The 25 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIFebruary 25, 2009

Author's note:  I did not consider any player who has played fewer than 10 seasons, hence, please don't tell me I left out LeBron James or the like. 

I think trying to place him on the all time list is premature and too much of a guess right now. 

I will say that he has the potential to go as high as first or second. 

I also reserve the right to re-rank any active player once they retire.  Especially Kobe Bryant, who could end as high as second, but who will never surpass Michael Jordan in my mind.

Also, I would like to point out that I wrote this article in June 2007.  At the time, I was never impressed with how Kevin Garnett's teams did in the payoffs and how he failed to come up big often times in the fourth quarter.  I will admit, however, that he was the driving force behind the Celtic's Championship in 2008 (his first title).  Hence, he probably belongs on the list now athough I have no idea who I would take off.

I also gave serious consideration to (in no particular order) to Elvin Hayes, James Worthy, David Robinson, Isiah Thomas, Walt Frasier, Jason Kidd, and Clyde Drexler.  I am quite certain that Lebron and Dwyane Wade will eventually make the top 25 and probably the top 10 (especially Lebron).

I spent more time on this article than on any of the 75 articles that I written over the last 18 months for my sports site (UltimateSportsRankings.com) and I consider this my second best article (after "The Magical Transformation of Muhammad Ali"). 

I hope you enjoy it and please tell how wrong I am (or anybody that makes a comment) without resorting to personal insults—they are so counter productive to any intelligent sports debate.

This is one of my favorite debates in all of sports for a couple of reasons.  First, because basketball is one of my very favorite sports (topped only by American football). Second, because it is clearer than in football who is (are) the greatest player(s) of all time (although baseball is clearer than basketball). 

Anyone who knows me or has read my article, "Who are the 25 Greatest Athletes of All Time", knows that it is clear to me that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all-time; however, I struggled with every other ranking.

I find the players that I ranked second through seventh (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Oscar Robertson) to be practically interchangeable in terms of where they should be ranked.  For instance, if you put Robertson second and Jabbar seventh, I would not argue with you much.  However, if you put either of them 1st or out the top ten (as of 2009), now we have a serious debate.

To give you some perspective as to my rankings, I started watching and following basketball in 1969, when Jabbar entered the league (I was ten years old at the time).  So, unfortunately, I never saw Bill Russell play and missed the prime years of Chamberlain, Robertson, West, and Baylor. 

Since the NBA started in 1946, you would have to be at least 70-75 years old right now and have gone to the games (since the games were not televised back then) to have witnessed all the great players in the history of the NBA. 

This is a very small number of people, and it would be awfully extreme to suggest that these are the only people entitled to an opinion about the 25 greatest basketball players of all time. 

However, it is important to note that which players the person doing the rankings saw play will, of course, affect their rankings of the best players in NBA history.

In 1980, the Professional Basketball Writers of America voted Bill Russell the Greatest Player in NBA History.  I took this fact, along with numerous other facts, statistics, things that I have read, experts' and players' opinions about great players (especially opinions about pre-1970 players), and highlights, and then coupled these factors with logic and reasoning to come up with my rankings. 

Since I did not start watching pro basketball in 1946, my rankings may not be perfect, but, I suspect, neither are yours.  For example, perhaps Russell and Chamberlain should be third and fourth, and Johnson and Bird fifth and sixth (all respectively).  And if you saw them all play their entire careers and ranked them that way, you would not get much of an argument from me.

I used lots of criteria for determining the greatest basketball player of all time, the most important of which was that he must be a great all-around player with no real weakness.  And that includes foul shooting. 

Hence, sorry, Chamberlain (.511 career FT%, third worst all-time) and Shaquille O'Neal (whom I ranked 10th) (.525 career FT%, fifth worst all-time) fans, there is no way on earth that a lousy foul shooter could be the greatest basketball player of all time. 

Now, Russell (.561 career FT%) was not much better, but at least he was not the focal point of his team's offense.  To give you some perspective, here are the other career free throw percentages of my top 10:  Jordan .835, Jabbar .721, Johnson .848, Bird .886, Robertson .838, West .814, and Baylor .780.

To be ranked number one of all-time, the player has to be able to lead his team to victory in any close games and especially in close playoff games.  A lousy foul shooter cannot do this.  Close games happen far too often in the playoffs for this not to be part of his repertoire.  He has to be able to get the ball in the final five minutes of a close game and score consistently, and that includes the times that he will inevitably get fouled.

