Everyone seems to be making one of these lists lately so I might as well. I won’t bore you with statistics unless it’s truly something exceptional but I’ll give my own views on these top 25 players and where they fit on the ladder of greatness. All factors like peak, longevity, competition, strength of teams, player profile (completeness of game, strengths, weaknesses), and intangibles will be considered. But allow me to make a disclaimer. Accomplishments generally do take precedence over anything else. A player with a monster peak but nothing else to show for it like Bob McAdoo or Nate Archibald won’t sniff this list and might make the back-end of the top50. MIGHT! We’re not going off of potential. It’s the real thing.
Here’s a couple of guys that barely missed out on my list:
Rick Barry – monster scorer, possibly the best shooter ever with a good all-around offensive game but average defender, locker-room cancer and spent way too much of his prime in the ABA. He’s likely to give you 1 or 2 quality contending years but the rest of the time he’ll be undermining your team or going elsewhere to be coached by his uncle. No thanks. Sorry Rick!
Bill Walton – monster peak but his career was effectively 1.5 seasons long! He is maybe the greatest intangibles player ever (yes arguably #1!) on top of being one of the most complete bigs ever but the bottom line is, I’d rather have 10 years of say David Robinson than 1.5 of Bill Walton.
Walt Frazier – maybe the most underrated player in history. He was the engine behind those titles and he stepped up in big games for the Knicks. His prime was a little short and playing with Willis hurts his standing.
Jason Kidd – could never take games over offensively. Always an overrated player in my book, mediocre shooter, poor man’s John Stockton with a bit more board work.
Elvin Hayes – one of the best big men ever with a good long career but a locker-room cancer like Barry. Took way too many shots for most of his career, turnaround fadeaways no less! Lot of talent, little brains. If you’re looking to win titles, you wouldn’t want him.
Other HM: Dwyane Wade, Patrick Ewing, Bob Cousy, Willis Reed, George Gervin
#25 Isiah Thomas
Those who have him in their top20 are greatly overrating Thomas in my opinion but he does belong here at #25. While he did play on deep balanced Bay Boy teams where he wasn’t even the best player on the floor in many games and even series, he was the heart and soul of the team. His ability to take over a game with his scoring, his heart, his desire, his determination, his tenacity were unparalleled. Let me tell you, Celtics/Lakers/Bulls players and fans alike in the 80’s were scared of Isiah Thomas when he had the ball. The man scored 25 points in a quarter of a finals game in 88 which is the all-time record. Did I mention that he did that on a severely sprained ankle under immense pain! He was a wildly inconsistent player like most scoring guards but that is ok when there is enough talented players to take over while he’s quiet. When he went ham, it was game over 9 times out of 10 for the other team. It’s worth noting that while Isiah was definitely a score-first point guard, he was a very capable playmaker averaging 8-10 assists for most of his career. In I have a must win game, I want this guy on my team period. Perseverance and heart is what will define Isiah Lord Thomas III. The fact that he was never even a clear top10 player in the league or finished higher than 5th in MVP voting over the course of a season hurts his case for moving up further.
#24 Dirk Nowitzki
The Big German. The greatest shooting big man ever. One of the greatest players of the past decade that is still humming along. In his prime despite playing on the perimeter, Dirk could rebound very well and he’s above average defensively. Obviously his greatest strength is scoring but where he really shines is taking games over offensively, especially in the 4th quarter, and making clutch plays in the dying seconds when his teams need it most. 06 WCSF Game 7 against the Spurs last seconds of regulation and-1 that forces games into OT and leads to a Mavs win, 11 Finals Game 2 drive on Bosh and a game-winning lay-up in what was basically a must win game, 11 Finals Game 4 game-winning jumper and many more plays like that is what defines Dirk’s career. He’s a cold-blooded killer who you want in the game when it’s on the line. The reason why he cannot go higher on this list is that fact that he is a 7-footer that cannot defend the paint effectively. If I was building a franchise, I’d rather have a big that is a premier rebounder and defender than one who plays like a perimeter player. With Dirk, I need a defensive big beside him. It isn’t a coincidence the Mavs couldn’t win it all until Chandler came over! In a few years and a few more All-NBA selections and such, Dirk could squeak into the top20.
