This is the definitive list of the best National Basketball Association players who have ever played the game regardless of position. This list is not about flash and notoriety. It is about substance. The players that outscored, outrebounded, out-passed, and generally outplayed their competition made the cut, and a lot of established NBA stars missed out. You will not find “The Logo” here or the Dwayne Wade despite their many contributions to the game. This list is solely for the basketball athletes that changed the game of basketball.
20. Kevin Garnett - Though his last few years have shown a great decline in his productivity because of aging, Kevin Garnett was once a transcendent player in the league. He single-handedly transformed the Minnesota Timberwolves from a lottery team into a perennial playoff team, and helped shape the image of the new-age post player. Garnett was just as comfortable out on the floor handling the basketball as he was in the paint posting. He was talented, intense, and competitive. When he had help in Minnesota, the team advanced to the conference finals, and he was named National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player (MVP). When he was teamed with two other perennial All-Stars, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, he won a NBA championship. Garnett is a 15-time All-Star, he won Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) once, All-Star MVP once, and led the league in rebounding 4 times.
19. Scottie Pippen - Pippen finished his career as the ultimate consummate teammate. He sacrificed inflated personal statistics, big contracts, and notoriety in exchange for higher offensive efficiency, more defensive responsibilities, and 6 championship titles. Pippen was relegated to being a role player despite having the talent of a superstar. The truth about Pippen may be borderline sacrilegious to casual basketball fans, but he was more physically gifted than Michael Jordan. He stood a few inches taller, was faster up and down the court, jumped higher, and moved more fluidly. His play allowed Jordan to be the overwhelming scorer that he was on the those Bulls teams. Pippen was the Chicago Bulls most important player even though Jordan was the best player and the most recognizable.
18. Allen Iverson - Though the end of his career was muddled by multiple trades and the first insignificant playing time of his life, Allen Iverson is still the best little man that ever played professional basketball. Allen Iverson was absolutely relentless with the basketball in his hands. He was a ball of energy who ran around, crossed over, sped by, or jumped past any defender in his way. And, the scariest thing about Iverson is how good he could have been if he would have spent time developing his jumpshot. He played the game through his elite athleticism and quickness instead of becoming more skilled and refining his game. Allen Iverson carried the Philadelphia 76′ers to the 2001 NBA Finals and won NBA MVP without being incredibly polished. He was one of the most physically gifted athletes that ever played in the National Basketball Association despite being one of the smaller players in its history.
17. Isiah Thomas - Many basketball authorities consider John Stockton to be the second best point guard in NBA history behind only Magic Johnson because of his overall assists and steals numbers. However, one could make a strong case for Isiah Thomas as the second best point guard in league history. There are a lot of misconceptions about Thomas because he could score the basketball, the first being that he was a selfish scorer. Isiah Thomas rarely finished outside the top ten in assists per game or steals per game, he averaged 9.3 assists per game for his career, and he still scored 19.2 points per game on average. More importantly though, Isiah proved that he was clutch in big games. In the playoffs, he averaged 20.4 points per game and averaged a full rebound better. He had classic playoff games like the Game 6 of the 1988 Finals where he scored 43 points, dished out 8 assists, collected 6 steals, and set a NBA Finals record by scoring 25 points in a quarter while playing on an injured ankle. By the end of his career, Thomas had won two NBA championships, one Finals MVP, and two All-Star MVPs. He was selected to 12 All-Star games during his 13 year career.
16. Julius Erving - The Doctor earned a place on this list by using his long stride, huge hands, and insane leaping ability to dominate both the ABA and the NBA in the 70s and 80s. Julius Erving has three ABA MVP awards, one NBA MVP, and two All-Star game MVPs. He was electrifying in the open court, but consistent in the half court too. His jump shot is often overlooked because of rim attacks, but Dr. J had a fully rounded game. He averaged 24.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for his career, and in-between all those high-flying dunks were a lot of sound basketball plays. Erving had a solid midrange game with a soft jumper. He set his opponents up for dunks by dropping in a series of short jumpers consistently between them. And, Dr. J was as dangerous as any player in league history in the open court. His highlight breakaway dunks still run regularly in syndicated basketball games.
15. Charles Barkley - The most compelling number about Charles Barkley is not the 23,757 points that he scored or the 12,546 rebounds that he collected. His height is the most intriguing number that Barkley has to offer basketball fans. He is officially listed at 6’6″, but most people who were around the league in the 80s and 90s say that Barkley stood closer to 6’4″ and bullied players 6 inches taller than him in the post regularly. Charles Barkley was explosive off the ground, powerful with his back to the basket, and had extremely long arms. Those tools served him well in Philadelphia and in Phoenix. Barkley was one of the most impactful power forwards that ever played in the NBA. He averaged 22.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game as he dominated men that were consistently larger than him in a physical game where size often dictates the victor.
