The Greatest NBA Players of All-Time

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

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16 responses to “The Greatest NBA Players of All-Time

  1. Pingback: Magic Johnson » Magic Johnson March 18, 2007 8:20 pm

  2. 10. Planar Fasciitis

  3. Where is Magic Johnson? And where is Kobe! Top three on that list are Lakers. Hey Chris, I want to see a list of top Lakers of all time.

  4. Magic is tied with Larry Bird at #5. As for a top Lakers list, here you go: 5. Kobe Bryant 4. Samaki Walker 3. Devean George 2. Tyronn Lue 1. Slava Medvedenko

  5. you left out Rick Fox. Im offended.

  6. How can you choose Duncan over Olajuwon? Hakeem is by far the best center of all time. Did you see what he did to David Robinson in the playoff? I agree that Duncan is a good center, one of the best, but Olajuwon is the greatest. Look at the team that Olajuwon have around him, all roll player. At least, Duncan have Robinson with him . Magic have Worthy, Kareem. Jordan have Pippen. Shaq have Wade and Kobe. Bird have Parish, Mchale. Rest my case. Thank you very much!

  7. Firstly, Hakeem is by far the best center of all-time? That’s a bold statement my friend considering the other candidates. He may be the most skilled all-round center ever (though Chamberlain may beg to differ), but in terms of greatness, Russell, Chamberlain, and possibly Kareem are in a class all by themselves–and they have the rings to prove it.

    As for Duncan, his career is far from over, yet he still trumps in The Dream in championships. You say he had Robinson–yeah, when he was past his prime and essentially reduced to a role player. Duncan has won three rings with three distinctly different teams, with the one constant being Timmy. You may point to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but in their 2003 championship season, Parker was an inconsistent second-year player, and Ginobili was a rookie who had yet to show any signs of his future brilliance.

    And if i recall correctly, Hakeem had some guy named Clyde Drexler who wasn’t bad himself. Not to mention a slew of clutch players like SameCassell and a prime Robert Horry.

    But with all this being said, i wouldn’t have too many qualms if you wish to rank Olajuwon over Duncan. I recognize his greatness, and as i stated in my article, debated back a forth between the two for quite a while. In the end, my opinion was with Duncan.

    Thanks for reading.

  8. fuck all you bitches kobe is right behind jordan you fucking haters

  9. Incredible argument, KB24. I think you just convinced me.

    Geez, Kobe has some fiery fans.

    Though I haven’t looked into it very closely, I’d say Kobe is quickly rising up the all-time ranks. He needs to win a title to really make any kind of argument.

  10. you are a nuthugger to say that duncan was better than hakeem thats a joke hakeem was the most skilled most versatile center of all time hands down look at the offense and defense most all time blocks 7th all time in steals as a center not to mention his absolute stellar offense please dont even waste your time because tim duncan had a much better team so did shaq plus in their primes they were playing garbage decrepit big men hakeem was playing robinson oneal ewing mourning and absolutley undressing them and exposing them he did everything good and nothing bad so ask anyone who knows anything about the game who they would take first duncan or olajuwon and you will see its a no brainer duncan is great but def def not the dream Michael Jordan himself said that if he was making a team he would take olajuwon at the center position over all of them so Ill take MJs side on this one and so will anyone with a brain

  11. Okay, someone didn’t read one of the previous comments over whether it was a close one and how it’s pretty damn bold to say that Hakeem was undoubtedly the best center of all time.

    But just speaking about the two players, first and foremost, it’s not fair right now to compare them with Duncan unretired. Olajuwon had an 18-year career while Duncan has 11 years under his belt and still going strong. Their career offensive numbers are similar, and it’s funny Olajuwon’s only two championships were when MJ was out of the league or else he would’ve ended up like Patrick Ewing in that department. Duncan has four already and his Spurs are always an annual threat to compete for the championship and he’s the reason why.

    And while you’re talking about great teammates, have you forgot about Clyde Drexler, the Hall-of-Famer who averaged roughly 19, 6 and 5 while with Houston? I don’t see how you can leave him out of the discussion. Shaq, meanwhile, was the Lakers team, while Kobe was only as good as Drexler in his beginning years. Shaq in his prime was bulling over all of those 90’s greats you mentioned. And perhaps you’re just giving Olajuwon extra points for his impressive Dream Shake, but the fact is Duncan, as boring and fundamental as he might be, gets the job done as well and that’s all that matters.

    P.S. MJ sure did a good management job in Washington. Get your facts straight, and sit your ass on the Couch, Mark Deisel.

  12. Mark deisel is bryans daddy

    yet another nuthuggin joker, bud everything i said is a fact, so hakeem had clyde drexler for ONE of his championship runs, his team even with clyde the glide was still one of the worst supporting casts to ever win a NBA championship. And once again hakeem is top ten in scoring rebounds steals and blocks in NBA HISTORY where is Duncan far far far behind, nuff said. Just quit nutthuggin recognize greatness tool bag Hakeem was statistacly better than duncan, and those are the FACTS little boy. So you ignorant nutt hugger when u want to face the facts just know that Mark Diesel laid it out in front of you. Oh and im giving hakeem extra points because he did everything well and nothing bad Im going with MJ on this P.S. Your a deuche bag be thankfull that i even took time out of my day to drop some knowledge on your dumb ass. Im a sports analyst/writer so i will continue to do my job with the facts guiding me and you do yours which im sure is something that requires no intellect as you have shown here. So please dont waste your time responding with your ignorant opinions because i wont see it anyway deuche bag

  13. Mark Douchebag Diesel, I never said Hakeem wasn’t great. I acknowledge that he is so we could end it right here, but I could do this all day with you. If anything, having to read your childish rant made me stupider. You can’t even write a proper sentence.

    I didn’t know writing about sports on your blog that no one sees qualifies you as a sports analyst/writer. That would make you my bitch.

  14. Bizzare comment on Wilt & Russell.

    Have them switch teams & Wilt wins at least 11 titles & Russell might not have won any.

  15. I can think of about 4 or 5 centers that r better then duncan- russell, wilt, Kareem Abdul-jabbar shaq the dream, david robertson, pat ewing, and by the way he’s a power forward kevin garrett is my 1 choose over duncan sorry but somebody had 2 say it duncan is borning losing about 6 or 7 spots down 11 years but the past 3 has been down a bit way over rated.

  16. I’ll concede that Russell, the Dipper, and Kareem were better than Duncan, and I can stomach someone ranking Shaq and Olajuwon over Duncan. But Ewing? And “david robertson”? I assume you mean David Robinson.

    Ewing was mentally soft, even in college where he was the most dominant physical force of the era. He shriveled on the biggest stages. Duncan often shined.

    And David Robinson himself will tell you Duncan was the greater player. After the ’97 Draft, Robinson invited Duncan to his home for a pre-camp workout. Robinson was amazed: “Tim was already a better offensive player than I ever was.” And this was Duncan coming into his rookie season.

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