This list is impossible. There is no right answer for who are the best 10 basketball players of all time. But why not try? Everything went into evaluating the players: stats, honors, skills, clutchness. Did the candidates make their teams better? Did they step up in the playoffs? Did they play defense? How important were they for the league in their era? Did they change the game? Were they champions? Like we said … impossible.
1. Michael Jordan, SG, 1.98 m, Bulls
Honors: Hall of Fame, 14 x All-Star, 11 x All-NBA, 9 x All-Defensive, 6 x champion, 10 x top scorer, 5 x MVP, 1 x DPOY, ROY
Prime: 32.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.4 APG, 50.5 FG% (1987 to 1998)
“His Airness”. The ultimate winner of the modern era. The ultimate scorer. Six times in the Finals, six times Finals MVP. Ten-time top scorer. Countless times coming through in the clutch. An icon.
What catapults Jordan to the top of this ranking is his perfection, which actually was not the case at all. He was an asshole to his teammates and therewith exactly the opposite in terms of leadership qualities compared to Bill Russell. But Jordan also got the best out of his team.
He could not be stopped as a scorer – that is unless you tried to shove him to the floor on every drive, like the Bad Boy Pistons did. Jordan understood the game at the macro and micro level at both ends of the court: from the comprehensive principles of the triangle offense to the exact footwork on his fadeaway and the Bulls’ team defense.
Nobody beat Jordan in the playoffs after 1990 in a year in which he did not play baseball. Nobody dethroned Jordan, the 1988 Defensive Player of the Year, regardless of how tired his team was. And nobody reigned alone so long over a league so balanced.
Can LeBron James catch up to Jordan one day? It’s hard to imagine it, but it’s possible. One or two titles with the Lakers and the “King” would be close. In the end though, “Air” will probably remain at the top. He was never beaten by any of his formidable rivals (though he never met Hakeem Olajuwon in the Finals) and he not only defined his own generation but the next generation as well. Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T.
2. LeBron James, PG/SF/PF, 2.06 m, Cavs/Heat
Honors: 16 x All-Star, 15 x All-NBA, 6 x All-Defensive, 3 x champion, 1 x top scorer, 4 x MVP, ROY
Prime: 28.5 PPG, 75 RPG, 7.0 APG, 50.2 FG% (2006 to 2013)
First off, LeBron James actually never had a prime. He has performed at the same high level since his second NBA season (2004-05), leaving it almost senseless to define his best time as the seasons between 2005-06 and 2012-13.
But during that time, he was actually at a level statistically that no other NBA player had achieved. His player efficiency rating was higher than 30.0 in four of those seasons. The only other star to do that in the history of the NBA? Michael Jordan.
On the court, James is something the league has never seen. At 2.06 meters, he is a big point guard like Magic but built like Karl Malone. He has amazing court vision but can dominate from the post like a big man. If it has to be, James can also hit important three-pointers or impossible drives in crunch time. Defensively, he can check quick guards in important moments and keep centers in front of him in the low post.
His game developed over the years into a perfect mix of passing and shooting. He has erased past weaknesses such as the three-point shot or lacking a game on the wing. He carried the Cavs to the Finals in 2007 and from 2015 to 2018 – a team that more or less would not have been even close to that stage if James was replaced by a normal superstar.
Certainly, James failed in the 2011 Finals against the Mavericks but he more than made up for it by defeating the Warriors in 2016.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, C, 2.18 m, Bucks/Lakers
Honors: Hall of Fame, 19 x All-Star, 15 x All-NBA, 11 x All-Defensive, 6 x champion, 2 x top scorer, 6 x MVP, ROY
Prime: 30.2 PPG, 15.7 RPG, 3.7 BPG, 54.9 FG% (1971 to 1976)
Wait … Abdul-Jabbar’s prime was between 1970-71 and 1975-76? But he played until 1989? Yeah. “Captain Skyhook” was so good that he was 40 years old and still averaged 13.1 points in the Finals for the Lakers against the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons. And it was because of that skyhook. No NBA player performed at such a high level for so long.
That shot remains today the hardest signature move to defend in NBA history. Released high above his head, Abdul-Jabbar seemingly never missed the shot. And how difficult was the shot to master? Until today, no other player has been able to implement it into their repertoire – even though the “Big Fella” was willing to teach it for a long time.
Still, the two-time Finals MVP could do so much more. The New York native was a feathery athlete at the center position, who was ahead of his time both on and off the court. Centers didn’t move like Abdul-Jabbar, who was named Lew Alcindor before he converted to Islam. And they also didn’t practice like he did. Even back then, Abdul-Jabbar practiced yoga, avoided red meat and stretched extensively.
Physical centers did give him some problems defensively but in the 1970s there were power forwards to protect big men like Abdul-Jabbar. His game would still be effective today. He would even probably take three-pointers and hit more than a few of them.
