Seventy-six players were just stamped as the greatest in NBA history. And if you’re now raging, perplexed, frustrated or just a little woozy … congrats! You now have a sense of what it was like to be a voter.
Yes, I was one of the 88 people—a mix of media, current and former players, coaches and team executives—who helped determine what is officially known as the 75th Anniversary Team. It was an honor, of course. It was also, I must tell you, positively torturous. Agonizing. Stressful.
I pestered veteran scribes for advice. I spent a ridiculous number of hours clicking through Basketball-Reference.com, and flipping through Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball. I set principled standards for how the list should be compiled, then scrapped those principled standards. I downed whiskey shots. I lit a candle, played John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” on repeat and summoned the ghost of James Naismith.
It never got any easier. (I’ll lay out my full ballot below.)
Consider this quick thought exercise: Who’s the better player, a) Russell Westbrook or b) Bob Cousy? a) Tracy McGrady or b) Jerry Lucas? a) Anthony Davis or b) Dolph Schayes? The three b options—who played primarily in the 1950s and '60s—were all part of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team, back in '96. The three a options played in the modern era and were all strong candidates when I started contemplating my ballot for the top 75.
Think about the sheer absurdity of those choices. Westbrook has his faults, but if you borrowed Doc Brown’s DeLorean and sent him back in time, he would absolutely demolish the NBA of the 1950s and '60s. (Or, as my NBA Radio colleague Zach Harper quipped, “He’d be tried as a witch.”) T-Mac would look like an alien.
Imagine Kevin Durant, a 7-footer with slick handles and a silky jumper, unleashed on the black-and-white era. Imagine Damian Lillard pulling up from the logo (albeit for only two points)—not that he’d ever need to, because he’d fly past all of these guys.
So let's acknowledge this from the top: It is impossible—absolutely impossible—to fairly compare players across seven-plus decades of basketball. Today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, faster, better conditioned and more skilled than those even 30 years ago, to say nothing of 70 years ago. The game has changed dramatically.
This entire exercise is fraught on its face. It’s why I always demur on debates about the GOAT, or who would win the fantasy battle between the Showtime Lakers and the Splash Brothers Warriors. I just don’t believe there’s an objective truth here. But serving on this blue-ribbon panel was an honor I couldn’t turn down. So, to Basketball-Reference I went.
First quandary: What to do with the 50 players named to the 50th Anniversary Team? As voters, we were free to pick any 75 players we wanted. There was no mandate to keep the earlier honorees. And since there have been dozens of worthy players to come along since 1996, I thought for sure I’d boot a few members of the NBA 50 team.
That proved much tougher in practice than in principle.
I thought about cutting Schayes (horrendous field-goal percentage for a big man, at .380). I considered deleting Pete Maravich (minimal playoff success). I wasn’t sold on Bill Sharman, who mostly seemed to benefit from being Bill Russell’s teammate, on a Celtics squad that dominated an eight-team league. And I was wholly unconvinced that the early-1970s Knicks, who won just two titles, deserved four slots (Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere). Several others drew my skepticism.
In fact, I was generally skeptical of how heavily the NBA 50 list drew on those early eras, starting with the NBA’s progenitor, the Basketball Association of America (1946–49). The league had just 8 teams in the early '60s, eventually expanding to 14. So, good players in that era had a disproportionate impact—and a higher chance of being named an All-Star. There were just nine teams when the Celtics won their ninth title in '66.
Also: There were no Black players for the first four years of the BAA/NBA’s existence. Even in the 1960s, there were few Black players in the league—and a belief that teams imposed an unofficial cap of four per team. That matters, too.
Let's also admit the obvious: It’s hard to evaluate players I never saw, or compare them to the guys I grew up watching (in the 1980s and '90s) or the guys I’ve since covered up close (from '97 to the present). We’re all captives of our own time, to an extent.
So I consulted the history books and the old-timers and did my best to understand why Schayes or Sharman or Maravich deserved to carry through to the NBA 75 list. After all, the NBA 50 list is its own, distinct honor. Being left off the NBA 75 list doesn’t negate one’s placement on the NBA 50 list.
Yet every time I proposed crossing out a name, I got firm pushback from the historians and the game’s elders, who made compelling arguments to keep them. Ultimately, I did not feel comfortable, as a child of the 1980s, covering the game in the 2000s, rendering judgment on the legends of the '50s, '60s and '70s. I deferred to my elders. I deferred to history. I deferred to the judgment of the '96 voters, who knew those players much better than I could.
In the end, I removed just one NBA 50 player: Lenny Wilkens, who was great but not dominant; who made nine All-Star games but never made All-NBA; who made the Finals just once (and lost).
That opened a spot for Dominique Wilkins, the most egregious snub in 1996. And by swapping Wilkins for Wilkens, I left myself 25 slots for the modern-era additions.
Along the way, I kept asking myself (and others): What’s the real mission? Are we setting out to name the greatest 75 to ever play the game? Or are we choosing the 75 players who best represent the game’s first 75 years? Because those are arguably two different lists. The NBA gave no definition or benchmarks.
In retaining 49 of the NBA 50, I ultimately decided this was about recognizing the sweep of history, about the players who defined each era, and who helped build the NBA into what it’s become—one decade and sometimes one set shot at a time. No, my friends, we can’t actually compare Westbrook to Cousy.
So I moved on to the modern era, with 25 slots to spend, and the list built itself quickly.
Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Steph Curry: all locks.
James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, Russell Westbrook, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Gary Payton: locks.
Dennis Rodman? One of the greatest rebounders and defenders of all time, critical to the Bulls’ second three-peat. Yeah, lock. Klay Thompson? Second-greatest shooter of all time (after Curry), fantastic defender, three-time champ and key member of a dynasty. Lock. Reggie Miller? Not the most dominant star of his time, but by far—by far—the greatest three-point shooter of his era and an evolutionary player. Plus, he gave us some of the most memorable playoff moments of the 1990s. That counts for something. Lock.
That left two slots. I deliberated over Dwight Howard, Dikembe Mutombo, Draymond Green and Ben Wallace. I pondered Penny Hardaway, Vince Carter, Grant Hill and T-Mac. I mulled Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker and Pau Gasol. I considered Chris Bosh and Chris Webber. I spent a few minutes considering the other NBA 50 snubs: Bob McAdoo, Adrian Dantley, Alex English.
I ultimately went with Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, two icons of the modern game who have helped redefine how big men play (AD) and the range of a shooter’s ambition (Dame).
I’ll surely spend weeks, and maybe years, second-guessing my own list. Some of the players I snubbed happen to be some of my favorites to watch (and cover) over the last 24 years. I’ll forever wonder how my fellow voters snubbed Thompson. But there were only 75 slots—well, 76, after the NBA expanded the list to account for a tie in the voting—which is what makes it such a high honor, and such a stressful exercise.
Were we right? Were we wrong? Is there even such a thing in such a subjective exercise? I don’t know. But we have plenty of time to argue, agonize and criticize before the next round of ballots is due ... in 2046.
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