Both Wilt and Shaq could be the second-best basketball player of all time, or the best player of, say, a ten-year era, but not the greatest basketball player of all time.  I feel strongly about this and I think it is more than fair, especially with the existence of a great all-around talent like Jordan, who just happened to close a game out better than anyone else in the history of the NBA.

I eliminated Russell from consideration as the greatest basketball player of all time because he was a limited offensive player.  Besides being a bad free-throw shooter, he did not (by all accounts that I have heard and read) have much of a shot.  He only averaged 15.1 points per game in his career, but what I find even more disturbing (since he had lots of scorers on his teams and could be very selective in his shot selection) is his .440 career field-goal percentage. 

While field-goal percentages were lower back then, Chamberlain shot 53.0 percent during that same period and he took a lot more shots and drew a lot more attention.

Compare that to other great centers:  Jabbar .559, Chamberlain .540, O'Neal .580, and Hakeem Olajuwon .513 (whom I ranked 12th).  Big, big difference. 

And the centers of his era were on the average approximately (the average height in the NBA went from 6'6" in 1960 to 6'9" in 1970) three inches shorter than the centers after 1970, so he should have had even more of an advantage than later centers to shoot over his defender. 

This helps explain why Russell's and Chamberlain's rebounding numbers (22.5 and 22.9 career avg., respectively) are so much higher than those of anyone that played the majority of his career after 1970.

No recent players are in the top 10 in average rebounds per game (Dennis Rodman is 11th with 13.1).  In addition, the teams took somewhere between six and 18 more shots per game in the 60's than they did in the '70s, '80s, '90s, and 2000s.  More shots, more chances for rebounds.)  Sorry, Russell fans, offense is 50 percent of basketball and Jordan was way, way better than Russell offensively and comparable to Russell defensively.  Hence, it is clear to me that Jordan has to be rated higher than Russell.

While Russell had more championships than anyone else in the history of the NBA, he also had the most talent around him of anyone in the history of the NBA.  During the Celtics 11 championships Russell played with 4 other members of the 50 greatest basketball players of all time, as selected by the NBA in 1996. 

They included Bob Cousy (6 titles with Russell), John Havlicek (6), Sam Jones (10), Bill Sharman (3), and he also played with a 5th and 6th Hall of Famer, K.C. Jones (8) and 6-time all-star, Tom Heinsohn (8).  Perhaps you have heard of them.  Cousy and Havlicek would make almost any knowledgeable basketball fan's top 25 (they made mine).  The CELTICS won 11 championships with Russell leading them; Russell did not win 11 championships by himself. 

Chamberlain, despite supposedly not having enough talent around to beat Russell's Celtics, actually played with, amazingly, 6 members of the 50 greatest players (Paul Arizin, Nate Thurmond, Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West); and Gail Goodrich and Tom Gola, both Hall of Famers (8 total) and 5-time all-stars).  Perhaps you have heard of them also.
Bird, played with 5 members of the 50 greatest players (Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Nate Archibald, Bill Walton, and Dave Cowens), however, he only played with Cowens and Walton briefly.  Jabbar played with 3 (Robertson, Magic, and James Worthy), and Magic (Jabbar, Worthy) and Robertson (Jerry Lucas and Jabbar) both played with 2.  Jordan only played with 1 (Scottie Pippen), but also had Horace Grant (first 3-peat) and then Dennis Rodman (second 3-peat) helping out. 

Perhaps Robertson was the one most shortchanged, since he only had Jabbar while Robertson was in the twilight of his career (and not when he needed him, which was in the sixties to overcome the Celtics) and Jordan had Pippen for all 6 titles and they played together for most of their prime years.  However, Jordan had, at best, the second least amount of talent around him during his career among the seven players we are discussing.        

The All-defensive team awards did not start until the 1968-69 season, which happened to be Russell's last season.  Not surprisingly, he was voted to the first team.  Chamberlain played five seasons when the award was given out and was voted to the first team twice.  Robertson played six years when the award was given out and never was voted to the first or second team. 

