The 30 Best NBA Players of All Time, Ranked

Ranking the best NBA players ever. From Michael Jordan to LeBron James to Steph Curry, these are the 30 best basketball players of all time.

Best NBA Players Ever
Image via Complex Original
Best NBA Players Ever

The toughest debates may not be the obvious ones.

When the Complex Sports crew started to put together this list, we didn’t waffle over whether LeBron deserved to be ranked higher than MJ. Nor did we particularly labor over why Tim Duncan, for instance, deserved top 10 status over Kevin Garnett and Kevin Durant (for now).

Instead, the politicking and petty attacks on each other’s basketball intelligence got really heated, over multiple Zoom calls and text threads, when we tried to properly rank Shaq and Kobe and a bunch of point guards toward the bottom of our 30 Best NBA Players of All Time list. It’s guaranteed to get hardcore basketball fans in their feelings and, in our humble opinion, do a much better job than some of those other rankings floating around the interwebs that shall remain nameless.

Almost up until deadline, we debated whether Shaquille O’Neal, inarguably one of the best big men in NBA history and a true disruptor on the court, deserved to be ranked higher than the late, great Kobe Bryant. O’Neal was physically and statistically unlike any center the NBA has seen. But how much more credit do you give Bryant for winning more rings and drawing legit comparisons to Michael Jordan?

And who do you give the nod to between three legendary guards—Chris Paul, Steve Nash, and Allen Iverson—when there’s only room for one? As each individual involved in this incredibly difficult and necessary endeavor lobbied for the player they thought deserved proper billing, we quickly realized it was going to be hellacious coming to a consensus. There were passionate pleas to weigh unprecedented accomplishments over sustained excellence. Others argued it should be about the numbers and that awards don’t always end up belonging to the most deserved individual.   

But decisions had to be made. So for better or worse, here are the best 30 players in NBA history, assiduously ranked. Praise or pillar the selections as you see fit. Some will love the rankings, others will loathe them. We’re cool with what we came up with knowing the next time we update it Kevin Durant could sneak into the top 10.  Our latest entry to the list is Nikola Jokic and with him entering the top 30, we had to remove another all-time great in John Stockton. The discourse never dies and we’re here for it. 

30. Allen Iverson

Allen Iverson

It upsets me that people might be shocked that Allen Iverson is included on this list. AI is unquestionably a top 30 NBA player ever. Just look at the accolades. 11-time NBA All-Star. NBA MVP. Three-time first team All-NBA. Four-time NBA scoring champion. Member of the NBA 75th anniversary team.  The list goes on, but Iverson’s cultural impact on the current, and even future, generation of NBA players are more meaningful than his numbers on the court. LeBron James has called him the pound-for-pound best ever. Dwyane Wade has said AI is part of the reason he wore No. 3 during his career. You could go on and on with former and current NBA stars talking about why Iverson was so great and means so much to them. For myself, I’ll never forget Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals. To this day that is still one of the most amazing individual performances on a basketball court that I’ve ever seen. For a guy his size to go out and drop 48 on the road against the heavily-favored Los Angeles Lakers is straight-up unbelievable. —ZF

29. Scottie Pippen

Scottie Pippen

Way more than just a sidekick to you know who, Scottie Pippen’s greatness is sadly taken for granted by many, including those who saw it with their own two eyes along with the ones basing their assessments solely on what they saw in The Last Dance. But never forget what the GOAT, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, told us in the documentary: “Everybody said I won all these championships, but I didn’t win without Scottie Pippen and that’s why I considered him my best teammate of all time.” If ya don’t know, now ya knowwwww….Pippen’s numbers will likely never wow you because he wasn’t the scorer Jordan was. He never did anything as good as Jordan—except, that is, defend. Pippen is inarguably one of the greatest defenders in NBA history having made 10 All-Defensive squads (8 First-Team selections) during his 17-year career and regularly stifled the opposition’s best player like it was nothing. A Dream Team member and two-time gold medal winner who was skilled enough to be considered one of the 50 greatest by the NBA in 1996, and one of the 75 greatest players ever in 2021, Pippen did so much more than his averages indicated (16.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 5.2 APG). His hybrid play, like Magic Johnson’s, was way ahead of its time. And while he will forever live in the shadow of MJ, real ones know Jordan doesn’t ascend to Zeus status without Pippen doing all the dirty work and turning out to be the perfect complementary player. —AC

