Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and the Top 10 NBA Careers of All Time

Harrison MooreAnalyst IIMay 25, 2011

Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and the Top 10 NBA Careers of All Time

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    This time last year the Lakers were rolling through the Western Conference on their way to another title and inching closer to becoming the NBA’s next dynasty.

    Bryant was inching closer to tying Michael Jordan’s career six championships.

    Following their disgraceful exit from the playoffs this year, Bryant’s odds of ever winning another title suddenly look very grim -- particularly in light of the ever-rising level of competition in the West.

    Given Kobe Bryant’s inability to stop or even delay the Lakers’ sudden descent, one would probably be safe in arguing that Bryant is no longer the best player in the league.

    But where does he rank all time?

    Even among those considered to be all time greats, few have ended their careers with five or more titles. 

    How many of them rank above Bryant from a career achievement standpoint? 

    Remember this list ranks all time careers and not the players themselves.

    Having said that, the achievements of careers from long gone legends like Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson need to be contextualized by today's standards.

    While I refrained from concocting any mathematical formula, much of what I used here is good ol' fashioned common sense.

    For example, you know Wilt would could never average 50 points per game throughout an NBA season today, right?

    Warning: this article may induce heart attacks for delusional old timers.

1) Michael Jordan

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    Forgive me if I failed to raise any eyebrows here.

    After all, it is pretty fitting that Jordan, the prototype for all things Kobe, Dwyane Wade and others, be listed first.

    I refuse to waste time reciting all of Jordan’s innumerable achievements that have already been repeated ad nauseam, but one record in particular stands out for me: Jordan’s 6 Finals MVPs.

    Just think about that for a moment.

    6 Finals appearances.

    6 NBA championships.

    6 NBA Finals MVPs.

    That’s what I call efficiency.
    In all fairness, by the time Jordan started winning championships, the great Laker and Celtic teams of the 80’s were well past the height of their powers.

    Before we even get to the Lakers, it is not likely that even Jordan would have appeared in 6 Finals in 8 years in a conference dealing with the dynastic Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish team of the mid 80’s year after year.

    Having said all of that, most of those considered to be the very best have gotten there either mostly due to their stats (Karl Malone, Oscar Robertson) or to their rings (Bill Russell, Tim Duncan)

    Jordan has both. In spades.

    I’m just going to reiterate it one more time: 6 Finals MVPs.

    No one’s even close to that number. 

    Of the legends who have had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning six titles, their teams have been so stacked that their odds of winning all of the Finals MVPs were non existent.

    But that’s Jordan for you.

    Could he have had similar success today?

    Well let’s put it this way: if you don’t think so, please stop reading here.

2) Magic Johnson

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    Do you know the only modern-day record that might be even more unbreakable than Jordan’s Finals MVP total?

    How about being the only rookie Finals MVP ever

    But that's just the beginning 

    In addition to appearing in more Finals than any non-60’s Celtic (nine, eight discounting the ‘89 Finals which he sat out due to injury) he won five and is the only player in the history of the game capable of adequately playing all five positions.

    Sure he played with Kareem Abdul Jabbar for virtually all of his career, had Pat Riley for a coach and in his later years had Big Game James for a wingman, but no team wins enough rings to fill a hand without a great coach and a stacked roster.

    His combination of the off-the-charts efficiency, highlighted by a career 52% field goal percentage, the highest ever career assist average (11.2 per game) and rebounding (7.2 per game) cements that Magic is hands down the most unique player of all time.

    We have seen players reminiscent of Jordan, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell,  Isiah Thomas, Shaq, John Stockton and pretty much every legend out there.

    You name the guy and we’ve seen a player in his mold. 

    While Larry Bird was probably the second most unique ever, I think that LeBron James is a lot more in his mold than people give him credit for. 

    Aside from the visible discrepancy in their jumpshooting and athleticism, they are both very good rebounders, made their teammates better with their passing and hell their career stat lines are near identical. 

    LeBron James: 27.7 ppg, .47 FG%, 7,1 rpg, 7.0 apg

    Larry Bird 24.3 ppg, .49 FG%, 10.0 rpg, 6.3 apg

    Look at that. LeBron scores more on a slightly lesser percentage. Larry rebounds the ball better, but has less assists. Pretty even, right?

    I digress. This was the Magic Johnson slide, right?

    Anyway you can’t even begin to think of a player in Magic’s mold.

    I just went through all of that stat quoting earlier to lessen the blowback of Celtic fans trying to claim the same about Larry Legend.

    Could he have had similar success today?

    Did George W. need a new speech writer?

3) Kareem Abdul Jabbar

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    Forget Bill Russell for the time being.

    Right now let’s talk about the guy with six NBA titles, six MVPs, 2 Finals MVPs, the most indefensible shot in the history of basketball and the most career points in NBA history.

    Sure, Kareem’s rebounding numbers dwindled during the ShowTime era, but while he was alternating between the ShowTime Lakers’ #1 and 1A option (1980-86)  his lowest field goal percentage for a season was 56%.

