The 15 Greatest Players in NBA History

“The internet is awash with top ten basketball player lists, because fans invest themselves into the great one’s. For basketball aficionados, the legends, specifically the ones they enjoy patronizing, define who they are as fans. Bias becomes more inherent; whether because of person or place or time, the marriage between fan and player is never more powerful, never more defined.”

That is an excerpt from Part III of my personal list of the fifty greatest players in NBA history, that I did in commemoration of the original list designed by the NBA in 1997. However, this is a different occasion. Instead of relaying my own inherent biases, I’ve decided to craft a list with an amalgamation of biases in mind. So, similar to the Associated Press’ style of selecting the MVP winner or assembling the All-NBA First team, I’ve crafted a blue-ribbon panel of my own. However, instead of journalists from high-profile outlets like ESPN or the Boston Globe, I’ve hand picked a group of voters from all across the NBA-blogosphere. Whether it be Youtubers, writers, page admins, podcasters, well-established personalities in the NBA debate community, or any number of those things combined. While I won’t be individually sharing their lists one by one, I’ve compiled their list’s into one comprehensive source, ranking the fifteen greatest players in NBA history.

The methodology itself was pretty simple; Everyone submitted their individual list’s, ranked one through fifteen, and then I tallied them all together. The player with the lowest number of votes would be ranked at number one, and the player with the highest total number of votes would be the lowest. Of course, if one player didn’t receive a ranking from every list, that player would automatically be placed lower than a player who did. And, so on and so forth. So, without further ado, I’ll list our esteemed panel of voters, and proceed with the list.

Coach Daniel(Youtube)Jason Mann and Rich Kraetsch(Over and Back Podcast)… Osarume Ogala(Greatest NBA Talk — Facebook)… Jeff Dubray(NBA Legendary Debate Room — Facebook)… Brad Stevens(NBA 24/7 — Facebook)… Mikey Domagala, Adam Behmoiras and Pavan Peketi(NBA Buzz — Facebook)… Jonah Hall and Austin Murphy(PopGate)… Ray Petree(Prime Time Sports Talk)

15. Julius Erving

Equal parts style and substance, Julius “Dr. J” Erving is one of the most well-known and important player in basketball history. A driving force in the legitimacy of the American Basketball Association (ABA), Erving revolutionized the game by melding flare and power not before seen from his position. The art of dunking became just that, art, because of Erving. A true superstar of two professional basketball leagues, Erving is the only player to have been named Most Valuable Player in both the ABA and NBA while maintaining a top 10 finish in MVP voting for 11 straight seasons. He ranks as the sixth-highest scorer in ABA/NBA history and won three championships during his time in professional basketball. Productive until his final season (3.5 Win Shares), Erving rode off into the NBA sunset with opposing teams and franchises showering him with gifts and praise. Erving is a true legend of the sport whose influence and importance may not be as fully appreciated as it should be.

Rich Kraetsch

14. Moses Malone

Moses Malone established himself as the acme of persistence over his 20 year career, and a peerless force on the glass like very few before him, or since for that matter. The Chairman of the Boards was more than just a glorified rebounder though — outworking his adversaries underneath the rim for putbacks and second chance points, raining down fifteen-footers, and masterfully executing the drop-step to near perfection. His dedication wasn’t for naught either, earning him three MVP’s and one championship in the midst of a Bird-Magic driven league, and a cult following that has lasted decades after his career’s end.

13. Jerry West

For many fans, Jerry West exists only as the NBA’s silhouette — a faceless icon, long forgotten by virtue of his eight abysmal losses in the Finals. But, to solely use West’s finals record as a measure to encapsulate his career would be an exercise in ignorance. Zeke from Cabin Creek is the only player in NBA history to earn a Scoring Title, Assist Title, and be voted to the All-Defensive Team — as well as being the only player in NBA history to average 40 points per game throughout the entire playoffs not-named Michael Jordan. He’s ranked sixth in career points per game, third in career playoff points per game, and fourth in career Finals points per game. Unfortunately for West, and his running mate Elgin Baylor, the Lakers lacked the coaching expertise of Red Auerbach for the majority of their careers, or the astonishing depth that propelled the Celtics to championship celebration after celebration. There’s no doubt in my mind though that had the Lakers acquired a coach of Bill Sharman’s caliber ten years earlier, the chasm separating Russell’s Celtics and West’s Lakers would have been much narrower.

