Our editors here at the Hardwood Houdini recently asked us if we would be so kind as to compile a list of the 25 greatest players to have ever graced the NBA with the power and beauty of their play. “Yes,” we said, and then with a suggestively-arched eyebrow and a dusky cloaking to our tone: “we’ll see what we can do.”
As our colleague Andrew Silva says in the introduction to his list, “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.”
“Compulsion” is a good word. As we learned from High Fidelity, the act of sorting and ranking ephemera into top-whatever lists is a decidedly male trait, an act motivated by a quietly desperate need to maintain some illusion of control over the chaos of modern life, and to assert dominion over competing males through possession of the best opinions and the deepest pools of knowledge. It’s cost-free, safer than picking bar fights, and allows for less risk of rejection and humiliation than the deployment of Scotch-propped, cologne-stank pickup lines.
Sports, being as masculine a field as there is this side of iron-smithing, provide an excellent outlet for this compulsion. As such, the sports media landscape is littered with these sorts of lists. There are whole TV series devoted to the pastime; entire books written in service to it. Bleacher Report seems to exist purely for the sake of listing, relisting, and listing again Top 10s, 25s, and 50s along as many lines of segmentation as can be conceived: Best Ever, Best Now, Most Winningest, Best Youngest, Richest, Dirtiest, Ugliest, and on into forever.
A Google search for “25 greatest nba players” returns 17,300 results. A search for “50 greatest nba players” sends back 101,000. How might we contribute amidst the din?
After some deliberation, we decided that we were less interested in our own opinion on the 25 greatest than in finding some way toward an objective approach. After all, we’ve never actually watched 10 of the 25 who we ultimately included, you know, play basketball, apart from in bursts of a few seconds in grainy highlight film. Without the time or resources to build our knowledge base up through the hard graft of film and print immersion, any opinion-based ranking that we could come up with would be inherently dishonest and a little hacky.
So we decided to let the numbers tell our tale. Though this was the ideal approach given our circumstances, it would not be without complications. While they don’t actually lie, the numbers have been known to mislead. Wilt’s famous single-season average of 50 points per game, Oscar’s triple-double season average, Russell’s career average of 22 rebounds per: these numbers are simply not attainable in today’s NBA. They likely wouldn’t have been attainable even 10 years after they had been established.
Furthermore, the NBA’s stat tracking was something of a work in progress through the first 30 years or so of its existence. Rebounds weren’t counted at all until 1951; minutes played weren’t tallied until 1952. More than 20 years later, the league decided to start separating the rebounds into offensive and defensive, and also keep track of steals and blocks while they were at it. Turnovers followed in 1978, and then, two years later, the three-point line was instituted, which fundamentally altered the way the game was played.
Beyond the incomplete nature of the league’s historical records is the problem of value. What do the traditional per-game averages that have been tracked from the dawn through today actually mean? How might one stack Scottie Pippen’s 16.1 PPG/6.4 RPG/5.2 APG career against John Stockton’s 13.1 PPG/2.7 RPG/10.5 APG and say which is better than the other? Are rebounds more important than assists? If so, by how much? What does a difference of 3 points per game really amount to in the grand scheme of things, especially when looked at absent the context of what these players’ teammates were doing around them?
Complications aside, we were convinced an answer could be found here. So, we picked up our graphing calculator, slipped into our pristine, white lab coat, and set off in search of…a formula.
It’s important to note that we are not mathematicians. Our only qualifications for attempting this sort of thing are a good, working knowledge of the Basketball-Reference Play Index and Microsoft Excel, and an ability to count, add, subtract, multiply, and divide at a high school level. Finding our formula involved a fair amount of semi-blind flailing and stumbling about in a trial-and-error quest for the right combination of numbers. We’d call it mad science, but even Victor Frankenstein knew a thing or two about anatomy.
We did have an end in mind, though, and that’s usually enough to get one started. Our goal was to develop a scoring system that would combine the things that most people judge a player’s career by (production, titles, and accolades) into one number which, when ranked high to low, would sort the players in a way that, at the very least, made sense. Also, it couldn’t tell us that Wilt was the greatest player of all time, which is difficult to make happen when using per game numbers for a guy who averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds as a base.