Jordan, Jabbar, Bird, and Johnson all played their entire careers after the 1968-69 season.  Johnson was never voted to the first or second All-Defensive team, Bird never made the first team and made the second team three times, Jabbar made the first team five times and second team six times, and Jordan, in just 11 full seasons with the Bulls, made the All-defensive first team an amazing nine times (all but his first two full seasons). 

Jordan was also the Defensive Player of the Year in 1987-88 (the award was first given out in the 1982-83 season) when he led the league in steals (259, 3.16 spg) and the guards in blocked shots (131, 1.6 bpg), which was the most ever recorded by a guard in NBA history.

Russell was considered by many to be the best defensive player ever.  Jordan was the best defender I ever saw and was probably the second-best defender ever.  Chamberlain and Jabbar were obviously both very good defenders. 

Robertson was considered a very solid defender and it seems he would have made some All-defensive teams if the award had been given out during his first eight years in the league, when he was quicker. 

Johnson and Bird were both good defenders when they were younger, but they were both liabilities on defense sometimes in the second half of their careers against quicker opponents (actually Johnson had this problem his whole career because of his unusual height for a point guard at 6'9").

The regular-season MVP award was first given out after the 1955-56 season, so all of my top seven players played their entire careers while that was an official award.  The NBA Finals MVP award was first given out after the 1968-69 finals (which was Russell's last season). 

Keeping that last fact in mind, here are the statistics for all seven players for these three major categories in the following order:  championships won, regular season MVP awards, and finals MVP awards.  Jordan (6,5,6), Jabbar (6,2,6), Johnson (5,3,3), Bird (3,3,2), Russell (11,5,0), Chamberlain (2,4,0), Robertson (1,1,0). 

Who knows how many finals MVPs Russell would have won (Jerry West won in a losing cause the only time Russell had a shot), but I am certain it would have been a lot since he led the Celtics to 11 championships.  Chamberlain would have won one (1966-67) (maybe two, if he won one in a losing cause) and Robertson would still not have won any, if the award had started the same year the regular-season MVP award did.

The totals for all seven players for All-NBA, first and second team selections, respectively, are as follows:  Jabbar (10,5), Jordan (10,1), Robertson (9,2), Bird and Johnson (9,1), Chamberlain (7,3), and Russell (3,8). 

It is interesting to note two things:  1) that Bird and Johnson, who are always linked together, each had the same numbers; and 2) Russell had only three first team selections, two fewer than his MVP awards.  Hmm.  It would be tough convincing a neutral party that Russell was the greatest player of all time when he voted the best center in the league only three times in a 13-year career. 

Robertson, as practically any basketball fan knows well, once (1961-62 season) averaged a triple double for an entire season (wow!).  However, as great a player as he was, he comes up woefully short in the three major categories above.  To be fair, he did have to compete with Russell's Celtics during his prime years, while he was playing with the less-talented Cincinnati Royals, but still one, one, and zero is not enough to be ranked number one all-time. 

Robertson was one of the best passers ever (9.5 apg for his career) and probably the best rebounding guard ever (7.5 rpg).  He was also a great scorer (25.7 ppg, .485 FG%), who could score in a variety of ways, and a good leader.  Although I am not convinced he was as good as Jordan (once he figured it out), Johnson, Bird, and Russell for making players around him better, still, pretty impressive stuff.

One comparison to Jordan (and I am paraphrasing a player of Robertson's generation), "while Oscar was very good defender, Michael was the Tasmanian Devil on defense and the best defensive guard ever."  Maybe he should be higher than seventh, but it is clear to me he was not as good as Jordan.

While Robertson never played against Jordan (I suspect all serious basketball fans drool over the thought of watching this match-up), Johnson and Bird did play against Jordan, although Jordan entered the league five years (in 1984) after they did. 

As is well documented, Johnson and Bird came into the league together in 1979 (after playing against each other in the NCAA Basketball Finals six months earlier) and because of their heated, yet friendly rivalry and their great play, they saved the NBA.  (To give you an idea of how low the NBA had sunk, before they came into the league, the NBA Finals were shown on television on tape delay because the league was no longer popular enough for prime time!) 

Then Jordan's charisma, dominance, and spectacular play continued the NBA's resurgence.  I have no strong opinion on who is better between Johnson and Bird (I have gone back and forth through the years), however, I gave the edge to Johnson because of his five to three edge in championships.

