Ranking the 50 greatest NBA players of all time

The Last Dance, Michael Jordan, LeBron James (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
The Last Dance, Michael Jordan, LeBron James (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /
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David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images /

From MVPs to NBA champions, the league has seen some dominant players over the years. The question is, who makes the list of the greatest 50 of all time?

Updated for 2023 season

The NBA is a superstar-driven league. The game has continued to evolve since its inaugural season in 1946-47, but that fact has remained a constant. As sports fans, we’re obsessed with figuring out where those superstars stand in history. In other words, who deserves recognition as an all-time great?

Even as we watch our favorite players now, we catch ourselves projecting their place among the NBA legends that came before. We always want the next great to be better than the one that came before him. That’s just the nature of watching sports. But for the sake of making sure the all-time greats who helped the NBA develop into the league it is today are properly acknowledged, it’s time to put things in perspective.

With that in mind, welcome to Hoops Habit‘s 50 Greatest NBA Players of All Time! Over the course of the next 50 slides, I’ll be guiding you through the last 70-plus years of NBA history in an effort to remember the game’s legends, analyze what made them stand out and break down their place in NBA history.

A couple of notes before we get started. First, although championships are a major way to measure a player’s success during their time in the NBA, they’re not the only measure. The “RINGGZZZ” argument is unbelievably stupid, and it’s the reason a lot of people can’t just sit back and enjoy the careers of guys like Carmelo Anthony. However, individual statistics also mean little without team success. There has to be a balance between individual numbers, accolades, team success, the time period a given player played in, injury history and a myriad of other variables to work your way to the top of this list.

Second, bear in mind that there are a couple of current players in the top 50 who may work their way further up the rankings before their time is done. This list is by no means final, and will be updated each year leading up to the start of the new season. The latest update features the results of the 2018-19 campaign.

Third, keep in mind the difference between “best” and “greatest.” It’s not just about a player’s skill level, but what they’re able to accomplish over the course of their careers. Likewise, players are obviously getting more and more athletic with each new generation. If you put 2019 Rudy Gobert back in the 1950s, he’s probably run circles around a guy like George Mikan. This list attempts to bridge the gap with that increase in athleticism and talent, ranking players relative to their own time periods.

Finally, have fun reading these rankings and brushing up on your NBA history! It’s easy to get hung up on where your personal favorites rank, but these rankings were not done willy nilly. Each player’s accomplishments, significance, memorability and dozens of other important factors were taken into account. One of the best things about ranking the 50 greatest players is getting to dive in to each one’s career and relive it.

So whether you want to read, skim or fully indulge in the next 20,000 words, enjoy it NBA fans! We start with the honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions:

  • George Mikan (previously No. 50 on this list)
  • Elvin Hayes
  • Kawhi Leonard
  • Nate Thurmond
  • Hal Greer
  • Dwight Howard
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Billy Cunningham
  • Reggie Miller
  • Ray Allen
  • Bob McAdoo
  • Tiny Archibald
  • Dave DeBusschere
  • Paul Pierce
  • Dolph Schayes
  • Bill Sharman
  • Paul Arizin
  • Bernard King
  • Robert Parish
  • Tom Heinsohn
  • Kyrie Irving
  • Chris Bosh
  • Damian Lillard
  • Draymond Green
  • Anthony Davis
  • Dennis Johnson