#23 David Robinson
Maybe the best all-around big man ever! Tall, super athletic… the man could do everything on the floor. One of the best scorers, rebounders, passers, defenders at the C position ever. So what stops him from being higher on the ladder? Put simply, he just wasn’t meant to be an alpha player. He couldn’t take over games in the playoffs. He outplayed Hakeem in almost all of their H2H matchups in the regular season but when they met in the 95 WCF, Hakeem humiliated him. Despite his great resume and winning 2 titles as a #2 guy to Tim Duncan, Robinson will always be remembered as someone who just didn’t have the killer instinct, who folded and let others get the spotlight when the cards were on the table. His stint in the navy and a severe injury during the 96-97 season effectively cut his prime short as well. It’s too bad. He had the talent and the playing ability of a top10 player. EASILY!
#22 Bob Pettit
Probably the most underrated player ever. 2-time MVP, 4-time all-star game MVP, 10-time All-NBA 1st Team, NBA Champion (1958). He is the only player except Wilt Chamberlain ever to beat Bill Russell in the playoffs. Russell was a bit hobbled in that finals but still… he wasn’t 100% other times and people couldn’t touch him! Bob Pettit had a spectacular finals in 1958 averaging 29 ppg in the series and his game 6 is a stuff of legend. 50 points, 25 rebounds including 19 of the last 21 points of the game for his team. He was a 26, 16, and 3 player over his 11-year career and he led his team to 3 more NBA finals which they would lose to the Celtics. He was a dominant scorer and rebounder, an above average playmaker and defender. He faced weak competition though and had a really mediocre FG% so it’s hard to have him much higher.
#21 Charles Barkley
The Round Mount of Rebound. Charles Barkley was a monster scorer. 65%+ TS was not unusual for him. He was a beast rebounder and he had excellent court vision averaging 4+ assists often during his prime. He was most certainly a leader and he most certainly had heart. He had unquenchable confidence, always played with a chip on his shoulder and was one of the strongest players that ever played from a mental aspect. Most players would shy away from Michael Jordan when they had to face him. Barkley would go right at him and claim pre-game and during press conferences that he is indeed the greatest player in the world. And let me tell you, he’d go out there and try to prove it every single night! Playing against Chuck, you’d never get a night off. His energy, strength, and confidence would scare his opponents. Now Chuck is almost unquestionably the GOAT TNT guy (although Shaq may take that title soon!) but he did have one major weakness in his game. DEFENSE. Barkley was listed at 6’6’’ but according to many sources as short as 6’4’’. He played PF a lot and simply was undersized. He couldn’t contest Karl Malone or Chris Webber or Kevin McHale. I have a couple of pet peeves when it comes to ranking basketball players. One is when a player displays a lack of effort (read Vince *** Carter… yea I had to mention him! ) . Another is when he’s undersized. I hate players who are liabilities on the defensive end. If I had Barkley on my team, I’d exclusively play him at SF but then he wouldn’t be in position to rebound as much which would go against his strengths! He never won a title in his career. I don’t consider it his fault because he had great intangibles but still…
#20 John Stockton
There are bad non-alpha superstars like Robinson and then there are good ones like Stockton. He exemplifies what a point guard should be all about. He is the greatest pure passer that ever lived. Now he isn’t the most talented passer ever… that title belongs to the one and only Magic Johnson but Stockton is the most effective passer in NBA history. He is #1 all-time in career and single season assists, apg, and AST%. He has the highest AST/TO ratio of any star PG in history. John was a solid scorer as well, averaging 15-18 ppg on 50+% shooting in his prime and a very good defender, making a couple of all-defensive teams and getting more steals than any player in NBA history. He often gets criticized for not taking over on offense but that wasn’t his role. He was a facilitator, not an alpha and did so with ruthless efficiency with USG% of under 20% for his career. He let others have the ball and glory but without him, those Utah teams wouldn’t be significant. He is like a role player on steroids. He knew what he had to do and did it while also pulling in more than his share on the defensive end of the floor. He had a productive 19-year career in the league, spending all of it with the Utah Jazz. Playing with Karl Malone has hurt his legacy, fairly or not.