Bird was a deadly shooter from any range or angle (.496 FG%, .376 3pFG%, 24.3 ppg), extremely clutch, a good rebounder (10.0 rpg), a great passer (probably the passing forward ever), and from day one, was great at making his teammates better. 

Johnson was a good shooter (.520 FG%, .303 3PFG%, 19.5 ppg) who could score in a variety of ways and could have scored more if it had been needed by his teams.  He was a great ballhandler, a fantastic passer, an excellent rebounding guard (7.2 rpg), and, like Bird, was great at making his teammates better from his first day in the league.  Both Bird and Johnson were better leaders and better at making their teammates better than Jordan was early in his career. 

Once Jordan figured this out and got some talent behind him, I actually think Jordan was eventually better than both of them (I rate Bird and Johnson equal in this area) in their primes.  Jordan had the extra advantage of being so physically gifted that he drew so much attention to himself, that as a result, he made a bunch of role players look like they were big contributors. 

And to be fair to Jordan (I know Jordan fans have been dying for me to point this out), Jordan had a LOT less talent around him than Bird and Johnson did in the first half of all three of their careers.  Bird and Johnson fans do not seem to realize (or acknowledge) that it is a lot easier to make talented players look great than it is to make not so talented players look good. 

And, of course, it is a lot easier to win with Jabbar or Parrish as your center than it is with Dave Corzine.  (I could go and list all the All Stars that Bird and Johnson played with that were not listed above, but this is all well-documented and I think even Bird and Johnson fans realize this point.)

The bottom line is that Jordan had less talent than Bird and Johnson throughout their careers, and Jordan won more championships.  There is no good answer to that fact.  Plus, Jordan won all six championships without a good center or point guard, which are considered the two most important positions in basketball. 

Jordan contributed more offensively and a lot more defensively than Bird and Johnson did.  Lest we forget—defense is 50 percent—just like offense (you could convince me that defense is actually only 40 percent of basketball because there are more opportunities to make players better on offense than defense, but you get the point). 

Sorry, I do not have to be as diplomatic as I was with the pre-1969 players (I saw Bird, Johnson, and Jabbar, for that matter, play):  Jordan was clearly better than Bird or Johnson.

When Johnson and Jordan finally met in the NBA Finals in 1991, Jordan guarded Johnson at times (along with Scottie Pippen) and did it very well.  Johnson, except on a switch, did not even attempt to cover Jordan, probably knowing what Jordan's fans knew:  that Jordan would embarrass Johnson with his speed, quickness, great moves, and breath taking drives to the basket. 

When the series was over, with Jordan's Bulls destroying Johnson's Lakers (four games to one), it was so obvious that Jordan was the superior player that it seemed silly that this was even a debate before the series began.  Jordan scored, led, defended, rebounded, and most importantly, passed brilliantly (11.4 apg). 

It was during these playoffs (witness the Bulls' 4-0 dismantling of the two-time defending champion Detroit Pistons) that Jordan took making one's teammates better to a new level and never forgot how (unfortunately for the rest of the league).

Unfortunately, Bird and Jordan did not have a great defining playoff moment.  Bird, while a great player, just did not have the defense, mobility, or the credentials (three titles to Jordan's six) to be the best basketball player of all time. 

If you need further proof, all you have to do is ask Bird or Johnson—they will each tell you that Jordan is the greatest they have seen.  Bird and Magic loved each other's abilities and neither one is that humble.  If anybody would know who was better best among the three of them, it would be those two.

One more point, before we move on to the centers.  One other myth I would like to debunk—that Bird and Johnson each would have won a lot more championships if they did not lose to each other's teams so much in the Finals. 

This is hogwash for two reasons:  1) no one gets a free ride to a championship, i.e., there are great teams and great players competing every year and in every decade in the NBA (great players of Russell's era have a much better argument if you are going to go there);  and 2) it is historically inaccurate—Bird and Magic only met three times, with Magic's Lakers winning twice.  Besides, there is no guarantee that either of their teams would have won if they played some other team.

Incidentally, a player's position did not affect my rankings at all.  From 1946 through 1978, the team with a dominant (or at least an excellent) center almost always won the championship.  In 1978-79 Seattle won without a dominant center (Jack Sikma) and then Bird, Magic, Jordan, and Tim Duncan took over and dominated the NBA from all four positions other than center (although Duncan sometimes plays center and Bird was as much a power forward as he was a small forward). 

