Ever since Dr. James Naismith first hung a peach basket from the wall, there have been numerous great players to take the court, spanning different generations. Sports always seems to have a compulsion to order things, declare a clear cut number one. It’s not good enough to just let it be, because we must quantify greatness. Of course with the nature of rankings there will be great players left out, but that’s just how it is. So without further-ado, here are my 25 greatest players in NBA history (in reverse order)…
25. Allen Iverson
The countdown begins with the greatest pound for pound player to take the court. It’s much easier to dominate at seven feet, but Iverson was able to destroy defenders in his 6-foot frame. He was a four time scoring champion and won the 2001 MVP. While never able to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Iverson still deserves a spot here. Just imagine if he had actually practiced a bit.
24. Scottie Pippen
While it’s true that Scottie Pippen was only the second best player on those Bulls’ championship teams, Jordan never did win a title without Pippen by his side. He is one of the greatest perimeter defenders in history, making eight NBA All-Defensive First Teams. His multi-faceted game was the ultimate complimentary piece to Jordan and despite usually being the second option for most of his career, he scored 18,940 points.
23. Isiah Thomas
Many of the younger fans know Thomas from messing up the Knicks, but for whatever flaws he has as a general manager, he makes up for with his basketball talent. Thomas was one of the quickest players ever with the ball in his hands. He and his Pistons were in the toughest era in basketball history. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan all were centered around Thomas’ playing days. He still managed to carry his “Bad Boy” teammates to two straight championships, including taking home Finals MVP in 1990.
22. Bob Pettit
Only one time did a Celtics’ team with Bill Russell make the finals and lose. That was at the hands of Pettit’s led Hawks. Russell was hurt that series so there should probably be an asterisk, but that’s still a hefty a accomplishment. Pettit averaged 26.4 ppg and 16.2 rpg throughout his illustrious career. Two MVP’s and four All-Star game MVP’s aren’t too shabby either.
21. Bob Cousy
He’s so good we named the website after him. Really though, it’s true. Cousy completely transcended the point guard position with his floor vision. He was the game’s maestro, manipulating defenders with his ability to handle the ball. The former Boston Celtic has six NBA championships to his name, and 6,955 assists makes him 15th all-time for career assists.
20. Charles Barkley
Before Barkley was doing commercials with Dwayne Wade and saying whatever came to his mind on TNT, he was one of most imposing physical presences the NBA has seen. Despite being undersized, the Auburn University product pulled down 12,546 rebounds. His athletic ability and tenacious attitude also assisted him in scoring 23,757 points. While never being able to win a championship, he was the leading scorer on the 1992 Dream Team that won gold. That counts for something.
19. Kevin Garnett
Garnett currently sits with 24,270 points, and will likely finish just outside the top ten when his career is done. His 13,313 rebounds is good for 12th all-time. By winning a championship in 2008 with the Celtics, Garnett finally captured a title that had alluded him for so long in Minnesota. Enjoy the next three seasons with Garnett on the Celtics, because you are watching one of the greatest competitors to ever put on an NBA uniform.
18. Elgin Baylor
Baylor never did win an NBA championship which sets him back a bit, but can you really blame him? He holds the record for most points in a Finals game with 61 in 1962. He existed during a time dominated by the Boston Celtics dynasty. At 6-foot-5 he once averaged 19.8 rebounds per game for a season, and a total of 23,419 points has him 23rd overall on the list.
17. Julius Erving
With Erving it is important to remember that his career initially began in the ABA before moving into the NBA. Dr. J. won two ABA championships, and then one NBA championship with the 76ers, was an 11-time NBA All-Star and won the 1981 MVP award. When factoring in his production in the ABA, he scored more than 30,000 points.
16. Karl Malone
It’s hard to ignore Malone’s numbers. He’s second in total points with 36,928, but will always be remembered for failing to get a championship ring. Malone just kept running into Jordan’s Bulls, and never was able to get over the hump. “The Mailman” still delivered one memorable career though.
15. John Havlicek
One of the greatest winners ever, and a Boston Celtic which is always a plus. Hondo has both the championships and statistics to earn a spot here. He won eight NBA championships, and scored 26,395 points, grabbed 8,007 rebounds and handed out 6,114 assists. Now that’s efficiency. What sets him back a bit here, was that six of his championships come as a result of being Bill Russell’s teammate. One thing he has over Russell though, he has the most points in Boston Celtics’ franchise history.
14. LeBron James
This spot is currently only a place holder as James will continue to ascend up this list. While some may say it’s too early to include him here, his awards and achievements beg otherwise. He’s already won three MVP’s, and captured his first championship this year. He will move past 20,000 points this upcoming season, and has a chance to be the leading scorer in NBA history. At the age of 27, he’s only entering the prime of his career and could eventually challenge for the number one spot.
