It’s the debate that all “NBA heads” love to have with their friends: “who’s your list of the greatest NBA players of all time?” It’s also a great way to pit the LeBron James superfans, “Kobe-stans,” and Michael Jordan loyalists against each other in a seemingly endless debate, while the old timers all sit around and tell us how we forgot about so-and-so.
Regardless, with a history of players as rich as that of the NBA, especially when you take into account the boom of talent we’ve seen in the league over the last 40 years, it’s time we revisited the list of the greatest players to ever lace it up in the National Basketball Association.
25. Scottie Pippen
Because he’ll always be remembered as the “Robin” to Michael Jordan’s “Superman,” we sometimes take the real greatness of Scottie Pippen for granted. The man moved with the grace of gazelle, used his long arms to swarm ball handlers like an octopus, and attacked opponents with the ruthlessness of an angry shark.
Named to an All-NBA team seven times over the course of his career and to the All-NBA defensive team 10 times over the course of his career, the argument can be made that Pippen is not only perhaps the greatest on-ball defender of all time, but one of the greatest two-way players of all time overall.
Even the staunchest supporters of the Bulls will tell you that Jordan might not have achieved the heights he did if not for having Pippen playing alongside of him.
24. James Harden
James Harden’s torrid scoring pace and one-man offensive production has already catapulted him into the conversation of “greatest shooting guards of all time.” While detractors will point to the fact that he not only hasn’t won an NBA title, but he’s also looked like the deer in the proverbial headlights on more than one occasion in the playoffs, there’s simply no denying how consistently dominant he’s been during the regular season, as a member of the Houston Rockets.
Between 2015 and 2018, Harden averaged a ridiculous 29.5 points, 9.1 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game, capping off one of the most impressive three-year runs of any player in league history. The 2018 NBA MVP should’ve also won it the year before, if voters weren’t so enamored with Russell Westbrook’s triple-double stat line.
23. Kevin Garnett
The godfather to the concept of the “unicorn” players we’re seeing in today’s NBA, Kevin Garnett possessed the basketball skills to legitimately play all five positions on the court, combined with an elite work ethic, on-court ferocity, and basketball IQ.
After playing 13 seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he became the team’s all-time leader in games, minutes, points, steals, assists, rebounds, blocks, and free throws, while being named an All-Star 12 times in that span.
The 2004 MVP single handedly carried some rather atrocious Timberwolves’ teams, and was finally rewarded for all his efforts when he was traded to the Boston Celtics in 2007, and won an NBA championship his first season there.
22. Bob Cousy
When we see today’s do-it-all point guards who can simultaneously set up their teammates, shoot the ball, and entertain the crowd while doing either, one can say they’re evolutionary descendants of former Boston Celtics’ point guard Bob Cousy.
Named to 12 All-NBA First and Second Teams and having won the 1957 NBA Most Valuable Player Award, Cousy was the guy whom people talked about then like we talked about Magic Johnson in the 1980’s or even LeBron James today.
His combination of ball-handling and passing skills earned him the nickname “The Houdini of the Hardwood,” but to the Celtics’ faithful, he was simply known as “The Cooz.”
21. Charles Barkley
The fact that somewhat portly 6’5 forward with an unmistakable country twang, coming from a university that was mostly a basketball afterthought (Auburn) could become one of the NBA’s greatest power forward of all-time isn’t the only reason Charles Barkley is on this list. It’s also because “Sir Charles,” or the “Round Mound of Rebound,” brought the combination of personality and on-court intimidation alongside his rare basketball abilities.
When he wasn’t starting a fracas on the court, Barkley was performing his “day job” — a 10x All-NBA selection, 11-time All-Star selection, and the league MVP in 1993. When Barkley retired from the NBA for good in 2000, he was among the top 15 players all time in rebounds, pulling down 12,546 over the course of his career.
