Coming up with our best NBA players of all time list was way easier than this.
Because it’s a piece of cake showing love or completely shading the game’s best players based on metrics and ordering them in some sort of coherent/authoritative fashion the way we did when we dropped the 30 Greatest Players in NBA History.
Debating who deserves GOAT status between Michael Jordan or LeBron James, for instance, was lightwork and way less messy than trying to figure something so subjective—and some might say arbitrary, or even obtuse—as declaring LeBron James a more influential player than, say, Steph Curry.
Have you ever thought about how to measure their influence? Definitively weighing how impactful their career was while taking into account their brilliance on the basketball court, coupled with their uniqueness off it that’s captivated audiences, captured imaginations, and fused pop and basketball culture? Or how they changed the game’s trajectory? It was a much harder task than we bargained for.
Just ask Dwyane Wade.
“That’s just like asking somebody how they like their peanut butter and jelly,” Wade, the future Hall of Famer and TNT NBA analyst, tells Complex Sports. “You could like it anyway. Jelly, jelly. Peanut butter, peanut butter. Or peanut butter and jelly. They’ve had special careers that are one-of-one.”
LeBron’s arguably the GOAT on the court, but he’s also become a pop culture icon and undoubtedly left his stamp on the culture of basketball. But to the same degree as Curry? Considering Steph gets credit for helping the Association evolve into a league that shoots exponentially more 3-pointers per game now compared to a decade ago? Wade would like to know how we can weigh someone’s influence while they’re still playing.
“We’re still watching both guys playing and continuing to create his legacy. LeBron’s had 20 years to create his legacy, and Steph hasn’t,” says Wade, James’ former teammate in Miami and Cleveland. “I think both have done something that’s been unique and special and puts them on the Mount Rushmore for what they’ve been able to accomplish in this game, this rich history of the NBA. We’ve never seen LeBron and we’ve never seen Steph.”
That’s completely fair, Dwyane. But before we reveal our highly subjective results, that admittedly skews more modern, allow us to explain how we ranked the legends.
First, we came up with a list of roughly 20 guys, then whittled it down to the 10 we felt were truly the most influential. Legends like Dirk Nowitzki, Dr. J, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and Bill Russell just missed the final cut. Then our voting panel was asked to order the players one through 10 in terms of their influence in four categories.
Transcendence: How broadly did a player capture the imagination of basketball fans? All are/were supremely talented, and each brought a unique skill set and dominated in their own distinct fashion. But how exalted was/is their game compared to the other candidates?
Innovation: How big of an impact did the player have on changing the trajectory of the game of basketball? The best example: Curry’s shooting prowess from 3-point range has completely changed the strategy of today’s game. But has he been more influential than Wilt Chamberlain who forced the league to rewrite the rule book?
Impact on the Culture: How influential was the player in terms of fashion, pop culture, sneakers, and how ubiquitous was/is their celebrity? The best example here is M.J., who is the granddaddy of sneaker culture, and who also made the original (and more tolerable) Space Jam, pitched all kinds of products during his prime, and remains one of the most popular athletes in the world despite not having played in 20 years.
Legacy: Voters were asked to take a 30,000-foot view of each player’s career and weigh the impact of their time in the NBA compared to others. Recency bias will certainly play a part, considering the careers of Jordan, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kevin Garnett have all come to a conclusion within the past two decades, while Curry and James are still cementing their own.
After tallying up the results, here are Complex Sports’ 10 most influential players in NBA history.