Comparing great players of past generations to the current players that we know and love can present its own challenges. Basketball fans struggle to navigate through rule changes that have changed the way that the game is played – it is unlikely for us to see another 50ppg scorer like Wilt Chamberlain or a 25rpg stopper like Bill Russell.
Rather than ceaselessly attempting to line a different game up to the NBA basketball that we see today, I have decided to rank every player that has ever played in the modern game; this is defined by the introduction of the three-point line, which first made its way to the NBA circuit in the 1979-80 season.
While many rule changes have altered the play-style in the league, none have further affected the spacing and strategic components of the game than adding a line that can get you an extra point! Here’s what I came up with:
NOT CONSIDERED ON LIST (Pre-1980):
Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek, George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Walt Frazier, Bob Cousey, Rick Barry, Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, Dave Cowens, Pete Maravich, Dolph Schayes, Sam Jones, Jerry Lucas, Tom Heinsohn, Nate Archibald, Hall Greer, Bill Sharman, Cliff Hagan, Dave DeBusschere, Paul Westphal, Jack Twyman, Billy Cunningham, Lenny Wilkens, Walt Bellamy
HALF OF CAREER CONSIDERED:
Julius Erving (IN), Kareem Abdul Jabbar (IN), George Gervin (IN), Bill Walton, Bob McAdoo, Robert Parish (IN), Bob Lanier, Artis Gilmore, Bobby Jones, Neil Johnston, David Thompson
MOST OF CAREER CONSIDERED:
Moses Malone (IN), Alex English (IN), Dennis Johnson, Marques Johnson, Adrian Dantley, Bernard King, Jack Sikma
MYTHICAL CREATURES (Unmatchable Skillset):
- Dennis Rodman (Tenacious Rebounder)
- Rajon Rondo (All Time Passer with Inability to Score)
- Manu Ginóbili (Sixth Man King, Eurostep)
- Dikembe Mutombo (OG Block King)
- Ben Wallace (New Block King, Defensive Stud)
- Draymond Green (Distributing Defensive Enforcer)
- Klay Thompson (Best Microwave of All Time)
- Joe Johnson (Universal Respect, Known for Clutch Gene)
- Maurice Cheeks (Small but amazing defender)
- Ron Artest (Malice in the Palace + Name Changes/He Was Actually Good?)
- Jack Sikma (One of the First Big Men to Shoot)
- Mark Price (Splitting the Double Team)
- Kyrie Irving (Best Handles of All Time)
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN:
- Ralph Sampson (Injuries)
- Derrick Rose (Injuries)
- Brandon Roy (Injuries)
- Grant Hill (Injuries)
- Drazen Petrovic (Early Death)
- Penny Hardaway (Injuries)
- Gilbert Arenas (NBA Suspension)
- Artis Gilmore (3pt line ruined his career)
- Isaiah Thomas (Best Little Man of All Time, Injuries)
BIGGER THAN BASKETBALL:
- Yao Ming (International Influence)
- Stephon Marbury (Sociocultural Impact with Shoes + International Career)
- Latrell Sprewell (Converse Shoes)
- Damian Lillard (Rapper)
- Vlade Divac (International Players in NBA)
HONORABLE MENTION (20 Players, Chronological Order):
- 80s: Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, Adrian Dantley, Bernard King, Sidney Moncrief, Larry Nance Sr.
- 90s: Joe Dumars, Chris Mullin, Kevin Johnson, Mitch Richmond, Shawn Kemp, Tim Hardaway Sr.
- 00s: Chris Webber, Amar’e Stoudemire, Pau Gasol
- 10s: Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Paul George
THE RANKINGS (TOP 50):
- Carmelo Anthony:
Carmelo Anthony’s criticism in the modern game is a product of the proven isolation style of basketball becoming inferior to today’s fast paced space-centric game. Even among the NBA’s greatest players, we have seen some players struggle to adjust to lesser roles as their careers wear on. That is not intended as an attack on their greatness in their prime, but will certainly stain the long-term legacy of their careers.
Melo’s journey is far from over, finding recent resurgence in Portland, but his play has not translated into wins in the competitive Western Conference, keeping his future NBA contributions in question. Still, it would be foolish to ignore Melo’s ten All Star appearances, six All-NBA selections, 2013 NBA scoring title and 2003 National Championship with Syracuse as a college freshman (an anomaly at the time). Anthony is also the most successful international basketball player of all time, which gives him enough to make it onto this list without any more playoff success than a singular trip to the Western Conference finals in 2009.
- Tony Parker:
Tony Parker edges out Melo for the 49th spot due to his championship hardware – his contributions have been understated by some critics due to the proven success of the San Antonio Spurs system, along with having never posted elite stats worthy of All-NBA First Team selection. However, Parker also has four chips, six all-star selections and three All-NBA defensive team selections to complement a stellar international career and a 2007 Finals MVP. Parker earned his spot among the greats in a difficult decision between him and his running mate, Manu Ginóbili.
- Chauncey Billups:
Chauncey’s career is quite comparable to Parker’s, remaining a stalwart at the PG position throughout the 2000s but constantly floating at that All NBA Second Team/Third Team level with a consistent 15-20ppg margin and good-but-not-great assist numbers. Chauncey’s sole championship as the best player and Finals MVP would probably level out with Parker’s international accolades + four championships and his own Bill Russell award. At the end of the day, the tiny edge goes to Chauncey from a simple eye test; he has proven himself as a capable starting PG on multiple teams and constantly improved throughout his NBA career. Mr. Big Shot was never the fastest or the strongest, but he was always the smartest player on the court.
