Ranking Every No. 1 NBA Draft Pick from the Last 30 Years

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 19, 2019

Ranking Every No. 1 NBA Draft Pick from the Last 30 Years

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    Barring a shocking departure from expectations, the New Orleans Pelicans will select Zion Williamson with the first pick in Thursday's NBA draft.

    All indications are that he'll provide the Pels with a franchise cornerstone to replace their last top overall selection, Anthony Davis.

    Recent history suggests the No. 1 pick isn't as sure a bet as it seems. While some organizations have set themselves up for years of contention by choosing the right player, others have set themselves back by picking the wrong one.

    Here, we'll look at the last 30 players to go first in the draft, ranking them on the basis of their prime years, longevity, statistical production and overall impact on the league. The tricky part is weighing a top draftee's peak against the duration of his career. While staying power has value, teams with the top pick are probably hoping to get someone with a transcendent prime.

    The higher up the list we go, the less we have to compare those two factors. The very best top picks offer both.

30-26: Bennett, Olowokandi, Fultz, Oden, Brown

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    30. Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2013

    Three picks on this list rank behind Bennett in career games played, but he checks in dead last in points (4.4), rebounds (3.1), assists (0.5), steals (0.4) and blocks (0.2) per game. He's also 30th in field-goal percentage (39.2 percent).

    Though his draft year was weak and yielded just two All-Stars (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Oladipo), Bennett stands out as the least valuable top selection in memory. He played for four teams in his four seasons, started just four games and was out of the league by January 2017.

            

    29. Michael Olowokandi, Los Angeles Clippers, 1998

    It's hard to absorb the fact that a hulking 7'0" center took just 19.9 percent of his career shots from inside three feet (excluding his first two seasons since that data was not yet tracked). You'd think somebody would have pushed 1998's top pick to use his size to generate higher-percentage looks. But when you recall all-time great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's damning account of Olowokandi's stubbornness, it gets easier to understand why the big man—in shot profile and every other aspect of his career—was his own worst enemy.

    Writing for ESPN in 2011, Abdul-Jabbar, who worked with the Clippers during Olowokandi's time there, explained: 

    "At practice, I would attempt to point out Mr. Olowokandi's faults to him, ones he constantly repeated and resulted in lost possessions for the team or personal fouls that sent him to the bench. His reaction to my attempts to correct his bad habits was to take my input as a personal insult and embarrassment. He told me point-blank that he would not be criticized in front of the team. He stuck to his word and, as a result, had very few successful moments on the court playing the way he wanted to play. He took his place on the list of athletically gifted washouts who have been in and out of the league in the past 10 years."

    Olowokandi somehow played 500 career games and even averaged double-digit points in his final two years with the Clippers. But he shot 43.5 percent for his career, posted negative box plus/minus figures every season and ranks dead last on this list in win shares per 48 minutes. 

    We're going to rank Markelle Fultz and Greg Oden ahead of Olowokandi even though their combined games-played totals don't come close to his. That's because the damage Olowokandi did by being on the floor was greater than the void created by Fultz's and Oden's chronic unavailability.

    For the Kandi Man, more was less.

                     

    28. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers, 2017

    Nobody on our list has played fewer games than Fultz, who's seen action in just 33 contests over two seasons. Nobody's future is hazier.

    Still just 21, Fultz has obvious talent. He's slithery with the ball in his hands, changes pace well and has a clear knack for creating space with deceptive strength. But his shooting woes—caused by some combination of scapular muscle imbalance, mechanical changes, thoracic outlet syndrome and the full-on yips—means there's no telling what's ahead.

    He could ultimately wind up a bigger bust than Bennett or a multi-time All-Star. For now, the former seems much more likely. 

            

    27. Greg Oden, Portland Trail Blazers, 2007

    Oden gave the Blazers exactly 82 games in his five years with the organization. Beset by injury throughout his career, the 7'0" center underwent three microfracture surgeries on his knees and never stayed on the floor long enough to deliver on his considerable promise.

    Referencing per-36-minute figures is misleading for a player who saw that much time in just three of his 105 career games. But it's telling that even in his constantly hobbled state, Oden managed per-36 averages of 14.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks on 57.4 percent shooting.

