongest to ever play the game, and he possessed the speed and hops of a track-and-field athlete (which he was). He only was on two world championship teams, but those may have been the most dominant single-season units in NBA history.
If Wilt would have captured four or more titles, my supposition is that most pundits would consider him to be the greatest to ever play the game. As is, I can make a case for either him or Michael Jordan as the greatest of the greatest. I would also think that Wilt is the greatest athlete (if not the most accomplished) to ever play an American pro sport.
All-Time (Mythical) Teams
Now, the task is to put these 15 all-time greats onto three teams. I've had to "fudge" the positions a little to make it work, but I think the result is three incredible and well-balanced units. I have made my hypothetical ranking of each player (regardless of position) in parentheses.
G - Kobe Bryant (13)
G - Julius Erving (he could do it if he had to - 11)
C - Shaquille O'Neal (15)
F - Larry Bird (12)
F - Hakeem Olajuwon (see comment for "Doc" - 14)
G - Oscar Robertson (5)
G - Jerry West (8)
C - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6)
F - Elgin Baylor (10)
F - Tim Duncan (9)
G - Magic Johnson (4)
G - Michael Jordan (2)
C - Wilt Chamberlain (1)
F - LeBron James (7)
F - Bill Russell (3)
Matt Goldberg, a former featured writer for Bleacher Report, is the creator of Bagels and Jocks and a co-author of the 2013 A Snowball's Chance: Philly Fires Back Against the National Media.