Bleacher Report's All-Time Player Rankings: NBA's Top 50 Revealed
Attempting to create that list is an excruciating endeavor. The number of painful omissions may be about as large as the list itself. Individual debates like Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James or Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird pop up all over the place.
The NBA has showcased a wealth of talent over the course of 70-plus years. And even though a definitive top 50 is likely impossible to uncover, that won't prevent us from digging.
As has been the case throughout this series, the criteria were mostly subjective, though heavily influenced by both basic and advanced statistics.
Catch-all metrics like box plus/minus (available from the 1973-74 season on) and win shares per 48 minutes came into play. And you'll see pace- and playing-time-adjusted numbers (in the form of "per 75 possessions"). But intangibles have to be factored into these conversations, as well.
In the end, the most difficult calls often came down to instincts.
And again, some of the cuts that had to be made went way beyond difficult. Those players still deserve a shoutout, so you'll find them in the honorable mentions before we get to the top 50.
And so, without further delay, here we go.
*Note: Text for most players has been taken from the positional rankings, some of which has been edited for length and context.
- Alvan Adams
- Carmelo Anthony
- Chauncey Billups
- Chris Bosh
- Elton Brand
- Vince Carter
- Dave Cowens
- Alex English
- Artis Gilmore
- Blake Griffin
- Grant Hill
- Al Horford
- Jeff Hornacek
- Allen Iverson
- Kevin Johnson
- Marques Johnson
- Neil Johnston
- Bobby Jones
- Sam Jones
- Andrei Kirilenko
- Bob Lanier
- Damian Lillard
- Kevin Love
- Kyle Lowry
- Jerry Lucas
- Pete Maravich
- Shawn Marion
- Bob McAdoo
- Tracy McGrady
- George Mikan
- Sidney Moncrief
- Alonzo Mourning
- Chris Mullin
- Dikembe Mutombo
- Robert Parish
- Tony Parker
- Gary Payton
- Willis Reed
- Dennis Rodman
- Arvydas Sabonis
- Jack Sikma
- Nate Thurmond
- Wes Unseld
- Chris Webber
- Dominique Wilkins
Here are some of those painful omissions, listed in alphabetical order:
Again, there are probably arguments for any of the above to make the top 50. There are probably arguments for some who aren't even here.
Given the number of phenomenal basketball players who've passed through the NBA, figuring out the top 50 may well be impossible. But here goes a shot at it.
50. Rick Barry
Per Game: 23.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 2.0 steals
Per 75 Possessions: 20.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.9 steals
Relative True Shooting Percentage: +0.3
Net Rating Swing: N/A
Box Plus/Minus: 3.2
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.162
One of the NBA's early playmaking forwards, Rick Barry did a little bit of everything for the Golden State Warriors of the 1960s and '70s.
"He was Larry Bird before there was a Larry Bird," former New Jersey Nets director of player personnel Al Menendez said of Barry, per Sports Illustrated.
Only 10 players in NBA history had more seasons than Barry's two with an average of 30-plus points per game (and that's not even counting two more he had in the ABA). And his 35.6 in 1966-67 remains the eighth-highest single-season average of all time.
Then, there's the rebounding. He was 31st among players his height or shorter in rebounds per game.
And finally, there's the passing. Over the course of Barry's NBA career, Reggie Theus and Wilt Chamberlain were the only 6'7"-plus players who averaged more assists per game.
"He was a great artist. A Mozart. A Picasso. A Caruso," Barry's former coach, Lou Carnesecca, said. "I'd diagram a play, and Rick would instinctively see four or five options that I'd never even imagined. In 35 years of coaching I've never had another guy like that."
Barry's brilliance on the floor culminated in a 1974-75 title with the Warriors. That year, he averaged 29.5 points, 5.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 steals in a Finals sweep of the Washington Bullets. To no one's surprise, he was named Finals MVP.
49. Elvin Hayes
Per Game: 21.0 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.0 blocks
Per 75 Possessions: 17.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.8 blocks
Relative True Shooting Percentage: -2.6
Net Rating Swing: N/A
Box Plus/Minus: +0.9
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.116
Like plenty of professional athletes before and since, Elvin Hayes often struggled with the aspects of sports and stardom that existed outside the game itself.
"To many basketball fans, Hayes is known as one of the original bad actors of sports' big-money era, a troublemaker who has doomed to certain failure every professional team he ever played for," Sports Illustrated's John Papanek wrote in 1978.
