SI's 50 greatest players in NBA history
Twenty years ago I was honored to be on the committee that selected the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history in recognition of the league’s golden anniversary. The fate of mankind didn’t exactly hinge on this assignment, but it came attached with the weight of history and legacy.
As with all such lists, the issue was not deciding who’s on the list; finding 50 players over 50 years is a breeze. The problem was deciding who’s not. Every year around All-Star Weekend, I hear fans scream about snubs but never get around to declaring which guys they would eliminate. I distinctly remember how hard it was for me to leave off two of my all time favorite guys, both great players—Detroit’s Joe Dumars and Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins.
Well, it’s time for an update. I could take the easy way out and make it the top 70 after 70 years, but, no, I’ll hold with 50 and take the inevitable abuse. A couple of media outlets, I’ve been informed, have already undertaken the task of rejiggering the top 50. I started to click on one of the lists but decided against it. Didn’t want any outside influences on my own picks, which I’ve been moving around like chess pieces over the last couple of weeks.
Also, I decided to take it one step further and rate the players from 50–1, something we didn’t do on the politically-sensitive original panel, which was organized by the NBA. Rating players has been done before, most notably by Bill Simmons in his 2009 The Book of Basketball, but it’s always a tricky ride.
One obvious dilemma on top-anything lists is rating active players. When we voted in 1996, Shaquille O’Neal was only in his fourth season. Did he belong based on what he would probably become? We decided yes. So, for this list, how about the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, who is in his fourth season? The easy answer is that he needs more time to prove himself. But should the idea be to project how good he’ll be, as was the case with Shaq? Seventh-year pro Stephen Curry has removed any argument about whether he belongs, but the question with him has become: How high? What about Russell Westbrook? Do you overlook Kyrie Irving’s injuries and project that he’ll be top 50?
You get the point. Fifty players from a league that’s been in existence for 70 years is not many, so don’t look at my list and exclaim, “Wait a minute … where’s Vince Carter?!” This is tough stuff.
Before I tell you which players I added from the last 20 years, let me tell you which ones I left off. That might give you some idea of how difficult this was. Those names, in alphabetical order, include: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Gary Payton and Paul Pierce.
Okay, which modern-day players who came along after the original list did I add? In alphabetical order, Kobe Bryant, Curry, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade. That means 11 players from the original list will have to be booted. That’s a lot. A younger scribe might just remove the 11 oldest from the list and get on with his life, but, see, I’m old. I saw all of these guys from a former era play live.
Okay, here are the ex-players I cut. Every one hurts. And Boston fans, in particular, will call for my head on a stick. I axed Celtics legends Tiny Archibald, Robert Parish and Sam Jones. Take a deep breath because then I moved to New York and cut two players from one of the most beloved rosters of all time—Earl Monroe and Dave DeBusschere. It hurts, it hurts. Then it was one of my all time favorites—Billy Cuningham, the Kangaroo Kid. I cut Billy C. because his time at the top wasn’t that long.
Then I cut Wes Unseld. I do not want to deliver that news in person, but I just thought that, for all his rebounding, outletting and intimidating, Big Wes wasn’t that great of an offensive player.
Then I axed a player I really enjoyed watching—James Worthy. It hurts bad. Then it was on to Lenny Wilkens. He was smooth and, worse, I know Lenny. Then it was Pete Maravich. Remember we’re talking about the NBA, not college, where Pete might be in the top 10 in history. Finally, it was one of the gentle giants of the game, Nate Thurmond.
So you probably hate me already, but just in case you don’t, here’s my revised top 50 in reverse order:
50. Paul Arizin
Stalwart jumpshooter from the Philadelphia Warriors. My first hoops hero, but this is no loyalty vote. Pitchin’ Paul belongs.
49. Kevin McHale
Still more low-post moves than anyone; would’ve averaged 25 a game on a non-Bird team.
48. Dolph Schayes
Danny’s dad, who died recently, was a top triple-threat player for 13 years during a time when careers were shorter.
47. Chris Paul
Yes, he doesn’t have the title that would stamp him as truly great. But remember that this feisty floor general is a great all-around player, including defensively. That gives him the edge above Steve Nash. And, yes, it hurts not to include Nash.
46. Bill Sharman
Bob Cousy’s backcourt bud was an early sharpshooter and great all-around athlete.
45. Allen Iverson
On better teams and maybe with one title, he would be higher…
44. Jason Kidd
An admirable model for the all-around guard; better shooting and he would be in the 30s.
43. Kevin Durant
One wonders if he’ll ever get a title, but there’s not many better sights in the NBA than watching this seven-footer coast up the floor, stop and take an effortless jumper from 25 feet.
