Who are the 25 greatest players in NBA history? I asked that question in an informal poll of several—and a few former—B/R Featured Columnists. I took the responses and awarded 25 points for a first place vote, 24 for a second and so on.
Why do that? Because in one sense "greatness" is not a singular achievement. I might think I have the world's greatest dad, but that's just me. To determine the actual "world's greatest dad," there would need to be "professional"/nominated examples and some sort of consensus opinion on them. The same goes for the greatest NBA players of all time.
Dozens of factors come into play, and prioritizing wins, stats, rings, MVPs, playoff stats, scoring, rebounding and so on. The general value of the various things vary from person to person as some attribute more to winning and others to personal play.
All of these different priorities, stats and so on get jumbled together into a giant nebulous of ambiguousness called "greatness," and we end up with the prevailing opinion of greatness. Then, of course, we determine whether people are "overrated" or "underrated" concerning our own personal opinion of where the rest of the world is wrong.
Absent more of a collective opinion, how can you even say who is overrated or underrated? That's why I took to the email machine to poll our Featured Columnists. By compiling an actual list of a collected opinion, it gives some room to consider where people are generally rated in the first place.
Then too, the larger the consensus opinion the more it might cause one to reconsider their own positions. If it doesn't it might mean a closed mind. If a number of reasonably informed people share a similar position and yours differs, it might be possible that the one "overrating" or "underrating" is the minority.
However, because this is more of a consensus process, I will stipulate one thing. If there are at least a net 10 mentions that a player should be higher or lower, I will move them up or down one spot.
What I received in response were a number of lists. On these lists there were a total of exactly 50 players named, so my top 25 became a top 50. In some ways there was a great deal of continuity on the lists and in some ways there was a variety, as the 50 names might suggest.
Following are the 50 names in the order of the votes they received in reverse order. In cases of ties I used the HOF Rating from basketball-reference to serve as the tie-breaker.
Thanks to Ethan Norof, Chris Houston, Matthew Brown, Will Danielson, Faizon Quarashi, Brian Chapatta and Andrew Bock for submitting their top 25.
Alex English may be the most overlooked of the great players in the history of the game. His career numbers, 25,613 points, 4,351 assists and 6,358 rebounds are bested by only seven players ever. Those seven are all in the top 20 on this list.
English was an eight time All-Star, made the All-NBA second team three times, and won one scoring championship. His total of 22,451 points was the most scored by any player in the decade of the 80s. Players like Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone played the entire decade, but he outscored all of them.
His obscurity in the present isn't much different from his obscurity in the past. Even when he led the league in scoring he was largely overlooked because of his less than flamboyant personality. In a way it's oddly appropriate he's 50th on the list, because it's symbolic of his entire career.
Jason Kidd has been one of the truly great point guards in the history of the game. He is one of only two players to ever amass 15,000 points, 10,000 assists and 5,000 rebounds. The other is Magic Johnson. That's some pretty rare company.
Kidd was also dominant on the defensive side of the ball, making 5 All-Defense first teams and 4 All-Defense second teams.
This year he finally got the one thing he had lacked, a ring. That came where he'd started his career in Dallas. He and teammate Dirk Nowitzki were to of the greatest active players who had never won a ring, and the pair played like they would not be denied.
Before there were the Celtics "Big Three" or the Heat's "Big Three" there was the Celtics original big three. This big three was actually big. In one of the great pre-draft day trade coups in NBA history, the Celtics gave the Golden State Warriors the number one overall pick and the 13th pick. In return the Warriors sent Boston Robert Parish and the third pick, which the Celtics used to draft Kevin McHale.
Those two joined small forward Larry Bird in Boston and the three combined to form what many consider the greatest frontcourt in the history of the NBA. All three are on this list and all three were on the NBA's "50 Greatest Players" list.
Robert Parish was a nine time All-star and four-time NBA champion. He is one of only seven players in history to score 20,000 points, grab 10,000 boards and block 2,000 shots.
Wes Unseld is one of only two players in the history of the NBA to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Until last season he held the record for youngest player to ever be named MVP. Derrick Rose, at 22 broke the record.
Unseld was noted for his strength, even if he wasn't a huge player. His combination of strength and athleticism brought the Bulls to four NBA finals and one championship.
Unseld is 10th on the all time rebounding list. He was a five time All-Star, and was named to the NBA's list of 50 greatest players.
Earl "The Pearl" Monroe was arguably the most creative offensive talent in the history of the NBA. Statistically, he's a tough person to make an argument for in terms of the 50 greatest of all time, but that's not the basis for his being here.
Monroe had moves that no one else ever had. If you ever get a chance, just go to Youtube, and watch some of his highlights. As you're watching it ask yourself, "who is there like him today?" The answer is no one. In terms of pure originality, he's utterly unique.