The piece goes on to detail less-than-pleasant run-ins with coaches, teammates and media. It also shares a nugget from Hayes himself.
"Finally winning the championship completes the picture. because no one can ever again say that E's not a champion. But the one thing they've taken away from me that I feel I have deserved is the MVP. And I don't think I'll ever get it, because I think, more than anything else, people want to see me fail."
Hayes would never win that MVP, despite leading the league in scoring once, rebounding twice and minutes per game twice. Over his first 10 years in the league, his 23.9 points per game ranked 10th, and his 14.7 rebounds ranked fourth.
He was absurdly productive, but his interactions with others and his lack of a title until his 10th season influenced the way he was perceived. That sounds like James Harden or Russell Westbrook, right?
Decades before social media put its onerous imprint on sports, there were still plenty of misunderstood stars. Hayes never won an MVP award, but he's in the Hall of Fame and has to be considered one of the greatest power forwards of all time.
48. Walt Frazier
Per Game: 18.9 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds, 1.9 steals
Per 75 Possessions: 16.8 points, 5.3 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals
Relative True Shooting Percentage: +3.3
Net Rating Swing: N/A
Box Plus/Minus: 4.1
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.176
Many of today's NBA fans may know Walt "Clyde" Frazier as the rhyme-dropping, extravagant-suit-wearing color commentator on the New York Knicks' local broadcasts.
In the 1960s and '70s, he was one of the leaders of the only New York Knicks teams to win NBA championships.
And while his counting stats were plenty impressive when he was in action, his biggest strength may have been on the side of the floor that doesn't get as much love from box scores.
Frazier himself explained his love of defense to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:
"When I was [a freshman] in college [Southern Illinois], I was ineligible to play, so every day at practice the coach made me play defense. And I fell in love with defense. The way I would get back at the coach, it was me and four guys against the varsity. I would be creating so much havoc that the coach would say, 'Frazier. Sit down.' They couldn't run any plays. I was stealing the ball, talking trash.
"That is when I mastered the technique. The stance. If you ask me about any guy, I know whether he had that one step, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Earl 'The Pearl' [Monroe], Dave Bing, [Nate] 'Tiny' Archibald. I perfected the system."
On top of his seven All-Star appearances, six All-NBA selections and two NBA titles, Frazier also tallied seven All-Defensive selections.
47. Isiah Thomas
Per Game: 19.2 points, 9.3 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.9 steals
Per 75 Possessions: 19.3 points, 9.3 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.9 steals
Relative True Shooting Percentage: -2.0
Net Rating Swing: N/A
Box Plus/Minus: 2.2
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.109
As you make your way through this piece, you'll find that Isiah Thomas' advanced numbers are significantly lower than the others on the list.
"The point guard was never particularly efficient, but his defense and leadership more than made up for the deficits," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote. "Plus, he was on stacked teams with players who were made better by his sheer presence, so in a way, he actually earned more win shares than he produced solely as an individual."
This is a rare win for the "eye test over numbers" crowd, but the two camps don't need to be completely at odds when it comes to Thomas. Common ground can be found when examining his playoff numbers.
Thomas' 6.4 playoff box plus/minus is far better than his regular-season mark, and it ranks 12th all time (sixth among point guards).
His basic postseason numbers of 20.4 points, 8.9 assists and 2.1 steals are unmatched across league history. And if you relax the qualifiers to 20 points, eight assists and two steals, Chris Paul is the only name added to the list.
Add 12 All-Star appearances, five All-NBA selections, two titles and a Finals MVP to that resume, and it isn't difficult to see why Thomas' advanced numbers couldn't keep him out of the top 50.
46. Pau Gasol
Per Game: 17.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.6 blocks
Per 75 Possessions: 19.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.8 blocks
Relative True Shooting Percentage: +2.7
Net Rating Swing: +3.1
Box Plus/Minus: 3.5
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.169
Pau Gasol may not have as many accolades as most of the others on this list. But for well over a decade, he was one of the steadiest inside presences in the league.
LeBron James, Chris Paul, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade are the only players with more wins over replacement player over the course of Pau's career.
Gasol's influence on the game has to be considered, as well. He arrived on the scene within a few years of Garnett and Nowitzki. Together, they helped change what's expected of a big man.
The lumbering power games of bigs from the past gave way to the skill-heavy games Gasol helped pioneer. Sure, outliers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Walton and Alvan Adams preceded him, but he helped make passing bigs the norm.