#19 Elgin Baylor
The original highflyer, Mr. Hangtime. Baylor turned a horizontal game into a vertical one with an array of aerial moves that transformed basketball and paved the way for players like Dr J, Michael Jordan etc. But Elgin wasn’t all flash. Before his injury in 1963, he put up 36 ppg 15 rpg and 5 apg over four postseasons. He dominated against arguably the greatest defense ever in the finals. Against Russell’s Celtics he had a series averaging 40+ppg including a 62-point game that is still an all-time finals record! He scored with the best of them, rebounded like a big, passed like a point guard. A Frank Selvy miss on a wide-open 10ft jumper as the time expired in regulation of Game 7 in the 62 Finals cost Baylor his best chance at a title. Elgin made 10 All-NBA 1st Teams in his career and 8 NBA finals, losing all but 1 to the Boston Celtics! If it weren’t for his prime cut short by injuries, average defensive impact, and a lack of titles, Baylor could have made a significantly bigger dent on this list. His abilities were truly extraordinary.
#18 Kevin Garnett
Greatest all-around PF in NBA history. KG scored 20+ ppg in his prime year after year, he won 4 rebounding titles, he had 6 seasons over 5 apg, and he is arguably the greatest defender this game has ever seen. His versatility on that end is insane. There has never been a big that can defend the post and then move to the perimeter and cover guards chasing them around like a hound dog. His quickness, length, dexterity, and intelligence allow him to pull this off. Garnett is a model for consistency as well but his greatest asset is that he simply makes his teammates better. He came to Boston and turned them into a championship team from Day 1. His playing ability certainly helped but that wasn’t it. His energy is infectious, his swag gives his teammates confidence, his intensity and constant communication on the defensive end inspires average defenders to become great ones. He changed the culture of the team and when he was injured in the 09 playoffs, his teams still fed off his energy and did what he had inspired in them. He is a player who makes homecourt advantage really an advantage. When he bangs his head on the basket support or raises his hands into the air, fans in the arena are sent into delirium by his passion and commitment. Upon entering the game, he’s covered in sweat within 2 min. His level of effort, dedication, and pure energy has arguably never been seen in any player in history. There is probably no one that I will miss more when they retire than KG.
#17 Oscar Robertson
Big O. Mr Triple Double. Oscar Robertson is the standard by which any all-around basketball player is judged. Over his first 5 seasons in the league, he averaged a 30-10-10 triple double scoring at higher efficiency than most C’s in the league! High pace or not, that’s still ludicrous. Big O was 6’5’’ but he rebounded like a forward and getting assists was more difficult in Oscar’s era due to how they were credited, making his feat even more impressive. He was yet another victim of the mighty Celtics dynasty, never managing to win a title with the Cincinnati Royals. He was thought of a little bit as a selfish player at times, dominating the ball and putting up good numbers but never winning. His playoff performances also frequently hadn’t lived up to the expectations. In 1970, he got traded to the Bucks where he won a title. After the first year success in Milwaukee, he couldn’t stay healthy but Bucks’ contention for the title was largely a result of Oscar’s declining but still very noticeable presence. Winning an MVP award and a title even if not as a #1 option puts Oscar ahead of Baylor for me.
#16 Jerry West
The Logo is the single hardest player to rank on this list. On one hand, he was a monster scorer and shooter, great all-around, solid defender, super-clutch and a great playoff performer. On the other hand, a perennial 2nd place finisher, a guy who wasn’t any of those good things in one postseason run that mattered most. In 1972, Lakers finally won a championship on arguably the greatest team in history. Problem is West had the worst postseason in his career by far, putting up just 23ppg on 38% shooting in the playoffs and 20 ppg on 33% shooting in the finals. Those are not typos! When Lakers lost like in 66, 68, 69, 70, West put up monster numbers and was always efficient. That puts forward this question… There is absolutely no doubt that West was a great player with basically no weaknesses but was he as valuable to his team? If his teams can lose with him playing out of his mind and win in a dominating fashion with him playing god awful, there is something wrong! As his career went on, he switched into more of a PG role and his team success increased. Maybe he was meant to be a more of a facilitator? Maybe his scoring hurt his team as a whole offensively? West retired with no MVP award even though he was the best player in the world a couple of years there in 1969 and 1970. In 1971 with West (as well as Baylor) sidelined in the postseason, Lakers still made the conference finals and lost to one of the greatest teams of all time featuring Kareem and Oscar. There is no doubt that Jerry West had the mentality of a champion and the drive and unquenchable thirst for success, but the question of his real value to the team will always haunt him most in my opinion.
