Top 20 NBA players of last 20 years
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the “50 Greatest Players in NBA History” announcement, a presentation that coincided with the league’s 50th season. Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum, an original panelist who helped craft the list back in 1996, has revisited the process and re-ranked the NBA’s “50 Greatest” right here.
McCallum’s latest list replaces 11 members of the “Original 50” selections with 11 players whose accomplishments have taken place since 1996. Effectively, his new list amounts to the 50 Greatest Players of the NBA’s first 70 years.
The following is an alternative approach. Instead of replacing any of the Original 50, let’s let those legends keep their swanky leather jackets for the rest of time and proceed with selecting the “20 Greatest Players of the last 20 Years.” This process serves as a nice preview for what a 75th all-NBA anniversary team might look like and it highlights the quality and depth of the league’s current crop of superstars.
Note: This list was formed by weighing a player’s individual statistics and awards, his contributions to the game, his longevity, his overall impact (offense and defense), the scope of his role throughout the various stages of his career, and his team’s postseason success. Retired players and players who have played a majority of their career obviously have a built-in advantage over younger players in this selection process. While some degree of projection was involved in gauging players who are either in or approaching their primes currently, there simply isn’t enough room to include players primarily on the basis of their potential (like, say, Anthony Davis) in place of those with longer resumes. Obviously, members of the Original 50 list—including Shaquille O'Neal—were not eligible for this list.
Without further ado, here are SI.com’s “Top 20 NBA Players of the last 20 years.”
20. Tracy McGrady
It’s hard to exclude McGrady from a list like this, even though his playoff track record is full of one-and-done exits and injuries cut short his career way too soon. During his peak years with the Magic, McGrady was as awe-inspiring and productive as any player over the last two decades. His 2003 averages of 32.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 5.5 APG hadn’t been posted by anyone except Michael Jordan over the previous 35 seasons, and he joins Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry as the only players to post a 30+ Player Efficiency Rating over the last 20 years. Although McGrady will be tagged with the “What could have been…” label for the rest of time, and rightfully so, he still managed to do enough during his healthy years to sneak onto the back end of this list.
19. Reggie Miller
Miller’s individual resume of awards might be the weakest of the 20 players on this list, and he never won a title despite his many memorable triumphs over Spike Lee’s Knicks during the Eastern Conference playoffs. Still, he’s one of the most productive players of the last 25 years by Win Shares, and his three-point marksmanship helped him average 20+ PPG six times during his career. Despite a gangly frame, Miller was remarkably durable throughout his 18-year career and he maintained a starting role until his retirement shortly before his 40th birthday. Never a big-time rebounder or play-maker, Miller made up for it with his 50/40/90 shooting prowess, foul-drawing ability and endless energy.
18. Ray Allen
The NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers won titles with the 2008 Celtics and the 2013 Heat. There’s little doubt that the most memorable moment of his 18-year career came when he saved Miami’s season with a corner three-pointer in the 2013 Finals, but that highlight came at the tail end of a remarkable journey. A 20+ PPG scorer for both the Bucks and SuperSonics, Allen graduated from All-Star into champion when he teamed up with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in Boston. A tireless threat off the ball and a perfectionist when it came to preparation, Allen aged gracefully and managed to be a quality contributor deep into his 30s. All hail Jesus Shuttlesworth.
17. Gary Payton
“The Glove” often gets overlooked—somewhat inexplicably—in “Greatest” lists like this one. Payton has a long list of individual accomplishments: he averaged 20+ PPG seven times, he ranks eighth all-time in assists, he was an All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defense selection for almost an entire decade, he was regarded as the premier defender at his position for years and even won the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year award despite being a guard, he helped lead the Seattle SuperSonics to the 1996 Finals, and he later won a title as a tag-along with the 2006 Heat. Throw in a brash, trash-talking personality and a career that spanned more than 15 years and it’s no wonder he was quickly selected to the Hall of Fame.
16. Tony Parker
One could fairly argue that Parker wouldn’t appear on this list if he hadn’t played his entire career with Tim Duncan. That’s fine, but he happened to enjoy that luxury and it happened to make him the winningest point guard of his generation. While he can’t match Stephen Curry’s shooting ability, Steve Nash’s playmaking, Chris Paul’s command, Jason Kidd’s all-around game or Gray Payton’s tenacious on-ball defense, Parker has made his mark through his quickness and slipperiness off the dribble, his heady playmaking, his pick-and-roll mastery, his finishing ability around the basket, and his ability to take on greater responsibilities when San Antonio shifted its strategic approach in recent years. The 33-year-old Frenchman has slipped over the last two seasons, but he played a central role for both the 2007 and 2014 title teams.
