NBA History: 50 best NBA players of the 21st century

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images /
11 of 31
Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Cleveland Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving. 32. player. 156. . PG

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 32. Kyrie Irving

There’s no better way to describe Kyrie Irving than to call him a walking bucket. The dude can score. While his off-court persona has irked some and angered others, Irving’s contributions on the court have left an indelible mark on this century of NBA basketball. From aesthetically and in terms of accomplishments, Irving is undeniably significant.

That starts and (almost) ends in Cleveland, where Irving helped LeBron and Co. to a championship in 2016. It was Irving who hit the go-ahead shot in Game 7, cementing the Cavs’ improbable comeback against the best team in league history. Irving, who is often criticized (unfairly) for his selfishness, thrived as LeBron’s No. 2 — a shifty, dynamic off-ball scorer who buried 3s and shredded closeouts with the greatest of ease.

While Irving’s attitude has gotten the better of him in both Cleveland and Boston, his status as one of the league’s premier talents is uncontested. There have been few, if any, better under-the-basket finishers in league history. His shiftiness, creativity, and touch make for infinite scoring possibilities. He’s only 6-foot-3 but is more comfortable than most players twice his size at scoring among the trees.

Irving has never been a great defender, and sure, he hasn’t yet ascended to championship levels without LeBron. But the Nets are well on their way, and Irving’s production — noisy as it is — continues to rank better than most at his position. He’s too stylistically smooth and narratively important to leave off this list.

29. . SG. San Antonio Spurs. Manu Ginobili. 31. player

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 31. Manu Ginobili

Perhaps the greatest sixth man in NBA history, Manu Ginobili only started 349 games in his 16-year career. He made only two All-Star appearances, but Ginobili was undoubtedly a superstar in his role — a player who bought into a system and culture in a way few players of his caliber would. He was special.

Ginobili played a major role in four San Antonio championships. He was important from the very start, winning a championship as a rookie, then making his first All-Star appearance in just his third season. That Ginobili was willing to relinquish starting duties, and probably another five All-Star bids, after his success early on is a credit to his character and will to win.

Very few guards on this list can match Manu’s creativity and flash. In his prime, he was a sizzling delight — a highlight-machine passer and a gifted three-level scorer who could maneuver defenses with unmistakable finesse. He outthought defenders; he had Euro-steps and pump-fakes galore. Defenses were seldom prepared.

The 2008 Sixth Man of the Year will go down as the least remembered of the Spurs’ now famous Big Three. He never quite received the accolades of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, but Ginobili was just as memorable as his coconspirators. San Antonio was a staple in the NBA title hunt for over a decade. Ginobili helped make it so.