Since its inception in 1946, the only true constant in the NBA has been its enduring evolution, with its style, its strategies and its players remaining in a seemingly perpetual state of adaptation. Given the NBA’s persistent flux, it is an incredibly difficult task to compare the greatness of players across different generations and the sheer volume of talent that has graced the hardwood over the past seven decades has been simply astonishing.
There is no measure that can be used to construct a bulletproof system for ranking the NBA's greatest players, as every metric has some flaw that unjustifiably favors one player over another. Instead, a variety of factors have to be considered, though not necessarily on an equal basis. A player’s dominance relative to his era absolutely matters, but so too does the impact of that player’s dominance on team success. Longevity also matters, but not so much that a brilliant but brief career is completely tossed aside.
As for the active players who could be considered, only their accomplishments up to this point have been taken into account, as it would simply be unfair to make projections regarding careers that are not yet complete. As a result, the active players that landed on this list are only those who are nearing the end of their illustrious NBA careers. Even players who have already put together strong NBA resumes -- Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, for example -- still do not yet have the career accomplishments to warrant inclusion, with a strong emphasis on the “yet" in that statement.
Since Paul and Durant are not yet included, players who are talented enough to eventually land among the top 25 have also been excluded in favor of those who already have a complete body of NBA work to evaluate. So while there may be some argument that players like Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis and several other current players may be well on their way to having better careers than some of the players listed here, this list favors actual accomplishments and accolades over potential future performance.
Unfortunately, it is an impossibility to avoid leaving off players that could be rightfully recognized as among the game’s all-time greats. After all, the Basketball Hall of Fame has inducted well over 150 players since it was founded in 1959, meaning that far more Hall of Famers will be left off this list than will be included. All-time greats like George Mikan, Rick Barry, George Gervin, Allen Iverson, Isiah Thomas, Scottie Pippen and Kevin McHale all fell just short of making it, which should illustrate just how accomplished the 25 who made the list had to be.
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25 Dwyane Wade
Now entering his 13th NBA season, Wade has solidified his place among the best guards of all-time, posting career averages of 24.1 points, 5.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. An All-Star in every season except his rookie year, the three-time NBA Champion has a scoring title to go with his 2006 NBA Finals MVP Award, the latter of which he earned after carrying the Heat to the title despite going down 2-0 to the Mavs. In the last four games of the Finals, Wade's stat line was phenomenal: 39.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals, all while shooting 50.5 percent from the floor.
Far more than just an offensive talent, Wade is one of a handful of players to lead the league in scoring while also earning a place of the NBA All-Defensive Team during the same season. Playing alongside Shaq and LeBron at different points in his career, Wade’s accomplishments should not be overshadowed by the greatness of his teammates. In fact, Wade's ability to take on an unquestioned leadership role with two all-time greats is part of what makes him all the more worthy of his place among the best of all-time.
24 Kevin Garnett
One of the best prep-to-pro players ever, Garnett’s overwhelming tenacity led to his status as one of the most simultaneously beloved and reviled players of a generation. A 15-time All Star who languished on some disappointing teams in Minnesota, Garnett was named the NBA MVP in 2004 and the Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, the same season in which he won his first and only title with the Boston Celtics.
The Big Ticket's defensive prowess landed him on 12 NBA All-Defensive Teams, and he has amassed enough rebounds (14,512) to place him 10th all-time. With 25,959 career points (currently 18th on the all-time list), Garnett has been a tremendous all-around player throughout his career and his aptitude for passing from the block has even allowed him to accumulate over 5,000 career assists -- a relatively rare feat among big men and good for 47th all-time.
23 Bob Pettit
An NBA All-Star in each of his 11 seasons, Pettit’s scoring prowess allowed him to rack up over 20,000 career points despite retiring after his age-32 season. A two-time NBA MVP, Pettit averaged 26.4 points and 16.2 rebounds per game during a career spent entirely with one franchise. During his 11 seasons, Pettit never finished lower than sixth in the MVP balloting and was twice the runner-up, which is particularly impressive considering the fact that Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain dominated the vote during Pettit’s era.
22 Bob Cousy
Bob Cousy’s masterful ballhandling abilities were as central to the Celtic dynasty as Bill Russell’s defensive dominance and Red Auerbach’s strategic genius. A six-time NBA Champion, the Celtic point guard was also the MVP of the league in 1957 and led the league in assists in eight consecutive seasons. Known as the “Houdini of the Hardwood” during his playing days, Cousy retired with career averages of 18.4 points, 7.5 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game.
