Note: I wrote most of this article a few months ago. We debated on when to run it and decided to wait until the NBA playoffs were in full swing. Unfortunately the NBA, like every other sport, has been put on hold and we don’t know when or if the playoffs will even happen this year. On April 19th ESPN premiered “The Last Dance” a 10 Part documentary series about Michael Jordan and the 1998 Bulls, so this seems like a good time to release this article on an unsuspecting public. I hope you enjoy this discussion on the greatest NBA player of all time and feel free to comment.
A couple of years ago I wrote a breakdown of the LeBron vs Jordan debate. LeBron had such a strong playoff run in 2018 that many were calling him the greatest ever. As expected, Jordan apologists came to the defense of their guy. I did my best to tackle the subject and objectively compare their careers. I acknowledged at the beginning that most “LeBron vs Jordan” arguments assume that no other names are in the conversation for the greatest NBA player of all time. This is a false assumption.
This article is my attempt to dig a little further into the topic of who is the greatest NBA player of all time. There have been many transcendent players in the history of the NBA. A history that now stretches back over 70 years. In my opinion, seven guys separated themselves from the pack. They accomplished more, impacted the game to a greater degree, or simply had better numbers than anyone else out there.
To get a handle on this task I set a couple of minimum requirements that had to be met in order to be considered for this list. These requirements helped me eliminate many all-time greats from the discussion, but I think these rules were fair and very helpful in making some tough calls.
Greatest NBA Player Requirement Number 1
Only players with multiple MVP awards were considered for this list. It only makes sense that if someone played in the league for over a decade but they were rarely (if ever) considered the best in their sport they can’t be considered the best of all time. Greatest player of all time candidates should play at such a high level that they are consistently ranked as the best in their sport by fans, media members, coaches, and other players. Even though I set the minimum at 2, every guy on this list won at least 3 MVP awards.
Greatest NBA Player Requirement Number 2
Only players with multiple championships were considered for this list. As I have written before, basketball is a team sport so titles aren’t the only measure of greatness. Everyone, no matter how great individually, is dependent on their teammates, coaches, and the right organization to surround them with enough talent to compete. However, more so than in other team sports, one player in a basketball game can have a tremendous impact. They can touch the ball on nearly every offensive possession and make an impact on defense as well. Each guy on this list won at least 2 titles.
These two rules were incredibly effective in eliminating most players from this discussion. Guys like Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant each won multiple titles but only one league MVP. Players like Moses Malone, Steve Nash, and Bob Pettit have multiple MVP awards but they didn’t win enough championships to be considered. Julius Erving would qualify if his ABA career was included in the discussion, but as an NBA player he won one championship and one MVP award so he falls short. Other greats like Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Charles Barkley, and Karl Malone fell short in both criteria.
There were a couple players who actually met both of the requirements and still did not make my list. I will deal with them here.
The best of the rest.
Duncan won 5 titles as well as a couple of MVP awards so he certainly deserves to be considered for this list. Duncan also happens to be one of my favorite players ever as well as a guy who always seemed to be underappreciated by casual fans. Even so, I think he falls just a notch below the top 7 guys. His peak years were not quite as good as the other guys on this list. I would still have him in my top 10 of all time. Probably at number 8.
Curry has 2 MVP awards and 3 titles. He revolutionized the game with his shooting and is the signature player on one of the great dynasties ever. I simply don’t think his overall numbers quite match up with the other guys on this list. His game is so dependent on the long-range shooting that he is easier to neutralize in a game than any of the top 7 guys. Plus he is an average defender at best. All that being said Curry is still writing his legacy so he may force his way onto this list in a few years.
Now it is time to move on to the greatest NBA player of all time candidates. A group that I like to call…
The Magnificent Seven
For this section, I will list the pros and cons for each player. In a sense, I will be arguing with myself as I try to make a case and then poke holes in that case for each guy. The cons on this list are admittedly nitpicky (if that is even a word!), but we have to split hairs some when debating the best of the best.
Won 11 titles in 13 years. Yes, you read that correctly. Russell is the greatest winner in sports history. He is arguably the best defensive player and rebounder in basketball history. Despite playing with multiple hall-of-fame players his team did not win before he arrived and stopped winning when he left. So he was clearly the catalyst for their success.