(Yes, I know Shaq won four titles, but he had Kobe Bryant (whom I ranked 8th) and Dwyane Wade (finals MVP) as heavy contributors).  So, it is now accepted by the basketball world that the position that you play does not influence how potentially dominant you can be as a player.

Trying to conclusively rank Jabbar, Russell, and Chamberlain is next to impossible.  There are so many great arguments, pro and con, for all three players.  (As I alluded to earlier, I started following basketball because of Jabbar and I tried not to let this influence my rankings.)  I flipped a coin and came up with Jabbar first, because he seemed not to have any glaring weaknesses, and for his credentials. 

(It should be noted before we go on with the comparisons that blocked shots and steals did not become official NBA statistics until the 1973-74, season which was Jabbar's fifth year in the league and was after Russell and Chamberlain had finished their careers.  Who knows how many blocked shots by Chamberlain and Russell were not recorded?  Russell, by reputation, was the greatest shot blocker ever, and I am sure Wilt was not far behind.) 

In Jabbar's first 12 seasons (through age 33) he averaged 28.1 ppg, 14.1 rpg and 2.24 bpg (only seasons 5-12 for blocked shots).  He also won 6 MVP awards in a ten-year period, his first being his second year, the last in his 11th season.  Hence, it is safe to to conclude he was clearly the best player in the NBA for a solid decade.  Pretty impressive stuff. 

He managed to win four more titles (six total) after his prime years, with the help of Magic.  He still holds the record for the most points scored (38,387) in the history of the NBA.  He was a powerful offensive force, equipped with his legendary sky hook, which is, perhaps, the only unstoppable shot in the history of the NBA.  Even Chamberlain (who rarely complimented any player but himself) admitted that he told his teammates and coaches that for the first time in his career he needed help guarding someone, mainly because of Jabbar's sky hook. 

He was also a clutch shooter (his signature sky hooks were like daggers to the other teams hearts in the closing minutes), a very good passer, and most importantly, seemed to do whatever was necessary (unlike Wilt) for his team to win.  In addition, he was a good free throw shooter for a big man (career FT% .721 regular season, .740 playoffs).

Jabbar was almost 42 years old when he retired (Russell was 35, and Chamberlain almost 37), which is why I started out by giving you his prime-year statistics since his numbers inevitably dropped. For sake of completeness, here are all three of their career numbers (that have not been provided earlier):  Jabbar, 24.6 ppg, .559 fg%, 11.2 rpg, 3.6 apg; Russell 4.3 apg; Chamberlain 30.1 ppg, .540 fg%, 4.4 apg.

As noted earlier, Jabbar's rebounding numbers do not compare with Chamberlain's (22.9) and Russell's (22.5), but it was hardly a weakness.  Perhaps if Jabbar had rebounded like Wilt and Russell or defended like Russell, he would have been the greatest of all time, but the bottom line is, he did not. 

While Jabbar was dominant in his own way, he just did not seem to control the outcome of a game as much as Jordan.  In addition, Jabbar never won a NBA title without a great point guard helping him out (one with Robertson and five with Magic) and while we are on the subject, Magic never won a title without Jabbar.  

What can I say about Russell's championships (11), defense, rebounding, passing (he was considered a very good passer), and team oriented philosophy that has not already been said?  Russell had a LOT of talent around him, a great coach, a small league (only 8 teams competing for the championships for most of his career), but still, he was the driving force for all those championships and is given credit for revolutionizing the game (e.g., his shot blocking and team defense). 

And some of those championships were at the expense of Wilt, who, admittedly, had less talent around him than Russell did throughout the 1960's.  However, four of the times that Russell and Chamberlain teams met in either the Eastern Conference Finals or the NBA Finals, one series went six games and three of the series went seven games.  All four times the deciding game was close—all by one to four points.  They each were on the team with the better regular-season record twice when they played these series. 

Are you thinking what I am thinking?  Exactly, it was not so much that Russell's teams were better in these four series, but that Russell helped his team find a way to win.  And, perhaps more importantly, Chamberlain did not.  This also brings us full circle back to Wilt's lousy free-throw shooting which was even worse in the playoffs (a horrendous .465 career playoff FT%). 

