This isn’t about who had the best career. This is about the best players, period. We won’t punish anyone because of their weak competition, but if newer players have the advantage of humans getting bigger and faster and better over time, then too bad for the old guys. This is basically a giant pickup game and every player throughout history is available, all in their absolute prime. It isn’t about accomplishments like titles or longevity, just talent.
Maybe you can’t compare eras, but you can compare players from different eras based on tape. Bill Russell’s rebound numbers are hugely inflated because of the lack of competition, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be good today. Same with Wilt’s scoring. Both guys would be considered good-to-great athletes in today’s NBA. Bob Cousy and Bob Pettit? Not so much. Get it? Good.
So without further ado…
Honorable Mentions: Jason Kidd, John Stockton, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Rick Barry, Karl Malone, Kawhi Leonard, Bill Walton, Oscar Robertson
21. Scottie Pippen
Offensive skill is usually more rewarded on lists like this, but last time I checked, defense was still half of the game, and a player who could successfully guard everyone from Isiah Thomas to Larry Bird has a lot of frigging value. Obviously defense alone won’t get you on this list, though. At his height, without MJ in 1993-94, Pippen averaged 22 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 2.9 steals per game, leading the team in all categories (plus blocks). He also had an effective FG% of .522 and finished third in MVP voting. Kawhi Leonard is about one more offseason away from jumping Pippen on this list, but for now, Scottie retains the #21 spot.
20. Russell Westbrook
Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double in 1961-62 against a few good players plus a bunch of white dudes who worked as milkmen and sold insurance during the offseason. Russell Westbrook did it in 2016-17 against the deepest, strongest, most athletic pool of players who have ever played in the NBA. If your life depended on the outcome of a pickup game, which guy would you want playing for your team?
19. David Robinson
Robinson has had his place in history diminished for two main reasons: he never won a title as the best player on his team (upstaged by Tim Duncan in 1999 and 2003), and he was thoroughly outplayed (and embarrassed on one particular move) by Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1995 Western Conference Finals despite winning MVP that year. So in other words, he’s human.
Those “blemishes” overshadow his production though, not to mention his sheer, overwhelming talent. In 1993-94, he averaged 29.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.7 steals, and 3.3 blocks per game. He also dropped a quadruple-double in February of that year and actually shot 10/29 from outside the arch (in addition to 75% from the line), indicating that he could adjust to the modern game without much trouble.
18. Dwyane Wade
Wade is the third best shooting guard of all time and had one the greatest Finals performances ever in 2006, averaging 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.8 steals per game (with a true shooting percentage of .578) while leading the Heat to the title over the Mavericks. The second highest scorer for the Heat during those Finals? Antoine Walker, who was over the hill and averaged 13.8 points per game. That series alone is enough to get him on this list, and when you add in his four year run with LeBron from 2010-2014, he ends up at #18.
17. Dirk Nowitzki
Each year that goes by, skill becomes more and more valuable in the NBA and Dirk moves further and further up on this list. His lack of ability to protect the rim and stay with smaller guards on pick-and-roll switches are the only dings against him. Otherwise, he is the perfect modern center. In his prime he averaged nearly 27 points and nine rebounds per game while shooting 40%+ from beyond the arch, 90%+ from the line, and a hair under 50% from the field. Basically Durant without the all-world athleticism/perimeter skills.
16. Isiah Thomas
The fourth best player of the 1980s, Isiah is the only small guard to lead his team to back-to-back titles and was a two-way terror as an individual player. His best year was probably 1984-85 when he averaged 21.2 points and 13.9 assists per game. His stats cooled off a bit during Detroit’s title runs in the late ’80s because he had more help with the scoring and playmaking load, but make no mistake: even then, he could dominate the game with his scoring, passing, and defense. Isiah is probably dinged a little bit historically because he wasn’t on the Dream Team, but that was only because a vindictive Michael Jordan kept him off.
15. Stephen Curry
Curry does really, really well when ranked using the criteria we chose. He actually could have been even higher. For starters, he’s the most devastating under 6’3 offensive player ever. Allen Iverson’s career high was 33 points (on 25 shots) per game in 2005-06. He played 43.1 (!!!!) minutes per night and had an effective FG% of .467. Exactly ten years later Curry averaged 30.1 points (on 20 shots) per game in only 34.2 minutes with an effective FG% of .630.