28. Isiah Thomas

Isiah Thomas

Zeke’s legacy has been somewhat tarnished over the years by the opinions of his peers and the off-the-court issues he brought on himself while in the Knicks’ front office. However, there’s no denying what he did on the court as the leader on two of the most hated championship teams in NBA history. The Bad Boys wreaked havoc on the NBA’s Holy Trinity of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan and most of the damage that was done was on the orders of the 6’1” point god. Detroit won back-to-back championships in the middle of what many call the toughest era of NBA basketball and made Jordan scratch and claw for years before he finally got the Bulls over the hump. Thomas was a diabolical general who was able to score whenever he wanted and put his team on his back to will them to victory. He’s still in the top five in assists (he averaged 13.9 apg in ‘85) and still gets under MJ’s skin. Zeke not being on the Dream Team is the biggest snub ever, no exaggeration, but he rightfully earned a spot on the NBA 75 team. —AD

27. Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard

There’s really only one thing Kawhi Leonard has left to accomplish in his career. That’s a league MVP award, but I don’t think we should knock him for that if that’s missing from his résumé when he ultimately retires. He has the two Defensive Player of the Years, the two Finals MVPs, he’s put a franchise on his back en route to an NBA title, he made the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, and he’s pretty much won his entire career. His season with the Raptors catapulted him up the all time ranks, if we’re being transparent. But if you hold being a third or fourth option in the Spurs system against him, you also have to consider the other side—what if he got the keys to a team earlier than he did? Obviously, Leonard’s regular-season résumé isn’t as strong as others on this list due to injuries and being in that Spurs system, but his playoff performances smokes a lot of people on this list as well. I think Kawhi could end up in the Nos. 15-20 range when it’s all said and done, but this seems like a fair spot to start. —ZO

26. Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic has silenced the critics and doubters. The naysaysers that ridiculed him winning back-to-back MVP awards and discredited his resume because of his team's playoff results have all been silenced. There's no debating the greatness of Nikola Jokic anymore. There's only man on this list with a 30-20-10 game in the NBA Finals. Jokic was already solidified as one of the best bigs of all time but now he's entering himself into the convo as one the greatest ever regardless of position. He will go down as the greatest passing big man the game has ever seen and when it's all said and done, he could make a run at being the greatest international player to ever play. Two league MVPs, a Finals MVP, and bringing a franchise to the top of sport for the first time ever. Not bad for a second round pick.  —ZO

25. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Call it an overreaction if you foolishly insist, but with all the accolades and the company he now keeps after that epic run through the 2021 NBA Finals, Greek Freak absolutely belongs on this list. Old heads might cringe at putting a 26-year-old, after only eight seasons, up here over a number of worthy legends, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is a two-time regular-season MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year, and just earned his first Finals MVP honors after authoring arguably the greatest performance in a close-out game we’ve ever seen. He’s made five All-NBA squads, four times he’s been named to one of the NBA’s All-Defense teams, he’s an All-Star MVP, was the Most Improved Player of the Year in 2017, and was named to the league’s 75th anniversary squad. A guy this young isn’t supposed to have so many accolades on his résumé, especially after he entered the league as such a project. But now that he’s earned his first championship, Antetokounmpo’s entered rarified air. Sure, his game has holes, and Bucks haters will say their run to the title wasn’t the hardest. Who cares? You can’t deny how dominant of an offensive force the Greek Freak is in the paint, how incredible of a defender he’s worked to become, and how inspiring his journey from a skinny kid in Athens to NBA superstar is to millions of basketball fans. Even despite losing in the second round to the Boston Celtics this season, Giannis became the first NBA player in history with 200 points, 100 rebounds and 50 assists in a single series. He’s arguably become the best player in the NBA at this point. Few guys in the league have ever affected the game in all facets like Antetokounmpo does, even if that 3-point shot forever remains a work in progress. Knock us all you want, but we’ll rest easy knowing Antetokounmpo belongs here as a newly minted NBA immortal—AC

24. Dwyane Wade

Dwyane Wade

Flash! There should be no shock that Dwyane Wade lands on this list. He’s a three-time NBA champion with a Finals MVP, a 13-time All-Star, a seven-time All-NBA member, three-time All-Defensive team members, has one NBA scoring title, and a spot on the 75th anniversary team—something Wade told us he still can’t believe. Once Wade burst onto the scene in 2003 it was almost immediately clear that he was special. From the high-flying dunks to the clutch mid-range jumpers off that patented D Wade pump fake, there was moment after moment where No. 3 left fans in awe. And though Wade played for the Bulls and Cavs later in his career, he’ll always be remembered as a member of the Heat. The moments he delivered in South Beach will live in basketball infamy. The arena on Biscayne will always reside in Wade County. When you’re ranking the best shooting guards of all time, just make sure you have Wade after MJ and Kobe. As he told us in a recent interview, you can’t talk basketball without mentioning the king of Miami-Dade County. —ZF

