A lot of times in sports, different players and teams are often compared to one another. In fact, that has become majority of sports media these days, as analysts enjoy the debates concerning current NBA players’ stance in all-time rankings. For fans that were raised in the mid-1990s (like myself), it is getting to that point where we can argue this list and incorporate a small number of the players we have watched nearly all our lives. Who belongs among the top 10 players in NBA History?
Team success and individual greatness go hand in hand, in my opinion, as teams without a top-five superstar in the league typically don’t reach the goal of winning a NBA title. Every player that deserves to be in the discussion of “top 10 players of all-time” would have to taste the experience of winning multiple rings.
After a long thought process and critiquing each player that has a case to be on this list, lets take a look at the top 10 players in NBA history:
10) Tim Duncan – Power Forward, 1997-Present
“The Big Fundamental” and one of the most humble players the NBA has welcomed, Tim Duncan exemplifies the ultimate team loyalty, work ethic and consistency. Duncan was drafted as the No. 1 pick in 1997 and fell into the hands of Gregg Popovich after the Boston Celtics’ confident plan of winning the draft lottery failed. Nobody could have foreseen the type of player/coach relationship that Duncan and Popovich would build. Duncan led the San Antonio Spurs to four NBA championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007) and was named the Finals MVP in three of the four trips. He had the chance to learn from a dominant post player in David Robinson early in his career, which was an experience that he took advantage of.
Thirteen consecutive seasons 0n both an All-NBA and All-Defensive team, he has been consistently great throughout his career while being on a team that nobody tends to care much about. The career averages of 20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game aren’t numbers that will make people put him in the top five, but the resurgence at age 37 (16 seasons in the league) was enough to sell me on his case as the best power forward in history. Leading a frontcourt that is relatively weak through the athletic Western Conference and reaching yet another NBA Finals is something that will have to sink in for a couple years. Duncan is one of the smartest players you could ask for, always making the right decision on offense, taking the best shots (50.4 percent from the field in his career) and using his own coaching skills on the court.
When you look for players that you can have the utmost respect for and really think about the success achieved in such a consistent career, Tim Duncan is always on your list.
9) Shaquille O’Neal – Center, 1992-2011
It is just undeniable that Shaquille O’Neal was the most dominant force in the paint in NBA history. When a member of the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, teammates could feed the ball to “Big Diesel” and there wouldn’t be a doubt in their minds of what would happen. With his best statistical season resulting in 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game and shooting 58.2 percent for his career, Shaq would literally abuse any of his opponents with his back to the basket. Listed at 7’1″ and more than 320 pounds, you can’t possibly name any other historical player that used his size as effectively as Shaq.
Four NBA titles (2000, 2001, 2002, 2006), three Finals MVP trophies and 15 All-Star selections, O’Neal obtained a load of success in his 19 year career while also becoming one of the most liked, outgoing, and charismatic superstars in sports. He goes along with those players that just revolutionized his era and set the standard for what it takes to be the best center in the league. Although his later years in Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston only resulted in 12.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, O’Neal showed his efficiency while aging by connecting on over 61 percent of his field goals in his last four seasons. Shaq did lose his athleticism and stamina, but his impact in the early 2000s alone puts him in the top 10.
8.) LeBron James – Small Forward, 2003-Present
“The Chosen One” is by far the biggest freak of nature that the NBA has ever seen. At 6’8″ and 250 pounds, LeBron James can literally play four out of the five positions on the court. And the amazing thing about it is he performs well in every one of them. Entering the league from St. Vincent St. Mary’s High School in 2003, he had very high individual expectations. People didn’t start expecting the Cleveland Cavaliers to make noise in the playoffs until 2007, when James led a relatively weak roster all the way to the NBA Finals before suffering defeat.
Leaving Cleveland in 2010 and joining the Miami Heat, James continues to prove why that was the best decision he could have ever made in his life. The four-time NBA Most Valuable Player has improved a different aspect of his game every offseason since being a rookie, his shooting touch being the most recognized. Not many 10-year players have career averages of 27.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. James is easily considered one of the most unselfish players in history, as he has made it clear that he gets more satisfaction out of improving his teammates than being the only offensive option.
Looking at his recent production, one of the most incredible accomplishments in James’ career came this past season. Averaging nearly 18 field goal attempts per game, nobody would figure that someone with a reputation of “LeBrick” would go on to shoot 56.5 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from 3-point range.
His past playoff failures and disappointments are the only thing holding him back on the list, but it is important to realize he has a lot of time left to make them irrelevant on his resume. Two NBA championships, Finals MVP trophies and Olympic gold medals to go along with his all-around skill set are already enough to get him on pace for the top five.
7.) Bill Russell - Center, 1956-69
If there is one movie that relates to Bill Russell, “Lord of The Rings” obviously does the job. The 11-time NBA champion is the most decorated player in NBA history, building the Boston Celtics into a dynasty in his 13-year career. While there was no Finals MVP trophy awarded in his era, Russell’s interior dominance can be proven with his five regular-season MVP awards, equaling the total of Michael Jordan. His work on the glass is what propelled Russell to his level of greatness, as he averaged an unbelievable 22.5 career rebounds per game and racked up 21,620 total boards. What keeps Russell at seventh with these achievements?