20. Karl Malone
Myopic fans will tell you that Karl Malone never won an NBA title, and probably didn’t really deserve to win the first of his two MVP awards in 1997. But facts are facts: Malone scored 36,928 career points, which is 2nd-most in NBA history, only behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Malone also shares the record for the second-most first team All-NBA selections in the history of the league (tied with Kobe Bryant). “The Mailman” averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds a game over 18 years on the Jazz, and is widely regarded as both one of the greatest power forwards of not just his era, but of any NBA era in general.
19. Bob Petit
The first player in league history to be named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, Bob Petit was named to 11-straight All-Star games between 1955 and 1965, winning the MVP award in those games four times (an accomplishment that only Kobe Bryant has managed to match).
Pettit averaged at least 20 points and 12 rebounds per game in every one of those 11 seasons, and became the first NBA player to eclipse the 20,000 points mark. Playing alongside the legendary Bill Russell as a member of the then-St. Louis Hawks, Petit won an NBA Championship — an accomplishment sandwiched by this two NBA MVP awards (in 1956 and 1959).
18. Julius Erving
He might not have had an official PhD bestowed by an institution of higher learning, but there’s no question that Julius Erving, commonly known by his nickname of “Dr. J”, had all but a Doctorate degree in the game of basketball.
Erving won three championships, four Most Valuable Player Awards, and three scoring titles while playing for the ABA’s Virginia Squires and New York Nets (now the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets), as well as the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers.
Though Erving led the ABA in scoring in three of his first five seasons as a professional, and averaged 22.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4 assists per game in nine seasons with the 76ers, Erving is best known for making the term (and practice of) “slam dunk” into the common lexicon.
17. Elgin Baylor
When Washington, D.C-native Elgin Baylor was playing in the NBA, most of our parents were still young children, and we barely had enough televisions around the country.
And that’s why Baylor gets mentioned on this list — because he revolutionized basketball, bringing it out of the the stodgy, starchy “dump it into the low block for the big man” game, bringing in the element of a true sweet-shooting and slick-passing swingman.
When basketball was still played on the floor, Baylor brought the idea that it could also be played in the air. Between the late 1950’s through the late 1960’s, Baylor was both one of the game’s most dominating and most entertaining players.
16. John Havlicek
If you’re someone who values NBA Championship rings as an integral part of the “best player” equation, then you have to include John Havlicek in this list. The Boston Celtics’ legend won eight NBA titles, trailing only teammates Bill Russell and Sam Jones.
“Hondo” (as he was known) was named to 13-straight All-Star games between 1966–1978, and eight-straight All-NBA Defensive Team (first or second team) ever year between 1969 to 1976. It was that versatility that led Russell, his longtime teammate, to declare “[Havlicek] is the best all-around player I ever saw.”
15. Kevin Durant
A man who was blessed by the basketball gods with the height of an NBA center, limbs that go on for days, the offensive versatility of a Swiss-Army Knife, and a love for basketball that’s as pure as the first snowfall, Kevin Durant seemed destined for stardom since becoming the second pick of the 2007 NBA Draft.
Between 2009 and 2012, Durant led the NBA in scoring three consecutive seasons, averaging 28.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3 assists per game over that span.
Two seasons later, Durant averaged a league-high 32 points per game, along with 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists, earning him his first NBA MVP. And, of course, as virtually every NBA fan is aware of, Durant added two NBA titles to his resume after signing with the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2016.
14. Moses Malone
The man who made “Fo’-Fo’-Fo'” a recognized part of the sports lexicon, Moses Malone was one of the first players in NBA history to jump straight to the professional level out of high school. Malone blossomed after being traded to the Houston Rockets, winning the NBA MVP award in 1979 and 1982.
And after Houston decided they did not want to meet Malone’s contract demands at the end of the 1982 season, they traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers, where Malone would go on to win another MVP award and help the 76ers win their last NBA Championship to date. During his prime, between 1979 and 1985, Malone averaged 25.9 points, 14.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game.
