The NBA has been filled with an extraordinary amount of talent since its establishment in 1946. From its creation, we have seen the game drastically change, with the addition of high-flying dunkers like Julius Erving to lazer sharp three-point shooters, such as Steph Curry. But, there is more greatness than perimeter players soaring through the air, or counting one player’s rings over another. It has been said that it is a futile to try to put together a list of the top 10 NBA players of all time, with over 70 years of the best basketball in the world to choose from. But, despite all of the obstacles that will be found on this long quest for finality, I will take on this daunting task with pride.
The main difficulty that comes across when ranking one player over another is answering the dispute “What determines greatness?” This umbrella question branches off into a number of other smaller dilemmas that we have to take into account, such as “how can you compare a shooting guard todays leauge to a 6’9” center from 1950? Or a question that is commonly debated by sports fans across the globe: “Is the number of championships won by a player a valid way to judge their worth? Or even “should we create biases for players that played in a certain era? It is true that prior to the 1966-67 season, there were less than nine NBA teams, which allowed better players to be on each squad The silver lining though, was that there was such a smaller range of players for teams to choose from, since the NBA was still domestic, and with fact that there weren’t many people who trained from an early age play in the NBA.
Statistics can also be very misleading. What constitutes as an “assist” in the box score has changed over the years, with players who played after the early 1970s getting a boost to their totals (until around 1972, most teams were awarded assists on about half of the field goals that they made in a given game, which jumped to 60% by the end of the decade). Amongst other things, the rims were much less forgiving before breakaway rims came out, and the three-point line was created in 1979, making players scoring averages go up.
In the rich 68 year history of the National Basketball Association, we have seen our fair share of greats come and go. Which players were able to survive the many factors that go into a greatest of all time list, and stand out above the rest?
10.) Kobe Bryant*
Points per game: 25.1
Rebounds per game: 5.3
Assists per game: 4.7
Accolades (20 seasons): 15 playoff appearances, 5 championships, 2 finals MVP’s, 1 regular season MVP, 18 all-star appearances
Even though Kobe Bryant’s name will always be linked to Michael Jordan, it would be abominable to diminish or downplay his achievements. Bryant was transformed into a superstar after spending his first two years on the bench, forming a deadly two man tandem in the process with Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe and Shaq, the best two players in the league, went on to win three straight championships together from 2000-2002. Shaq from the Lakers in 2004, after an altercation between him and Bryant, leaving Kobe as the lone star of the team. Bryant then decided to take the Lakers fate into his own hands with the absence of Shaq, averaging a shocking 35.6 points in the 2005-06 season. He scored 81 points in a game in 2006, the second greatest single-game performance in the NBA. Later, in 2008 after a trade for Pau Gasol, the Lakers returned to the finals for three years in a row, winning in 2009 and 2010. Combined with the three titles Kobe won with Shaq from 2000-2002, Bryant is on a very short list of players to win an NBA championship five times. Bryant is a bonafide legend who carried the legacy of being the NBA’s best player during the early-mid 2000s, along with being of the most elite shot creators and scorers of all time.