4. Bill Russell, C, 2.08 m, Celtics
Honors: Hall of Fame, 12 x All-Star, 11 x All-NBA, 1 x All-Defensive, 11 x champion, 5 x MVP
Prime: 15.1 PPG, 22.5 RPG, 4.3 APG, 44.0 FG% (1956 to 1969)
Yes, Russell’s entire career is listed as his “prime”. That alone speaks volumes about the greatest strength of this titan: he won. He was an NBA champion as a 22-year-old rookie and retired as a player with a title at 34 – with nine crowns coming in between. Russell’s Celtics played in 11 deciding games in his 13-year career – 10 Game 7s and one Game 5 – and Boston went a perfect 11-0 in those games. And what did he average in those deciders? How about 18.8 points and 29.3 rebounds, including 30 points and 40 rebounds in 1962 against the Lakers in Game 7 of the Finals.
What made Russell so special? He did all the things a team needs to win: defending, rebounding, pushing the ball, talking, blocking shots, setting picks and also scoring a basket when the chance came. He was the anti-Wilt Chamberlain. Stats didn’t matter, it was only about ending the season as a winner. And he did that like no other.
But he was not a scorer. He didn’t have excellent moves or a shot from the outside. He was the ultimate team player and winner. In that way, his game would also work today but he would not be a superstar.
5. Magic Johnson, PG, 2.06 m, Lakers
Honors: Hall of Fame, 12 x All-Star, 10 x All-NBA, 5 x champion, 3 x MVP
Prime: 19.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 12.2 APG, 52.9 FG% (1982 to 1989)
The best point guard of all time was as big as most power forwards – and that in the 1980s. It’s no wonder that Magic Johnson was an absolute phenomenon in his time. There was no one in the NBA who played like him when he arrived, no one who was built like him. A freshly-crowned college champion, he did not come into the league wanting to dominate as a top scorer. “Buck” wanted to win and ranked behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes in scoring in four seasons. Not until 1986-87 did Johnson lead the Lakers in scoring – when “Captain Skyhook” Abdul-Jabber was already 39 years old.
Magic connected the idea of provider for others with a flair for the spectacular. His no-look passes on the fast break are still amazing to watch today – similar to how Larry Bird saw things on the court before they would happen. And when Johnson did have to score … well, then would come up with a performance like in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals when Abdul-Jabbar was out injured and the rookie Magic collected 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists.
But Magic Johnson’s career was not without disappointments. He saw to it that Lakers coach Paul Westhead was fired and he failed miserably in the 1984 Finals. But in the end, Magic was the motor of the “Showtime Lakers” and the best playmaker that the NBA had ever seen – even though he never really had a reliable three-point shot and had defensive problems with smaller guards. But he was still Magic.
6. Larry Bird, SF/PF, 2.06 m, Celtics
Honors: Hall of Fame, 12 x All-Star, 10 x All-NBA, 3 x All-Defensive, 3 x champion, 3 x MVP, ROY
Prime: 28.1 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 6.8 APG, 51.7 FG% (1985 to 1988)
“The Hick from French Lick” – rarely has a nickname fit better as Larry Bird personifies the kid from the countryside who taught himself the game on a basket in his backyard. Bird grew up in the small town of French Lick, Indiana and played the game like they love to in the basketball-mad state: with a good shot and a healthy portion of shrewdness.
“Larry Legend” was a scoring machine. His shot – as strange as it may have looked – was amazingly reliable, also from beyond the back then frowned-upon three-point line, and his moves around the basket were to die for. In addition, he had the size with which hardly anybody could shoot and dribble like he did. Bird always saw things before they happened on the court and passed the ball to open players before they even knew they were open. Even though Bird demanded a lot from his teammates, he never let his thoughts poison a team culture. He was always just “one of the guys”.
That wasn’t really the case though as the fact that the Celtics shared the ball so wonderfully in 1986 as one of the best teams of all time ties back to Bird and his leadership role. Bird’s prime unfortunately ended after just four seasons with his back giving out in 1988-89, and he was never able to return to his old self. But the Celtic legend did have a little bit of luck. In the middle of the 1990s, more and more superior athletes began arriving in the NBA and Bird did have his share of problems with those kinds of defenders in the 1980s, even if there weren’t many of them back then.
7. Tim Duncan, SF, 2.11 m, Spurs
Honors: Hall of Fame, 15 x All-Star, 15 x All-NBA, 15 x All-Defensive, 5 x champion, 2 x MVP, ROY
Prime: 23,1 PPG, 12,4 RPG, 2,5 BPG, 50,2 FG% (1999 bis 2004)
“TD” was the anti-Kobe Bryant. After four years in college, Duncan arrived in the NBA and rarely made public demands and never fought with teammates for shots. Duncan came into the league as an adult, willing to learn from coach Gregg Popovich and David Robinson. When it was time for Duncan to hand over the scepter as Spurs alpha, he willingly did so to Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard.