At the end of several days of tinkering (our first attempts routinely had Steve Nash at #25; there was a lot of work that needed to be done), we came up with something that, apart from one or two entries, actually does a fairly good job of making sense. Before we get to the list, here’s a little peek behind the curtain at our process:
We started by setting a baseline for player inclusion based on production, role, and time served. Using Basketball-Reference’s handy Play Index, we generated a list of players who had recorded a career PER of 17.5 or above, while averaging a minimum of 25.0 minutes per game over the course of 410 (five full seasons) or more games played. Our starter list was 162 players long, with Kareem on the top and Micheal “’A’ Before ‘E’ Except When It’s Me” Williams on the bottom. We were on our way.
Next, we set about calculating what we call the Simmons Number (SIM). This is an idea that we ripped straight from a column written by Bill Simmons during the 2006 playoffs, in which he sought a way to quantify postseason performance in a way that would be as uncomplicated as it would be meaningful. Per the author (relevant text bolded):
We get carried away with basketball statistics nowadays, as evidenced by the new book that rated Allen Iverson as the 90th best player in the league during his MVP season. Why make it so complicated? Just add up the point, rebound and assist averages for franchise guys during the playoffs: If the number tops 42, you’re probably talking about a pantheon guy. You could even call it the 42 Club, just as exclusive as the Five-Timer Club on SNL, only without the NBA equivalent of Elliott Gould.
This seemed as good a place as any to set about finding the single-number solution to our problem. For each player on our list, we added together their career regular season per-game averages in points, rebounds, and assists, then did the same for their playoff equivalents.
It might be helpful to use actual player statistics to illustrate what we’re doing. We’ll take Glenn “The Big Dog” Robinson, a house favorite at Kuts HQ. He put up career regular season per-game averages of 20.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. In the playoffs, those numbers were 13.8, 4.7, and 2.0. Simple arithmetic gives us SIMs of 29.5 (regular season) and 20.5 (playoffs).
In the grand scheme of things, big individual numbers don’t amount to much unless they translate to team wins, so our next step was to find a way to spike the SIM based on how much winning the player had done in his career and, more to the point, how much of a role he had played in said winning.
To do this, we took a look at each player’s Win Shares total. Win Shares attempt to quantify how much of an impact a player had on his team’s success by crediting him with X number of the team’s wins (you can read a detailed description of how Win Shares are calculated here).
Using Win Shares is preferable to simple win-loss record because it acknowledges that, say, Magic Johnson (37.1 SIM, 36.1 MPG, 77 games played, 12.7 WS) might have had a bit more to do with the 1984-’85 Lakers’ 62 regular season wins than Bob McAdoo (16 SIM, 19.0 MPG, 66 games played, 2.9 WS).
To spike the SIM, we calculated the average Win Shares for our 162 players (96.0 for the regular season, 9.0 for the playoffs) then calculated the percent over or under the average that each player’s total represented. The Big Dog produced 39.8 WS during the regular season, 58.55% below our average. For the playoffs, those numbers were 1.3 WS and -85.56%.
We applied these percentages to each of our players’ raw SIMs, using them as a factor by which to calculate percent increases or decreases. Harebrained? Probably. Effective? You’ll just have to wait and see. For Glenn, 29.5 RS SIM + (29.5 RS SIM * -.5855) gives us a weighted regular season SIM of 12.227. 20.5 PO SIM + (20.5 PO SIM * -.8556) gives us a weighted playoff SIM of 2.960.
The next step was simple: add the two SIMs together. However, there was still some more spiking to do before we arrived at our final score. We wanted also to give extra credit to players whose numbers improved during the playoffs, and ding those whose numbers fell off. This was done by simply calculating the percent difference between the two SIMs. Big Dog’s postseason SIM was 18 percent lower than his regular season SIM. Thus, we took the sum of his regular season and playoffs SIMs (15.187) and dropped it by 18 percent (12.453).
With the players’ on-court stats and impact on team success taken care of, we next needed to account for the last two pieces of our puzzle: titles and accolades. This we did fairly simply through more number-spiking. We gathered the MVP shares (you can read a brief description here) that each player had accrued over the course of his career. To us, MVP shares are preferable to actual MVP awards because they credit players for receiving votes for second-place, third-place, and so on. We then added up all of the MVP shares that had ever been awarded (120.941), then calculated the percentage of those that each player owned, using the resultant number to spike the SIM sum once more. Big Dog is the proud owner of 0.001 MVP shares, which account for slightly more than 0.00% of the total MVP shares awarded, and amount to next to no impact on his SIM sum.