13. Shaquille O’Neal
If Shaquille O’Neal truly possessed a basketball “killer instinct,” or truly cared about keeping himself in shape during the offseason (instead of playing himself into shape during the season and in time for the playoffs), there’s no question he would’ve been higher on this list. From the mid-1990’s through the mid-2000’s, O’Neal was basically a basketball cheat code on the court, and a complete cultural phenomenon off of it.
He was the centerpiece of one of the greatest “ended before it started” dynasties with the Orlando Magic in the mid-1990’s, and the backbone of the Los Angeles Lakers’ dynasty that won three NBA championships and went to four straight Finals in the 2000’s. To this day, O’Neal ranks 8th all-time in points scored, 6th in field goals, 15th in rebounds, and 8th in blocks.
12. Hakeem Olajuwon
While Hakeem Olajuwon cemented his status as one of the greatest centers, if not greatest basketball players of all time after winning back-to-back NBA Championships in the mid-1990’s with the Houston Rockets, the truth was that he was already that dominant a player for a long time prior.
Along with his two NBA Finals MVP’s and 12 All-Star game selections, Olajuwon was named to the All-NBA team 10 times, and the All-NBA Defensive team nine times. Unsurprisingly, Olajuwon leads the Rockets all time in blocks and steals, along with points and rebounds of course, and he was a true ambassador for the game.
11. Oscar Robertson
Why did everyone lose their minds over Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double by the end of the 2016-2017 NBA season? Because he was the first player to do so since Oscar Robertson. Back in 1962, Robertson became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season, averaging 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and a league-high 11.4 assists per game, despite playing in only his second season in the NBA.
Robertson flirted with the near triple double again in both 1964 and 1965, especially after finishing with averages of a career-high 31.4 points, 12 rebounds, and 9.9 rebounds per game. In 1971, Robertson was named the league’s MVP after pairing with Lew Alcindor to win the NBA title by sweeping the Baltimore Bullets 4–0.
10. Jerry West
As one of the progenitors of basketball’s greatest rivalry, Boston Celtics’ basketball czar Red Auerbach hated everything about the Los Angeles Lakers and everything to do with that team. But even Auerbach himself once said of the man emblazoned on the NBA’s logo: “What people don’t realize is that Jerry West is one of the greatest defensive guards ever. My only regret is that I never had a chance to coach him.”
Of course, West was much more than simply a defensive dynamo; after all, he holds the record for the most highest points per game average in a playoff series (minimum five games) with 46.3. And after playing in nine NBA Finals, he’s the only player in NBA history to be named Finals MVP despite being on the losing team (1969).
9. Kobe Bryant
Former ADIDAS sports marketing tycoon Sonny Vaccaro’s prophecy of Kobe Bryant becoming the next Michael Jordan proved to be eerily prescient. The son of Joe “Jellybean” Bryant was one of the two rocks on which the post-Showtime Los Angeles Lakers were built upon. A conscience-less competitor with a seemingly indomitable will, Bryant’s pathological work ethic drew comparisons to that of Jordan, whom Bryan absolutely modeled his game after.
By the time he retired after 21 seasons in the NBA, Bryant’s list of accomplishments is almost too long to state. The 2008 NBA MVP, two-time NBA Finals MVP, and 18-time All-Star selection is only surpassed by Jordan himself as the greatest shooting guard in NBA history.
8. Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan lacked the on-court theatrics, off-court drama, or multi-media presence, and that’s why so many people take his unrelenting, unblemished, and unquestioned dominance for granted. Duncan. He made an incredible 15 All NBA teams and was also recognized as All Defense 15 different times.
Duncan’s statistics are the paradigm of consistency and he was called The Big Fundamental for a reason, doing everything right on both ends of the court.
He was the cornerstone of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty that won five NBA championships, and he was Finals MVP for three of them, adding two season MVP awards as well. Tim Duncan never showed much emotion on the court, but maybe that’s because he was just too busy making winning plays.
7. Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain’s detractors frequently cite the idea that the 4-time NBA MVP cared more about statistics and individual accolades than he did about winning (though Chamberlain was part of two Championship-winning teams). But even if that was the case, could you blame him? Chamberlain is the only player in NBA history to average at least 30 points and 20 rebounds per game in a season, which he accomplished seven times.