- Dwight Howard:
For some reason, NBA fans and critics have some of aversion towards mentioning Dwight Howard with the NBA’s greatest big men, but the truth is that he was probably a top-three center in the NBA for a decade. Still seeking that elusive first chip, Dwight has recently shown an ability to shine in a different role, despite seeing his prior failures outside of the leading role as a main point of criticism on his multiple stops before the Lakers (part two).
Eight All-Star appearances, three DPOYs and five All-NBA First Team selections should be enough to ward off any naysayers who reject Dwight’s spot in the Hall of Fame. The high school phenom defeated LeBron James in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals en route to a Finals loss to Kobe’s Lakers – let’s not forget that there was a time in which people were debating between the two.
- Alonzo Mourning:
I remember watching Bill Russell’s NBA Lifetime Achievement Award introduction being given by some of the NBA’s greatest modern big men, featuring names like Shaq, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and – Alonzo Mourning. My first thought was about Hakeem Olajuwon and why he wasn’t there. My second thought, honestly, was, “who the heck is Alonzo Mourning?”
Upon further research, I discovered that not only did he play for my hometown Nets in games that I probably attended, but he was also an absolute monster for eight straight seasons prior to fourth birthday. Mourning made an instant impact in the NBA on a competitive Charlotte Hornets team that paired him with Larry Johnson, but found his true success with Pat Riley’s Miami Heat. His defensive dominance in the first eight years of his career can be seen through his inhuman block numbers (he’s not even a seven-footer and he was still efficient) and two DPOYs, complemented by seven All-Star appearances and a championship in a backup role. I didn’t know Alonzo Mourning at first, but I definitely know him now.
- George Gervin (1980-1986, First 8 Years Excluded):
Even though I had discredit the first half of The Iceman’s career, he still manages to edge his way into the top 50 with an unreal ability to adjust to a more modern game. We see his scoring average increase by four points after the inclusion of the three-point line, with just as efficient numbers across the board. It’s difficult to lump players from older generations in with players from the modern game, but Gervin’s six All-Star appearances and three All-NBA appearances post-1980 felt like enough to place him at this spot. Two scoring titles in Dr. J’s heyday is not too shabby.
- Alex English (1980-1991, First 4 Years Excluded):
This one is a tough technicality because if we evaluated George Gervin and Alex English’s overall careers side-by-side, Gervin would probably take the edge. This list is a different story since we are only considering seven of Gervin’s seasons and 12 of English’s seasons. Like Gervin’s two scoring titles, English managed to take one home on a 1983 Denver Nuggets team that managed to remain competitive in the West throughout the 80s. Though his defensive game paled in comparison to the offensive onslaught he put on the league, his eight All Star appearances and stylistic relevance in today’s game is enough to warrant his spot on the list.
- Robert Parish:
Get ready for more older players. Robert Parish is one of those names that I grew up knowing as a basketball fan, but whose basketball accolades were more unknown to me. Upon closer inspection, Parish would probably be best described as a better version of Chris Bosh in what should be recognized as the NBA’s first version of a “Big Three”. Parish started over Kevin McHale for a stretch and an argument can be made between which of the two is better, but I would take McHale by a tiny margin due to his offensive ability. Still, Parish dominated the 80s and early 90s with nine All-Star appearances and four NBA titles (one in his last season with Jordan’s Bulls), doing a little bit of everything along the way. He still holds an NBA-record most games played with 1,611.
- James Worthy:
Okay, I definitely don’t want to apply that same “Chris Bosh” moniker onto Worthy as the Showtime Lakers third guy because that was not so much the dynamic. This lifelong Laker made seven All-Star teams and three titles with Magic and Kareem, but edges out Parish with a finals MVP.
- Reggie Miller:
Reggie Miller is an NBA legend for more reasons than one, as an all-time trash talking, five time All-Star and member of the prestigious 50-40-90 club. Miller would likely dominate today’s NBA as a poor man’s Steph Curry, but with an extremely high level of durability. Miller always elevated his game in the playoffs, famously talking shit to Spike Lee in several different Knicks playoff matchups. Miller had an “it” factor that was undeniable by other NBA players – he was one of the guys who may not have had the most lucrative numbers, but opposing players knew that it was going to be a difficult night against him. Miller’s most successful run came in 2000 when he took his 56-win Pacers to the finals against Shaq and Kobe. We all know how that went.
- Vince Carter:
Vince Carter would probably have found himself a bit lower on this list if it weren’t for his modern-day reputation as the NBA’s ironman. Only 70 games behind Robert Parish for the all-time record for games played, Carter spent ten straight seasons averaging over 20ppg as the NBA’s best athlete in the early 2000s. His dunking greatness was immortalized by what could be the greatest dunk of all time, an in-game dunk over 7’2” French international Frédérik Weis.
A longtime veteran with a true desire to support his team and mentor younger players over chasing rings (zero finals appearances), Carter’s game has admirably adjusted throughout the times to fit any role and any style of play, which only speaks towards the greatness of the eight-time All Star.
