Building the Ultimate NBA Mount Rushmore
The faces of NBA legends stick with us for a long time.
However, only a select few are legendary enough to grace the four coveted spots on the hypothetical NBA Mount Rushmore. The imaginary monument is much more exclusive than the Hall of Fame, because only a quartet of players who made a positive impact on and off the court are able to earn featured placement.
So, who takes the places of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt in the basketball version?
Are any current players on it? Is it comprised solely of mythologized figures from the past?
LeBron James tackled the topic during an interview with NBA TV that will air on Feb. 17 at 9 p.m. ET, and you'll see a snippet in a little bit. The video went viral, sparking a brand-new debate about which four legends deserve the spots. That was only one man's take, as is this, but we're delving deeper into the subject than anyone.
Not only will I break down LeBron's selections, providing a bit of context in the process, but I'll look at the players who just barely miss out, as well as the current greats who could one day move up into the pantheon of legends.
This is the ultimate breakdown of NBA Mount Rushmore.
How Do You Get Your Face Up There?
Earning one of the four coveted spots on NBA Mount Rushmore is about more than posting fantastic numbers.
Legacies are at the heart of the discussion, and a lot goes into how a player is remembered once he retires.
Stats are important, of course. But so too are the numbers of titles a player wins, even though that's a team-dependent achievement, not something that can be won by just an individual. Other awards—All-Star appearances, All-NBA and All-Defensive teams—matter, as do MVP trophies.
However, it goes deeper still.
Without making a positive impact on the Association, it's impossible to have your face etched into NBA Mount Rushmore.
The presidents' faces who grace the real version were selected not just because they had bills passed or acquired enormous amounts of territory for the United States. They were chosen because they were the shining figures of the early portion of American history, leaders who are almost universally remembered in a positive light for the qualities they brought to the table.
You can read exactly why George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were chosen on the National Park Service's official website, but the general theme is their lasting contributions and prominent spot in the history of the country.
It works the same way here.
The legends who will occupy the four slots were fantastic players, sure. But they were also ambassadors for the game, ones who are remembered in a positive light and largely treated with reverence.
There's a difference between "best" and "greatest."
While one only looks at what happened on the court, the other looks at the whole body of work while a player was involved with basketball. It's the latter that matters most when building our monument.
The Current Mount Rushmore
When asked to name his NBA Mount Rushmore during the interview with NBA TV, as you can see above, LeBron James didn't struggle at first.
His "easy three" was comprised Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and it took him virtually no time to let their names escape his lips. However, the fourth name required a little more thinking.
Eventually, even after explaining that this was a difficult decision and painfully exhaling as he thought, LeBron submitted Oscar Robertson as his fourth name. An interesting choice, no doubt about it.
But is it the right one? For that matter, are any of his four correct?
There's actually only one "easy" choice: M.J.
The consensus greatest player of all time, Jordan helped globalize the NBA during the late 1980s and 1990s. He was the biggest superstar that the game has ever seen. His legacy is undeniable, and few players have ever come within sniffing distance of his greatness.
Jordan isn't untouchable, but he's such an obvious choice that a tautological argument is no longer fallacious. He's on the NBA Mount Rushmore because he's, well, Michael Jordan.
Moving on, Bird and Magic both deserve to have their faces enlarged and put in rocky form, but they aren't easy selections, as LeBron claimed.
Andy Katz wrote about the pair for ESPN at the turn of the century, and his words still ring true even after more than a decade of basketball has been played out since he put them on paper:
When Magic and Bird entered the league in 1979, the NBA Finals were broadcast on a tape-delayed basis. You had to say up until 11:30 p.m. to watch Brent Musberger call the play-by-game. The league was riddled with drug problems and attendance was sagging.
Many like to credit David Stern with reviving the league. But where would David Stern be without Magic Johnson and Larry Bird?
Magic and Bird, both of whom are near-consensus top-10 players in basketball history, did wonders for the league, ushering in a new era that led to the popularity explosion. How many people from the generation that's currently around 40 years old remember growing up with those two legends as their sports heroes?
It's the fourth face where things get tricky.
Rather than running through the list of candidates—we'll get there, don't worry—let me just claim that it's Bill Russell who belongs there. This is inherently subjective, but Russell was the NBA's first superduperstar, and he was the No. 1 player in history before Jordan came around.
Championships galore were won for the Boston Celtics while he was patrolling the paint, and the biggest dynasty in the history of American professional sports thrived with Russell blocking shots and running in transition.
