Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Top 50 Basketball Players of All-Time

I enjoyed making the basketball list more so than any of the others. I think it's because I've actually seen the majority of the great players play. As a result, I can tell for myself who the best players were stats aside. Obviously, I'll have to rely on numbers and second-hand information for players like Wilt Chamberlain etc. The list was designed to rate the top 50 players in NBA history. There is no question that the NBA had far superior talent than the ABA. It was close to the difference between the NFL and USFL. That doesn't mean an ABA player could not be rated. In fact, there are quite a few players on this list that played in the ABA. What I tried to do was decide if a player's career statistics were bloated enough from having played in the ABA that they really weren't as good as the numbers might indicate. However, if a player dominated in the ABA and then dominated in the NBA for just as long, I gave that player the benefit of the doubt.

1) Michael Jordan
2) Shaquille O'Neal
3) Wilt Chamberlain
4) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
5) Bill Russell
6) Magic Johnson
7) Larry Bird
8) Tim Duncan
9) Oscar Robertson
10) Karl Malone
11) Elgin Baylor
12) Hakeem Olajuwon
13) Kobe Bryant
14) Julius Erving
15) Moses Malone
16) David Robinson
17) Bob Pettit
18) Kevin Garnett
19) Charles Barkley
20) George Mikan
21) Jerry West
22) Bob Cousy
23) Dolph Schayes
24) Rick Barry
25) George Gervin
26) Dirk Nowitzki
27) John Havlicek
28) John Stockton
29) LeBron James
30) Dwyane Wade
31) Walt Frazier
32) Neil Johnston
33) Isiah Thomas
34) Allen Iverson
35) Elvin Hayes
36) Clyde Drexler
37) Bill Sharman
38) Scottie Pippen
39) Gary Payton
40) Patrick Ewing
41) Jerry Lucas
42) Tiny Archibald
43) Paul Arizin
44) Steve Nash
45) Willis Reed
46) Hal Greer
47) Bob McAdoo
48) Nate Thurmond
49) Dominique Wilkins
50) Pete Maravich

Instead of listing the next ten or twenty players on the list which would essentially create a Top 60 or 70 list, I would like to identify the players that I had the hardest time keeping off. These are in no particular order; Wes Unseld, Kevin McHale, Jason Kidd, Dave Cowens, Billy Cunningham, Artis Gilmore, Connie Hawkins, Mel Daniels, Dan Issel, George McGinnis, Spencer Haywood, Earl Monroe, Robert Parish, Dave Bing, Dave Debusschere, Bill Walton, James Worthy and Bob Lanier. At one time or another, each player appeared in the top 50 before I reached my final decision.

I think Elton Brand has a great chance of breaking into the Top 50 if he stays healthy. Few have been as consistent as he has been to start a career. The same could have been said for Chris Webber who almost certainly would have made the list had his career not been rocked by a brutal injury.


Ben Taylor said...

It's nice to see a list like this – I have made many and even wrote a book about the best players since 1980. My criteria are similar to yours, however I tend to give more weight to “advanced” statistics (such as the stuff at basketball reference), how long players were in their prime, and the intangible qualities of their game that can only be observed from watching them play. To me, career statistics, in all sports, are significantly over blown and can be meaningless.

With that said, I'll reserve all comments on the old timers, with the exception of the Chamberlain/Russell question. A common argument against Russell is that he was surrounded by great players and Wilt was a one man team. However Chamberlain played with HOF players such as Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and later Gail Goodrich. His gaudy scoring numbers were a combination of pace (more shots) and height (average height among centers was closer to 6-7 than 7-0).

I like your acknowledgment of Wade, LeBron, and Scottie Pippen. Pippen is an example of exactly why normal statistics are meaningless (even though he, Bird, and Havilcek are the only guys ever with 17,000 points, 7,000 boards and 6,000 assists). Pippen was the best perimeter defender in the history of the sport – how many spots does that count for?

As for Wade and LeBron, Wade is a better scorer, better in the clutch, and has a Finals MVP (in which he was simply magical). Although LeBron wins the stats battle, I would rank Wade higher for those reasons.

