These rankings were weighed by the following seven factors:
- Was he the best basketball player alive at any point in his career? If so, for how long? If not, was he in the conversation?
- Could you win a championship with him as your best player? If not, could you win with him as your second-banana?
- How well did he play on the game’s biggest stage? Did he shrink from the moment, or rise to the occasion?
- At his absolute apex, how high was his ceiling? How long did his peak last? Also, how long did his prime last?
- Individual accolades (in order of most to least important): Finals MVP, NBA MVP, NBA scoring champion, All-NBA selections, All-Star selections, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, All-Defense selections, etc.
- Statistics — Postseason>Regular season
- Team postseason success
Before we get to the top-20, let’s discuss a few things.
- To be considered, a player must be in Year 10 (at least). As a result, disqualified were guys that, while on pace to one day crack the top-20, haven’t played ten years in the league. The notables: Anthony Davis (Year 7), Kawhi Leonard (Year 8), Kyrie Irving (Year 9), and Klay Thompson (Year 8).
- Keep in mind: these rankings have nothing to do with a player’s potential. Each contender is measured by their career resume as of today, November 11, 2018.
- In regards to the handful of players whose careers began before 1998, we are only measuring their accomplishments since 1998.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Webber (his peak was too short), Gary Payton (more than half of his prime took place in the ‘90s), Reggie Miller (ditto), Vince Carter (only made two All-NBA teams), Tony Parker (never a top-15 guy), and Manu Ginobli (never a top-20 guy).
Without further ado, here are the 20 greatest NBA players since 2000.
20. Carmelo Anthony
Resume: 10x All-Star…2x All-NBA Second Team…4x All-NBA Third Team…NBA Scoring Champion (‘13)…5-year-peak: 26–7–3…Apex: Top-10 player for ten years (’06 to ‘15)
Michael Jordan’s dominance in the ’90s left a long line of tragic figures. Among the many players who failed to win a ring during Jordan’s apex were three notable victims: Karl Malone (who was the league’s second best player from ’96 to ’98, but lost to Jordan in back-to-back Finals), Charles Barkley (who was the second best player alive from ’91 to ’93, but lost to His Airness in the ’93 Finals), and Patrick Ewing (who was the league’s second best center during the MJ’s reign, but went 0–5 against him in the playoffs).
LeBron’s closest contemporaries have, too, suffered under the shadow of his greatness, particularly Carmelo Anthony. Compared to peers Dwyane Wade (who captured a title before teaming up with LeBron), Dwight Howard (who beat Peak LeBron in the ’09 Eastern Conference Finals), and Chris Paul (who’s avoided LeBron’s wrath by remaining in the West), Melo is the tragic figure of the LeBron era.
The two spent the beginning of their careers on equal footing and for good reason: Melo played LeBron to a draw when the two squared off in 2002 as high schoolers, gained the upper-hand by winning the NCAA Championship as a freshman at Syracuse, and submitted a superior rookie season: While LeBron finished 2003–04 with averages of 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game, Anthony countered with 21.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game but had a higher effective field-goal percentage (.449) and more win shares (6.1) than LeBron (.438 and 5.1, respectively). He also helped guide Denver into the playoffs, while the Cavaliers sat the 2004 postseason out. From then on, though, LeBron distanced himself from Melo, deading the debate in the process. But
Still, LeBron’s superiority shouldn’t diminish Melo’s legacy. Sure, his resume has several blemishes: zero rings, zero trips to the NBA Finals, and only one appearance in the Western Conference Finals; never made first team All-NBA, only two second team All-NBA selections, and just one top-5 finish in MVP voting (‘13);
Even so, the following is also true: 1) Melo is one of the best natural scorers in the history of the sport, 2) He was one of the ten-best players in the league for ten straight years (’06 to ‘15), and 3) If he ever had the right supporting cast, he would’ve won a title (ask Dirk and the 2011 Mavs).
19. Dwight Howard
Resume: 8x All-Star…5x All-NBA First Team…All-NBA Second Team (‘14)…2x All-NBA Third Team…3x Defensive Player of the Year…5x All-Defense…5x NBA rebounding leader…2x NBA blocks leader…5-year-peak: 21–14–3…Apex: Top-5 player for five years (’08 to ‘12)…Best player on one runner-up (’09 Magic)
Before becoming a punchline — after suiting up for five teams in six seasons and killing the chemistry on each one — Dwight Howard was arguably the second best player alive. In fact, for a four-year stretch from 2008 to 2011, he was the most untradeable asset in the league (not named LeBron). Yes, more valuable than Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and young Durant; Dwight was that good.
By Year 8, Dwight had already made five first team All-NBAs and four All-Defensive first teams. Comparably, here’s how the ten best centers of all-time fared through eight seasons: Kareem (four, two), Wilt (six, zero), Russell (two, zero), Shaq (two, zero), Hakeem (three, three), Moses (one, zero), Robinson (four, four), Ewing (one, zero), Mikan (four, zero), and Walton (one, two).
If you’re keeping score, not one of the ten best centers ever had as many first team All-NBA selections as Dwight, while only Robinson made equally as many All-Defense first teams. Did I mention that Dwight accomplished this by the age of 26? An impressive feat considering that, by Year 8, the aforementioned group were 28 (Shaq, Hakeem, Moses), 29 (Russell, Robinson, Walton), and 30 years old (Kareem, Wilt, Mikan). In hindsight, time will erase Dwight’s reputation and rapid decline, and we’ll focus on what he was: the last best center in NBA history.