    His lowest point average in that time was 21.5.

    Very few players in the history of the game have come close to matching Kareem’s combination of finesse and aggression.

    I could go on about how important a staple Kareem was to ShowTime or his other achievements, but I will leave this slide with a clip showing how Kareem dealt with the opponents who mistook his finesse for weakness. (Edit: Clip was recently taken down by YouTube but I invite you to research what happened to Kent Benson after he elbowed Kareem in the gut).

    Could he have had similar success today? 

    Given that there are only four legit all-star caliber centers in basketball: Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Brook Lopez and Andrew Bogut (in that order) and that only Howard and Bynum, who Kareem trained, have enough strength, size and skill to give him significant resistance on both ends of the floor, I would be shocked if Kareem's numbers didn't get better.

4) Bill Russell

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    Even to those with a casual familiarity with him, Russell was known for his exceptional rebounding instincts and being one of the greatest defensive juggernauts of all time, deftly swatting opponent shot attempts into the hands of his teammates.

    In Russell’s rookie season he instantly transformed a good, but defensively exploitable Celtic team lined with top tier scorers in Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman into an NBA champion. 

    From his career defining rookie season on, Russell and his Celtics continued to set records, including an unbreakable record of eight straight NBA titles (1958-66).

    Unfortunately due to the nature of Celtic-fan rabidness, the rest of this slide will have to be spent justifying why Russell is selected this “low” instead of delving further into his extensive accomplishments.

    There’s no politically correct way to say it so I’ll just come out with it: winning a title was much easier to do in Russell's day.

    You disagree?

    Well let’s start with the fact that none of Russell’s titles came in a league with more than fourteen teams.

    Some have tried to argue that fewer teams meant less dispersed talent, that less dispersed talent meant stronger teams and that all of this made for a harder league.

    Even if the “stronger teams” part were true it would only paint half the picture -- and it wasn’t true.

    For one, with less teams comes fewer playoff rounds.

    Second, even back in the 60’s few lasting contenders were built solely through the draft and despite what some would have you believe, there were large talent discrepancies in the NBA back then too.

    When you put Russell’s achievements into perspective he’s still clearly one of the best of all time, but is it unfathomable to swap Russell for Shaq, Kareem, Hakeem Olajuwon or maybe even Dwight Howard and still end up with similar results?

    Its also worth noting that when Russell faced off against Wilt Chamberlain in the Finals, Chamberlain typically won the matchups, notching more points, rebounds and even assists, but still lost because the Celtics had the better team.

    Though Russell was an amazing player and a winner of unparalleled proportions, the fact that he made a name for himself solely on his defense and rebounding and that his road to the gold was considerably easier than it would have been today earn him the fourth spot.

    Could he have had similar success today?

    Can a dollar still get you a bag of popcorn and an afternoon's worth of movies?

5) Kobe Bryant

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    You say that Larry Legend was a overall better player. I say maybe.

    You say that Larry was a better teammate. I say probably.

    You say Larry had the better career. I say hell no.

    Look, I get it. On offense Kobe is only a scorer. He's proven to be a pretty reluctant passer and only an occasional rebounder.

    Not only was Larry better at getting and keeping his teammates involved, he took better shots and scored almost as many points as Kobe on a significantly higher field goal percentage.

    Those are all valid points and I can see that Larry probably was the better all around player, but I see your three championships and raise you five.

    I see your near quadruple double against the Jazz in  ‘85 and raise you the second highest amount of points scored in a game in the history of the NBA.

    Most importantly, I see your 2 NBA Finals MVPs and I check.

    The complaint about Kobe has either been that he’s had Shaq for over half his career or that he’s only won with other stacked teams.

    The funny thing is that last I checked, Larry’s teams were pretty stacked too. 

    Fun fact: none of Kobe’s championship teams came with more than one other current all-star while all of Larry Bird’s title teams came with two.

    So you can definitely make the argument that Larry was better at making his team better, but you can also say he had better players to work with.

    Depends on which side of the fence you fall on.

    Anyway, to fill my quota of listing career achievements: Kobe ranks 6th all time in scoring, boasts a career average of over 25 points per game and has made more NBA Finals appearances than any player currently in the league.

    Could he have similar success today?

    N/A

6) Larry Bird

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    Move over LeBron, I just became the most hated man in Boston.

    Not only have I drawn comparisons between him and LeBron, which most Celtic fans equate to blasphemy, I just claimed that Kobe Bryant has had a better career.

    Before you Celtic fans out there finish grinding your teeth into dust, let me finish.

    There was a damn good reason why Larry Legend, despite winning only three titles, is considered a peer to Jordan and Magic.

    Larry’s Celtics were the only team to ever sweep Jordan out of the playoffs -- and they did it twice. 

    They were also the only team to beat Magic’s Lakers in a playoff series in Magic’s first three years with the team.

    These are just some the team accomplishments from Larry’s earlier years.  

    Think back to how he led his team to (barely) surviving Jordan’s NBA playoff record 63 points. 