We used a similar method to credit the players for the championships they had won. We crudely estimated that 780 championship rings had been given out over the course of NBA history (65 championship teams, 12 players per team). We tallied up how many titles each player on our list had won, then calculated the percentage of the total rings that they owned. As Big Dog was on the ’05 Spurs’ title team, he owns a 0.13% championship share. We used this number to give his SIM sum one last spike, punching it up to 12.469.
By our measurement (known from here on out as the K. Score), Glenn Robinson ranks as the 156th greatest player in NBA history, sandwiched between Billy Knight (12.638) and Paul Millsap (12.250).
While our system is not without it’s flaws (see players #14 and #8), we’re actually quite pleased with the results. At least Wilt didn’t come in at #1.
The following lists our 25 Greatest Players in NBA History by K. Score (to view our colleagues’ lists, click here, here, here, and here. For a look at the top 25 of today, click here). Each listing shows the player’s K. Score, points, steals, and assists per game, Simmons Number, Win Shares, MVP Shares, and titles won. For comparison’s sake, it also shows where they ranked in the 2009 first edition of Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, and SLAM magazine’s 2011 Top 500 list. We also threw in a couple of fun facts to break up the monotony. Enjoy!
#25. Bob Pettit – Forward/Center, St. Louis Hawks, 1955-’65.
K. Score: 119.68
Regular Season: 26.4 PPG, 16.4 RPG, 3.0 APG (45.6 SIM), 136.0 WS
Playoffs: 25.5 PPG, 14.8 RPG, 2.7 APG (43.0 SIM), 11.7 WS
MVP Shares: 2.682 (2 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 17th
Slam Rank: 14th
#24. John Havlicek – Forward/Guard, Boston Celtics, 1963-’78.
K. Score: 120.62
Regular Season: 20.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.8 APG (31.9 SIM), 131.7 WS
Playoffs: 22.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 4.8 APG (33.7 SIM), 19.3 WS
MVP Shares: 0.217 (0 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 13th
Slam Rank: 17th
Fun Fact: Drafted as a wide receiver by the Cleveland Browns in the seventh round of the 1962 NFL Draft.
#23. David Robinson – Center, San Antonio Spurs, 1990-2003.
K. Score: 121.18
Regular Season: 21.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 2.5 APG (34.2 SIM), 178.7 WS
Playoffs: 18.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 2.3 APG (31.0 SIM), 17.5 WS
MVP Shares: 3.123 (1 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 28th
Slam Rank: 25th
Nickname: “The Admiral”
Fun Fact: In 1993-’94, became the fourth player in NBA history to record a quadruple-double (2/17/94 vs. Detroit; 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 blocks) and the fourth player in NBA history to score 70 points or more (4/24/93 at the Clippers, 71 points on the last day of the season).
#22. Scottie Pippen – Forward, Chicago Bulls/Houston Rockets/Portland Trail Blazers, 1988-2004.
K. Score: 121.40
Regular Season: 16.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.2 APG (27.7 SIM), 125.1 WS
Playoffs: 17.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 5.0 APG (30.1 SIM), 23.6 WS
MVP Shares: 0.716 (0 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 24th
Slam Rank: 27th
#21. John Stockton – Guard, Utah Jazz, 1985-2003.
K. Score: 121.89
Regular Season: 13.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 10.5 APG (26.3 SIM), 207.7 WS
Playoffs: 13.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 10.1 APG (26.8 SIM), 21.4 WS
MVP Shares: 0.161 (0 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 25th
Slam Rank: 22nd
#20. George Mikan – Center, Minneapolis Lakers, 1949-‘56.
K. Score: 122.20
Regular Season: 23.1 PPG, 13.4 RPG, 2.8 APG (39.3 SIM), 108.7 WS
Playoffs: 24.0 PPG, 13.9 RPG, 2.2 APG (40.1 SIM), 17.0 WS
MVP Shares: N/A
Simmons Rank: 36th
Slam Rank: 29th
#19. Elgin Baylor – Forward, Los Angeles Lakers, 1959-‘72.
K. Score: 124.01
Regular Season: 27.4 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 4.3 APG (45.2 SIM), 104.2 WS
Playoffs: 27.0 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 4.0 APG (43.9 SIM), 15.4 WS
MVP Shares: 1.659 (0 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 14th
Slam Rank: 12th
Nickname: “Mr. Inside”
Fun Fact: Holds the record for most points in an NBA Finals game with 61 (Game 5, 1962); also holds the record for career rebounds per game (13.5) for players standing 6’6” or shorter.
