by Reginald Lee Jr.
The National Basketball Association has been active for over 74 years. On June 6, 1946 the league
formerly known as the Basketball Association of America was founded. Three years later on August
3, 1949 the league christened the moniker of the NBA following a merger with the National
Basketball League, a former competitor. Throughout all its history, there have been numerous
players whom have ascended to unparalleled levels relative to the players of their respective eras.
Given consideration to factors, such as: era of play, accolades, statistics and how those players
achieved various levels of success, here are the ten greatest players to ever compete in the NBA.
#10 Hakeem Olajuwon
Accolades: 2x NBA Champion; 2x Finals MVP & 1994 League MVP
Career Stats: 21.8 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 2.5 APG
Hakeem Olajuwon is widely considered the most skilled center in the history of the NBA. Olajuwon played for a total of 18 seasons with the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors, in his later career. "The Dream" possessed finesse unlike any other big man in the history of the game.
Olajuwon's career began in the promising "Twin Towers" duo with Ralph Sampson. The Rockets made it to the NBA Finals in the 1985-1986 season. They ultimately lost in a six-game series against the Boston Celtics. The subsequent season concluded with a second-round elimination to the Seattle Supersonics. Samson was traded to the Golden State Warriors the following season. In the early 90's Olajuwon cemented his place as an all-time great.
During the 1993-1994 NBA season, the Houston Rockets finished the regular season with a 58-24 record. Olajuwon became the only players to win league Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP in the same season. The Rockets repeated as champions the following season and Olajuwon once again was awarded Finals MVP. For Olajuwon to accomplish these feats from the center position without a wing presence to complement him is an unbelievable achievement. Olajuwon ended his career a 12-time all-star and 3-times blocks champion.
#9 Tim Duncan
Accolades: 5x NBA Champion. 3x Finals MVP & 2x League MVP
Career Stats: 19.0 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 3.0 APG
While statistics were not his forte, Tim Duncan always displayed a high level of consistency. Given this, many consider Duncan the greatest power forward of all-time.
In a 19-year career, Duncan was a five-time champion with the San Antonio Spurs between three decades. Duncan was named MVP in three of those championship runs (1999, 2003 and 2005). When the NBA throne was left absent by an extinguishing dynasty, “The Big Fundamental” and the Spurs were there to fill said void.
#8 Shaquille O'Neal
Accolades: 4x NBA Champion, 3x Finals MVP & 2000 League MVP
Career Stats: 23.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 2.5 APG
Ever since being drafted number one overall in the 1992 NBA Draft, Shaquille O’Neal was considered the most physically dominant player in modern NBA history. On brute strength alone, O’Neal and a young Orlando Magic team made an NBA Finals appearance in merely their fifth year of existence. Strength alone could not propel Shaq’s Magic team over Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. O’Neal’s team was swept in a competitive four games.
Five years later after bulking up and with the tutelage of Phil Jackson, O’Neal would be part of three consecutive championships. O’Neal would be named Finals MVP in each of these seasons.
In an interview post-retirement, O’Neal revealed that his partnerships with both Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and the late Kobe Bryant ended prematurely due to chemistry issues. O’Neal found redemption in the 2005-2006 season while a member of the Miami Heat. The Heat overcame a 0-2 deficit against the Dallas Mavericks to win O’Neal his fourth NBA Championship in six games. This was O’Neal’s only championship he was not awarded Finals MVP. The honor instead went to emerging star Dwayne Wade.
In leading three franchises to NBA Finals appearances. Shaq’s recipe for success is clear, dominate in duos.
#7 Wilt Chamberlain
Accolades: 2x NBA Champion, 1972 Finals MVP & 4x League MVP
Career Stats: 30.1 PPG, 22.9 RPG, 4.4 APG
While Shaq dominated the modern-era NBA, Chamberlain set statistical standards that may never be met again.
Chamberlain holds the most records in league history and is widely considered the greatest athlete of the 20th century. His accomplishments range from being the only center to lead the league in assist, to averaging 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds in the 1961-1962 season and, most famously, scoring 100 points in a single game on March 2, 1962. This feat has not come close to being threatened.
Chamberlain’s dominance was put on full display in capturing championships with multiple franchises. Chamberlain won in 1967 with the Philadelphia 76ers and 1972 as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. The late 60’s Boston Celtics proved to be a problem for Wilt as his teams fell to this dynasty a total of four times in the NBA Finals, leaving him at seven on this list.
#6 Lebron James
Accolades: 3x NBA Champion, 3x Finals MVP & 4x League MVP
Career Stats: 27.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 7.4 APG
Over a 17-career and counting, Lebron James has surpassed high expectations since being drafted in 2003 first overall.
James has a similar career archetype as Chamberlain, both players add a varied list of skills to their teams. Physical dominance, vision and statistical greatness encapsulate both. Following his first run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James became a complete two-way player in Miami. In 2013 James even came second in Defensive Player of the Year votes.
Returning to the Cavaliers in 2014, he continued to show his affect on a teams’ success. James led the Cavaliers to four consecutive finals appearances and his third championship in 2016. This team defeated the 73-9 defending champion, Golden State Warriors. Being the pioneer of the Superteam Era by way of free agency is James greatest contribution to the sport.
James’ place isn’t solidified given his active status. A 3-6 finals record combined with a disappointing 2011 NBA Finals has tainted his legacy. In addition, James’ teams have been swept twice in the NBA Finals, 2007 and 2014. It can be said, James may be lower on this list upon his career’s conclusion.