Finally, you have three noticeable snubs: Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Rodman, and Reggie Miller. Take a look at Dirk's Win Shares on basketball-reference – he is working on his sixth monster season. He has a handful of amazing postseason performances, and his playoff scoring average goes way up from his career PPGs. If he wins the MVP this year, he will be a HOF lock and enter this discussion with regularity.

Miller and Rodman were two of the most atypical players in history, and thus statistics don't do them justice. Rodman was one of the best defensive forwards ever, an unbelievable winner, and easily – and I mean easily – the greatest rebounder in NBA history ( He was also a great passer. Again, this has to count for something. If scoring were everything, Stephon Marbury would be an elite point guard.

As for Miller, I used to think he was one-dimensional and overrated. But he was the greatest clutch player ever, was simply astonishing almost every postseason, played at a high level for thirteen consecutive years, and his presence improved his teammates. First, he wore out the opposing team's shooting guard because he ran him around screens all night. Second, like an ace in baseball helps the pitching staff the day before and after his start, Miller opened the court up and distracted defenders who were setting screens and for his teammates with the ball. Go back and watch any Pacers game from the nineties and notice how he created opportunities for Jackson, Davis and others because they are concerned about Reggie popping out for an open three.

Keep up the good work!

Jake said...

Ben, thanks for the comments!

I’m not sure if you counted Dirk as a “snub” because I didn’t rate him high enough on the list or that you thought that I didn’t include him. He is on the list at #26. That is about as high as I could have rated him heading in to this season. As I mentioned in his summary, I think he could end up in the top 15 or higher depending on what he can accomplish in terms of MVPs and Championships.

I think you probably feel the same way about Reggie Miller as I feel about Kevin Johnson. Both were very good players. Kevin Johnson is probably the most underrated player that I have ever seen. Miller is similar to Rip Hamilton although I have no problem admitting that Miller was the better player. Despite all of Hamilton’s positives with regards to tiring out other defenders and taking up the focus of the opposing teams’ defense, Hamilton isn’t a top 50 player nor is he close. I feel somewhat the same about Miller. He wasn’t particular effective at taking the ball to the hoop (I’m not saying he didn’t do this but I can’t say he was tremendously impressive). He didn’t post up all that well. He wasn’t a great passer or a good rebounder. He wasn’t a great defender. He could shoot very well and he was “clutch”. I just don’t think I could put him in the top 50.

To me, Rodman is the defensive version of Reggie Miller. I view Ben Wallace as a better version of Rodman and I don’t think Ben Wallace comes close to the top 50. As a big fan of Rodman, I saw him play 500+ basketball games. He was a role player—albeit a very good role player. I don’t believe Rodman or Wallace could make a bad team good.

I could have easily put Miller on the “Honorable Mention”. I certainly considered him. The player that I had the most difficult time omitting was Jason Kidd. I’ve seen Kidd and I am not convinced that he is as good as his triple-doubles indicate. But, I’m starting to think he should be in the top 50. I’ll probably be debating this point with myself for a long, long time.

One quick note on your Wilt/Russell comment—I think one of the things that made Wilt the better player in my mind is his significant height advantage over Russell. There’s not much Russell could have done about it but it existed nonetheless.

I think Wade is more “dangerous” and more “unguardable” than LeBron but Wade hardly plays a full season without getting injured and seems to coast in the regular season at times. I am interested in how their careers play out. Wade is off to a much better start in terms of the post-season but there is no question in my mind that LeBron would be off to the same start if Shaq were suiting up with him. I think LeBron has a significant edge in the regular season. I feel for LeBron. Cleveland is very much like the pre-Pippen Bulls. Once LeBron gets some help, I think you’ll see him explode.

I appreciate the comments.

Take care!

Deke said...

Great work I love these types of lists created by bloggers. I have to admit I just checked it out to see where Malone and Stockton were ranked. Pretty good call on both I agree with Malone, Stockton could have been higher, but hell I can't complain with where you have Stockton.

rhino17 said...

Malone ahead of Hakeem what a joke. And Shaq #2???. Worst list ever

Anonymous said...