Part of the Celtics' defensive philosophy against Chamberlain was to attack his weakness and send him to the foul line.  It seems safe to speculate that if Chamberlain had hit more free throws in the fourth quarter of these games, that Wilt might have had a couple more championships and Russell a couple less.

Chamberlain may have retired with the best individual numbers in NBA history, but basketball is different from, say, baseball.  Basketball is a more interactive team sport, and numbers do not tell the whole story.  In order to be a truly great player and especially necessary to be THE greatest basketball player of all time, a player has to make the players around him better.  And Chamberlain rarely displayed this quality. 

He always seemed more interested in "his numbers" to prove to people how great he was.  Yes, he averaged an unbelievable 50.4 points per game one season (1961-62), but he took an astounding (almost) 40 shots per game.  How are his teammates going to shoot well when they are always cold from not shooting?  Will his teammates feel motivated to do the little things to help the team, when Wilt is getting all the shots and glory? 

In the 1966-67 season Wilt dropped his scoring average over nine points (from 33.5 the season before to 24.1) and finally won a championship in his eighth season.  Then, just when you thought he finally got the team concept, in the 1967-68 season he decided he was going to show everyone that he was a great passer (I heard him allude to this in an interview), and to prove it he proceeded to lead the league in total assists (702, 8.6 apg; Robertson had 9.7 apg, but he only played in 65 games, so he only totaled 633 assists).  But, was this what was best for the team?  I do not know for sure, but I doubt it. 

I do know that Chamberlain's teams did not win the championships either of these years (1961-62 and 1967-68).  To fair to Wilt, in the second half of his career he only averaged 20.7 points a game because, he said, the coaches asked him to shoot less.  He also said he often wondered if this was a mistake.  Given his high shooting percentage and offensive dominance, I am going to have to side with Wilt on this one. 

But, there has to a happy medium somewhere.  I just get the impression Jabbar and Jordan found it and Wilt, somehow, did not.  Wilt retired with big numbers and judging from the interviews of him that I have heard, an even bigger ego.  But, only two championships.

Wilt fans like to point out that he was so great that they had to change the rules to make him less dominant.  The rules that changed included widening the lane (from 12 to 16 feet), instituting offensive goaltending, and revising rules governing inbounding the ball and shooting free throws. 

But, does this mean he was just too good, or was it because the sport was still new and had not implemented all the rules that were fairest and best for the sport?  I will let you decide this one—I just pointed it out to give you a balanced picture of his career.

One last couple of things to justify Jordan as the best player of all time.  As I pointed out with Jabbar, Jordan (30.1 ppg (highest all-time), .497 FG%, .327 3pFG%, 6.2 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.35 spg (3rd highest all-time), .83 bpg) was clearly the best player in the league for much of his career. 

Until Jordan came around, no player had won a MVP award after the age of 31.  Jordan won two after the age of 31, the last being when he was 35, in what should have been his final season.  In a sport that involves major use of your legs this is very impressive. 

Also, personally, I think Jordan deserved 10 MVP awards, not five, but I did not do the voting.  I also think he would have won at least nine championships in a row had he not retired twice as he did. 

Jordan was an excellent ballhandler, rebounder (for a guard), and passer.  He was also unbelievably clutch and his will-to-win and competitiveness are legendary.  He was blessed with the most athletic ability in the history of the NBA, and more importantly, he made the most of it through hard work and determination. 

He was an unstoppable offensive force who could score in an almost limitless number of ways.  His dunks and creative moves to the basket were breathtaking.  He came into the league with a questionable jumper and left with the best 16-20 foot jump shot the league had ever seen.  He was a good, but not a great 3-point shooter (I think his .327% would have been higher if he did not take so many bail-out shots; ditto for Bird). 

In the second half of his career he dunked and drove less and developed a low post game, which included an unstoppable turnaround fade-away jumper.  I got the impression when watching Jordan (from when he hit his prime until the end of his second retirement and championship run) that he was head and tails above everyone else on the court and was just letting the game come to him in the first three quarters of the game. 

Then, even people in the North Pole knew what was going to happen:  Jordan was going take over the game, offensively AND defensively, and, almost at will, find a way for the Bulls to win.  No other player I watched came close to making me feel that way.  Yes, a perfect basketball player if there ever was one.  And clearly, as of February, 2009, the greatest basketball player ever.