23. Moses Malone

Moses Malone

The rare legend that bounced around the NBA during his days in the league, know that Malone playing for seven different franchises in the Association shouldn’t distract from the fact he is easily one of the best centers of all time. The three-time MVP and 1983 Finals MVP was a 13-time All-Star, eight-time All-NBA selection, member of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, and a rebounding machine practically unrivaled during the 70s and 80s. Six times Malone, nicknamed the Chairman of the Boards, led the NBA in rebounds and for 14 straight seasons, he averaged double-digits cleaning up the glass. Only eight players in NBA history have won three or more MVP awards and Malone doesn’t get anywhere near the love that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson—the other two players to win three MVPs—receive. You get that because it’s Bird and Magic we’re talking about and they basically saved the NBA in the 80s. But Malone’s accolades compare quite favorably. A Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2001, Julius Erving introduced his former teammate before Malone’s enshrinement speech and Dr. J joked with the audience that evening, “Just think about the sound of that name. He had to get famous. What a waste of a name if he didn’t make it.” Malone made that name synonymous with rebounding, winning, and ultimately, immortality. —AC

22. Elgin Baylor

Elgin Baylor

Elgin Baylor never won a ring. But just because Baylor technically never won a title in his 14 years with the Lakers, two of which he spent in Minneapolis, don’t let that cloud how incredible of an offensive force he was and GOAT candidate during the league’s early days. The No. 1 overall pick in the 1958 NBA Draft, the Rookie of the Year in 1959, an 11-time All-Star, and an astounding 10-time First-Team All-NBA selection, Baylor of course resides on the NBA’s 75th anniversary team as he more than lived up to the hype when he entered the league and left it averaging 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds per game. He was innovative offensively, the first player in NBA history to pour in 70 points in a game, and inarguably will go down as one of the game’s best forwards. A no-brainer Naismith Hall of Famer inductee in 1977, the only thing missing from his sterling résumé was a championship. Technically, Baylor earned one since he was part of the 1971-72 Lakers squad that won it all, but he only played 9 games that season, retiring well before the playoffs started because of a nagging knee injury at age 37. Regardless of whether you consider Baylor a champion or not, know that another immortal on this list thinks Baylor deserves way more props than he receives. “Who do I think was the greatest? Oscar Robertson once asked. “This might shock you: Elgin Baylor. I’d love to see some of today’s greats playing against Elgin. They couldn’t guard him. Nobody could.” —AC

21. David Robinson

David Robinson

The Admiral. David Robinson is a true generational talent comes in at No. 21 on our list. That really shows you how hard it is to rank these guys. A two-time champion, MVP, 10-time All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year, four-time first team All-NBA guy can’t crack the top 20. Maybe we have Robinson too low, but when you get to this point, and you’re comparing ultra great players to ultra great players, it’s basically like splitting hairs. In Robinson’s case, his greatness was never flashy, but his presence and play helped propel the San Antonio Spurs dynasty, which was of course then carried on by Tim Duncan. Robinson was a guy who really did it all, and his numbers prove that. Robinson averaged a 21.1 PPG and 10.6 RPG double-double for his career while racking up 3.0 BPG in the process. That’s flat out impressive. Not only were Robinson’s numbers at an elite level, but he brought an athleticism to the center position that was rarely seen for his era and that’s why he’s on the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. The Admiral was able to do it all and then some. —ZF

20. Julius Erving

Julius Erving

Dr. J was everyone’s Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. The NBA merged with the ABA in ‘76 because of the Doctor (there were a bunch of other great players too like George Gervin) and he continued to take another league by storm after winning two chips with the Nets in the ABA. He helped the Sixers make the Finals during his first season in the modern NBA, but lost to Bill Walton’s Blazers in six games. Dr. J floated through the air as his lanky limbs cut to the rim and his hair blew in the wind. I can only imagine how that shit looked back in those days. It was probably like watching an alien. Sometimes I watch his reverse layup during the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the 1980 Finals against the Lakers and try to figure out how the hell he was able to stay in the air that long. And he’s not all style and flair either. Erving’s career numbers are just as impressive as his plays. He averaged 24.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 4.2 APG, 2.0 SPG, and 1.7 BPG. He also made 11 NBA All-Star teams, won three MVP awards across the NBA and ABA, and made the 75th anniversary team. Dr. J is the godfather of the modern NBA. —AD