Don't see how Shaq got rated ahead of Wilt. I don't see who this competition Shaq played against is. He caught a couple of centers on the decline and when he did play in the league against a center on the top oh his game (Hakeem), Shaq was not the #1 center.

Jake said...

Thanks for the comment about Shaq and Wilt. I know it’s difficult for people to grasp the idea of how far the game has advanced in the last 40 years. People see Shaq over the great Wilt Chamberlain and immediately tune out. They’ve programmed themselves to tune out. If people want to see a fa├žade, then that’s their choice. I deal with reason and logic. People have no idea how terrible the game of basketball was when Wilt Chamberlain played. So, I’m going to address the whole Shaq/Wilt issue.

Anon, you mention that you don’t understand all of these great players that Shaq has played against. This has nothing to do with Shaq’s competition. I could go on and on about Hakeem, Duncan, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Yao Ming, and Dwight Howard (who are so much better than what Chamberlain had to play against that it’s ridiculous to even compare) but it isn’t about them. Shaq has actually had to play against CENTERS. People don’t understand that Wilt played against frontcourts with an average height of 6’7. What would happen if you put Rip Hamilton on Shaq? Well, that’s pretty much what went down in the 60s with Wilt and everyone he played against. Even the best player of that era besides Wilt was 6’9 (Russell). People also need to understand that if you put Dwight Howard or somebody like that in the 60s, he would absolutely tear the league apart much like Wilt. You might find a couple guys that were 6’10 in the entire league and even then, they were so uncoordinated that they road the bench. Tall guys weren't coordinated in the 50s and 60s with the exception of about four guys.

I know this is difficult to think about in the abstract because it’s so hard for people to discredit Wilt Chamberlain. I don’t view it that way. I view it as crediting Shaq. I mean, damn, I have Wilt as the 3rd best player ever. This is about a comparison of Shaq and Wilt—not about whether Wilt was phenomenal or not.

Here is who Wilt played against during his first and last MVP seasons. Tell me that Elton Brand wouldn’t absolutely dominate that league in Wilt-like fashion. Now, imagine Shaq against those guys. Shaq is bigger and stronger than Wilt was. It would have been ridiculous.

Chamberlain's competition in 1959-60 (his first MVP)

Cincinnati Royals

Jack Twyman 6’6 F
Phil Jordon 6’10 C
Wayne Embry 6’8 C
Hub Reed 6’9 C

Detroit Pistons

Walter Dukes 7’0 C
Bailey Howell 6’7 F
Barney Cable 6’7 F
Archie Dees 6’8 C
Shellie McMillon 6’5 F

St. Louis Hawks

Bob Pettit 6’9 C
Clyde Lovellette 6’9 F

New York Knickerbockers

Willie Naulls 6’6 C
Kenny Sears 6’9 F
Charlie Tyra 6’8 C
Johnny Green 6’5 F/C

Syracuse Nationals

Dolph Schayes 6’7 F/C
Red Kerr 6’9 F/C
Bob Hopkins 6’8 F/C
Connie Dierking 6’9 F/C

Minneapolis Lakers

Elgin Baylor 6’5 F
Rudy LaRusso 6’7 F/C
Ray Felix 6’11 C
Tom Hawkins 6’5 F

Boston Celtics

Tom Heinsohn 6’7 F/C
Gene Conley 6’8 F/C
Bill Russell 6’9 C

Chamberlain's competition in 1967-68 (his last MVP)

San Diego Rockets

Toby Kimball 6’6 F/C
Don Kojis 6’3 F
John Block 6’9 F/C
Johnny Green 6’5 F/C

Seattle Supersonics

Bob Rule 6’9 C/F
Tom Meschery 6’6 F
Al Tucker 6’8 F
Dorrie Murray 6’8 F/C

Chicago Bulls

Bob Boozer 6’8 F
Jim Washington 6’6 F/C
McCoy McClemore 6’7 F/C
Barry Clemens 6’6 F

San Francisco Warriors

Rudy LaRusso 6’7 F/C
Fred Hetzel 6’8 F/C
Nate Thurmond 6’11 F/C
Clyde Lee 6’10 F/C

