Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever. Hardly anyone will argue against MJ's indisputable status as professional basketball's G.O.A.T. But what about the NBA's greatest players during the post-Jordan era?
Borrowing Bill Simmons' "Pyramid Formula," each player will be judged on achievements, statistics, crunch time prowess, team success and their understanding of the "secret"—a players ability to sacrifice individual accolades for the greater good of their team.
Without further ado, here's the list.
I wore the No. 3 throughout middle and high school because of The Answer. Obviously, Iverson was never mistaken for a role model. He spawned David Stern's infamous dress code rule, through his less-than-professional attire. His reputation over time has been tarnished by legal trouble, lack of longevity and his well-known "practice" rant. So why in the world would a teenager rock A.I.'s No. 3?
His startling 26.7 ppg average ranks right up there with some of the greatest. However, Iverson's value, more than any other player on this list, can hardly be explained through statistics. Iverson inspired in a way others could not. His relentless escapades into the land of the trees, and his ability to finish among these giants invoked a sense of confidence and swagger into those early Philly teams, allowing them to overachieve. I specifically remember falling asleep during the fourth quarter of the Game 1 2001 Finals assured of a Lakers victory, only to wake up the next morning kicking myself as the result flashed across the screen. Never doubt Iverson, I thought.
Although the Lakers went on to sweep the remaining four games of the Finals, Allen Iverson clearly entrenched his name as an all-time great. It was a herculean effort simply to drag a supporting cast of Theo Ratliff, Dikembe Mutombo, Aaron Mckie, Eric Snow and a well-past-his-prime Toni Kukoc into a Finals against a Lakers team that only lost once throughout the entire playoffs, in Game 1 to the Sixers.
Replace Iverson with any other point guard on this list, and the Sixers fall to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. So why rank him lower than others?
For an Iverson-led team to achieve success, every little complementary piece had to fit in. The Answer thrived because he was the only player on that Sixers team able to create his own shot. This meant that the ball was placed in his possession on every single play. He was the NBA's Jimmer Fredette before Jimmer Fredette, if you will, given the ultimate green light every single trip down the floor.
A shot-blocking center was also a must, such as the finger-wagging Dikembe Mutombo, who erased A.I.'s defensive flaws. Stints with the Nuggets and the Pistons later never panned out because Iverson was either forced to share the ball with another scorer in Carmelo Anthony, or accept a complementary role.
Critics will point to The Answer's low field goal percentage, number of field goal attempts, turnovers and perceived selfish attitude. I'll remember him dragging an overmatched Sixers team into the Finals, stealing Game 1 singlehandedly, competing with unbridled ferocity under the bright lights matched only by MJ and slicing up defenses like a butcher.
Who could have imagined Paul Pierce making this list after an injury-plagued 2007 season in which the Celtics finished with an abysmal 24-58 record. Pierce was just another small forward who peaked early in his career, made one conference finals in a rather weak East and appeared ready to toil away as the best player on a terrible team for the rest of his career.
Rejuvenation came in the form of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who both injected life into a decaying Celtics organization. Along with KG's contagious intensity, Allen's silky shooting stroke, and Pierce's crunch-time prowess and unique scoring ability, the Celts improved by a staggering 42 wins. By playing LeBron James and then Kobe Bryant to a relative stand-still in the 2008 postseason, Pierce proved he could hang with the best of them.
Coming up big against two of the best players of the post-Jordan era, on a huge stage nonetheless, earned PP big points.
If I were forced to create a TV series that captured Steve Nash's career, I would settle on Everybody Loves Canadian. Fans, opponents, teammates, it doesn't matter. Nash's efficient shooting marks, his never-say-never attitude, unmatched joy for the game and unbelievable vision made him the best point guard of the post-Jordan generation to date.
His role on two highly entertaining squads—the Nellyball Dallas Mavericks during the early 2000s, and the "six seconds or less" Suns—complemented Nash's strengths to a T, allowing the two-time MVP to wheel and deal with no regard for human life, tossing up alley oops to Amar'e Stoudemire, hitting a wide open shooter spotting up or make a seven-footer caught on a switch look silly. His Suns teams racked up the wins and the points, but could never break through a loaded Western Conference, falling to the Spurs and then Lakers.
