10 Greatest NBA Players of All Time

02/01/2018

Top 10 debates can be tough for basketball, mostly because everyone has their own personal standards and biases when it comes to determining the best players of all-time. Do rings outweigh regular season MVPs? How much of a role does longevity play? How do we weight different eras?

My top 10 list has the following standards by which it abides:

  • Efficiency is rewarded. 25 points a game on 50% shooting is far more impressive than 28 points a game on 43% shooting.
  • Regular Season MVPs are of high importance because they recognize dominance.
  • To eliminate empty rings, a championship count is meaningless. The finals MVP is what matters when discussing players of this caliber. Otherwise Robert Horry, with a career 7 points per game, would be considered the greatest player of all-time because of his 7 rings.
  • Finals MVP is the sole measurement of championship success. Rings are nice, but when talking about the top 10 players of all-time, the Finals MVP count is all that matters. Meaning that the player was the most valuable on a championship team. For example, Tim Duncan's 3 finals MVPs outweigh Kobe Bryant's 2 finals MVPs.
  • This list only considers achievements after the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, as explained here. Old People Sucked At Basketball
  • Only players with at least 10 NBA Seasons qualify for my top 10.
  • Must have a Finals MVP to qualify.

Just Missing Out:

Isiah Thomas - The original IT was an unstoppable guard for the 'Bad Boy' Pistons, and his career averages of 19 points and 9 assists prove that. However, Thomas was not as efficient as the guys who made the list, and he only has 1 finals MVP to his name.

Karl Malone - With two regular season MVPs and career averages of 25 points and 10 rebounds, how could I possibly leave out Karl Malone? The answer lies in his zero championships, which means zero finals MVPs. Karl Malone is disqualified because of rule number 7.

David Robinson - The admiral had a stellar career that include a 71-point game, a defensive player of the year nod, a scoring championship and a regular season MVP. What kept Robinson out of the top 10? Rule number 7. Robinson won two championships, but Tim Duncan was named the finals MVP both times.

Dirk Nowitzki - Dirk has a nearly identical career to the man at number 10 with one finals and regular season MVP, but the guy at number 10 is clearly the better basketball player. Still, Dirk almost made the list because of his incredible efficiency, longevity and overall skill level.

Kobe Bryant - Before you stop reading, hear me out. Kobe was a great player and had an incredibly long peak. But Kobe Bryant is arguably the most inefficient high-volume shooter of all-time (Russell Westbrook is challenging for that title). Kobe's career shooting percentage of just under 45% would have been by far the lowest of everyone in the top 10. Now you're thinking "but he has 5 rings." But as mentioned above, the Finals MVP is what we look at and Kobe's two finals MVPs aren't mind blowing when compared to the 10 players who made the list. Kobe wasn't even the most dominant player of his generation, and the fact that he only has one regular season MVP in 20 seasons proves that point.


10. Kevin Durant

Coming in at number 10 is Kevin Durant, the reigning Finals MVP. Now I still think what KD did in joining a 73 and 9 team was unfortunate and disappointing, but that can't detract from what might be the greatest scorer of all-time. Kevin Durant is at a career 27.1 points a game which ranks third behind MJ and LeBron. All while shooting 49% from the field and 38% from beyond the arc makes his scoring even more unbelievable. 

KD averaged 30.1 points a game in the 2009-10 season to become the youngest NBA scoring champion of all time at the age of 21, and would add three more scoring championships over the next 4 years. To put into perspective how impressive that is, at 21 Michael Jordan was averaging 20 points a game as a junior at North Carolina and Kobe Bryant had just completed his third NBA season averaging just under 20 points a game. KD's incredible efficiency paired with his NBA Regular Season and Finals MVP is why he cracks the list at number 10 even though he's only completed 10 seasons.


9. Moses Malone

Be honest, how many of you recognize the name Moses Malone? Not Karl Malone, but Moses Malone, named after the biblical prophet himself. So, just how great was the original Malone? He won three regular season MVPS and one Finals MVP in an era that included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Oh, and who did Malone beat in the finals? Just a Laker team that had 5 eventual hall-of-famers in Kareem, Magic, Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes and James Worthy. He was also a 12-time all-star and recorded 31 points and 15 rebounds a game in the 81-82 season while shooting 52% from the field. Malone's three regular season MVPs and Finals MVP put him just ahead of KD on this list. Moses Malone is arguably the most underrated star of all-time, but now you have a better idea of who he is and what he accomplished.