Perhaps this quote says what you need to know about Monroe. He said, "The thing is, I don't know what I'm going to do with the ball, and if I don't know, I'm quite sure the guy guarding me doesn't know either."
Tom Heinsohn is another player who isn't on this list for putting up enormous numbers. His singular accomplishment is winning. Only Bill Russell and Sam Jones, two of his teammates, have won more NBA championships than Heinshn's eight.
Heinsohn also appeared in six All-Star games, was named to the All NBA second team on four occasions, and won the Rookie of the Year in 1957.
It's not often you see a player impact the NBA rules before they even get drafted, but Worthy was a part of the reason for the lottery system. The NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers had, through a prudent series of trades, landed themselves a fifty-fifty chance at the first round pick. Winning the coin toss with the Kings, they got the first overall pick, and chose James Worthy.
Worthy went on to be "worthy" of the commotion he caused. He was an integral part of the "Showtime Lakers" of the 80s. James scored 16,000 points and grabbed 4,000 rebounds. He was a spectacular above the rim player.
Most of all though he was "Big Game James." He played huge when the stage was the biggest, and it was his triple double, with 36 points, 16 boards and 10 dimes in Game 7 of the 1988 NBA finals that earned him the Finals MVP that season.
Steve Nash is one of the more controversial players of his time. He's a two time MVP but he's the second lowest scoring MVP in NBA history. Ironically he's the MVP for piloting one of the more explosive and exciting offenses of his day.
I was too young to really see and appreciate Pete Maravich, but I think Nash must be like a modern version of him. He's one of my favorite players to watch. He lead the NBA in total assists again this year.
I just wonder if Nash has the 900 plus assists left in him to reach 10,000. Other players with 15,000 points and 9,000 assists are John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson. How's that for select company?
Walt "Clyde" Frazier was never accused of a lack of style. Whether it was his fluid play making ability, his smooth dress, or his rhyming rhetoric in the booth, he's got it.
He led the Knicks to two NBA championships, was a seven time NBA All-Star, and seven time All-NBA First Team Defense as well.
Frazier had arguably the best single game playoff performance in history. In Game 7 of the 1970 finals he scored 36 points, had 19 assists and grabbed seven rebounds, leading the Knicks to victory and their first ever NBA Championship.
Dirk Nowitzki's shot should be enshrined in a museum somewhere. His and Reggie Miller's are, in my opinion, the most perfect form I've ever seen. It's really not fair when you can shoot like that and be seven feet tall. How is that supposed to be guarded?
Dirk has been to 10 All-Star games, is the 2007 MVP, and a four time member of the All-NBA first team. With 22,531 points, Nowitzki is the NBA's 23rd all time leading scorer. He is also 12th in NBA history in Win Shares per 48 minutes.
As a note it should be mentioned that this article was started before the playoffs last year, and the votes were submitted back then. It just spent a little time on the backburner. Probably the only one who would be affected in their position is Dirk Nowitzki, who would doubtless move up as the one strike against him, the lack of rings, no longer exists.
Dominique Wilkins was called the "Human Highlight Film" for a reason. Primarily it's because he was a human highlight film. His spectacular plays were a routine thing and the reason he was selected to nine All-Star games.
Wilkins never won an NBA Championship, but he was drafted by the Utah Jazz who were unable to keep him. This was a combination of money and Wilkins not wanting to play there. Imagine if he'd played his career with the Jazz, and added his talents to Stockton's and Malone's.
If the three had played together would they be considered the greatest dynasty of all time and Jordan the one who "couldn't win the big one?"
He was a big man selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the number one overall pick that had his first two years destroyed by injuries. Nope, we're not talking about Gregg Oden here, we're talking about Bill Walton. Maybe history will repeat itself.
Walton came back the next year to lead the Trail Blazers to an NBA championship. The following year he helped Portland to win 50 of 60 before he went down with an injury. He won the MVP that year (1978).
His overall numbers and All-Star game appearances aren't impressive. He was only in two All-Star games. He won two NBA championships though, and when he was healthy he was one of the most dominant defensive big men in the game.
Willis Reed was a seven time All-Star, a two time NBA champion and Finals MVP, a Rookie of the Year, and an MVP. He was the leader of the 70's Knicks teams that won two championships. How's that for a list?
Reed's overall career averages were brought down by injury. He was great inside defender, rebounder and potent scorer. He could be counted on for 20 points and 14 boards a night. The combination of him with Frazier and Monroe was explosive.
The 1973 team must have been something to watch. With Frazier and Monroe in the backcourt the Knicks were tall and interchangeable, with a shooting guard who could pass and a point guard who could score. In the middle, alongside Reed was Dave DeBusschere, one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the game.