19. Karl Malone

Karl Malone

Karl Malone falls into a long list of players from the 90s who were really good but ultimately overshadowed by Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Losing two Finals defeats at the hands of MJ and company certainly didn’t help. Still, Malone is the No. 2 scorer in NBA history and averaged 25.0 PPG over his 19 seasons in the league. He was a two-time NBA MVP, appeared in 14 All-Star games, made first team All-NBA an insane 11 times, and is a member of the 75th anniversary team. The numbers show that Malone is easily a top 20 player in NBA history. His career will undoubtedly always be tied to the failures to win a ring, but the production was always there for Malone. —ZF

18. Jerry West

Jerry West

Before he was known as The Logo, his teammates called him Mr. Clutch. Jerry West was that lethal shooting the ball—an absurd 47.4 percent for his career—and retired after the 1974 season ranked in the top 5 in points scored, points per game, free throws made, and assists. Despite going to nine NBA Finals with the Lakers, West won only one title in 1972. But one of the greatest guards ever made the All-Star team each of his 14 seasons in Los Angeles, made 12 All-NBA squads, was a five-time All-Defense selection, and a no-brainer to make the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. West legitimately did it all, including leading the league in scoring during the 1969-70 season and assists during his lone championship season. Sure, he played with some other legendary Lakers and the 1-8 record in the Finals stands out. But as great as he was in the regular-season, West shined in the playoffs. He averaged 30 or more seven times, including a preposterous 40.6 per over 11 games in 1965. The way every player gets compared to Michael Jordan nowadays, that’s how it was with West back in the 60s and 70s. He was the gold standard and wholly worthy of being cast as the league’s logo, even if he not so secretly disdains the honor. —AC

17. Dirk Nowitzki 

Dirk Nowitzki

Yet another tough ranking. This section of the list includes a lot of legendary big men from NBA history, but Dirk ultimately lands at No. 17 because of the way he changed the game. Before Dirk, rarely did you ever see a 7-footer in the NBA launching from deep. Now just look at the NBA today. If your team doesn’t have a big man that can shoot from 3, you’re not winning anything. Dirk brought about change that fundamentally altered the way the NBA is played. Above all of that impact, Dirk’s numbers and accolades back up his spot on this list. He dropped over 30,000 points in his career, won an MVP award, made 14 All-Star appearances, earned a spot on the NBA’s 75th anniversary squad, and racked up countless other honors over his career. And though this isn’t all that important, Dirk was able to do it with the same franchise for his entire career. And I didn’t even mention how magical he was during the 2011 NBA Finals when his Mavs upset LeBron James and the Heat. —ZF

16. Charles Barkley 

Charles Barkley

Crazy that Chuck is now underrated. A member of the NBA 75 team, people forget that he dominated for years as a 6’6” power forward. The Mound Round of Rebound was a beast on the boards, averaging 11.7 for his career even with his “down” years in Houston. Barkley couldn’t be stopped offensively either, beating out Jordan for the ‘93 MVP and taking his new team the Suns to the Finals where he lost to Jordan’s Bulls in six. Chuck played bigger than he was and was way more athletic than he was perceived. Early in his career he was quicker and stronger than everyone else, but as he got older he was able to add more finesse to his game. Barkley started J-ing people up and shooting threes, forcing opponents to guard from all over the court and not just on the block. He was always one of the most entertaining players on and off-the-court, leading him to becoming an Emmy Award-winning studio host on Inside the NBA. The younger generations gets to enjoy the Chuckster in ways older NBA fans never imagined. For you guys, know there’s still never been a player quite like him. —AD

15. Kevin Garnett

Kevin Garnett Top 30 All Time No. 15

The Big Ticket is one of those players where the “rings” convo holds little to no weight. He helped revolutionize the power forward position even more so than Tim Duncan did (he’s a center!), yet I feel like he’s been underappreciated because of all those years carrying mid teams on his back in Minnesota. If he gets drafted by the Spurs, KG would have had more than just one ring to his name. He was overshadowed by Duncan, whose numbers are slightly better, but Garnett was by far the more fun player to watch. With his unique skillset offensively, it was on the defensive end where KG was at his best. He won the Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, the same year he won his only championship in Boston, made the All-Defensive team 12 times, and easily earned a spot on the league’s 75th anniversary team. Like Magic Johnson before him, Garnett raised the bar as to what a man of his size could do on the court. In fact, it was Magic that he molded his game after as a youngster, which led to KG being one of the most versatile big men the NBA has ever seen. —AD

