NBA Top 10 Players of All-Time
Give me 10 minutes, I can convince you that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all-time. Give me 10 days, I can convince you Kyle Korver is.
Obviously that is a stretch. But the more you dig for something and the more you know, the more you can make a strong case for why.
I debated heavily whether or not to even write this. When it comes to the NBA, I feel fans spend too much time defending the players they love or hold in higher regard instead of embracing the greatness they are watching.
Because of that, we see absurd arguments being thrown around to defend the players they hold in high regard. They like to oversimplify the equation. I typically stay away from GOAT discussions because of it.
Argue with someone smarter than you and you likely lose. Argue with someone dumber than you and you always lose. You can apply the latter to many of the arguments being slung around for the GOAT debate of the NBA’s greatest.
Read a comment section or talk to your friends, chances are you will see over simplified arguments such as…
*Full disclosure, it is going to seem like I am picking on Jordan in what is to come. That is only because I have been surrounded by moronic pro-Jordan arguments more often than not.*
- The Era
People love to throw the era out there specifically when talking about the 90s brand of basketball. Teams like the Bad Boy Pistons could do things that would likely lead to an assault charge. Guys used to get obliterated going to the goal. Sure, it’s a fun brand of basketball for many. I understand why. People love physicality.
The argument can certainly be made for why the modern era may be better.
The modern era has better athletes more so than any other. Defense is exponentially harder today because of 4s and 5s being able to stretch the floor. The elimination of the hand check makes it harder to defend the ball handler. On top of that, 80s-90s was a massive expansion era thus leading to a watered down league.
I’m not going to use any of those arguments to tear down other greats like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. So saying something moronic such as put “LeBron in the 90s and he would fold.”
Ok, put Jordan in the 2010’s and he wouldn’t be able to handle the social media storm given that he walked away after the passing of his father and struggled to handle the media narratives.
The debate game can be played on both sides. So check yourself before you wreck yourself. You can’t talk about the what if and ignore the what is. Athletes don’t choose their eras. The game advances. Technology advances.
Let’s measure it by how great they were in their respective eras.
Whether it was Kobe v Shaq or LeBron v Jordan, we always heard the ring argument come up. The easiest defense to that is Bill Russell.
Russell was the focal point of a team that won 11 titles. If you’re only using that argument to devalue someone’s legacy, you’re losing that point every day that ends in y.
Obviously championships matter more than any other spot. The only remotely close comparison in mainstream sports in the US is the quarterback position.
In the NBA, one player can take a team from 25 wins to 50 wins in a flash. However, it shouldn’t be overstated that you have to be a team player AND have a supporting cast to win those championships.
Take someone like Russell Westbrook. If he is one your team, you’re getting to the postseason. But, he’s probably shooting you into an early exit.
Take the Bulls without Michael, that team still won 55 games following his first retirement. They lost in seven to the Knicks in the conference semis.
Take the Cavaliers after LeBron left the first time. With virtually the same roster, that team went from 61 wins to 19 wins. They finished dead last in the East after finishing first the year before.
The Cavs usually did well in the playoffs before hitting a wall with a well oiled machine like the Celtics or Magic, similar to the Bulls with the Pistons and Celtics.
Once Jordan and LeBron both gained better supporting casts, the finals trips starting flowing.
Then of course we have the obsession with being undefeated in the finals when it comes to Jordan, which leads to a false equivalency.
If LeBron ended up finishing his career as 5-6 in the finals (currently 3-6). You would still hear Jordan fans scream 6-0 BRO! So you’re knocking the guy who made it there 11 times, nearly doubling Jordan.
As it stands now, he has already appeared in three more finals than Jordan. Making it there is better than not making it there. If you can’t wrap your head around that, I am almost positive your birth certificate could be a letter of apology from a condom manufacturer.
How Do We Rate Them?
We can’t oversimplify the arguments for a complicated discussion.
You have to weigh a number of factors including stats, championships, importance to their team, footprint on the game, popularity and everything that encompasses them as an athlete. It’s a complicated mess of weighing the importance of all these things.
Coming up with a list of the Top 10 Players ever is a real pain in the ass after the first two. But my list is as follows…
- Michael Jordan
- LeBron James
- Magic Johnson
- Larry Bird
- Wilt Chamberlain
- Kareem Abdul Jabar
- Shaquille O’Neal
- Bill Russell
- Tim Duncan
- Kobe Bryant
Before diving in to the list and discussing why these players are ranked accordingly, let’s talk about the guys who missed the cut. It was just one guy.
Omission – The Dream
- Hakeem Olajuwan
I love The Dream. He is easily one of the most dominant bigs to ever play basketball. Honestly, it felt wrong to leave off any of the guys I slated 8-10 just as it felt wrong leaving Olajuwan off. He had one of the best seasons in NBA history in 93-94 when he captured not only the MVP, but also Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP. He was a total game changer on both ends of the floor.