Dwyane Wade's legacy is still being written. His career Player Efficiency Rating is sixth best in NBA history. Wade has never finished higher than third in MVP voting though. There are varying reasons for that but basically it just comes down to the stars never aligning right for him.
Don't think for a moment that doesn't mean he's not a great player though. He absolutely is. All time, he's ninth in points per game and 43rd in assists per game. He has one NBA championship, an NBA finals MVP, an All-Star game MVP, and he's a seven time All-Star.
He tied himself together forever with Chris Bosh and LeBron James, and contrary to what some say, the legacy of the three has not been automatically diminished. It all depends on whether in the long run it works. If it does, then Wade could be in the discussion for top 10 before he retires.
Gary Payton was really a special player. He was able to score when needed, navigate an offense, and play absolutely superb defense, for which he received his nickname, "the Glove." He didn't get a huge number of steals, but he got enough. It was just so hard to get around him.
He was the only point guard in history to win the Defensive Player of the Year award, and was selected to the All-Defensive team nine times. He was named to the All-NBA first team twice, the second team five times, and the third team twice.
Consistently averaging 20 points and nine assists a game didn't hurt either. On the all time list, he's eighth in assists, 26th in points, and fourth in steals.
Sometimes you'll hear people talk about a "killer." They mean that guy who is going to nail the clutch shot. I have no idea how many game winners Reggie Miller has. I can't find any kind of official list, but if there is anyone who has more than Kobe and Jordan, it would be him.
Jordan had 26 (25 with the Bulls). Kobe has 26. I don't know how many Reggie Miller had but I wouldn't be surprised if it was close to that.
Miller's most unbelievable moment can be summed up in four words, eight point nine seconds. With the Pacers trailing the Knicks by six points with 18 seconds left, Miller drained a three. Then he stole the inbounds pass, stepped behind the three point line, and sank another three.
Then after getting fouled on the next inbounds play, John Starks missed a pair of free throws. Patrick Ewing got the rebound and missed the put back, Miller got the rebound and got fouled. He sank a pair of free throws. In 8.9 seconds he took the Pacers from being six down to eight up to cap a 31 point comeback in Game 1 of their second round series against the Knicks.
Miller was a five time NBA All-Star, and until just recently was the NBA record holder for career three point shots.
I'm not sure if there's a record for "face most likely to be on Spike Lee's dart board" but if there is Miller is the clear holder of it.
Jerry Lucas won the NBA Championship in 1973. He went to seven All-Star games. He was an All-Star game MVP in 1965. He was All-NBA first team on three different occasions. He still ranks as the 15th all time rebounder in NBA history with 12,942.
Probably his most impressive characteristic is that he is the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain to have a double double-double, 20 points and 20 rebounds, for an entire season. Take that Kevin Love!
I was born in Louisiana in 1967. When I was about nine or 10 years old and we went to go visit my grandmother they still talked about him like he played at LSU just the year before. There are three players I was never able to watch but really wish I could have seen. Pete, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson.
Everything I've heard about Maravich is that he's one of those players who the stats don't begin to tell the story so I'm not going to give you the numbers. It wasn't just about what he did but about how he did it. From what I've read and seen on Youtube, the closest thing to Maravich now is Steve Nash's ball handling mixed with Kobe's step back jumper.
Clyde Drexler is one of only three players in the history of the NBA with 20,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 6,000 assists. The other two are John Havlicek and Oscar Robertson, leaving Drexler as the only player who has done it since the merger.
In spite of the fact that he played at Houston and Houston had two of the first three draft choices, they didn't use either pick on him. Both players, Ralph Sampson and Rodney McCray had decent enough NBA careers, but neither was close to Drexler who ended up going 14th to the Portland Trail Blazers.
After several years in Portland, Drexler was traded to the Rockets in midseason in 1995 where he finally got a championship.
George "the Iceman" Gervin was one of the great scorers in NBA history, winning four scoring titles. His 25.1 points per game is 11th all time and his 26,595 total points is 14th all time. His "finger roll" was his go-to move, and he was the master of it. He could even make the shot from the free throw line.
Gervin is among those on the list of players that show that greatness and winning championships don't necessarily have to go hand in hand.
On a personal note, he's also the only person on this list I've actually met in person. I know, it's utterly meaningless to anyone but me (and him), but it is kind of cool.
Kevin McHale was a piece of what many consider to be the greatest front court in NBA history. Statistically he doesn't stand out as much as some others on this list, but part of the reason for that is that he played alongside Larry Bird and Robert Parrish.