    The talent was there, but the body just never gave it a chance to shine.

                      

    26. Kwame Brown, Washington Wizards, 2001

    Brown was a legitimately solid interior defender and rebounder who survived a brutal NBA introduction to carve out a 12-year, 607-game career. He was never a star and came off the bench more often than not, but to endure that long after a baptism by fire playing alongside Michael Jordan (and then Kobe Bryant) shows remarkable resiliency.

    That said, Brown's career was that of a serviceable journeyman, and he averaged just 10.9 points in his most productive season at age 21. He easily had the best career of anyone we've ranked so far, but we still haven't come across anyone with a truly impactful prime.

25-21: Ellison, Bargnani, Ayton, Wiggins, Smith

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    25. Pervis Ellison, Sacramento Kings, 1989

    With 34 games played as a Sacramento Kings rookie, Ellison's nickname made the unfortunate transition from "Never Nervous" to "Out of Service". Injuries dogged the 6'9" Louisville product throughout his career, limiting him to an average of 39.5 games played over a dozen seasons, during which he posted 9.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest.

    He's our first entrant to crack 20 points per game in a season, though. And with averages of 20.0 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks, he won Most Improved Player as a 24-year-old with the Washington Bullets in 1991-92.

    This low in the rankings, any league-wide award matters.

            

    24. Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors, 2006

    A second-place finisher to Brandon Roy for the 2007 Rookie of the Year award, Bargnani averaged double-digit scoring for the first nine years of his decade-long career, peaking at 21.4 points per game in 2010-11.

    Despite the stretch he provided as a 7-footer who averaged 3.2 three-point attempts per game at a respectable 35.4 percent clip, Bargnani never posted a positive box plus/minus in any season. Shoddy defense and 851 career turnovers against 653 assists tend to result in some ugly catch-all metrics.

    Bargs, something of a punching bag as his career progressed, probably would have had a better run if he'd entered the league a few years later when spacing bigs spiked in value.

            

    23. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns, 2018

    This is as high as we can rank a player with one year of experience.

    As a rookie in 2018-19, Ayton averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 0.9 blocks—figures equaled or exceeded by only 11 other first-year players. Defensively, Ayton's instincts leave a lot to be desired, and it's difficult to put too much stock in his counting stats when they were produced on a "somebody's got to get numbers" Suns team.

    Still, Ayton has a great chance to vault up another 10 spots by the time we do this again next year.

                   

    22. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2014

    If all you cared about were cosmetic numbers, Wiggins' career 19.4 points per game, including 23.6 in 2016-17 when he led the league in total minutes played, would warrant a much higher placement.

    If you focused instead on the crippling impact of his max deal and negative career figures in box plus/minus, value over replacement player and Jacob Goldstein's player impact plus-minus, a lower ranking would seem appropriate.

    Wiggins has been exceptionally durable, missing just 10 games in five years. But much like Olowokandi, that volume of playing time has only increased the extent of his negative impact.

    Entering his age-24 season, Wiggins still has a chance to turn his obvious athletic tools into win-generating production. So far, he's been little more than empty calories.

                  

    21. Joe Smith, Golden State Warriors, 1995

    Right down to his name, Smith might be the most nondescript, easily forgettable top pick the league has ever seen. He averaged 17.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.2 blocks in his two-and-a-half seasons with the Warriors before disappearing into journeyman obscurity for the next 13 years.

    Though he lacked the strength to finish inside consistently, Smith was a solid mid-range shooter at 6'10". Dating back to 2000, he took a full third of his shots from 16-to-23 feet and hit 40.6 percent of them. If he were playing today, he'd probably be a useful stretch-5.

    Awards-wise, Smith's only honor was a 1996 spot on the All-Rookie first team. Classmates Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace had to settle for second-team placement that year. Coupled with 1,030 career games, which ranks sixth on this list, Smith had a fine career nobody would ever confuse for a great one.

20-16: Martin, Robinson, Bogut, Coleman, Simmons

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    20. Kenyon Martin, New Jersey Nets, 2000

    Ladies and gentlemen, our first All-Star!

    K-Mart, who made the East squad at age 26 in 2004, is one of only three players on our list to average at least one block and one steal for his career. His penchant for catching opponents' shots with two hands rather than spiking them out of bounds is one of the great aesthetic gems lost to the (mostly) pre-YouTube era.