- Paul Pierce:
Paul Pierce was one of the most consistent scorers of the 2000s, and his longtime commitment to the Celtics finally paid off when he could finally join the long list of Boston greats as an NBA Champion and Finals MVP. His “big three” of the late 2000s was widely publicized as the first trio of major stars in the modern game, after seeing a reign of duos like Shaq & Kobe, Robinson & Duncan and Wade & Shaq dominate the earlier part of the decade.
Despite leading that team on the offensive side, Pierce didn’t do enough throughout the entirety of his career to go ahead of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Still, Pierce is revered as one of the most clutch scorers of all time, and is the owner of my personal favorite buzzer-beater of all time, when he “called game” as a Washington Wizard against the first seeded Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the playoffs.
- Ray Allen:
Ray Allen gets the slight edge over Paul Pierce, mostly out of respect for Paul Pierce. Their accolades are surprisingly similar: ten All-Star appearances apiece, one All-NBA Second Team choice apiece and one Three-Point Contest apiece.
Allen clearly played a lesser role to Pierce on the championship Celtics, but he went on to make what is widely considered one of the most clutch shots in NBA history as a member of the championship Miami Heat team. Even though Allen was a role player, his pivotal responsibility as the team’s three-point specialist highlighted a career that made him statistically the second best all time three-point shooter, behind only Stephen Curry. But the most impressive aspect of Allen’s career is that he did not start out this way; his shooting from beyond the arc was always top-of-the-line, but Allen went from Milwaukee to Seattle, making deep playoff runs on each team as the focal point before consistently adapting his game with the times to secure two pieces of championship hardware.
- Clyde Drexler
Michael Jordan has famously downplayed Clyde Drexler’s greatness given their rivalry in the 1992 NBA Finals and frequent matchups in USA Dream Team scrimmages, but let’s not get it twisted – Clyde Drexler has been a problem since before the NBA. He was well-known from his days on the Phi Slamma Jamma Houston basketball team that wreaked havoc for years, and later reunited with Houston teammate Hakeem Olajuwon to capture his sole NBA title in MJ’s absence from basketball on, ironically, the Houston Rockets. Ten All-Star selections on two different teams coupled with an All-NBA First team mention and five mentions overall give “The Glide” enough credentials to slightly push ahead of Ray Allen.
- Kevin McHale
Kevin McHale has one of the most interesting careers of the 80s. In James Harden fashion, McHale played his first five seasons in a sixth man role, thriving and helping produce two NBA titles with Larry Bird and Robert Parish. However, McHale elevated himself over Parish by showing that he could be successful as a leading starter on the team, second only to Bird, with heavy commitment on both ends of the floor on his third championship team. McHale is widely regarded as one of the greatest power forwards of All Time, but his motor and his commitment to whatever role that was given to him led him to a highly respectable career and a solid spot on this list.
- Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook’s play-style has polarized NBA fans for years now – some laud him as a modern-day Oscar Robertson with all of the accolades and raw athletic ability to be a perennial MVP contender. Some see his MVP contention days as over after being exposed as a perennial number two guy without finding success as the focal point (OKC with KD and later Paul George, Houston with Harden). Some simply see Westbrook as an exciting pure athlete who fills up the box score as well as the stands.
All of these viewpoints certainly have their own validity to them, but everyone can agree that the man plays with unparalleled ferocity in today’s game. Michael Jordan has called Westbrook the closest player to him in today’s game, largely attributed to the chip on his shoulder that he plays with. Westbrook is far from closing the books on a career with plenty of statistical eye-poppers and individual achievements, and if he really wants to take his legacy to the next level, he needs to find a way to etch his name into the history books as a champion.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
I have been changing my mind on this pick every five minutes. If Giannis Antetokounmpo ended his career today, his accolades would still be impressive enough to earn him a HOF spot. With four All-Star appearances, plenty of players higher than him on this list have been great for longer, but I would find it difficult to find another player above the Greek Freak on this list who has put together as good of a season as he did in both last year’s MVP victory and this year’s inconclusive run. Giannis was starting to push safely ahead of LeBron in overall voting, and with a consistent upward trajectory throughout his entire career, it would be unsurprising to see him at the very bottom of this list at the end of his career.
Giannis won Most Improved Player in 2017, and eventually rose to All-NBA Defensive First Team during his MVP campaign. With a deep playoff run already under his belt, we are all expecting Giannis to reach championship achievement eventually, but will likely find it difficult until his old buddies Kawhi and LeBron regress.
- Dominique Wilkins
The Human Highlight Reel will probably go on to be one of the best-forgotten players in NBA history. Without a single long playoff run in his career, Dominique Wilkins lit up the scoreboard for the Atlanta Hawks for ten straight years without getting past the Eastern Conference Semis. There was a point in 1986 when Wilkins was starting to be considered as an elite player in the NBA, making the All-NBA First team as a first-time All-Star and scoring champion for that year. He would go on to make seven more All-Star teams to make eight straight, but would never reach All-NBA First team level again with a lack of playoff success and experience largely painting his narrative. “You can only get so far by just dunking the ball.” – Random Hawks fan on a discussion thread that I stumbled upon.
- Patrick Ewing
NBA players from Patrick Ewing’s playing days and today seem to agree by consensus that the longtime Knicks center is still underrated in the All-Time discussion. The 1984 National Champion from Georgetown was a clear-cut NBA star from the get-go as the top pick in 1985, and the Knicks haven’t been able to fill his shoes ever since.