When you analyze his offensive production, it’s almost impossible to say you would take him over the other centers you will see later in the rankings. Averaging only 15.1 points per game in his entire career, that number would seem reasonable if he was extremely efficient with his scoring, right? Well, it stings a bit to know that Russell only shot 44 percent while basically living inside the paint and gobbling rebounds.
“Wait, maybe Russell was one of the best facilitating big men and that limited his scoring totals.” Again, not exactly. While 4.3 career assists per game is a great number for centers, it isn’t a monumental difference from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s 3.6 per game. Regardless of the excuse one may make for Russell’s lack of dominant offense, he did what was best for his team and almost always was the big man celebrating. That’s all that really matters when comparing such great talents, and Russell’s success will always outshine his statistics.
6.) Larry Bird – Small Forward, 1979-92
Yes, two Celtics back to back. What makes Boston’s history so stunning is that both eras (1956-69 and 1979-92) exemplified high amounts of success. After Russell was gone from the game, small forward Larry Bird out of Indiana State stepped in to popularize the franchise. Typically, Bird is just viewed as a perimeter shooter when fans of today’s game discuss his career. In reality and similar to LeBron James, he was also one of the most versatile players in history. His career stat line of 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game unfortunately may not be remembered as much as his three 3-Point Shootout wins.
Involved with the NBA’s greatest rivalry of himself and Magic Johnson, Bird was able to lead the Celtics to three championships next to Kevin McHale and become the greatest small forward to this day. Perhaps the one accomplishment that solidifies his legacy is Bird’s place in the 50-40-90 club. Entering this group of players is one of the hardest things to do in the NBA, as it requires a field goal percentage of at least 50 percent, 3-point percentage of at least 40 percent and free throw percentage of at least 90 percent. Only six players have completed a season with these numbers, Bird doing so in two consecutive years.
The fact that every aspect of the game of basketball was important to Larry Bird puts him in the elite category of All-Time greats. However, his phenomenal shooting for a 6’9″ forward, three MVP awards, and playoff success definitely place him just outside the Top 5.
5.) Wilt Chamberlain – Center, 1959-73
The five greatest players in NBA history would not be complete without including the ultimate stat sheet stuffer and most unbelievable talent of all-time. Wilt Chamberlain was a center like we have never seen before, winning seven scoring titles and 11 rebounding titles. The fifth-leading scorer in the record books, Chamberlain entered the league as a rookie that was purely ridiculous. In his first year, he accumulated an average of 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game with the Philadelphia Warriors. Two years later, he recorded his best statistical season ever by averaging 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game. That same season, 1961-62, Chamberlain set the NBA record for most points in a single game by lighting up the scoreboard for 100 points, a record that still remains untouched to this day.
His numbers alone make you question if this guy was even human. Chamberlain put his talents together with teamwork and was able to claim two NBA championships and four MVP awards. There is no question that he will forever be the best rebounder in league history, considering he shattered Bill Russell’s five rebounding titles. Critics of Chamberlain will always point to his sense of selfishness and inability to win more than two championships with the figures he put up on a nightly basis. Those opinions deserve to be discussed because it was Russell’s Celtics that managed to come away with the glory throughout Chamberlain’s career.
Russell’s playoff success is what allows him to be in the discussion, but combining Chamberlain’s individual accomplishments with a pair of championships launches him over the lord of the rings.
4.) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Center, 1969-89
Of all 10 legendary players, the one that many tend to overlook is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Beginning in the league as Lew Alcindor with the Milwaukee Bucks, Abdul-Jabbar began his long career with an impressive rookie season, averaging 28.8 points per game. In just his second season, he was leading the Bucks to the NBA Finals against the Baltimore Bullets. Winning the Finals MVP by producing 27 points and 18.5 rebounds per game in the 1971 Finals, Abdul-Jabbar’s career looked to have one of the most promising futures anyone could imagine.
Sure enough, he didn’t disappoint.
Not being able to win another title, the Bucks traded the big man to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975, which would eventually combine him with Magic Johnson. Already having three MVP awards in Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar would go on to win three more as a member of the Lakers in 1976, 1977, and 1980, giving him the most MVPs of anyone to play the game.
Kareem is often credited with the most unstoppable offensive move in the history of basketball, the “sky hook.” He made a name for himself with his arsenal of moves around the basket, but his version of the hook shot enabled him to rack up more points than any other player in history (38,387). “It was the only shot I could shoot that didn’t get smashed back in my face,” he once said. “So I learned to rely on it early, and it was something I could always get off, even in traffic.”
Having the most All-Star selections in NBA history (19), Abdul-Jabbar had one of the most consistent and dominant careers with 20 seasons in the league. Perhaps the factor that put him over any other center or power forward was his ability to still be effective in the midst of passing the torch to teammates. Which teammate in particular? The answer is simple.