18. James Harden
Resume: NBA MVP (‘18)…6x All-Star…4x All-NBA First Team…All-NBA Third Team (‘13)…NBA scoring champion (‘18)…NBA assists leader (‘17)…NBA Sixth Man of the Year (‘12)…5-year-peak: 28–6–8…Apex: Top-5 player for four years (’15 to ’18)
As a basketball nerd, I can’t wait to see the look on my son’s face when he learns that — potentially — one of the ten-best players of all-time (Durant), the third-best shooting guard of all-time (Harden), and the tenth-best point guard of all-time (Westbrook) — all MVPs, all top-5 guys — played together, on the same team, for three seasons. The further we get from Oklahoma City’s decision to trade Harden prior to the 2012–13 season, the more it‘s likely to go down as the greatest what-if in league history.
Sure, a part of me will never get over losing out on seeing what could have been the most talented and winningest dynasty in NBA history, but it’s satisfying to know that we were right — in regards to each guy’s ability to excel in the leading role — all along. When Harden took a mini-leap in 2012, won Sixth Man of the Year, and showed flashes of greatness against the Spurs in the West Finals, basketball fans proclaimed that he — yes, the third banana! — was good enough to not only win an MVP one day, but be the best player on a championship team. Six years since the trade, he’s proven the rest of us geniuses.
17. Russell Westbrook
Resume: NBA MVP (‘17)…7x All-Star…2x All-Star Game MVP…2x All-NBA First Team…5x All-NBA Second Team…2x NBA Scoring Champion… NBA assists leader (‘18)…5-year-peak: 26–8–11…Apex: Top-5 player for three years (’15 to ‘17)…2nd-best player on one runner-up (’12 Thunder)
Aside from LeBron, Russ is the most polarizing basketball player of the decade. But while LeBron’s narrative arc culminates with a happy ending — from League Darling to Public Enemy №1 to Hometown Hero — Westbrook’s has moved in reverse. In just two years, his approval rating has dropped from 100 (in the aftermath of Durant’s departure) to 50 (amidst his 2017 triple-double MVP campaign) to hovering close to zero, as legions of NBA fans has soured on his style of play.
Initially viewed as selfless and honorable, Westbrook’s play-every-game-like-it-is-the-final-seconds-of-the-Finals-even-if-it-means-shooting-50-times-and-only-connecting-on-15-shots approach has reached a point of exhaustion. But it’d be irresponsible to ignore how great he is. When fans get old of the fast-paced, Superteam model the Warriors have established as the league’s blueprint, Westbrook will be praised; particularly, the fact that, one season after his co-star of eight years decided to chase rings and join the best regular season in NBA history, Russ did exactly what we talked about but didn’t believe he could actually do: average a triple-double and win NBA MVP.
16. Tracy McGrady
Resume: 7x All-Star…2x All-NBA First Team…3x All-NBA Second Team…2x All-NBA Third Team…2x NBA Scoring Champion… 5-year-peak: 27–7–5…Apex: Top-5 player for four years (’01 to ‘04)
Every basketball fan remembers T-Mac’s Greatest Hits: averaging 32.1 points per game in ’03; scoring 13 points in 33 seconds against the Spurs in ’04; hanging a career-high 62 on the Wizards in ’04; dunking on Shawn Bradley’s corpse in the ’05 playoffs; dropping 42–10–8 in Game 3 against the 2001 Bucks (at 20 years old, mind you); exploding for 36 points in 27 minutes at the ’06 All-Star Game; the list goes on and on and on.
Personally, though, my favorite memory of McGrady comes from Game 1 of the ’03 playoffs. By then, the 22-year-old had already cemented himself as one of the five best players on the planet during the regular season, averaging 32.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game, en route to winning the scoring title and making First Team All-NBA. Even so, the Magic only finished the season with 42 wins — still enough to secure the final playoff spot in an Eastern Conference that was absolutely awful — which is actually remarkable considering who he played with. Remember LeBron’s supporting cast in ‘07? Or, Kobe’s in ‘06? T-Mac’s ’03 teammates were far, far worse.
The Magic’s starting five for Game 1: T-Mac, rookie Drew Gooden, Jacque Vaughn (averaged a career-high 5.9 PPG that season), Gordan Giricek (lasted five seasons in the NBA), and Andrew DeClercq (a whopping 4 points and 4 boards per game in ‘03). Rounding out the rotation was 35-year-old Darrell Armstrong, a scrub named Pat Garrity, and a washed up Shawn Kemp. Unsurprisingly, no one gave Orlando a shot against the top-seeded Pistons, who were a year away from ending the Shaqobe dynasty in the ’04 Finals.
Anyway, back to Game 1 in Detroit. Sitting courtside that day was high school phenom LeBron James, who was two months away from being the №1 in that June’s NBA Draft. Midway through the second quarter, T-Mac exploded past his defender and dunked on Detroit’s seven-foot center, Memhet Okur, for his twelfth point of the game. It happened right in front of LeBron, who cameras caught shaking his head in equal parts disbelief and admiration. It’s a little thing, but a great moment, one that reminds you of McGrady’s unassailable legacy with a certain generation of basketball fans, LeBron included.