9.) Hakeem Olajuwon
Points per game: 21.8
Rebounds per game: 11.1
Assists per game: 2.5
Accolades (18 seasons): 15 playoff appearances, 2 championships, 2 finals MVP’s, 1 regular season MVP, 12 all-star appearances
Regarded by most as the most skilled big man in the history of the NBA, Hakeem Olajuwon’s dominance and grace at the center position electrified the league throughout the late 80’s and 90’s. He destroyed many defenders with his trademark “Dream Shake” move, often seeming unguardable in the post. His low-post moves and impeccable footwork aggravated and terrorized anyone in Olajuwon’s way, along with speaking to the combination of finesse and power that he displayed on the offensive end. Olajuwon was also a legitimate superstar on defense, evidenced by his 3.3 block-per-game averaged he posted throughout his career. The main reason why Olajuwon made the top 10 list though was his ability to lead a marginally-talented Houston Rockets team to back-back NBA Championships; in 1994 he racked up a regular season MVP, finals MVP, and Defensive Player of the Year awards on the way to a championship, the only player in history to ever accomplish this feat. Olajuwon’s stats took a hit later in his career, and his production took a natural decline as he aged. After being diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg, Olajuwon decided sign with the Toronto Raptors in 2001, leaving Rockets fans with a bit of ambivalence for the way that he walked away from the franchise he had spent his entire career with. Remounds were made when Olajuwon retired in 2002, as the Houston Rockets built a life-size statue of Olajuwon outside their area to honor all he had done for their franchise. Hakeem the Dream was certainly one of the most talented centers to ever play in the NBA, but his jejune performance late into his career may have cost him a couple spots on the list.
8.) Larry Bird
Points per game: 24.3
Rebounds per game: 10.0
Assists per game: 6.3
Accolades (13 seasons): 12 playoff appearances, 3 championships, 2 finals MVP’s , 3 regular season MVP’s, 12 all-star appearances
Larry Bird is one of the most self-motivating players the NBA has ever seen. He dealt with doubt from his own teammates about whether he had the chops to play in a mainly black NBA. Bird also had pressure put on him from the start of his career by fans to try to revive the fleeting Boston Celtics tradition of winning. He blew away any expectation from the most fanciful Celtics fan, leading his team and the NBA back into glory in the rather mediocre early 1980s. Derrick Rose gave a rather fitting assessment of Larry Bird in a recent interview. He described Bird as a player who “was never the most athletic player on the court, but he was always dominant. Whatever he lacked in athletics issm, he made up for with his basketball IQ< great skills—including that deadly jump shot—and fierce competitiveness. Bird was also an underrated defender, as his fierce defense surprised many opponents who played against Bird. A superstar on a team of scorers, Bird had a knack for finding inventive ways to put up points while never compromising the Celtics chances of winning. In fact, Bird despised losing, and he certainly played like it. Despite every team’s best shot at Larry Bird each and every night, they were still usually outclassed, if not embarrassed, by Larry Legend.
7.) LeBron James*
Points per game: 27.2
Rebounds per game: 7.1
Assists per game: 6.9
Accolades (13 seasons): 10 playoff appearances, 2 championships, 2 finals MVP’s, 4 regular season MVP’s, 12 all-star appearances
LeBron James is among the most athletic players in NBA history. In football terms, he has the build and strength of a J.J. Watt, with the agility of a Barry Sanders. Considered by some as a combination of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, James is a force on both sides of the court, continuing to add his legacy with his impressive streak of reaching the finals. James has also handled the excruciating spotlight that he has been placed under extremely well for almost all of his career. Besides “The Decision,” LeBron has been able to quiet most of the haters throughout his NBA life, by staying humble and avoiding any off-the-court shenanigans (of course, his spectacular talent helps too). Considering the amount of celebrities that have cracked under the duress of the media, James may be the best all-around star in any sport overall, not just in terms of athleticism, but also in the way he has conducted his image to the world. LeBron’s main fault that separates him from the players who are higher than him on this list is his ability to come through in the clutch. Back in Miami, Erik Spoelstra and the Heat decided to use an aging Dwyane Wade over James in a lot of late game situations. LeBron has slowly been improving his ability to be “clutch,” but he still lags behind some of the other hall of famers that many NBA fans like to compare James to. On the flip side, James has already accomplish so much, with his high scoring rates year after year, along with his ability to guard anyone on the defensive end, from point guard to center. Depending on how the LeBron closes out his career, he could definitely jump up a few spots in this list in years to come.