    Think about Larry’s unique combination of workmanship, defense and his out-of-this-world jump shot.

    Typically when you envision a jump shooter you don’t think of a physical player.

    You think Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen, Steve Nash or a bunch of other players who are great in their own right but don’t boast in-your-face physicality, particularly on defense.

    The formula for most go-to shooters is to knock them down, frustrate them and get them out of their comfort zone, but when you tried that with Larry you got responses like this.

    Anyway how many other great pure shooters ever made an NBA all defense team? Larry made three.

    Could he have had similar success today?

    Had Larry started his rookie season in 2000 and gained teammates like Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish he would have finished his career with at least three titles, maybe more.

7) Wilt Chamberlain

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    100 points in a game. Wow.

    Granted the fourth quarter of that game was a farce and his teammates intentionally fouled just to get Wilt the ball but still, wow.

    Wilt dominated the NBA putting up monstrous, otherworldly stats for over half his career but even after his scoring averages came down to earth his insane rebounding numbers never dipped below 18.4 per game.

    The irony is that Wilt’s first season averaging under 30 points per game ended in his first NBA title.

    Looking back on Wilt’s career, its safe to say that he would have been among the very best of any era, but is he really as good as advertised?

    Given that he averaged just under 46 minutes per game in his career, I would say no. His minutes blow his accomplishments way out of proportion when weighed against today's standards.

    While he did anchor one of the most dominant teams in NBA history, namely the 1972 NBA Champion Lakers who won an American sports record 33 consecutive games, the fact that he ended his career with only two titles somewhat waters down his monster stats.

    Remember though, this list measures careers and perhaps Wilt’s most monstrous stat is off the court.
    Do you think he should have gotten a bonus for sleeping with 20,000 women? 


    Could he have had similar success today?

    Off the court? At least as much in this MySpace/Facebook/Twitter era.

    On the court? Abso-freaking-lutely, positively NOT.

8) Shaquille O’Neal

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    The biggest difference between Shaq and everyone else on the list is that they chose to retire with dignity. 

    They chose walk away while they could still walk.

    In trying to sneak aboard a championship team and failing so miserably, Shaq only further damaged his legacy.

    The difference between Shaq and Brett Favre is that in prolonging his career, Favre at least contributed to his team's odds of winning, taking his team to the NFC Conference Championship as recently as 2009.

    Shaq’s desire to stay in the limelight has cost the last three teams that signed him.

    It cost the Phoenix Suns when Shaq slowed their pace.

    It cost the Cavaliers when Shaq’s defense was exploited, particularly in pick and roll situations.

    It cost the Celtics when they were stupid enough to trade away Kendrick Perkins and essentially wager their entire season on the health of a 39 year old has been.

    The good news is that Shaq was so dominant and so successful in his earlier years that in his career will look much better overall in retrospect.

    He put up Chamberlain-esque numbers frequently during his time in Los Angeles and is the only player not named Michael Jordan to have won the Finals MVP award three straight years.

    He could have ended his career 9 years ago and still been a guaranteed first ballot Hall of Famer and well, considering the alternative maybe he should have.

    Could he have had similar success today?

    N/A

9) Oscar Robertson

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    He averaged a triple double in a season and came within a hair’s breadth of doing so multiple times. Awesome.

    However, he also did so in a much faster paced game. 

    In Oscar’s era, allowing fewer than 115 points per game meant you a had a stingy defense.

    Both points and rebounds were much, much easier to come by in Oscar’s day. 

    Assists were the only stat that was more difficult to rack up as they were awarded less generously than they are today.

    However, given that Oscar held the ball for such long stretches and logged such heavy minutes (over 42 minutes per game over the course of his career) even those numbers seem less impressive.

    Aside from his inflated stats Oscar won a single championship title alongside Kareem Abdul Jabbar in 1971, in which Kareem took the Finals MVP.

    Should the Miami Heat win the NBA Finals, even if Dwyane Wade walks away with the MVP, Oscar would have absolutely nothing on LeBron James, who we don't give nearly as much respect to.

    Could he have had similar success today?

    Let me reiterate: he averaged more than 42 minutes per game. You tell me.

10) Tim Duncan

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    Duncan has been almost universally dubbed the greatest power forward of all time by most authorities and they aren’t too far off.

    While Duncan’s career lacks the sex appeal of the other players listed here, he boasts more championships than most of them and is as good a two way player as any forward on this list.

    Duncan was never a thunderous dunker or long range shooter. 

    He never developed a historical rivalry with anyone. Sorry, Dirk.

    He never even won consecutive championships.

    Still, from 1999 to 2007 he won four titles, engaged in some fierce series with the Shaq and Kobe Lakers of the early 2000’s and is the only player in NBA history to make the all NBA defense team in each of his first twelve seasons.

    The talent is there, the rings are there, the stats are there but in fifteen years, Duncan will be remembered only by Spurs fans and serious students of the game.

    It’s a shame, but that’s life.

    Could he have had similar success today?

    N/A