Among 7-footers, only Kareem and Wilt have more career assists.
The exclamation points are his two titles with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. His playoff numbers on the way to those back-to-back championships? An excellent 18.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.0 blocks per game.
45. George Gervin
Per Game: 26.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks
Per 75 Possessions: 26.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.9 blocks
Relative True Shooting Percentage: +4.0
Net Rating Swing: N/A
Box Plus/Minus: 1.5
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.159
Before we dive into George Gervin's resume, it should be noted that his numbers come exclusively from his NBA seasons: 1976-77 to 1985-86.
His ABA numbers across four seasons were great, especially on the boards, but this is an NBA list. Even with his first four professional campaigns omitted, the Iceman did enough to get into the top 50. And his transition—along with those of his ABA contemporaries—to the NBA helped energize the league.
"It was the best thing that could happen to us when we made that merger," Gervin told The Post Game's Jeff Eisenband. "The NBA needed a shock. I think the ABA merger really helped the foundation. They always say Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird saved them. I think the ABA did. It gave them the youth, talent."
Gervin may have been more of a lightning bolt than a shock to his new league.
During his 10-year NBA run, Gervin's 26.2 points per game trailed only Adrian Dantley's 26.5. And he won four scoring titles, topping out at 33.1 points in 1979-80.
In the final game of his 1977-78 campaign, Gervin dropped 63 points to wrap up his first scoring crown.
David Thompson, who finished second that season, recounted his experience with Gervin's 63-point game after scoring 73 earlier in the day (h/t NBA.com):
"When I finally made it home, I scanned the dial on the radio and attempted to pick up the San Antonio versus New Orleans broadcast. If it had been any player other than 'The Iceman,' I wouldn't have even bothered. But George was ultra-competitive, and he already knew what I had done earlier in the day. He needed 58 points to win the scoring title, and I knew that was not far from his reach. George could fill up the bucket so fast you would swear it was raining basketballs.
"I caught the game early into the second quarter, and by halftime Gervin had fired in 53 points. I knew then that my 73 had been in vain. George scored 63 points on 23 of 49 shots from the floor and ended up winning the scoring title in the closest race in NBA history, 27.22 to 27.15.
"George's 63 points that night in New Orleans meant that I had only held the scoring lead for about seven hours..."
Gervin was one of the most prolific scorers basketball has ever produced. Despite only playing 10 NBA seasons, he's 40th all-time in points scored. If you go by points per game, he rockets up to ninth.
44. Ray Allen
Per Game: 18.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.3 threes, 1.1 steals
Per 75 Possessions: 21.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.6 threes, 1.2 steals
Relative True Shooting Percentage: +4.9
Net Rating Swing: +4.9
Box Plus/Minus: 3.0
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.150
When you think of the prettiest shooting forms in NBA history, Ray Allen's almost always comes up. That's a big plus for a shooting guard.
A person of meticulous habit, Allen once told the Boston Globe's Jackie MacMullan that he felt insulted when people referred to his jump shot as a God-given gift.
"God could care less whether I can shoot a jump shot," Allen said.
His picturesque form came from countless hours of repetition—thousands of jumpers both in front of crowds and in empty gyms.
And it was that career-long dedication to his craft that made Allen one of the greatest shooters in the game's history.
In the wake of the recent three-point revolution, players are likely to pass Allen's total for career threes. But for now, his 2,973 still have him at No. 1.
Allen was more than a shooter, though. Sure, it's the foundation of his all-time legacy, but he also had five seasons in which he averaged at least four dimes. And he even competed in the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest.
He was also a critical component of two title-winning teams. In 2008, he trailed only Kevin Garnett among Boston Celtics in playoff win shares. He made 2.1 threes per game that postseason and shot 39.6 percent from deep.
Then, five years later, he hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history as a member of the Miami Heat. With time winding down in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, and the San Antonio Spurs' trophy literally being wheeled onto the floor, Allen hit a game-tying three that preserved Miami's hopes and gave the team a chance at a Game 7. Of course, the Heat went on to win the title.
"I honestly can say I gave myself a great opportunity, a great chance to make that shot," Allen said of his legendary moment, per SB Nation's Paul Flannery. "And it wasn't unfamiliar to me positionally. When it went in, I was ecstatic. But at the same time I was expecting to make it."