In case you wondering who my dream team is—it is the first 12 players I ranked minus Shaq or Olajuwon (I have enough centers), and replacing one of them with Dr. J (whom I ranked 13th).  My starting five would be Jabbar, Russell (power forward), Bird, Johnson, and Jordan. 

And no matter what team you came up with—you would be in trouble.  Unless, of course, you replace one of my 12 players with Lebron James five years from now, because King James is soon going to make me redo my rankings all over again!

Here is my rankings with brief comments about the players not discussed above:

1.   Michael Jordan
2.   Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
3.   Magic Johnson
4.   Larry Bird
5.   Bill Russell
6.   Wilt Chamberlain
7.   Oscar Roberston

8.  Kobe Bryant (25.1 ppg, .455 FG%, .341 3pFG%, .840 FT%, 5.3 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.5 spg, .6 bpg). 

Eerily similar to Jordan offensively with more range on his jumper, but worse shot selection.  He is also an excellent defender.  The best individual player in the league so far this Century, but until the 2005-06 playoffs and then the entire 2007-08 season, showed little ability to make his teammates better.  Has three NBA titles, but zero Finals and one regular season MVPs (perhaps unfairly).  Only 30, so he still has a chance to prove himself.

9.   Jerry West (27.0 ppg, .474 FG%, .814 FT%, 6.7 apg, 5.8 rpg ). 

"Mr Clutch" won one championship (losing in the Finals a heart-wrenching eight times), zero MVPs, 10 times  All-NBA first team, 29.1 ppg in the playoffs (thirrd highest all-time).  Great all-around player.  Deadly jump shooter and tenacious defender.

10.   Elgin Baylor (27.4 ppg, .431 FG%, .780 FT%, 4.3 apg, 13.5 rpg). 

He led the Lakers to the finals eight times but lost every time, zero MVPs, 10 times All-NBA first team.  Had acrobatic moves ahead of his time.  Great all-around player.  Easily the best forward of the 1960s.  Overshadowed by Russell's Celtics and Chamberlain's scoring.

11.  Shaquille O'Neal (25.2 ppg, .581 FG%, 11.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg) 

Shaq has four NBA Titles, one MVP, three Finals MVPs.  Often compared to Wilt because of his power and size.  I always felt (and so do others) that he had the physical skills to be a better rebounder and shot blocker, but was (is) dominant nonetheless (although not pretty).

12.  Hakeem Olajuwon (21.8 ppg, .513 FG%, .712 FT%, 11.1 rpg, 3.1 bpg, 2.5 apg, 1.8 spg)

"The Dream" had two NBA Titles, one MVP, two Finals MVPs, and was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a six-time All-NBA first teamer.  A great all-around finesse center who had a dizzying array of low-post moves.

13.  Julius Erving (22.0 ppg, .507 FG%, .261 3pFG%, .777 FT%, 6.7 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.8 spg, .5 bpg). 

The electrifying "D. J" had one NBA Title, one MVP, five All-NBA first-team selections, two ABA titles, three ABA MVPs, and four All-ABA first-team selections.  Obviously his numbers and credentials would have better if he played his entire career in the NBA. 

His spectacular drives to the basket and powerful slam dunks made him one of the three most exciting players in NBA history.  Good all-around game, but not as great as the players listed above (e.g, defense, rebounding, and outside shot all were good, but not great). 

I am sure his fans want to see him listed higher, but while he was a good leader, he just does not have the reputation that the top players above do for making the players around them better.

14. Tim Duncan (21.6 ppg, .508 FG%, .685 FT%, 11.8 rpg, 3.2 apg, 2.3 bpg). 

Has four NBA Titles, two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, nine All-NBA first-team selections, and eight all-defensive first team selections.  "Boring", but a very consistent, unselfish power forward/center and a great all-around player.  I am sure that once his career is finished (perhaps sooner if he gets his fourth title in a week or two), he will have to be ranked higher.

15.  Rick Barry (23.2 ppg, .449 FG%, .330 3pFG%, .900 FT%, 6.5 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.4 spg) 

One NBA Title, zero regular-season MVPs. One Finals MVP, five All-NBA first-team selections. One ABA Title, and a five-time All-ABA first teamer.  Like Erving, his numbers and credentials would have been better if  he had not played the middle of his career in the ABA. 