“Wilt The Stilt” is also the only player in NBA history to average at least 30 points and 20 rebounds per game over the entire course of his NBA career. And, of course, who can forget his hallowed accomplishment of scoring 100 points in a single game — a feat which has never been matched?
6. Larry Bird
Make no mistake: behind the the low-key, aw-shucks persona which Larry Bird created to play up his “hick from French Lick” nickname, there was a raging fire within Bird to absolutely vanquish any opponent whom he played against.
Along with being one of the most relentless workers off the court in NBA history, Bird played the game like Bobby Fischer played tennis or Beethoven composed symphonies: with a level of knowledge and execution that seemingly surpassed even mastery.
In a city with a hallowed history of professional athletes like Boston, and a team with so many Hall of Famers like the Celtics there probably isn’t a player more revered than Bird himself.
5. Magic Johnson
Simply put, what Earvin Johnson was able to do when on the basketball was truly befitting of his “Magic” nickname. While the next guy on our list might’ve been the straw that stirred the drink of the Showtime Lakers (at least early on), Johnson was still the team’s signature attraction.
He finished his career as a three time MVP and was one of the league’s most versatile players, averaging 11 assists a game for his career while starting at center as a rookie in the Finals (and helping the Lakers win an NBA Championship in the process).
In an era long before the advent of YouTube, Johnson’s ability to score in so many ways, and seemingly deliver passes to teammates as if he had eyes on the back of his head, made him a staple of basketball highlights for all of the 1980’s.
4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Saying that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a great basketball player is like saying The Beatles were a good band. It wasn’t just about how good the man formerly known as Lew Alcindor was; it was the consistency and duration in which he was that good. From 1971 to 1980, Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA MVP awards, and some believe he was robbed of one of them.
For the first seven years of his career, he averaged 30 points, 16 rebounds, and five assists per game. He played over 65,000 minutes of basketball. And just as importantly as any of those stats, he won six NBA Championships between 1971 (as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks) and 1988.
3. Bill Russell
There is no greater winner in American team sports than Bill Russell. None. No player has more NBA championships than Russell, who won 11 titles in a 13-year span with the Boston Celtics. What’s even more impressive is that Russell won his last two titles as a player-coach, in the years after Red Auerbach retired from coaching the team.
Russell and the Celtics won eight straight titles from 1959 to 1966, and Russell was named the league’s MVP five times along the way. Simply put, he was the leader of the winningest team in major U.S. sports history. When he retired from the NBA in 1969, he did so as the undisputed GOAT.
2. LeBron James
When we all come to our senses and acknowledge that 1) LeBron James is not better than the guy who’s #1 on this list, and 2) still acknowledge that James has ascended to the rank of the 2nd-greatest NBA player of all time, we’ll finally be able to truly appreciate his greatness.
James fulfilled the prophecies foretold about him when he was still in high school, winning three NBA Championships — including the 2016 title which he brought back to his home region of Cleveland, Ohio.
James was selected as the league’s MVP four times, although there are arguments that could easily be made about him being shortchanged in that area more than once. Perhaps most impressive is his streak of playing in nine consecutive NBA Finals between 2010 and 2018.
1. Michael Jordan
What’s left to say about Michael Jeffrey Jordan that hasn’t already been said? On the proverbial Mount Rushmore of greatest American athletes, nobody will ever question that Jordan belongs among that quartet. He is synonymous with the idea of competitiveness, dominance, and winning in general.
Jordan was the best player in the NBA for the entirety of the 1990’s (evidenced by being named first-team All-NBA every season he played in that decade), and if it weren’t for his two-year hiatus from the NBA between 1994 and 1996, it’s hard to imagine that his Chicago Bulls wouldn’t have had eight-straight NBA titles, as opposed to the two “three-peats” they accomplished sandwiched around Jordan’s time away from basketball.