McHale was the enforcer on the team that won three championships. He was the guy who did the dirty work. He was an efficient scorer and elite rebounder. He did a lot of the unglamorous things, and he did them well. He's a key reason for three of the Celtics championships.
McHale was a seven time all star, and named to the NBA's "50th All Anniversary Team"
Rick Barry was one of the truly elite and most versatile players in the history of the game as well as being a great scorer. He is the only player who ever won scoring championships in the NBA, ABA and NCAA. He was arguably the first of the great wingmen who could score, pass and rebound.
He was the first player in the history of the NBA to average 30 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals over the course of a season. Since then the feat has only been matched by Dwyane Wade, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
In 1967 he averaged 35.6 points per game. Only Wilt Chamberlain, Elign Baylor and Michael Jordan have had higher scoring seasons.
In 1975 with the Golden State Warriors he led his team to the NBA Championship and was the Finals MVP. He also was an eight time All-Star. All in all, Barry's resume is impressive to say the least.
On a side note, he's one of three father-son combinations to win a ring. The other two are Bill and Luke Walton and Matt Goukas Sr. and Jr.
Kevin Garnett is arguably one of the two most versatile and most complete power forwards in the history of the game. He is the only player to ever have 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 4,000 assists and 1,500 blocks and steals.
Garnett's versatility makes him one of the truly great power forwards who has ever played. His ability to produce on both ends of the court certainly earns him a spot on this list. Perhaps his only flaw with this placement is it is too low.
In one of the dumbest "insult" chants of all time, Cleveland fans chanted "Scottie Pippen" to put down LeBron James. Accusing someone of only being one of the greatest NBA players in history is hardly insulting,
There is only one player in the history of the game to score 18,000 points, 7,000 rebounds, and 6,000 assists. He was also arguably the greatest defensive small forward ever. He was one of the truly great "number twos" in the history of the game.
And that's the irony of the chant. It takes a level of humility to be willing to be the second option. Those who level criticism at LeBron critique his arrogance. James certainly has the game to be Scottie Pippen, but I don't know that he has the willingness.
George Mikan was the first greatest player and the first of the truly great big men. He was at one time the NBA's all time leading scorer and rebounder. At 6'1"0 he dispelled the myth that big men were too uncoordinated to play the game, and forever changed it by his dominance. If greatness is measured by lasting impact, he has to be one of the greatest.
Statistically, he's not overwhelming, but as the first of the greats he surely warrants a spot in the top 50.
Elvin Hayes probably doesn't get the notoriety in the present day that he deserves. He's sixth all time in rebounds and 10th all time in points. He's also third all time in minutes played. He was in 10 All-Star games and he led the Washington Bullets to the 1978 NBA championship.
While all of that is pretty darned impressive the thing that might trump all of that is throughout his entire 16 year career he only missed nine games. That's pretty impressive durability for a big man.
LeBron James is the other player who might be affected if I were to resample the poll now. While he did make it to the finals again, his second finals collapse might drop him down.
It's possible that from a sheer talent and physical ability viewpoint, James is the most gifted player in the history of the world. His combination of agility, speed, strength and size is utterly and completely unique.
I want him to win because what he does is so amazing to watch. I just hope that he can he dig down and find his "inner Kobe" and learn how to beast it out. If he does, and he does start piling up the wins, he could very well be on top of this list before all is said and done.
As it is the only player with a higher career Player Efficiency Rating is Michael Jordan. The complete list of players who match his career 27 point, 7 rebound, 7 assist totals is him and him alone. If he can retire with those averages, and get a hand full of rings besides, he will challenge Jordan for the top spot.
However, as long as his knuckles are bare, don't expect him to crack the top 10.
When he was drafted he was going to be the next great center in the league. While he was great, he never won a ring and that is the strike against him, albeit an unfair one. Ewing consistently made it to the postseason, and almost always past the first round.
He is the Knicks all time postseason leader in points, rebounds and games. He just never had a great player alongside him. Not one of his teammates from the Knicks is yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
That he consistently carried his team into the postseason without great help should be a testament to his greatness, not a strike against it.
Ewing is 25th all-time in blocks and 21st all-time in points as well as seventh in total blocks.
As an aside, David "the Admiral" Robinson started a trend for me. In the last four US cities I've lived, starting with San Antonio, the teams have acquired a future MVP on draft day. I lived in Minneapolis when the Timberwolves got Garnett, Los Angeles when the Lakers got Kobe, and in Chicago when the Bulls got Derrick Rose.
Not that that has anything to do with this. It just occurred to me as I was writing the piece. Now, NBA owners, if you want to fund my move and give me a large stipend I will consider moving to your location.
Robinson was truly an officer and a gentleman. He wasn't a half bad NBA player either. Robinson is fourth all time in PER and on the defensive end he has the sixth lowest defensive rating in NBA history. He's also second all time in Win Share per 48 minutes.