#5 Larry Bird
Accolades: 2x NBA Champion, 3x Finals MVP & 3x League MVP (1984-86)
Career Stats: 24.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 6.3 APG
Larry Bird came into the NBA with various doubters due to his lack of athleticism. Bird coming from Indiana State University and fresh off an agonizing loss in the NCAA Championship to career rival Michigan State. Bird had an immediate affect on the team’s success as they improved their win total by 32 games. His performance resulted in winning the 1979-1980 Rookie of the Year.
That began a career legacy of winning and success as he and the Celtics won titles in 1981, 1984 and 1986. Bird etched a reputation for being one of the greatest shooters of all-time. He shot over 40% from the three-point line in multiple seasons and won the three-point shootout contest three consecutive seasons. Known as a slow defender, Bird’s habit to anticipate players’ moves led to a career 1,556 steals and three All-Defensive Second Teams. As of 2020, the only other players to accomplish this feat are Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
#4 Magic Johnson
Accolades: 5x NBA Champion, 3x Finals MVP & 3x League MVP
Career Stats: 19.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 11.2 APG
While players at Michigan State University, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson was already a household name. Leading the Spartans to the 1979 NCAA Championship by defeating Bird’s Indiana State Sycamors, Johnson never looked back. A year later he would enter the NBA and by the end of the season, he was a Finals MVP.
Johnson stood at 6’9 giving him the ability to take advantage over his smaller opposition. This made him the greatest point guard of all-time. Johnson led the league in assist, racking them up at historic rates, he is still the all-time leader in his assist per game average. Defense was also a skill of Johnson’s, as he led the league in steal in three seasons.
Johnson, a five-time champion, won half the championships in the 1980’s. However, Johnson only won Finals MVP in three of those seasons. This speaks to his greatest skill, making his teammates better with his elite passing ability.
The next three players on this list have accomplished enough to be considered the great NBA player of all-time. However, with considerations to the era they played and their respective team roles, all three slot can be interchangeable.
#3 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Accolades: 6x NBA Champion, 2x Finals MVP & 6x League MVP
Career Stats: 24.6 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.6 APG
In terms of consistent greatness, there hasn’t been any other player like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Formerly known as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., Abdul-Jabbar led the Power Memorial Academy to three consecutive New York City Catholic Championships. The Jack Donahue coached team even went on a 71-game winning streak. One of these teams finished the season amassing a 79-2 overall record.
Abdul-Jabbar’s success continued at the collegiate level playing three seasons with the UCLA Bruins. The Bruins won championships in 1967, 1968 and 1969. Abdul-Jabbar was awarded Players of the Year 1967 and 1969; was a three-time First Team All-American and the first Naismith College Player of the Year. Several NCAA records of his still stand today, including: most points scored in a season (1967: 870 points), highest season scoring average (1967: 29.0 points per game) and highest career scoring average (26.4 points per game).
Throughout his NBA career, Abdul-Jabbar accomplished several feats. He is the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, has the most regular season MVP awards (six), 15-time All-NBA selections, 11-time All-Defensive selection and 19-time All-Star.
When considering all-time resumes, it’s hard not to look at this as the best. However, given context Abdul-Jabbar may only be the greatest complimentary player of all-time. In only two of Abdul-Jabbar’s six championship seasons was he declared Finals MVP.
#2 Bill Russell
Accolades: 11x NBA Champion & 5x League MVP
Career Stats: 15.1 PPG, 22.5 RPG, 4.3 APG
Only one player can ascend to this level of success based entirely on their defensive ability.
While Bill Russell’s offensive numbers leave much to be desired, his impact on the game and leadership cannot be quantified. Russell is a back-to-back California state champion, two-time NCAA Champion, 11-time NBA Champion and Olympian. Russell has won at every level and is the greatest ‘winner’ in NBA history. While Finals MVPs and blocks were not awarded/recorded at the time, it’s safe to say that he would be close to the top of those list.
Russell’s impact on the game is very visible today. The award given to the NBA Finals MVP being named in his honor is a prime example. His impact on American sports as a whole is integral. Russell coached the Boston Celtics in 1966 and was the first African-American coach of any major sport, post-depression era. Russell served as the player-coach for two of the 11 Celtics championships.
#1 Michael Jordan
Accolades: 6x NBA Champion, 6x Finals MVP & 5x League MVP
Career Stats: 30.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.3 APG
Michael Jordan may be the only shooting guard on this list but he is undoubtedly the greatest player in the history of the game.
When it comes to accolades, statistics, role and output, nobody has the body of work like Jordan. The six-time champion has no hole to his game. Jordan was a 10-time scoring champion but also did his work on the other side of the floor. He is one of only two players to win Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season (1988).
Jordan has accomplished everything possible in the NBA while doing it in his own unique way. Before winning his first championship, the paradigm for winning titles in the NBA was to have a big man lead your team in scoring. Jordan led the Chicago Bulls in scoring for all of their championship runs. Following the disbanding of the Bulls dynasty, Shaquille O’Neal’s 2002 season was the last time a center has led the league in scoring.
Changing the winning paradigm is far from the only thing ‘MJ’ has done for basketball. Jordan was the first athlete to monetize endorsements globally with his Nike / Jordan brand. Given all of his accomplishments on and off the court, it’s hard to say he isn’t the greatest ever.