Not even close. Curry is also a two-time MVP, a two-time champion, and plays in the modern NBA, where defenses are more sophisticated and players are bigger, faster, and stronger. Yes, he benefits from offense-friendly hand checking rules, but we’re choosing players for NOW, not 20 years ago.
14. Kevin Garnett
At his height as a player in 2003-04, KG was a terrifying, stat-stuffing league MVP, averaging 24 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 2.2 blocks, 1.5 steals and only 2.6 turnovers per game. He also happened to be the best team defender in the league and an emotional leader who was beloved by teammates (if despised by opponents). Incredibly, KG would be even better if he’d started his career in 2015 instead of 1995.
He had a great 18-foot jump shot that he could have easily extended out to become at least a 36% 3-point shooter. His only true weakness as a player was his lack of desire to post up with the ball down low, which would actually be a strength today (post-ups clog the lane, etc.). His mobile defense would also be more valued today. He spent a lot of time in the ’90s and 2000s guarding guys like Karl Malone and Tim Duncan straight up in the post, whereas today he would be deployed as a rim-protecting, pick-and-roll destroying weapon.
13. Julius Erving
One of the few players from the 1970s who unquestionably had the athleticism to hang in today’s game, Dr. J might even be better today – despite improved defenses – because of his style of play. He would have thrived in today’s wide open, less physical game because of his insane athleticism, huge wingspan, giant hands, and defensive versatility. Also, while he was never known for his jumper, he was skilled enough to make an open three, which would force modern defenders to play up on him, creating even more driving lanes.
12. Bill Russell
Bill Russell may be the hardest person on this list to properly rate. A lot of the same things that apply to Wilt Chamberlain also apply to him, but Russell played even earlier than Wilt and wasn’t as big. However, there is convincing evidence to suggest that he was as good an athlete as the best players today. He was also the most competitive player ever pre-MJ, and the smartest player in the league, in addition to possessing elite shot-blocking and rebounding instincts and underrated passing.
Being an elite athlete at 6’10 probably means he would also be devastating guarding smaller players on pick-and-roll switches. Did he win all the time because he had the best team, or were they the best team because they had him? It’s hard to tell 50 years later, but the smart money is on the latter, and we’re happy putting our faith in an elite athlete who was totally unselfish and never lost an elimination game in his entire career.
11. Wilt Chamberlain
In case you haven’t caught the drift, we aren’t very optimistic that dudes from the 1960s would be able to compete with the modern athlete. Wilt is a different story. Yes, he played against shitty competition, averaged 50 points per game, and once had 100 points in a game (and 55 rebounds in another). And no, he couldn’t replicate those numbers today. It doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be great, though.
Tape measures and stop watches worked the same back then, and he was a 7’1, 250 pound specimen who was a conference champion high jumper in college (measures out to roughly a 40-inch vertical) and had great natural touch around the hoop. It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t at least average 24 points and 12 rebounds per game on 60%+ shooting in today’s NBA.
10. Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon probably came around 20-25 years too early (somewhat like Garnett, although a less extreme example) and still ended up as one of the best players ever. He managed to use his quickness and skill to outwit bigger centers – notably David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal – while winning the MVP in 1993-94 and back-to-back titles in ’94 and ’95. He was also unquestionably the best player in the league during Michael Jordan’s first retirement.
And even though he’s best know for his post moves (somewhat of a relic in today’s NBA) it feels like Hakeem might even be better today. He projects as a Karl-Anthony Towns with much better defense and slightly worse outside shooting, which would make him the best big man in the league by far.
9. Tim Duncan
Sexy? No. The best power forward ever? Yes. He actually had a better career than either Kobe or Shaq, but because of the changing nature of the NBA, he ranks slightly lower on this list. He couldn’t shoot threes and he didn’t have the KG-level athleticism necessary to match up against the likes of Russell Westbrook or Steph Curry coming off a high screen. Still, Duncan is about as good as it gets as a small-ball center/big-ball power forward.
In 2001-02 he averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.5 blocks per game while playing an unselfish, defense-first, team-oriented brand of basketball. He lead the league in Offensive Win Shares and Total Win Shares and finished second in the league in Defensive Win Shares. Hell, the guy was still one of the best defenders in the league in 2014-15 at the age of 38, playing on one leg.
8. Shaquille O’Neal
You would think that Shaq wouldn’t fit the modern NBA, and as a result, he would suffer on this list. The problem with that theory: who the fuck would guard him? Let’s take the 1999-2000 version of Shaq, who lead the league in PER, Offensive Win Shares, Defensive Win Shares, scoring, and FG%, and averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 3 blocks per game on the way to winning MVP.