Los Angeles Lakers

Elgin Baylor 6’5 F
Mel Counts 7’0 C
Darrall Imhof 6’10 C
Tom Hawkins 6’5 F

St. Louis Hawks

Zelmo Beaty 6’9 C
Bill Bridges 6’6 F/C
Paul Silas 6’7 F/C

Baltimore Bullets

Ray Scott 6’9 F/C
Gus Johnson 6’6 F/C
Leroy Ellis 6’10 F/C
Jack Marin 6’7 F

Cincinnati Royals

Jerry Lucas 6’8 F/C
Connie Dierking 6’9 F/C
Happy Hairston 6’7 F

Detroit Pistons

Dave DeBusschere 6’6 F
Terry Dischinger 6’7 F
John Tresvant 6’7 F/C
Joe Strawder 6’10 C

New York Knickerbockers

Willis Reed 6’9 C/F
Walt Bellamy 6’11 C
Phil Jackson 6’8 F/C

Boston Celtics

Bailey Howell 6’7 F
Bill Russel 6’9 C
Don Nelson 6’6 F
Tom Sanders 6’6 F

Like I mentioned above, anybody over 6’9 road the bench with the exception of a few players like Walt Bellamy, Clyde Lee, and Nate Thurmond. Wilt dominated 6’7 players. He was the best player in a league full of small guys. Shaq has dominated the NBA in a league riddled with players 6’10 and taller. It’s not a question of how great Shaq’s competition is. There is no question in my mind that the group of guys I listed above is much better than who Wilt played against but still, it’s about Shaq having to bang and pound every night against dudes that are 6’10 or taller and 250 lbs and heavier. Wilt destroyed players that were 6’7 and 6’8 and 220 lbs.
That is one of the reasons why I gave the nod to Shaq. The best player of a great era should generally be recognized as more accomplished than the best player of a poor era. For some reason, there is a large contingent of sports fans who have to hold on to the past being better than the present.

Shaq also has the second greatest PER (player efficiency rating) ever just barely behind Michael Jordan. It’s no coincidence that they are 1-2 on my list.

Jack said...

Tim Duncan #8 and Kobe #13-- i could not believe that. There is absolutely no way. I think there remaining potential gave them and other current players a certain bais.

Duncan is somehow ahead of the man who taught him how to play in the nba--David Robinson, and the all-time leader in blocks--Olajuwon. Not to mention both Malones. Unbeleivable.

Dont even get me started with Kobe.

I did not agree with placing Stockton and Zeke so low on the list, but we all have are opinions.

I couldn't beleive that you didnt mention Sam Jones or David Thompson.

Anonymous said...