T-Mac would finish the night with 43 points on 54% shooting, before dropping 46 on 61% two days later. After the dust settled, the Magic lost to the more talented Pistons in seven, but not before T-Mac staked his claim as the next face of the league. Quick aside: Considering Orlando’s putrid supporting cast, it’s nothing short of a miracle that they had a 3–1 lead in the series. In Game 1, T-Mac outscored the rest of the starting five 43–28; and in Game 2, 46–19.
Nevertheless, before his 25th birthday, McGrady had already won back-back scoring titles and was a two-time First Team All-NBA selection. At that moment, T-Mac — not Iverson or Kobe or even Duncan — was supposed to be the bridge between the Jordan and LeBron eras.
15. Ray Allen
Resume: 2x NBA Champion…10x All-Star…All-NBA Second Team (‘05)…All-NBA Third Team (‘01)…3-year-peak: 21–4–4…Apex: Top-15 player for nine years (’00 to ‘08)…3rd-best player on one champ (’08 Celtics) and one runner-up (’10 Celtics)
Ten of the 50 greatest players of all-time spent equal parts of their prime playing for more than one franchise: LeBron (won at least one title, one regular season MVP, and one Finals MVP with the Cavs and Heat); Kareem (ditto, but with the Bucks and Lakers); Wilt (won a championship and MVP with the Sixers and Lakers); Shaq (won titles with the Lakers and Heat); Moses (won MVPs with the Rockets and Sixers); Barkley (after four first team All-NBA selections with the Sixers, was named NBA MVP with the Suns); Garnett (was named NBA MVP with the Timberwolves and Finals MVP with the Celtics); Chris Paul (selected first team All-NBA with the Hornets and Clippers); Dennis Johnson (was named Finals MVP on the Sonics, then won two titles with the Celtics); and Ray Allen (won titles with the Celtics and Heat).
Of this group, Shaq is the only guy made significant contributions to three different franchises — leading each one (Orlando, Los Angeles, and Miami) to the Finals — but only one guy cemented his legacy on four teams: Ray Allen. In Milwaukee, where he spent the first seven years of his career, Allen submitted one of the best acting performances ever by an NBA player (with his role as Jesus Shuttlesworth, in Spike Lee’s He Got Game), and established himself as one of fifteen best players in the league. He peaked during the 2000–01 season, leading the Bucks to within a game of the ’01 NBA Finals as he averaged 25.1 points, 4.1 boards, and 6.0 assists per game, while shooting 48% from three, over 18 playoff games.
Allen spent the next four seasons (from 2004 to 2007) with Seattle — highlighted by the ’05 season which saw him make second team All-NBA on the back of a career-best 23.9 PPG — then finished the tail-end of his prime (from 2008 to 2012) in Boston. With the Celtics, he was the third best player on one champ (’08) and one runner-up (‘10), and cemented himself as the greatest three-point shooter in league history (before being usurped by Steph Curry) thanks to some of his Greatest Hits: a game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds of Game 2 of the 2009 first round, then 51 points (including a three-pointer that forced overtime) in Game 6; seven three-pointers in Boston’s championship-clinching Game 6 win in 2008, followed by an NBA Finals-record 8 three-pointers in Game 2 of the 2010 Finals.
But Allen saved his best moment for last. In Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals — at 37-years-old, in Year 18 of an already Hall of Fame career , no less— Allen saved Miami’s Big 3 era and swung the title by hitting the greatest shot in league history by any calculation. No NBA shot before or since has had similar clutchness, bigger stakes, or a higher degree of difficulty. Of course, Allen hits it, Game 6 goes to overtime, and Miami forces a Game 7 en route to winning a second straight title. But if any other player is in that position, LeBron leaves Miami with one title. Talk about a domino effect.
14. Paul Pierce
Resume: NBA Champion (‘08)…Finals MVP (‘08)…10x All-Star…All-NBA Second Team (‘09)…3x All-NBA Third Team…5-year-peak: 25–7–4…Apex: Top-10 player for five years (’02 to ’06)…2nd-best player on one champ (’08 Celtics) and one runner-up (’10 Celtics)
Pierce is the only guy on this list who was never, at any point of his career, one of the five best players in the NBA, let alone a guy mentioned in the Best Player Alive conversation. He never finished higher than seventh in MVP voting. He made 10 All-Star appearances without ever being voted in as a starter and was never a first-team All-NBA player. He operated under the radar, overshadowed by more popular peers such as Duncan, Garnett, Iverson, Kobe, Nash, and Dirk.
Yet, his legacy is unassailable, featuring a career arc that’s unlike most superstars. For starters, Pierce peaked twice: first, from ’01 to ’07, as the №1 option on a bunch of mediocre Celtic teams that overachieved (over a six-year stretch where he averaged 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists while missing only eight games); then, from ’08 to ’12, as the second best player on an annual championship contender, which culminated with him outdueling the two best players since Jordan (LeBron and Kobe) during the same postseason (2008), while averaging 20–5–5 over 26 playoff games.
More than anything, though, Pierce is remembered as a guy who continually raised his level of play in big games. His Greatest Hits features: scoring 46 points in a series-clinching Game 5 win over the Sixers in the ’02 playoffs; leading the largest fourth-quarter comeback in postseason history with 19 points in Boston’s series-tying Game 4 win over the Nets in the ’02 East Finals; torching the heavily-favored Pacers for 40 and 37 points in Games 1 and 4 of the ’02 East Semis; hanging 45 points on LeBron in Game 7 of the ’08 East Semis; and, of course, his collection of clutch shots, featuring game-winning buzzer-beaters (Game 5 of the ’09 first round, Game 3 of the ’10 first round, and Game 3 of the ’15 East Semis) and last-second daggers (Game 4 of the ’03 East Semis, Game 5 of the ’12 East Finals, and Game 3 of the ’15 first round).