Beyond that, he helped shrink the racial divide and continues to serve as an ambassador for the game.
There's a reason people listen when he talks. There's a reason he's treated with undeniable reverence by anyone who encounters him. There's a reason he hands out the Finals MVP trophy every year, which just happens to be named after him.
Michael Jordan. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Bill Russell.
That's the current NBA Mount Rushmore.
Who Just Misses the Cut?
There are plenty of players in NBA history who miss the cut. Thousands, in fact.
However, only a few "just miss the cut." Those are the ones we're interested in, and the process of naming them begins with the man LeBron named as part of his own personal NBA Mount Rushmore: Oscar Robertson.
Usually falling in at No. 2 in historical rankings of point guards, The Big O deserves to be the front-runner of the runner-ups. Not only was he a statistically dominant player—remember, he's the only one to average a triple-double for a full season—but he's thought of fondly by most NBA fans, thanks in part to the legal work he did with the player's union.
The infamous antitrust suit that now bears his name took place in 1970, and it led to changes in the free-agency process and the draft, which in turn helped players earn higher salaries.
Robertson is a stellar candidate, but he's not the only one.
Let's run through the rest of the honorable mentions, explaining why they ultimately fall short, though these aren't meant to be in any particular order:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Dominant individual and champion who was never much of an off-court personality.
- Wilt Chamberlain: In some crowds, his prowess in the bedroom is allowed to trump his absolute dominance on the basketball floor.
- Tim Duncan: See Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
- Kobe Bryant: Michael Jordan clone who was never as good as Michael Jordan.
- Julius Erving: Flashy innovator who popularized the slam dunk, but he doesn't have the statistics to support his claim.
- Shaquille O'Neal: Dominant peak but stayed past his prime. Is it possible to be too goofy to be on Mount Rushmore?
- Jerry West: The Logo deserves some credit, but without the aid of a three-point stripe, he wasn't able to produce the numbers he could've otherwise put up.
Beyond that, you're stretching things.
Unless we're talking about current players, of course. And that's where LeBron comes back into the picture.
Will LeBron Make It?
You'd think that LeBron's four-man claim would be the most interesting part of his interview segment, but that wasn't the case.
After being prompted, he said—rather definitively, in fact—that he would belong on the NBA Mount Rushmore. LeBron wouldn't reveal whom he'd bump from the monument he designed, but he did say he'd be in the top four "for sure," and that the architects would need to design a fifth spot if they needed to.
Yeah, that's not going to be controversial at all.
Right now, LeBron doesn't deserve to be featured. It really shouldn't even be much of an argument.
Although he's established himself as a top-10 player of all time and possesses a serious case to be considered the greatest player at his position, better even than Bird, he doesn't have the necessary type of legacy. He hasn't left a lasting impact on the game like Bird, Magic, Jordan and Russell each did.
Maybe he will with a few more titles and years under his belt, but he hasn't revitalized the game like his predecessors. He's greatly enhanced the perception of the league, the popularity of the sport and the 24/7 nature of basketball, but that doesn't quite live up to the men he's trying to displace.
He will displace one of them, though.
"Nothing is guaranteed, but whoever's in charge of building the NBA's equivalent of Mount Rushmore might want to keep a chisel and a picture of James handy," writes B/R's Grant Hughes.
And that's exactly correct.
Even if his impact on the sport doesn't reach the level of the current men depicted on the hypothetical monument, he'll exceed them as a player. Maybe not Jordan—that's a conversation for another time—but it's hard to imagine LeBron not retiring as one of the top three players in the sport's history.
He's still squarely in the midst of his prime, after all, and he's already in the top 10.
LeBron's eventual placement on the NBA Mount Rushmore isn't a certainty, but it's drawing close to that status.
Do Any Other Current Players Have a Chance?
If LeBron isn't in right now, there's no way anyone else in the NBA currently has a shot at displacing a legend in the present.
But things change. The future is a different story, and there are a couple of players who deserve to be mentioned in this conversation.
I'll give a cursory mention to Paul George, who doesn't have enough of a track record to deserve anything more. The Indiana Pacers swingman could keep improving and reach that LeBron level, but it seems unlikely. Plus, he's almost 24 years old and is just now cementing himself as a superstar.
Also deserving a tip of the cap is Chris Paul.
The Los Angeles Clippers point guard is already one of the 10 best floor generals to ever lace up their sneakers on an NBA court, and he's tracking toward matching Magic Johnson's numbers. Maybe even exceeding them.