The supporting cast on that Rockets squad left much to be desired, at least in comparison to the championship years of the others on this list. In his quest for the two championships, he even put a younger inexperienced Shaq on skates making him seem futile.
In a game 7 against Charles Barkley’s Suns, he scored 37 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, dished 5 assists and blocked 3 shots.
He dominated the paint on other historically great bigs like David Robinson, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing to win his two championships. It was the glory days of bigs and he blew the competition out of the water.
Now let’s dive into the top 10…
Jordan & LeBron are the Only Clear Cut Obvious in the Top 10 at 1 & 2
As I said in the lead of the column, give me x amount of time and I can make a compelling case for either of these guys. I give the nod to Jordan here. I gave the nod to Jordan prior to the documentary.
The 90s Bulls had a run like no other. While the stats are comparable from points to rebounds to assists to field goal percentage, there are arguments to be made for both.
I will start with LeBron.
Contrary to popular belief regarding his clutch gene, LeBron is better in the postseason in clutch situations statistically, both total makes and field goal percentage.
- Jordan (9-18)
- LeBron (12-23)
Because he isn’t as intense as Jordan or Kobe, that unfortunately gets lost in the conversations.
LeBron has had his back against the wall in the finals more often than not. In fact, LeBron’s teams has only been favored in two finals (2011 & 2013). Aside from the 2011 finals, he did more than enough on his own accord to win those finals. A string of bad luck from injuries to his supporting cast and just having to run the gauntlet like the Warriors is brutal. That is something Jordan rarely had to deal with as the Bulls were favored to win five of the six (underdogs in the 2nd match-up with the Jazz).
Is that enough to edge Jordan? No.
Does LeBron still have a chance to overtake Jordan? Yes.
If LeBron ends up appearing and/or winning multiple finals with the Lakers or any other team he is on from now until retirement, yes, he can dethrone Jordan as the GOAT. So long as he is the first or second most important piece to that team, basically not turning into Ray Allen with the Heat (role guy). Until that happens, I still give the nod to Jordan for two very HUGE reasons, viewership and marketability.
LeBron will NEVER match those two needles of Jordan.
The 90s Bulls own six of the ten most watched NBA Finals in league history, including the top four. The amount of people who tuned in to see Jordan is absolutely remarkable. That is without ever playing a game seven which normally inflates the series average.
Even more remarkable, Game 1 of 1998 beats out nearly every Game 6 and 7 in league history.
The second is Nike and the empire created for shoes. Jordan made plenty of money playing basketball. Jordan made even more when he created an apparel empire that is shoes. Without him, guys are not signing $100 million shoe contracts out of college.
His popularity will forever be the driving force behind the league’s current popularity and the money players can make today on shoe sales.
Determining 3 & 4
The first question I asked myself is who can be left off the Mount Rushmore of Basketball?
Leaving Larry Bird and Magic Johnson off would be a grave mistake.
The Celtics Lakers rivalry they established led basketball to being a mainstream sport. Obviously I give Magic the nod because it was his showtime Lakers beating up on Bird’s Celtics more often than not. Both did their part on the court.
While both have established phenomenal legacies for themselves, Magic won championships and revolutionized the point guard position.
At 6’9, his height should have never allowed him to be a ball handler based on the game’s history, but he was. He was basically the league’s first point forward.
Then Phil Jackson came along and fully blew that role out of the water utilizing Pippen in that same capacity. Now, we see it as a mainstay in today’s NBA with guys like LeBron, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Battle of the Old School Bigs (Kareem or Wilt)
The Lakers were remarkably blessed with the 1A and 1B of Big Men in NBA History.
While Jordan in Space Jam was great…did you freaking see Kareem’s cameo in Full House? He helped Uncle Jesse find his sweet spot!
In all seriousness, this is perhaps the toughest debate on the list. If we go to the classic how many rings argument, Kareem has 6 to Wilt’s 2. But we all know who was more pivotal for the Showtime Lakers, Magic Johnson. That is where the bulk of Kareem’s rings came. He was Magic’s Pippen to some degree. The second and ultra important piece, which is why he still cracks the top 6 ever.
Kareem certainly had the longevity, while Wilt’s success proved to be more dominant which is why I give him the nod.
Wilt dominates Kareem in career average for points (+6), rebounds (+11) and assists (+1). Wilt only shot 1% lower from the field. He of course had two remarkable feats including his 100 point game and his 50 point per game season. In 13 seasons, he led the league in rebounding 11 times and in scoring 7 times. Both infinitely better than Kareem’s 2 and 1, respectively. Wilt even had a season where he led the league in assists.
Wilt is widely regarded as a better defender who changed the way teams played offense. That being said, give credit to Kareem for the infamous sky-hook that was virtually unarguable.
Both were legendary in their own right, but I have to choose and I went with Wilt.
One of the things I love most about Shaq’s career is the fact he was part of three great trios.