21 Willis Reed
As an undersized post player, Reed made up for his relative lack of stature by playing a physical style of play. Even though it was relatively brief due to issues with injuries, Reed's career was marked by inspired playoff performances that helped the New York Knicks to two NBA Championships in the 1970s. Reed was twice named the Finals MVP, with his most famous performance coming in 1973 when he played through an injury to lead the Knicks to the title over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Even though he played in just 10 NBA seasons, Reed earned a league MVP to go with his two Finals MVP Awards and was a seven-time All-Star who posted career averages of 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game. Reed’s status as a New York legend, along with his starring role in one of the most iconic moments in NBA history, is more than enough to overcome the relative brevity of his career and his lack of eye-popping statistics.
20 Dirk Nowitzki
During his peak, Dirk Nowitzki may have been one of the most unguardable players in NBA history. A seven-footer who could easily beat other bigs off the dribble or shoot over more athletic but smaller defenders, Nowitzki’s inside-out game completely altered the skillset required of power forwards in the NBA today. Nowitzki, the 2007 NBA MVP and a 13-time All-Star, also has a long history of postseason success. Over 140 playoff games, Nowitzki owns playoff averages of 25.4 points and 10.2 rebounds, leading the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA Championship while also being named the Finals MVP.
19 John Havlicek
With 26,395 career points, Havlicek is still the Celtics’ all-time scoring leader and was an eight-time NBA champion, winning his first title with Boston in 1963 and his last in 1976. A 13-time All-Star, Havlicek was one of the NBA’s first "sixth men," as he began his career playing for a Celtics team that was loaded with talent. A two-way player, “Hondo” was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team on eight different occasions and still ranks as 16th on the all-time NBA/ABA scoring list.
18 Charles Barkley
An incredibly skilled but undersized power forward, Barkley is one of just a few players in the history of the NBA to ever compile more than 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists. Barkley was an 11-time All-Star who in 1993 was able to earn an MVP Award during the peak of Michael Jordan’s reign. Despite never winning a title in the NBA while playing for the Sixers, Suns and Rockets, Barkley won two gold medals for Team USA in 1992 and 1996 and was one of the most impactful big men to ever play in the NBA.
17 Karl Malone
Over 19 NBA seasons spent almost entirely with the Utah Jazz, Malone was among the most reliable players in the NBA, averaging a double-double for his career (25 points and 10.1 rebounds per game) while winning the 1997 and 1999 MVP Awards. Malone, a 14-time All-Star who also made four NBA All-Defensive Teams, is still second on the all-time scoring list with 36,928 career points. Like Barkley, Malone won a pair of gold medals with the Olympic teams of 1992 and 1996 but was never able to win an NBA Championship. Malone's teams did come close on several occasions, most notably including two losses in 1997 and 1998 to the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.
16 Elgin Baylor
Baylor is one of the greatest players to never win an MVP Award or an NBA Championship, as the Laker legend played during an era in which Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell dominated the MVP voting and retired after just nine games due to injury during the Lakers’ championship season of 1972. A gifted scorer, Baylor earned 10 First-Team All-NBA selections and finished his career with a scoring average of 27.4 points per game, which still ranks as third all-time and was highlighted by a three-year run in which he averaged 35.3 points and 17.3 rebounds per game.
15 Julius Erving
A 16-time All-Star while playing in both the ABA and NBA, Dr. J’s style of play regularly included the balletic dunks that made him one of the most entertaining players in the history of the NBA. While his exploits in the dunk contest are legendary, Erving was far more than just a phenomenal entertainer, and his combination of size, skill and athleticism made him a transformative talent during an important era of professional basketball.
A three-time ABA MVP and a one-time winner of the NBA MVP Award, Erving was an integral part of the great Philadelphia teams of the early 1980s, winning a title alongside Moses Malone in 1983, his third championship as a pro after winning two ABA Championships. With his ABA output included, Erving is just one of six players to ever score more than 30,000 career points.
14 LeBron James
Of all the players appearing on this list, LeBron’s legacy is likely the most difficult to reconcile. He entered the league as one of the most highly touted players ever, and, for the most part, he has lived up to those outlandishly lofty expectations. What he has already accomplished since entering the league out of high school is undeniably impressive:
- 11 All-NBA Team selections (nine as a First-Teamer)
- 6 NBA All-Defensive Team selections
- 4 NBA MVP Awards (2009, 2010, 2012, 2013)
- 2 NBA Finals MVP Awards (2012, 2013)
- 2 NBA Championships
- 1 NBA Scoring Title (2007-08)
Those are already the credentials of a top-10 player and perhaps even a top-5 player all-time, especially when one considers the fact that he is only entering his age-31 season. With 24,913 career points, LeBron is already in the top-25 on the all-time scoring list and could conceivably be in the top-10 within the next two seasons. Even with all of those career accolades, something has always been somewhat amiss.