Following Ewing’s rookie year, the Knicks lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls four times times and the championship 1990 Pistons, before Ewing could finally lead the 1994 Knicks to the NBA Finals in MJ’s absence from the sport. There, Ewing matched up against quite possibly the only other better center than him at the time, Hakeem Olajuwon (David Robinson also in that conversation). It’s hard to attribute 15 unsuccessful Knicks seasons to bad luck, but fans should definitely acknowledge that Ewing had quite a bit of it. 11 All-Star selections to go with ten total All NBA selections cement his career as one of the greatest players to never win a championship.
- Anthony Davis
NBA purists will argue that there is no way that Anthony Davis can already be placed ahead of Patrick Ewing on a list of big men, let alone an All-Time list. I would argue that none of Ewing’s personal feats matter if they did not lead to an NBA championship – at least, when it comes to comparing Davis and Ewing side by side. Davis has four less All-Star selections showing that he still has a ways to go when it comes to matching Ewing’s longevity, but he already has two more All-NBA First team selections and an All-Defensive First team, compared to Ewing’s lack thereof.
The three-time NBA leader in blocks also managed to match Ewing on National Championships in college, having netted a title in his sole season with Kentucky. Like Giannis, Davis’ ceiling probably lies within the top ten of this list, especially if he can cement his legacy as LeBron’s running mate in Los Angeles with a title. If he does, the conversation that we could be having could change from, “Is AD a Top 30 All Time player?” to “Is AD better than LeBron?”
- Tracy McGrady
One of the first memories that I have of watching NBA highlight videos on YouTube past my bedtime in 2007 was seeing T-Mac drop 13 points in 33 seconds to come back and beat the San Antonio spurs in 2004. This felt even more impressive in that era, given that the final score read 81-80. A feat of quick scoring to seal a comeback at the end of the game has still not been repeated, even in today’s age of inflated score lines and high-volume shooting. These are the subtleties in the game prior to today’s style that made high-scoring players that much more impressive at the time.
T-Mac’s long-term greatness was stunted by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from making his mark as one of the most lethal scorers of the 2000s, next to the late great Kobe Bryant. Two consecutive scoring titles in Orlando along with seven straight All-Star appearances are underscored by an inability to get past the first round of the playoffs, but T-Mac’s two All-NBA First Team selections (seven total) and sociocultural basketball significance give him enough of a resume to eclipse players like Dominique Wilkins who seemingly have similar careers on paper.
- James Harden
For me, it’s weird to assess James Harden’s career and see him as an all-time great, especially ahead of a guy like Russell Westbrook. Like Parish and McHale, Westbrook began with a larger role than Harden, but later found himself in a more secondary role to the player who had clearly separated himself as the alpha. Harden’s game has just as criticized as Westbrook’s, but for different reasons – critics attack the fact that a large portion of his scoring output comes from his ability to draw contact when getting to the line, effectively taking advantage of modern NBA rules of rolling to the basket. Fans of Harden will point toward his crafty ability to maximize his unusually powerful and flexible physique to find ways of getting on the scoreboard.
Whether you love him or hate him, James Harden has truly separated himself from most of his peers on an individual accolade basis. Westbrook’s rebound statistics have been padded to allow for his triple double accolades to continue, but Harden’s assist numbers have stayed on par with Westbrook’s, while continuing to score more effectively and highly, and accumulate more win shares. The two have an MVP title apiece, but it is Harden who has stayed consistently in the conversation, it is Harden who has found more individual success as the leader of a playoff team, and it is Harden who has made the All-NBA first team five times in the past six years, Eight All-Star games deep and still going strong, an NBA Title is the only thing that the Beard needs to truly cement his legacy as more than a professional scorer.
- Moses Malone (1980-1995, First 6 Years Excluded)
If Dominique Wilkins is the second most talented forgotten All-Time player, then Moses Malone is certainly number one. Even the Philadelphia 76ers took their sweet time to recognize his greatness, only awarding a jersey retirement as late as 2016. Whether the modern NBA game fit better with Malone’s style or the introduction of the three-point line simply coincided with the trajectory of his career, Malone saw consistent improvement with every year following 1980.
The man won the MVP award in 1979 in Houston, having just missed the mark for this list. Not to worry though – he managed to win the award in two consecutive years on two different teams from 1982-1983. Put that together with an NBA title and Finals MVP in the ’83 season (not to mention First Team All-Defense), and that makes one of the most complete seasons possible for an NBA player. Malone came together with George Gervin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving and Larry Bird to make up an undeniable top five NBA players in the first four years of the 80s.
- Kawhi Leonard
Every single current player is so difficult to place within the grand history of the NBA, because they are still writing their stories. Still, Kawhi Leonard has done enough damage to merit a comfortable spot above all but four current players (Curry, Durant, CP3, LeBron). Kawhi’s legacy in the NBA exists in an alternate universe that solely prioritizes winning championships, and that legacy is already at the same level as a top-ten guy. Does that make sense?
Let me expand – he has two Finals MVPs and two titles with two different teams, an extremely impressive feat. However, that first finals MVP was certainly more of a win by committee type of roster, so while that year’s Bill Russell award should not be discounted, it should certainly be weighed less than the Finals MVP season that he had in 2019 (14ppg with SA vs 30ppg with TOR). Still, Kawhi has improved with every season from a perennial DPOY candidate to a simultaneous automatic bucket. He singlehandedly conducted the greatest ‘mic drop’ of all time after bestowing an entire continent with an NBA title and subsequently leaving for greener pastures (literally) just an offseason later.
