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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Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images /

7. Bill Russell

  • Resume: 13 seasons, 11 NBA championships, 5 regular season MVP Awards, 11-time All-NBA selection, 12-time NBA All-Star, NBA All-Star Game MVP, 1-time NBA All-Defensive Team, 4-time NBA leader in rebounding, NBA’s second all-time leading rebounder, Hall-of-Famer
  • Stats: 15.1 PPG, 22.5 RPG, 4.3 APG, .440/—/.561 shooting splits, 18.9 career PER, 163.5 win shares

Yes, you read that right. In 13 NBA seasons, Bill Russell won a championship 11 times. He’s the greatest winner in NBA history by a wide margin, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see anyone come even remotely close to 11 rings. The great Tim Duncan, a top-10 player of all time, didn’t even get halfway there. Neither did Kobe. Neither did…pretty much everyone on this list.

Not only is Russell the reason Wilt Chamberlain won’t go down as the greatest of all time, but he’s also the one who revolutionized the game with his passing skills, competitive nature, team-first attitude and blocking abilities that turned defense into instant fast breaks.

There are two travesties associated with Bill Russell’s resume. The first is that during his time, blocks and steals were not recorded stats. It’s not unreasonable to wonder if Russell could have averaged 4-5 blocks per game in his prime; he was that good at turning opponents’ attempts into fast break opportunities for his team. Unlike today’s shot-blockers who spike the ball into the stands like volleyball players, Russell directed the shots to his teammates for instant offense.

The second travesty is that NBA Finals MVP Awards weren’t given out at that time. Can you imagine how many Finals MVPs Russell would have won if they existed at the time? In a small dose of good karma, however, the NBA decided to rename the award the “Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award” in 2009, and it seemed like a perfectly fitting way for him never winning one.

Bill Russell is one of the most influential athletes of all time, and not just because he turned basketball into a vertical game. He was the first African-American NBA coach and a civil rights leader both on and off the court. The racism of Russell’s time took a toll on his personality and his relationship with Boston fans, but as the years progressed, that relationship was slowly repaired.

Russell was a better teammate than almost anyone who’s ever played the game and he knew what it took to win. He took the game so seriously he would throw up before big games because of his nerves. While Wilt enjoyed playing basketball and all the perks that came with it, it was never life to him. For Bill Russell, basketball was the most important thing in his world, and it’s the reason he stands alone as the greatest NBA winner of all time.

It’s hard to project how effective Russell would’ve been had he been born 10, 20 or 30 years later. At only 6’10”, he probably would not have enjoyed nearly as much success in the modern NBA. But this list is the 50 greatest NBA players of all time, not an examination of which 50 players would be the best in the modern NBA. As he embodied the spirit of competition, team play and success that would later represent what it means to be great in the NBA, Bill Russell’s legacy falls short of only a handful of players.