13. Steve Nash
Resume: 2x NBA MVP…8x All-Star…3x All-NBA First Team…2x All-NBA Second Team…2x All-NBA Third Team…5x NBA assists leader …5-year-peak: 17–4–11…Apex: Top-3 player for three years (’05 to ‘07)
From a legacy stand point, is Steve Nash overrated? I believe so. Here are my reasons.
1) He never reached the NBA Finals: For a three-year window from ’05 to ’07, Nash’s Suns were the best offensive team in the NBA and the league’s most talented team. His sidekick was one of the ten best players in the league (All-NBA center, Amare Stoudemire). The team’s third-banana was a perennial All-Star and arguably a top-20 guy (Shawn Marion). And the supporting cast featured three reliable fill-in-the-blanks guys (Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, and Leandro Barbosa). But Nash — a two-time MVP (we’ll get to that in a second) — never got them to the Finals, let alone won a title, as the Suns lost in the WCF in ’05 and ’06, and the second round in ’07.
2) He was the NBA’s best point guard for only three years: Here’s how long his contemporaries held the honor: Magic (ten years, ’82 to ‘91), Stockton (seven years, ’92 to ‘98), Kidd (six years, ’99 to ‘04), Paul (seven years, ’08 to ‘14), and Curry (in Year 5 of his reign, ’15 to present). Yet the majority of basketball fans rank Nash ahead of Kidd (I’m regretting doing so), and, even worse, above Curry and Paul?
3) His back-to-back MVPs were outright travesties: In ’05, MVP voters became blinded by Nash, who, in his first year with the Suns, led Phoenix to 62 wins while averaging 15 points and 11 assists per game. Meanwhile, a 32-year-old Shaq finished second, despite posting 23 points, 11 boards, and 2 blocks per game. But here’s the stat that should’ve cemented him as MVP: the Lakers went from 57 wins in ’04 to winning 34 games without Shaq in ’05; while the Heat went from 42 wins to 59 wins with Shaq. Combined, he was worth 40 wins, and that’s your MVP. Then, the next year, voters felt the need to award the Canadian another MVP, as he averaged 18/10 while the Suns won 8 fewer games because their most valuable player, Amare, missed most of the season. If you think the theft from ’05 was bad, here’s your other two contenders for the ’06 award: Kobe (35.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.3 APG) and LeBron (31.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 6.6 APG).
12. Jason Kidd
Resume: NBA Champion (‘10)…10x All-Star…5x All-NBA First Team…All-NBA Second Team (‘03)…9x All-Defense…5x NBA assists leader…NBA Rookie of the Year (‘95)…5-year-peak: 16–7–10…Apex: Top-5 player for six years (’99 to ‘04)
Growing up on the NBA in the early-’00s, no one’s favorite player was Jason Kidd. Of course, I’m speaking for those of us who were in elementary school during this period. Kidd got no love, not alongside personalities as big as Shaq and KG, above-the-rime talents like Kobe and Vince, heat-check guys T-Mac and Iverson, and the leader of the most entertaining team in basketball, Chris Webber. Kidd was transcendent, arguably the best defender and rebounder the point guard position has ever seen.
For a six-year stretch from 1999 to 2004, Kidd held the Best Point Guard Alive title. Unimpressed by Kidd, I was force to reevaluate my basketball knowledge in 2003, when he made light work of my hometown Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Nets swept the series, Kidd averaged 23/10/6/3, and ten-year-old me learned that a superstar can dominate an entire series despite possessing a below-average jumpshot.
11. Allen Iverson
Resume: NBA MVP (‘01)…11x All-Star…2x All-Star Game MVP…3x All-NBA First Team…3x All-NBA Second Team…All-NBA Third Team (‘06)…4x NBA scoring champion…4x NBA steals leader…NBA Rookie of the Year (‘97)…5-year-peak: 29–4–6…Apex: Top-3 player for three years (’99 to ‘01)…Best player on one runner-up (’01 Sixers)
Whenever basketball fans discuss Allen Iverson’s legacy, we remember the iconic SLAM cover, him crossing over Jordan and stepping over Ty Lue, the infamous Practice rant, and the shoes, durags, tattoos, baggy clothes, jewelry, and braids. On some level, though, his legacy as a cultural icon — and the face of the league’s hip-hop era — dwarfs his greatness as a basketball player. If you need reminding, do yourself a favor and watch the highlights or look at box scores from his ’01 MVP campaign.
It’s one of the greatest front-to-back MVP seasons ever submitted. After a regular season of averaging 31.1 points, 3.8 boards, 4.6 assists, and 2.5 steals per game — including 17 games with 40-plus points — Iverson had the audacity to save some of his best work for the Sixers’ unexpected run to the Finals: In the second round against Toronto, he dropped 54 in Game 2 and 52 in Game 5; in the Eastern Conference Finals versus Milwaukee, he torched the Bucks in Games 6 and 7 with 46 and 44 points, respectively; and, finally, hands the Lakers their only loss of the postseason with 48 in Game 1 of the Finals.