14. Moses Malone - Moses Malone is one the forgotten greats in basketball history, and he is considered by many to be the best offensive rebounder ever. Some opponents said that Malone was so dedicated to his craft that he would purposefully miss some shots just to pad his rebounding stats. Whether that is true or not, Malone was an excellent rebounder and was a force in the low post. He won three NBA MVPs with two different teams, he lead the league in rebounds 6 times, and he won one NBA championship beating out his teammate Dr. J for the Finals MVP.
13. Karl Malone - Consistency defined Karl Malone’s legacy in the NBA. When he entered a basketball stadium around the league, you could pencil in 25 points and 10 rebounds. He was the prototypical power forward. He was strong, but agile, he was versatile in the post, but most of all, he delivered every time he stepped on the court. He is considered by many to be the best power forward of all time, especially to those who believe Tim Duncan is really a center. He bullied defenders on the left block during the first half of his career using his strength to overpower them. But, he developed into a good midrange shooter and a decent free throw shooter by the end of his career. He played 20 years in the NBA with 14 played at All-Star level. Malone was a two-time NBA MVP, was consistently top five in scoring and top ten in rebounding, and made 11 straight All-NBA First Team selections. Few can compare with the “Mailman”.
12. Tim Duncan - Duncan could have entered the NBA at anytime from his sophomore year until his senior year and would have been the 1st pick of the draft, but he waited until his last year of eligibility and walked into the NBA completely ready to play. Tim Duncan entered the league as one of the most polished, impacting players to play basketball at the highest level since the eighties. Duncan was embarrassingly efficient on the low block. He was a surgeon who carved defenses with his jump hook and countermoves under the rim. But, Duncan is also underrated as a defender. He patrolled the paint with David Robinson in his early years to form one of the most formidable frontcourts in NBA history, then he combined with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli to build one of the most storied franchises in league history. Though Duncan is celebrated as a NBA legend by NBA advertisers, he is seriously underrated as a basketball player by the casual fan. Because he chose to list himself as a power forward instead of nominally assuming the center position that he actually plays, he has been somewhat overlooked in the annals of history. He is considered to be the best power forward in history, but great power forwards are not seen as the leaders of championship teams. Look at Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and even Kevin McHale. Great centers and high scoring wings get the glory and acknowledgement. But, Tim Duncan has been historically great in his 19 years of NBA basketball. Duncan has 2 NBA MVP awards, 3 Finals MVPs, five championship titles, and holds averages on par with Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. He has been the best player on his team from the moment he entered the league even though he played with David Robinson, another Hall of Famer. Duncan’s efficient and minimalistic footwork around the rim was on par with the aforementioned low post specialist Kevin McHale. Once he had the ball on the left block, you could count the basket. Duncan had a polished post game complete with soft hooks, up and under moves, and a nice bank shot when facing.
11. Hakeem Olajuwon - Hakeem Olajuwon was decidedly the best center in the Golden Age of the big man. He was more athletic than Patrick Ewing. He was more skilled than David Robinson. He was a better all-around player than Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo, and he dominated a young Shaquille O’Neal in the 1995 Finals. Olajuwon outplayed every great center that was put in front of him, and won every award the NBA could give. He was a two-time champ, two-time Finals MVP, NBA MVP, and DPOY. Olajuwon was also the first player in NBA history to win all those awards in the same year. He outclassed everyone with his freak athleticism and immaculate footwork. The Dream Shake was the thing that nightmares were made of for opponents. Olajuwon set up his fadeaway with a series of powerful jumphooks and simple counters. He would use his lower body to force players to commit to stopping him from backing them into the paint before spinning off them for easy layups. Olajuwon used his pivot and pumpfakes to keep defenders off balance. And, just when a player thought that they could anticipate his hook or drop-step, he would fade to the baseline with a fadeaway jumper that could not be blocked.
10. Shaquille O’Neal - Shaq may be the most devastating force that the NBA has ever seen. The only player in the history of the league that is comparable to O’Neal is Wilt Chamberlain, but Chamberlain played in an era of very few great big men. Shaq entered the league in the Golden Age of big men and became one of the best players immediately. He bullied veteran players from his first year in the league until he left 19 years later. His sheer size and strength gave him an unique advantage over most opponents, so Shaq is given considerably less credit for being a skilled basketball player than he should be given. But, he was incredibly skilled as a basketball player. especially when you consider his size. Shaq was quick on his feet, but powerful enough to forcibly move 2-3 players in the post. His spin move was impossible to defend, and his size allowed him to dunk the basketball on anyone from 8 feet in to the rim. Shaq was so dominant that the league made rules to stop him. Shaq won three championships in LA, and the team showed no signs of slowing. Because of his dominance, the league allowed zone defenses to stop the 2000s Lakers’ dynasty. No player could stop him one-on-one, and help defenders came too late. Shaq was an impossible match for most of his career.