But before that, Duncan dominated at both ends of the court. He didn’t do it with amazing stats but with cold-blooded efficiency, which many misinterpreted as boring.
Duncan was three times named Finals MVP and whenever he got the ball in the zone, the opponents needed to send a second defender. Duncan made his teams better at both ends of the court. And as spectacular as Parker and Ginobili were, neither were among the absolute elite in terms of co-stars ala Pippen, Worthy, McHale and others.
Still, Duncan turned the Spurs into a dynasty while helping players who were sent away from other teams put together respectable NBA careers and won five NBA titles with them.
8. Kobe Bryant, SG, 1.96 m, Lakers
Honors: Hall of Fame, 18 x All-Star, 15 x All-NBA, 12 x All-Defensive, 5 x champion, 2 x top scorer, 1 x MVP
Prime: 29.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 5.0 APG, 45.9 FG% (2006 to 2010)
What is there still to be said about the “Black Mamba” which hasn’t already been written in this magazine after the most tragic of reasons this year? Bryant was the Michael Jordan of his generation: a dominant shooting guard who took the first part of his job description very seriously.
Bryant modelled his game after that of number 23 from the Bulls. He mastered the triangle offense under the same coach Phil Jackson; he took and made the important shots; and he defended at a high level (at least early in his career). He overdid it with his own shots – like Jordan – in the middle of his Lakers career (after the departure of Shaquille O’Neal) but afterwards found his way back to winning.
“Vino” is the second-best shooting guard of all times behind MJ. If there is something to frown upon in his game then it was his below-average three-point shooting and the relative disorientation with which he went through parts of his career. The fights with Shaq, which cost both of them more titles; the temporary impulse of megalomania and the rather un-stately farewell tour were stains on an otherwise successful career.
9. Shaquille O’Neal, C, 2.16 m, Magic/Lakers
Honors: Hall of Fame, 15 x All-Star, 14 x All-NBA, 3 x All-Defensive, 4 x champion, 2 x top scorer, 1 x MVP, ROY
Prime: 28.1 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 57.6 FG% (1998 to 2003)
The “Diesel” actually called himself “MDE” – as in the “Most Dominant Ever”. That wasn’t accurate (that is Wilt Chamberlain) but Shaquille O’Neal was the most dominant player of his era. At the high point of his ability and in his best physical shape, Shaq was unstoppable. He overpowered everybody who wanted to cover him in the zone. O’Neal terrorized his defenders with a unique mix of footwork and power. If a second defender came, he found a shooter or cutting teammate.
The one krytponite for the Shaq “Superman” however was his free throws. Still, despite his poor free throw shooting percentage, it seems like O’Neal did always hit foul shots when they were important – if his coach hadn’t already taken him out.
That brings us to the biggest problem of this elemental force named Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal: He didn’t want it enough. “Shaq Diesel” is like the kid in school who if he only studied a little bit he would get the top grade. If he didn’t study, he was still good enough that the grade would only drop down one spot. So that’s why he relaxed a bit too much.
Shaq wound up fighting with Kobe Bryant which ended their collective dominance. If he had just a little bit more Mamba in him, Shaq would be a lot higher up in this list.
10. Wilt Chamberlain, C, 2.16 m, Warriors
Honors: Hall of Fame, 13 x All-Star, 10 x All-NBA, 2 x All-Defensive, 2 x champion, 7 x top scorer, 4 x MVP, ROY
Prime: 42.9 PPG, 26.0 RPG, 2.5 APG, 50.3 FG% (1960 to 1963)
Wilt Chamberlain’s stats are obscene … and they would have been even more unreal if blocks had been recorded earlier than since 1973. Nobody dominated the game statistically in history like Wilt did. His averages of 50.4 points, 25.7 rebounds and 48.5 minutes a game from the 1961-62 season will never be matched.
“The Stilt” was a physical anomaly. He was ripped with muscles, ultra athletic and 2.16 meters which would have made him a major problem even in today’s NBA. But in the 1960s .. he was just unfair. Therefore the 100-point game. Nobody could stop the guy … well, except Bill Russell.
And that is exactly the problem. While his nemesis from Boston won 11 titles with defense, game IQ and “I make my teammates better”, the “Big Dipper” only picked up two NBA crowns. Chamberlain did dish out an unheard of 8.6 assists in 1967-68 – which speaks for team basketball and leadership qualities. But Chamberlain was never big enough on those traits.
by FIVE Magazine #170 – Top 10 Players of All-Time – Text: André Voigt
follow FIVE on Facebook and Instagram now!