We sat in the living room in my house just last week. My brother exclaimed that "you can't prove an opinion wrong by definition."
The reply about opinions? No, you can't prove them wrong. And yes, everyone is entitled to them. And no, no one will factually ever scientifically prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt regarding any sports.
Hell, in some sports like the NFL, you can't even draw comparisons at all between different positions. Can you compare Joe Montana and Ray Lewis? No! They play different sides of the ball. How do you relate blocking to running the football? You can't. In the NBA though everyone plays defense, everyone shoots, everyone accumulates/can accumulate assists.
The reply was that if we all state our opinions, the thing that will differentiate 100 of us in the eyes of unbiased observers will be what information we offer as persuasion that our opinion should be taken more seriously than the next guy.
The list - The list is tricky.
I think you can rate priorities as follows:
1. Winning -
a) You play to win the game. That about ends it. All the stats in the world don't matter if you're not winning.
Bill Russell just won, stats weren't great
Dominique Wilkins just put up stats, couldn't win a thing
Ditto Bernard King, Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady. Just on a laugh test, which four of those five players make you crack up if I mention them as a top ten player all time? Everyone but Russell, right...? Exactly.
b) What's your role? Rings are not the same. It's no different than a science fair or hunting for deer. If you're the second best hunter or second best shot in your group, it's a lot easier to win the science fair or kill a deer if I give you someone who is even better.
I'd love to call Scottie Pippen better than around 20th all time. I'd LOVE to. As much as I love to... I won't. Because it's a lot easier to win a ring when you have a set of roles and you can always watch MJ hit a game winner, or know that Bird is going to start making it rain, or know that "hey if I can't hit my hookshot cause I'm getting old, Magic will run the show and we'll run the floor and win."
Again, laugh test - Would you call Pippen's six rings a greater achievement than Hakeem's ring in '94? I'm one of the biggest Pip fans alive and I wouldn't.
Hakeem did the unthinkable. With no hall of famers in his locker room he said "guys, jump on my back, we're going to get a ring."
You know how I know that Pippen's 6 rings don't mean he could necessarily do what Hakeem did? He lost to the same team in '94 that Hakeem BEAT... Ewing's Knicks. And Pippen was playing with two guys who went to the all star game in '94.
2. But, once you're leading teams to rings.... or in comparisons where neither player has a ring, then what? How do you differentiate Shaq and Jordan, Russell and Kareem.
I'd say that you'd weigh winning against stats... you'd give winning the edge by a 2-1 margin. Russell's 11 rings would factor as 2/3 of the discussion between he and Jordan. However, Jordan is #1 statistically all time; I believe Russell is in the low 80s.
Informally that's how I'd do it. 2-1 sounds like stats are more of a tiebreaker than something that's going to make someone who can't win, or make a 2 time winner greater than a 6 time winner...
3. If you're still looking for something to tip the scales, I'd look to MVPs.... regular season MVPs. Any time you're voted the best player in the NBA for an entire season, that's a big deal. But, if you can't win and you don't dominate statistically, Steve Nash's 2 MVPs won't even bring you into the discussion.
So that's my way to pretty much do it. I'm not interested in 100, 81 or 69 point games... I'm really not even interested in Finals MVPs except as ONE tool to help us determine who the leader of a team was.
When I factor all of that, I will be able to begin building my revised list.
The big change in the top ten -
When I look at everything, I probably slot Kobe 9th-10th if he retired today.
The main goal of my list... to have no single player in the top 15 be overrated or underrated by more than 3 slots.... so if I rate Kobe 10th and you think he's 7th, fine. If however you think he's 15th or 2nd, you're probably an idiot. Ditto Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar, Shaq and Bird...
Also, let's remember that I might change my list involving players that don't play anymore. Did their careers change? No. They're retired! But maybe my perspective changed. What I'm interested in is people replying with their lists at least BASED in fact.
For example, if you want to decide that rings in Russell's day were NOT worth as much, fine... but Russell and his 5 MVPs better not be 29th on your list. That's all I'm saying.
