It can happen while watching a NBA game with friends at home. It can happen at a sports bar. It can happen on a TV show, radio program or podcast. Inevitably, someone will ask: “Who are the Top 10 NBA Players? Is it the total points scored? Most career rebounds or blocks? Most career assists? Most dominant player at their time? Best Leadership skills? Killer instinct? Most Titles won? A collection of individual accolades?
All of the above?
Defining the concept
First of all, we must define the concept and only then we can start to debate it. So what exactly entails being considered a Great NBA Player? The NBA Scholar would like to point out GREAT is the maximum honor a NBA player can achieve. You have Star, All-Star, Superstar, Hall of Famer and then you have the Greats of the Game.
Greatness according to “There is no next”, a book written by Sam Smith:
“It was fun for those guys. You talked and established a challenge. Bird famously won a three-point contest after walking into the locker room before the event and asking who would be finishing second. It was an ideal era for a man who sought out provocations wherever he could find them, real or imagined. It´s not just the talent that separates the great ones; it´s also attitude. Ali had it. Who else calls himself, “The Greatest”? Then you better back it up. Did Babe Ruth call that shot in the World Series? It´s always been debated. But it´s never been suggested anyone else would have. It´s another reason you cannot compare anyone to men like Ali and Ruth and Jordan. It was, of course, their skill and production. But it was also their willingness to risk everything, to risk their pride in competition, and to let everyone else know.”
Being a Great NBA player means transcending and/or elevating the level of the game at their era. It can also mean completely dominating the game. In addition, it can stand for being the Master of one specific facet of the game, such as scoring or assists. Changing the rules of the games might also grant you this coveted Title. Getting a lot of rings as the main star of the team also grants a player greatness.
Ok, so now that we have established the paradigm for NBA Greatness, it is time to move on and create the list of the Top 10 NBA Players to ever play the game. Lists can be subjective but some facts are just evident and self-explanatory (as a rule, NBA Scholar automatically dismisses anyone questioning Jordan as the GOAT. As much as the NBA Scholar enjoys a nice debate, questioning Air Jordan as the best ever is just crazy talk and shows a total ignorance of not only the history made by NBA players but mainly what they represented and did for the beloved NBA. Jordan basically made today´s NBA where nowadays players/businessmen enjoy a nice and wealthy life due to his worldwide impact, which set record breaking publicity and endorsement deals.
So here you have it: the 10 Best NBA Players to ever play the game.
1. Michael Jordan
His Airness arrival and subsequent dominance of the NBA changed the History of the Association. He won pretty much every conceivable award there was to win. Regular Season MVP´s, Finals MVP´s, Scoring Titles, Best Defensive Player, 6 Titles out of 6 participations in the NBA Finals (100% success!)… we could go on forever.
When he was criticized for being solely a scorer he elevated his team and won titles. When they said he was only about offense he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Some said he could not shoot 3´s very well – he broke the record back then while giving “The shrug” to his detractors.
Air Jordan elevated the game to new heights. It was not only the complete dominance and countless wins. It was the way he did it, floating through the air while making amazing never seen before shots in the process. Following the example set by Magic and Bird, Jordan made the NBA an international brand synonym of basketball excellence. He transcended the sport. To this day you see some of his shots and defining moments and you smile. Pure brilliance. Like Sam Smith wrote… There is no next.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Sky-Hook: deadly unblockable shot. First and last ever created by an NBA Player. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the current career points record. He won 6 titles and went to the All-Star Game 19 (!) times. He forged with Magic one of the biggest NBA dynasties. 6 Times MVP, 10 Times All-NBA First Team… the records speak for themselves. Probably the best offensive center the NBA has ever seen, comparable only on this category with the big dipper, Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem had wit, smarts, fundamentals, and basketball genius. Have we mentioned the unblockable shot? Once in a lifetime talent, a joy to watch.
3. Bill Russel
The NBA Lord of the Rings. 11 Championships is just a ridiculous number. Celtics legacy was carved with him directing the show. For many he is the best defensive big man to ever play in the NBA. “In his first NBA full season (1957–58), Russell became the first player in NBA history to average more than 20 rebounds per game for an entire season, a feat he accomplished 10 times in his 13 seasons.” in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Russell His legacy transcended the rings… he was also a key contributor to equality regarding the ongoing battle against racism.
4. Earvin “Magic” Johnson
First season fresh out of college, Magic replaces an injured Kareem at he NBA Finals. The rest, as they say, is history. What other rookie do you know that could do such a feat? “Johnson recorded 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in a 123–107 win, while playing guard, forward, and center at different times during the game. Johnson became the only rookie to win the NBA Finals MVP award, and his clutch performance is still regarded as one of the finest in NBA history” in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Johnson. And that was only the beginning. The first really tall guard revolutionized the NBA, not only with his skill, but mostly with his flair and leadership. The Lakers of the 80´s were a special delight to watch. Magic Johnson was the Maestro of the Showtime Lakers, a team so good that made us feel like we were watching a regular Globetrotters game. His flashy assists, uncanny will to win and intelligence made him one of the most admired basketball players in the world. Ah, and he won “some” titles – 5 ! As well as a long list of individual honors… one of the most intriguing players ever to play the game, combining strength, agility, court vision, amazing dribbling skills, ability to dish the basket in his sleep, while interacting with someone on the first row (probably Jack Nicholson 🙂 ) One of a kind. Too good, too skilled. Pure Magic.
