After Michael Jordan’s first retirement in 1998, at the end of his second three-peat with the Chicago Bulls, the powers-that-be in the NBA greatly fretted whether the departure of Jordan, and the age of many of the great superstars that ruled the NBA in the 1990’s, would lead to a massive vacuum in basketball talent.
Needless to say, the boom of talent that entered the NBA starting in the late 1990’s, and crested in the middle of the first decade of the 2000’s, ensured no such vacuum would exist; if anything, the NBA was blessed with an abundance of stars.
Which begs the question: who emerged as the best players in the NBA, in the post-Michael Jordan era? We thought you’d never ask. Here’s our crack at the top 25 players since Michael Jordan retired from the NBA—both the first time (from the Bulls), and the second time (from the Washington Wizards).
25. Chris Webber
When Chris Webber left the University of Michigan in 1993, most of the NBA saw Webber as a 6’9 forward who would shift nearly everything we thought we understood about guys who play the power forward position. The first overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft enjoyed an electric rookie year in Golden State, but after forcing a trade after his first season, wandered in the NBA wilderness a bit with the Washington Bullets.
But when Washington traded him to the Sacramento Kings, Webber appeared to really fulfill the promise of his potential, averaging 24.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game in his first five years with the Kings, while serving as the front man for some of the most entertaining basketball we had seen in quite some time. He was named to an All-NBA team in each of his first four seasons in Sacramento as well.
24. Tony Parker
The San Antonio Spurs might’ve rode one of the 10 greatest players in NBA history to five NBA Championships in the post-Michael Jordan era, but point guard Tony Parker was an enormously integral part of four of those championship teams. He might’ve had a little more of a supporting role in his first two Championship wins (though he was instrumental in helping the Spurs get to the NBA Finals in 2005), Parker wrecked the overwhelmed Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, winning NBA Finals MVP — and becoming the first European-born player to win the award.
When it was all said and done, Parker finished his career being named All-NBA Second Team three times in a row (between 2012 and 2014), and once to the Third Team (2009). And, of course, no player in the history of the Spurs’ franchise has dished out more assists than Parker.
23. Paul Pierce
One of the most fearless and clutch scorers of the past two decades, Paul Pierce earned the nickname “The Truth” after fully establishing himself as one of the elite offensive players in the NBA. Even while the Boston Celtics of the early 2000’s struggled, Pierce was named to an All-NBA team twice, as well as five All-Star teams.
And once he was able to join forces with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the original “Big 3” brought a championship back to Boston, in which Pierce would be named NBA Finals MVP. To this day, Pierce is the Celtics’ second all-time leading scorer, only behind John Havlicek, and currently holds the franchise record for most three-point field goals made.
22. Carmelo Anthony
Because of a myopic focus on offense and his constant disgruntling at nearly every NBA stop he made, many people have seemed to re-write the narrative on Carmelo Anthony, omitting the part where he was consistently one of the 10 best players in the NBA for so many years. Between 2005 and 2014, Anthony averaged 26.3 points per game while shooting over 46% from the floor (and over 35% from three), and finished with an average of more than 25 points per game in nine of those 11 seasons.
He not only shares the NBA record for more points scored in a quarter (33), but some people believed that he might’ve been the most clutch scorer of the early 2000’s, this side of Kobe Bryant.
21. Derrick Rose
If you need any proof that the basketball gods can be as cruel as they can be benevolent, then look no further than the fate of Derrick Rose. In just his third season in the NBA, Rose was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, becoming not only the first member of the Chicago Bulls to win the award, but the youngest player in NBA history to do so.
An absolute blur with the ball in his hands, with an ability to attack the basket before the defense even knows what hit them, Rose averaged at least 20 points and 6 assists in three of his first four seasons in the league, before a series of debilitating knee injuries began to sap away so much of Rose’s signature explosive ability. Though he would eventually evolve into more of a crafty elder statesman in an NBA career that’s still going on, Rose is another case of “what could’ve been, if not for injury.”
20. Anthony Davis
A 6’10 big man with the fluidity and agility of a guard, but with the wingspan of a condor (7’6) allowing him to absolutely suffocate anyone he guarded and protect the rim (almost 5 blocks per game in college) as well as anyone we had seen in years, Anthony Davis went from being the no-brainer #1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft to one of the most breathtaking talents the NBA has ever seen.
After averaging 23.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game over the three seasons following his rookie year, Davis made the proverbial leap towards becoming a true NBA superstar, upping his averages to 27.5 points and 11.6 rebounds (and 2.4 blocks) per game over his last three seasons in New Orleans. There’s little reason why so many people believed the three-time All-NBA First-Team selection would help LeBron James bring a title back to the Los Angeles Lakers’ franchise.