He would be 1,000% unguardable down low, forcing teams to either let up easy baskets or double team him. Surround him with four good shooters and start every possession with Shaq posting up. Every time down court would be a Shaq dunk or an open three (usually from the corner), which are the two best shots in basketball. He may clog the lane a little bit, but it didn’t seem to bother Kobe Bryant, one of the most prolific drivers ever. As far as defense, any later version of Shaq would hurt you a lot, but in ’99-00 he still had the foot speed at least to show against the pick-and-roll.
7. Kobe Bryant
The biggest problems with Kobe as a player were his ball-hogging tendencies and his predilection for taking insanely hard low-percentage shots. However, the Shaq era, the Pau Gasol/Lamar Odom era, and his appearances on Olympic teams prove that when surrounded by great teammates, he was willing to share the ball enough to keep defenses honest.
Take 2002-03, when he averaged 30 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals per game while making first team all-defense and shooting 38% from outside the arch. His biggest issue was efficiency, but these days he would take way more threes and fewer contested twos, which would automatically increase his effective FG%. Add in his ultra-competitive nature and fourth quarter heroics and you get a guy we would be happy to go to war with.
6. Kevin Durant
Did you watch the NBA Finals? #CaseClosed
5. Larry Bird
It’s extremely hard to rank Kobe/Durant/Bird, but the reasoning for putting Bird first is two-fold. One, he made his teammates much better, which neither Kobe nor Durant really did/do. His passing was out of this world and would be even more effective today because the court is more spread out and because of the relative value of finding players for open three pointers. Secondly, he would be a better and more efficient scorer today because he barely took threes during his prime despite being one of the best shooters ever.
It’s hard to pick his best year, but in 1986-87 (coming off three straight MVPs) he averaged 28.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 1.8 steals per game while shooting 40% from downtown on just three attempts per game. Make that ten three-point attempts per game and he probably averages 32 points per game. Defense was his biggest issue, but he was an underrated team defender, and these days he would play a lot more power forward, somewhat negating his biggest liability: lack of foot speed against smaller small forwards.
4. Magic Johnson
Magic was obviously a phenomenal player, but it’s possible he would be even better today. His assists would be more valuable because they would create more efficient shots (i.e. threes, not long twos), rebounding would be easier because of the lack of size on the court (see: Westbrook), and he would shoot more threes himself, making him a more efficient offensive player.
In 1986-87 Magic averaged 23.9 points, 12.2 assists, 1.7 steals, and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting over 50% from the field and 84.8% from the FT line. In the Finals he was even better, averaging 26.2 points, 13 assists, 8 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game on .545 from the field and .960 from the line. It isn’t a coincidence that he won at every level, and with better floor spacing and modern coaching techniques, he would be a constant matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
We could write an entire book on Kareem’s dominance, but simply put, he would be just as dominant as Shaq on the offensive end, but better on defense, better from the free throw line, and he would clog the lane less. He also managed to thrive on the up-tempo Showtime Lakers despite being well into his 30s, so the modern pace-and-space game wouldn’t give a young Kareem much trouble.
2. Michael Jordan
You know why Michael Jordan is great. What you really want to know is why he isn’t number one on this list.
1. LeBron James
MJ was a more consistent winner (perhaps because he was playing against worse teams in the Finals) and tougher mentally, but the modern media tends to grade LeBron unfairly by comparison. Put MJ on the Cavs last year instead of LeBron and they aren’t beating the Warriors. Sorry.
This list is also about talent, not career accomplishments. LeBron is bigger, faster, stronger, more versatile, and more durable. He also played against better competition, at least in the Finals (Karl Malone isn’t within a million miles of Kevin Durant as a player). He brings about 90% of what MJ did from a scoring perspective, while being a better rebounder and passer. He also creates more open shots for teammates than anyone in NBA history because of his unique combination as the best player ever going to the hoop and a top five passer of all time.
He can play four positions. He can guard four positions. He’s a more efficient scorer. He brings lesser teammates further. In 2008-09 he won 66 games with Mo Fucking Williams and Delonte West as his second and third best players. LeBron James may never catch Michael Jordan in career accomplishments, and he certainly won’t pass him in the minds of stubborn old dudes like Charles Barkley, but he’s the most talented player ever to lace up a pair of sneakers.