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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30. James Harden

  • Resume: 11 seasons, 1 regular season MVP Award, 7-time All-NBA selection, 8-time NBA All-Star, 1 Sixth Man of the Year award, 3-time NBA leader in scoring, 1-time NBA leader in assists
  • Stats: 25.2 PPG, 6.3 APG, 5.3 RPG, 1.6 SPG, .443/.363/.858 shooting splits, 24.8 career PER, 135.0 win shares

It might seem overzealous to have James Harden this high on the list without an NBA championship to his name, but it really isn’t. It’s not recency bias to include a guy who, following his first MVP-winning season, submitted one of the greatest scoring seasons in NBA history, averaging a gargantuan 36.1 points per game that still wasn’t enough for back-to-back MVP honors.

When that same guy has also been the MVP runner-up on three separate occasions — and you could make a case he deserved to win in all three of those seasons — suddenly it’d be lunacy to leave him out of the top 50.

Harden may not be a four-time MVP, but after slowly making a name for himself as the Sixth Man of the Year for what could’ve been an Oklahoma City Thunder dynasty, he fully came into his own as the superstar of the Houston Rockets. Empowered by Morey-Ball, the Mike D’Antoni revival and eventually Chris Paul’s arrival, the Beard started posting numbers even Kobe Bryant didn’t touch during his prime.

In his MVP season, Harden averaged a league-leading 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game on .449/.367/.858 shooting splits. He led the Rockets to a franchise-record and NBA-best 65 wins, had the play of the season (ending Wesley Johnson’s career) and submitted some of the most insane stat lines in the league, including the first 60-point triple-double in NBA history:

It’s not just one season that bumps him up from the honorable mentions though. In six full years with the Rockets, he nearly averaged a 28-8-6 stat line and led his team to two conference finals. If not for the Golden State Warriors dynasty and CP3’s injury in the 2018 Western Conference Finals, he might have a championship under his belt too.

In 2018-19, he upped the ante from his MVP season with 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 2.0 steals a night while carrying a worse Rockets team to 53 wins with one of the most insane stretches in NBA history, where he scored at least 30 points in 32 straight games — the second-longest such streak ever. He averaged a 41-8-7-2 stat line in that stretch, setting a new career-high with 61 points and dominating NBA headlines for a two-month span.


Harden is an incredibly gifted player with exemplary court vision, the strength to zip passes all over the floor to open shooters and a step-back jumper to die for. His shake-and-bake deserves royalties every time Talladega Nights is on TV, his basketball IQ is off the charts and his Euro-step is the best the game has ever seen behind Manu Ginobili.

People criticize Harden because of his defense, his uncanny knack for drawing fouls and his questionable leadership, but those people are overlooking what a unique NBA talent he is, and they’re also overlooking his playoff or late-game heroics by pointing to all the times he’s failed. It’s somewhat telling his most memorable playoff highlight is a game-winning block on Luguentz Dort (in the first round, no less), but Harden is a triple-double machine and perhaps the best floor general D’Antoni ever had — yes, maybe even better than Steve Nash.

Now accepting more of a facilitator’s role with the Brooklyn Nets, Harden once again finds himself in the MVP conversation. Whether he adds to his hardware or actually wins a title, there’s no question about how immensely valuable he is if you want your NBA team to win games.

If none of this is good enough for you still, consider that the only regular season MVPs to not crack the top 50 were Bob McAdoo (an honorable mention who played in the ’70s), Derrick Rose (for obvious reasons) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (hasn’t done enough just yet to crack the list). Long live the Beard.