Kawhi does what he wants and is usually right, but needs more regular season accolades/longer term success to cement his All-Time status.
- Julius Erving (1980-1987, First 9 Years Excluded)
I clearly wasn’t alive to see it, but out of all of the players on this list (save for Kareem), Dr. J might have been the first one to be seen as the GOAT. Players need to be flashy, but efficient to be the face of a sport, and Julius Erving was both. Lining Erving’s career up with Malone’s and deciding whose was more successful post 1980 is certainly a toss-up, especially considering the fact that they were teammates. They both won an MVP award during their time with the Sixers, but Philadelphia was already Erving’s team when Malone was traded there from Houston. Erving had already won two ABA titles prior to 1980 with Malone going winless; Malone needed Erving to teach him how to win big games, and Erving needed Malone to take the Sixers over the hump. Regardless of who was better, the two remain one of the most deadly tandems in NBA history.
With four All-NBA First Teams, eight All-Star appearances, an MVP and a title, Dr. J left a stylistic imprint on the game that has left a “bigger than basketball” impact on people who play the sport. It’s pretty cool that he went out as an All-Star, too.
- Gary Payton
Gary Payton’s name exists on the long list of NBA greats whose primes were limited by the greatness of Michael Jordan. He luckily managed to escape the list of greats without a title by nabbing one with the Heat in 2006 as a role player, but Payton’s true calling card was his defensive dominance for an entire decade (1994-2004), which separates him from many of the players who couldn’t make it this far down the list. The Glove made nine straight All-NBA Teams as a threat on both ends, while also maintaining two separate streaks of 350+ games played. Payton led Seattle to the 1996 finals in his DPOY season and even found his way back as a ring-chaser in 2004 with the Lakers. He will surely fall down this list as the current greats finish putting together their resumes, but Payton might be the greatest defensive PG of all time.
- Chris Paul
This guy may have something to say about that last statement in that last guy’s rundown. A disciple of The Glove in many ways, Chris Paul’s lack of playoff success might be the only missing piece to an otherwise pristine legacy. CP3 has already stacked up ten All-Star appearances and eight All NBA teams (four First teams) in a career that was thought to be past the All-Star level going into 2019-2020. He proved those doubters long with a resurgent season in OKC, singlehandedly willing them into playoff contention during a season that was initially thought of as a surefire tank-job (in the West, nonetheless).
Recency bias may prompt a reader to consider how Chris Paul could be ranked above Kawhi Leonard. While Leonard’s career is missing what Paul’s career has in longevity and regular-season individual accolades, Paul’s career is also missing the playoff success that Leonard continues to bask in. I will openly admit that I believe Kawhi will end his career above CP3 on this list. But we must also admit that the Houston Rockets would have handily made their way into the 2018 NBA Finals if it were not for Chris Paul’s hamstring injury prior to Game 6 of the WCF against the Warriors. Such has been Chris Paul’s luck throughout an injury-marred playoff career that saw a potential championship contender crumble to pieces in the LA Clippers. He could easily make his way to the pinnacle of NBA glory as a supporting piece following the conclusion of his massive contract, continuing to follow in the footsteps of his master-turned-student, The Glove.
- Steve Nash
Steve Nash’s basketball contributions have been underscored by an unimposing frame and lack of offensive production, but Nash was actually an extremely efficient player. Despite having two consecutive MVPs to his name, many NBA players have casted doubt upon one of the titles being awarded to him over Shaq, who argues that he was more deserving.
Regardless of Shaq’s opinion, Nash has seven All NBA Selections (three First Teams) and eight All-Star Selections, but his most impressive statistics involve the aforementioned efficiency. Steve Nash led the NBA with double-digit assists for five years, posting seven total double-double seasons, to go with four seasons of making the 50-40-90 club. This speaks to Nash’s high-level decision making, but did not give him enough of an edge to fight past four appearances in the Western Conference finals.
A 2007 flagrant playoff injury by Robert Horry put an end to what was likely Nash’s best chance to make a run at the title, as the Spurs went on to win the championship in quick fashion against LeBron’s early Cavs. It happens, Steve.
- Jason Kidd
A hometown favorite of mine, Jason Kidd barely gets the nod over Steve Nash and Chris Paul because of what he was able to achieve in addition to stellar defensive stats and ball distribution: he took the Nets to two consecutive NBA finals. Kidd finally won a title with Dirk against LeBron’s Heat playing for the Dallas Mavericks, the team that drafted him, in the twilight of his career. He played a bigger role on the team than I bet you remember, posting similar assist numbers and minutes to his prime.
Jason Kidd clearly has a superior mind for basketball, and while Nash’s court vision is likely a bit better, Kidd has five assist titles to his own name. His defensive ability (four All-Defensive First Teams, five Second Teams) combined with his superior playoff success gives him enough of a push to just pass a player who eerily also played in both Dallas and Phoenix to start his career.
- Scottie Pippen
People have a hard time placing Scottie Pippen within the scheme of greatest all time players, simply because he played with the greatest of all time. Still, his role as the second option on six championship Bulls teams that kept some of the best from getting their hands on hardware has warranted his spot as a top-25 all-time player. Pippen’s defensive dominance lasted throughout the 90s with eight Defensive First Teams, and his few seasons as the main option for the Bulls in 1994-1995 showed that he could lead a team to the playoffs and even 55 wins in ’94.