42. Dave Cowens
He doesn’t resemble him, but this redheaded phenom was Olajuwon before Olajuwon. He could muscle in the halfcourt and run the floor.
41. Hal Greer
He was much more than Wilt Chamberlain’s favorite Philly teammate. He was a 10-time All-Star with a sweet J and tenacious defensive chops.
40. Willis Reed
He was also so much more than a one-minute slog from the locker room and two limping jump shots. Old-school Knicks fans would have him as their all-time center ahead of Ewing.
39. Patrick Ewing
Always a fierce competitor, Patrick turned into one of the best perimeter-shooting big men ever. Unfortunately, he needed a championship to round out his résumé … but so did a lot of guys.
38. Bob Cousy
This is a tough one. It’s clear that Cousy might’ve been physically dominated had he played in another era. But he was great in his, and, further, one of the most important players in the early development of the league.
37. Dirk Nowitzki
In case you hadn’t noticed, the Wiz from Wuerzburg has been outscored by only five players—Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
36. Dave Bing
Syracuse’s finest/Detroit’s erstwhile mayor was a seven-time all-star and a splendid all-around player.
35. Clyde Drexler
He wasn’t the only player semi-buried under the Jordan avalanche. Clyde dribbled with his head down and only went right, but on many, many nights he was unstoppable.
34. Kevin Garnett
Double-double machine and supreme combination of outside and inside defender.
33. Jerry Lucas
He made seven all-star teams for his straightforward reliable double-double game … and he remembered everything about them.
32. Bill Walton
On ability, he should be higher, but his tortured lower extremities just took too many years off his pro career. He could’ve been in the top 10; we’ll just never know.
31. Stephen Curry
Who knows? Top 10 all time? I deliberately grouped him with the next two. Interchange them if you want to because it’s a tossup.
30. John Stockton
A 19-year model of consistency was displayed by the NBA’s all-time assist leader.
29. Isiah Thomas
In his prime, the Detroit assassin was better than any QB besides the two I have in my top 10.
28. David Robinson
The most supremely athletic big man ever. I also remember him as the only athlete who ever used the word impunity in answering a question, as in: “I can’t let players come in there with impunity.”
27. Rick Barry
Okay, he was insufferable. But he averaged 24.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and stands fourth in all-time free throw percentage, the last successful practitioner of the underhand toss.
26. George Gervin
You gotta count style points, and the Iceman gets a ton of them. When his four years in the ABA are factored in, he is the No. 15 scorer in pro hoops history.
25. Dwyane Wade
He seemed to diminish a bit when LeBron came to Miami, but let’s remember that he just about won a championship by himself (in 2006) before the King arrived. And he’s still got lots of game.
24. George Mikan
He looks old-fashioned on those black-and-white films, but he knew how to play the pivot position and he was the league’s first superstar.
23. Scottie Pippen
Michael’s main running mate could also run a team, guard four positions and was that rarest of things—a complementary superstar.
22. John Havlicek
I’m not sure Hondo’s talents were ever fully appreciated since he started his pro life as a “sixth man” on those great Celtics teams of the early-60s. Think of a slightly shorter version of Pippen, just as versatile, just as indefatigable and a better scorer. Oh yeah, he has eight rings.
21. Walt Frazier
Well, I axed DeBusschere and Earl the Pearl, so here’s how important I think this versatile, defensive genius of a guard was to those Knicks championship teams.
20. Charles Barkley
In Dream Team, my 2012 book about, you know, the Dream Team, I wrote that Charles was a better player than Karl Malone when each was in their prime. I still believe that. But in an all time ranking, I’ll give the Mailman the edge based on longevity
19. Elvin Hayes
The Big E was Big T for opponents when he was motivated. Only three players are above him on the all time rebounding list, and their names are Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar. Plus, E was still averaging 23 points per game at age 34.
18. Julius Erving
When the Doc came to the Philadelphia 76ers from the ABA in 1976, it marked the start of the NBA’s renaissance. Yes, it needed Magic and Bird three years later for the real kick-start, but the original Prince of Air brought class and professionalism to a league that desperately needed it. And he could play a little.
17. Karl Malone
The Mailman missed five games in his first 13 seasons in Utah, another edge over Barkley. He also did something very, very rare—he came into the league as a non-shooter and turned himself into a marksman.
16. Hakeem Olajuwon
He started his basketball life, remember, as a hard-luck guy at Houston—lost the ’83 NCAA final to N.C. State in a massive upset and lost the next year to Georgetown and the supposedly more fearsome Ewing. But the Dream’s versatility gave him the last laugh on a lot of pivotmen, as well as back-to-back NBA titles with the Rockets.