19. Tracy McGrady
If we’re being honest, Tracy McGrady was one of the most physically gifted players in decades. At 6’8, McGrady was the type of do-it-all wing player that so many NBA teams absolutely salivate over in today’s era of basketball: someone who could legitimately play five positions on the basketball court, and present athletic mismatches at every one of them.
But despite all of his career accomplishments, including seven selections to an All-NBA team (which includes two First-Team selections), some people say McGrady suffered from what some would describe as “good stats on bad teams” syndrome. For his all of his abilities and scoring prowess, he was never considered a “winner.” Who knows how history would have looked back on him if Grant Hill didn’t suffer his career-derailing injuries when he and McGrady signed with the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2000.
18. Russell Westbrook
Five years ago, it would have been crazy to imagine if any NBA player would ever average a triple-double at the end of an NBA season, like Oscar Robertson once did. But after seeing Russell Westbrook accomplish this feat for three years in a row, between 2016 and 2019, we just shrug our shoulders at it.
At the apex of his powers in Oklahoma City, Westbrook averaged 26.3 points, 10.1 assists (despite his reputation for never passing the ball), and 9.4 rebounds per game, while playing in four Conference Finals, and being considered one of the most singularly tenacious competitors in the league. Westbrook ranks top 30 all time in points per game — that part’s not a surprise — but he’s also third best ever in assist percentage, behind only legendary passers John Stockton and Chris Paul.
17. Kawhi Leonard
Some might scoff at the idea of Kawhi Leonard, the two-time NBA Finals MVP and centerpiece of the NBA Champion Toronto Raptors team in 2019, being ranked so far down this list. But we’d urge you to avoid recency bias, only because Leonard hasn’t fully finished filling out his career resume yet.
Nobody will question how he totally nullified LeBron James in the 2014 NBA Finals, emerged as an unstoppable force in Toronto’s championship run in 2019, and remains perhaps the most lethal on-ball wing player since Scottie Pippen. But let’s see if Leonard is able to bring a championship back to his home in Southern California. If he does, he’ll catapult way up this list.
16. Dwight Howard
It’s amazing how quickly we’ve forgotten what a great player Dwight Howard was at his peak for the Orlando Magic before back injuries derailed his career, and his reputation for eccentricity made him something of a locker room leper. Some people, to this day, will tell you that if you that if you plugged Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant’s ruthless competitiveness into Howard’s body, he would’ve been literally unstoppable.
Even with that, Howard was still a five-time All-NBA First-Team selection, the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year award recipient (the first player in NBA history to accomplish this feat), a four-time All-NBA Defensive First Team selection, and the winner of the NBA’s rebounding title five different times. In 2010, he became the first player in NBA history to lead the league in blocks and rebounds in the same season twice—doing so for two years in a row.
15. Jason Kidd
Even with his shooting woes early in his career, Jason Kidd started off his NBA career being named the co-Rookie of the Year, and being selected to two All-Star games, All-NBA First Team, and even All-Defensive First team in his first five seasons in the league. And at the end of his 21-year NBA career, Kidd was named to 10 All-Star games, six All-NBA teams, and nine All-Defensive teams, while leading the league in assists five different times.
Among the most dynamic and multi-faceted point guards in the history of the league, Kidd was the best player on two New Jersey Nets teams that made it to the NBA Finals, and eventually secured that coveted NBA Championship in 2011, defeating the LeBron James-led Miami Heat.
14. Dwayne Wade
Regardless of the former’s greatness, let the record show that LeBron James failed to win an NBA title until he joined forces with Dwayne Wade, on the Miami Heat. The 5th overall pick in the vaunted 2003 NBA Draft, Wade is a three-time NBA champion, winning his first championship in 2005 — when he became the fifth-youngest player in NBA history to capture the NBA Finals MVP award, scoring 34.7 points in the Finals (the third-highest total for players in their first NBA Finals).
After his illustrious career came to a close in 2019, Wade ranked in the top 50 all time in points, assists, steals, free throws, and win shares, with a career average of 22 points per game. The “Flash’s” ability to slash to the rim and finish with the best of them earned him a spot in the conversation for greatest shooting guards of all time.
13. Allen Iverson
One of the most singularly exciting players of the late 90’s through early 2000’s, Allen Iverson — also known as “The Answer” — was an 11-time NBA All-Star, won the All-Star game MVP award in 2001 and 2005, and was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 2001. His regular season career scoring average of 26.7 points per game ranks seventh all-time, and his playoff career scoring average of 29.7 points per game is second only to Michael Jordan.
He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. Maybe the pound-for-pound toughest and most fearless player in NBA history, Allen Iverson was a relentless and virtually unstoppable scorer for much of his time with the Philadelphia 76ers.