Pippen’s seven All-Star selections may pale in comparison to many players at this juncture, but his six titles and defensive dominance definitely validate his status as the most successful “Robin” of all time.
- David Robinson
The Admiral was probably the most wholesome NBA star of all time. Robinson didn’t play in the NBA until two years after being drafted in order to complete his two years of service in the Navy after going to Navy for college. He went on to find great success in terms of individual and team accolades, managing ten All-Star and All-NBA selections, eight defensive teams, one MVP and one DPOY, all before winning two titles in the twilight of his career.
At some point, Robinson displayed an intangible ability shown by most all-time greats to adjust with the times, stepping aside for a young Tim Duncan to operate as the main man for San Antonio. Robinson’s contributions give him a slight advantage to Scottie Pippen for the length at which he was great as the first option for the Spurs. The best playoff success coming in 1995 when they would fall short to Hakeem’s Houston Rockets in six, who would go on to win the title.
- John Stockton
We will never know the true greatness of John Stockton, because he spent his entire career with Karl Malone. We know that he falls somewhere in that top-25 range due to his 11 All-NBA selections, five defensive teams and ten All-Star teams. Stockton’s gaudy assist numbers brand him as the quintessential pass-first point guard, leading the league in assists for nine seasons straight while picking his shooting spots on the floor with great efficiency.
Stockton’s scoring totals in his prime never went above a 17.2ppg margin, but we could probably expect him to be much more potent in a fast-paced game. Still, his Jazz team probably came the closest to overcoming the dynastic Chicago Bulls (twice), and he showed a tremendous ability to stay healthy throughout his entire career, missing only 22 total games. Despite retiring without a chip, Stockton deserves a spot over Scottie Pippen because while Jordan & Pippen were 1 & 2, Malone and Stockton were 1a & 1b.
- Allen Iverson
When we talk about some of the All-Time best players to never win an NBA championship, we don’t think about Allen Iverson. His cult fame throughout basketball circles has always overshadowed a legacy that ended without a title. The man’s crossover will forever take its place in NBA lore, in addition to the 2001 76ers team that he carried on his back to the NBA finals as regular season MVP. The eye test can tell you that AI could safely fall in the top ten of this list when it comes to raw talent. A four-time scoring champion, the man could score at all costs. Despite being slightly derailed by nagging injuries throughout his career the amount of minutes that he played at a dominant level whenever he was healthy merits a top-20 spot on this list.
- Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas, to me, was the best pure point guard of all time. Magic’s frame and Steph’s shooting keep Isiah from a top spot at the PG position, but Thomas has had to endure a criminally unfair assessment of his ability by the NBA community throughout the years. At 6’1”, the Pistons front man led Detroit to two titles (one Finals MVP), wedged between a Lakers dynasty and a Bulls dynasty. As Joe Dumars developed his offensive game, the former league leader in assists and 20+ppg scorer displayed an underrated ability to adjust his game to the strengths of his teammates.
Five All-NBA Teams (no Third team until 88-89) and 12 All-Star teams underscore his greatness. Thomas’ bitter rivalry with MJ and exclusion from the Olympic Dream Team has overshadowed his career achievements. Perhaps Thomas is a victim of being the nicest guy on the meanest team. Perhaps he truly was one of the ‘bad boys’. Regardless, the reason that MJ’s competitive fire with IT remains today is because he saw him as a threat. MJ didn’t see many opponents as a threat.
- Charles Barkley
Put this into perspective: in the same era as a 7’2” Dikembe Mutombo, a 6’6” Charles Barkley managed to grab 20 more rebounds in his career than the block and board specialist. We all know that Chuck is not a role model, but we often forget about how much of a wildcard he was. He was Draymond Green before Draymond Green when it came to sizing up and making plays, except that he could also.
While Barkley was denied a title by the greatness of Michael Jordan, he still managed to rack up 11 All-Star appearances and All-NBA teams. He still finds a way of keeping his name relevant in NBA circles as an analyst and player, but his silly demeanor should not overshadow his playing days. He also has one of the best nicknames of all time: The Round Mound of Rebound.
- Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade put himself on the map early on into his career when he took a team of savvy veterans out of their primes to NBA prominence. Seriously – this team included Shaq, Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning and Jason Williams – all with something left to give, but with the best days of their career behind them. Regardless of my obsession with the 2006 Miami Heat, Dwyane Wade’s career had undeniable greatness written all over it.
Wade could have taken that singular championship to the bank and put up high-scoring numbers for the rest of his career, but he erred on the side of winning. The 15th best player of all time may be the best recruiter of all time (definitely played a part of bringing Jimmy Butler to Miami too), becoming the best sidekick that we had ever seen up until that time in 2010. His pivotal role on that team added two more titles and four more finals appearances to his legacy.
D-Wade retired last year to finish with 13 All-Star selections, eight All-NBA teams and three All-Defensive teams. A 2006 Finals MVP and 2009 scoring title put an exclamation mark on one of the greatest modern NBA careers, while a regular season MVP award keeps the Flash from overtaking a bunch of guys who were each the best player in the league at some point (save for Dirk who got ahead by winning head-to-head in 2011).
