Kobe Bryant and the 10 Greatest Players in NBA History
I do want to make it clear that when compiling the list, I really focused on the individual talents of the players. Yes, winning a championship is very important and factored heavily into my evaluations, but it was not the final determining factor when ranking the players.
For example, what if Wilt Chamberlain played for the Boston Celtics instead of Bill Russell? Their legacies would almost certainly be different today. Some players were simply fortunate to be surrounded by other great players, coaches and GM's, while others weren't nearly as fortuitous.
And while I realize basketball is one of the ultimate team sports, this list is about the best players individually—regardless of team affiliation.
After watching Dirk Nowitzki's incredible performance in the 2011 NBA Playoffs, it got me thinking about where he would rank now that he's a world champion. He's easily amongst the top 20 players of all time and could continue to climb if he wins a couple more rings.
I had even recently written an article comparing the legacies of Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal, and that's what really got me thinking about the top 10 players of all time—where would those two rank?
So without further adieu, here's the list of the 10 greatest players in NBA history (and the five honorable mentions right behind them)...
I went back and forth on Tim Duncan and the number 10 player on this list, but ultimately decided on Duncan at number 11, which I know a lot of people will have an issue with. Anyway, here's what 11-15 looks like:
15. Moses Malone
14. Julius Erving
13. Elgin Baylor
12. Hakeem Olajuwon
11. Tim Duncan
What an incredible group, you'll see a lot of these names on numerous top 10 lists.
10. Shaquille O'Neal
At the height of his career in the year 2000, Shaquille O'Neal was leading the Lakers to their first NBA title since the Showtime era by averaging a ridiculous 30.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.4 blocks while playing 43.5 minutes during a 23 game playoff stretch.
The Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals that year (4-2), with Shaq averaging 38 points and 16.7 rebounds en route to his first of three NBA Finals MVP awards.
Like Tim Duncan, Shaq is a four time NBA champion with three NBA Finals MVP awards. I ended up giving the edge to Shaq because at his peak, he was one of the top three most dominant players of all time and finished his career ranked fifth in total points scored.
9. Jerry West
Jerry West ranks fifth in NBA history with a career scoring average of 27.0 points per game.
He was an NBA Champion in 1972 and an NBA Finals MVP in 1969 (only Finals MVP ever to come from a losing team), an NBA scoring champion in 1970 and was a 10-time member of the All-NBA First Team—tied for the second most selections in NBA history.
West also holds the record for the highest points per game average in a playoff series (46.3 ppg).
After his playing days were over, West helped lead the Lakers to seven NBA titles during his 20 year stint as general manager from 1982-2001.
8. Larry Bird
From 1984 through 1986, Larry Bird was the best basketball player in the world, winning the NBA MVP award three years in a row—becoming the third player in NBA history to do so. He also won two of his three NBA championships during those years and was named MVP of the NBA Finals both times.
Bird was such a unique player, an incredible outside shooter for a 6'9" forward that could play both the "3" and the "4." He was the definition of an all-around player—an elite rebounder with perhaps the best court sense in the history of the game as a passer.
In 1987, he averaged 28.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists and also averaged a double-double his first six years in the league to go along with five or six assists every year.
He also achieved the rare feat of shooting over 50 percent from the field, 90 percent from the free throw line and 40 percent from three for an entire season—twice.
7. Earvin "Magic" Johnson
Magic Johnson is a winner. Between 1977 and 1980 (ages 17-20), he won a state championship, an NCAA championship and an NBA title as a rookie while being named NBA Finals MVP.
Magic is a five time NBA champion, a three time MVP, a three time NBA Finals MVP, and appeared on the All-NBA First Team nine times. He's the NBA's all time leader in assists per game, averaging 11.2 assists for his career.
Much like Larry Bird, Magic could do it all as a 6'9" point guard who led the "Lake Show" during Pat Riley's "Showtime" era. During the 1982 season, he averaged 18.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 9.5 assists—the closest anyone has come to averaging a triple double for a season since Oscar Robertson accomplished the feat in 1962.