6.) Bill Russell**
Points per game: 15.1
Rebounds per game: 22.5
Assists per game: 4.3
Accolades (13 seasons): 13 playoff appearances, 11 championships, 5 regular season MVP’s, 12 all-star appearances
Bill Russell is the the type of player whose offensive stats don’t jump out at you but his impact goes far beyond numbers. He averaged a pedestrian 15.1 points per game throughout his career, which doesn’t come off as Hall of Fame numbers, moreover a player who deserves the sixth spot in the greatest basketball players of all time. However, Russell was a defensive juggernaut— there was no getting past him, players either had to shoot a jump shot, or be prepared to get the ball rejected right back into their face. It is a shame that the NBA didn’t count block totals at the time that Russell played, I would assume they would hover anywhere from 4-7 per game. His 22.5 rebounds and 11 championships are nothing to scoff at though, as Russell is the greatest winner in team sports, a record that is not going to get broken anytime soon. One caveat of this momentous record is that Russell was surrounded by Hall of Famers who picked up the slack on the offensive end. Fans of Russell claim that he was the glue that held the Celtics together, as the other players wouldn’t be able to coexist with each other as well without the leadership of Russell. Not mentioned often with basketball players, (who are commonly stigmatized as being one of the most fatuous people in the sports world) Russell was one of the smartest players to ever play in the NBA. His ability to focus in on the game and always be in the right spot at the right time is matched by no other player, and is the main reason why the Boston Celtics powered through the rest of the league during the 1960’s, en route to 11 NBA titles in 13 years.
5.) Oscar Robertson**
Points per game: 25.7
Rebounds per game: 7.5
Assists per game: 9.5
Accolades (14 seasons): 10 playoff appearances, 1 championship, 1 regular season MVP, 12 all-star appearances
Oscar Robertson was probably the craftiest player to ever play in the NBA. Without the atheism of a Michael Jordan or LeBron James, Robertson had to put a little extra effort into creating his own shot, playing tough defense, and grabbing rebounds. Robertson’s ball handling moves, and ability to pass, score, and rebound greatly redefined the guard position, which had been previously been mostly made up of facilitators and shooters. Robertson also was the head of the players union for a several seasons. Under his direction, the union successfully was able to bring free agency into the league, which allowed players to choose where they wanted to play. Once Robertson left the Cincinnati Royals for the Milwaukee Bucks to team up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, (then known as Lew Alcindor) the Bucks teared through the 1970-71 season with a 66-16 record, ending with Robertson winning his first and only championship. Even though he wasn’t as successful on the teams that he played as Robertson would have hoped, he made up for it in a number of ways. Robertson managed to average a triple-double in the 1961-62 season, the only player to ever accomplish this feat. At only 6’5”, Robertson was able to grab 12.5 rebounds in the 1961-62 season, a number that is very high for most starting centers. What Robertson was mainly known for though, was his ability to create his own shot by using different angle to avoid defenders, and find teammates. By average better than 30 points and for six season, along with leading the league in assists for seven seasons, Robertson cemented his unprecedented legacy as a top 5 player to ever step foot on a basketball court.
4.) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Points per game: 24.6
Rebounds per game: 11.2
Assists per game: 3.6
Accolades (20 seasons): 18 playoff appearances, 6 championships, 2 finals MVP’s, 6 regular season MVP’s, 19 all-star appearances
A consummate professional, the Lakers long-time captain made the players around him better by using his low-post defense to start fast breaks, his ability to finish over defenders, and his way of always coming through in the clutch. Abdul-Jabbar drastically changed the Bucks in his rookie year, improving to a 56-26 record compared to a dismal 27-win campaign the year before. He went on to win a championship with the Bucks, along with an aging Oscar Robertson. After demanding a trade out of Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar transformed the Lakers into a powerhouse, and perennial winner. Once Abdul-Jabbar was paired with Magic Johnson in the 1979-80 season, the Lakers took off, and went on to win a string of five NBA championships. Even as Abdul-Jabbar aged, he remained in remarkable shape, one of the reasons why he was able to have one of the longest careers ever, and hold the all-time record for points at 38,387. Also, Abdul-Jabbar’s play didn’t require a ton of physical strength, as he plays in a somewhat lanky, free-flowing way. This helped his body not to deteriorate going into his late thirties, where Abdul-Jabbar continued to put up double-double averages per game. Before Tim Duncan, Abdul-Jabbar was the first staple of consistency around the league– day in and day out everyone knew what Abdul-Jabbar was going to do on the court. Although the all-time leader scorer often looked too relaxed with his “effortless style,” he was also a hard-nosed player who was not afraid to be physical. Abdul-Jabbar’s defensive presence, similar to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, forced players to alter their shot if they wanted to have a chance to score over him. Overall, Abdul-Jabbar represented more than basketball, as he battled through countless critics about his culture en route to one of the careers the NBA has ever seen.
