NBA Great Debates: The Top 25 Players of All Time

I took the time last summer to rank the top 200 players of all time.  It has undergone few changes since then, and things are very solidified at the top of this list, with few active players holding the potential to crack high up on it, save LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and of course the living legend Kobe Bryant.  But who fills out the list?  Are there a few guys who may have escaped attention by fans over the years, even in such an exclusive club as a top-25?  We’ll take a look at the guys I think are the top 25 players of all time…

25 Isiah Thomas

It’s hard to deny that Thomas was one of the great scoring point guards in NBA history. He was the leading scorer on the back-to-back champion “Bad Boys” teams of the late 80s and early 90s. He was snubbed of a 1992 Dream Team selection by His Airness himself, but Thomas always showed up for big games and was one of the better players of a high end era of the league, when superstars were abundant.

24 Allen Iverson

Iverson is likely the best pound-for-pound scorer in NBA history. Diminutive at 6’0″ (generously) and 165 pounds (even more generously), Iverson led the league in scoring four times over a span of seven seasons and took the Philadelphia 76ers to the Finals at time the East was very weak. Iverson refused to adapt to life as a role player, tarnishing his legacy, but a guy who led the league in minutes played seven times deserves mention among the most durable ever, and he averaged over 42 minutes per game 10 times in his NBA career.

23 Bill Walton

Walton’s career was shortened by injury, but featured a very high peak. From 1976-1980, Walton posted around 20 points per game to go with 14 boards, 5 assists plus in 77-78, while blocking between 2.7 and 4.1 shots per game over the span. He shot over 50% from the floor. Walton’s career featured only 468 games over 12 years of NBA play, only about 42 games per season, since Walton missed the entire 80-81 season. His body didn’t cooperate, but he still deserves a top 25 nod on anyone’s list.

Pistol Pete averaged 44 ppg in the NCAA

22 Pete Maravich

“Pistol Pete” may have been one of the most talented ball handlers in NBA history. In the mold of the legendary Bob Cousy, Maravich did what he did with style. At LSU, he averaged 44.2 points per game over four seasons, leading him to become the third overall selection in the 1970 NBA Draft, behind Rudy Tomjanovich and Bob Lanier. Maravich threw passes off his elbow, behind his back, all while he wasn’t executing circus shots and impossible angles on bank shots.

21 Kevin Garnett

Kevin Garnett may have one of the best basketball bodies I have ever seen. Longer than a ladder, agile, coordinated, and 7 feet tall, Garnett in his prime could do just about whatever he wanted to on the court. Along with the much lower ranked Shawn Marion, Garnett was a consensus #1 overall fantasy pick for a long time, due to the way he stuffs a stat sheet.

Garnett’s quick enough to cover shooting guards, yet in the body of a power forward, and he made his teammates all significantly better, be it Stephon Marbury, Sam Cassell, or Latrell Sprewell. Then, when he got to Boston, things got even easier for KG. He won his lone ring in 2008 and was chasing another before falling to LeBron James and the Heat in 7 games in the 2012 NBA Playoffs.

20 Scottie Pippen

Pippen is likely the best second fiddle of all-time, and he also makes my all-time All Defensive team (along with Gary Payton, MJ, Rodman, and Bill Russell). Pippen, for as good as people realize he was, is still in many ways underrated. Do I believe he could have functioned as an alpha dog? Sure, with the right cast he could, but that wasn’t what his career had in store for him. Pippen played perfectly along the Jumpman and enabled the Bulls to win six championships. I’d say that’s good for a #20 overall ranking.

19 LeBron James

LBJ finally jumped into the top 20 with the acquisition of his first championship ring. To pass the likes of Pippen, and even Garnett, ‘Bron would need at least one ring, and he has it now. James is a consummate defender and dangerous scorer and a triple double threat every night. While hated around much of the league, he’s developed tough skin and no longer seems to allow racous fans to get under his skin. At just 27 years of age, the best may still be ahead of King James. He should be able to continue to use his superior athleticism while developing more skills to rely on after the physical gifts are exhausted. Reastically, though, LeBron can only move up on this list.

18 Charles Barkley

Barkley is the first in the top-20 without a ring, but his body of work substantiates it. He was one of the top power forwards in a very big man dominated era, and he did it at no taller than 6’5″, while he was usually listed an inch taller at 6’6″. Barkley was explosive and powerful, despite his deceptively chubby figure. Later in his career, he thinned out and was a relatively good defender at that point. Still, Barkley’s skill set and hard play in games earned him the nickname “Sir Charles,” and opposing players did respect him.