15. Shaquille O’Neal
Okay, maybe he squandered part of his career by not being in top shape… unlike the guy just mentioned. But Shaq Daddy averaged 23.7 and 10.9, took one mediocre team to the Finals in Orlando, won titles with two others and played for 19 seasons. That is not a slacker’s résumé.
14. Moses Malone
His unexpected death got a lot of people, including me, reexamining how good he was. Awfully good. Eighth all time in scoring, fifth in rebounding.
13. Bob Pettit
One of the forgotten NBA pioneers. He was a “stretch 4” before anyone had invented the term, but he banged inside, too. If not for the Celtics dynasty, his St. Louis Hawks would’ve won a bunch of title in the 50s and early-60s.
12. Kobe Bryant
Mamba will retire as the NBA’s third alltime leading scorer, and he’ll wonder why he’s not in the top 10 of all time greats. He certainly has a case, but tell me who to take out and I’ll listen.
11. Elgin Baylor
I’ve routinely put this Lakers immortal as a forward on my all time starting five, but now a young man from Akron has moved into the picture. Nevertheless, let’s not forget one of the game’s pioneers, an all-world talent who—curse those Celtics again—never did win a championship.
10. Tim Duncan
Year after year … well, you know the rest from this metronomic marvel. Okay, at age 39 “Teemy”—as Tony Parker calls him—has slowed down a little. But watch how he defends the pick-and-roll and sets picks and make the outlet pass, etc. etc, and he’s still a reliable double double guy.
9. Jerry West
He came in with the Big O, but his problem was the Big C’s … as in Celtics. Six times he lost to Boston in the Finals, but, still, his legacy as an all-purpose guard (he is among the best all-time defensive guards, which Oscar is not), assure his Logoed legacy.
8. Bill Russell
I ask for your indulgence here. On almost every all time team I’ve ever been asked to select, I choose Big Russ as the center, figuring that, with other immortals around (Jordan, Bird, Robertson, Baylor, Magic et al), he wouldn’t have to score, and his gifted defense would be most valuable. But we’re talking about players here, and I simply don’t believe that, despite his 11 rings, he is as good a player as the two centers listed above him. I know he would disagree forcefully, and I respect that.
7. Larry Bird
He and Magic did the same things—bring the team concept back into the NBA, create a dynamic cross-continent rivalry, and, oh yes, save the league—and the only reason Larry Legend is lower than Magic is that he won three championships to Magic’s five.
6. Oscar Robertson
How do I not begin with the fact that the Big O averaged a triple double (30.8, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists in 1962) over the course of one season? Okay, I just did. When I think of one player who controlled the ball in almost every game he played, I don’t think of Stockton, Isiah, Magic or Curry—it has to be the guy who invented the triple double.
5. LeBron James
It’s extraordinary that the King really doesn’t have a position. That speaks to his versatility but I also wonder: Would he have been better off had he concentrated on being a small forward, a two-guard or a point? Either way, he’s one of the most dominant players to ever take the court.
4. Magic Johnson
The ultimate quarterback and the ultimate team leader. We’re still waiting for someone to come along who’s remotely like him, a fast-break generator, a halfcourt facilitator.
3. Wilt Chamberlain
I understand the reason he should be ranked behind his nemesis/good bud Russell—11 championships for Russell versus two for Wilt. But let us consider the kind of talent it takes to average 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds, as Wilt did in 1961–62, then midway through his career decide he wants to become a passer and turn into an all-star distributor from the pivot. Wilt was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, and I’m glad I got to see him.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
I’ve never ranked KAJ anywhere near this highly, and now I wonder why. Let me ask you: Was anyone as good of a center as he was for as long? Russell averaged 15 points and 22.5 rebounds for 13 seasons. Chamberlain put up massive numbers, but he was effective for only 12 years. The Begoggled One was a great player for 17 seasons and a very good one for another three. He didn’t have Russell’s winning pedigree, but he did retire with six titles. And if you want the one reliable shot in NBA history, it’s not LeBron going to the hoop, or Jordan posting up with his fallaway or Bird stopping and launching from three—it’s KAJ’s skyhook.
1. Michael Jordan
Still the greatest, and I’ve yet to hear anyone offer a reasonable explanation why he isn’t. Unstoppable on offense at the basket or on the perimeter, a nine-time all-defensive first-teamer, and—here’s the trump card—MVP in every one of the six Finals in which he played, all of which resulted in Chicago Bulls championships.
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