3.) Magic Johnson
Points per game: 19.5
Rebounds per game: 7.2
Assists per game: 11.2
Accolades (13 seasons): 13 playoff appearances, 5 championships, 3 finals MVP’s, 3 regular season MVP’s, 12 all-star appearances
A point guard in a power forward’s body, Magic Johnson dominated the court as one of America’s best basketball players for 12 years, before revealing in 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This forced Johnson into an early retirement, as there was a major concern regarding how the disease could be transmitted at the time. Nevertheless, Johnson still had the best court vision in NBA history, and Magic could be trusted with the game on the line to find an open man or hit the game-winning shot. Similar to many other stars during his era, Johnson was obsessed with winning, proven by his five championships, three of which coming against Larry Bird and the Celtics. Overall, Johnson may be the only player on this list with no weaknesses. Johnson found little trouble with recording rebounds and assists, posting triple-doubles rather routinely. In fact, had Johnson’s career not been cut short, he would certainly be ahead of John Stockton as the all-time assists leader. Johnson posts a much higher average of assists (11.2 per game) than anyone else in the history of the league, including Stockton, who racked up 5,000 more than Johnson.
Magic’s most notable memory was when he won the Finals MVP award in his rookie season after starting at center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA finals. Walking out to center court for the jump ball at the beginning of the game, basketball fans knew that they would never witness the feat that Magic Johnson pulled off again– a point guard playing center in the finals. Johnson wasn’t done reaching the finals though, as the Lakers made nine trips during his illustrious career. Johnson’s legacy will forever be remembered, as he became more than a basketball figure during his time in the league, Magic Johnson became a worldwide figure that represented a story of passion, determination, and most importantly, the ability to persevere through the multiple obstacles in his life.
2.) Michael Jordan
Points per game: 30.1
Rebounds per game: 6.2
Assists per game: 5.3
Accolades (15 seasons): 13 playoff appearances, 6 championships, 6 finals MVP’s, 5 regular season MVP’s, 14 all-star appearances
Michael Jordan is widely known as the NBA’s greatest basketball player, and for good reason. Jordan accomplished almost everything possible in the game, piling up multiple stats and awards. On the game’s biggest stage, the NBA finals, Jordan went a perfect 6-6, also winning the finals MVP in all of his appearances. Jordan dropped fans jaws with his raw scoring ability to go along with his amazing coordination and balance. In the 1988 season, when Jordan won the MVP award, Defensive Player of the Year, and scoring title, Jordan averaged 35 points per game on 53% shooting, along with 3.2 steals and 1.6 blocks a game. Jordan is also the unquestioned greatest perimeter scorer in history, using his fiery spirit to demand the most out of his teammates. Jordan played in the 1992 summer Olympics on the original Dream Team, perhaps the greatest squad ever to be assembled. But, after the gold medal and Jordan’s third NBA championship, trouble ensued as Jordan’s father was murdered by robbers. The motives of the homicide is still being debated today, with many people believing that Jordan’s gambling had led him into trouble with the mafia. After these events, Jordan lost a bit of his motivation of the game, and stepped away from the game of basketball for two years to pursue a baseball career. After announcing his return to basketball in 1995, the Bulls went to the playoffs and lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. “He didn’t look like the old Michael Jordan” said Orlando’s NIck Anderson after the series ended, showing that Jordan once again had something to prove the world. Obviously, the next year, Jordan went on to lead the Bulls to an astonishing 72-10 record, which is the best regular season record in the history of the NBA. He won the NBA title that year, and the next two years to follow, becoming the first (and only) team in NBA history to threepeat not once, but twice. Michael Jordan has single-handedly redefined not only the game of basketball, but also a modern sports superstar too, with his major endorsement deals with Nike, and the major success of the Jordan brand. But, even with all the extraordinary superlatives that Jordan accomplished, the number one player on this list found a way to top Jordan’s heroic achievements, in spectacular fashion.