8. Hakeem Olajuwon

Number 8 is a man who didn't start basketball until the age of 17. How dominant was Hakeem? Two Defensive Player of the Year trophies, one regular season MVP, 2 NBA Finals MVP and that's not even scratching the surface of his accomplishments. Pre-LeBron James, Hakeem was arguably the most complete basketball player of all-time. Hakeem retired as the only player ever to finish in the top ten all-time in blocks, points, rebounding and steals. Hakeem was dominant on both sides of the ball and would get more recognition had he not been in the same draft class as Michael Jordan.


7. Tim Duncan

These next three were close. Coming in at number 7 is the greatest Power Forward of all-time, The Big Fundamental. With three finals MVPs and two regular season MVPs, Tim Duncan is arguably the most dominant player of a generation that included players like Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson. I bet you didn't know Tim Duncan had as many regular season MVPs as all three of those players combined. Tim Duncan was never flashy, but rather opted for the fundamental approach and was rewarded with 15 all-star games and three Finals MVPs.


6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem's longevity gets him on this list, but only so high, since a lot of his dominance came before the 1976 cut off line. Post 76, Kareem was a 1 time Finals MVP and a 2-time regular season MVP. Kareem ranks ahead of Timmy because he had arguably the most unstoppable shot of all-time, but ranks behind Shaq because he was not as dominant as Shaq was. Kareem would have finished higher, but most of his dominance came pre-merger.


5. Shaquille O'Neal

Kicking off the top 5 is the most physically dominating basketball player of all time. Deciding between Shaq, Kareem and Duncan was difficult. One relied on brute strength while the other two relied on fundamental excellence. I Ultimately went with Shaq because, at his best, Shaq was a 7'1, 325-pound player that never shot less than 55% from the field. One regular season MVP and 3 Finals MVPs also help his case. Not to mention Shaq was a two-time scoring champion and once recorded 30 points, 14 rebound, 4 Assists and 3 Blocks a game across an entire season. Wow.


4. Larry Bird

In at number 4 is the greatest white basketball player of all-time, Larry Legend. 3 regular season MVPs and 2 Final MVPs do not do a man who had to retire prematurely justice. At his best, Larry Bird was the man who regularly kept Michael Jordan out of the NBA finals while averaging 30 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds a game with 53% shooting from the field. Larry Bird was also arguably the first great three-point shooter and went toe-to-toe with the Magic-Kareem led Lakers on numerous occasions. Larry Bird was the first LeBron James, a do-it-all small forward capable of leading the team in scoring, rebounds and assists on any given night.


3. Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson or Larry Bird? You couldn't go wrong with either, but Magic was slightly more successful. Magic Johnson was named the Finals MVP in his rookie season. Magic won 3 regular season MVPs and 3 finals MVPs and is the best point guard of all-time. Magic Johnson was a cheat code, a 6'7 guard capable of averaging 24 points and 12 assists a game. He also finished his career with an average of 19.5 points and 11 assists a game while shooting 52% from the field. Had he not retired early because of his HIV diagnosis, Magic might have finished higher on this list.


2. Michael Jordan

Yeah, you read that correctly. Michael Jordan is number 2. It is hard to argue with his accomplishments but simply put, Michael Jordan was not as good of a basketball player as the man at number 1. Michael finished with 6 Finals MVPs and 5 regular season MVPS. And although he was dominant and one of the most clutch players of all time, his incredible achievements were a bit misleading as explained here: Michael Jordan's Overrated Legacy


1. LeBron James

The greatest basketball player of all-time is the man from Akron. There is no better 5-on-5 basketball player than LeBron James. LeBron James is certainly not the best 1-on-1 basketball player of all-time, but since the NBA has always been played 5-on-5, LeBron tops the list as the best basketball player of all-time. LeBron James currently has 3 Finals MVPs and 4 regular season MVPs to his name, and he is also on pace to finish on top of Jordan in literally every statistical category. LeBron James came into the league averaging 20-5-5 as an 18-year-old. At that same age Michael Jordan was averaging 13.5 points a game as a freshman at North Carolina. At age 21 LeBron James averaged 31 points 7 rebounds and 7 assists a game while shooting 48% from the field. At 21, Jordan was a junior guard at the University of North Carolina averaging 20 points a game. Jordan was arguably the better 1-on-1 basketball player, but NBA basketball is played 5-on-5 and therefore LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time. 



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