12. Oscar Robertson

Oscar Robertson’s name is largely synonymous with his triple-double season in 1962, but little do fans know that Robertson actually averaged a triple-double over his first six seasons. While those statistics may have been inflated due to the breakneck pace of the 1960’s, it would be disingenuous to say that Oscar wasn’t the spiritual predecessor to legends like Magic Johnson and LeBron James. If you need any further proof to justify Oscar’s place on this list, listen to how his contemporaries and antecessors speak of him in reverent tones. Bill Russell, Jerry West, Isiah Thomas, LeBron James, and Chuck Daly have all sang his praise — and deservingly so.

11. Hakeem Olajuwon

Hakeem The Dream Olajuwon’s career is a testament to the power of maturation, dedicating himself to self-actualization, but never foolishly chasing perfection. He understood his limits as both a man, and a basketball player, but constantly sought to improve in both endeavors. And, after fathering three daughters and finding God — Olajuwon’s evolution from the unruly race horse that served as the better half of the Twin-Towers, to the undisputed king of “Clutch City” had been complete. Etching his name into the fabric of basketball, to forever be remembered as the smoothest big man to ever glide across hardwood.

10. Kobe Bryant

Forget Frank Caliendo and Bdotadot5 — Kobe “Bean” Bryant may be the greatest sports impersonator of all time. Whether you consider it learning from the best or just plain theft, you cannot deny that Kobe has perfected some of the moves that Michael Jordan made famous. Ranging from his impeccable footwork in the post, too his remarkable ability to isolate himself with any defender — at any point in the shot clock — and still find a shot that he was comfortable with. Even if his coaches and teammates weren’t always comfortable with them. Still, the Black Mamba will undoubtedly go down in history among the greatest pure scorers that this game has ever seen, and an icon who inspired a generation of fans in the process.

Brad Stevens

9. Shaquille O’Neal

Shaquille O’Neal typified the significance of mental fortitude at the sharp end of basketball, because had he the will to match his unbelievable physical prowess, it’s possible that Shaq would have been the greatest force in NBA history. In reality though, a lack of commitment, discipline, and tenacity inhibited him from realizing his astonishing potential. But, while it’s easy to get lost in the realm of ‘what could have been’, it would be blasphemous to say Shaq’s career was ‘unimpressive’. The Diesel was quite possibly the last bastion of dominant interior basketball, using his sheer mass and immense strength to overwhelm his adversaries down low.

8. Larry Bird

Larry Bird is inextricably tied to his rival and dear friend, Magic Johnson, however, to understate Bird’s singular impact and legacy would be a gross injustice. Larry Legend was Hoosier Hysteria’s magnus opus, emerging from Indiana State as the premier rookie in his class — including his aforementioned rival. He could pass like any great point guard of the day, rebound like a power forward, play the passing lanes, and of course — kill teams with the rock in his hands. Sadly, injuries, and a notoriously difficult conference were the bane of Bird’s career, prematurely ending his run before it could come to its natural climax. Still, in only eight short seasons, Bird established himself as the paragon of skill and intelligence, proving that genius alone could trump athletic brilliance.

7. Tim Duncan

Antiquated novelties like individuality or iconicism meant nothing to Tim Duncan, and that’s why in many ways, the metronomic “superstar” was the ultimate franchise player. For two decades The Big Fundamental played basketball as though it was being rendered in stark black and white television, reminiscent of the great big men of yesteryear. Of course, Duncan never failed to adapt to Gregg Popovich’s constantly evolving offense either — presenting the Spurs with savvy post play, pinpoint outlet passing, stout interior defense, and a bank shot that, like Gervin’s finger roll or Dirk’s fallaway, was a signature move for the ages.

6. Magic Johnson

No quarterback brought more elegance to transition basketball then Magic, and no athlete has ever been more magnanimous. His smile was electric, his passion infectious, and his dominance over the position unmatched.

5. Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt Chamberlain is as inextricably tied to his rival, Bill Russell, as he is outlandish numbers. 100 points in a single game, season averages of 50–25 in 1962 and 24–24–8 in 1967, a record 11 rebounding titles, 7 scoring titles, 1 assist title, 20,000 women… All of those(with one exception) are emphatically true. However, filing through the mythos of The Big Dipper and determining fact from fiction is what makes the goliath such an interesting figure. For example, former NBA player Cal Ramsay once asked Chamberlain where the scars on his arm came from, too which Chamberlain replied by telling Ramsay that they were the result of a gruesome fight to the death with a ferocious mountain lion. This is, of course, untrue. Is it actually untrue though? If Chamberlain could lay claim to nearly half of every 60+ point performance in NBA history, who am I to doubt that he could kill a lion with his bare hands? I bet that mountain lion can’t score 60 points, let alone 100.

4. Bill Russell

Bill Russell’s eminence is irrefutable at the most fundamental level of all competition; success. His five most valuable player awards and eleven championships are unmatched, even compared to the venerable Michael Jordan or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Although, there’s an important distinction to be made between the result, and the machinations that caused it. While Russell wasn’t a great scorer by any stretch of the imagination, he revolutionized defensive concepts and established a unit devoted to collaboration. That unique skillset, in confluence with Red Auerbach’s groundbreaking transition offense and the slew of great players that surrounded them are why the Celtics were able to cement themselves as the greatest dynasty in basketball history. Still, between Russell’s coronation as a rookie in 1957, and his last championship in 1969, there was only one constant for the Celtics. It wasn’t Cousy nor Havlicek, or even their coach Red Auerbach — it was Bill Russell.

3. LeBron James

LeBron James is a 6’8–250-lb. locomotive, and a Frankenstein’s monster of a basketball phenomenon. Combining the strata of both Karl Malone and Magic Johnson to craft the most unique amalgamation of size, power, speed and intellect that the sport has ever produced. His moniker, The King, couldn’t be anymore accurate, because he truly does exist apart from his contemporaries. Magic Johnson’s wizardry elevated basketball to ethereal levels, but even his legacy is inextricably tied to Larry Bird. Whereas LeBron, for better or worse, is peerless. He’s never had such an antithesis. Instead, he’s been locked in a never-ending battle with “expectation”. Not his own self-imposed aspirations, but those force upon him. Whether it was being billed as the heir apparent to Michael Jordan, or constantly being measured against the great specters of yesteryear. Whatever the case — when you look beyond the unprecedented degree of scrutiny he’s faced, great heel turns, diva-esque media contretemps… Basketball purists can unanimously agree that what remains is one of the best resumes ever assembled. And, it’s still being assembled.

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Simply put, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the most accomplished basketball player of all-time. Abdul-Jabbar dominated all levels of basketball unlike anyone before or after him: he won 71 consecutive games in high school, amassed a record of 88–2 at UCLA and was a record six-time NBA Most Valuable Player, winning six NBA championships as a player and two as an assistant coach. Abdul-Jabbar was named to the NBA’s All-Star team a record 19 times, 15 times an All-NBA selection and an 11-time NBA All-Defensive Team member. At the time of his retirement, Kareem was the NBA’s all-time leader in points, games, minutes, block shots and career wins. The greatest of all-time debate will always rage on but for my money, there will never be anyone better than Kareem. Abdul-Jabbar’s combination of longevity, durability and dominance is unprecedented.

Rich Kraetsch
  1. Michael Jordan

His Airness, Black Jesus, and the man who is universally regarded as the greatest force in the history of basketball. Jordan’s dominance was the culmination of a multitude of players that have previously been mentioned on this list, so a resounding thought must begin to creep into everyone’s mind; has any player ever triumphed in an era as rich with talent as Michael Jordan? As fans of the LeBron James’ era will gladly tell you, eras rarely overlap so uniformly that multiple legends can all bloom at the same time. Because, the great ones rarely leave enough oxygen for their competition to breath. However, Jordan bloomed in an era inhabited by the likes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, grew alongside the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, and dominated the league during Shaquille O’Neal’s rise to power. None of whom were able to best Jordan when he was at his zenith. Simply put, Jordan was the destroyer of kings, and furthermore, a hoops icon that transcended the world of sports like little ever have before him, or since for that matter. For all of those reasons and more, his place atop this list was never to be questioned. It was an absolute certainty, just like Jordan himself.