#15 John Havlicek
Most underappreciated player in history. Drafted to play in the NFL as well as the NBA, the man known as Hondo chose basketball and boy was it a good choice. His physical attributes were astounding. While he wasn’t a high leaper, he was extremely quick, very strong, and probably the most durable player ever. His stamina was unmatched. He would run opponents into the ground with his relentless running game and constant full court pressure that frustrated opponents. He was a great versatile scorer, excellent rebounder and passer, arguably the best perimeter defender ever and yet none of those is his most defining quality. Havlicek has more rings that any player on this list not called Bill Russell. He was a true winner and maybe the most clutch player in history. The 1965 steal against Hal Greer, 40 10 and 7 on 50% shooting in Game 6 to close out LA on the road in the 68 finals, 26 9 and 5 game on 58% shooting in Game 7 on the road to beat LA in the 69 finals, him and Kareem going back and forth late in games in the 74 finals, the shot in 2nd overtime against the Suns in the 76 finals. These are moments that define Havlicek, playing at his best in the greatest moments. In his prime from 68-74, he averaged a stellar 27 8 and 7 in the postseason and similar numbers in the finals with All-Defensive 1st Team selections virtually ever year. Few people realize that he won 3 championship rings (68, 69, 74) as the best player on his team. Despite that, he’s a player who would sacrifice his own personal success for the betterment of his team. He played as a 6th man for the first couple of years in the mid 60’s and deferred to Cowens and White in the late 70’s as his game declined. Missing on his resume is an MVP award and that he was never the #1 best player in the league. I can’t put him any higher because he wasn’t a consistently efficient scorer either who you can count on to carry your team on offense every night in a long season.
#14 Julius Erving
Enigmatic player. Julius “Dr J” Erving revolutionized the game like perhaps no other player. The tomahawk dunks, acrobatic lay-ups from behind the backboard and out of bounds are some of the signature moments that define the Doctor. I had a lot of trouble deciding whether to put him ahead of West and Havlicek. I decided to go with Erving ahead of them. While Julius won a title as a #2 to Moses in 83 similar to how Jerry did to Wilt in the 72 postseason, Julius played well during the run. Erving’s value to his teams was much more clear to me. Erving won an MVP award in 1981 (something West and Hondo never did) and lost to 3 teams in the finals with dominant big men (Walton once, Kareem twice) that his Sixers simply had no answer for. Erving has a more dominant peak than Hondo and more impressive career longevity than West as well tallying 30k points in his career. I also rated him ahead of West because I feel like he was more impactful on the defensive end because of his off-ball skill and shotblocking. Erving is stuck here and cannot move any higher because his best years were in the ABA, a league where high-paced offensive basketball was played and it was far easier to put up big numbers. When he came to the NBA at age 26, Julius was never quite as dominant as before and did win just one title as a 2nd option.
#13 Karl Malone
The Mailman. A name that suits him well because of his remarkable consistency and longevity but is also ironic because Malone could never deliver at those precise moments when his teams absolutely needed it. Karl Malone was a great all-around force in the NBA at the PF position from the late 80’s to the early 00’s, winning 2 MVP’s and losing twice in the championship round to Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. Malone didn’t lack intangibles per se but he could have used more killer instinct and leadership. His career also came to be defined by some of his most painful moments, missing 2 free throws that could win the game in Game 1 of the 97 finals and getting stripped by Jordan for that infamous shot in Game 6 of the 98 finals. On the other hand, Malone doesn’t get nearly enough credit for all his successes. Getting those Utah teams to the finals in the first place with declining John Stockton wasn’t trivial. Luck of the draw was truly against Karl… MJ is the last guy you would want to face in the finals and he is the only one Malone ever faced! He had no weaknesses in his game and generally performed well in the postseason against a tough group of elite big men. Malone is #2 on the all-time scoring list, #6 on the all-time rebounding list, and #1 in all-time FT’s made and attempted. His body of work is undeniable.
