Whenever you ask someone who the best players of all-time are in any sport you are bound to get a variety of answers, as many older fans tend to favor the players from their era, while younger fans favor today’s stars.
So I decided to challenge that thinking by creating an all-NBA roster using players from every decade. Here are the rules for my roster:
- Fill out a roster with two players from every decade, starting with the 1950s.
- Make sure all the starters have someone to back them up.
- No two players from the same decade are allowed in the starting line-up.
- Arrange the bench in the order they would come off the court.
- List two alternates who should be the best in the game from 2010-2019.
- Each should be adequate replacements on the roster.
Here is the bench for my all-time roster. You can find the starters here.
6. Oscar Robertson (1960-1969)
Robertson could legitimately call himself the best player ever. Averaging a triple-double is no easy task, and he had the versatility that nobody else in that era ever had.
If you think LeBron James at 6'8" and 250 pounds can play any position, consider what Robertson could do at 6'5" and 220. In many aspects, he was the first combo guard in NBA history. He could probably play small forward in the 1960s as well.
The fact that Robertson was in his prime playing for the Cincinnati Royals is a major reason why he doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves. The only teams that really had that many televised games back then were the Lakers, Knicks, and 76ers.
Another thing many people don’t realize is that Robertson shot a better field-goal percentage than Jerry West, who many would consider one of the best shooters in the game. Robertson had a 49-percent field-goal percentage, as opposed to West, who shot 47 percent.
7. Kobe Bryant (2000-2009)
He’s hands down the best player in this era, and could be in the argument for top five players of all time. Bryant is nearly impossible to guard and has lately learned how to use his teammates.
The 81-point effort from Bryant shows that he can record 40 and 50-point games if he wants to on a regular basis. He now trusts the rest of the team—especially with Pau Gasol, the newest Laker, making it unnecessary to for Bryanttake over games like he used to. Now he needs to win a championship without O’Neal to put him into the highest echelon of NBA players.
Bryant has been largely overshadowed by Duncan, who has four NBA Championships and two MVPs. It’s a little early to establish what his legacy is, but he has two or three more years to go before he’ll be considered over the hill.
In these next few years, Bryant will have to take advantage of being the best player on a competitive team. Now that Duncan is past his prime, Bryant should win another MVP with the Lakers, and become more of a defensive stopper in the NBA with his Olympic experience.
8. Magic Johnson (1980-1989)
If Johnson had played a few more years, his accomplishments might have eclipsed Jordan entirely. In only 12 seasons, he won four NBA Championships and three MVPs, while making the finals nine times.
He won his first Championship when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was nearing towards the end of his career—so while it looked like he was part of a dynasty, Johnson simply avoided playing for a team in rebuilding mode.
Johnson was the second coming of Robertson, as he was also versatile and big for his position. Magic was one of a few players who could play any of the five positions if he wanted to—but most of his damage came as a point guard.
Magic's presence on the floor singlehandedly made the Lakers a better team than they would be without him. And he did it averaging around just 20 points per game. Many of today’s dominant players must average at least 25 points—and usually closer to 30—in order to make their teams competitive.
9. Dolph Schayes (1950-1959)
Schayes is a very difficult player to rank on an all-time list. There is no question that he was the best player of the 1950s, but he played in a league with few competent big men—besides Bob Pettit and George Mikan—and undoubtedly scored a lot of his points at the free-throw line.
Schayes played in a time before the shot-clock was invented and during a close game, fouling became almost a necessity to stay competitive. Schayes ended his career with more points than Pettit or Mikan.
The other thing that makes Schayes' accomplishments superior to Mikan's, who dominated exclusively with his size, was the outside shooting touch and passing ability. He was the first big man not to rely exclusively on his post game.
But again, the only thing that knocks him down is that it’s impossible to say if he would be as great of a player against defenders his size or even bigger than him.
10. Julius Erving (1970-1979)
It’s very hard to assess how good Erving really was, because he played in two separate leagues. His ABA numbers are nearly impossible to track—but luckily I got some help from Kalb’s research.
He averaged 24.9 points and 15 rebounds in his rookie season with the 1972 Virginia Squires, although it’s hard to figure out if he would have had those numbers in the NBA.
But there are a few other indicators that show why he belongs on this list.
First of all, he glorified the art of dunking, and was really the first player to dominate the game with his athleticism. Erving simply did things that nobody in the game has ever seen before.