Only holding back CP3 is a distinctive lack of playoff success, though it's hard to blame him for the lackluster teammates he had in New Orleans and the disappearance of his supporting cast with LAC.
It's not too late for that to change, but it's unlikely Paul can put together enough of a resume that he displaces the legends of the past.
Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan both got close enough to be named near misses a few slides back, but neither has enough left in the tank to ascend into a featured spot, even with another title.
Other than LeBron, only two players are on pace to deserve serious consideration when their careers draw to a conclusion.
The first is the obvious selection, the man whose face currently graces the top of the slide—Kevin Durant.
The current MVP favorite is still only 25 years old, and it's looking like he'll earn his fourth scoring title before he turns 26. The 2013-14 season has seen him develop from a scoring specialist into one hell of an all-around player, one who can distribute the ball as well as any non-point guard, rebound with the best big men and play lockdown defense.
The sky is now the limit.
Speaking of infinite ceilings, how about Anthony Davis?
The 20-year-old big man for the New Orleans Pelicans obviously doesn't have much of a track record. He doesn't even have a winning season to his name, and this is only his second professional go-round. But he's already emerged as one of the top players to build a franchise around—arguably in the mix for the No. 1 spot with LeBron and K.D.
His current numbers are ones that have only been matched by players like Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, except Davis is a half decade younger than any legend was when he started posting lines like The Unibrow's.
B/R's Zach Buckley even went as far as calling him the best power forward in the league right now:
That title belongs to Davis, the 20-year-old phenom who didn't even grow up playing the post.
With a developing skill set that already puts him among the elites, he's capable of carrying a franchise at both ends of the floor. He's a No. 1 scorer who can defend No. 1 scorers—nearly regardless of position.
Is Davis currently on the NBA Mount Rushmore? No way.
Is Davis currently close to being on the NBA Mount Rushmore? No way.
Is Davis on pace to deserve some serious consideration when his career is over? It's hard to argue otherwise, though there's obviously a lot of time for things to go wrong between now and then.
Don't view this as a prediction that Davis will make it. Just think of it as an acknowledgment that he's making us think about it.
The 2024 Mount Rushmore
Get in your time machine and warp ahead 10 years into the future. When you emerge in 2024, we'll be ready to talk about the new version of the NBA Mount Rushmore.
***Emerging in 2024 and hearing the sounds of other people popping out of their time machines***
All right, glad you could join me. Now let's get back to business.
A decade ago, it was Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Bill Russell who occupied the four spots on the NBA Mount Rushmore. But unfortunately, the monument has been defaced, and we have to build a new one. That's why you're here.
In a way, it's a positive, because we get to update it with new faces, assuming that's necessary.
Right off the bat, Jordan and Russell are safe. The former is such an obvious choice, and the latter continues to boast an impeccable resume. Between his championships and his impact on the Association, it'll take an awful lot to displace him.
Now sacrilegious as it may seem, we're going to have to consider removing Magic and Bird. Ten years ago, that may have been an impossible thing to do, but we're in the future now.
LeBron has to have a spot, after all. And even though he suggested as much in the prescient interview with NBA TV from 2014, we're not going to add a fifth spot.
He was already close a decade ago, and it only took one more title and a normal career path over the time we skipped for him to become an easy choice. In fact, you might consider putting him on that untouchable level that Jordan still occupies.
So that means one of Bird and Magic must be removed, but is the other safe?
Durant is now 35 years old, and his career is coming to a close. Although he might stick around for a few more seasons, he was never able to turn the Oklahoma City Thunder into a dynastic organization. Even a couple titles aren't quite going to do the trick, because he doesn't have the same legacy aspect that Bird and Magic have on their side.
He wasn't the face of the league for long enough, thanks to LeBron. And he entered the league while it was already insanely popular, so there wasn't all that much he could do to improve it.
No one else—Anthony Davis, Paul George, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Thon Maker, etc.—is far enough along in their respective careers to deserve a spot on the NBA Mount Rushmore, so we're left removing one face and replacing it with LeBron's.
And yes, we'll be nice about his hairline.
In my humble opinion, it's Bird whom he knocks off. But as has always been the case, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are so intertwined in history that it's more of a personal choice than anything else.
Only that one change needs to be made, and it leaves us with Jordan, Russell, LeBron and Magic making up the 2024 NBA Mount Rushmore.
As for 2034? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.