10. Chris Paul
Resume: 9x All-Star…All-Star Game MVP (‘13)…4x All-NBA First Team…3x All-NBA Second Team…All-NBA Third Team (‘11)…9x All-Defense …4x NBA assists leader…6x NBA steals leader…NBA Rookie of the Year (‘06)…5-year-peak: 20–4–10…Apex: Top-3 player for six years (’08 to ‘13)
The ten best point guards ever are: Magic, Oscar, Stockton, Curry, Isiah, Paul, Kidd, Nash, Cousy, and Frazier. Yes, Chris Paul is the sixth best point guard in NBA history. Yet his ceiling was much higher. If he had won a title as a team’s №1 option, Paul would’ve passed Isiah; throw in an MVP as well, and he goes down as the third best floor general ever. That’s how close he was. At his apex, he was arguably the best two-player in the history of the position. Additionally, you could make the case that he’s the most complete point guard of all-time, when it comes to his ability as a scorer, distributor, and defender.
His two-year statistical peak is insane: 21.1 points, 11.6 assists, and 2.7 steals per game, in ’08 (finishing second in MVP voting); and 22.8 points, 11.0 assists, and 2.8 steals per game, in ’09 (finishing fifth in MVP voting). Even more impressive, his prime lasted nine seasons, a stretch from 2008 to 2016 where CP3 averaged 19/10/2. Yet, possibly his greatest achievement has been his ability to excel in his early 30s.
Last season, in Year 13, the 32-year-old still put up averages of 18.1 points, 9.2 assists, and 2.0 steals per game. Meanwhile, here’s how his closest contemporaries fared in Year 13: Stockton (14.4 points, 10.5 assists, 2.0 steals), Isiah (14.8 points, 6.9 assists, 1.2 steals), Nash (15.7 points, 9.7 assists, 0.7 steals), and Kidd (13.0 points, 9.2 assists, 1.6 steals). Not that Paul has shown any slippage in his play in Year 14. Eight games into this season, the 33-year-old Point God is thriving, averaging a sneaky efficient 16.8/8.8/2.5.
9. Dirk Nowitzki
Resume: NBA Champion (‘11)…Finals MVP (‘11)…NBA MVP (‘07)…13x All-Star…4x All-NBA First Team…5x All-NBA Second Team…3x All-NBA Third Team…5-year-peak: 25–9–4…Apex: Top-5 player for seven years (’05 to ‘11)…Best player on one champ (’11 Mavs) and one runner-up (’06 Mavs)
Prior to 2011, Dirk’s playoff legacy was directly tied to the Mavs’ collapse in the ’06 Finals and their subsequent loss to the eighth-seeded Warriors in ‘07 — the same season Dirk was named league MVP, no less. Now, this was a slightly inaccurate take. Sure, Dirk — with Dallas on the verge of taking a 3–0 series lead in the ’06 Finals — went cold down the stretch as the Mavs blew a 13-point lead with six minutes remaining in Game 3, before losing the next three and the series; and, yes, Dirk, by averaging an underwhelming 19/11/2 in the series, was part of the reason the Mavs became the first number-one seed to lose a best-of-seven series to an eighth. But even before these failures, Dirk had already established himself as one of the greatest playoff performers in league history.
Over five straight trips to the postseason, from 2002 to 2006, Dirk averaged 26 & 11, submitting three of his best playoff series up to that point: 2003 first round vs. Portland (30 & 9), 2006 second round vs. San Antonio (27 & 13), and the 2006 West Finals vs. Phoenix (28 & 12). Still, the narrative didn’t change until the 2011 playoffs, as Dirk elevated himself into the best power forwards of all-time conversation, on the back of a postseason performance that was nothing short of transcendent. Here are his averages during the Mavs’ championship run: first round vs. Portland (27 & 8), second round vs. Los Angeles (25 & 9), West Finals vs. Oklahoma City (32 & 6), and NBA Finals vs. Miami (26 & 10).
And who can forget Game 2 against Miami? With Dallas trailing Miami by four with under three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter — and on the verge of falling behind 0–2 in the series — Dirk scored the Mavs’ final nine points to lead Dallas to a series-tying victory, including three buckets in the final minute that cemented his legacy for good: a transition lay-up to tie the game with 57 seconds left; a three-pointer to give Dallas the lead with 26 seconds on the clock; and a lay-up over Bosh that broke the tie with under three seconds remaining. Yes, the Germantor was ice cold.
8. Kevin Garnett
Resume: NBA Champion (‘08)…NBA MVP (‘04)…15x All-Star… All-Star Game MVP (‘03)…4x All-NBA First Team…3x All-NBA Second Team…2x All-NBA Third Team…Defensive Player of the Year (‘08)…12x All-Defense …4x NBA rebounding leader …5-year-peak: 23–13–2…Apex: Top-5 player for six years (’00 to ‘05)…Best player on one champ (’08 Celtics) and one runner-up (’10 Celtics)
Before joining Boston in the summer of 2007, KG was the most tragic figure in the league. He spent his entire prime — 12 freaking years! — wasting away in Minnesota, surrounded by mediocre supporting casts. In fact, mediocre is far too generous. Over the course of his first twelve seasons in the league, KG played with three one-off All-Stars (Tom Gugliotta Wally Szczerbiak, and Sam Cassell), and a one-time All-NBA selection (Cassell, who made the second team, at the washed up age of 35, no less, by riding shotgun on Garnett’s MVP bandwagon in ‘04). Talk about a roster train wreck. No superstar during his era was stuck in a worse situation, especially for that long.