First of all anyone who disagrees with Shaq at #2 does not know about basketball. Shaq has been in the NBA Finals six times, winning four titles, and has been at least to the conference finals at least three more times. Shaq is the ultimate winner. Even Michael Jordan early in his career could not win the way Shaq did in his early years. Shaq made everyone around him much better. Udonis Haslem would not have a starting job if he was not constantly left wide open thanks to the double and triple teams that Shaq draws. Shaq is without a doubt the most unstoppable force in NBA history. He could score at a rate of 60% field goals in the 90s which was by far and away the greatest era for dominant centers. Shaq is the reason Kobe has three rings and the reason Dwayne Wade has a ring, and the only reason people even know who Penny Hardaway is. Look at the Heats record last year (this is with an old injured Shaq mind you) when he was in and Wade was out vs the opposite of Wade playing and Shaq being out. The Heat couldnt even break .500 with their finals mvp playing, but when Wade was out and Shaq played the Heat had their best run of the season. Now this is in no way to dis Wade, he is still one of the best players in the league, but this merely illustrates the effect that Shaquille O'Neal has on a team. Look at the Lakers Heat Trade. The next season after Shaq was traded the Miami Heat went from a .500 team to just missing out on the best record in the league. Meanwhile the Lakers with their alleged best player in the league today went from the NBA Finals to barely making the playoffs and a first round elimination. If Kobe is so great because he has three rings he should have been able to do something with this team in three years.
This brings me to my next point, The Kobe, LeBron, Wade dispute. I know alot of people will disagree with me, but these people do not understand basketball which is compromised of more than just sheer scoring ability, but LeBron James is head and shoulders above the other two. Its not even close and not even debateable. Let me address as to why he is better than Kobe first. Kobe is and I will concede this because its true, the best pure scorer in the NBA today. However this is not the point. Again look no further than the season after Shaq got traded. Lamar Odom who is one of the better talents in the league enjoyed his greatest run as a Laker during the time that Kobe missed due to injury that year and no surprise the Lakers had their best run of the season with Kobe out. The thing is Kobe suffers from what Jordan did early in his career, but Kobe is not as good as prime Jordan in any dimension of the game on top of it. Kobe's shot selection is generally pretty bad and he despite his scoring ability cannot create for his teammates the way someone of his caliber should be able to. His defense is way overrated. The top scoring perimiter players in the league always tear him apart, refer to X-mas day game against Wade and the Heat as exhibit A. On top of that with Lamar Odom on his team he should be able to get the Lakers out of the first round if he is as good as everyone thinks he is. Lamar Odom may be injured alot but when he is healthy he should get the ball alot more. With Kobe on the team that will not happen and stupid shot after stupid shot will go up. Kobe has not won anything without Shaq, and people do not realize this. Shaq is the reason for those titles. The Lakers became the best team in the NBA for many years because of his proven ability to dominate. Without him Kobe will never win and until he does no one can argue this point because he has had three years of playing along Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Luke Walton, and even Smush Parker who is a much better point gaurd than any LeBron has ever had. LeBron on the other hand has managed to have two succesful playoff runs with no one on his team. Larry Hughes is a bum who is overpaid for one season of success with the Wizards. In fact the Cleveland Cavaliers have shown steady and enormous progress every year since LeBron entered the NBA at the age of 18. In four years they went from 17 wins and the bottom of the lottery teams to the NBA Finals without another notable player to speak of. LeBron simply dominates the game because of his amazing basketball intelligence and his ability to create for his teammates and make them better. He is the Shaq equivalent of perimeter players with excellent passing and excellent vision to boot. He carries teams on his own and can simply dominate offensively without costing the team wins because of something like Kobe's stupid shot selection or ball hogging and inability to create for teammates. Kobe's ability to create when Shaq was in LA is irrelevant because it does not take any skill to lob the ball to the basket and have Shaq go up and dunk it. Lamar Odom has actually lost value because of playing with Kobe and if you trade Hughes for Odom the Cavs could have probably been in the NBA Finals twice by now. They would have lost to the Spurs and Mavs either way but would have fared alot better. Which of course brings me to Dwayne Wade, who is a very good overall player, but again people do not realize that this guy cannot do it alone. Having Shaq on the floor with him makes life so much easier for him which allowed for his amazing 2006 Finals. No one realizes this but the concern of doubling him is impossible because Shaq alone commands double and triple teams thus allowing Wade to go one on one more. Wade alone without Shaq cannot carry the Heat to the NBA Finals and if he did not have Shaq in the Mavs series to clog up the paint there is no way he would have even put up anything close to what he did and that series would have been a complete sweep. LeBron James carried to virtually the same number of wins in 06 as the Shaq and Wade heat, and beat them in 07 on his own. Granted injuries played a part in both seasons and moreso in 07, but there is still no denying that the fact that he was able to accomplish similar things as two superstars is impressive. If LeBron had played on the Lakers instead of Kobe (assuming he was old enough) all those years the Lakers would have won championships year after year and yes even probably beat out the Jordan Bulls with those Laker teams. Simply put LeBron is an unstoppable force who knows what he is doing and although Shaq and LeBron are maybe less talented than their counterparts like Olajawon and Robinson or Kobe and Wade, their shear size and athletism in addition their basketball intelligence and knowing how to play the game the right way is what made them superstars that could transform teams into winners regardless of who is around them. Obviously people argue you cannot determine who is a better player in KG and Duncan by virtue of winning because Duncan has always had superior talent around him, however where a player can lead his team to victory with inferior talent around him is the true measuring stick of greatness and that is what LeBron and Shaq have been able to do and something Kobe, Wade, and other players have been unable to do.


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