13. Moses Malone
Malone is a three time MVP and won an NBA championship in 1983. He is one of the best offensive players the game has seen, as he could just punish opponents in the post with his strength. His 27,409 points is good for seventh all-time and if that wasn’t impressive enough, he also had 16,212 rebounds.
12. Hakeem Olajuwon
For Olajuwon, he simply just got stuck in a difficult time period. While he did win two championships back-to-back, he could never win one while Jordan was playing, as he won both his titles during Jordan’s departure from basketball. He’s number nine on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 26,946. The question for Olajuwon will remain though, what if there had been no Jordan. If that had been the case, there is a strong chance he’s sitting in the top five rather than outside the top 10.
11. Jerry West
The Logo had a tremendous statistical career. He Averaged 27 points per game throughout his playing days, and once won a Finals MVP despite his Lakers losing the series to the Celtics. That is the only case of a losing team’s player being awarded the Finals MVP, and shows what type of competitor he was. What will forever haunt West is the fact he only won a single championship, and hence why he is not further up on this list. Also as a current West Virginia University student, I’m entitled to mention West is a WVU alumni.
10. Oscar Robertson
He once averaged a triple-double for a season. Robertson could do it all on the court. His career totals of 26,710 points, 7,804 rebounds, and 9,887 assists are some of best overall numbers ever. Unfortunately for Robertson, his great individual play only resulted in one NBA title, but it’s still good enough to crack the top 10.
9. Tim Duncan
Never flashy but ever so reliable. Had the Spurs been able to win a championship this past year, he would have been placed one spot higher on this list. Duncan is considered the greatest power forward to ever play the position and it’s hard to argue in contrast to that. He’s won four championships and three finals MVP’s. He’s been a franchise corner stone since entering the league. He just was never able to rattle off back-to-back championships like the next guy on the list.
8. Shaquille O’Neal
In his prime, O’Neal was the most dominant player this game has ever seen. He was simply unstoppable. Referees did not know how to officiate someone with his size and athleticism. Opponents’ only solution to stopping him was sending him to the free-throw line. He is a four time NBA champion, and won three consecutive Finals MVP’s during one stretch. He currently stands in sixth place for most pointed scored, with a total of 28,596.
7. Larry Bird
Larry Legend as he was known comes in at seven. While Bill Russell was the better player, Bird may be more synonymous with Celtic green. He played every game like it was his last, which explains his relatively short 13-year NBA career. He scored 21,791 points and grabbed 8,974 rebounds. More importantly though, he was a winner. Three NBA titles, in which he was Finals MVP of the latter two.
6. Magic Johnson
Johnson finds himself just out of the top five. It was hard leaving him out considering he is a five-time NBA champion, and one of the most captivating players to ever watch. He dished out a total of 10,141 assists in his career and still scored 17,707 points. He could have made it higher on this list had his career not been interrupted by HIV. Despite his shortened career, he’s the greatest point guard to play this game.
5. Wilt Chamberlain
Chamberlain was the ultimate statistic guy. He once averaged 50 points for an entire season and scored 100 points in a single game. That is the definition of domination. His 31,419 career points and 23,924 total rebounds speak for itself. The biggest knock on him was he just couldn’t get past Russell and the Celtics. Well to his defense, not many could. He did win two championships though and four MVP’s.
4. Kobe Bryant
This was a tough spot to call but when analyzing the numbers, Kobe Bryant deserves this ranking in my eyes. He’s won five NBA championships, taking home Finals MVP twice. He also stands in with 29,484 points and will surely surpass the 30,000 mark this season. With still several more quality seasons left to play, he will only add to his already impressive numbers and should finish at least third in points scored.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Perhaps the most dominant basketball move ever. Kareem’s patented “sky hook” paralyzed defenders for more than two decades. He’s won more MVP’s than anyone in history with a total of six. He’s still currently the leader in all-time points scored with 38,387 and captured six NBA championships.
2 Bill Russell
Charlie Sheen would love this pick here, because it’s all about the WINNING. The most important attribute in basketball is “do I help my team win games?” No one can say they did that better than the 11-time NBA champion. He is at the roots of the storied Celtics’ franchise. While others may have put up better numbers, Russell gets the nod for the second spot because he is without question, the greatest winner in basketball history.
1. Michael Jordan
Was there ever any question who this would be? He’s the greatest of all-time. Winning six NBA championships, five regular season MVP’s and most impressively, six Finals MVP awards. He always seemed to come through in the clutch, and 32,292 career points has him third all-time. Don’t forget that he also led the greatest upset in basketball history, leading the Looney Tunes characters to a win over the Monstars. On a serious note though, his airness is simply greatness personified.