#18. Kevin Garnett – Forward, Minnesota Timberwolves/Boston Celtics, 1996-present.
K. Score: 124.24
Regular Season: 19.3 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 4.0 APG (33.9 SIM), 181.6 WS
Playoffs: 19.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 3.5 APG (34.0 SIM), 15.1 WS
MVP Shares: 2.752 (1 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 22nd
Slam Rank: 30th
#17. Moses Malone – Center/Forward, Utah Stars/Spirits of St. Louis/Buffalo Braves/Houston Rockets/Philadelphia 76ers/Washington Bullets/Atlanta Hawks/Milwaukee Bucks/San Antonio Spurs, 1975-‘95.
K. Score: 125.33
Regular Season: 20.3 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 1.3 APG (34.2 SIM), 167.1 WS
Playoffs: 22.1 PPG, 14.0 RPG, 1.5 APG (37.6 SIM), 13.7 WS
MVP Shares: 2.873 (3 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 12th
Slam Rank: 15th
Middle name: Eugene
Fun Fact: Holds record for most consecutive games without fouling out (1,212).
#16. Oscar Robertson – Guard/Forward, Cincinnati Royals/Milwaukee Bucks, 1961-‘74.
K. Score: 135.53
Regular Season: 25.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 9.5 APG (42.7 SIM), 189.2 WS
Playoffs: 22.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 8.9 APG (37.8 SIM), 13.6 WS
MVP Shares: 2.479 (1 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 9th
Slam Rank: 5th
#15. Charles Barkley –Forward, Philadelphia 76ers/Phoenix Suns/Houston Rockets, 1985-2000.
K. Score: 163.22
Regular Season: 22.1 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 3.9 APG (37.7 SIM), 177.2 WS
Playoffs: 23.0 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 3.9 APG (39.8 SIM), 19.5 WS
MVP Shares: 2.438 (1 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 19th
Slam Rank: 20th
#14. Dirk Nowitzki –Forward, Dallas Mavericks, 1999-present.
K. Score: 169.91
Regular Season: 22.9 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.6 APG (33.8 SIM), 168.9 WS
Playoffs: 25.9 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2.6 APG (38.8 SIM), 22.5 WS
MVP Shares: 1.804 (1 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 37th
Slam Rank: 55th
Commentary: You know what? Deal with it.
#13. Hakeem Olajuwon –Center, Houston Rockets/Toronto Raptors, 1985-2002.
K. Score: 175.77
Regular Season: 21.8 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 2.5 APG (35.4 SIM), 162.8 WS
Playoffs: 25.9 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.2 APG (40.3 SIM), 22.6 WS
MVP Shares: 2.611 (1 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 10th
Slam Rank: 13th
Nickname: “The Dream”
Signature Game: Eviscerates David Robinson in Game 2 of the 1995 Western Conference Finals (41 points, 16 rebounds), a 106-96 victory in a series that Houston would eventually win 4-2. Runner up: his quadruple-double (18 points, 16 rebounds, 11 blocks, 10 assists) against the Milwaukee Bucks on March 29, 1990.
#12. Kobe Bryant – Guard, Los Angeles Lakers, 1997-present.
K. Score: 178.02
Regular Season: 25.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.7 APG (35.4 SIM), 162.4 WS
Playoffs: 25.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.7 APG (35.4 SIM), 28.3 WS
MVP Shares: 4.054 (1 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 15th
Slam Rank: 10th
Middle name: Bean
Opponent’s Take: “He just pisses me off on the court. You stress him out and he might speak some Spanish to you and you’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I know you’re from Italy or somewhere, but his charisma and just the way he’s so poised, it just gets under my skin.” –Glen “Big Baby” Davis
#11. Larry Bird – Forward, Boston Celtics, 1980-1992.
K. Score: 182.35
Regular Season: 24.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 6.3 APG (40.6 SIM), 145.8 WS
Playoffs: 23.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 6.5 APG (40.6 SIM), 24.8 WS
MVP Shares: 5.693 (3 Awarded)
Slam Rank: 9th
#10. LeBron James – Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers/Miami Heat, 2004-present.
K. Score: 187.72
Regular Season: 27.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 6.9 APG (41.7 SIM), 133.3 WS
Playoffs: 28.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 6.7 APG (43.9 SIM), 24.3 WS
MVP Shares: 4.389 (3 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 20th
Slam Rank: 31st
#9. Jerry West – Guard, Los Angeles Lakers, 1961-1974.