#12 Moses Malone
Another Malone! All-around player? No… in fact he had arguably the most weaknesses in his game of any player on this list. His post moves were rudimentary at best, he was a solid but hardly spectacular defender, and he wasn’t a good passer when compared to other elite bigs. So what the heck did he do well? Two words… OFFENSIVE REBOUNDING. THAT’S IT!! His team would shoot and he’d grab the misses. Sounds like a rebounding specialist… However when you combine his ability to sneak or push himself out of a box out to gain position for the rebound with his incredible strength and physicality, you had one of the greatest forces in history. He would get the ball at point blank range off of a rebound and the defense would be helpless. They would foul him and he’d shoot FT’s again and again. Moses was at his peak from 79-83, winning 3 MVP’s and a title on one of the most dominant teams ever. He made a finals in 81 with a truly mediocre 40-win team. His teammates loved playing with Moses. He was a guy who you didn’t have to feed the ball… he’d get it himself! I’ve watched footages of a playoff half where he would get 20 points, all of them off of offensive boards. His peak is one of the greatest ever but he also played in the NBA for 19 years and another 2 in the ABA. He was one of the first high schoolers ever to enter the league. He is #1 all-time in offensive rebounds by a huge margin, #3 all-time in total rebounds, and #2 In FT’s made. Bottom line is, I love Karl Malone who is a more complete player but if I had to pick which Malone I want on my team, Moses takes the cake. He was more difficult to stop at his peak and managed to win a title in an era that was tougher than the 90’s. He had the it factor, the killer instinct, the alpha male mentality that David Robinson and even Karl Malone never had.
#11 Lebron James
Now Lebron is just 28 years old but he already has all of the credentials of an NBA legend and pantheon member. Four MVP’s, two straight Finals MVP's leading some of the greatest runs ever, two other finals appearances, seven 1st teams, five defensive 1st teams, 2nd all-time in PER and scoring. Arguably the best passing forward ever and a true fantasy league stud. Barring serious injury he is pretty much guaranteed to end up in in the Magic/Bird/Shaq group when it's all said and done even with no more titles. Sky is the limit for the King and he just has to continue to rack up MVP's of all types! He won his first title at a younger age than both Jordan and Shaq. As committed as he has been in the past year in improving his post-game, jumper as well as his off-ball skills, his shot can still become a bit more consistent to make zone defenses pay. It's amazing to have an opportunity to follow the career of such a transcendent player, arguably the most talented individual ever to grace the NBA court.
#10 Kobe Bryant
I’ve always been called a Kobe hater but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I love Kobe’s game and appreciate his status as an all-time great. I only have an issue when people claim Kobe > Jordan. That will never be a real debate despite Bryant’s impressive resume. 5 titles of which 2 as the man, 1 MVP, 2 scoring titles, an 81 point game, 62 in three quarters game. Kobe is one of the most devastating scorers ever unleashed on this league. He is arguably the most skilled player of all-time, more so than MJ. Kobe can make shots from anywhere and with insane degrees of difficulty. He could drive to the rim, rebound, pass, play elite defense, close out games. He has an insatiable killer instinct… there is a reason they call this man the Black Mamba! Turnaround fadeaway 20 footers are miracle shots for anyone else but when Kobe is hot, he nails them. Ironically, what is his strength is also the cause of his greatest weakness. His ability to hit any shot makes him take too many difficult shots on a regular basis, lowering his FG%. His choppy finals performances characterized by poor FG%’s are why it is difficult to consider him any higher. Being a sidekick to Shaq for 3/5 titles is also a dent in his resume. If he has a couple of more strong years, I might be willing to push him to #9.
#9 Tim Duncan
The Big Fundamental. While not an unstoppable offensive force by any stretch of imagination, Duncan always took over when it mattered. He was a great rebounder, a world-class defender (total crime he never won a DPOY!), and a marvelous passer for a big man. His leadership by example and his quiet confidence make him the most well-liked player of this era. The reason I have him slightly ahead of Bryant is that while he also had some choppy finals performances, he still won 4 titles as the best player on his team and won 2 MVP awards. He to me is a smarter player with regards to shot selection and generally picking his spots. Timmy would never refuse to pass the ball. Why do people call Tim Duncan boring? He isn’t flashy but he’s always been effective. He was never the most dominant player, but he was the player that had the last laugh more often than not. His expression-less face confused opponents. It was hard to get in his head, focused like a laser beam, a champion playing for one goal. The privilege of remaining one. Duncan has been a unique superstar in the decade. With many stars bent on individual dominance, Duncan ALWAYS put team first. The Big Fundamental truly stands for everything that is good in basketball – teamwork, unselfishness, desire, humbleness, and graciousness in those rare defeats.
