The Greatest NBA Players of All-Time: A Definitive Guide

The Greatest

June 26, 2017

by Chase Gage

 

 

Who is the greatest player in the history of the NBA? Well, we may never truly know, but we can get an idea.

Instead of using advanced metrics to overanalyze stats that most people don’t understand (what exactly is PER and what is a ‘win share’?), I use statistics that anyone who knows basketball will be able to look at and argue. I use stats that actually matter (I don’t really care what Larry Bird’s usage rate was in 1987). Championships matter. MVP awards matter. Making it to the Finals matters, even if you fall short (*cough* LeBron James). Are all of these things equal? Of course not. No one makes the argument that Steve Nash is better than Kobe because he has more regular season MVP awards. No one in their right mind thinks that Derek Fisher’s five rings are better than the two that Hakeem Olajuwon won. So, I have created a points system that rewards players for their success and does not penalize them for their shortcomings (you’re welcome, LeBron). Maybe it will help us get a clearer picture of who the elite are in the history of this league.

bronny.jpg

For the sake of this ranking system, championships are the greatest accomplishment a player can achieve. Everyone knows this. Next in line is the Finals MVP award, as it is the true staple of “earning” your championship (Pippen has six rings, too; he’s no Jordan though). Then next comes regular season MVP awards, followed by Finals win percentages and finally, Finals appearances.

To qualify for the list, a player must have at least one championship, one regular season MVP award and one Finals MVP award*. Only 14 (15 for this article’s sake*) players in the history of the NBA meet these criteria. Some great players may be left off (Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Oscar Robertson, etc.), but if they don’t have at least that level of success, can they really be considered one of the best of all time? I don’t think so.

*Bill Russell was included because he played before the Finals MVP award existed. It is named after him, after all.

jordan

The Greatest via Achievements

Here we go:

Rank Player Finals Record Finals MVP Reg. Season MVP Score
1 Bill Russell 11-1 (92%) *** 5x 1562
2 Michael Jordan 6-0 (100%) 6x 5x 1460
3 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 6-4 (60%) 2x 6x 1210
4 Magic Johnson 5-4 (56%) 3x 3x 1021
5 Tim Duncan 5-1 (83%) 3x 2x 968
6 LeBron James 3-5 (38%) 3x 4x 843
7 Kobe Bryant 5-2 (71%) 2x 1x 841
8 Shaquille O’Neal 4-2 (67%) 3x 1x 802
9 Larry Bird 3-2 (60%) 2x 3x 710
10 Wilt Chamberlain 2-4 (33%) 1x 4x 568
11 Hakeem Olajuwon 2-0 (100%) 2x 1x 520
12 Willis Reed 2-1 (67%) 2x 1x 497
13 Moses Malone 1-1 (50%) 1x 3x 395
14 Dirk Nowitzki 1-1 (50%) 1x 1x 295
15 Kevin Durant 1-1 (50%) 1x 1x 295

Points System:

  • Championship – 100 points
  • Win % – Value
  • Finals MVP – 75 Points
  • Regular Season MVP – 50 points
  • Finals Appearance – 10 points

wiltruss

 

Of course, this only gives us a bit of an idea where these players rank. Some great players were left off, some of these guys aren’t as good as the rest. The point, though, is that we can see a clearer picture of where some of these guys stand. Next, let’s take a deeper dive. For the sake of this category, I will only be analyzing the top 10 from the previous list.

 

The Greatest via Statistics

Career Averages:

Player Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Bill Russell 15.1 22.5 4.3 NA NA
Michael Jordan 30.1 6.2 5.3 2.3 0.8
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 24.6 11.2 3.6 0.9 2.6
Magic Johnson 19.5 7.2 11.2 1.9 0.4
Tim Duncan 19.0 10.8 3.0 0.7 2.2
Kobe Bryant 25.0 5.2 4.7 1.4 0.5
LeBron James 27.1 7.3 7.0 1.6 0.8
Shaquille O’Neal 23.7 10.9 2.5 0.6 2.3
Larry Bird 24.3 10.0 6.3 1.7 0.8
Wilt Chamberlain 30.1 22.9 4.4 NA NA

 

Career Bests (Just for Fun):

Player Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Bill Russell 18.9 24.7 5.8 NA NA
Michael Jordan 37.1 8.0 8.0 3.2 1.6
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 34.8 16.9 5.0 1.7 4.1
Magic Johnson 23.9 9.6 13.1 3.4 0.7
Tim Duncan 25.5 12.9 3.9 0.9 2.9
Kobe Bryant 35.4 6.9 6.3 2.2 1.0
LeBron James 31.4 8.6 8.7 2.2 1.1
Shaquille O’Neal 29.7 13.9 3.8 0.9 3.5
Larry Bird 29.9 11.0 7.6 2.0 1.2
Wilt Chamberlain 50.4 27.2 8.6 NA NA

 

When analyzing the career averages of these players, I ranked each category. Then, by averaging where the players ranked in all the categories, they were awarded a score. The lower the score, the better. On average, Wilt Chamberlain ranked 2.6 out of the 10 players in each category. Jordan’s average ranking was 3.8, and so on. I then analyzed the players based on just points, rebounds and assists, because blocks and steals were not recorded in the era of Russell and Chamberlain. This is both an advantage (neither would have averaged too many steals a game) and a disadvantage (they would likely be two of the all-time leaders in blocked shots), but all is fair in love, numerical analysis and war.

