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SI's 50 greatest players in NBA history

Michael Jordan. LeBron James. Stephen Curry. Who else? On the 20–year anniversary of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history, SI.com's Jack McCallum revises his list. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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 halfcourtand 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.

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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.