14. Hakeem Olajuwon 

Hakeem Olajuwon Top 30 All Time No. 14

Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon’s inclusion in this part of the list needs no explanation. He’s one of the best big men ever. You could quibble about Olajuwon only winning his two NBA titles while Michael Jordan was retired, but if you do, you don’t understand how hard it is to win a championship. Olajuwon was not only the MVP for both of those NBA Finals appearances, but he also took home a league MVP in 1994, appeared in 12 All-Star games, is the NBA’s all time leader in blocks with 3,830, and is a member of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. It’s still bewildering to watch old highlights and see how smooth Olajuwon, a true dominant force on both sides of the ball, was able to move in the paint for a player his size. Even more impressive for the context of Olajuwon’s career is that he did all of this while big men ran the NBA (outside of Michael Jordan). The Dream Shake will forever be one of the most iconic moves in NBA history and for that, we will always be thankful for Hakeem Olajuwon. —ZF

13. Oscar Robertson

Oscar Robertson Top 30 All-Time No. 13

While we can argue all day and night about the value of the triple-double in today’s position-less game, when Oscar Robertson became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double over a season it was nothing short of monumental. Point guards weren’t supposed to be 6’5” scoring machines that could get a bucket from anywhere on the court like The Big O could. Nor we’re they expected to rip down double-digit boards on a nightly basis. But Robertson broke the mold almost 20 years before Magic Johnson made his debut. He almost averaged a triple-double his rookie season before his iconic campaign during the 1961-62 season when he was good for 30.8 PPG, 12.5 RPG, and 11.4 APG a night. We all know Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and at least a handful of other stars can mess around and get a triple-double practically whenever they want. But only Westbrook has put up the seasonal averages (three times) to match Robertson’s brilliance and Russ isn’t anywhere near the offensive juggernaut Robertson was. The Big O was a nightmare matchup because he scored in ways few were able to figure out. The 1964 NBA MVP, the 1961 Rookie of the Year, a 12-time All-Star, an 11-time All-NBA selection, NBA 75… I can keep going. His college career is practically unmatched, but since we’re talking professional basketball here know that he was the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell to win an MVP between 1960 and 68. He also played a huge role in the NBA instituting free agency when he brought a lawsuit against the league in 1970 that challenged the legality of the league’s proposed merger with the ABA, the merits of the draft, and the reserve clause that prevented players from pursuing contracts with any team they wished. —AC

12. Bill Russell

Bill Russell NBA

You want to talk about underrated? Bill Russell is grossly disrespected when talking about the greats. Not only is he the greatest winner in all of American sports, Russell is also both the smartest and best defensive player to ever pick up a basketball. Like Kareem’s skyhook, Bill’s knack for keeping balls in play after a block is a lost art as players would rather swat it into the stands and flex on their opponent instead of making the right play. His signature play of tapping the ball to a teammate helped him invent the fast break. Blocks and steals weren’t tallied back then, but there are researchers that claim Russell averaged anywhere between 8-12 blocks per game. Not only did Russell win 11 NBA titles, the last two were as player-coach and he’s undefeated in Game 7s, going 10-0 when it’s win or go home time. Wilt Chamberlain is ranked higher on this list because his numbers are just too ridiculous, but he couldn’t beat Bill even with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor’s help. The only player in history to come close to matching his winning is Michael Jordan. Players don’t choose the era they play in, all we can do is look at who dominated it. And nobody on this list comes close to what Russell, and obvious NBA 75th anniversary team member, has done. There’s a reason why the Finals MVP award is named after him. He was truly ahead of his time. —AD

11. Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant Top 30 All-Time No. 11

To me, Kevin Durant is the most skilled offensive player ever to play the game. He’s a 7’ guard. There’s virtually no formula to stop him. He has the full offensive package with no weaknesses. He can shoot from anywhere on the court, he can get to the rim at will, and if you end up contesting his shot it probably won’t matter because he can shoot over you with ease. KD has only averaged under 25 points per game ONCE in his 12 seasons and that came in his rookie campaign. He went to a 73-9 Warriors team with a two-time MVP and the undisputed greatest shooter of all time in Steph Curry and he made him his Robin. You can call him a snake, a cupcake, or whatever, but you can’t deny the numbers he’s consistently produced—it earned him a spot on the NBA 75 team. If he brings home another title in Brooklyn, he could be pushing top 10 by the end of his career. —ZO