Despite his physical gifts, it took LeBron seven or eight seasons to realize that developing some semblance of a post game would make him practically unstoppable as an offensive player. It’s unbelievable that someone who is so frequently lauded for his high basketball IQ would not recognize that his freakishly athletic 6-8, 240-pound frame could be used to decimate opponents from the block, causing mismatch problems for opposing coaches and opening up passing lanes to the rim for teammates when the inevitable double-team came.
Of course, the big knock on LeBron through his first seven seasons with Cleveland was that he was unable to win a championship. After he left Cleveland for Miami (in the worst way possible, of course) and won his first title, LeBron was then criticized for the fact that he couldn’t win a championship without the help of two other All-Stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, a good young coach in Erik Spoelstra and a legendary executive in Pat Riley. After winning a second title in Miami, he bolted again and returned to a struggling Cleveland franchise, and it now seems he is intent on proving he can win a title as the undisputed alpha of the franchise.
Unfortunately, LeBron’s legacy will always be marred by his four title losses in six tries, as he already has as many title losses as Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Bill Russell combined. He is absolutely deserving of his place among the all-time greats, but there will always be legitimate questions over whether he was as good as he could have been -- especially considering his tremendous physical gifts.
13 Hakeem Olajuwon
With the unstoppable “Dream Shake” and a gift for interior defense, Olajuwon is one of the best all-around centers to play the game. Over the course of his 18-year NBA career, Olajuwon won an NBA MVP Award, two Finals MVP Awards and two Defensive Player of the Year Awards, making him the only player other than Michael Jordan to win all three awards since the league began giving the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1983. He ranks 12th all-time on the scoring list with 26,946 points and is 14th on the rebounding list with 13,748 rebounds, and the Rockets icon remains the all-time leader in career blocks with a total of 3,830.
A two-time NBA Champion with the Houston Rockets, Olajuwon dominated the postseason during each of Houston’s runs to the title, averaging 30.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks during the 1994 and 1995 playoffs. Olajuwon also made 12 All-NBA Teams and eight NBA All-Defensive Teams, an impressive accomplishment during any era, but even more so for Olajuwon considering the depth of the center position during his time in the league (Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, along with Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the early part of Olajuwon’s career).
12 Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant, unquestionably one of the greatest shooting guards to ever play in the NBA, has accomplished quite a bit during his 19-year NBA career, winning five championships with the Lakers, two scoring titles, two Finals MVP Awards and an NBA MVP Award, not to mention the 15 All-NBA Team selections (11 as a First-Teamer) and 12 NBA All-Defensive Team selections (nine as a First-Teamer).
With 32,482 career points and counting, Bryant is currently third on the all-time scoring list and his 5,640 playoff points put him within striking distance of Michael Jordan’s all-time mark of 5,987 points in the postseason. His scoring prowess has allowed him to top 60 points in a single game five times during his career and his 81-point career high is the closest any player has ever come to topping Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time best 100-point output.
11 Shaquille O’Neal
Easily the most dominant physical force to enter the NBA since Wilt Chamberlain, Shaq won the scoring title twice and led the league in field-goal percentage on 10 different occasions, retiring with an impressive career mark of 58.2 percent. Despite missing out on over 5,000 potential points due to missed free throws, Shaq still ranks eighth on the all-time scoring list with 28,596 points and his 2,732 blocks are good for ninth all-time.
A four-time NBA Champion with the Lakers and Heat (three with Los Angeles; one with Miami), Shaq was a force to be reckoned with in the postseason, winning three NBA Finals MVP Awards and averaging 27.7 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while in Los Angeles. Shaq was named to the All-NBA Team 14 times and earned a place on the NBA All-Defensive Team on three occasions. Despite only winning one NBA MVP Award (there is a good argument that he was deserving of the award during several other seasons), O’Neal was still a transformative player, though it will always be disappointing to consider how good those Lakers teams could have been had Kobe and Shaq been able to coexist.
