It might be the best sports bar argument of all-time. Who are the top 10 greatest basketball players ever?
Football is the ultimate team sport, so it’s hard to single any one guy out. In baseball, what’s more important – a positional player or a pitcher? In hockey, are we counting goaltenders?
Basketball might be the easiest one to figure out, but the same time, narrowing this list down to just 10 was harder than hitting a halfcourt shot on the first try.
We’ll run as many reader responses as possible in print across New York, Philly and Boston next week.
TOP 10 NBA PLAYERS OF ALL-TIME
1. Michael Jordan
The only reason why you would not have Jordan at No. 1 is because the era in which he reached his peak. The 1990s was far from the best era in NBA history and Jordan never had a true rival. Not Jordan’s fault, but Russell had Chamberlain and Magic had Bird. If any of those guys were in their primes during the ’90s it’s hard to imagine that Jordan comes away with six titles.
2. Bill Russell
Russell won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. He’s the greatest winner in sports history, bar none. The knock here is that a measly nine teams played in the league at the time. On one hand that means that the top teams he faced had multiple future Hall of Famers on their teams. On the other hand, guys like Jordan played in an era where there were 28 other teams vying for a championship. It’s a quality vs. quantity argument.
3. Magic Johnson
Most NBA historians will tell you that the 1980s was the greatest era in NBA history, and Magic led his team to more titles than anyone else during the league’s golden era, with five. He redefined what a point guard looks like and he famously played center in place of the No. 5 guy on this list in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. Magic scored 42 points and pulled down 15 rebounds in a Lakers title win.
4. Larry Bird
Bird won three titles to Magic’s five during the golden era, but injuries to himself and his Celtics teammates may have cost the franchise a title or two in those years. Bird won the league’s MVP Award three years in a row (1984-86) and for those who want to claim that he was actually a better player than Jordan there’s this argument - Bird was a decidedly better shooter, passer and rebounder than the No. 1 guy on this list.
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem was an elite player longer than any player in league history and is the league’s all-time leading scorer. He was a record six-time league MVP, a record 19-time All-Star and won six NBA titles in his career. The knock here is that at least half of those title wins came with Magic as the team’s best player.
6. Tim Duncan
Duncan won five titles during a time in which the league transitioned away from a game dominated by big men. Freak athletes like LeBron James and Kevin Durant were the prototype players in the 2000s and in this current decade, but Duncan’s Spurs just kept finding a way to spoil the fun. Duncan is the best chameleon in league history as his teams won titles in a variety of different fashions. It was a twin towers approach with he and David Robinson in 1999, then it transitioned to the well-oiled machine of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the mid-2000s, and then he won a title just two years ago with Kawhi Leonard and the pretty-passing, space-the-floor Spurs.
7. Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt famously scored 100 points in a game and is statistically the G.O.A.T. He averaged an absurd 50.4 points per game in the 1961-62 season. But the guy just could not beat the No. 2 guy on this list. Russell and the Celtics beat Chamberlain’s teams in seven of eight playoff series and Russell’s teams won all four Game 7s in which the rivals squared off. Russell won 11 titles, Wilt just 2.
8. Jerry West
Like Chamberlain, West was a victim of playing in the same era as Russell’s Celtics. Despite the fact that he won just one title, West earned the nickname of “Mr. Clutch” during his playing career. The 60-foot shot he made in Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the Knicks is arguably the greatest shot in league history. “The logo” made the All-Star team 14 times and led the Lakers to the Finals nine times.
9. LeBron James
LeBron is on the verge of reaching his seventh NBA Finals – sixth consecutive. No player his size – 6-foot-8, 250-pounds of pure muscle – has been able to run the floor like him. LeBron is a four-time MVP and a much better passer and rebounder than the flavor of the decade – Stephen Curry. Oh, and LeBron NEVER gets injured. Yup, he might be the most passive aggressive major athlete in sports history and he represents a lot that is wrong with the current pro sports climate, but there is no denying his greatness as a player.
10. Oscar Robertson
Robertson is widely regarded as the greatest all-around player in NBA history. The guy averaged a friggin’ triple-double and it wasn’t one of those 12 points per game deals either. In the 1961-62 season he averaged a whopping 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. The knock here is that he won just one NBA title.
Kobe just never made his teammates better. His Lakers missed the playoffs altogether in 2005 and they were bounced in the first round in 2006 and 2007. That time period wasn’t exactly the toughest in NBA history and most important, if you’re a top 10 player of all-time you’re at least making the playoffs during your prime even if Mark Madsen, Brian Scalabrine, Jack Haley and Adam Morrison are in your starting lineup. Also, many people underestimate just how dominant Shaq was during Kobe’s early championship years. Guessing a guy like LeBron would have won four or five titles if he had a “sidekick” like Shaq.
I love Curry like the next guy, but the sample size just isn’t large enough yet to put him anywhere close to the top 10. Also, when you’re talking top 10 of all-time you’re talking nit-picky stuff when comparing players. Curry has already been injured more this postseason than LeBron has in his entire career. “The King” certainly wins the durability argument.
Won his only two titles against two non-Michael Jordan-led teams. Would have been interesting to see a Rockets-Bulls Finals matchup in those years but Olajuwon couldn’t get the Rockets there in any of the six times Jordan got his Bulls there in the ’90s.
When he showed up 15 pounds overweight at training camp one year his excuse was that “muscle weighs more than fat.” That’s been my excuse for not having anything that resembles a jawline since high school. Shaq would have won one or two more titles, I’m convinced, if he had kept himself in better shape. Oh, and had worked on his free throws.