The thing that most defines him though is what he didn't do. The Spurs had never won a championship in 1999 when they acquired Tim Duncan. Robinson let Duncan be the scoring leader of the team and that humble act was the reason the Spurs won.
Isiah Thomas might not be able to do much with running a team as an executive but he sure knew how to run one as a point guard. He was electric both as a scorer and a passer and he was the pivotal factor behind the Pistons winning back to back titles in '89 and '90.
Thomas is in the conversation for second best point guard of all time (Magic Johnson is the clear number one). During his illustrious career he made 11 All-Star Games, being named MVP of that twice. He is 7th on the all time assist list and 54th on the all time scoring list.
He is one of just four players in NBA history to have 18,000 points and 9,000 assists.
Charles Barkely is on the short list of players along with the likes Karl Malone and Elgin Baylor who have never won an NBA championship.
Barkley also had a tendency to get in trouble off the court and just generally, become a distraction to his teams.
For those reasons Barkley's actual contributions as a player are often overshadowed. He was one of the truly great players in the history of the game, and far more versatile than some people realize.
If you distinguish between "greatest," which would include intangible contributions like rings and MVPs, and "best," which would just include pure stats and individual contributions, Barkley could arguably be in the top 10.
He is one of just five players to ever have 20,000 points, 10,000 boards and 4,000 assists. His PER is 11th all time and his Win Shares per 48 minutes is ninth all time.
Michael Jordan famously missed his high school team as a freshman. Bob Pettit, got cut both as a freshman and a sophomore. Let's just say he had the last laugh too.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Pettit was his consistency. Every year of his career he averaged 12 rebounds and 20 points or more. The only other player to score at least 20 points per game every year and play for more than three was Jordan.
Maybe there's something to this being cut thing.
Pettit retired as the all time points leader and won an NBA championship.
Interestingly, he was very nearly paired with Bill Russell as the Hawks, for whom Pettit played his entire career, traded away Russell's draft rights. A tandem of Russell and Pettit would have been fearsome to say the least.
Bob Cousy was the first really great NBA point guard, leading the NBA in assists every year from 1953 to 1960. When he retired he had 6,945 assists, 2,738 more than anyone else had ever had. In essence, he "invented" the "pure point guard" position with his combination of ball handling and passing.
He was All-NBA first team 10 consecutive times, and the MVP once. He was also a six time NBA champion.
Some say that greatness is defined by how you change the game and Cousy basically made the "point guard" a position.
On a personal note, I think that John Stockton is one of the most underrated players in NBA history. He was the best passer in the history of the game, and an often underrated scorer. In fact, he just missed the 20,000 mark with 19,711 career points.
He is also the only player to be the all time leader in two of the five major categories (assists and steals) and both by a huge margin.
If you account for two points per assist, Stockton is the only player in NBA history to account for over 50,000 points in NBA history.
His failure to win a ring is the only reason he's not higher on here, and a large part of the reason for that is Michael Jordan, and by "large part" I mean the exclusive and only reason.
John Havlicek is one of three teammates to be in the top 20 of this list, the other two being Bob Cousy and Bill Russell (spoiler alert!). Havlicek is one of only three players to ever have 25,000 points and 6,000 assists.
Havlicek was also a great defensive player, being named to the All-Defense first team five times and the second team three times. He went to 13 All-Star games and won eight championships.
The last two came in 1974 and '76, without Russell. In '74 he was the finals MVP.
Julius Erving, aka Doctor J was almost like a comic book hero when I was growing up. He was the forerunner to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and all those incredibly athletic, do anything they want with the ball, take a nap while you fly the air, dunk from the free throw line artists. I'm not sure how it all fits into "greatness" but Julius Erving and a few of his ABA peers are the reason the game today is what it is toady.
Many of his career numbers are obscured by the fact that he spent a large part of his career in the ABA. However his play still caught the imagination of the American public. His notoriety went beyond the basketball court and he became one of the first players to supplement his income largely off of the court via endorsements.
Erving won three ABA MP awards and one NBA MVP award. He won two championships in the ABA and one in the NBA. His 30,026 combined points are fifth most in history.
Numbers didn't define Dr. J, though. It was his showmanship. He was the first to ever dunk from the free throw line, an act which has been emulated since, but nothing was ever as good as the original.
Eglin Baylor is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the game, his average of 27.4 points per game making him the fourth best all time. Only 6' 5", he was also a spectacular rebounder for his height, and is 10th all time in rebounds per game with 13.5 He'd probably be a shooting guard if he played today, and everything I've read about him indicates he was something to watch.