17 Elgin Baylor

Baylor averaged 38.3 points per game with the Lakers in 1961-62 and he averaged over 34 points per game two other times. He spent 14 years with the Lakers after being selected 1st overall in 1958 while the Lakers were still in Minneapolis. Baylor was a high flying, energetic, and strong small forward that could thrive in any era. In today’s game, he would put up over 30 a game and still be up at the top of the class, because his skill set would be rendered effective in any style of game play.  Like Barkley, Baylor never won a ring.

16 John Havlicek

Havlicek played 16 seasons, from age 22 until age 37, and he never really slowed down. Over that span, he posted 20.8 points per game, while averaging 20 or more in eight seasons consecutive. He won eight championships and appeared in 14 All Star games. He made nine 1st Team All Defense, and seven all 2nd Defensive teams. He won the NBA Finals MVP in 1973-74. Havlicek goes down as not only an All-Time Boston great but far ahead of many players on this list that many think may be better than Hondo.

15 Moses Malone

“Fo, fo, fo…”

Moses Malone came straight out of high school and was dominant from day one. Strong, athletic, with soft giving hands, Malone grabbed rebounds and finished around the rim as well as any big man of his era. He played from age 19 to 39, retiring in 1994-95 with the Spurs after coming in 20 years prior in 1974-75. Moses averaged 31.1 points per game in the 81-82 season with the Rockets, and woudl average 20 points per game or better for 11 consecutive seasons, while making 13 All Star appearances.

Malone won a ring with the 76ers in 1983 and ranks 16th all time in career rebounds per game (12.3). He has the most offensive rebounds in NBA history and is 3rd overall in total rebounds. Malone was more of a beast than most realize.

14 Julius Erving

“Dr J” like many others in this top 25 was a basketball born body. Gifted with outstanding leaping abilty and superior coordination, you could tell Dr J would dominate from the minute he stepped on the court until he hung up his sneakers. He was too talented and too exciting not to put fans’ butts in seats and every once in a while he would electrify the crowd with an exciting dunk. Many see that highlight of his rock the cradle dunk in the Playoffs as a member of the same 83 Sixers championship team that Moses Malone played on.

Tim Duncan is the 2nd highest active player on this list. Mandatory Credit: Beth Hall-US PRESSWIRE

13 Tim Duncan

Duncan may be the best power forward of all time, and I kind of rank him tied with Karl Malone, but give the nod to Malone for his superior scoring. It is Duncan who has the advantage defensively, but I won’t labor on this, as I just did. Duncan is 20-10 stalwart, a very consistent player who at his peak made a huge impact on both ends of the court. David Robinson had fought his entire career for a ring but didn’t experience the exploding bottles of champaigne until Duncan entered the league.

Coming out of Wake Forest as either a short center or a tall power forward, the 6’10” Duncan had many advantages not afforded to other power forwards, not the least of which was his array of angled bank shots and skillful passes. Putting Duncan in the high post yielded great results and the Spurs won four championshops between 1999 and 2007.

Duncan won the Finals MVP in 03 and 05 and won NBA MVP in 2001-02 and 2002-03. He was the AP Player of the year at Wake Forest and won the Wooden award, as well. Also a 13 time NBA All-Star, Duncan has continued to remain effective into his mid 30s.

12 Karl Malone

Karl Malone was one of the strongest players in NBA history, yet was still agile enough to run the court hard and finish off pick and rolls with John Stockton. The Mailman averaged 25 points per game over his 19 year NBA career, finishing behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all time scoring list. For his years in Utah, Malone averaged over 20 a game all but his rookie season, and by his fifth year in the league he was putting up over 31 points per game.

Even without a ring, Malone’s skill set and overall dominance outclasses Duncan’s.

11 Jerry West

“The Logoman” or “Mister Clutch” may have had the best and most pure shooting form in NBA history. West could not be left open. He shot 47.4% from the floor while putting up 24.8 points per game over his 14 year NBA career. West played in the All Star game every year he was in the league. He won the 58-59 Final Four Most Outstanding Player while at West Virginia University. West only won one championship in 1972, but won the All Star Game MVP that season, too. He was 4th in the league in field goal percentage in two seasons, and ranks 19th all time in career points with 25,192.