12. Chris Paul
The fact that three different teams passed on Chris Paul in the 2005 NBA Draft looks worse and worse with each passing year, given the fact that Chris Paul continues to remain in the conversation of the NBA’s best point guards. A relentless competitor, passing savant, and basketball genius, Paul has been selected to an All-NBA team eight times over his career, including four selections to the First Team. He’s led the league in assists four different times, and steals six different times.
And on top of all of that, despite dropping on Draft day because of concerns around his lack of size, Paul was named First-Team or Second-Team All Defensive Team nine times in his career. He is the only player in NBA history to lead the league in assists per game and steals per game in the same season (did it three times), and to lead the league in steals for four seasons in a row.
11. Steve Nash
One of the pioneers of today’s “pace-and-space” style of basketball, Steve Nash’s combination of pinpoint passing and multifaceted scoring was the engine for the “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns between 2004 and 2008. The two-time NBA MVP led the league in assists five times between 2005 and 2011, averaging 11 assists in aggregate over those five seasons.
He is also ranked as one of the top players in NBA league history in three-point shooting, free throw shooting, total assists, and assists per game. Many people would argue that there might not have been a point guard better at executing the pick-and-roll than Steve Nash — and yes, even over John Stockton.
10. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Borrowing from the lore from Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Greek lineage: it’s like the Gods on Mount Olympus decided to create a demigod to alter our understanding of what basketball players are capable of, and in doing so, they sent down Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo’s combination of size, speed and ball-handling skills led to his nickname the “Greek Freak,” and rightfully so.
In 2017, he became the first player in NBA history to finish a regular season in the top 20 in all five statistics of total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, and two years later, after averaging an absurd 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game, Antetokounmpo was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. He remains a runaway favorite to win the award for the second time in a row, pending the outcome of the suspended 2019-2020 season. And the terrifying part is that, if he did win the award, that would give him two MVP awards before his 26th birthday.
9. Dirk Nowitzki
The man who almost single-handedly ushered in the NBA’s search for great talents outside of the borders of the United States, German-born Dirk Nowitzki went from a sweet-shooting power forward to one of the most dynamic offensive players in NBA history.
His herky-jerky fallaway shot was virtually unstoppable, and he was a lethal shooter from deep throughout the course of his NBA career (he shot 38% in the NBA). Nowitzki was the league MVP in 2007, but his playoff run in 2011 really cemented his legacy as one of the game’s greatest players, after he led the Dallas Mavericks to their only NBA championship.
8. James Harden
Even if some NBA purists see his singular on-ball dominance as an affront to the beauty of basketball, 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.” Those same detractors will point to the fact that he not only hasn’t won an NBA title, and that he’s also looked like the deer in the proverbial headlights on more than one occasion in the playoffs. But 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 (note: Harden won the 2018 NBA MVP, but should’ve also won it the year before, if voters weren’t so enamored with Russell Westbrook’s triple-double stat line). As an encore, between late October of 2019 through early February of 2020, Harden averaged a mind-bending 36.4 points, 7.2 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game, while shooting over 44% from the field.
7. Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry’s drop to the 7th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft looks like one of the biggest blunders in NBA history. While his career did get off to something of a slow start because of recurring issues with ankle injuries, once Curry was able to put said maladies behind him, the NBA quickly became subject to perhaps the most deadly long-distance shooters — and overall offensive dynamo’s — the league has ever seen. The speed in which Curry is able to get off shots, and the accuracy in which he connects on them, is lethal.
During the days of the Golden State Warriors juggernaut (of which je is the lynchpin), Curry averaged 27.3 points and 6.2 assists per game between 2015 and 2019, connecting on 48.4% of all field goals (including over 43% from three). Even if the two-time MVP retired today, he’s a lock to be mentioned among the league’s greatest offensive weapons of all time… and he turned only 30 years old in 2019.
6. 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, the on-court ferocity of a wounded lion, and the basketball IQ that stacks up with any of the games greatest players. 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.
And after being traded to the Boston Celtics prior to the start of the 2007-2008 NBA season, Garnett’s NBA Championship win in 2008 became the official capstone to a sterling NBA career. The 15-time All-Star and 12-time All-Defensive Team selection is, without question, of the game’s greatest players — ever.
5. 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.
4. Shaquille O’Neal
If Shaquille O’Neal truly possessed a basketball “killer instinct,” or truly cared about keeping himself in shape during the off-season (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, and considered the no-questions-asked torch-bearer of the post-Jordan era. 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.
3. 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 Bryant 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.
2. 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. 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 NBA Finals MVP for three of them; that’s not even mentioning his two NBA MVP awards as well. There is simply no way you can argue against two facts: that Duncan was one of the 10 greatest players in NBA history (regardless of era), and arguably the greatest power forward of all time.
1. LeBron James
When we all come to our senses and acknowledge that 1) LeBron James is not better than Michael Jordan, 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.