By Chris Le
In the past weeks, I’ve been ranking the all-time best players at each position. Now, it’s time to unveil my list of the greatest players ever, regardless of position.
- Michael Jordan – The only player on this list that can claim to have no real weakness. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan couldn’t or can’t shoot free throws; Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West couldn’t fly. Plus, Jordan is the lone baller that was simultaneously the best offensive and defensive player in the league. No one in history brought Jordan’s combination of skills. He was so ridiculously good, conventional basketball logic simply did not apply to him. Take the maxim that a dominant big man is needed to win a championship. This is very true; that is, unless you have His Airness on your team.
- Bill Russell – Defense wins championships. So it’s no surprise that Russell, the greatest defensive presence the NBA has ever seen, has 11 rings. But as dominant as he was on the defensive end, he was somewhat limited offensively, averaging a mere 15.1 points a game. Jordan’s all-around excellence puts him ahead of Russell.
- Wilt Chamberlain – “The Stilt” could do anything he wanted on the court. Year in and year out, he led the league in scoring and rebounding. In 1967, Wilt was even tops in assists with 8.6 per game — pretty amazing for a center. Light years ahead of Russell in terms of offensive prowess but a few minor steps back in the defensive department, Wilt was a more well-rounded player than his biggest rival. However, he’s stuck behind Russell because of the huge disparity in championships (Russell’s 11 to Chamberlain’s 2). Yeah, yeah, Bill had better teammates. I’ve heard it all before, but take a look at who Wilt played with throughout his career: Paul Arizin, Nate Thurmond, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Elgin Baylor, West and Gail Goodrich—all members of the Hall of Fame. Though probably more physically gifted, Chamberlain simply didn’t have Russell’s killer instinct, and that’s the difference between 11 rings and 2 rings.
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – In the latter half of the 1970’s, there wasn’t anyone close to being as good as Kareem. Overall, he has enough trophies and awards to fill the Louvre — six MVPs, two Finals MVPs and most importantly, six championships. So why is he behind Chamberlain, who only has two rings? The answer: Kareem wasn’t the centerpiece to all of his six titles. Once Magic came on board with the Los Angeles Lakers, he became the team’s central cog. The Lakers were no longer a half-court team; they were now a runaway freight train with no brakes. Think of the Phoenix Suns times one hundred. And because of this, the focal point of the offense was Magic, not Kareem.
- Tie. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson – Ever since their epic meeting in the 1979 NCAA Championship game, these two have been linked and even today, I cannot bear to split them up. Between Bird and Magic, the decade of the 80’s was a tug-of-war with MVPs (three each) and championships (4-3 edge for Magic). Their dichotomous relationship propelled the league to levels of popularity never seen before. Both had the utmost respect for each other, and they remain friends to this day, but their insatiable hunger to win created a rivalry that bordered on bad blood. These two epitomized everything that is good about basketball.
- Shaquille O’Neal – Not simply a big bully, Shaq (in his prime) had quickness and agility that would make a gazelle envious. Simply put, he changes the game when he’s on the floor. Is it really a surprise that Shaq always plays with an excellent wingman — Anfernee Hardaway, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade? The attention that Shaq drew from opponents gave his teammates freedom to flourish and I honestly believe Penny, Kobe and D-Wade would not be as good as they are had they not played with the Diesel. Why is he ranked behind the six men who precede him? With his erratic free throws, he was vulnerable in the clutch, often having to settle as the second option. And though he was a decent deterrent because of his size, Shaq wasn’t particularly adept on the defensive end, mainly due to his slightly slow lateral movement.
- Oscar Robertson – You like stats? Then look no further than Robertson. No one filled up the stat sheet like “The Big O,” who said that had he known the triple-double was such a big deal, he would’ve averaged one for his career. I don’t doubt him. But, he didn’t have the defensive intensity of Jordan, and he simply didn’t win enough to surpass any of the players ahead of him. For all of his statistical greatness, Robertson only has one championship to show for it, which can be credited more to Kareem, as he was the team’s focal point.
- Jerry West – West was pretty much Jordan only white and without the ability to dunk. Besides those two minor differences, West brought everything to the table MJ did — uncanny offensive and defensive prowess and an unflappable demeanor in the clutch. However, West suffers from the same affliction as Robertson — he simply did not win enough. In his 14-year career, West only managed one title despite playing with the likes of Baylor, Chamberlain and Goodrich. And having played in eight NBA Finals, it’s not like he didn’t get the opportunity, either. He just couldn’t get over the hump or more specifically, the Boston Celtics. Still, it’s hard to blame him too harshly for his team’s lack of success, seeing how he averaged 30.5 points in his 55 Finals games.
- Tim Duncan – It took me a while to decide between Timmy and Hakeem Olajuwon, but then I realized that the center position (and Duncan is pretty much a center) is one defined by championships. Using that as criterion, “The Big Fundamental” beats out “The Dream” 3-2, and that margin can grow in the coming years. In the end, yes, Duncan is one of the ten greatest NBA players in history. I was even tempted to leapfrog him over Robertson and West but figured that might be too hasty, as his career is not complete. Call me a nut hugger all you want, but few have matched Duncan’s overall impact on the game. What other player today shuts down the paint on defense and can only be defended with double teams on the other end of the court? No one. That’s why Duncan remains the most impactful presence in the league overall. Humble, unselfish, and remarkably consistent, he is a coach’s dream player and the ultimate cornerstone of any franchise.
Honorable Mentions: Hakeem Olajuwon, Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Julius Erving.