10 Shaquille O’Neal

Shaq was a force that just couldn’t be counteracted nor denied. He was a bully, a bull in a china shop, and a wrecking ball. No one stood in Shaq’s way. The weight came on eventually, slowing down the explosive Shaq we saw in Orlando and in his early Laker days, but he only got more skilled and comfortable with his excessively large body. Sometimes ballooning in excess of 350 pounds, it became hard to take Shaq seriously in his older days, but I’ve tried not to let that period of time tarnish the brilliance of a four time NBA champion who could have won even more had he and Kobe Bryant bagged their egos for the greater good.

9 Hakeem Olajuwon

Hakeem had the agility and footwork of a soccer player, as he was in Nigeria, in a 7 foot body with enormous strength. Olajuwon was a defensive demon, leading the league in blocks per game for three seasons while averaging over three blocks per game for six consecutive seasons. He made five all defensive teams and won back to back championships with a mediocre supporting cast in the mid 90s that featured Sam Cassell, a young Robert Horry, Vernon Maxwell, Otis Thorpe, Clyde Drexler, and a cast of castaways, giving Hakeem one of the weaker supporting squads of any of the super stars in this list. He made the All Star team 13 times and won the NBA’s MVP award in 1993-94. He also won the Final Four Most Oustanding award in his sophomore season at Houston. Hakeem was a special talent and he continues to mentor NBA players today, teaching them his legendary “Dream Shake” and excellent footwork.

8 Oscar Robertson

Many realize “The Big O” was the first and only player to ever average a triple double. What many don’t realize is that he did it in an era of inflated stats. Make no mistake at all, Magic Johnson would have averaged a triple double if he played in Robertson’s era. All that aside, what the 6’5″ point guard did was still amazing. He had the strength of a small forward with the agility and ball handling skills of a PG and was able to give opposing PGs a lot of trouble utilizing his strength and size advantages. Robertson would win only one championship with Kareem and the Bucks in 1971, but he won the All Star Game MVP three times and was the NBA MVP in 1963-64.

Bird is the second highest Celtic on this list

7 Larry Bird

Bird is not a sentimental pick here. “Larry Legend” had one of the most amazing skill sets in NBA history, paired with excellent coordination and a genius level basketball IQ. No one made the most of their gifts like Bird did. His average athleticism was more than off set by his headiness, and it even enabled Bird to be an above average defender. Adept at blocking out, Bird rebounded very well early on his career as well, something that went by the wayside as his back exacted an enormous toll on him in his later years, even cutting his career short. Bird could have played five more season if not for the nerves in his back, which nearly prevented him from participating in the 1992 Barcelona Games. Larry Bird will always go down as one of the great all time shooters and along with Magic Johnson, he saved the NBA from impending doom in the 1980s.

6 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

It’s weird to think that the NBA’s All Time leading scorer would rank 6th on an All TIme list. Kareem was so good for so long, and consistently showed that skills and enormous size coupled together could be near unstoppable. Kareem’s “Skyhook” was unblockable, it it only seemed like he never missed. With James Worthy and Magic Johnson, the 7’2″ big man was able to team up to win five championships between 1980 (Worthy joined later) and 1988. Tack those five onto the one he won in Milwaukee with Oscar, and Kareem gathered six championships while winning Finals MVP in two of the six. He also won the NBA NVP award six times. By anyone’s reckoning, it seems unfair Kareem is actually ranked this low, but in line with who the top five are, I think you would be inclined to agree.

5 Wilt Chamberlain

“Wilt the Stilt,” according to Western Illinois product and international player Keith Archie  is “not just a wonder to the world of basketball, but to all of Western Civilization.” Wilt ran some record track and field times, jumping 6’8″ in the high jump while also winning a World’s Strongest Man competition. It was easy to see he was an atheltic freak, with a 50″ vertical leap and arms that extended into the clouds.

Chamberlain scored 50 points per game with 25 rebounds per game in the 1961-62 season and did so while averaging MORE than 48 minutes per game, as Wilt never exited the floor the entire season. He also never fouled out, despite appearing in over 1000 games.

While Bill Simmons and other writers are quick to discredit some of Wilt’s accomplishment, it isn’t every seven footer than can lead the league in assists, regardless of motivations to “prove something” to the media. Wilt was an amazing athlete and a great player, he just never found the success one would have thought would have accompanied such greatness, winning only two championships in 1967 with the 76ers and in 1972 with Jerry West and the Lakers.

4 Magic Johnson

Magic was once known as Earvin, but if anyone says “Magic,” chances are you’re thinking of Earvin even before the “Orlando Magic.”