- Kevin Garnett
2004 Kevin Garnett put up one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell were nearing the end of their careers, and Wally Szcerbiak was injured all season. Still, KG managed to win 58 games in the regular season in Minessota. They went on to lose in six to a Lakers team that still had Kobe and Shaq, along with ring-chasers Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
His smooth fadeaway jumper was automatic, but his real calling card was his intensity, which translated into nine All-Defensive First Teams (12 total). The Big Ticket averaged more than 20ppg and 10rpg for nine straight seasons before departing for Boston to win his lone title and DPOY. He was the only player on that team to make the All NBA First Team that year, making him the team’s likely best player.
- Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk gets the nod over KG only slightly due to his part in winning his sole NBA title, as the finals MVP and the unquestionable top dog of his team. Dirk’s reputation was more on the offensive end, but his efficiency is hard to emphasize. He might be the NBA’s greatest All-Time sharpshooter at the PF spot, and the greatest European player of all time. A one-team-man, Dirks was a stalwart in the 2000s, briefly teaming up with Steve Nash for one of the greatest “what if they stayed together” stories in NBA history.
- Karl Malone
Karl Malone has given Charles Barkley the blessing of taking the title of best player to never win a title. With two MVPs, 14 All Stars, 11 All NBA First Teams and 16 total, Malone has all of the accolades for a top ten, even a top five position.
Let’s not get it twisted when we say that Michael Jordan robbed him of this distinction; Malone had two good years with Michael out of the game where he could have won a title. Unfortunately, the Mailman could not get past Hakeem – the real captor of his position inside the top ten. He and Tim Duncan constantly revolve around the conversation of best PF of all time, and as the second all time NBA leading scorer, he definitely has a stake.
- Stephen Curry
Curry hasn’t finished writing his legacy and he may not have very many All Star Appearances under his belt with six, but his place in NBA history as the greatest shooter of all time is undeniable. Three titles and two MVPs while spearheading the greatest regular season record of all time is enough to put Curry just outside of the top ten. In all honesty, he doesn’t need more All Star appearances to make his way into the top ten – he just needs a finals MVP.
- Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem rounds out the top ten as the best player on the 1984-2001 Houston Rockets. The Dream took advantage of Michael Jordan’s departure from the sport by winning two titles in his absence as finals MVP in both series’, and finishing as MVP of the league in 1994. Hakeem was always going to be a slam dunk, given his success in college on Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma team.
Hakeem Picked up basketball at the age of 17 – it took him all the way from Lagos, Nigeria, to eventually getting picked first overall by the same city as his university. 12 All Star Selections, 12 All NBA Selections, 2 DPOYs and 9 All Defensive Teams later, he finds himself at the ten spot.
- Kevin Durant
People seem to struggle placing any active player other than LeBron in the top ten. It’s a lot easier to consider that when the pre-three-point era is excluded from the conversation, but KD deserves this spot nonetheless. As his career stands today, Kevin Durant is tied for the fifth highest points per game in NBA history – a proven lethal presence. Two NBA titles with two finals MVPs with the Warriors cemented his legacy after leading the Thunder to the NBA finals in 2012. The way he got the titles is questionable, but his consistent dominance throughout his career as the second best player in the NBA during the LeBron era (when healthy) is unquestionable.
As the alpha on the Warriors, not only did KD accentuate his legacy with NBA glory, but he also proved that he was better than Steph Curry, the closest active player on this list. Ten All Star appearances so far, coupled with 9 All NBA Selections (six first teams); four scoring titles in his name make him the greatest scorer today.
- Kareem Abdul Jabbar (1980-1989, First 11 Years Excluded)
If this were an All-Time list, Kareem would likely be in the top three. Out of six total MVP selections, only one came in post-three-point era. However, Kareem still gets to count five of his NBA titles, nine of his 19 (wow!) All Star selections, and six of his All NBA selections. The all-time NBA leading scorer played second fiddle to Magic Johnson in the latter half of his career, but was still the main man on the 1980 team, posting a league leading 3.4 blocks and 25ppg on a .604 clip. Kareem was efficient for the entirety of his career, and played a vital role on the Lakers throughout the 80s. He put up his numbers in the 70s, but he did his winning in the 80s.
- Kobe Bryant
My introduction to basketball came in the 2010 NBA Finals, when Phil Jackson’s LA Lakers took down the Boston Celtics in a nail-biting seven games to win the NBA title. Hoisting the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy in addition to a Larry O’Brien trophy was Kobe Bryant. I didn’t know much about the NBA at that time, but I knew that Kobe was a DOG as soon as I watched him drain a fadeaway.
It’s hard for me to write Kobe’s part in a way that is respectful of his legacy, with an interpersonal emphasis on the fact that he got me into basketball. After his three-peat with Shaq at the turn of the 21st century, Kobe’s legacy was viewed similarly to the way that Steph Curry is viewed today – three titles put him at the pinnacle of NBA history, but zero finals MVPs made Shaq his main point of criticism. Kobe put an end to that discussion when he put up 35ppg in 2006, won his own MVP award in 2008, and won his own two titles (and finals MVPs) between ’09-’10.
15 All NBA appearances shouldn’t underscore 11 All NBA First Team Appearances. 12 All Defensive Teams shouldn’t underscore 9 All Defensive First Teams. Kobe did everything, starting by winning the dunk contest as a rookie and even capturing our hearts through an Academy Award-winning short film. Kobe will be missed, and he shouldn’t have been only the second player on this list to pass away. Rest In Piece Kobe and Gianna.