    A few survive in standard definition.

    Martin averaged 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 15 years as a springy power forward who was almost identically productive in 112 playoff games. He made the Finals in his second and third seasons, averaging 18.9 points and 9.4 rebounds in 20 postseason games during the 2003 run.

    Not quite a star, Martin was a consistently valuable rotation player on winning teams throughout a long career.

           

    19. Glenn Robinson, Milwaukee Bucks, 1994

    A member of the 1994-95 All-Rookie first team, a two-time All-Star and the owner of eight seasons with a scoring average over 20 points per game, Robinson is probably best remembered as a key piece of a 2000-01 Bucks team that made it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Consistently poor defense and a "shoot first, pass never" mentality meant Robinson was always more of a secondary star than a true cornerstone, but there's still something to be said for being the best pure bucket-getter we've covered to this point.

    No, he doesn't get a bump for the ring he won with the 2005 San Antonio Spurs in his final season. But he's the first champ we've covered, which is worth mentioning.

          

    18. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee Bucks, 2005

    Freak injuries kept Bogut from becoming the player he could have been, but he accomplished more than enough to rank ahead of Robinson.

    The 7-foot Aussie was an All-Rookie first-teamer in 2005-06, made the All-NBA third team in 2009-10 and was All-Defensive second team in 2014-15 with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. He also led the league with 2.6 blocks per game in 2010-11.

    A slick passer who the Warriors used as an offensive fulcrum in the formative stages of their dynastic run, Bogut found ways to add offensive value without scoring. An anchor for consistently excellent defenses with the Bucks and Warriors, he led the league in defensive box plus/minus twice (2013-14 and 2014-15).

    We'll only encounter three or four better in-prime defenders between Bogut and the No. 1 spot on our list.

           

    17. Derrick Coleman, New Jersey Nets, 1990

    Coleman, a 6'10" forward from Syracuse with a guard's shooting touch, had the raw skill and offensive savvy to easily rank in the top 10 on this list. But—how to put this delicately?—a Google search involving the terms "Coleman" and "wasted talent" turns up an alarming number of results.

    The 1990-91 Rookie of the Year made the All-NBA third team twice and played in one All-Star game, all while rather conspicuously not trying very hard. Still, his peak was remarkable.

    Coleman's first five seasons in the league, all with the Nets, featured averages of 19.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists. In that half-decade span, five other players matched those three-category totals: Brad Daugherty, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and David Robinson. Everyone in that group but Coleman and Daugherty are all-timers, and Daugherty might have joined them if injuries hadn't derailed his career.

    After arriving on the scene as a superstar, Coleman gradually faded as weight gain, injuries and a reputation for moodiness dimmed his shine.

            

    16. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers, 2016

    Simmons is off to a strong start, winning Rookie of the Year in his first season and making the All-Star team in his second. Despite a complete inability (and unwillingness) to shoot from the perimeter, he has put up 16.4 points per game in his two years as a pro.

    He is also the only player in league history to average at least eight rebounds and seven assists for his career. Throw in the size, speed and coordination to defend five positions, and Simmons, 6'10", has a ceiling too high to see with the naked eye.

    True superstardom hinges on the development of a respectable jumper. Because he only has two years in the books and projects as no more than a secondary star without an outside shot, Simmons has to settle for a spot just outside the top 15.

    He's got plenty of time to climb.

15-11: Johnson, Wall, Rose, Brand, Irving

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    15. Larry Johnson, Charlotte Hornets, 1991

    Johnson, an athletic marvel, came into the league with incalculable potential. He was Rookie of the Year in 1992, made the All-Star team in his second season and signed a 12-year, $84 million contract in 1993 that was the largest in league history at the time.

    Back problems sapped his bounce, but Johnson developed skills to compensate. The power forward shot 38.6 percent from deep and averaged 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 1994-95 while making his second All-Star team. He was just as good the next year, posting averages of 20.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists.

    Though decline set in following his move to the Knicks in 1996, Johnson was an effective player for the balance of his 10-year career. He ranks 10th among No. 1 picks in the last 30 years with 69.7 win shares.

