If I were to start a sports version of Oprah’s book club, Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball would top the list. Covering the history of the NBA from the days of slow white dudes through 2009, Simmons provides his usual humor throughout all 700-plus pages.
The large majority of the book focuses on the top 100 players of all-time, a topic always hotly debated by hoops' fans. Here’s my very own list of the top 10 players to ever play the game with a few honorable mentions.
Jerry West—West would probably be in most hoops fans' top 10, but I can’t put a guy who lost eight championships on this list.
John Havlicek—One of the greatest “winners” of all time. He and Scottie Pippen are the two best sidekicks to ever play the game.
Moses Malone—The best rebounder of all time.
Elgin Baylor—Ranks as one of the most gifted scorers to ever play the game, but lost eight championships and won none.
Scottie Pippen—If Michael Jordan was this generation’s Batman, Pippen was certainly Robin.
Oscar Robertson—It’s hard to keep the human triple-double off this list, but someone who played in a far-less competitive era has to be looked at objectively. For all we know, Robertson would average 10 and five on an NBA team today. Fair or not, players from the NBA’s inception will always be penalized in the big picture.
Still, Robertson transcended the game with his ability to find teammates and score at will. He was an NBA champion and will be linked with Bob Cousy as one of the first truly great point guards to play the game.
The smoothest big man the league has ever seen. Olajuwon could do absolutely anything he wanted on the offensive end, and blocked shots at a high rate to boot. In a Jordan-less league, he would very likely be ranked much higher on this list, as evidenced by his two championship wins when MJ was busy playing baseball.
Nowadays, chiseled big men like Dwight Howard are the ideal, but I’d take Hakeem’s freakish athletic ability over that any day of the week. Well, with one exception (see No. 8).
On the list of honorable mentions I listed Havlicek as one of the greatest winners ever. Russell is the greatest winner ever. You can’t argue with 11 championships in 13 seasons—that’s a mark that will never, ever be broken.
Russell isn’t just the greatest winner, he’s also on the shortlist of best defenders to play the game. He would more than likely own the record for blocks (not a category during his career), and was rewarded for his efforts with five MVP awards. So why isn’t he higher on this list?
It’s simple: the era he played in. Just like the “Big O,” we don’t know how Russell would have done in a 30-team, much more competitive league. He also averaged less than 16 points per game for his career, so at the end of games, Bill wasn’t a guy you could turn to for big shots.
During Shaq’s prime, there wasn’t anything on earth that could slow him down—except that darn free throw line. O’Neal is a four-time champion, and could likely add ring No. 5 by season’s end in Cleveland.
There was literally no answer for him in the paint in the early 2000s, and his defensive ability made him just as lethal on both sides of the ball.
Some point to Kobe Bryant as the reason O’Neal won three championships in Los Angeles, but virtually no champion lacked at least two superstars on the same team (except for Duncan and Olajuwon). Shaq was a guy you could build a team around and win 60 games. Today, he’s still a worthy competitor on any finals contender.
Bryant is the closest thing the NBA has seen to Michael Jordan since MJ’s retirement. Similar to Michael, Kobe has adapted his game as age slowly catches up to him. Formerly a high-flying dunker, Bryant is now a prolific jump shooter and phenomenal defender.
His four championships put him at No. 7, but with three to four more years of high-level basketball left, Kobe could easily advance up this list. If he finishes his already illustrious career with seven rings (which is unlikely but not out of the realm of possibility), perhaps we’ll be waiting for the next Kobe instead of the next Jordan in the future.
Larry reinvigorated the Celtics franchise and led them to three championships during the 80s. He averaged a cool 24 points and 10 rebounds in 13 seasons, and helped put the NBA on the national television map with his rivalry against Magic Johnson.
Bird was also one of the most entertaining and confident players to suit up in the 80s, with his three-point contest guarantee (which he upheld by winning), along with his multiple acrobatic game-winning shots. Larry Legend will forever live on as a legend in the Boston area, which is no easy task.
Kareem played for a ridiculous 20 years, which is no easy task for a big man (just ask Yao Ming, who is struggling to make it through one full season). His name is synonymous with the sky hook, a shot attempted by youngsters across the globe along with NBA centers today, and his six MVPs only bolster an already impressive resume.
Abdul-Jabbar is also the league’s all-time leading scorer, ahead of Wilt and Michael Jordan. He won six NBA championships, serving as Magic Johnson’s go-to man in the 80s. Out of every center the NBA has ever seen, he’s the second best. Not too shabby.
Duncan is the most under appreciated player basketball has ever seen. His fundamental offensive moves were supposed to work in the 1960s, not the 2000s, yet he’s been a career 20 points per game player. In an era that should’ve been completely dominated by Shaq, Kobe, and LeBron, Duncan won four championships with his best teammates being Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Duncan was and still is, a once-in-a-lifetime defender and leader. His statline in a game against the Nets during the Finals (21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, 8 blocks) remains the epitome of a fantasy basketball owner’s dream, and he achieved that on the highest stage in the world, not a meaningless regular season game against the Clippers.
Timmy is by far the greatest power forward in the history of basketball, and hopefully, his greatness will truly be appreciated when he decides to call it quits.
Magic was the only player who one-upped Larry Bird during the 80s. He’s LeBron James plus four inches and a whole bunch of championships, which is why James has lots of work to do if he wants to be included in a top 10 conversation.
Johnson’s passing ability was simply surreal. No 6'10" player should be able to play point guard with such grace and skill, yet Magic broke that unwritten rule. When his team needed a center during the Finals, Magic filled in and delivered a championship. Only the third greatest player of all time could do something so monumental.
I know, I know. Call me a hypocrite for placing Wilt No. 2 on this list after dropping Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson down because of the era they played in. But hear me out.
Wilt is the most dominant basketball player to ever play the game. At some point, you have to throw out the “he played in a much worse era” argument, because Wilt was so far above everyone else he played against. He scored 100 points in a game, averaged 50 for a season, and even led the league in assists when he decided to pass more.
Russell was a better winner, but Wilt has achieved a legendary status that no other player besides Michael Jordan could brag about. The picture of Chamberlain with a piece of paper that simply read “100” has become one of the enduring images of basketball. It is the insurmountable peak of the tallest mountaintop that only Kobe Bryant has gotten close to touching.
Stick Wilt into today’s NBA and I still think he’s one of the best players around. He was that good, that unstoppable, and the best big man of all time.
MJ is the greatest basketball player this world has ever seen. He refused to lose, a trait possessed by few in the era of high-paid NBA players afraid to get dunked on today. He won six championships against John Stockton, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, and other Hall-of-Famers.
While most players suffer from the effects of achy bones and bruises as the years go on, Jordan simply adjusted his game and got better. He was the ultimate leader, the ultimate scorer, and the ultimate defender.
If Larry Bird and Magic Johnson brought the NBA out of the doldrums of sports irrelevance, Michael Jordan took it straight to the forefront of American culture. Every aspiring basketball player of the 90s donned his signature jersey and shoes, and the Chicago Bulls became the iconic team of basketball.
From now until the end of time, Jordan’s impact will be felt throughout the basketball world. Perhaps someday there will be a player considered better, but there will never be another Jordan. His hunger and love for the game make him a one-of-a-kind sensation, a step above the “superstar” title given to the others on this list.