Even so, Garnett carried the Timberwolves to the playoffs in each of his first eight seasons. After getting knocked out in round one the first seven tries, things turned around in 2004. Named league MVP after averaging 24.2 points, 13.9 boards, 5.0 assists, and 2.2 blocks per game during the regular season, KG continued his dominance in the playoffs. That spring featured both the best playoff series of his career (in the second round vs. Sacramento, where he averaged an ungodly 24 & 15 with three blocks per game), and his greatest playoff performance ever (in a Game 7 win over the Kings, he tailed 32 points, 21 boards, and five blocks), as Minnesota got within two wins of the NBA Finals.
When we look back on his legacy, the peak was surely his time in Boston. But, playoff failures aside, those twelve seasons in Minnesota were Apex KG. For a nine year stretch from 1999 to 2007, he averaged 22 & 12 with four assists and nearly three blocks. He’s one of the four best power forwards the league has ever seen, and the first preps-to-pros success story, paving the way for guys like Kobe, T-Mac, Amare, LeBron, and Dwight.
7. Dwyane Wade
Resume: 3x NBA Champion…Finals MVP (‘06)…12x All-Star… All-Star Game MVP (‘10)…2x All-NBA First Team…3x All-NBA Second Team…3x All-NBA Third Team…NBA scoring champion (‘09)…3x All-Defense …5-year-peak: 28–6–6…Apex: Top-3 player for three years (’08 to ‘10)…Best player on one champ (’06 Heat), 2nd-best player on 2 champs (’12, ’13 Heat) and 2 runners-up (’11, ’14 Heat)
Last year, a co-worker tried to argue that James Harden’s MVP cemented him as a better player than Dwyane Wade. When I tried to correct him, insisting that, surely what he meant was, “James Harden will retire with a greater legacy than Dwyane Wade”, he backtracked a bit, saying that, yes, Harden is on pace to usurp Wade; Sensing his come-to-Jesus moment, I brought up Wade’s three championships, assuming that we would end up at a place where we could both chalk up his initial proclamation as something that wasn’t well thought out. Instead, Team-Harden attempted to poke holes in Wade’s bag of rings, using the predictable argument — LeBron won him two titles — before throwing down the all-time petty jab, “The refs gifted Wade the 2006 title!”
And that’s when I realized that the small age difference between us — four years — must matter more than I initially thought. Sure, our Harden-kool-aid-drinker and myself were both young during the ’06 NBA Finals (ten and fourteen years old, respectively), but it had to matter. At which point I came to the sad realization that an entire generation of basketball fans might think D-Wade was merely LeBron’s glorified sidekick. No matter.
If you remember ’06, you know what Apex Wade was like. After the Heat dropped the first two games of those Finals, Wade put on his Batman cape, supplanted Shaq as the team’s alpha-dog, and carried Miami to four-straight wins and the NBA title. On the series, the young star averaged a jaw-dropping 34.7 points, 7.8 boards, 3.8 assists, and 2.7 steals, arguably the greatest performance in NBA Finals history, which minted Wade as the single best player in the league. At 23 years-old, and with only three seasons under his belt, it made all of us consider whether we’d been focusing on the wrong guy for the past few years. Maybe King James wasn’t the heir to Jordan — It was D-Wade was all along.
6. Stephen Curry
Resume: 3x NBA Champion…2x NBA MVP…5x All-Star…2x All-NBA First Team…2x All-NBA Second Team…All-NBA Third Team (‘13)… NBA scoring champion (‘16)…NBA steals leader (‘16) …5-year-peak: 25–6–7…Apex: Second-best player alive for two years (’15, ‘16)…Best player on one champ (’15) and one runner-up (‘16), 2nd-best player on 2 champs (’17, ‘18)
Steph Curry’s hot start through thirteen games this season has several basketball pundits convinced that he’s never been better — Yes, even better than three seasons ago when he won the first unanimous MVP. Can everyone relax? Have we already forgotten that, for nine full months — from October 2015 to May 2016 — Curry was so good that he forced even the biggest LeBron blowhards (myself included) to accept the fact that he’d usurped the King as the league’s alpha-dog.
For the entire ’16 season, Curry cemented a bullet-proof case, especially during Golden State’s 24–0 start, where Steph averaged 35 points, 5.5 boards, and 6.5 assists per game, while shooting 55% FG, 48% 3FG, and 91% FT. Seemingly every game featured one of his patented heat-checks, as Curry made 402 three-pointers during the regular season, breaking the record he set the previous year — 286 threes — by 41%.
More than anything, though, he reached the point where it all felt preordained, as evidenced by his unforgettable performance against the Thunder that February. With under four minutes to play in regulation and the Warriors down nine, Steph scored eight consecutive points to help Golden State force overtime, then added another nine to keep the Warriors in striking distance. Of course, the inevitable happened: with the game tied at 118, Curry took a few steps beyond half court before launching a 37-footer with 0.6 seconds remaining. Everyone knew it was going in; as always, it did.