Great scorer and shooter—the only person in history to lead the NCAA, the NBA, and the ABA in scoring.  Became an excellent passer in the second half of his career and was a good defender at times.  His abrasive personality hurt team chemistry and his press image.  Hence, probably underrated by the media.

16.  Bob Pettit (26.4 ppg, .436 FG%, .721 FT%, 16.2 rpg, 3.0 apg). 

One NBA Title, two NBA MVPs, 10-time All-NBA first teamer. 

Never saw him play, so I had to guess where to place him, but his reputation and numbers are too hard to ignore (rebounds per game only behind Wilt and Russell all-time and his points per game is sixth all-time).  Considered the first great power forward and was the NBA's first MVP winner.  Known for his hard work and second effort.

17.  George Mikan (23.1 ppg .404 FG%, .782 FT%, 9.5 rpg, 2.8 apg). 

Won four NBA titles, zero MVPs (only because there was no award), five All-NBA first-team selections, two NBL Titles, one NBL MVP, two All-NBL first-team selections.  Who knows where to place this pioneer?  He changed the NBA to a big man's game and established its first dynasty in the early fifties.  Because of low post dominance, the NBA had to widen the lane from six to 12 feet, which effectively lowered his points per game.

18. Moses Malone (20.6 ppg, .491 FG%, .769 FT%, 12.2 rpg, 1.3 bpg). 

He had one NBA Title, three MVPs, one Finals MVP, four All-NBA first-team selections, and one all-defensive first-team selections.  Went straight from high school to become one of the best centers of all time.  Was a very good scorer and relentless rebounder.

19.  Karl Malone (25.0 ppg, .516 FG%, .742 FT%, 10.1 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.4 spg, .8 bpg)

"The Mailman" delivered with two MVPs, but zero NBA Titles (losing twice to Jordan's Bulls), 11-time All-NBA first teamer, three-time all-defensive first teamer.  He was a muscular, yet agile player who typified the modern-day power forward.

20.  Charles Barkley (22.1 ppg, .541 FG%, .735 FT%, 11.7 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg, .8 bpg).  "

Sir Charles" had zero NBA Titles, one MVP, five All-NBA first-team selections.  An entertaining personality who was known for bluntness and was a great scorer and rebounder.  Amazingly, he played power forward, even though he was only about 6'4".

21.  John Stockton (13.1 ppg, .515 FG%, .826 FT%, 10.5 apg, 2.2 spg) 

The other half of the fabulous "Stockton and Malone" duo who together, unfortunately, finished with zero NBA Titles, zero MVPs, two All-NBA first-team and six second-team selections.  Great all-around unselfish point guard who was an underrated outside shooter (.384 3pFG%), a good defender (twice leading the league in steals), and was probably the second-best passer in NBA history after Steve Nash.

22.  John Havlicek (20.8 ppg, .439 FG%, .815 FT%, 6.3 rpg, 4.8 apg)

"Hondo" had nine NBA Titles, zero MVPs, one Finals MVP, and was a four-time All-NBA first teamer, five-time all-defensive first teamer.  One of the greatest all-around players ever, who was known for his clutch performances in big games, his endurance, and his great effort.

23.  Scott Pippen (16.1 ppg, .473 FG%, .326 3pFG%, .704 FT%, 6.4 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.0 spg)

Helped Jordan lead the Bulls to six NBA Titles, had zero MVPs, three All-NBA first team selections, and eight all-defensive first-team selections.  One of the most versatile players ever and even acted like a "point forward" at times.  Great defender.

24.  George Gervin (26.2 ppg, .511 FG%, .297 3pFG%, .844 FT%, 4.6 rpg, 2.8 apg)

"The Iceman" had zero titles, zero MVPs (came in second twice), and five All-NBA first-team selections.  He was a phenomenal scorer (four scoring titles, behind only Jordan and Wilt) and was known for his silky-smooth jump shot and his patented finger roll.

25.  Bob Cousy (18.4 ppg, .375 FG%, .803 FT%, 5.2 rpg, 7.5 apg). 

"The Houdini of the Hardwood" had six NBA titles, one MVP, and 10 All-NBA first-team selections.  Truly revolutionized the point guard position with his great ballhanding skills, court vision, and flashy passes while leading the league in assists eight consecutive seasons. 

Probably should be higher, but it is tough to know where, since all I have is highlights of him to go by.  (Note:  His shooting percentage was typical for back then.)


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