My list (listing only CLEAR A-rings/rings where a player was clearly the best player on their team):
Tier 1 - Five players represent a clear division from everyone else in NBA history. These five, in my mind, are a league of their own...
1. Michael Jordan - 6 rings, 5 MVPs, 1st PER - Simply the greatest. Statistically he was unparalleled and in his era 6 rings is the equivalent of 11 in Russell's, based on all the other factors (competition, additional playoff rounds, etc.).
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - 2 rings, 6 MVPs, #10 all-time PER - I look at careers in terms of primes. A fact is that if Abdul-Jabbar doesn't play till he's 40 in an era when players weren't effectively doing that, his PER is probably top 5, add the 6 MVPs and I'll give him the benefit of the doubt by asserting that with a lesser co-captain (as in, somebody not as off the charts great as Magic) Kareem is probably still the leader in 82 and 85.
3. Bill Russell - 11 rings, 5 MVPs, 89th PER - The stats weren't there, but in Russell's day, they didn't need to be for you to dominate the league. And he proved that.
4. Magic Johnson - 4 rings, 3 MVPs, 11th statistically - Not off the charts in any area, but just like Jordan is second in rings AND statistical production (which is better than being great statistically and not winning like you should a la Wilt), Magic is pretty much 3rd or 4th in everything. If Magic could have produced a title without Kareem, he might easily be 2nd. See also - greatest porn name ever.
5. Wilt Chamberlain - 2 rings (even though you could argue Gail Goodrich led the 72 Lakers, I'll give the benefit to Wilt for presence alone), 4 MVP, 5th statistically - If you multiply Wilt's PER by minutes per game, it's not close. He dominates. But like Bobcat said.... how much of that was the era. In Wilt's 50 PPG season, the entire team strategy was to dump it to Wilt every time to sell tickets. Can you name an opponent in Wilt's 100 point game? Wilt's disappointing losses in 69 and 70 render him no higher than here. I have no bias toward Magic Johnson but I would never put Wilt any HIGHER. Close, maybe tied, but Wilt was not better than Magic.
Tier 2 -
Tier 1 players I would say defined a strong era. Tier two players would be players that could probably easily define an era like 04-present, but maybe wouldn't quite singularly define a strong era like Magic's time. One could argue Duncan defined a decent era, but his dominance was sporadic and I just don't get the feel for his name that I do for the others.
6. Tim Duncan - 4 rings, 2 MVP, 7th in PER - One could argue Duncan as high as 2nd theoretically. I think when you look at the league he played in though, it's pretty clear he dominated valleys. After Jordan and before Shaq, there was one good year where almost any player in the top ten could have run away with it. After Shaq and Kobe became an irreconcilable duo, the league really was down in terms of talent (unless you buy Stern's international marketing that basically amounts to "I'll say anything to make money"). I really would have to see Duncan have one more dominant year in a league with Lebron, Howard, Kobe, Paul, etc. all where they are. But if he did, he'd have to be top 3, because that would change a lot about his career.
7. Larry Bird - 3 rings, 3 MVP, 18th PER - Larry's legend is larger than life, but when I consider his teammates, look at his PER (not a league dominator) and begin to think about how he faired against Magic, I find it hard to place him about Duncan. However, if you do, I pretty much can't disagree.
8. Shaquille O'Neal - 4 rings, 1 MVP, 2nd PER - The stats are huge, but where are the MVPs? Also, blown opportunities in 95 and 04 really hurt Shaq's legacy. He's still with Duncan and Bird in a very close three man race, but he could be much higher.
9. Hakeem Olajuwon - 2 rings, 1 MVP, 16th PER- His two dominating performances in his NBA Finals wins were convincing enough to place him in the top 10. He was just stellar on both sides of the court, he was an amazing blocker, had one of the most defined post games, and was a force every time he stepped on the floor.
10. Kobe Bryant - 4 rings, 1 MVP, 15th PER- The second best guard in league history, Kobe is still in comparisons to Jordan. His offense is arguably better than Jordan, and his defense is often overlooked by many. His career isn't over, so he's slowly climbing up many lists.