During his peak he was truly amazing, averaging 35 points, 17 boards and 5 assists from 1961-63. However, he suffered a knee injury and was never completely the same after that.
Baylor was on one of the original truly great scorers, and at one time held the NBA record for points in a game with 71. His career scoring average of 27.4 points per game is still fourth most in NBA history.
Baylor was in in the finals eight times, but never won a ring.
Karl Malone is the NBA's second all time leading scorer. The mail man was never able to deliver a championship though. With Malone, the question becomes how much does that really matter.
Malone won two MVP awards, and made 14 All-Star games. Twice he was the All-Star Game MVP. He's won two Olympic gold medals. He's the NBA's second highest scorer in history, the all time leader in defensive rebounds, and is seventh in rebounds overall. Finally, he is third in NBA history in total Win Shares.
Everything else about Malone screams top 10, even top 5 All-Time. The only reason he's not higher is that he never won a ring. You have to wonder, if he had gotten one, where he would be listed here.
I entertained the notion of just putting "Fo, Fo, Fo" here and leaving the caption at that.
Moses Malone was the first player to step immediately into the pros from high school. Let's just say he managed to do okay for himself without a college education.
Malone, a 13 time All-Star, was also a three time MVP and a one time NBA champion. The "Fo, fo, fo" is a reference to the championship. Malone's prediction was that the 76ers would sweep their way through all three of their postseason series to grab the championship.
He was nearly accurate as the 76ers went 12-1, and swept the Lakers in the '83 finals.
Malone is still the third leading rebounder and sixth leading scorer in NBA history, though he was third at the time he retired.
Tim "The Fundamental" Duncan in the first part of his career formed one of the greatest, if not the outright greatest, post combinations in the history of the NBA between himself and David Robinson. The "Twin Towers" were dominant both offensively and defensively.
The Spurs captured their first ever NBA title in the 1999 season with Duncan being named the Finals MVP. Since then Duncan has garnered three more championships and two more Finals MVPs.
Duncan is 10th all time in blocks and rebounds. He is also 33rd all time in scoring.
Hakeem Olajuwon was perhaps the greatest center in an era of centers. Olajuwon is the greatest foreign born player in NBA history (Duncan, born in the US territory, US Virgin Islands, is a natural born US Citizen).
He was able to dominate a game on either side of the ball. He is third all time in defensive win shares, first in blocked shots, and ninth in total steals. On the other side of the ball he is 11th all time in points and 12th all time in rebounds.
He was the player who most benefited from Michael Jordan's brief retirement in the 90s, grabbing both NBA Championships during the seasons where Jordan missed all or part of the season.
His first championship was arguably the most impressive in the history of the game in terms of his having won a ring with the least help. In 1994 no other Rocket scored more than 15 points per game or had a PER higher than 17. Both of those are the weakest of any "second best" player in NBA history.
In an impressive run Olajuwon first beat Charles Barkley's Suns, then Karl Malone's Utah Jazz.
In the finals series he went up against Patrick Ewing, another of the great centers of his era, and the two gave a battle for the ages. While Olajuwon averaged more points (26.9 on 50 percent shooting to 18.9 on 39.3 percent shooting) and Ewing had more rebounds and blocks. Olajuwon won in the end.
The following season he beat Barkley's Suns a second time, then Robinson's Spurs before clashing with the young Shaquile O'Neal and his Magic team in the finals.
In the two year time frame where Jordan was absent for all or part of it, Hakeem outplayed six of the greatest big men in the history of the league to gain his two titles.
For a span of time Shaquille O'Neal could have been argued to be as singly dominate as any player has ever been. From 1994 to 2003 O'Neal averaged 28 points and 12 rebounds a game. Only one other player since then has had even one season where they accomplished that feat.
Shaq's dominance extended to the finals too. He brought three different teams to the finals, Orlando, Miami and Los Angeles. With the Lakers and the Heat he won championships.
While his career might have gone a season or two too long and tarnished his image a bit, O'Neal was one of the all time great players. He's hampered by the falling out with Kobe, so the fan base that would normally be advocating his place in history the most argues against him more than for him.
It will be interesting to see where Shaq is considered to be in five or 10 years, after some of the drama surrounding him is no longer a part of his image.
We often talk about players and wonder what would happen if they had played in different eras. I think Jerry West would be hugely benefited by playing in the modern era for a few reasons.
First, he was "Mr. Outside" because of his tremendous outside shooting. He was one of the greatest outside scorers ever, and in an era where there was no three point line. Had he played with a three point line there's no telling how many he could have gotten, but 2,000 total would be a very safe estimate.
That would fairly easily put him in the top 10 for all time scorers.
Second, he was a complete player, and is one of just seven in the history of the game to record 25,000 points, 5,000 assists and 5,000 rebounds. Steals and rebounds weren't tracked for most of his career, but West was a member of the inaugural All-Defense team.
