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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1. Michael Jordan

  • Resume: 15 seasons, 6 NBA championships, 6 NBA Finals MVP Awards, 5 regular season MVP Awards, 11-time All-NBA selection, 14-time NBA All-Star, 3-time NBA All-Star Game MVP, 9-time NBA All-Defensive Team, Defensive Player of the Year Award, Rookie of the Year Award, 10-time NBA leader in scoring, 3-time NBA leader in steals, 2-time NBA Slam Dunk champion, Chicago Bulls’ all-time leading scorer, NBA’s all-time leader in scoring average, NBA’s all-time leader in PER, NBA’s all-time leader in win shares per 48 minutes, NBA’s third all-time steals leader, NBA’s fifth all-time leading scorer, member of the Dream Team, Hall-of-Famer
  • Stats: 30.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.3 SPG, .497/.327/.835 shooting splits, 27.9 career PER, 214.0 win shares

You were expecting Kwame Brown?

The immortal David Stern said it best when he presented MJ with one of his five Most Valuable Player awards: “You are the standard by which basketball excellence is measured.” It was true then, and it’s still true to this day. The list of accolades alone is enough to make your head spin.

MJ struggled to get past the Bad Boys Pistons in the East in his early years, but once Scottie Pippen was ready, the Bulls became the most dominant team of the ’90s by a long shot. Jordan’s Bulls left a trail of kicked asses, winning six titles in eight years, and who knows how many it could’ve been had His Airness not traded his Nikes for baseball cleats literally midway through it all?

Even with a one-and-a-half year hiatus, Jordan and his Bulls found success unlike anything the league had seen since Bill Russell’s days. Only three teams in modern NBA history have ever three-peated; MJ’s Bulls did it twice in an eight-year span. And, of course, Jordan took home the Finals MVP Award each and every time.

Michael Jordan was an unstoppable scorer, providing the framework for the shooting guard position that was copied by Kobe, D-Wade and countless other future shooting guards. He was never a great 3-point shooter, but the game wasn’t as 3-point heavy then. Had the pace-and-space movement began way back then, it’s safe to assume a pathological competitor like Jordan would’ve added that element to his game too.

His indomitable will and freaky athleticism helped him lead the league in scoring 10 times, but Jordan’s brilliance wasn’t one-sided, as his DPOY award and nine All-Defensive Team selections show. He was a pick-pocketing master and a surprisingly astute shot-blocker for a shooting guard.

We’ve been dealing with quite a few superlatives in this piece, but bear with me a little longer, because NO ONE had more defining, iconic moments than Michael Jordan. Here are just a few of his signature moments, which don’t even include the 25 game-winners he made in his time with the Bulls:

  • The free-throw line dunk. Enough said.
  • The 63 points he scored against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, still a playoff record.
  • The Shot,” when he finally downed the Cavaliers on a series-deciding game-winner at the buzzer.
  • The Switch Between Hands Layup, the signature moment of the 1991 NBA Finals when Jordan hung in the air and went from a dunk to a layup en route to defeating Magic Johnson and wining his first title.
  • The Shrug, when he murdered the “Drexler or Jordan?” narrative, dug a hole and buried it on basketball’s biggest stage by knocking down six 3-pointers en route to 35 first half points in Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals.
  • Game 5 of the 1993 NBA Finals, when Jordan outplayed Charles Barkley’s triple-double on the road with 55 points, including a huge three-point play against Barkley himself. (Important: Barkley had stolen MJ’s MVP Award that season. Also important: Jordan averaged an NBA-record 41 points per game for the Finals that year.)
  • Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals, when Jordan hit the game-winner after Malone (who had claimed Jordan’s MVP Award that season) missed two potential go-ahead free throws.
  • The Flu Game, when he carried Chicago to a crucial Game 5 victory in the 1997 NBA Finals with 38 points, seven rebounds, five assists and the go-ahead 3-pointer despite barely being able to stand.
  • The Shot Part 2, when he stole the ball from Karl Malone and then buried the game-winner as his last shot in a Chicago Bulls uniform to capture the 1998 NBA Finals.

As you can see, watching Michael Jordan play, especially in the playoffs, was high quality theater. And yet, unlike most sports stars, once he got to the top, he never seemed to fall short. He delivered time and time again, despite unreasonable amounts of hype and expectations that were heightened each and every time he came through.

Can you imagine how much more of a god among mere mortals MJ would’ve been if Twitter and social media been around back then? When he put up 10 triple-doubles in a span of nine games in 1989, he would have broken the Internet in a way Kim Kardashian nudes couldn’t. Oh and that one game he didn’t record a triple-double? He was only three rebounds shy.

Jordan was a global icon, the easiest marketing tool of the ’90s and became bigger than just a sports superstar. A lot of non-NBA watchers might not have known who Karl Malone or even Bill Russell were, but everybody knew who Michael Jordan was.

And for those familiar with the game, they knew he was a shark … only if that shark was constantly biting himself in order to smell the blood in the water. People learned to never give Jordan ammo to use as his fuel, but he’d find something to motivate him anyway.

Jordan never faced a team like the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors in the championship round, but just take a look at the number of NBA legends he prevented from every winning a title during his apex: Karl Malone, John Stockton, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller, and those are just the most notable examples. With the game on the line, there was nobody more deadly with the ball in his hands.

He routinely ripped the hearts out of fans, but he wasn’t detested during his time like Kobe or even LeBron were because he was that damn good. It was almost surgical. He was competitive to the point of psychosis, and it took its toll on his teammates at times. But once MJ figured the whole winning thing out, his teams excelled. In fact, Jordan’s Bulls never lost three consecutive games from 1990 until after he retired — the second time. His competitiveness and ability to rise up for big moments became his most glorified trait.

Watching Michael Jordan play, you knew you were witnessing history. His jersey was retired by three NBA franchises, despite the fact that he only played for two. His 72-10 Bulls team is still the greatest of all time since the 2015-16 Warriors couldn’t finish their 73-win season off with a ring. Jordan has the highest scoring average in league history, and that’s including the fact that his second comeback with the Washington Wizards badly hurt his career numbers. But even at age 40, the guy was still putting up a 21-6-4 stat line!

Jordan has largely failed as an NBA executive. His gambling controversy and his abilities as an owner were hammered. But as a basketball player alone? His only flaw was taking the game too seriously. If you’re making an NBA prototype from scratch, it’d be embedded with Jordan’s DNA. There was just a mystique about him that no one else — not even LeBron — had. He was a modern day Babe Ruth.

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At the end of the day, Michael Jordan was one of the greatest winners the NBA has ever seen. He was the leader of an unstoppable dynasty and a clutch performer with a flair for the dramatic. He was a stifling defender, a basketball prodigy, a ruthless in-game dunker and a cold-blooded killer. He even starred in Space Jam for crying out loud! When it comes to NBA legends, nobody is touching Michael Jordan yet. NOOOOOOOBODY.