NBA
June 18, 2020
BY Jay Sanin

The 10 Greatest NBA Players Ever, Ranked

The NBA has seen some of the best athletes in the history of sports through the course of its history. But only the best of the best can be considered one of the 10 best players in the history of the NBA.

It's an incredibly tough decision to make. One with a lot of tough calls to make. Did two of the greatest point guards ever — Stephen Curry and Chris Paul — make the cut? What about legendary big men such as Bill Russell or Hakeem Olajuwon? 

These 10 players combined incredible talent with the necessary wins to elevate them above the rest of the greats to take to the court.

10. Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant had an incredible career in the NBA from a statistical point of view, averaging over 25 points per game and being a key component to five championship teams. But what made Bryant an all-time great was the fact that he was so willing to outwork the rest of his competition, with the legendary Mamba Mentality seeing Kobe will himself to victory in many cases.

Bryant was a player whose hot streaks were virtually unmatched in NBA history. His 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors and 60-point game against the Jazz in his final game are two of the most memorable individual outings ever. And with Bryant always being willing to take the last shot in a game, he enjoyed his fair share of buzzer beaters as well.

Bryant is also a part of one of the worst trades in NBA history

9. Shaquille O’Neal

Serving as Kobe Bryant’s teammate in Los Angeles for many years, Shaquille O’Neal spent a large portion of his career as the most unguardable player in the league. Shaq employed a lethal combination of agility and size, with his deadly drop step to the basket overwhelming opponents on a regular basis. 

A 15-time all-star, O’Neal averaged 23.7 points per game and 10.9 rebounds per game over a career that lasted nearly two full decades. His offensive game was so difficult to guard that the "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy was invented to keep him from shooting the ball in the paint. While O’Neal was never a good enough free-throw shooter to overcome that strategy, he was a player who reinvented paint play.

8. Tim Duncan

Tim Duncan isn’t someone that immediately comes to mind when thinking about the best players of all-time, but he has flown under the radar right into the number eight spot on our list. Duncan was as technically gifted a player as there has ever been in the league, with his iconic bank shot giving him a mid-range scoring ability that most bigs during his era could only dream to possess.

Duncan won five titles during his incredible career, being the constant on the Spurs for those five rings. Whether it was the Twin Towers era with David Robinson, the big three with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, or the title he won with Kawhi Leonard, Duncan’s stability in the era of free agency helped to create one of the best dynasties in modern NBA history.

7. Oscar Robertson

Oscar Robertson was a player who could impact a basketball game in multiple ways, as he pre-dated Russell Westbrook as a player who was capable of averaging a triple-double for an entire season. The Big O is the only player in the history of the NBA who is in the top 10 in the history of the league in both points scored and assists, with his size as a guard making him difficult to deal with.

Robertson played 15 years in the NBA, averaging 25.7 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game and 9.5 assists per game. The combination of Robertson and Lew Alcindor made for one of the best duos in the history of the NBA at the time, with Robertson’s ability to distribute the ball to Alcindor and the rest of his teammate making everyone on his teams better.

6. Larry Bird

The skills that Larry Bird had in his arsenal were nothing short of uncommon in the NBA when he was playing. His peripheral vision was legendary, allowing him to make passes that other players quite literally could not see. And his ability to shoot in a league that had not yet fully embraced the three-point shot made him incredibly valuable.

Larry Legend led the Celtics into battle with the Los Angeles Lakers in multiple NBA Finals, with the iconic rivalry between Bird and Magic Johnson helping to make the league as popular as it is today.

The Celtics earned three titles with Bird as their top star. Bird was an underrated rebounder as well, averaging 10 boards per game to go along with his 24.3 point scoring average. Bird also had a run of three straight MVP seasons highlighting his illustrious career.

5. Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt Chamberlain averaged 30.1 points per game and 22.9 rebounds per game for his career. Those kinds of numbers are simply unfathomable in today’s NBA where there are more athletic players at every position to soak up some of the rebounds from centers like Chamberlain. But there was nobody who could consistently match up with Wilt the Stilt during his time in the NBA, as the Hall of Fame big did things that simply are not possible today.

The most notable accomplishment from Chamberlain was his 100-point game, but he did so much more than that. He is the only player to average 50 points per game in a season, a record that will never be touched again in the NBA.

The only thing holding Wilt back from being higher on this list was the level of competition that he faced when he was in the league.

4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Coming in at number four is the all-time leading scorer in the history of the NBA. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the interior anchor of the Showtime Lakers, with his skyhook being one of the most difficult shots to defend in the history of the league.

Abdul-Jabbar racked up six NBA championships and league MVP awards, as he managed to rise above some of the best players in the history of the league on his own team to earn individual awards.

KAJ's consistency over a long period of time was incredible to behold. He was a 19-time All-Star, signifying that his level of play did not drop off even as he got older. While Magic and Bird were the stars that headlined the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, it was Kareem who was ultimately the deciding factor as Magic’s anchor in the paint.

3. Magic Johnson

There was a reason that the Los Angeles Lakers were called the Showtime Lakers during the Magic and Kareem era, and that reason was none other than Magic Johnson. The Michigan State product was so flashy with everything he did on the court, and he was good enough to back everything up with wins. Johnson averaged 19.5 points per game and an incredible 11.2 assists per contest to help propel the Lakers to five championships.

As mentioned previously, the rivalry between Bird and Magic helped grow the NBA into the sport that it is today. At the time, even NBA Finals games were broadcast on tape delay. But thanks to the interest in the game that Magic and Bird helped cultivate, the game became a priority for broadcasters to get in front of fans as the games were going on.

2. Michael Jordan

Most NBA fans think of Michael Jordan as the greatest to ever play the game, and there is certainly a case to be made there. Jordan won all six of his NBA Finals appearances, helping the Bulls to win six titles even after he retired following Chicago's first three-peat to give baseball a shot. Jordan’s 30.1 points per game and many clutch shots will always be at the top of the list of memories for NBA fans.

Jordan’s killer instinct both on and off the court was well documented, as he had no problem trying to push teammates to be at their best. While some of his treatment of teammates has been viewed as controversial, it is hard to argue with the results that Jordan helped bring to the Bulls. And with MJ winning all six Finals MVP awards during the team’s run, there was no doubt who deserved the credit for the team’s success.

1. LeBron James

Yes, you are reading this correctly. LeBron James is a better basketball player than Michael Jordan ever was. That might be considered sacrilegious to most, but LeBron’s ability to excel in all facets of the game makes him a player that could elevate any squad from also-ran to title contender just by adding his name to the roster.

For proof of this, compare the teams James has brought to championships to the same teams after his departure via free agency. The Miami Heat went from winning multiple titles to a state of mediocrity upon his departure. The Cavaliers went from breaking a half-century title drought to being the worst team in the NBA after James departed. The Chicago Bulls, meanwhile, nearly won the Eastern Conference during Michael Jordan’s first retirement.

James has averaged over a rebound per game and two assists per game more than Jordan in his career, despite enduring rosters inferior to Jordan’s Bulls. And without a coach that has ever been able to hold a candle to Jordan’s head coach in Phil Jackson, James’ leadership should never be questioned either. If he can add another championship or two, James’ ability and resume should both be considered superior to MJ.

Photo: Getty Images / Lines.com Illustration