3.) Magic Johnson – Point Guard, 1979-91, 1996
In terms of changing the game, nobody had a greater impact on the NBA than Los Angeles Lakers’ Magic Johnson. At 6’9″ and 220 pounds, Johnson was the most sensational point guard and a player that could perform at literally every position. Being a four-time NBA assist leader and three-time MVP, he proved that unselfishness could win the Most Valuable Player award, rather than just a high scoring average.
Johnson brought a whole new dimension to the game of basketball, one that was highlighted by the 1980s Lakers, aka “Showtime.” The duo of Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar is arguably the greatest duo in history, as they captured five NBA titles together from 1980-88. Johnson stepped up and took control of the Lakers as Abdul-Jabbar began to age and went on to win three Finals MVPs during their run.
A point guard that isn’t a true shooter typically doesn’t succeed in the NBA, but that’s where Johnson’s work ethic came into play. He worked at an extremely high level with head coach Pat Riley and developed a jump shot that became reliable enough for him to become that much harder to guard. The fact that his career averages of 19.5 points, 11.2 assists, and 7.2 rebounds per game are nearly a triple-double, Johnson’s 13-year career taught us that he was willing to do anything for the team if it meant capturing the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. Ending his career short due to HIV, Johnson’s ceiling was much higher than what he finished with. Ultimately, he would have won at least two more titles and been labeled as the greatest player in history.
2.) Kobe Bryant – Shooting Guard, 1996-Present
Our first shooting guard on the list is one that has displayed the greatest determination and hard work of anyone in the history of sports. Coming into the league as a 17-year-old kid, especially on a dynasty team such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant definitely had a tough job of adjusting to the professional game after being drafted in 1996. He didn’t accumulate a 20 points per game season average until the 1999-2000 season, which was when the Kobe-Shaq combo began their NBA Finals destruction.
Winning three consecutive championships beginning at age 22, Bryant worked harder than anyone in the league to become the dominant force that teammate O’Neal had proven to be. Needless to say, he succeeded. The Lakers’ 2001 and 2002 title runs consisted of Bryant averaging 25.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game in those Finals series. For a 23-year-old on the biggest stage of the NBA, those performances were just remarkable.
Averaging 30.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 5.9 assists in 2002-03, Bryant’s production began to make people realize that he was the future of the Lakers, not O’Neal. And after the departure of O’Neal from Los Angeles, Bryant’s career lifted higher than anyone expected. His athleticism and scoring barrage went to a new level in 2005-06 when he averaged a career-high 35.4 points per game for the season and recorded an 81-point game, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100. Falling short of what should have been his first MVP award that season, Bryant continued chasing his fourth title through the 2007-08 season, in which he did win the MVP. He eventually captured his fourth AND fifth NBA Championships in a back-to-back effort in 2009 and 2010, while being named Finals MVP of the two series.
Building off past obstacles is what makes Bryant’s legacy one of the greatest stories in sports. However, the justification of his second-place ranking on this list is due to his skills being a mirror-image to the great Michael Jordan. Often labeled as “The closest to Jordan,” Bryant filled the void that Jordan left when he ultimately retired in 2003.
If you ask the Black Mamba what motivates him moving forward, you’ll get one word: “Six.” Bryant’s sixth championship may or may not ever come, but it’s what he needs to be considered in Jordan’s lone category.
1.) Michael Jordan – Shooting Guard, 1984-93, 1995-98, 2001-03
What more can you say, other than “Basketball God?” Michael Jordan will forever be the most iconic basketball player in history with an amazing career that could have been even greater. After a terrific college career at North Carolina, Jordan’s rookie season just scared the rest of the league. Averaging 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists against tough competition and straight out of college, everyone knew the Chicago Bulls were on the rise and would win their share of NBA titles behind a player that had no fear at all.
Jordan’s early years were based on building his entire repertoire, since he didn’t have much of a perimeter jumper when he was drafted. Gradually improving and still scoring between 35 and 37 points per game in the process, Jordan couldn’t get over the hump and reach the NBA Finals until 1991. Once finally there, his Bulls defeated Magic Johnson and the Lakers and Jordan won his first Finals MVP.
Jordan’s two three-peats (1991-93 and 1996-98) very well could have turned into one huge eight-year championship run if he didn’t retire after winning his third. Coming back to the game after the death of his father, he proved that basketball was still in his blood and he had what it takes at his age to stop anyone from winning his titles.
The mentality of Michael Jordan is one of the biggest factors that place him atop anyone’s list. On the court, he literally wanted no friends but his teammates. If you were his opponent, he didn’t only want to beat you. He wanted to embarrass you, put the pedal to the medal, and keep you down for the count. The same mentality can be seen in today’s game from Kobe Bryant, which is how these two become the easiest to compare.
Any average person walking on the street could be asked the question: “Who is the greatest basketball player to ever live?” Whether they are a fan or not, the answer will be Michael Jordan 10 times out of 10. That is why Jordan always reaches No. 1 on the list. He revolutionized the game and still serves as the primary role model for any young basketball fan.
Topics: Bill Russell, Bucks, Bulls, Celtics, Heat, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Lakers, Larry Bird, Lebron James, Magic, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, NBA, Shaquille O'neal, Spurs, Tim Duncan, Top 10 NBA Players, Wilt Chamberlain