1.) Wilt Chamberlain**
Points per game: 30.1
Rebounds per game: 22.9
Assists per game: 4.4
Accolades (14 seasons): 13 playoff appearances, 2 championships, 1 finals MVP, 4 regular season MVP’s, 13 all-star appearances
Many Jordan-lovers may be choleric that Wilt Chamberlain is the best player of all-time. And, I would agree that Jordan may have had a better career than Chamberlain, but, when comparing talent, Wilt the Stilt surpasses Jordan in many more ways than most people think. The first action that Jordan fans take when defending him against Wilt is the stats. They immediately call out that Jordan’s posted better stats throughout his career that Chamberlain did. But, much to their disbelief, the notion that Jordan leads Wilt in all statistical categories is completely and utterly false. Taking a look at points per game, the top five regular season ppg totals between Jordan Wlit all go to Chamberlain, with the exception of the fifth spot. Wilt has averaged 50.4, 44.8, 38.4, and 37.6 points per game in separate seasons, all of which rank higher than Jordan’s best season, where he averaged 37.1 per game. The fact that the players played in different eras doesn’t impact this statistic as much as one may think either. The pace was only slightly faster in WIlt’s time compared to Jordan, but this was made up with by the nightly beating that Chamberlain took from players around the league. Chamberlain even thought of retiring after his first year, as he was “tired of being subjected to double and triple teams, and teams coming down on him with hard fouls.” As Celtics forward Tom Heinsohn said, he was no stranger to dirty play against Wilt: “Half the fouls against him (Chamberlain) were hard fouls… he took the most brutal pounding of any player ever.” Wilt also obliterates Jordan in many other stats, such as field goal percentage, rebounds, blocks, and surprisingly, assets. Overall, Chamberlains statistical exploits in the game are uncomparable. In 32 different games, Chamberlain scored over 60 points. He remains the only player in NBA history to score 100 points, and more impressively, 55 rebounds in a game (more than most teams get combined). He even managed to lead the NBA in assists one season, disproving the fact that he was a selfish player. Also, in Chamberlain’s final season at age 36, he was able to play all 82 games, along with averaging over 43 minutes and 18 rebounds a game. The NBA had to change the rules multiple times to prevent him from dominating so much.
In 1955, when Chamberlain was in his freshman year in college, he wanted to convince Kansas that he could play for their Varsity squad. In his first contest with the freshman team against the varsity, (which was favored to win the conference that year) Chamberlain scored 40 points, adding on 30 rebounds and 15 blocks in a freshman victory 81-71. When Chamberlain joined the Philadelphia Warriors in his rookie year, the team soared from last place in the standings to second best in the league. When Chamberlain left a number of years later, the team went back to their last place standing. Wilt Chamberlain’s mastery of the game of basketball will forever be remembered by fans and players alike, as the best player to ever grace a basketball court.
Honorable Mentions: Tim Duncan, Elgin Baylor, Brian Scalabrine
Sources: http://www.biography.com/ (info)
*=still currently playing in the NBA
**Finals MVP was not awarded until 1968