            

    14. John Wall, Washington Wizards, 2010

    Wall's average of 9.2 assists is tops on our list, and his 1.7 steals trail only Allen Iverson. It's worth noting, too, that for all the criticism his shooting has endured during a nine-year career, Wall's accuracy from the field and from deep are higher than Iverson's.

    Though surgery to repair a torn Achilles could keep Wall out for most or all of the 2019-20 season and will diminish his productivity upon return, the Wizards point guard has enough on his resume to warrant a spot this high.

    Wall is a five-time All-Star who made the All-Defensive second team in 2014-15 and the All-NBA third team in 2016-17. One of the game's all-time transition speedsters in his prime, he has long excelled at generating high-efficiency looks for teammates, particularly corner threes

    Though far from perfect and probably now well clear of his best years, Wall was the best player on Wizards teams that made the playoffs four out of five years from 2013-14 to 2017-18.

                    

    13. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls, 2008

    Rose's career point and assist averages are lower than Wall's, and he's played 27 fewer games than the Wizards point guard despite entering the league two years earlier. Wall's five All-Star trips also outpace Rose's three.

    But Rose's peak gives him a clear edge.

    In 2010-11, Rose became the youngest MVP in league history at age 22. He averaged 25.0 points for a 62-win Bulls team that reached the conference finals before falling to LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Expectations are always high for top overall picks, but Rose's early years blew away even the most outlandish hopes.

    He fronted a title contender in his third season. If not for a devastating string of injuries that kicked off in the 2012 playoffs, he would have achieved even more. Though many of the players ranked behind him provided more overall production, none reached Rose's apex.

    Not to be forgotten, Rose averaged 18.0 points and was one of the league's top reserves this past season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. That doesn't necessarily help his ranking, but it's certainly impressive given what he's endured on the health front since his MVP campaign.

             

    12. Elton Brand, Chicago Bulls, 1999

    An Achilles tear in 2007 ended one of the least appreciated early-career runs we've seen from a big man.

    Brand averaged 20.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks from 1999-00 to 2006-07. The only other players to match those averages during that stretch were Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan. Brand earned Rookie of the Year in 1999-00, made a pair of All-Star squads and was an All-NBA second-teamer in 2005-06.

    Efficient on offense, a major interior deterrent on D and a ridiculously consistent source of points and rebounds before his injury, Brand belonged in the NBA's frontcourt upper class. The Clippers only had one playoff berth between 1997 and 2011, and Brand was the main reason for that lone postseason trip in 2006. Just as impressively, he hung on for a full decade after his torn Achilles, turning in several more productive seasons.

    Only four players on our list generated more career win shares, and three appeared in more games. Brand is the best combination of quality and quantity we've come across thus far.

             

    11. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2011

    Rookie of the Year in 2011-12, six All-Star games (including an All-Star MVP in 2014), two All-NBA honors and a championship ring with the 2015-16 Cavs make Irving the most decorated player on our list so far.

    And though there's no specific award for it, we have to acknowledge that Cleveland might not have collected that title in 2016 if Irving hadn't provided one of the great big-stage daggers in memory, putting the Cavs up by three with 53 seconds left in Game 7 of the Finals.

    Yes, it's fair to question Irving's leadership after a rocky 2018-19 with the Boston Celtics. And it's also true he's never been the best player on a championship team. But we haven't reached the true upper tier of these rankings; the standards aren't quite that high yet.

    Don't forget: Irving is only 27. He's got several more years to improve his position.

10-6: Griffin, Towns, Webber, Ming, Davis

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    10. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers, 2009

    Griffin proved he could run the show this past season with the Detroit Pistons, setting new career highs in makes and attempts from deep while also handing out a personal-best 402 assists. He doesn't need to dunk to make a major impact.

    With 96 more career games played than Irving, Griffin has an advantage in volume. His career player efficiency rating, box plus/minus and win shares per 48 minutes are also marginally better. Both have six All-Star appearances, and both won Rookie of the Year, though Griffin's five All-NBA teams exceed Irving's two.

    You could flip the order between those two without ruffling feathers, but we'll go with Griffin on the strength of a slightly better advanced-stats profile.