Even though Nash's Suns never made a Finals appearance like AI's Sixers, Nash gets a higher ranking based on his unbelievable longevity and attitude as a teammate. While Iverson always competed ferociously under the lights as did Nash, The Answer never dieted and dedicated gym time to his body. Nash could legitimately pick and roll his way to age 43, as Iverson wastes away in Turkey.
Nash also receives major points for being one of the ultimate "I'd love to have him in my foxhole" guys. Ever heard an ex-teammate complain about Steve Nash? No way, and you never will.
That's something Iverson can't say, and that's precisely why Nash ranks a little higher than Iverson on the post-Jordan point guard spectrum.
For now, the most physically gifted basketball player of all time must settle for a consolation prize. Who else, in the history of the game has been blessed with the ability to defy gravity like Jordan, the keen court awareness of Magic Johnson and a hulking 6'8'' frame of pure muscle?
I truly believe that these physical gifts are precisely why fans become so frustrated with James. He's like that kid attending college who received a 35 on the ACT but scrapes by with a 2.5 GPA, parties incessantly, neglects his God-given intelligence and just gets by. We expect LBJ to lead his team the way Michael and Magic lead their own, and when The Chosen One's teams consistently come up short, basketball fans everywhere are dissapointed.
Everyone wants to witness greatness, and that is exactly what James is depriving fans of. Still, at age 26, LeBron has time to piece things together.
It would be hard to imagine the Heat, with all of their assembled talent, to come up short three more times. Eventually, James will break through; the question is how many times?
This is a bit of a sore spot for me.
I'll be honest. As a passionate Dallas Mavericks fan, I despise Dwyane Wade. I despise the way he accumulated free-throw attempts in the 2006 Finals like America accumulates debt. I despise the way he sold fouls in the 2011 Finals like Billy Mays used to sell anything. I despise his comments after the 2006 Finals, proclaiming Dirk Nowitzki as the reason why the Mavs came up short. I despise his little "coughing" charade, poking fun at Dirk's Game 2 malady in this year's Finals.
But it's extremely difficult to deny Wade's greatness. Although he received a government-sized bailout from the officials in 2006, his clutch performance was undeniably one for the ages. His 35 points, eight boards and three steals per game resembled an MJ stat line.
D-Wade also posted one of the finest all-around seasons for a shooting guard ever in 2009, averaging 30/7.5/5 and 2.2 spg.
I will take pride in the fact that D-Wade failed to show up in Game 6 of this year's Finals, but again concede that he had a monster series before that point. Terrified was the only way to describe myself every single time he had the ball, thinking that he would blow by Jason Kidd and posterize Brendan Haywood, or muscle Jason Terrry out of the way for a midrange J.
And who can ever forget Wade convincing James to come play for his team, instead of the other way around? Barring some sort of trade, D-Wade will always possess one more ring than LBJ. The Heat look set for multiple championships in the near future. It will be interesting to see who seizes control of the team during future Finals.
If D-Wade can avoid injury, and that poses a very serious question, then it is my belief that he will challenge Kobe Bryant for the No. 2 shooting-guard of all time. Only time will tell.
Few players ever competed with the intensity of Kevin Garnett. A love for competition appeared to seep out of every pore in his body, from the way he swatted jumpers half-heartedly thrown up after the whistle, to the way he banged his head against the backboard pad like a battering ram.
Garnett competed with the same intensity game in and game out, whether it be mid-December or mid-June. His time in Minnesota, save for one season, was characterized by first-round exits and a lack of serviceable help.
Our one glimpse of KG playing for a contender came in 2004, when the T-Wolves added Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell to the mix. Energized by the presence of decent complementary players, KG slapped up one of the finest all-around seasons ever by a power forward, posting averages of 24/14//5 and 2.2 blocks en route to his first MVP.
Things clicked for the T-Wolves that year, as they defeated a strong Kings team in the Western Conference Semifinals in seven. A showdown against the Lakers was set, with the winner advancing to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately, Cassell injured his back that series, and the T-Wolves fell in six, never to achieve the same cohesiveness or success again.
After toiling in obscurity for years after the T-Wolves Western Conference Finals appearance, a revival came in the form of a trade to the Celtics for KG. Alongside Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, Garnett was able to provide the backbone for the 2008 Celts' championship team, and left most of the crunch time scoring to Pierce and Allen.
After the Celtics Game 6 thrashing of LA, KG famously screamed, "Anything is posssiiblllleeeeee."