15. Carmelo Anthony
Anthony has been a nightmare cover for defenses throughout his career thanks to his size, physicality and deep reservoir of scoring tricks. The 2003 No. 3 pick can get a shot off the dribble and get to the line with equal ease, and he was a threat to explode for a huge scoring number on a nightly basis during his prime. Throughout his 13-year career, Anthony has topped 20+ PPG every season, regardless of whether he’s playing on a rebuilding outfit or for a team with deep playoff aspirations. His reputation suffers a bit because his teams have had precious little postseason success, he’s missed a fair bit of time in recent years due to injury, and because he’s generally viewed as a single-minded scorer rather than a complete player capable of shaping games positively with his passing and defense.
14. Paul Pierce
The Truth has ambled his way through big moment after big moment during a storied career that dates back to 1998. Pierce, who topped 20+ PPG eight times thanks to a technically precise scoring game, will be remembered as a big-shot maker who loved the postseason pressure. During his prime, Pierce was also a skilled playmaker for others, a solid force on the boards and a consummate locker-room leader. Although he wasn’t as prolific a scorer as LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony during their respective primes, Pierce was a solid, savvy operator whose Celtics teams were regularly among the league’s best from 2008 through 2012.
13. Allen Iverson
If every NBA player from the last 25 years was asked to name the coolest player in league history, there’s a strong chance Iverson would emerge in the No. 1 spot. The Answer compensated for the inefficiencies of his game with pure will and wizardry off the dribble. A four-time scoring champion, the 6-foot, 165-pound Iverson is often referred to as one of the NBA’s greatest pound-for-pound players and he was an absolute workhorse throughout his prime. Although he never won a title and faded from relevance in his early 30s, Iverson has a long list of iconic moments, from crossing up Michael Jordan to stepping over Tyronn Lue.
12. Steve Nash
Nash was a brilliant passer and an excellent shooter, but trying to break down his game into component parts does a disservice. It’s best to envision him as a force in its entirety: the head of the snake for a fun-and-gun Suns teams that regularly led the NBA in both efficiency and pace. Although his two MVPs continue to be the subject of much debate, especially given the fact that he never advanced to the Finals, Nash ultimately received those awards because he was so far ahead of his time and because his creative, free-flowing approach seemed to represent basketball in its ideal form. Nash retired in 2014 as the NBA’s third-leading assist man; late-career injuries, a lack of titles and his limitations as a defender generally bump him down a few notches in the “best point guard of all-time” conversation.
• MORE NBA: The overflowing legacy of Steve Nash
11. Dwight Howard
Even though injuries and free-agency drama kept Howard from reaching his full potential, the 2004 No. 1 overall pick remains the best “traditional center” since Shaquille O’Neal. Howard led the NBA in rebounding five times, he averaged 20+ PPG four times, he won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards, he was annually one of the top MVP candidates throughout his mid-20s, and he guided the Magic to the 2009 Finals. A poor free throw shooter with a shallow arsenal of one-on-one moves, Howard’s alleged lack of maturity has often made him the butt of jokes in recent years. Those making quips at his expense now would do well to rewind the highlight tapes from his peak Orlando days and marvel at his power, explosiveness and commanding presence.
10. Chris Paul
As a prototypical floor general, Paul enjoyed a lengthy reign at the top of his position prior to Stephen Curry’s recent rise. When it comes to Paul’s game, there’s not much to nitpick: he’s a natural distributor who can create a shot for himself, break down a defense off the dribble, hit from deep, rebound well for his position and lock down opposing ball-handlers. The consistent quality of his play and his ability to lead ultra-efficient offenses year in and year out has led his critics to harp on his demanding personality and relatively weak postseason track record. There’s still time for the 30-year-old Paul to shake the notion that he’s incapable of getting over the hump in the playoffs.
9. Jason Kidd
A triple-double machine who knew every trick in the book, Kidd brought size, smarts and incredible vision to the table as one of the most complete point guards in NBA history. After guiding the Nets to the Finals twice during his prime, Kidd finally won a legacy-cementing title with the 2011 Mavericks. Only one man—John Stockton—tallied more career assists and steals than Kidd.
8. Stephen Curry
The single toughest player on this list to rank, Curry has overcome early-career injuries and unspectacular production during his first three seasons to blossom almost overnight into one of the most entertaining and devastating weapons in NBA history. While Curry didn’t even make the All-Star team until 2014, the reigning MVP will likely join LeBron James, Steve Nash and Tim Duncan as the only back-to-back MVPs of the post-Michael Jordan era. A record-setting three-point shooter who is on track to win his first scoring title and potential lead the Warriors to the best record in NBA history, Curry is also a skilled, improvisational distributor, a committed defender and an understated leader. At 27, he has the most untapped upside of any player included here.