Definitely the worst offensive player in our group of seven. It must also be mentioned that he played in a league that was not fully integrated AND at a time when professional basketball was not nearly as popular so the quality of competition he faced was the lowest of any player on our list. While he was the catalyst for the team’s success, it can’t be overlooked that he had the good fortune of playing with half a dozen hall of fame teammates on the best organization of the early NBA. No one else on our list had those advantages.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Kareem has the distinction of scoring the most points of anybody in league history. He also won a record 6 league MVP awards to go along with 6 championships. His sky hook remains the single most unstoppable shot in the history of basketball.
Several of his strongest statistical season as well most of his MVP awards came when many of the best basketball players were playing in the rival ABA. This reality, while not his fault, watered down the overall talent of the NBA and made his dominance easier. All but one of his championships came when Magic Johnson was his teammate and for at least half his titles he was not even the best player on his own team.
He is the most versatile player on our list and the only guy who could handle every position on the court both offensively and defensively. We witnessed huge improvements on the teams he joined and big declines on teams he left. While it goes against the popular narrative his clutch numbers are actually among the best of anyone in league history. He took his teams to 8 consecutive finals and carried some very average teams all way to the finals (2007 and 2018 Cavs).
He played in the weaker Eastern conference for most of his career which made the road to the finals easier than it would have been otherwise. He had a couple of flameouts on the big stage (2010 playoffs, 2011 Finals) that can’t be overlooked. It took him longer to win a title than anyone on our list.
Highest scoring average ever for a season at over 50 points per game. Highest rebounding average for a season as well as for a career. Wilt is the only center ever to lead the league in assists. Scored 100 points in a single game! In his prime, he was the most unstoppable force ever on a basketball court.
Wilt had more suspect playoff moments than anyone else on this list. He infuriated teammates and coaches with his attitude and actions, especially in big moments of big games. Fewer titles (2) than anyone on this list. Even though his numbers against Bill Russell were still great he was only able to beat him once in the playoffs which hurts his overall case.
Highest career scoring average in regular season AND playoffs. Won 10 scoring titles and was also a lockdown defender. The best player on 6 championship teams. He raised his level of play in the playoffs and came up big when it mattered most. His ability to “seize the moment” is unparalleled in league history.
Overall percentage impact on his team winning was the worst of anyone on this list. For example, when he left to play baseball for an entire season it only cost his team 2 regular-season wins. It took him longer to win a playoff series than anyone else on the list. It took him longer to reach the finals than anyone else on the list. (Tied with Chamberlain).
He has the second-highest winning percentage in NBA history and the highest of any of the players on our list. One of only three guys to average over 60 wins for every 82 games they started. Played in the finals in 9 of his 12 seasons before retiring suddenly due to his HIV diagnosis.
Not an elite defensive player. Won all his titles with another GOAT candidate (Kareem). Played in the weaker Western conference for most of his career. Clearly not on the same level as Larry Bird for the first 8 years of their careers.
Had the third-highest winning percentage in NBA history. One of only three guys to average over 60 wins for every 82 games they started. He won rookie of the year over Magic and had won 3 MVP awards before Magic won any. Took the Celtics from 20 to 60 wins his rookie year. Best improvement for anyone on this list.
Back injuries cut his prime short so he lacks the sustained excellence of several others on this list. Fewer titles and finals trips than the guy he is most often compared to (Magic). Not an elite defensive player.
We could certainly dive deeper into the numbers to bolster the case for any of these players. Both traditional statistics and advanced analytics present strong arguments. We could also point to clutch shots in big playoff games, extended winning streaks, incredible passes, steals, blocks, or other fond memories where each of these guys seized the moment and carried their franchise to a playoff series or championship series victory.
If we are in a critical mood we could point to times when certain guys on this list undermined coaches, punched teammates, missed big shots, disappeared in big games, or were swept out of the playoffs altogether. After all, nobody has a spotless resume.
In the end though. I feel that these seven players stand above all the rest in the history of basketball. Let me know what you think. Did I leave out any pros or cons? Are there other players that should have been considered? Who is the greatest NBA player of all time?
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