I'll always remember Garnett for caring just a little too much, kind of like Pete Rose in a sense. He was a guy you'd love on your team, and hate to play against, just ask Channing Frye's baby-makers.
It was nice to see a guy like Garnett, who competed so hard, never complained, legitimately cared about his teammates and never took a play off, to finally capturing that elusive ring. Let's just hope Frye can have children after that incident.
Oh boy. I've been waiting for this. As a lifelong Dallas Mavericks fan, I've witnessed countless Dirk Nowitzki games, observing his metamorphosis from a timid German teenager into a crunch-time assassin. I've experienced the lowest-of-the-low sports stomach punches and in turn pure sports ecstasy.
With the help of Mark Cuban, Nowitzki turned the '90s Mavs into perennial contenders in the new millennium, helping his team to 11 consecutive 50-plus win seasons. Throughout that time, Dirk and Co. were considered "too soft," or unable to win when it mattered most. And to a degree, that was true.
Like Kevin Garnett, first-round playoff exits plagued the Mavericks. In 2006, the Mavs managed to break through the Western Conference finally. Fresh off incredible series wins over the Spurs and Suns, Nowitzki was clearly the best player in basketball. After two wins against the Heat, a championship parade route was planned by the city of Dallas.
Unfortunately, we all know what happened from there.
Dirk choked, D-Wade submitted one of the most clutch performances in finals history, Bennet Salvatore screwed the Mavs, and just like that the Heat were coronated as champions. After Dirk's pseudo-MVP season in 2007, in which the Mavs infamously fell to the eighth-seeded Warriors, I thought the Dirk ship had sailed.
The window had closed. Once again, a string of first-round playoff exits became the norm. Fantastic regular seasons were punctuated by disappointment repeatedly. Dirk didn't have enough help, the Mavs were too old, and had choked away their golden opportunity.
Apparently, Nowitzki had other ideas about this season. With the help of Tyson Chandler, a dominant defensive force the Mavs always required to aid Nowitzki, the Mavs pulled off an improbable Finals run behind their depth and The Big German's consistent crunch-time heroics.
Nowitzki was everything and more fans could have wanted. From Game 1 of the Lakers series, in which he nailed the game deciding free-throws and set the tone, to the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Heat, where he rattled off game-sealing buckets, Nowitzki delivered in an enormous way.
No longer will Nowitzki ever be included in the "best-to-never-win-a-championship" discussion. With a championship on his resume, Dirk Nowitzki belongs in the "greatest ever" discussion.
He's known by many names. The Big Diesel, The Big Shamroq, Superman, The Big Shaqtus, The Big Aristotle. He's also the single most dominating force in NBA history. Only Jordan and Wilt dominated the game like Shaquille O'Neal at his apex. When motivated, Shaq was far and away the most unstoppable force of his era.
During' the Lakers three-peat, from 2001-03, Shaq posted a ridiculous 28/13/3, and those numbers only improved in the postseason, as he bulldozed over Rik Smits, Dikembe Mutombo and a plethora of New Jersey Net's scrub big men in consecutive Finals. With the lack of offensively-competent centers in today's game, we may never see a stat-line such as Shaq's ever again. His three straight Finals MVP awards is a feat only matched by Jordan. So why leave The Big Shaqtus at No. 3?
Besides starring in Kazaam, whose mediocrity can't be described in words, Shaq's hubris and thirst for fame often ranked ahead of basketball. You can't say the same about Kobe, who continues to milk every feasible inch of talent out of his aging body, and whose motivation is simply to be the best that ever played. Shaq, on the other hand, saved his best for every other season, appearing more concerned with the love, affection, and fame that came with being an incredibly successful, and charismatic professional athlete.
Much like Wilt Chamberlain, Shaq will always be remembered as a destructive force of nature; always dominant but not quite the best.
Kobe Bryant has pulled off the best MJ impersonation to date, until D-Wade usurps his crown. The Black Mamba came onto the scene as a hyper-athletic, uber-competitive, ultra-confident shooting guard straight out of high school.
The basketball gods smiled down upon Kobe on draft day, placing him on a Lakers team with a recently signed Shaquille O'Neal in addition to vital complementary pieces. Bryant steadily improved as a youngster, until becoming an outright superstar under Phil Jackson's nurturing wing. For a three-year period, two of the best three players in the NBA, Bryant and O'Neal, begrudgingly coexisted en route to three straight championships.