10 Moses Malone
A 21-year pro who played in both the ABA and NBA, Malone made the leap to professional basketball at just 19 years old, playing for the Utah Stars and the Spirits of St. Louis before joining the NBA for the 1976-77 season. Malone, a 12-time NBA All-Star, had one of the most dominant five-year stretches in the history of the NBA from 1979 to 1983, averaging 26.8 points and 15.4 rebounds while winning three NBA MVP Awards and an NBA Finals MVP with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Malone, a tireless and physical rebounder who was known as the “Chairman of the Boards,” led the league in rebounding in six seasons, including an NBA-record five consecutive seasons from 1980-81 to 1984-85. Malone still ranks first all-time with a total of 7,382 offensive rebounds, and his 17,834 total rebounds are good for third all-time. With 29,580 career points, Malone is the seventh-best scorer of all-time and is the man responsible for leading Philadelphia to its last NBA Championship.
9 Jerry West
Even though the Laker legend never managed to win a league MVP Award, the man whose silhouette is the basis for the NBA’s iconic logo is still one of the very best to ever play the game. An All-Star in each of his 14 seasons in the league and a four-time runner-up for the MVP Award, West was one of the most accomplished scorers in league history, retiring with career averages of 27 points, 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds while playing alongside fellow all-time greats in Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain.
Even though he won just one NBA Championship for the Lakers during his career, West hardly shrunk during the biggest moments. Known as “Mr. Clutch” for good reason, West retired with career playoff averages of 29.1 points, 6.3 assists and 5.6 rebounds, topping 30 points per game during seven different postseasons. With 4,457 career playoff points, West still ranks as ninth on the all-time list despite playing in an era in which there were fewer rounds during the playoffs.
West remains the only player to win an NBA Finals MVP despite being on the losing side, and his postseason scoring average of 40.6 points per game as the Lakers made a run to the NBA Finals during the 1965 postseason has been topped just once in all the years since. Even then, Michael Jordan’s average of 43.7 points per game came during a three-game sweep during the first-round of the 1986 playoffs, while West put up his numbers over 11 games that included the NBA Finals.
8 Tim Duncan
With 18 NBA seasons under his belt, Duncan’s style of play has hardly changed since he came into the league in 1997. There is a case to be made that Duncan is the best big man to ever play the game, as he has accomplished just about everything a player can ever hope to achieve during a career. His NBA resume is beyond impressive:
- 15 All-NBA Team selections (10 times as a First-Teamer)
- 15 NBA All-Defensive Team selections (eight times as a First-Teamer)
- 5 NBA Championships (out of six appearances in the Finals and spanning 16 seasons)
- 3 NBA Finals MVP Awards
- 2 NBA MVP Awards
One of the greatest winners of all-time, Duncan has been the backbone of a Spurs team that has won championships with a rotating cast of characters. While Duncan -- and Gregg Popovich, of course -- has been the mainstay of the franchise, the Spurs have won each of their five NBA Championships by relying on players ranging from David Robinson to Kawhi Leonard, with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker representing the team’s core since its 2003 title campaign. Duncan is the common denominator and his 5,113 career playoff points rank fifth all-time, trailing only Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
7 Oscar Robertson
Out of all the single-season statistical accomplishments in the history of the NBA, few are on par with Robertson’s during the 1961-62 season, when he averaged a triple-double for the entire year: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. In fact, Robertson’s first six NBA seasons, when taken as a whole, combine for an average of a triple-double, with the Cincinnati Royals point guard putting up a line of 30.4 points, 10.7 assists and 10 rebounds per game during that span. His 26,710 points are still 13th all-time and his 9,887 career assists still rank as the 6th-best in the history of the NBA.
Robertson was also just one of two players other than Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to win the NBA MVP Award during the 1960s (Wes Unseld was the other), winning the 1964 MVP Award after averaging 31.4 points, 11 assists and 9.9 rebounds. An All-NBA selection in 12 consecutive seasons, Robertson led the league in assists seven different times and won a scoring title during the 1967-68 season, but he did not win his first NBA title until late in his career, winning in 1971 while playing for the Milwaukee Bucks.
6 Wilt Chamberlain
Oscar Robertson’s statistical output may be unbelievably impressive, but they pale in comparison to Chamberlain’s accomplishments. In 1961-62, Wilt averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game, and he led the league in scoring in each of his first six seasons while putting up a ridiculous line of 40.6 points and 24.9 rebounds per game. He led the league in scoring at total of seven times and he was tops in the league in rebounding 11 times. This output didn't always translate to winning basketball, however, and later in his career Chamberlain adopted a more all-around approach.