Speaking of the Big O...
6. Oscar Robertson
Most people know that Oscar Robertson is the only player that has ever averaged a triple-double for an entire NBA season. In 1962, "The Big O" averaged 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game for the Cincinnati Royals.
What many people don't know is that after his first five years in the NBA, Robertson was averaging a triple double for his career—30.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 10.6 assists. And this is why I ranked him ahead of both Magic and Bird despite the difference in NBA titles.
The Big O was an NBA Champion in 1971, the MVP in 1964 and a member of the All-NBA first team nine times.
Robertson also holds the all time record for triple doubles with 181—43 more than Magic Johnson.
5. Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant is the only active player on this list, and I anticipate he will play another five seasons for the Lakers to make it an even 20 in the league. If he does manage to play five more years and win another title or two in the process, he could crack the top two in the all time rankings.
Kobe is a five-time NBA champion, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, the NBA MVP in 2008, two-time scoring champion, nine time All-NBA first team member and a nine time All-Defense first team member.
Bryant is the sixth leading scorer in NBA history currently and will likely finish his career either second or third all time depending on how much longer he plays.
He's also third all time in career playoff points and will most likely break Michael Jordan's record in two or three more seasons.
4. Bill Russell
Bill Russell is the ultimate champion in professional sports history.
He is an 11-time NBA champion, five-time NBA MVP and an 11-time All-NBA team member (three first teams, eight second teams).
For his career, he averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game, which is second all time behind another member of this list.
Many will rank Russell higher than fourth all time, but like I mentioned in the introduction, this list is based solely on the performance of the individual—not the teams he played for.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all time leading scorer with 38,387 career points and ranks third all time in rebounds with 17,440.
He is a six-time NBA champion, a six-time NBA MVP (the most in NBA history), a 19- time NBA All-Star, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, a 10-time All-NBA first team member and the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 1970.
His best season came in 1972 when he averaged 34.8 points, 16.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.
At 7'2", Kareem's patented "sky hook" was virtually un-blockable and will forever be regarded as the most famous shot in NBA history.
2. Michael Jordan
Most historians will rank Michael Jordan first all-time, and I almost did as well, but in the end, he was barely edged out by another legend.
Michael Jordan is a six-time NBA champion, a six-time NBA Finals MVP, a five-time NBA MVP, a 10-time NBA scoring champion, a 10-time All-NBA first team member, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1988 and the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1985.
He is the third leading scorer in NBA history and the all time leading scorer in NBA playoff history. His 30.1 points per game scoring average also ranks first all time.
Jordan's career shooting percentage is .497, a ridiculous number for a guard who averaged 23 field goal attempts per game. He averaged 37.1 points per game in 1987, and in 1989, he averaged 32.5 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game.
Michael Jordan is without a doubt the best guard in NBA history and considered by many to be the best player of all time.
1. Wilt Chamberlain
At 7'1", Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest and most dominant player in the history of the NBA.
Chamberlain is a two time NBA champion, a four time NBA MVP, an NBA Finals MVP, a 10 time All-NBA team member (seven firsts, three seconds), a seven time NBA scoring champion, an 11 time NBA rebounding champion, and the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1960.
These numbers hardly do him justice.
Wilt Chamberlain is the only player in NBA history to average 40 points per game for a season AND 50 points per game for a season. He also managed to score 100 points in a single game—all records that will never be broken.
In 1962, he averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds per game. He followed that up in 1963 by averaging 44.8 points and 24.3 rebounds per game. He even led the league in assists in 1968 with 702 assists, by far and away, the most ever for a center.
Wilt averaged at least 30 points and 20 rebounds per season nine times. In 1967, his shooting percentage was a ridiculous .683 for an entire season (another one of his many NBA records).
He finished his career with a 30.1 scoring average (tied with Michael Jordan for the highest of all time) and 22.9 rebounds per game (the most of all time, slightly ahead of Bill Russell).
In my opinion, it's unlikely we'll ever see another player as dominant as Wilt Chamberlain in any professional team sport.