#8 Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt the Stilt. The Big Dipper. The man who rewrote the record books, setting countless scoring and rebounding records that will never be broken. A guy who was so strong, so athletic, so physically coordinated that none of his adversaries had any hope of playing him to a standstill individually. That description sounds like a description for the GOAT, doesn’t it? Well unfortunately, Wilt is far from receiving that kind of honor… For almost his entire career, he played solely for stats and personal glory by winning individual match-ups. Winning was secondary to him and winning 2 titles is a testament to his greatness that he could win despite his shortcomings but he still severely underachieved. He set his mind to never fouling out of a game, refusing to play defense when in foul trouble and hurting his team in who knows how many games. He passed up easy shots just so he could win an assist title. He would either shoot too much early in his career taking his teammates out of their comfort zones or too little in his late career, not taking over in big playoff games when his teams needed it and he could clearly still provide it. His playoff numbers can’t hold a candle to his regular season. If all that wasn’t enough, Wilt was a notoriously bad FT shooter. For all of his regular season heroics and dominance, I can’t put him above any player from here on out because he didn’t deliver consistently enough when it mattered.
#7 Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem the Dream. A super strong and athletic yet gracious big man of truly unmatchable skills. Olajuwon’s footwork and offensive repertoire is legendary… the spins, the turns, the up and unders, the head and the shoulder fakes… He’d execute multiple moves and countermoves leaving opponents including HOF defenders dumbfounded. He could go up with power dunks, hit baby hooks, or nail 15-foot jumpers like it’s nothing. Ask David Robinson. If that wasn’t enough, Hakeem won 2 rebounding titles, was a great passer, and arguably the best defensive player ever. And even that doesn’t come close to describing the Dream. He had the dexterity and speed of a guard. He is #8 all-time in steals and could run the fast break! He was a clutch player who would score big baskets late in games and protect the paint with vigor. He led two of the most difficult title runs ever. One with a truly meager supporting cast and another without HCA in every single series. In those 2 playoff runs, he infamously dominated all the other top big men in the league in devastating fashion leaving behind nothing but rubble. We’ll never know if Hakeem was lucky to not face Jordan in the postseason or vice versa. Probably a little bit of both…
#6 Larry Bird
Larry Legend. The Hick from French Lick. A guy who didn’t even look like an NBA megastar was nothing but. There is absolutely no excuse to say you’ve never watched Bird. You have to see it to believe his real impact. Larry wasn’t athletic, he wasn’t that strong, he wasn’t that quick… but he was smart. Bird is the greatest trash-talker and maybe the most confident player ever and his leadership rubbed on his teammates. It didn’t hurt that he was the greatest shooter ever with unlimited range, could rebound like a big, and pass like a point guard. Larry was an excellent off-ball defender that fit well into a team concept of defense. Larry won 3 titles and 3 MVP’s in the toughest era in league history. His prime was unfortunately relatively short, his career cut prematurely by severe back injuries. He played a couple of more years but was never really quite the same.
#5 Shaquille O’Neal
Superman. The Big Aristotle. The league had never seen a player like Shaq before or since. The 7’1’’ 320-350 pound beast dominated the NBA for a decade and a half. His athleticism, speed, and vertical for a man of his size were simply unbelievable. The NBA had to get stronger rims and opposing centers started wearing masks and nose guards largely because of this guy. O’Neal struggled as a FT shooter so it was risky to keep him in late in a game and he was a poor pick n’ roll defender but it didn’t matter too much in the big scheme of things. Shaq’s peak is quite simply probably the greatest ever. From 00-02, he led LA to a 3-peat averaging 36 ppg and 13 rpg on 59% shooting in 3 NBA finals combined! There has never been a player more unstoppable than him… EVER. He made guys like Zo, Robinson, Divac, Mutombo, elite defensive bigs, look helpless. He was a Wilt Chamberlain who played a power game, who’d never back down, who had the desire to win and not put up stats as a way to prove himself. It was tough to put him over Bird but I’d rather have 13 prime years of Shaq than 9 prime years of Bird. True he had a big ego and he might leave my team after clashing with our star SG but it’s worth the risk. He stays for a couple of years and I’m almost guaranteed a title even with a fairly average roster.