In the NBA, Erving averaged 22 points per game in 11 seasons, which is nothing eye-popping—but Erving wasn’t the clear No. 1 option on his team. The best players from the 70s were owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob McAdoo, and Pete Maravich.
McAdoo made my team, but I felt there were other centers more deserving than Kareem, and Maravich had a short career, so I chose other guards that I thought were more qualified than him. I don’t have anything against Erving—I just can’t qualify his dominance in the ABA because he was never substantially better in the NBA.
The fact that his best days were in the ABA and his skills dwindled when he went to the 76ers makes it hard to give him as much credit as he probably deserves.
11. Hakeem Olajuwon (1990-1999)
You have to give credit to one of the few great players not named Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen that won a championship in the 90s. Make that two championships—and that was without any other stars on the Rockets.
He played at a time where there were plenty of true centers who could give him a run for his money, such as Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing. This is the main reason why I couldn’t give this spot to Shaq. Olajuwon isn’t as dominant, but is more skilled and is better-rounded than O’Neal.
Shaq was a very good player, but dominated mostly against very quick PFs forced to play center, or guys who were undersized, but strong. The only players you could make an argument for as competition are Yao Ming and Amare Stoudemire, and neither of them are as great as the best centers in the 90s.
I’m not taking anything away from O’Neal—he might be a better player than Olajuwon. I just don’t know if he would stand out as much in an era with several great centers. Either way, the difference isn’t that great, which is why I am giving Olajuwon the nod here.
If Olajuwon and Wade or Olajuwon and Bryant ever got to play together, they might have taken away a championship or two from the Bulls.
12. Bob McAdoo (1970-1979)
McAdoo is one of the most underrated players of all-time. He was dominant pretty much the first day he walked onto an NBA court. While his stats peaked very early, he still belongs on this list because he refined Dolph Schayes’ game, and was an even better outside shooter.
McAdoo is a career 50-percent shooter, and would’ve been an outside shooter if the three-point lane existed during his time. However, he still had exceptional range and was great at putting the ball on the floor.
The main reason why McAdoo loses a lot of credit on all-time lists is because he played on teams that weren’t that good, so he was the go-to option by default.
But it’s hard to take away his rebounding ability and perimeter skills—and he was still one of the better players of the '70s.
13. LeBron James
Believe it or not, we have not seen the best of James.
He is only 25 years old and is already one of the best players in the game. There is no question that he’s going to be better than Bryant at some point. It’s just a matter of when.
James is already a more proven leader than Bryant, who didn’t prove he could be an effective leader until last year. James has gone to the NBA Finals—and would have been in the Finals again this year, had Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge not decided to play fantasy basketball and bring in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
The Cavs’ leader has made his squad one of the more competitive teams in the Eastern Conference—without having anyone around him.
James is still a long way from being one of the best. He needs to do a better job of being the go-to player during crunch time, and has to stop passing up his shots at the end of the game.
However, I have no doubts that all of this will come with time. James becomes a free agent in 2010, where he will have any number of teams with free cap room to choose from. My guess is that once he leaves the Cavs, he’ll surpass Bryant as a better player.
14. Dwight Howard
It’s hard to believe that Howard is dominating the Eastern Conference at the center position and hasn’t even turned 23. Yet he’s averaged a double-double since his rookie season. He’s incredibly athletic, and does a terrific job at rebounding and scoring.
After a decade that was pretty much Shaq and everyone else in the paint, it looks like Howard will lead a crop of some very good centers over the next decade, including Amare Stoudemire, LaMarcus Aldridge, and any number of big men from this year’s draft who might pan out.
As great of a scorer as Howard is, his rebounding might become the story of his career. He is the youngest player in league history to average a double-double, grab 4,000 rebounds, and lead the league in rebounding.
Shaq never averaged as many rebounds in one season as Howard did in 2008 (14.2). When you look at where Howard’s rebounding ability is compared to Dennis Rodman, the best rebounder in recent history, you’ll notice that it took Rodman six years before he had more than 13 rebounds per game.
If Howard becomes a 30-20 player, or even a 20-20 player, he will be the best center of this era, and might belong in the same sentence as the greatest centers. He’s not going to come close to beating Chamberlain’s nearly 24,000 rebounds, but if he averages 1,000 rebounds over the next 12 seasons, he will reach 16,000.
That would put him at No. 6, ahead of Robert Parish, Nate Thurmond, and Walt Bellamy. If he plays well into his late 30s and can avoid injuries, he’ll move past Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone, and would be making a run towards Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 17,440 rebounds.
Sources: basketball-reference.com and Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Basketball by Elliot Kalb