Rank Player All 5 Categories Points, Assists, Rebounds ONLY
1 Wilt Chamberlain 2.6 2.6 (1st)
2 Michael Jordan 3.8 4.7 (3rd)
3 LeBron James 4.0 4.0 (2nd)
4 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 4.4 5.0 (4th)
T4 Larry Bird 4.4 5.0 (4th)
6 Magic Johnson 5.4 5.7 (6th)
7 Kobe Bryant 6.2 6.3 (7th)
8 Shaquille O’Neal 6.2 7.0 (9th)
9 Bill Russell 6.3 6.3 (7th)
10 Tim Duncan 6.6 7.6 (10th)

 

The “Definitive” List

Now, we have two lists of an all-time top ten. The stats seem to back up the general consensus of who some of the best players ever are. When those two lists are averaged together in their ranks, the picture becomes crystal clear.

 

Rank My List ESPN (2016) 
1. Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
3. LeBron James LeBron James
4. Magic Johnson Magic Johnson
5. Wilt Chamberlain Wilt Chamberlain
6. Bill Russell Larry Bird
7. Larry Bird Bill Russell
8. Kobe Bryant Tim Duncan
9. Tim Duncan Shaquille O’Neal
10. Shaquille O’Neal Hakeem Olajuwon

 

The Problem of Eras and Circumstances

Stats don’t always get the job done on their own.

Now to the big questions that have been looming over this entire article.

How do you measure eras? We all know that Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were animals back in their day, but the NBA only had 9 teams when Russell was winning the championship every year. The competition was arguably at its height in the 80’s and 90’s when Jordan, Bird and Magic were chasing rings. Does that knock Shaq and Kobe down a peg because they were born a little bit later?

birdmagic

How do you balance statistics with intangibles? Jordan no doubt had the “wow” factor that immortalized him as the greatest to ever play, but the stats suggest that it is closer than the argument seems to be.

What about longevity? LeBron has been to seven consecutive Finals. Bill Russell went to 11 in 13 years. Jordan went to 6 in 8 years. Tim Duncan went every 10 years or so for 100 years. Does that have more pull than guys who didn’t sit at the top for as long? Shaq was the best player in the NBA for three years, then he disappeared.

Does being a teammate matter in this argument? Kobe needed Shaq for his first three titles, but Shaq also needed Kobe. Jordan needed Pippen and LeBron needed Wade/Irving. What about guys like Duncan, Bird and Magic? Their stats don’t show just how great they really were because they were merely the centerpieces of outstanding teams. Both of them have 5 rings, by the way. They played on great teams with great coaches and it hurt their stats to some extent. Does that hurt or help their argument?

Just what do you do with LeBron? His career is still going on. Is it too soon to rank him this high? Or has he already solidified his spot amongst the top? So many unanswered questions.

Thus, the debate rages on, and likely always will.

 

Conclusions

Each generation has their hero and will pass down the stories and legends to the next generation, just as a new star is rising. In the beginning of the NBA, there was Bill and Wilt. They dominated like no one had ever seen. Kareem was then a transition player. He was similar to those greats, but he played in a newer era. The era he transitioned into was the era of Bird vs. Magic. That rivalry dominated the 80’s until some kid named Jordan came and stole the spotlight in the new era that was the 90’s. Jordan then passed the torch to Kobe, who needed some help from fellow legend Shaquille O’Neal to win a few titles at the turn of the millennium. Tim Duncan got his fair share of success alongside those two, with Shaq winning 4 (3 with Kobe), Kobe winning 5 (3 with Shaq) and Duncan winning 5. Then they ushered in the LeBron era. He is still reigning as the greatest in the game until someone proves otherwise. The likes of Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Russell Westbrook are all on the rise but have not yet reached the pinnacle of all-time greatness. Who will be the next star? Each generation has their hero.

In 40 years, younger fans may remember Kobe or LeBron or the next guy in line as the greatest ever, just as older adults see Jordan, Bird or Magic as the best. It’s nothing more than a generational cycle.

kobe

We may never have a definitive answer. Maybe that’s why it’s so fun to debate it. You can make all the arguments and present all the stats and facts that you want, but there will still never be a clear answer.

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