In fact, with a bad hamstring, West still averaged 2.7 steals per game at 36! That was the first year they tracked steals. Imagine if they had been tracked earlier in his career.
In an age of fantasy sports, West would have filled up the stat sheet, granting points in every category and with no downside in terms of field goal percentage or free throw percentage. West would easily be taken first or second in most league formats now, which would help to cement his place as best player.
Third, in an era where game winning shots are counted and replayed on ESPN all day long and stored on Youtube, "Mr. Clutch" would be widely viewed as a clutch player.
Instead, he's somewhat downgraded for his record in the finals, winning only one of seven. However that's the problem with assigning to much to winning. For instance, the very first Finals MVP went to West in a losing effort.
At the time he retired West was the Lakers' all time leading scorer, and was also the all time leading scorer in the NBA finals. He'd played through injuries on multiple occasions. He certainly wasn't at fault for the Lakers not winning more.
One more note on West. He has had a hand, either from court, the bench or the front office, in every single Lakers championship since the move to Los Angeles. You could make the argument he's the single most impactful person in NBA history.
Kobe Bryant is the only player who needs an extensive qualifier because he simply is just so polarizing in this conversation.
Ahh, Kobe Bryant. This is where you ended up. I thought that Kobe would be a hugely controversial pick in the rankings, but his was the most consistent placement. He was somewhere between 6-10 on virtually every ballot. On one ballot he was fourth and on one 11th.
Most of the other players had far more disparity in their placement.
Kobe Bryant is a top 10 player, but he is not a top five player. While the Kobe faithful will be quick to point out his strengths, let's be reminiscent of one thing: all the guys in front of him had strengths too. And while there will be those who point out those who are ahead of him who have weaknesses, Kobe has them too.
So let's just take a step back for a moment and consider some things objectively. Of the players who are in front of him, only Bill Russell is not more dominant statistically.
Of the remaining six players only two, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, have fewer points. None have fewer rebounds. Only Wilt Chamberlain has fewer assists. Of the six players, Kobe's field goal percentage is the lowest by 42 points.
Kobe is arguably the second best scorer in the history of the game, trailing only Michael Jordan in that regard. He's one of the great defenders at his position in the game's history as well. However, when it comes to rebounding and passing the other players surpass him.
Of the players in front of him, only Magic Johnson never made an All Defense team, and most of them were on multiple All-Defense teams.
Furthermore it should also be noted that every player above him had more combined finals and regular season MVPs than Kobe has had.
For whatever reason some of Kobe's fans are appalled by the notion that he's "only" the eight best player in the history of the world. Personally, I have him a bit higher (sixth) but I don't have any cement around that.
Before you fire off the enraged comment against him being this high you might want to consider some facts too.
Kobe Bryant is third all time in postseason points. If he can eek out about 30 more postseason games in his career he would be the all time leader in that category. That's hardly a stretch of the imagination.
While taking the all-time scoring lead is unrealistic, as it would require 25 points a game, 80 games a season and five more years to make it reachable at 38, it is feasible he could move into the third spot, though he could use some help with an early end to the lockout.
Additionally, shooting guards aren't disposed to putting up great all around numbers. Having said that two of the players in front of him put up better numbers across the board playing the shooting guard position.
So in the end I think it's very fair for Kobe to land in the top 10, and to place him more than a couple of spots higher or lower isn't all that reasonable.
Oscar Robertson is one of those confusing players. Is he a shooting guard or a point guard? My assessment is he played the shooting guard position, but often filled the role of a point guard.
His talents for his time were extraordinary. He famously averaged a triple double and scored 30 points per game in 1962, averaging 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game. Perhaps the most impressive thing about that was that he didn't average just a triple double, but triple '11s."
In fact over the first six years of his career Robertson averaged 30.4 points, 10.7 assists and 10.0 rebounds per game. He shot .484 from the field over that stretch and .829 from the stripe.
After he failed to win a championship in Cincinnati for a decade, in large part because he had nowhere near the help he would need to get past the star studded Celtic cast, he was traded to Milwaukee where he was teamed up with Lew Alcindor aka Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
That 1971 team went on to be one of the best teams in NBA history, winning 66 games in all, including 20 straight at one point. The team only lost twice in the postseason in winning the title.
Robertson was the first great "big guard" player. Before Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant, there was Oscar Robertson. He was the inventor of the head fake and the fade away. His impact on the game was tremendous, even if he did only win one ring.
Bill Russell is remarkable for two things. First, he led more teams to NBA championships than anyone in history. He not only has one for the the thumb, he has one for the other thumb. He has to wear the last one around his neck. Not to overstate the importance of things but more rings than digits does make a pretty good case for being top 10.