9. Kobe Bryant - Kobe is the only guy on this list whose competitive drive rivals that of Michael Jordan. He hates losing games and can be difficult with teammates, but he stands as one of the best winners that the NBA has seen. Kobe won 5 championship titles, 2 Finals MVPs, one NBA MVP, 4 All-Star MVPs, he has been a 17-time All-Star, and has led the league in scoring twice. Kobe’s desire to be the best led to the demise of the Lakers’ dynasty with Shaquille O’Neal; he did not want to play second fiddle to Shaq. However, Kobe showed how much he was being held back by deferring to the big man by scoring 35.1 points per game in the year following the Shaq free agent move. Kobe put up the second highest point total in a single game against Toronto by scoring 81 points in three and a half quarters that year. But, the Lakers missed the playoffs. However, when Pau Gasol joined the Lakers the next year, Kobe picked up his last two rings and solidified himself as one of the greatest to ever play.
8. Oscar Robertson - The Big O is the only man in history to average a triple-double for a full season, but most people do not know that he had at least three other seasons when he was on the verge of another triple-double season and two seasons that may have been better than the storied triple-double season. He even averaged a triple-double over the course of his first five seasons in the league even though he only recorded one individual season where he held those averages through out the entire season. Robertson was incredibly efficient and an amazing basketball talent. He was the original big point guard. He used his size, great vision, an uncanny understanding of the game, and his efficient one-handed jumper to help the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks to a NBA championship.
7. LeBron James - He is the youngest player to reach every point milestone from 1,000 to 21,000 points. He already has 4 NBA MVPs, 2 championship rings, 11 All-Star appearances, 1 scoring title, and 2 Finals MVPs. LeBron James maybe the best athlete the NBA has seen. At 6’8″ and 260 lbs., James is as big as most power forwards with all their power and post savvy, but he moves fluidly like a NBA wing, and has the vision of a point guard. He is one of the most physically gifted basketball and skilled players that has ever played in the NBA. James is the player of a generation. He is bigger, stronger, faster, and more fundamentally sound than everyone he faces. He, like every other transcendent player before him, entered the league destroying the competition. He was one of four players to enter the league averaging 20 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds. He has now won almost every individual and team award that the NBA gives to players. Any team that LeBron James plays basketball for is a contender. He has won championships in Miami, taken Cleveland to its only two title games, and stands as one of the best players to ever play the game, even though his career is has just reached its midpoint. LeBron could finish his career as the best basketball player in the history of the game.
6. Larry Bird - Though James is often compared to Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, statistically he actually compares closest to Larry Bird. At this point LeBron has played 12 years in the league and Bird played a total of 13 years. Bird acquired 3 championship titles, 3 NBA MVPS, 2 Finals MVPs, and 12 All-Star appearances in his illustrious career. Bird’s averaged 24.3 points, 6.3 assists, and 10.0 rebounds per game versus Lebron’s 27.3 points, 6.9 assists, and 7.1 rebounds per game. Both Bird and LeBron averaged exactly 1.7 steals per game and 0.8 blocks. At this point, they both shot 49.6% from the field, but Bird shot 37.6 % from the 3 point line, while LeBron has only shot 34.2 %. Larry Bird was one of the best basketball players to ever lace his sneakers the NBA. Like LeBron, Bird could beat you at all levels of the basketball court, however he was more refined in his approach and faired slightly better against his competition. Bird shot the basketball better and he relished the big moment. He is one of the most clutch basketball players and clutch shooters that the league has ever seen. His Celtics regularly beat up Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the Eastern Conference playoffs in the eighties. He dueled against Magic Johnson for titles in the eighties and won his share. Bird was unstoppable in his prime.
5. Magic Johnson - Magic Johnson stands as one of the most dominant guards that the league has ever seen. At 6’9″, he ran point for one of the flashiest and most efficient offenses that ever played in the NBA. He invented the “no-look” pass, he perfected the one-hand pass, and he is the most prolific passer that the NBA has ever seen. Magic is one of only a few players who could take over a game by scoring the basketball himself or dominate without putting in shots himself. People remember his court vision, and they remember him running the devastating Lakers fast break. What the casual fan forget is how clutch he was in big moments. In his rookie season, when Kareem was injured, Magic who ran the offense for the Lakers, filled in at center. He decimated the Philadelphia 76′ers defense with 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals. He became the only rookie to win the NBA Finals MVP award and one of four players to have won a NCAA title and a NBA title in consecutive years. Magic Johnson went on to win 3 regular season MVPs, a total of 5 titles with 9 trips to the Finals, 12 All-Star appearances, 1 All-Star MVP, and he still owns the career average record for assists at 11.2 assists per game.