Although Shaq was the alpha dog of those Laker squads, Kobe had shining moments of his own down the stretch, such as his 25/11/7, four-block performance in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Trail Blazers. One of those assists from that game happens to be the clip of a still afro-sporting Kobe throwing that gorgeous alley oop pass to O'Neal, who then proceeds to sprint down the court, arms stretched into the sky, eyes as big as saucers, looking like he's just discovered an all-you-can-eat buffet. I'm sure you've seen it; the NBA ran the clip for years.
Kobe peaked as an all-around player during this time, allowing O'Neal to carry the heavy scoring load, while he managed to get every one else involved, lock down any perimeter threat, rebound and chip in with his 25 points.
The dynamic between the two appeared irreparable though, midway through the 2004 season. A power struggle between Shaqobe kept resurfacing, and really who couldn't have predicted that? Both proud men wanted all of the glory that came with carrying a championship team, and neither was willing to give it up. To make matters worse, Kobe was dealing with an embarrassing sexual assault charge at the time, and had mentioned that Shaq "deals with this stuff all the time," to The Big Diesel's dismay.
After a thrashing in the 2004 Finals by the Pistons, Shaq was promptly shipped off to Miami.
The Lakers, unable to surround Kobe with any competent help, finally convinced Memphis to hand over Pau Gasol for a washing machine. With adequate pieces in place, LA became perennial contenders once again, but this time Kobe was clearly leading the show.
With The Black Mamba at the helm, the Lakers managed to make three consecutive Finals appearances, falling to the Celtics in 2008, but then capturing the next two, over the Magic then Celts.
Funny that Kobe's ring tally ended up at five, just one short of MJ. From the day he was drafted, Kobe has done everything in his power to emulate Jordan, and has fallen a few steps short every single time.
From a clutch standpoint, Kobe ranks in my top-five of all-time. Although, two glaring holes on his resume that everyone overlooks are his two championships post-Shaq. Championship No. 1 was over a rather weak Magic team that only managed to make the Finals because of KG's multiple injuries that year. The Celts had absolutely dominated the basketball landscape just a season ago. Championship No. 2 came against a Celts squad lacking their best rebounder for Game 7, Kendrick Perkins, thanks to an ACL tear.
The Lakers destroyed the Celts on the boards that game, on their way to a repeat, despite Kobe's 6-for-24 stink bomb of a game. Had Gasol and Lamar Odom not controlled the paint so commandingly, the Lakers would have lost, and Kobe's horrific Game 7 would have gone down as one of the worst ever for a superstar. Hey, that's the way basketball goes.
I couldn't rank Kobe any lower, because honestly, he wore me down. Too many points, rebounds, assists, minutes, All-NBA teams and championships for too long. Statistically, Kobe will retire as a top-5 player in the history of the game.
But I will always remember afro-Kobe, the game's greatest second banana as my preferred version, rather than Kobe the alpha dog.
Not exactly the sexy pick here I know, but remember folks, we're not auditioning players for the next cameo in The Hangover. Despite having one of the lamest tats ever, Tim Duncan has quietly been the best player of the post-Jordan generation. His four championships rank just behind Kobe's five, and tied with Shaq, so why put him in the top spot?
Duncan had the least help of the top-three, and was the absolute go-to guy in all four of his championships. Obviously, Kobe and Shaq had each other; Duncan relied on a washed-up David Robinson, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker and numerous other cast-offs or underappreciated veterans. Besides being one of the most offensively consistent forces to ever lace up a pair of shoes, Duncan doubled as an elite defender, trolling the paint in a way only KG could match.
What separates Duncan from KG is his crunch time prowess, and his ability to decipher between a mid-December game from a playoff game. KG had one speed, while Duncan always managed to hit that last gear in dire situations, when the Spurs needed him most.
There's not a whole lot to say about Duncan. To be honest, I really don't much about the guy. What I do know is that whenever my Mavs battled against the Spurs during the postseason, I crunched up in ball, half-covering my eyes, praying to God that Duncan didn't catch the ball on the low block. He usually did, and from that point, I knew it was all over.
Few could be counted on in the clutch quite like Tim Duncan, even if he operated in such an anti-climatic way.