43. Reggie Miller
Per Game: 18.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 threes, 1.1 steals
Per 75 Possessions: 20.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.1 threes, 1.2 steals
Relative True Shooting Percentage: +8.5
Net Rating Swing: N/A
Box Plus/Minus: 3.3
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.176
During his 2018 Hall of Fame speech, Allen praised his sharpshooting predecessor, Reggie Miller:
"As I stand here on the stage today before you, I know a lot has been said about me being a great shooter. Being one of the best. But what I know is this person who is presenting me tonight, Reggie Miller, is the best shooter that I've ever seen in my life.
"Reggie has had a profound effect on my early years in the NBA. I would come out to the floor thinking I was early, and he was already out there, and Reggie had a Superman shirt. And when you see somebody, your opponent, wearing a Superman shirt, you have to ask yourself 'how do I beat Superman tonight?'
"It was impossible to guard you, Reggie. Reggie would grab my arms and he would throw me in one direction, then go in the other. And then the coach would get mad at me! And I said 'Coach Calhoun didn't teach me that in college.'"
On top of his combination of competitiveness and craftiness, Miller was an absurdly efficient scorer.
He had 13 seasons with 500-plus minutes, a double-digit scoring average and a 60-plus true shooting percentage. His closest competition on that front consists of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Steve Nash and John Stockton, each of whom had 11 such seasons.
If you up the points-per-game qualifier to 15, Miller still holds a 12-11 lead over Kareem.
On top of the numbers, Miller, who is second all-time in threes made, had a killer instinct that made him one of the league's top scorers for well over a decade.
And that was never more evident than when Miller scored eight points in nine seconds during the 1995 playoffs.
Sports Illustrated recounted the legendary performance:
"Miller's theatrics Sunday were witnessed by millions of people, most of whom no doubt are still trying to figure out what they saw. Miller made two three-pointers in the span of 3.1 seconds (the second trey after he intercepted an inbounds pass) to tie the score at 105-105. After the Knicks' John Starks missed two free throws, Miller won the game by hitting two foul shots with 7.5 seconds remaining. And he did it all while yapping at Knick court jester Spike Lee and gloating in the faces of the stunned New York players."
Like Allen, Miller was more than just a shooter. He could leverage his shooting ability into results that devastated opponents.
42. Kawhi Leonard
Per Game: 17.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.4 threes, 0.7 blocks
Per 75 Possessions: 21.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.2 steals, 1.7 threes, 0.8 blocks
Relative True Shooting Percentage: +5.5
Net Rating Swing: +4.6
Box Plus/Minus: 6.1
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.219
Yes, Kawhi Leonard only has eight seasons of NBA experience to his name. And he only made nine appearances in one of those seasons. But Kawhi is already one of the most accomplished postseason performers in NBA history, as evidenced by a few all-time ranks.
- Playoff box plus/minus: fifth (second among small forwards)
- Playoff value over replacement player: 25th (sixth among small forwards)
- Playoff win shares per 48 minutes: fourth (second among small forwards)
- Playoff win shares: 28th (seventh among small forwards)
In 2019, Leonard solidified those ranks and his status among the game's best players with a historic playoff run. In 24 games, he averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.3 threes and 1.7 steals. His true shooting percentage was 61.9.
Here's the complete list of players who played at least 500 minutes, averaged 30-plus points and had a 60-plus true shooting percentage in a single postseason: LeBron James (three times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alex English, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kawhi Leonard.
In the 2019 Finals alone, Leonard averaged 28.5 points. And after he and the Toronto Raptors eliminated the Golden State Warriors, he was named Finals MVP for the second time in his career.
He joined Kareem and LeBron as the only players in NBA history to win that award with more than one team.
On top of the loaded playoff resume, Kawhi also has two Defensive Player of the Year wins, five All-Defensive selections, three All-NBA selections and three All-Star selections.
In this context, all his lack of experience really means is he'll probably climb higher by the time he's done.
41. Paul Pierce
Per Game: 19.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.6 threes, 1.3 steals
Per 75 Possessions: 22.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.8 threes, 1.5 steals
Relative True Shooting Percentage: +3.5
Net Rating Swing: +6.3
Box Plus/Minus: 3.3
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.157
On March 13, 2001, third-year Boston Celtic Paul Pierce went 13-of-19 from the field on the way to 42 points against his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, who also happened to be the reigning champions that year.
"Take this down," reigning MVP Shaquille O'Neal said after that game, per NBC's A. Sherrod Blakely. "My name is Shaquille O'Neal and Paul Pierce is the motherf--king truth. Quote me on that and don't take nothing out."
