You can pick an MJ. Whether it's Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, there will never be another MJ. Ever. That is not a bad thing, and I mean no disrespect to current NBA players, nor do I mean to place former NBA players on too high of a pedestal. The fact is the game has progressed to the point where there are too many great players for there to be one main guy in the league. Kobe Bryant is clearly great, but he's too polarizing of a person to get the full respect his skill alone would command. With his talents now being in South Beach, many people would feel LeBron James has become just as polarizing as Kobe. There in lies the problem with "best" player arguments. Most people are too blinded by their own allegiance as fans. Even members of the media who are supposed to be objective are largely more kind to athletes who have treated them well. With that as a preface to Part III, and a quick review of Parts I & II, here is the rest of my top 50. These are the most elite players I've ever seen play.
For brevity's sake, we'll take out a few "duh" names. They're obviously included in the list, but there's no need to talk about them much because no one in the right mind would argue against their greatness: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird.
Charles Barkley: The Round Mound of Rebound was a walking double-double, and never shied away from a big shot, throwing somebody through a window, or second helpings of dinner. Perhaps he could've been in the "duh" category, but I think some people count his larger than life persona and blunt comments against his actual skill on the basketball court. Whether you saw him play in Philly, Phoenix, or Houston, if you saw Charles Barkley play, you saw one of the best to ever do it.
Scottie Pippen: This pick will probably get the most people agitated, but I don't understand why. Everything you can say about Pippen not winning without MJ can be flipped. What did MJ win without Pippen? Nothing. Clearly MJ was the Batman to Pippen's Robin, but Robin was a superhero too. His all around game and defensive abilities made teams better beyond just the stat sheet because there is no stat for guarding the other team's offensive catalyst so no one else has to use their energy chasing them around on defense. Remember when he dominated Mark Jackson in the Eastern Conference with full court defense? How many other players in the league could have done that? Exactly. Pippen's great. Him playing second fiddle to Jordan doesn't change that.
John Stockton and Karl Malone: I am not now, nor have I ever been a Utah Jazz fan. I have never in my life read a kind word about Karl Malone as a man. Regardless of those two things, these two were great together. People can say neither would have been as great without the other or the pick and roll, but the point is moot because they did play together and assisted/scored a lot of points together. For those of you that simply credit the pick and roll, think about this: Any team can run a pick and roll. These two just did it better than anyone else in the history of the game. They were great in their own right, but keeping them together made the most sense.
Kobe Bryant: Keeping with players I will never cheer for, Kobe Bryant seemed like the logical place to go from the Jazz players. Before I moved to Phoenix and became a Suns fan, I didn't like Kobe Bryant. It has nothing to do with him playing for the Lakers either. Magic Johnson is my all-time favorite basketball player. Personal feelings aside, he's a remarkable talent. You can't argue with the rings nor the stats no matter how much you may dislike him. He's an amazing basketball player.
LeBron James: My decision has nothing to do with his Decision. As soon as the games start, and people see him on the court, everyone outside of Cleveland will get over the stupidity of his hour-long special on ESPN. He's been in the argument for greatest player in the game since his rookie season, and will probably be in the argument for greatest basketball player of all time when his career is finally over.
Tim Duncan: The Big Fundamental is the best power forward to ever play the game of basketball. Somewhere along the way, he went from being someone who was virtually void of emotion to being somewhat of a whiner, but his performance has been ridiculous since he's been in the league. Because he does not play in a huge media market and doesn't have a flashy game nor personality, he might not get the credit he deserves, but he can dominate a game on both ends of the floor like no other player I've seen. With so many people getting so wrapped up in points, it's nice to see a star player work on both ends of the court to help his team win.
Shaquille O'Neal: He should never rap, dance, nor act. Ever. He should stick with dunking on people because in his prime he was pretty much unstoppable when he did that. Come to think of it, the basket itself couldn't even contend with him. I remember him dunking in Orlando so hard he broke the basket and hit himself in the head with the shot clock. As big as he looked in Orlando, look at picture from his LA days. He dwarfed himself from back then, and even in Orlando he was one of the biggest human beings I've ever seen. Despite the ability to dominate just from his enormity, Shaq does have quite a bit of skill. For all of his points and rebounds, he might be the best passing big man I've seen. As an all around ball player not matter how crazy the twilight of his career may be, he's one of, if not the, best to ever play the position.
Patrick Ewing: Most people my generation probably saw Patrick Ewing play more than any other center on the planet because it seemed like the Knicks were on NBC every single weekend. Watching him play wasn't necessarily a thing of beauty all the time (I still think he traveled a lot), but he was a prolific scorer and a great rebounder and defender. He was one of the last prototypical centers. He was big, played with his back to the basket, and didn't want to float around and shoot 3's. Classic.
Hakeem Olajuwon: The originator of the Dream Shake was pure joy to watch. In high school I worked on my up and under move to try and be like him. It didn't work so well for me, but even current NBA stars like Kobe Bryant sought Olajuwon’s tutelage for post moves. He still played with his back to the basket like a traditional center, but he set the bar for athleticism for that position at a whole new level (keeping in mind I never saw Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell play).
Steve Nash: From quintessential centers to the quintessential point guard. He should have been 3 time MVP, but too many voters were swayed by the company that would have put him in as a 3 time MVP. I can't say I disagree with that logic, but watching him play it's easy to see that he'd be an MVP candidate on ANY team in the league. While he's one of the greatest pure shooters the game has ever seen, he always looks to pass first. This is evident by his huge assist numbers. He habitually makes guys look better than they really are because he puts so much pressure on the defense with his penetration and passing ability, his teammates always get great looks at the rim. Sadly he's never won a championship ring, but that does not dull his luster. He is the greatest pure point guard I have ever seen play.
Dirk Nowitzki: He doesn't have a ring, and has "only" one MVP, but if you watch him play, can you honestly tell me he isn't great? My biggest pet peeve about Nowitzki is when people say he's a great shooter for a big man. If he was 5'11", he'd still be a great shooter. Obviously he wouldn't get as many shots to the rim, but why do people have to use qualifiers? He's a flat out great shooter regardless of position. He runs the floor and rebounds well. Scoring plus rebounding equals a great power forward to me.
Kevin Garnett: His best days were in Minnesota when he was arguably the best player in the league, but he won a ring in Boston. No matter what team you look at, he's flat got it done. His combination of skill and size mixed with his intensity, understanding of the game, and teamwork make him not only fun to watch, but someone who is easy to cheer for.
The last few are prophetic because they haven't yet done all I feel they will in their career, but I love the trajectory they are currently on:
Kevin Durant: He just won the scoring title, but from everything I've heard or read, he'll probably win more. He's still so young though, so as he gets older, his overall game should improve as well. Not that his overall game is bad at all, but he's an elite scorer already, and when the rest of his game catches up with his talents there, the rest of the league better watch out.
Carmelo Anthony: I've heard people say he's lazy. Watching him play, I think the game is just that easy for him. He makes scoring look easy because he can do it in so many way. He's stronger than a lot of 3's, but quicker than a lot of 4's. His midrange jumper is one of the best in the league, and he's a very good offensive rebounder. Watching him play at Syracuse it was like scoring was too easy. I still feel that way watching him play sometimes against the best players in the world whether it's in the league or during the 2008 Olympics.
Dwight Howard: Much like Tim Duncan, Howard works on both ends of the court, so that's a huge positive. The negative is thinking about how many points he scores while still having a somewhat limited offensive repertoire. When his skill matches his physical ability he will be unstoppable. If that never happens, he'll still be one of the greatest centers to play the game.