5. Wilt Chamberlain
Mr. 100 Points in a basketball game. That alone could put him in the list. But what about a season averaging 50 points and 25 rebounds a game? Yep, mind-blowing stats. Wilt Chamberlain, aka “The Big Dipper” is regarded by many NBA historians and erudites as the most dominant offensive player to ever play. The NBA Scholar has to concur. He could actually quote 100 reasons for that but let´s now move to the second tier of this Top 10…
6. Larry Bird
Often quoted as the smartest basketball player ever to play the game, Larry Bird epic performances are still fondly remembered by basketball fans. For many he is regarded as the best pure shooter the NBA has ever seen, adding to that skill a rare combination of qualities that made him dangerous in any area of the hardwood. There was nothing Bird could not do. He rebounded well, passed the rock as good as any point guard, was a sneaky steal threat and, on top of that, he had the artistry of a Magic or a Jordan. Some assists or shots he did are just out of this world (not even replicable through next generation NBA games 🙂 His battles with the Showtime Lakers became one of the best chapters of the NBA History and directly responsible for the salvation of what was, back then, a league fighting for its continuation. His rivalry with his nemesis, Magic Johnson, is widely regarded as one of the best sports rivalries ever. Bird was the definition of the fundamentals + genius at work on a basketball court. 2 times member of the exclusive 50-40-90 club.
7. Dr. J
“Erving replied, “I wanted to undertake the challenge of daring to be great. It’s like, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ and ‘No risk, no reward,’ so I would hold that in my heart that I was not going to be afraid to dare to be great and to do something that maybe nobody had ever seen before. It’s an individual expression and it’s rooted in taking that up as a challenge.” in http://20secondtimeout.blogspot.pt/2011/01/quotes-from-legends-roundtable.html
Dr. J and Michael Jordan were the greatest shot makers and creatives the NBA has ever seen. Plus, his physical prowess was enough to lift people out of their seats and still talk about his dunks decades later. Dr. J was the embodiment of class, skill and raw physical talent. He would definitely figure higher if this list was named “Top 10 NBA Athletes”. His moves and dunks became so memorable they had their own “tag”. Now that is greatness.
“I’d go through the middle – make the ball disappear, switch hands – do something magical with it. The guy who was announcing the game kept calling me a lot of different nicknames, like Houdini or Little Hawk – all kinds of stuff. So I said, if you’re going to call me anything, just call me the Doctor.”
— says Julius Erving on ESPN’s SportsCentury show. in https://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00348193.html
8. Shaquille O´Neal
Sometimes you are just too strong. Sometimes you break a NBA Backboard. Sometimes a player comes to the League and everything changes. Highly hyped since College, Shaq breaking the backboard was as good of an entrance as anything you could expect. Most dominant center in the NBA at his time, he made other centers fear him. Some plays he did were just jaw-dropping. A force of nature. Couldn´t be stopped. Regarded alongside Russel, Chamberlain and Olajuwon as one of the best 4 centers ever to play the game. With Kobe Bryant – his partner in crime on the Lakers years – he won a 3-peat. He later added a 4th ring in Miami with D. Wade. Two straight seasons averaging 30 points and 15 rebounds per game in the Playoffs (2000 & 2001). Shaquille was the most imposing physical specimen in the NBA during his career lifespan, adding a good basketball IQ to unstoppable moves in the post. Quite simply, Shaq couldn´t be stopped. He was Superman strong.
9. Tim Duncan
Mr. Fundamental. Acclaimed by many as the best Power Forward to ever play the game. 5 NBA Titles out of 6 tries. What can you say about a big man that does everything right? Bank shot, hook, mid-range, rebounds, blocks, steals, you name it… Tim Duncan is hands-down one of the most complete big men the NBA has known. His poise to win and quiet demeanor may deceive some but his sheer will to win is visible on court. Tim Duncan knows how to play and mastered the art of winning titles. He elevated the colleagues around him like all greats do. On top of that, he is all about team play, a rarity in today´s over-hyped, over-analysed NBA game. A classy player with a very high basketball IQ. A consummated winner.
10. Kobe Bryant
Last but not least, Kobe Bryant. The closer we got to watch a player with similar skills of the first of the class, the GOAT Michael Jordan. Kobe came to the league to win and made no secrets about it. Often regarded by his peers as relentless and not too joyful around practice, Kobe stands for pursuit of excellence. In one of his latest documentaries, he expressed his sadness for losing those Finals against the Celtics. That elusive 6th title… he´s still out there going for it. His set of skills made him one of the most prolific players ever, accumulating career points and several other milestones. He shut up many of his critics who said he could only win alongside Shaq by winning 2 more titles. A deadly snake around the court, Kobe, aka “The Black Mamba” has numerous buzzer beaters and single game performances able to amaze the most casual fan. 81 points in a single game is something not even His Airness accomplished. He always expressed his admiration for Michael Jordan, which, for NBA Scholar, is a sign of both intelligence and recognition. It is ok to pursue the Master. He got 5 titles out of 7 Finals. Not too shabby. One of the best offensive machines ever to play. Drives, dunks, post game, high basketball IQ… Kobe had the full package. 10th best player ever.