10. Steph Curry

Steph Curry

The Shaq of point guards. While the Diesel collapsed defenses, Steph expands them, taking the 3-point philosophy of Mike D’Antoni and turning it up a couple notches. Defenses have to stay up on him full-court, which his handles and elusiveness make impossible to do. He’ll then pull-up from halfcourt and make it 43.5 percent of the time. He is, without a doubt, the greatest shooter of all time after becoming the career leader in made 3-pointers. Compared to most of the guys on this list, though, Curry was a slow starter. He had issues with his ankles early in his career forcing us to wait to see the greatness that we caught glimpses of during his time in college at Davidson. Warriors fans booed then-new owner Joe Lacob on Chris Mullin Night because he gave the team to Steph after trading fan favorite Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut. Golden State won their first championship in four decades three years later. Now he’s the first unanimous MVP in league history (which is pretty stupid, but still) and has four rings to go with another MVP. With his latest title, he finally knocked off  Finals MVP off his checklist after a dominant performance against the Boston Celtics. There’s absolutely nothing left for Steph to accomplish and that’s why he ranks in our top 10 list. We’re already seeing Steph’s impact on basketball as kids start launching from deep earlier than ever in their young careers and on the league with NBA teams putting the mid-range jumper out to pasture and fully embracing the 3-pointer. A member of the league’s 75th anniversary team, Curry is easily one of the most influential players to lace ’em up. —AD

9. Tim Duncan

Tim Duncan

If you know The Big Fundamental’s backstory then you know the idea that he would become one of basketball’s greatest power forwards is preposterous. Duncan grew up in the US Virgin Islands. He was a swimmer and didn’t start playing basketball until later as a teen. After four years at Wake Forest, he morphed into a generational talent that every horrible team during the 1996-97 season hoped it would land so he could single-handedly reverse their fortunes. The Spurs lucked out, drafted Timmy, and became a quasi-dynasty. NBA 75 honoree, five-time champion, three-time Finals MVP, two-time regular-season MVP, 15-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA and All-Defensive team selection later, Duncan played all 19 seasons in San Antonio and consistently put up numbers like he was a robot—with the personality, as portrayed by the media, to match. Sure, Duncan benefited greatly from playing alongside the legend David Robinson and future Hall of Famers Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Pau Gasol, and Kawhi Leonard. But other than potentially Leonard, Duncan will shine brighter than all the other great players who have ever played for the Spurs—and just about every other power forward in NBA history—because of how rock steady solid he was. He’s top 10 in rebounds, blocks, win shares, and defensive win shares. Yeah, injuries cut him down his last few seasons, but from his Rookie of the Year campaign during the ’97-98 season through the 2009-10 season, Duncan was good for a double-double. In 251 playoff games, he averaged 19.9 PPG and 11.0 RPG. It’s the playoff excellence that helps elevate Duncan above the more physically and athletically gifted contemporary power forwards like Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett. But it’s his quiet, dignified manner that’s earned him the most praise. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put it best when the franchise retired Duncan’s jersey. “He’s an enigma in some ways. You think Kawhi Leonard doesn’t talk much,” Popovich said. “When Timmy first got here, it was like mental telepathy. I would say something to him and he would stare. I wasn’t sure if he was paying attention…finally I realize he understood everything I was saying. Probably agreed with half of it, but was so respectful he wouldn’t say anything until later.” After hashing things out, Pop often let Duncan have his way. Can’t argue with the results. —AC

8. Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt Chamberlin

Some of us are willing to die on the “Wilt Chamberlain Belongs on the NBA’s Mt. Rushmore” hill because nobody changed the game like Wilt the Stilt did. NO. BODY. Seriously, they made rules to try and limit his dominance since he owns records no player now or in the future will ever come close to eclipsing. Who else is going to average 50.4 PPG for a season like Wilt did in the 1961-62 season? Anybody else going to averaged 22.9 RPG during their career like Wilt did? Who will ever score 100 points in a game like Wilt did? You’re telling me somebody’s going to average more than 45.8 minutes per game like Wilt did during his 13 seasons in the NBA? And no soul will ever approach his 23,924 career rebounds. Tim Duncan, the best rebounder the game’s seen since Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, finished 9,000 boards behind Chamberlain despite playing five more seasons than the legendary lothario. Haters will counter that Wilt played against a bunch of stiffs in the 60s and 70s when the idea that a 7’1” center could be the most athletic player on the court was reserved for comic books. But you can only dominate the competition in front of you and the NBA did its best to reign in The Big Dipper, who rightfully earned a spot on the NBA’s 75th anniversary squad, when opponents couldn’t. Because of Chamberlain’s domination, the league widened the lane, outlawed players rebounding missed free throws before the ball touched the rim, changed the definition of offensive goaltending, and forbade inbounds passes over the basket because it was an automatic alley-oop to Wilt every single time. Jordan may be the GOAT, and the league most definitely altered some of its laws in his wake, but MJ never altered the rule book the way Chamberlain did. —AC