- Tim Duncan
It was so close between Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. Duncan also has five titles, but has two MVPs and three Finals MVPs. The fact that the Spurs already had an unquestionable Hall of Famer and 1995 MVP in David Robinson yet still handed the reigns of the team to Duncan upon his entry in 1997 shows his ability. 10 All NBA First Teams and 15 total – 8 All Defensive first teams, and 15 total – truly impressive.
Duncan was constantly provided the tools that he needed to succeed, having the greatest coach, the greatest front office, and a great supporting cast at all times. However, he was still the key cog in the equation, up until the 2014 season when he handed the team over to Kawhi Leonard. Duncan ended his career as the greatest PF of all time.
- Larry Bird
I cannot even imagine the excitement in NBA circles during the 1979 preseason – as the three-point line arrived, so did Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson – two players who would go on to dominate the 1980s. Bird was an ultra-efficient hard worker who was probably the closest thing we ever had to a LeBron James. He could pass from anywhere, he could shoot from anywhere, he could guard anyone; Larry Bird could do it all. Even as a rookie, Bird immediately wedged himself in as the leading man of the heralded Boston Celtics (journalism pun) who had Tiny Archibald, Cedric Maxwell and an expiring Pete Maravich.
Bird won all three of his titles before he turned 30 (two as Finals MVP), as he also won three consecutive MVP awards. He made 12 All-Star teams, ten All-NBA teams and three defensive teams on his way to being the first man to conquer the three-point arc. With two 50-40-90 seasons to his name, Bird showed a glimpse of what the future of the NBA would come to look like. He rounded out his basketball career nicely with a Coach of the Year Award in 1998 and an Executive of the Year Award in 2012, not that it matters.
- Shaquille O’Neal
We hear the term, “most dominant player in NBA history” thrown around quite frequently when it comes to Shaq. He and Penny Hardaway burst on the scene immediately when he made the NBA Finals as a sophomore with the 1995 Orlando Magic. He would go on to win four titles with two separate teams featuring two of the best shooting guards at the time. The big man truly solidified his legacy as the best player on the three-peat Lakers that decimated the early 2000s – winning Finals MVP in each season and regular season MVP in 2000. It was truly Shaq’s league, and his career .582 FG% ranks number one among retired players.
While Shaq ranks two spots above the guy who would likely be most closely pegged as his greatest rival in Tim Duncan, the holes in his game were the skills that Duncan was praised the most for – fundamentals. Many believe that Shaq could have been atop of this list if it were not for his limited work-rate, which kept his free-throw efficiency at a minimum. While Shaq himself rejects this idea (something that kept him and a hard-working Kobe Bryant at odds throughout their Lakers tenure together), we are left to wonder how many 30ppg seasons Shaq may have been able to average as the league’s most fouled player.
- Magic Johnson
Bird or Magic? The eye test tells you that it’s a toss up – the stats say that it’s Magic. This man didn’t play five years of his NBA career and still made it to the All-Time top three. In the first season of the three-point era, Earvin “Magic” Johnson won the NBA title and the Finals MVP, as a rookie. He would go on to essentially trade off with Larry Bird every year (1983 Moses Malone and Dr. J would rip one off in four games against the Lakers) for the next decade. Magic would win more though, albeit with slightly better teammates. He outshined Kareem in the 80s as the leader of Showtime, earning five titles (three Finals MVPs) and three MVPs, while also matching Bird’s 12 All-Star selections and ten All-NBA teams.
A born winner, Magic even won a college title with Michigan State before embarking on one of the most storied careers in NBA history. Four league-leading assist years at a stature of 6’9” made Magic one of a kind, and while his HIV+ discovery took away plenty of opportunities for him to climb even further up this list, it also put him in a category above basketball. One of the greatest players on the court, and one of the greatest players off the court.
- LeBron James
When people want to have the GOAT conversation today, the discussion almost always revolves around LeBron and MJ. Peoples’ opinions are predicated on different factors, which will ultimately lead fans to certain conclusions. If we were talking about the best physical specimen to play basketball, it would be LeBron without a doubt. If we were talking about the greatest facilitator away from the PG position, it would be LeBron without a doubt. If we were talking about the most consecutive NBA Finals appearances by one player, it would be LeBron without a doubt.
Yet, when we lay all of the criteria out from career accolades to physical characteristics to clutch factor, the slight edge would still have to go to Michael Jordan. LeBron James has not finished writing his legacy and when all is said and done, if he is able to match Jordan’s title count, we would have to give him the top spot.
Until then, LeBron is a three-time NBA Champion and Finals MVP with four regular season MVPs, 16 All-Star appearances, 15 All-NBA selections, and six All-Defensive teams. When evaluating the King’s legacy, critics will point to two items that lead to his second-place ranking: his lack of a DPOY, and his 3-6 Finals record. Both points can be refuted, given LeBron’s defensive dominance likely merited a DPOY award but fell short due to a case of frequency bias, and given that LeBron’s nine total Finals appearances outweigh Jordan’s six total appearances (although Jordan is undefeated in the Finals). Still, we will not see an overarching change to the GOAT conversation until LeBron earns a few more pieces of championship hardware.
- Michael Jordan:
Is this really a question? Watch the Jordan doc, enough said.