Stalwart jump shooter from the Philadelphia Warriors. My first hoops hero, but this is no loyalty vote. Pitchin’ Paul belongs.
2 of 50Paul Kennedy and John Iacono for Sports Illustrated
49 — Kevin McHale
Still more low-post moves than anyone; would’ve averaged 25 a game on a non-Bird team.
3 of 50AP
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.
4 of 50Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated
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.
5 of 50 Hy Peskin for Sports Illustrated
46 — Bill Sharman
Bob Cousy’s backcourt bud was an early sharpshooter and great all-around athlete.
6 of 50Al Tielemans for Sports Illustrated
45 — Allen Iverson
On better teams and maybe with one title, he would be higher…
7 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
44 — Jason Kidd
An admirable model for the all-around guard; better shooting and he would be in the 30s.
8 of 50John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated
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.
9 of 50Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated
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.
10 of 50Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated
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.
11 of 50Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated
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.
12 of 50John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated
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.
13 of 50 Hy Peskin for Sports Illustrated
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.
14 of 50Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated
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.
15 of 50Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated
36 — Dave Bing
Syracuse’s finest/Detroit’s erstwhile mayor was a seven-time all-star and a splendid all-around player
16 of 50Brian Drake for Sports Illustrated
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.
17 of 50John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated
34 — Kevin Garnett
Double-double machine and supreme combination of outside and inside defender.
18 of 50Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated
33 — Jerry Lucas
He made seven all-star teams for his straightforward reliable double-double game … and he remembered everything about them.
19 of 50Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated
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 ten; we’ll just never know.
20 of 50Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
31 — Steph Curry
Who knows? Top 10 alltime? I deliberately grouped him with the next two. Interchange them if you want to because it’s a tossup.
21 of 50John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated
30 — John Stockton
A 19-year model of consistency was displayed by the NBA’s all-time assist leader.
22 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
29 — Isiah Thomas
In his prime, the Detroit assassin was better than any QB besides the two I have in my top 10.
23 of 50Damian Strohmeyer for Sports Illustrated
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.”
24 of 50Tony Triolo for Sports Illustrated
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.
25 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
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.
26 of 50Bob Rosato for Sports Illustrated
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.
27 of 50AP
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.
28 of 50John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated
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
29 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
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.
30 of 50Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated
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.
31 of 50John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated
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
32 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
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.
33 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
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 thee 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.
34 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
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.
35 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
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.
36 of 50John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated
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.
37 of 50Andy Hayt for Sports Illustrated
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.
38 of 50Richard Meek for Sports Illustrated
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.
39 of 50John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated
12 — Kobe Bryant
Mamba will retire as the NBA’s third all time 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.
40 of 50Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated
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.
41 of 50John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated
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.
42 of 50Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated
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.
43 of 50John G. Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated
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.
44 of 50Andy Hayt for Sports Illustrated
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.
45 of 50Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated
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.
46 of 50John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated
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.
47 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
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.
48 of 50John G. Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated
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.
49 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
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.
50 of 50Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated
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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