K. Score: 195.56
Regular Season: 27.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 6.7 APG (39.5 SIM), 162.6 WS
Playoffs: 29.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 6.3 APG (41.0 SIM), 26.7 WS
MVP Shares: 2.090 (0 Awarded)
Slam Rank: 11th
#8. Karl Malone – Forward, Utah Jazz/Los Angeles Lakers, 1986-2004.
K. Score: 199.77
Regular Season: 25.0 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 3.6 APG (38.7 SIM), 234.6 WS
Playoffs: 24.7 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 3.2 APG (38.6 SIM), 23.0 WS
MVP Shares: 4.296 (2 Awarded)
Slam Rank: 18th
Nickname: “The Mailman”
Relevant Seinfeld quote: “You know he’s a postman, don’t you?” -Jerry Seinfeld
#7. Tim Duncan – Forward/Center, San Antonio Spurs, 1998-present.
K. Score: 208.28
Regular Season: 20.3 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 3.1 APG (34.7 SIM), 175.9 WS
Playoffs: 22.3 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 3.4 APG (37.8 SIM), 30.6 WS
MVP Shares: 4.207 (2 Awarded)
Slam Rank: 8th
#6. Shaquille O’Neal – Center, Orlando Magic/Los Angeles Lakers/Miami Heat/Phoenix Suns/Cleveland Cavaliers/Boston Celtics, 1993-2011.
K. Score: 216.20
Regular Season: 23.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 2.5 APG (37.1 SIM), 181.7 WS
Playoffs: 24.3 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 2.7 APG (38.6 SIM), 31.1 WS
MVP Shares: 4.380 (1 Awarded)
Simmons Rank: 11th
Slam Rank: 4th
#5. Magic Johnson – Guard/Forward, Los Angeles Lakers, 1980-’91, 1996.
K. Score: 219.06
Regular Season: 19.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 11.2 APG (37.9 SIM), 155.8 WS
Playoffs: 19.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 12.3 APG (39.5 SIM), 32.6 WS
MVP Shares: 5.129 (3 Awarded)
Slam Rank: 6th
#4. Bill Russell – Center, Boston Celtics, 1957-’69.
K. Score: 234.36
Regular Season: 15.1 PPG, 22.5 RPG, 4.3 APG (41.9 SIM), 163.5 WS
Playoffs: 16.2 PPG, 24.9 RPG, 4.7 APG (45.8 SIM), 27.8 WS
MVP Shares: 4.827 (5 Awarded)
Slam Rank: 3rd
Middle name: Felton
Gives you the chills when: The past and present come together.
#3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Center, Milwaukee Bucks/Los Angeles Lakers, 1970-’89.
K. Score: 273.00
Regular Season: 24.6 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.6 APG (39.4 SIM), 273.4 WS
Playoffs: 24.3 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 3.2 APG (38.0 SIM), 35.6 WS
MVP Shares: 6.203 (6 Awarded)
Slam Rank: 7th
#2. Wilt Chamberlain – Center, Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors/Philadelphia 76ers/Los Angeles Lakers, 1960-’73.
K. Score: 320.08
Regular Season: 30.1 PPG, 22.9 RPG, 4.4 APG (57.4 SIM), 247.3 WS
Playoffs: 22.5 PPG, 24.5 RPG, 4.2 APG (51.2 SIM), 31.5 WS
MVP Shares: 4.269 (4 Awarded)
Slam Rank: 2nd
#1. Michael Jordan – Guard, Chicago Bulls/Washington Wizards, 1985-’93, 1995-’98, 2002-‘03.
K. Score: 330.20
Regular Season: 30.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.3 APG (41.6 SIM), 214.0 WS
Playoffs: 33.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.7 APG (45.5 SIM), 39.8 WS
MVP Shares: 8.138 (5 Awarded)
Slam Rank: 1st
Tags: Bill Russell Bob Pettit Charles Barkley David Robinson Dirk Nowitzki Elgin Baylor George Mikan Hakeem Olajuwon Jerry West John Havlicek John Stockton Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Karl Malone Kevin Garnett Kobe Bryant Larry Bird Lebron James Magic Johnson Michael Jordan Moses Malone NBA Top 25 Oscar Robertson Scottie Pippen Shaquille O'Neal Tim Duncan Wilt Chamberlain