5. Kevin Durant
Resume: 2x NBA Champion…2x Finals MVP…NBA MVP (‘14)…9x All-Star…All-Star Game MVP (‘12)…6x All-NBA First Team…2x All-NBA Second Team…4x NBA scoring champion…NBA Rookie of the Year (‘08) …5-year-peak: 29–7–4…Apex: Second-best player alive for five years (’12 to ’14, ’17 to present)…Best player on 2 champs (’17, ‘18), and one runner-up (‘12)
It’s likely that KD will retire as the third best small forward of all-time (behind LeBron and Bird), and one of the fifteen greatest players in NBA history. Yet Durant is perhaps the only top-15 guy who’s never been — even for one season — the undisputed Best Player alive. In fact, he is the only one. Here’s the rest of the top-15, in order of when they held the Best Player alive title: Russell (1958–63), Oscar (1964–65), Wilt (1966–68), West (1969–70), Kareem (1971–78), Moses (1979–83), Bird (1984–86), Magic (1987–90), Jordan (1991–93), Hakeem (1994–95), Jordan (1996–98), Shaq (1999–04), Duncan (2005–07), Kobe (2008–10), LeBron (2011-present).
Meanwhile, Durant has never held the honor, though merely because he’s had the misfortune of peaking simultaneously with one of the two best players ever. Four years LeBron’s junior, it initially seemed inevitable that KD would one day usurp his rival as the league’s alpha-dog. Instead, he’s spent most of the last nine seasons — aside from the two-year window when Steph scorched the earth — as the Robin to LeBron’s Batman, easily the best second best player in the history of the sport.
In 2010, Durant staked his claim as the NBA’s second best player by winning his first scoring title and making first team All-NBA; LeBron, meanwhile, won his second straight MVP. Two years later, in 2012, Durant appeared to close in on the King after being named the NBA scoring champion for the third straight year, before he finished second to LeBron in MVP voting en route to losing to his rival in the Finals. In 2014, KD was validated with winning his first MVP, but LeBron was coming off back-to-back championships and four MVPs in five years. By 2016, the debate looked over for good as Curry leap-frogged Durant, but only before LeBron defended his crown in the Finals that June.
Of course, judging by the last two NBA Finals, it’s fair to argue that Durant is, in fact, the league’s best player. KD is the guy who won two rings, captured back-to-back Finals MVPS, and hit three-point daggers in Game 3 — of both the ’17 and ’18 Finals — in LeBron’s face, no less. Yet, perhaps unfairly, it wasn’t enough to change the minds of most basketball fans. When it comes down to it, LeBron is still King, with Durant established as his most worthy successor.
4. Shaquille O’Neal
Resume: 4x NBA Champion…3x Finals MVP…NBA MVP (‘00)…15x All-Star…3x All-Star Game MVP…8x All-NBA First Team…2x All-NBA Second Team…4x All-NBA Third Team…3x All-Defense…2x NBA scoring champion…NBA Rookie of the Year (‘93)…5-year-peak: 28–12–3…Apex: Best Player Alive for three years (’00 to ‘02)…Best player on 3 champs (’00, ’01, ’02) and 2 runners-up (’95, ‘04), 2nd-best player on one champ (‘05)
From 1999 to 2008, eight guys were named NBA MVP: Malone, Shaq, Iverson, Duncan (twice), Garnett, Nash (twice), Dirk, and Kobe. As a result, this period is often remembered for lacking an official King. However, this isn’t exactly accurate. Granted, the throne wasn’t occupied by one guy like in the eras its bookended by — Jordan (1989–98) and LeBron (2009-18) — nor did it feature co-Kings similar to prior ten-year periods: 1959–68 (Russell & Wilt) and 1979–88 (Bird & Magic).
Instead, a handful of players fought over rightful claim of the throne (Shaq, Duncan, Kobe, Garnett, and Iverson), three of which held the Best Player Alive title for more than one year: Shaq, Duncan, and Kobe. Still, the crown was bestowed upon one head: Shaq. From 1999 to 2004, he was the league’s undisputed alpha-dog. The most dominant player on the planet, Shaq was, definitively and undoubtedly, the Best Player alive. In fact, it wasn’t even close.
At his absolute apex, Shaq submitted arguably the greatest three-year run in NBA history — from 2000 to 2002 — culminating with three championships and three Finals MVPs. Over 59 playoff games, he averaged 29.8 points, 14.5 boards, and 2.5 blocks; and in 15 Finals games over three seasons, he finished with 35.7 PPG, 14.9 RPG, and 2.9 BPG. On a series-by-series basis, Shaq’s numbers are nothing short of comical: ’00 Finals (38/17/3), ’01 Finals (33/16/3), and ’02 Finals (36/12/3). I rest my case.
3. Kobe Bryant
Resume: 5x NBA Champion…2x NBA Finals MVP…NBA MVP (‘08) …18x All-Star…4x All-Star Game MVP…11x All-NBA First Team…2x All-NBA Second Team…2x All-NBA Third Team…12x All-Defense…2x NBA scoring champion…Apex: Best player alive for three years (’06 to ‘08)…Best player on 2 champs (’09, ’10) and one runner-up (‘08), 2nd-best player on 3 champs (’00, ’01, ’02) and one runner-up (’04)
Spare me your anti-Kobe sentiment. I’m well aware that a) He was the second best player on his first three championship teams, b) Duncan submitted a better career, front-to-back, and thus, was actually the best player of the post-Jordan era, c) He was the undisputed Best Player Alive for only three years, max (2008, no question, 2009, because his Finals MVP trumps LeBron’s regular season MVP, and 2010, ditto), and d) He won less MVPs than inferior guys like Pettit, Malone, Nash, and Curry. As if it matters.