7. Kevin Durant
Durant is everything you want in a scorer: smooth, dependable, versatile, fearless and efficient. At age 27, the 2007 No. 2 overall pick already has four scoring titles to his name; If his foot injury last season proves to be an aberration, Durant has a shot at challenging Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. An underrated and improving defender, Durant has been widely regarded as the NBA’s second-best player for the last five years or so, in part because Oklahoma City has been among the league’s most consistent winners during that time period. The major reason that Durant is the most buzzed-about free agent in the 2016 class: he’s yet to win a title, he hasn’t made the Finals since 2012, and the clock is (always) ticking.
6. Dirk Nowitzki
The NBA’s No. 6 all-time leading scorer and No. 1 all-time international scorer, Nowitzki silenced the doubters who might have characterized him as “very good but not great” by leading the Mavericks to the 2011 title over LeBron James’s Heat. A versatile scoring threat who could do damage on the block, in pick-and-rolls and from beyond the arc, the 7-foot German helped reimagine the modern power forward position. Although he was never regarded as an impact defender, Nowitzki’s excellent durability and age-defying turnaround jumper have ensured that Dallas has made the playoffs in 14 of the last 15 seasons.
5. Dwyane Wade
Wade has enjoyed more than his share of good fortune over the years, teaming with Shaquille O’Neal to earn his first title (in a disputed 2006 Finals series) before later pulling together the famed “Big 3” that led to two more rings and four straight Finals appearances. That track record of winning combined with his nine straight seasons of 20+ PPG scoring solidifies his lofty standing among his contemporaries and places him in the conversation behind Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant on the list of greatest shooting guards of all time. Recurring knee injuries and a lack of three-point range might have held him back, but Wade’s hyper-athletic off-the-dribble game and endlessly creative finishing ability earned him the nickname “Flash” and made him an All-Star every year since 2005.
4. Kevin Garnett
An athletic freak who averaged 20+ PPG for nine straight seasons and led the league in rebounding four times, Garnett will be remembered first and foremost for his fierce and unrelenting defense. The Big Ticket has teamed with everybody from Stephen Marbury to Paul Pierce to Karl-Anthony Towns during a storied career that reached its pinnacle during Boston’s 2008 championship run. Although he is held back in comparisons with a player like Tim Duncan due to his limited early-career playoff success in Minnesota and a sharper decline as he advanced through his 30s, Garnett will nevertheless be a no-brainer Hall of Fame selection on the first ballot. Hopefully he caps his induction speech by banging his head into the podium like a mad man for old time’s sake.
3. Kobe Bryant
Bryant’s 20–year career has had its share of peaks and valleys, but the peaks—a fistful of rings, 81 points against the Raptors, 35.4 PPG in 2006—were so high that his historical greatness can’t be denied. An unapologetic shot-taker and a dramatic shot-maker, the 37-year-old Bryant will retire as one of the most famous and polarizing players to ever take the court. A preps–to–pro success story who entered the league as a Michael Jordan clone and prepares to exit as the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer, with more points than Jordan himself, Bryant has battled through late-career injuries to set a new benchmark for longevity among high-scoring wings.
2. LeBron James
By the time the NBA’s 75th anniversary rolls around in 2021, it’s quite possible that James, 31, will have solidified himself as the No. 1 new addition to the Original 50. The most hyped high school prospect of the modern era, James has somehow managed to exceed expectations, singlehandedly dominating the Eastern Conference for the past half–decade and averaging 26/6/6 for a whopping 10 straight seasons while posting career averages of 28.2/8.8/6.7 in the playoffs.
Although it seems unlikely that James will match Michael Jordan’s six rings, his run of five (and counting) consecutive Finals trips, his franchise-altering moves from Cleveland to Miami and back, and his laundry list of individual achievements combine to illustrate his singular value. Will basketball ever see another player with James’ combination of size, speed, power, quickness and passing ability? Probably not. Be sure to save The King a spot on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore.
1. Tim Duncan
Duncan’s track record compares favorably with the greatest big men of all time: The Spurs legend has made more All-Star Game appearances than Bill Russell, he’s won more titles than Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain, and he’s taken home more Finals MVP awards than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Since taking The Big Fundamental at No. 1 overall in 1997, the Spurs have stood as the NBA’s model franchise as they close in on their 19th consecutive playoff appearance and 19th straight season with a .610 or better winning percentage. Duncan, 39 and still ticking, has beaten them all in the playoffs over the last 20 years, downing Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, LeBron James’ Cavaliers and Heat, Kevin Durant’s Thunder, Steve Nash’s Suns and Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks, among countless others.
The list of Duncan’s basketball virtues is endless: he’s an intelligent, selfless, consistent and no-nonsense leader who could protect the rim, score in volume, dominate the boards and make the right pass. With little fanfare and zero self-congratulation, Duncan stands as his generation’s most reliable force and most decorated winner.
Honorable mention: Chauncey Billups, Chris Bosh, Vince Carter, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Blake Griffin, Grant Hill, James Harden, Yao Ming, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Amar’e Stoudemire, Russell Westbrook.