9. – 10. I’ve got 3 or 4 (maybe more) players that I need to squeeze into these 2 spots. I don’t even really view these spots as actual numbered rankings; I view them more as simply spots reserved for some of the NBA’s greatest players whom I feel I cannot specifically rank. Hall of Famers like Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson were unbelievable in their day. I see their stats and they’re mind-blowing. It is certainly not with a lack of respect that I recuse myself from ranking these all-time greats. It’s the opposite, really. It’s because I respect guys like Wilt and Oscar – add John Havlicek and Jerry West to the list as well – so much for how they dominated their era and impacted the game, long term. I don’t feel I can compare players from that generation to players of the last 25 to 30 years. But they deserve to be on the list and I will not disclude them from the conversation of all-time legends.
8. Larry Bird – The 3-time NBA Champion was the king of the NBA in the 80s until Magic Johnson took the league by storm. All told, however, Larry Legend was more than up to the task of playing Magic’s major rival as their two great franchises battled for NBA supremacy throughout the mid- to later part of the decade. Bird won 3 consecutive MVP awards and was a 12-time NBA All-Star. The Celtic great was a sharpshooter who wanted the ball in his hands when the game was on the line. With one of the quickest releases of anyone to play in the NBA, Bird was an assassin from deep and was always a threat to take and make the big shot when called upon.
7. Shaquille O’Neal – I argue that while ranked 7, as far as greatness goes, there was never a more dominate, un-guardable force in the NBA than Shaquille O’Neal. The problem was his dominance was shorter than fans would have liked and, stop me if I’m crazy, he was always expected to be better than the numbers he put up. From a 10-year stretch spanning from 1993 to 2002, Shaq never averaged fewer than 26 points per game and 10.7 rebounds. Great numbers. But it seemed Shaq was always held to a higher standard – 26 and 10 seem, well, ordinary for a man of his size, who could get to the basket at will on every offensive possession. In a way, Shaq’s greatest tools were his biggest detractors – he should have been putting up 40 and 20 on any given night. Is that fair? Probably not. But when we’d get glimpses of how he could take over a game singlehandedly (the 2001 and 2002 playoffs were 2 of the best of all-time), it’s no wonder we expected to see it more often.
6. Tim Duncan – Quietly and unassumingly, Duncan made his way up this list into the conversation as one of the NBA’s all-time great players. He’s recognized by many as the best power forward in history. Since being drafted out of Wake Forest in 1997, Duncan has spent most of his career being the cornerstone of one of the league’s most preeminent and most successful franchises over the last 20 years. He was never flashy, never self-aggrandizing, and never without class. He won 2 MVP awards, 5 NBA titles, and 3 Finals MVPs while also being selected to 15 All Star Games – and did so without ever making it about himself.
5. LeBron James – At 31 years old, The King has arguably transformed how the NBA works. Here is a guy who is better than all his peers (and it’s really not even close), has won 3 NBA titles, 4 MVPs, and 3 Finals MVPs. James has marketed himself in such a way that he is always in the best financial place he can be in. He’s made signing 1 and 2 year contracts a thing now! Opting out, testing free agency – even if it is just a formality – is now something many superstars in the league are doing. Not only is James one of the greatest players of all-time – just look at his elimination game stats for proof (33-11-7), his stardom has exceeded the league in a way that no other player’s ever has before.
4. Kobe Bryant – Stone. Cold. Killer. The Black Mamba didn’t get that nickname by happenstance. No one in the history of the game (aside form the man who sits atop this list) has ever been more competitive or cutthroat than Kobe Bean Bryant – and I’m just talking about in practice! The 5-time NBA Champion, 2-time Finals MVP, 2008 League MVP, and 18-time All-Star was as clutch as he was surly. Teammates weren’t excused from his intolerance – sometimes even teammates who made this list. Kobe didn’t mince words and didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t – he was a gamer, a scorer, a ruthless competitor. And if he didn’t like something in a player’s game, he said it. LeBron gets knocked (by me included) for not always looking like he wants the ball at the end, for not being aggressive enough. Not Kobe. Kobe wanted the ball. Demanded the ball. And usually got the ball.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – The league’s all-time leading scorer was a terror in the paint for opposing teams, but also had a silky, smooth way about his game — his patented “skyhook” has never been replicated quite like the original. Abdul-Jabbar was a record 6-time NBA champion, record 6-time League MVP, 2-time Finals MVP, record 19-time All-Star, and 11-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection. Abdul-Jabbar’s ability along with his sustained good health allowed him to be one of game’s best for so long.
2. Magic Johnson – There’s never been a more versatile player in the NBA than Earvin “Magic” Johnson. His career stats (20-7-11) don’t tell half the story. He was the leader of the Los Angeles Lakers the moment he stepped on the floor in his first season in 1979. And he was their best player by the end of that championship season when the point guard started at center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. His stat line in the clinching win? 42-15-7. Yeah, pretty good for a point guard at the 5 spot. His 5 NBA titles were wrestled from the hands of guys like Julius Erving, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas in the 80s. There were no free passes on the championship road. Magic is recognized as the greatest passer and court general in the history of the game.
1. Michael Jordan – The fiercest competitor the game has ever seen. No one wanted to mess up when MJ was around – not even in practices, let alone games. Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to two separate “three-peats” in the 90s on his way to collecting all 6 Finals MVPs. The 6-time champion was not only a prolific scorer (10-time scoring champion with 30.1 ppg career average), but also one of the greatest defenders in league history. Jordan was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1988 and secured a spot on the All-Defensive Team nine times from 1988 to 1998. No one could highjack a basketball game like Michael Jordan. He could get to the rim any time he wanted; he could pull up and hit a 16-footer with ease; and he could stroke the 3-ball when called upon. There wasn’t a shot Jordan wouldn’t take. And there wasn’t a shot Jordan couldn’t make.