The other thing that is impressive about Russell, perhaps even more impressive if you think about it, is that he is widely regarded as being among the greatest ever without having tremendous scoring numbers. In fact, Russell never finished in the top 10 in scoring and is 131st all time in scoring.
So in a league where the greatest fascination is scoring, to be considered by the majority as one of the best ever without being a scorer is monumental. His reason for being here is simply that he was arguably the best ever at keeping the other guy from scoring.
He is perhaps the greatest defensive player ever, and the best help defender ever. He has not one but two fists full of rings and one to spare that attest to that fact.
Larry Bird is justifiably in the top five. Bird was never a player that looked physically dominant, but he dominated the league for most of his career, contending at that time for greatest ever accolades with his rival Magic Johnson.
He is one of the great all around players in the history of the game. Even if you don't include his passing, which was amazing, Bird is one of only six players in history to average 24 points and 10 rebounds a game for his career.
When you factor in his astounding 6.3 assist per game for his career, you have one of the all time greatest players. While some have tried to contend that he was a weak defensive player, the argument falls short. On four occasions Bird led the NBA in defensive Win Shares.
Bird has three MVPs and two Finals MVPs. He was in the All-Star game in all but one season. That was because he missed most of the '89 season after having bone spurs removed from his heels.
Bird's career totals are lower than the others in the top 10 but that's more because of the games he played. He had his career shortened by persistent back problems.
Wilt the "Stilt" Chamberlain is one of the greatest and most controversial players ever. Statistically he had some seasons which will frankly never be duplicated. His 50 point per game season is perhaps the most unbreakable record in the game.
Perhaps even more spectacular is his rebounding record of 24.6 rebounds per game after the lanes were widened. If you count the narrower lanes, it's even higher, 27.2
Then there's the 100 point game, or the 55 rebound game which came against Bill Russell. The individual accolades are without peer.
On the other hand, he only had two championships and was consistently beaten by the Bill Russell led Celtics.
While there are many arguments about the "team" vs. "individual" aspects of the game, Russell was the ultimate "team" player and Chamberlain was widely considered to be a "selfish" player. How much of that was just talk and how much was real is impossible to say.
Many of the voters put Wilt as high as two, one didn't even have him in the top 10. What his true place is is very much a matter of what you chose to believe about him.
Magic Johnson, in my opinion, is the most complete player ever. He is the one player that could have probably had an All-Star career at any position, though center might have been a stretch.
He did play one game at center though and in that game he scored 42 points, had 14 rebounds and passed for seven assists. Did I mention that he won the NBA title in that game?
With Johnson, I honestly can't thing of any one thing that can tell more what defines him than that performance. It tells of his heart, his ability, his completeness, his willingness to do whatever it took, and his killer instinct.
Johnson's career numbers aren't what some of the others are either, but that's because his career was also cut short. Had he played a full career he very well may be the all time leader in assists and have 20,000 points.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the second greatest player according to the voters, and that's a very good choice. He was a six time MVP, a six time champion, and the NBA's all time leading scorer.
Kareem had perhaps the single most unstoppable offensive weapon in the history of the game, his "sky hook" shot which he could drain with either hand. With his tremendous length the shot was almost impossible to block without getting a goal tending violation.
He wasn't too bad on defense either, being named to 11 All-Defense teams.
When you consider that the second and third players on this list were teammates, it's a pretty amazing thing. It's not hard to imagine who the greatest tandem would be if the same voters voted.
Michael Jordan wasn't just first, he was first on every single ballot. In fact, he was the only player in the top three on every single ballot. Jordan's place in history as the greatest ever really isn't even very controversial.
There will be the naysayers of course, but it's hard to imagine how you could put anyone else here.
It is ironic that the first part of his career was defined by his scoring and not by his winning. In fact, much like LeBron is today, he was often criticized for not being able to win it all. Then once he figured it out, he never forgot.
After he won a title in 1991 he only lost one postseason series, and that came in the season where he came out of retirement near the end of it.
He is the career leader in PER. He is the all-time leader in postseason scoring, both per game and total points. He averaged 33.4 points, 5.7 assists and 6.4 rebounds over 179 postseason games.
It is now his postseason accomplishments that define him even more than his five regular season MVPs or his 10 NBA scoring titles. It was the way that he could elevate his game to an even higher level when the pressure was increased.
Many of the greatest in the game's history, including Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Charles Barkley, never won a title because, in short, Jordan was a ring hog.
He was the greatest ever, not just because of his numbers and not just because of his championships, but because of both. There is no "either, or" with Jordan. Both in terms of leading his team to championships and individual greatness, Jordan stands above the rest.