Chamberlain won four MVP Awards, but he only won two titles during his 16-year career -- one with the Sixers in 1967 and another with the Lakers in 1972. The main reason for Chamberlain’s lack of championship credentials was the dominance of Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics, as the Russell-led Celtics won nine championships during Chamberlain’s first ten seasons in the league. The Russell-Chamberlain rivalry remains one of the very best all-time and the only thing that overshadows Chamberlain’s statistical brilliance is the fact that Russell was able to routinely get the best of his gifted counterpart.
5 Magic Johnson
Earvin “Magic” Johnson was at the center of the wildly successful Showtime-era Lakers, leading his teams to five NBA titles in the 1980s while winning the NBA Finals MVP Award during three of those victories. A three-time NBA MVP who led the league in assists during four different seasons (and twice in steals), Magic was as entertaining as anyone to ever play the game, and his battles with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics were the stuff of legend.
During 13 NBA seasons, Magic was named to the All-NBA Team nine times, with all but one coming as a First-Team selection. Despite retiring after his age-31 season (he did briefly return to the NBA after four seasons out of the league), the Laker legend remains fifth all-time in assists with a total of 10,141 and is one of the game's greatest winners.
4 Larry Bird
The rivalry between Bird and Magic defined NBA basketball in the 1980s and even though Magic’s Lakers bested Bird’s Celtics two out of the three times they met in the NBA Finals, Bird gets the slightest of edges over Magic on this all-time list. Bird, a three-time NBA MVP and two-time NBA Finals MVP, was named to the All-NBA Team in 10 seasons and to the NBA All-Defensive Team on three occasions.
In addition to his three MVPs, Bird also finished second in the MVP voting four times and was a brilliant clutch and postseason performer, averaging 23.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game over 164 career playoff games. Of Bird’s three title-winning teams, none may have been better than the 1986 Celtics, a group that is easily in the conversation as one of the the very best teams of all-time.
3 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
The all-time scoring champ with 38,387 career points, Kareem’s longevity is nearly as impressive as his ability as a player. The UCLA legend, whose “skyhook” became one of the most unstoppable moves in the history of the NBA, was also a 15-time All-NBA selection and a 10-time All-Defensive Team selection, and his 20-year NBA career included six NBA MVP Awards to go with two NBA Finals MVP Awards.
A six-time NBA Champion, Abdul-Jabbar won his first title with the Bucks in 1971 and his last with the Lakers in 1988, giving the 7-2 center NBA championships in his 20s, 30s and 40s. The all-time scoring leader also ranks fourth all-time in rebounding (17,440) and 40th overall in assists (5,660), and it is worth noting that Abdul-Jabbar's impressive qualities go beyond sporting endeavors, as the New York-native is also one of the game's all-time great intellectuals.
2 Bill Russell
Bill Russell leads the pack in the stat that probably should matter most and, as the first truly dominant defensive big man, the 6-10 center revolutionized the way the game was played. With 11 NBA Championships in 12 appearances in the NBA Finals, Russell is far and away the game’s greatest winner, an accomplishment that is only magnified by the fact that his success came during an era in which Wilt Chamberlain was a force to be reckoned with.
A five-time NBA MVP, Russell was named to the All-NBA Team 11 times and retired with more career rebounds (21,620; second all-time) than points (14,522). In honor of Russell’s unparalleled championship success, the NBA Finals MVP bears his name and is presented each year by the legendary Celtics center.
1 Michael Jordan
Though there is a case to be made that many of the legends trailing Jordan on this list are as deserving of the title as the best to ever play the game of basketball, the case is simply not strong enough to overcome Jordan’s NBA accomplishments:
- 11 All-NBA Team selections (10 as a First-Teamer)
- 10 Scoring Titles
- 9 NBA All-Defensive First Team selections
- 6 NBA Championships
- 6 NBA Finals MVP Awards
- 5 NBA MVP Awards
- 1 Defensive Player of the Year Award
A dominant scorer who was just as great on the defensive end, Jordan’s status as the game’s greatest player remains entirely secure. His name is all over the record books and his career scoring average of 30.1 points per game is the best of all-time, edging out Wilt Chamberlain’s average by just .05 points per game. Only Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon have ever won an NBA MVP Award, an NBA Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year Award, and Jordan's wins in those categories add up to 12 when combined.
While his NBA achievements are all phenomenal, none stands out more than his perfect record in championship series, as the Bulls legend won six championships in each of his six trips to the NBA Finals. Along with Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, Jordan and the Bulls were the most dominant team of the 1990s, with the 72-win 1995-96 team being an obvious choice for the best of all-time.
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