Magic Johnson, like Larry Bird, had his career cut short by circumstances beyond his control (at least somewhat). When Magic announced he had HIV in 1992, it sent shockwaves through the basketball world. At that point, HIV was still looked upon as a death sentence. Johnson went on to over come the disease and prove that a healthy lifestyle can counteract a deadly immune disease (as well as copious amounts of pills, of course).

But let’s not focus on that. Let’s focus on Johnson’s amazing skillset that enabled him to lead a team from the point guard position despite being an outstanding 6’9″. Johnson played every position in the 1980 NBA Finals after Kareem went down with an injury. At just 20 years of age, Johnson had already defeated a legendary Celtics team, and he had nowhere to go but up. He and Bird formed a duo that would prove to entice team rivalries for an entire decade at a time at which the NBA was hitting rock bottom, as I mentioned.

Johnson’s skill set may have been the best in NBA history, and if he shot the ball a smidge better, he might have been the greatest player ever. But he was already good enough for fourth all time on my list, so maybe we should take what we have, a very special talent and a very special person, whose smile continues to both electrify us and grate on our nerves, simulataneously.

3 Kobe Bryant

I still think the only thing from keeping Kobe from being “as great as Michael” are A) His lack of popularity and rape charges years ago, and B) the fact that he is the second to do what MJ already did, and in the same fashion, with little variation. Take away MJ, and Kobe would be the greatest ever. I realize that is ignoring the #2 player on this list, basically, but it’s also not. We’re comparing the top two skills and talents with a basketball, whereas Russell’s greatness was more about team impact. Kobe and Jordan were the two talents that everyone would love to see pitted on one another in their primes.

Kobe and Jordan both played great defense and wouldn’t sacrifice their pride to let the other score in a game of one on one. Neither has any quit in them, and we almost saw a replica game of Jordan’s flu performance when Kobe fell ill during the 2012 NBA Playoffs, but the drama of it was lessened, and maybe it was just because we’ve seen it all before…all of it.  Not only all of that, but any time someone challenges me on “The Kobe Question” I have to bring up his 81 point game.

2 Bill Russell

It’s hard to put a guy that won the most championships in NBA history any lower than #2 on this list. With more rings than fingers and thumbs combined (11 total) and a legacy over the #5 player on this list in Wilt Chamberlain, you just have to give Russell his due. At only 6’9″ he managed to wreak havoc on the interior, grabbing every rebound and changing or blocking every shot.

Despite being 6’9″, he had the length and even more importantly, the timing, to be the kind of game changing defender that we now see Dwight Howard as. Would the Celts have been a good defensive team WITHOUT Russell? Maybe. Would they have been great? Hardly. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge the importance of defense, and Russell’s defense made the Celtics the dynasty they were during his era.

1 Michael Jordan

Few contest MJ as the greatest ever. It went beyond basketball, as Jordan became a global icon, a figurehead for Nike that could be idenified anywhere in the world, and the first major athlete to ever become a household name even amongst the mouths of people who didn’t watch basketball. Jordan became, essentially, THE basketball player. How could Kobe measure up to that? It would like seeing a second Jesus come working miracles. The difference? Kobe is never treated like Jesus, like Jordan, but rather hated. But this isn’t about Kobe as much as it is about what Jordan meant to the league and to an entire generation of basketball fans. “Like Mike, I wanna be like Mike…”

He won 6 rings and went 6 for 6 in Finals apperances, while winning the Finals MVP in all six, as expected. Jordan took a while to get going, just like Kobe, but once he reached his prime, he couldn’t be stopped, once he figured things out fully, he was unstoppable.

Wilt Chamberlain was offered a tryout by the Indiana Pacers at age 50, and I’d probably have to think that if Jordan had tried to stay in shape, he could have played till age 50. The same is probably true for Reggie Miller, and other guys who may not have even been anywhere near as great as Wilt or MJ. The fact of the matter is that Jordan’s greatness, his skill set, his guile, made him still a true offensive threat even at age 40 with the Washington Wizards.

Was it painful to watch him when he wasn’t in top form? Sure it was. But I’ll take mediocre Jordan play over most other guys’ best career years, so I’m not sure we should allow Jordan to take unncessary heat for trying to provide us with more entertainment. Jordan gave us plenty for a long time, and though he is making a fool of himself as an owner and a GM, we can’t hate him for something he will likely figure out just isn’t for him in the long run. Perhaps he’ll give coaching a try?

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Tags: Bill Russell Kobe Bryant Lebron James Magic Johnson Michael Jordan Tim Duncan Wilt Chamberlain

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