7. Larry Bird

Larry Bird

Boston’s had more than its fair share of Hall of Famers roll through the old Boston Garden, but nobody was as lethal a scorer or as clutch at the end of games like Larry Legend. A three-time champion who won three consecutive MVPs in the mid-80s, and obviously made the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, Bird knocked down daggers like it was nothing and loved ripping out the hearts of his rivals while talking some of the most underrated trash. One of the greatest What Ifs in NBA history revolves around Bird’s back that he infamously injured while paving his mother’s driveway during the summer of 1985. If Bird wasn’t Mr. DIY, it’s staggering to think what else he could’ve done since he was never quite the same after that and horribly hobbled his final few years in the league. But it didn’t stop him from averaging 24.3 PPG and 10.0 RPG for his 13 seasons. Bird filled up a box score but he was never strictly a numbers guy—he was just a winner who made ridiculous passes, had a knack for seeing everything unfold seconds before anyone else on the court, and always made the key play that either sealed the deal or keyed a game-defining run. That’s why even though he could barely get loose enough to play at the end of his final season, Bird was one of the most celebrated members of the legendary Dream Team. There was no way the greatest basketball squad ever assembled could leave off the greatest small forward the game had ever known at that point. Bird’s been supplanted by someone else on that mythical list, but the Hick from French Lick is forever a Legend. —AC

6. Shaquille O’Neal


The. Most. Dominant. Ever. Dominant seems like the only adjective to describe Shaq’s career. Shaq, obviously a member of the NBA 75 team, is one of the most skilled bigs ever to touch a basketball and we’ve all seen the video of him cooking MJ in a one-on-one before the All-Star Game. The beauty of Shaq’s dominance is that you could know after two dribbles that he was about to hit you with a dropstep in the post, but you just weren’t going to stop it even if you knew it was coming. It was either a bucket or a foul. We may never see a 7’1”, 365-pound big that was as explosive, athletic, and quick as Shaq. He was truly a one of a kind and easily one of the most entertaining players—on and off-the-court—that the NBA has ever seen. There will never be another Shaq. —ZO

5. Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant

Let’s get this out the way first: this isn’t a reactionary decision to Kobe Bryant’s passing. I personally think it’s disrespectful to leave Kobe Bean Bryant out of the top five of any all time list. Magic and Shaq crowned Kobe as the greatest Laker ever after he retired. Shouldn’t that tell you something? We can talk about the way Kobe impacted the game and the culture of basketball but that shouldn’t even be a measurement. We see the multitude of accomplishments like NBA MVP, 5-time champion, two-time Finals MVP, 18-time All-Star, nine All-Defensive First Team selections, the now fourth leading scorer, and so on. Even with all those accomplishments people try to tear him down with advanced statistics like usage rate and efficiency. To me, that’s absolutely silly for a guy who still managed to win just as many or more titles than Bird, LeBron, Wilt, Magic, and Shaq. Did you really watch Kobe Bryant—member of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team—for 20 years and say to yourself, “Well he’s not that efficient so I don’t think he’s great as he’s portrayed”? Social media can be a blessing and a curse so please don’t buy into the nonsense that Bryant wasn’t as great as he was. RIP Mamba. —ZO

4. Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson

When you talk about best PGs in NBA history, it would be impossible to not have Magic Johnson as No. 1. For this list, he lands at No. 4 overall and for good reason. Magic simply changed the game of basketball when he burst onto the NBA scene out of Michigan State in 1979. Just think about how incredible it is that in his first season in the league, Magic started Game 6 of the NBA Finals at center and dropped 42 points. He played all five positions in the game and led the Lakers to their first title in nearly a decade. This was just the start for Magic, who at his size, completely changed the way the basketball world looked at guards. His numbers and accolades look unreal in 2020. With five championships, three MVPs, nine-time All-NBA first team selections, and inclusion on the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, Magic had one of the best careers in league history. And the best part? Magic made the game fun—that’s what made Magic so special as a player. He and Larry Bird literally saved the league in the 80s and while they couldn’t have been more different stylistically there’s no argument whose influence on the game of basketball was greater. The captain of the “Showtime” Lakers should firmly be included on anyone’s NBA top 5 list. —ZF