- Penny (Hardaway) and Shaq – Magic
- Kobe (Bryant) and Shaq – Lakers
- Dwyane Wade and Shaq – Heat
Of the three, he was only second fiddle to Wade later in his career. He dominated with three different teams, reaching at least one final with all of them and winning four. That includes three finals MVPs with the Lakers.
While his shooting could not stretch the floor like some of the other bigs, he absolutely obliterated the inside making him one of the most efficient bigs to ever play. His career field goal percentage is .582. As a point of reference, the aforementioned Kareem’s is .559. Shaq led the NBA in field goal percentage 10 times including a run of five in a row with the Lakers.
Bill Russell and Psychological Warfare
Russell is heralded for his 11 championships in 13 seasons and he should be. Part of winning those championships was defeating my number five player of all-time (Wilt). That was a tall order, literally.
Even with the 11 championships, Wilt still averaged 28 and 28 against Russell’s Celtics in those finals. The Celtics won four game 7s by a combined 9 points.
Russell was well known as a defensive mastermind for altering and blocking shots in ways that allowed his Celtics run teams off the court with fast breaks. One of the knocks on him is once the lane expanded from 12 to 16 feet, his game slightly diminished. Not greatly, but slightly. His offensive output isn’t nearly as great as some of the others on this list.
He was a pioneer of defensive prowess who deserves homage and respect. While he should get plenty of recognition for being the leader of those Celtics 11 championships, his supporting casts included other Hall of Famers and all-stars like John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, KC Jones and Bill Sharman.
Tim Duncan has a claim to one GOAT status, the best power forward to ever play. He is living proof that fundamentals can take you deep into a career. Toward the back end, he certainly wasn’t as dominant as the early and mid 2000s. However, his game translated to wins for the Spurs.
He is the model of consistency. When you look across the board at his numbers for both regular season and playoffs, his numbers look nearly identical for about 15 of the 19 seasons he played.
He has plenty of accolades to his name from All NBA, All Defensive, MVPs, Championships and Finals MVPs to get him in the top 10 easily.
He was also part of arguably the greatest big men duo known as the twin towers with David Robinson. As a rookie alongside Robinson, Duncan averaged 21 and 11. In his second game, he grabbed 22 rebounds despite being matched against Dennis Rodman. He was a stud from day one.
The most impressive feat, he never missed the playoffs in his entire career.
Kobe Bryant 10 – The Major Elephant in the Room
You talk to people my age and they will likely scoff at the idea of the late Kobe Bryan being number 10.
I don’t want to be crass when I say this because I freaking love Kobe. He is easily one of my five favorites to ever see play. But he wasn’t close to my top 5 best prior to his tragic passing. I am not letting my emotion overtake logic and put him there now.
Kobe was without a doubt the closest we have seen to Jordan in terms of style of play and his competitive mentality, better known as mamba mentality. He will always have a large footprint on the game of basketball because of it. No one will ever take that away.
I will never forget when he scored 81 on Toronto, the 61 at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and the final sendoff scoring 60.
Unfortunately because of the criticism I am likely to face for putting him here by other Kobe fans, I feel I have to talk about his flaws more than his iconic greatness. That is unfortunate.
The reality is the early part of his career he was second fiddle to Shaq. He eventually broke the mold proving he could be the number one guy when the Lakers captured 2/3 finals in the midst of three consecutive appearances in the 2010s after a minor rebuild.
The biggest detractor to not putting him higher is he never learned to get out of his own way at times. He had to put up his shots even if he missed which lead to plenty of losses. We learned in The Last Dance, that is something Jordan eventually learned…picking the right moments.
Now of course, you would obviously rather have Kobe than not have him. The same reason I knock him is the same reason most people knock someone like Russell Westbrook, inefficiency. He shot .447 in the regular season and .448 in the playoffs for his career.
His inefficiencies more often than not were getting you to the postseason, but how far would they get you? His career featured a handful of early playoff exits.
He had that same ruthless mentality of Jordan. However, his run wasn’t nearly as dominant as Jordan’s. The problem with Bryant, he demanded more of his teammates (which led to bad break ups) when he had his own shortcomings in plenty of games. You can’t lash out if you’re not holding up your end of the bargain.
In NBA the finals alone, he averaged 25 points on 21 shots shooting a mere 41% from the floor. We always herald Kobe for the game winners and clutch shots, but in the playoffs he was 5-22 on game tying or go-ahead shots in the last 10 seconds for his career.
At the time of his retirement, Kobe was 7 of 28 in his career on game tying or go-ahead shots in the last 24 seconds of playoff games.
Because of how closely his play style and mentality resembled Jordan, too many fans mis-characterize and mis-remember the realities of his legendary career. I believe it is a stretch to put him anywhere above 9. I think the argument can be made for 7 at best, even then I think that is looking through rose-colored lenses.
Anything above that is nothing more than a monumental misfire.
I will always fondly remember the memories from Kobe’s career, but I won’t let the emotion cloud my judgement as a result.
Fuck this ranking and I hate doing this, but I get tired of hearing the dumbfounded arguments and complete misfires when ranking players accordingly.