No superstar’s career arc is comparable to Kobe’s. It’s nothing less than perfect: Act I (from 1997 to 2004) saw him go from overhyped rookie to potential star to overqualified second-banana to the best sidekick not-named Pippen to alpha-dog; Act II (from 2005 to 2007) is when he transformed into the league’s best offensive threat since Jordan, the most ruthless competitor since Jordan, and the second best shooting guard of all-time; finally, Act III (2008 to 2013) is when he cemented his legacy with championships four and five, proving that he could win without Shaq, while staking his claim as arguably the best player since MJ.
More than anything, though, Kobe identifies with a specific group of Millennial basketball fans — between 23 and 28 years old, roughly — who are too young to remember Jordan’s second string of titles, but too old to consider LeBron our childhood hero. Instead, we had Kobe — The Fresh Prince of the NBA.
2. Tim Duncan
Resume: 5x NBA Champion…3x Finals MVP…2x NBA MVP…15x All-Star…All-Star Game MVP (‘00)…10x All-NBA First Team…3x All-NBA Second Team…2x All-NBA Third Team…15x All-Defense…Apex: Best player alive for three years (’03 to ‘05)…Best player on 5 champs (’99, ’03, ’05, ’07, ’14 Spurs) and one runner-up (’13 Spurs)
My favorite Duncan memory is from Game 7 of the Spurs’ 2015 first- round series against the Clippers. Trailing by two points with 13 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, San Antonio gets Duncan rolling to the basket off a switch and forces Reddick to foul him. Consider: Duncan, 39-years-old, in Year 18, and hovering at 50 percent, got the call over Kawhi Leonard, a 24-year-old first team All-NBA selection who was just one year removed from winning Finals MVP. As if you expected anything different.
Timmy regrouped his nearly-40-years-old one-legged body and drained both. But— seemingly like every other great moment in Duncan’s career — it was relegated to footnote status by Chris Paul, who hit a buzzer-beating, series-ending floater at the other end. Not that Duncan would prefer it any other way.
Throughout his entire career, Duncan lived in the shadow of more popular peers like Shaq, KG, Iverson, and Kobe. Yet no one occupied the throne longer: for a nine-year stretch from ‘99 to ‘07, he was the first or second-best player on the planet, collecting eight first team All-NBAs nods, four titles, three Finals MVPs, and two regular season MVPs.
Still, the anti-Duncan camp is out there, even if it’s founders lean on baseless arguments such as: a) Robinson was the Spurs’ best player on the ‘99 championship team, b) The Spurs would’ve lost to the Mavs in the ‘03 WCF had Dirk not gotten injured, c) The Spurs wouldn’t have beaten the Suns in ‘05 had Joe Johnson not broken his face during the previous series, d) The Suns were on pace to oust the Spurs from the ‘07 playoffs before Robert Horry decked Nash into the scorer’s table, leading to Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw leaving the bench en route to suspensions for Game 5, and e) Kawhi was the best player on Duncan’s final championship team, in 2014.
I hear you, but not really. Here’s where you’re wrong: A) Duncan was the best player in ‘99, as evidenced by his averages in the Finals (27 & 14); B) When Dirk went down three games into the ‘03 WCF, the Spurs had a 2–1 series lead and Duncan was averaging 35/18/3; C) In the ‘05 WCF, the Spurs won in five, as Duncan averaged 27/14/2. So you really think a healthy Joe Johnson was going to be the difference? I didn’t think so; D) You might be right, but Timmy still hung a 26–15 on the Suns in Game 5; and E) Yes, Kawhi was the best two-way player in the series, but a 37-year-old Duncan was the most efficient, shooting 57% on the series while averaging a rock solid 15 & 10.
Then there’s the ‘03 playoffs, an eight-week run that minted Duncan the greatest power forward of all-time. On the heels of winning back-to-back MVPs, Duncan secured his second title with a Game 6 for the ages, nearly registering a quadruple-double as he ended up with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and 8 blocks on the night.
1. LeBron James
Resume: 3x NBA Champion…3x Finals MVP…4x NBA MVP…14x All-Star…3x All-Star Game MVP…12x All-NBA First Team…2x All-NBA Second Team…5x All-Defense…NBA Rookie of the Year (‘04)…5-year-peak: 29–7–7…Apex: Best Player Alive for ten years (’09 to present)…Best player on 3 champs (’12, ’13 Heat, ’16 Cavs) and 6 runners-up (’11, ’14 Heat, ’07, ’15, ’16, ’18 Cavs)
LeBron’s been at it so long that he’s become a point of reference, a measurement to personal milestones.
I was nine years-old when LeBron graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2002, and had just started middle school when he made his NBA debut in the fall of 2003. I was a freshman in high school when he submitted his first legacy-shaping performance (Game 5 of the 2007 ECF), and was weeks away from leaving for college when The Decision was broadcast world-wide on June 8, 2010.
I watched his return to Cleveland from my freshman dorm room. Two months before my 21st birthday, he captured his second consecutive title in 2013. I read his “I’m Coming Home” SI piece while soaking up my last summer as a college student in July 2014. One month after entering the real world, I watched him lose to the Warriors in the 2015 Finals. When the rematch took place in 2016, I had already up and moved cross-country to New York. Two months after the rubber-match, in the 2017 Finals, I turned 25.
I suppose, for an entire generation, LeBron shouldn’t worry about succumbing to the passage of time. Our memories are filled with nothing but him, a lasting imprint that no Finals records can ever touch. It hardly matters if he’s the GOAT. He’s already our’s.