Pierce scored another 42 points two days later in Phoenix. And over the rest of his career, he was one of the game's most prolific and consistent scorers.
On top of his steady scoring (he's second in Celtics history in points scored), Pierce was also a solid secondary playmaker (3.5 assists per game) and a reliable defender (part of six top-five defenses in Boston).
He was also the leading scorer on the 2007-08 title-winning Celtics.
40. Adrian Dantley
Per Game: 24.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals
Per 75 Possessions: 23.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steals
Relative True Shooting Percentage: +8.3
Net Rating Swing: N/A
Box Plus/Minus: 3.1
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.189
Adrian Dantley is one of the most efficient scorers in league history.
There are 64 players with at least 5,000 minutes and a scoring average at 20 or more. Only six of those players have a 60-plus true shooting percentage. And Stephen Curry (62.4) and Karl-Anthony Towns (61.9) are the only two ahead of Dantley (61.7).
Perhaps even more remarkable, Dantley posted four seasons in which he averaged at least 30 points per game with a 60-plus true shooting percentage. There are a grand total of 16 such seasons in NBA history. Four each belong to Dantley and Michael Jordan. No one else has more than two.
That Dantley did this at 6'5" and long before threes were in vogue (he only hit seven in his career) is remarkable.
Perhaps Dantley's dominance was due in part to the fact he never played like he was 6'5".
"He always seems to know where that crack in the wall is," former Celtics coach K.C. Jones said, per Thomas Bonk of the Los Angeles Times. "If I put Kevin McHale or Bill Walton on him, he just yawns and says 'Oh, well, another little guy on me.'"
In the same Times piece, Dantley's own coach, Frank Layden, expounded further:
"What's happened is that Adrian may be the greatest scorer ever to play in the NBA. That's quite a statement, I know. But we're talking now about a long period of time, all right? This is his 10th year in the NBA. He's a scoring machine. And it isn't 50 points one night and 15 another. It's 30 every night. He doesn't slip.
"He is so great at getting his position near the basket. Then he uses his drop steps, holds his man off, pump-fakes, all the things we talk about but seldom are used. There's nobody who plays the pivot better than him, whether you're 7 foot or not. His footwork and his pump fakes and his ability to get position are a clinic...a masterpiece."
In today's game, we're unlikely to see anyone play quite like Dantley did. At that size, you better be able to shoot threes nowadays. But his combination of strength, fundamentals and craftiness made him one of the best scorers we've ever seen, regardless of what era of players you compare him to.
39. Bill Walton
Per Game: 13.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.2 blocks, 0.8 steals
Per 75 Possessions: 16.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.7 blocks, 1.0 steals
Relative True Shooting Percentage: +2.2
Net Rating Swing: N/A
Box Plus/Minus: 4.4
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.142
Injuries robbed the basketball world of a long career from one of the greatest passing bigs of all time and the precursor to Jokic.
The difference between Jokic and Bill Walton, though, was that the latter was also dominant on defense. Over the course of his first four seasons, he was third in the NBA in defensive box plus/minus, seventh in block percentage and first in defensive rebounding percentage.
He was named first-team All-Defensive in both 1976-77 and 1977-78. And again, we're just talking about one side of the ball.
Combine the playmaking with Walton's scoring and defense and you had a player who, if healthy, would've been much higher on this list.
"If you talk to people who have been around the league, they'll tell you that if Bill Walton would have been healthy for a longer period, he might have gone down as the best center ever," longtime Portland Trail Blazers play-by-play man Bill Schonely said, per Portland Monthly's Casey Jarman.
Sadly, he really only had two peak seasons. Over the course of his third and fourth campaigns, Walton averaged 18.8 points, 13.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.9 blocks and 1.0 steals in 34.1 minutes per game. He won Finals MVP in 1976-77 after leading his Blazers to a title over the Philadelphia 76ers. And he won league MVP the following regular season.
"Between that season and the next, it was probably the greatest stretch of a center that I ever saw play," former NBA player and coach Mike Dunleavy said, per Jarman. "He did virtually everything."
But injuries derailed Walton's unique career after that fourth season.
"I had 30 operations," he told Slam Online's Alan Paul.
All of that cost him three full seasons in his prime (1978-79, 1980-81 and 1981-82). Walton was never quite the same when he came back, though he found new life with the 1985-86 Boston Celtics. That season, alongside Larry Bird, he won Sixth Man of the Year and earned his second title.