Ranking the 75 best players in NBA history: The Methodology
Everyone around the NBA world that has been putting these lists together has had to have some sort of methodology for doing so. Some have advanced statistics they have developed or prefer, and others view player accolades and achievement as most important as a comparison of stars against their peers. Career longevity and standing on all-time leaderboards are often mixed in.
A select few have covered the game long enough to remember all of these players and provide the “eye test” piece of the analysis. Others don’t really even pay attention now and just picked players they had heard of before. Many media sites, and the NBA themselves, seek to rise above the variance of each individual’s rankings and put together a composite list.
I have no such team to work with, so these are my personal rankings. I tried to lean on as many inputs as possible to make the list, but at the end of the day any such list is of course very subjective. Because of that reality, my list is continually changing as I consider new inputs; what you see below is today’s version, but it changed frequently during the process. Unless you prefer to simply pick a metric to rate players by, there is no “perfect” list, and that’s ok. Anyone who puts in the time and seriously puts together a ranking has made a legitimate list.
I looked at players’ career averages, career total ranks and advanced statistics like win shares, box plus-minus (Basketball Reference’s and Ben Taylor’s) and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR. I weighed fairly heavily career accolades like MVPs, All-NBAs and titles won, while trying to scale those for era and role on title teams (Gary Payton gets a whole lot less credit for his title than Dirk Nowitzki gets for his). Did they lead the league in a certain statistic? Were they on an All-Defense team?
I paid attention to who made the NBA’s “50 at 50” list, but it didn’t have an impact on my rankings. Likewise, I did not count college accomplishments, international play or post-basketball impact (coaching, management, etc). I also tried not to weigh too heavily popular players, nor more modern players; while I do believe that the level of play is much higher today, the achievements of players in their era and in advancing the game matter as well. While some of these lists may not include ABA accomplishments I tried to fold them in, just as the NBA has folded them in post-merger as well.
There is a subjective component layered on top of everything that injects some randomness, but I felt it was necessary. The purpose of this list is to tell the story of the NBA, so I asked the question for each player: How much did they matter to the story of the NBA? That bumped a player like Kobe Bryant up a few spots and titleless scorers down.
Special thanks to a number of authors whose writings on the decades of basketball before my birth were invaluable in making this list. Bill Simmons, Jackie MacMullan, Harvey Araton, Terry Pluto, Jack McCallum and others: thank you.
In the end, I created a highly subjective, ever-changing list of the 75 greatest players in the history of the NBA. The NBA is only going to provide their 75 names, but I decided to rank mine from first to 75th. I tried to provide a brief overview of their career, including any interesting anecdotes I came across in my research. I tried to stick to those stats tracked consistently over time by the NBA; advanced numbers fed into my research, but because they’re so different and often fraught with baggage I’ll refrain from referencing them in my descriptions.
We start with a decision that is incredibly difficult, but that most of you will view as a no-brainer one way or the other: MJ vs. LeBron. [Note: the length of each entry will decrease significantly after the first two].