4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - The name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar should be synonymous with winning. People praise him for his all-time scoring record and love him for being an integral part of the Showtime Lakers, but everyone does not necessarily recognize him for the winner that he is. Abdul-Jabbar literally won championships everywhere that he played basketball. He won a city championship in New York City as a high schooler, he won three national championships in college at UCLA along with three NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards, and he won six titles in the NBA with two teams. Abdul-Jabbar was an All-Star 19 times, he was the NBA Rookie of the Year, a 2-time Finals MVP, and a 6-time NBA MVP. Kareem has a legitimate claim to be the best player that ever lived. In college, the NCAA outlawed dunking the year that he entered college. Instead of the rule change limiting him, it turned him into the most dominant force that the league had seen since Wilt Chamberlain. The no-dunk rule forced him to develop an alternative scoring method in the paint. He created the sky hook, the most unstoppable shot in the history of the NBA. The powers that be in college basketball thought that they had stopped a once in a lifetime talent, but they only made him better. The rule was rescinded the year that Kareem (then named Lew Alcindor) left college.
3. Bill Russell - Bill Russell represents the standard of winning in professional sports. He played professional basketball for 13 seasons and won 11 championships. He has more championship rings than he has fingers to wear them. He is one of four players to average 20 points and 20 rebounds over the course of his career in college and one of two players to average over 20 rebounds per game for his NBA career. If there were shot blocking records in his era, Russell might currently be the all-time leader in blocked shots. He is the reason that goal-tending became an official rule. Teams could not score with Bill Russell under the rim. Russell and his Celtics were the only reason that the great Wilt Chamberlain only won two championships. Russell was the only man that slowed Chamberlain. His Celtics won regardless of which teammates surrounded him on the court. He won with Cousy at point. He won without Cousy. He won with John Havlicek. He won without him. Russell even won a NBA championship as player and a coach in his final year, 1969. The biggest testament to Russell’s legacy is that he won against all competition with any set of teammates that he was given.
2. Wilt Chamberlain - Wilt Chamberlain stands as possibly the most talented player to ever play the game of basketball. And, the record books bear his claim for the title of “Best Player Ever.” Wilt Chamberlain owns every scoring record that exists except career scoring average, and he remains fourth on that list. He is the only man to average 50 points per game in a season, the only man to average 40 a game (he did it twice), and the all-time leader in rebounding average and total rebounds. He is the only center to ever lead the league in assists, and Wilt is currently second in career triple doubles behind only Magic Johnson. Wilt is the only man to record a quadruple double-double, scoring at least 40 points and grabbing at least 40 rebounds in five separate games. He remains the only man to record a double triple-double, scoring 22 points, pulling down 25 rebounds and handing out 21 assists against the Detroit Pistons in 1968. And, he has twelve consecutive seasons when he averaged at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. Chamberlain is a four-time NBA MVP, the 1972 Finals MVP, and a two-time NBA champion. In fact, his lack of rings are the only reason that he did not win the top spot, even though his career matched him against one of the most dominant teams in league history, the Boston Celtics of the 1960′s. The truth about Wilt is that when he had talent around him, he won. Michael Jordan is considered to be the best player in league history by a large margin, however the margin is actually a lot smaller. NBA greats are measured by the number of championship titles they have won, and unfortunately Wilt Chamberlain did not win enough of his big series against Russell.
1. Michael Jordan – Most sports authorities award Michael Jordan the “Best Ever” title because of the way he revolutionized the way that basketball was played and because of his contributions to the way the game was marketed. However, Jordan sits at the top of this list because of the way that he changed perceptions about winning in basketball. Management thought that basketball teams needed a big man to win titles before him, but Jordan proved them all wrong. He dominated competition regardless of their season records or talent level. He came into the league as an athlete, but left as one of the best midrange shooters the game has seen. Jordan slashed, posted up, dunked on, or faded away from all his competition over the course of his career. And, the real worth of Michael Jordan is found in his play when the games mattered most. Jordan played in six NBA Finals, won six NBA titles, and earned six NBA MVP awards. He has the highest single season scoring average in the playoffs (43.67 points per game), the highest career scoring average (33.45 ppg.), and the highest career playoff player efficiency rating (28.60).