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The NBA’s all time leading scorer and inventor of the most lethal shot in Association history, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skyhook-ed his way to 38,387 career points. Maybe, just maybe LeBron James surpasses him in another four or five seasons, but it’s going take a herculean effort on The King’s part to supplant the greatest center ever whose longevity is practically unrivaled. You’re not supposed to win NBA Finals MVP awards 14 years apart, but Abdul-Jabbar did. He earned just about every individual honor a superstar can earn, most especially six MVPs (one more than Russell and Jordan) and he’s still the only player in league history to win an MVP despite his team not making the playoffs. Of course he made the NBA 75 squad. Splitting his time between the Bucks and Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar won three MVPs with each franchise and five of his six rings in Los Angeles. A 19-time All-Star who 15 times finished in the top 5 of the MVP voting, we’ll spare you from listing out all his accolades because you’d be scrolling this fine piece of #content for hours. All you really need to know is that Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest center and it’s not even a debate. Bill Russell might have more titles, Wilt Chamberlain might have all those untouchable records, but Abdul-Jabbar was offensively skilled in ways Russell never was and retired as the league leader in nine statistical categories thanks to an impressive staying power Chamberlain couldn’t match. Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t physically dominant the way Wilt or Shaquille O’Neal was, but his fluidity was something special for someone of his gargantuan size. All other big man bow down to The Captain. —AC

2. LeBron James

LeBron James

As someone who has LeBron James as No. 1 on their best NBA players list, this is an easy one to write. When you think of LeBron James, you think of greatness. From the first dribble he took in an NBA game up until now, he’s done nothing but live up to the massive hype that was placed on his shoulders coming out of high school in Akron, Ohio. LeBron not only matched the hype, but he exceeded it. And let’s be honest, you’re being naive if you don’t think he has a chance to take the No. 1 spot on this list when his career is over. The Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James debate will never cease, but the fact that LeBron has already made it to this level is pretty damn amazing. We could go through all the stats and the awards to prove why James should be where he is on this list, but there’s really no need. We all know what he’s done and will continue to do for at least a few more years. For me, what secured James’ spot in the conversation with MJ was his performance in 2016 when he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-win Golden State Warriors. In my book, that’s the single greatest achievement in NBA history and will be hard to top. From dropping 41 in back-to-back games to the block in Game 7, LeBron leveled up in 2016. A member of the league’s 75th anniversary team, he long ago reached a different plane of basketball greatness that only himself and Jordan occupy. They breath different air than the rest of us and that’s ok. Let’s not forget LeBron is only 1,326 points away from passing Kareem to become the No. 1 scorer in NBA history. The irony of it is that most of his career, LeBron has not been recognized for his scoring ability despite his numbers. LeBron’s book isn’t finished yet and he could add a few more titles along the way, but let’s not also ignore everything he’s done over his career off the court. From opening a school in his hometown to building his own media empire, LeBron has consistently done everything we’ve expected from him and then some. A true GOAT. —ZF

1. Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan

How much of an explanation do you need here? Of course Michael Jordan is No. 1. This man won three in a row, left to play baseball, then came back to win three in a row again, and then he came back one more time and was one of the oldest players to average 20 PPG and to score 40-plus in a game. The GOAT, no question. But I’m still going to remind you that he never played in a Finals Game 7 in six appearances and won a Defensive Player of the Year award (‘88) along with his five MVPs, six Finals MVPs, and was named to the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. He played at the highest level on both sides of the floor and like Bill Russell before him knew exactly what he had to do to help his team win day in and day out. Jordan never took a game off, he was a maniac for better or worse. My guy was brought to tears when he looked back at how maniacal he was towards his teammates. ESPN’s The Last Dance tried its best to encapsulate MJ’s stranglehold on the basketball world and still didn’t do it justice. No guard has ever dominated the league like he did, which helps his case when you see him on the top of everyone’s list. There will never be another Michael Jordan. The winning, the endorsements, the shoes, the legacy. He did it all and made sure you knew about it along the way. All with a smile on his face and a cigar about to be lit. —AD

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