#4 Earvin Johnson
Magic. The guy who made Showtime. The greatest point guard who ever lived. 6’9’’ Johnson was a handful, a walking triple double. An underrated scorer who in his prime consistently scored 22-25 ppg on 60%+ TS. He had the greatest court vision of any player ever. He would run half-court sets as well as the fast break to perfection. No look passes, behind the back passes, half court bounce passes… it was all there. Most importantly, his style wasn’t just fun, it was successful. He won 5 titles and made 9 finals in 13 years in the league in the strongest era in league history. Magic would always come through in a big game, arguably the most consistent playoff performer ever. He beat Bird three of out of the four times they met over their careers and had a longer prime. Magic vs Shaq is close but Johnson simply has less weaknesses. Magic could close games, Shaq could not. Magic was the ultimate teammate, Shaq was egotistical. Magic won 5 titles and 3 MVP’s. Shaq won 4 titles and 1 MVP. Magic won in a tough era. Shaq won in a watered-down era.
#3 Bill Russell
William Felton Russell was traded on draft day for Cliff Hagan and Ed McCauley. How often does a team give up a perennial all-star shooting guard and a top center for a player who hasn't played a single game in the NBA? The answer is when that player has such superior understanding of the game and locker room leadership that what he physically does on the court becomes less important. Of course, Russell was the greatest defensive anchor of all time, leading at least 9 Celtics teams (11 total) to a title and winning 5 MVP's until Hondo took reign of the team in the late 60's. Bill Russell is quite simply the greatest winner in the history of the NBA and maybe any sport period. The reason I don’t have him higher on this list is because he had clear weaknesses in the grand scheme of things. First of all, he was a mediocre scorer, 16 ppg on 43% shooting for his playoff career. He passed very well and was one of the best rebounders of all time but he couldn’t shoulder an offensive load for his team. He could ignite breaks off of defensive rebounds but his success is a product of his era and his team to a fairly large extent. A 6’9’’ center as late as the 70’s just wouldn’t be able to have such an impact. The late 50’s and most of the 60’s were not an era of parity. Boston won the most games in the league from 57-65 and had the most talented teams in that span. As great a leader and motivator Bill was (he was even a player coach from 66-67 season onwards), it cannot bridge the gap with much more talented players ahead who also had monstrous achievements in more competitive eras.
#2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Originally known as Lew Alcindor, Kareem is the most accomplished player in league history – 6 MVP’s, 2 Finals MVP’s (should have been 4!), 6 titles, 10 finals appearances, #1 on all-time scoring list, #3 on all-time rebounding list, #2 on all-time blocks list (despite the fact blocks weren’t even recorded his first 4 years!). Kareem is one of a type big man. The greatest scorer in history, an elite rebounder, an elite defender and shotblocker. Kareem passed the ball like a guard, had the agility to get more steals than any big ever except Hakeem. Jabbar learned from the greatest leader ever in Bill Russell. His quiet confidence would rally his team, his clutch heroics and game-winning shots are unmatched for a big man. Kareem’s skyhook is quite simply the best shot in history. It was the surest 2 points ever. You couldn’t block it, you couldn’t contest, you could hope that he misses but he rarely would. Kareem’s peak was on Shaq’s level except he didn’t have a problem with his FT shooting. His longevity is the greatest ever. He made 1st team all NBA at age 22 and then again at age 39. At 40 years and older, his team would still give him the ball when they needed a basket in a close game and he would deliver. His legacy as a good teammate is probably the most underrated aspect of his career. Kareem would sacrifice everything to win, even through the mid and late 70’s when he had truly mediocre rosters.
#1 Michael Jordan
Jordan is not a better player than Kareem, or more accomplished, or more impactful. If I was drafting one of them as a franchise player, I would take Jabbar. But Jordan is still the greatest ever. Media hype or not, Jordan is the household name in the world of basketball. He inspired and motivated kids to play basketball, he is the reason this forum exists. I probably wouldn’t be writing this article if MJ had never played because I wouldn’t care about the sport. He did everything on the court on an elite level, he showed up in big moments, his killer instinct was almost madness. Even those who weren’t alive in his time have heard of his exploits, the free throw line dunk, the shot over Ehlo, the Flu Game, the Last Shot. His number was retired by NBA teams for whom he had never played. He is the all-time leader in playoff points, PER, and Win Shares.