             

    9. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2015

    Towns has precisely one playoff appearance, and it didn't go well. But it's hard to allow a shaky postseason debut to detract from what's been a historically productive early career.

    He's the only player in league history to compile at least 7,000 points, 3,000 rebounds, 400 blocks and 300 made threes in his first four seasons. David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal join Towns in the points, rebounds and blocks categories, but those two made six threes between them in their first four seasons.

    We've never seen a center with an offensive game as complete as Towns', and that leaves open the possibility for some truly special achievements down the line.

    A pair of All-Star games, Rookie of the Year and a 2017-18 All-NBA nod are only the beginning.

            

    8. Chris Webber, Golden State Warriors, 1993

    The Sacramento Kings have made the playoffs eight times in the last 21 years, and Webber was the best player on seven of those teams. From 1998-99 to 2004-05, he gave the Kings 23.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game while serving as the hub of the prettiest early-'00s offense in the league.

    If not for Robert Horry's backbreaking three in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, C-Webb might also have a ring. Those Kings (and Webber) were that good.

    He finished in the top 10 in MVP voting five times during his career, made five All-Star teams and five All-NBA teams (including first-team honors in 2000-01) and won Rookie of the Year. Though he hasn't been inducted yet, Webber has been a finalist for the Hall of Fame every year since 2017.

    Considering he ranks in the NBA's top 100 for career points, rebounds, blocks and steals (and is 37th all-time in box plus/minus), he seems likely to get into the Hall eventually.

            

    7. Yao Ming, Houston Rockets, 2002

    Though this will change as a few retired top picks gain eligibility, Yao is the first Hall of Famer we've hit so far.

    The skilled 7'6" center was an All-Star in each of the eight seasons he managed to get on the floor, including in 2010-11 when he played just five games. International fan voting was responsible for a few undeserved All-Star trips, but stuffing the ballot box had nothing to do with Yao's five All-NBA nods.

    He earned those.

    Injuries limited him to 57 games in 2005-06, 48 games in 2006-07 and 55 games in 2007-08, and he sat out all of 2009-10 with a broken foot. His counting numbers suffer from so much unavailability. Still, Yao ranks in the top 25 in NBA history in career PER and win shares per 48 minutes. When he was on the floor, he was fantastic.

                    

    6. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, 2012

    Among No. 1 picks in the last 30 years, Davis ranks third in points per game, fifth in rebounds and first in blocks. His 0.214 win shares per 48 minutes are second in that illustrious crew.

    Without cherry-picking, you could credibly argue AD has been the second-best per-minute contributor on our list...and we've still got five more players to go.

    Davis hasn't had much postseason success, but we've still only ranked three players with titles so far. Plus, he's only 26 and just teamed up with LeBron James. His odds of winning a ring just got a whole lot better.

    Six All-Star games in seven seasons, three All-NBA first-team honors, three All-Defensive nods, two top-five MVP finishes and the third-highest career PER in league history give Davis a mind-blowing CV. He could probably call it quits now and count on a place in the Hall, but there's a strong likelihood another half-decade of play at this level would ultimately result in Davis ranking among the NBA's true all-time greats.

    The best two-way big man in the league today, Davis has a great chance to climb another few spots.

5. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers, 1996

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    The efficiency stans will be out in force to protest Allen Iverson's position here. He shot 42.5 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from deep for his career, which is hardly worth celebrating—especially for a player whose value was almost entirely wrapped up in his offense.

    Maybe we're stretching here and looking for rationalizations. But Iverson has to get credit for the extreme degree of difficulty that defined his career.

    At 165 pounds, he threw himself into traffic on a nightly basis. He averaged 41.1 minutes per game for his career, leading the league in that stat seven times. His four scoring titles were a testament to his otherworldly competitive spirit, and that mentality helped define Sixers teams that reached the playoffs six times in Iverson's first nine seasons, peaking with a trip to the Finals in 2001.

    A cultural icon, an 11-time All-Star, a seven-time All-NBA team member, an MVP and a Hall of Famer, Iverson left a footprint on those Sixers teams (and the league) that is difficult to overstate.

    Maybe he could have adjusted his shot profile a bit, but A.I. was never into compromise. 

4. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic, 2004

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    In Dwight Howard, the Magic drafted one of the greatest interior defenders the league has ever seen. Seemingly indestructible, Howard played all 82 games in five of his first six seasons, ultimately missing just seven contests from 2004-05 to 2010-11.

    He won Defensive Player of the Year three times, led the league in rebounds per game five times and swatted more shots than anyone over the course of an entire decade (2004-05 to 2013-14). An eight-time All-NBA standout, Howard led the Magic to the Finals in 2008-09 and has made the playoffs 10 times during his career.

    For five straight seasons from 2007-08 to 2011-12, he ranked in the top seven in MVP voting. That's exactly the kind of prime you want from a top pick.

    Don't let the injuries and locker room reputation distract from what Howard accomplished during his best years. For the better part of a decade, he was a true superstar whose statistics are immune to the "well, actually..." inefficiency gripes that Iverson's face. 

3. Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando Magic, 1992

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    We've crossed into new territory here, as Shaquille O'Neal is the kind of unquestioned megastar who hardly needs statistical justification for his placement. Everybody knows how great Shaq was.

    Perhaps the most physically overpowering force the league has ever seen, O'Neal was the best player on the Los Angeles Lakers team that won three straight titles from 1999-00 to 2001-02. He collected a fourth ring with the 2005-06 Heat, contributing 18.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs as a 33-year-old.

    O'Neal made 15 All-Star games and 14 All-NBA teams, won a regular-season MVP and three Finals MVPs, collected a pair of scoring titles and, obviously, entered the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

    Tenth all-time in total points, 16th in rebounds, ninth in blocks and fourth in PER, O'Neal deserves mention in the conversation about the greatest centers to ever play.

    These next two guys must be pretty good...

2. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs, 1997

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    With Tim Duncan, we don't have to weigh the value of a sterling prime against a prolonged stretch of solid play because he melded the two together like few others.

    The 19-year pro made the All-NBA team 15 times. His 15 years as an All-Defensive honoree are the most in NBA history; nobody else has more than 12.

    Two MVPs, five rings (three Finals MVPs in the process) and 15 All-Star appearances give Duncan an incomparable resume, and that's before trying to figure out how much extra credit he deserves for serving as the rock of the Spurs' two-decade run of playoff appearances. Unlike O'Neal, Howard and the guy in the upcoming top overall spot, Duncan never agitated for a trade or created controversy of any sort. Conversely, he was a steadying force as supporting players came and went around him, as the Spurs re-tooled and changed styles several times over the years.

    What's that kind of stability worth? Can it even be measured? And how about the fact that the tone he set still endures, years after his retirement?

    Depending on how you evaluate his total commitment to winning (and allergy to self-interest and ego), you could make the case Duncan deserves to rank higher. Drafting him got the Spurs 20 years of a no-nonsense, distraction-free environment, which can hardly be said of other players with similar on-court value.

    Some might argue head coach Gregg Popovich or the Spurs' culture deserves as much credit for the franchise's nonstop winning, but it's telling that Popovich has always tied his team's success to the quiet leader in the middle.

1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2003

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    For all of Duncan's inarguable greatness, and despite the fact he generated far less turmoil (trades and "will he, won't he?" free-agent controversy have followed James at every stop), LeBron had to come out on top.

    Forget the 30-player field we're studying here. James is fourth all-time in total points, 10th in assists and second in PER. He's a four-time MVP who could easily have three or four more, a 15-time All-Star and a three-time champion.

    James will get a chance to set a new record (and pass Duncan) with his 16th All-NBA selection next year, and you can expect more all-time marks to fall as he continues a prime that has lasted longer than just about anyone else's.

    The only argument against James, who may already be the greatest player to ever suit up, is that the team that drafted him didn't get anything close to the prolonged reliability Duncan's did. Sure, the Cavs got their only ring when James triumphantly returned for his second stint with the organization, but they didn't get the sustained contributions Duncan gave the Spurs.

    Maybe we're overthinking things, but there's a way to frame Duncan's value to the team that drafted him as greater than James'.

    In the end, it was just too hard to deny James this position. Especially since he, unlike Duncan, O'Neal or anyone else in the top five, still has a chance to add to his legacy.

           

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceNBA.com unless otherwise indicated.