The 15 greatest players in NBA (and ABA) history:
1. Michael Jordan
2. Bill Russell
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
4. Wilt Chamberlain
5. LeBron James
6. Tim Duncan
7. Shaquille O’Neal
8. Magic Johnson
9. Julius Erving*
10. Kobe Bryant
11. Larry Bird
12. Jerry West
13. Hakeem Olajuwon
14. Sam Jones
15. Bob Pettit
*Includes ABA career
Here at Double Dribble we’ve done player rankings in the past, usually based on one statistic or another, examining who is “best.” For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to formulate a system for ranking players based not on who is or was the best player but on who had the greatest career. I don’t usually think in those terms, but a few recent discussions have intrigued me. In particular Rick Fox stated in an NBA Hangtime podcast that Kobe Bryant would go down as the greatest player in Lakers history and NBA history. Note- greatest, not best.
What’s the difference between being the best and being the greatest? My interpretation is that being the best means having the highest level of ability with ability being a mix of physical talents, practiced techniques, and IQ for the game. When we debate whether LeBron James might be better than Michael Jordan, we compare their abilities as players. Greatness is about accomplishments including significant statistical measures, team success, and awards. So if one were to say that Larry Bird was better than Magic Johnson, but that Magic had the greater career and deserves a higher place in the GOAT list, that’s not necessarily a contradiction.
Greatness is easier to support than bestness, but it is also more driven by circumstance. Charles Barkley may have been a better overall player than Karl Malone, but that is a long, difficult argument that requires considerable support and explanation. Karl will go down as greater than Barkley because he had more post-season success and maintained better health for longer. One could contend that had Barkley played with John Stockton his whole career like Karl did, he would have had more playoff success. Easier to justify greatness but more circumstantial.
All of this lead in is to say that I decided to focus the lens on greatness for this player ranking exercise. I took a cue from Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and ESPN fame. Wilbon told me (in an online chat) that he would take the 1984 draft class of Jordan, Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, and John Stockton over the 2003 draft class of James, Wade, Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony because the former group made more NBA Finals. I thought that was an odd criteria, but when it comes to legacy and the measure of greatness, deep playoff runs are really the crux of the argument.
Longevity, statistical milestones, and awards are all very important, but playoff success is often where the race starts. Think of comparable players like Allen Iverson and Isaiah Thomas. AI led the league in scoring multiple times and won a league MVP. Zeke went to multiple finals, won two championships, and has a Finals MVP. Which of them is typically considered greater? Thomas. Hands down. We don’t even get to consider stats because we stop considering at the back to back titles. Is Zeke better? Is he more valuable? Those are completely separate questions.
Rather than insist that players made the NBA Finals a certain number of times or anything quite that arbitrary, I ran a search, year by year of players that played a sufficient number of games to win the title regardless of how far they actually progressed. This number was a moving target over the years as league expansion and playoff reformatting impacted the number and length of playoff series. In the NBA today a team must win 16 games in order to be champion. For most of the history of the ABA it only took 12 wins. For most of Bill Russell’s career, a team could win a title in just 9 games.
My base criteria for consideration was 4 seasons where the player played at least enough playoff games to have won a championship with a minute average over 30 per game. I then took the top 4 seasons by each of these players (4 seasons is pretty tough to come by and narrowed the list nicely) and rated them based on weighted statistical (I used averaged PER and WS48) measures and gave additional credit for each finals made, championship, finals MVP, and regular season MVP all weighted against different values. I’m not going to put my formula here because it is still evolving and isn’t especially scientific, but these particular players were pretty much constant no matter how I shifted the scale, and the top 5 didn’t really change (though James and Duncan are in a near-tie at this stage).
Examining the results, I was surprised that the list gave me almost exactly what I would expect at the top. Jordan, the big three centers, and LeBron in some order is what I think most experts would give for a top 5. Then Magic, Bird, and Kobe would make most lists. Shaq and Doctor J are probably a little more surprising, but when you look at their accomplishments (if you include the ABA for Doc), they’re pretty hard to ignore. Hakeem is often included ahead of O’Neal but I just couldn’t find any statistical measure or accomplishment scale that would allow for that. Dream might have been better. He might have been more valuable. He wasn’t greater.
The most surprising exclusion was Oscar Robertson, and again, this is entirely because of the greatness criteria. Oscar’s Royals just didn’t advance far enough in the playoffs often enough. He does in fact have 4 total seasons and shows up at #30 on this list, but two of those seasons are in Milwaukee with Kareem when Oscar was past his prime. If I weighted regular season stats and factored them in as well, Oscar would likely make the top 15 (I should probably do that).
The only player who really stands out as a surprise to make the group is Sam Jones, but when you consider he was often the leading scorer on the Russell title teams, it’s not inconceivable that he deserves to be mentioned as one of the greatest, if not the best, players ever. Elgin Baylor and John Havlicek just missed the top 15 cut off, and Karl Malone and Dwyane Wade weren’t far behind them.
Players who might make a best list but missed the criteria for this greatest list due to not making it deep enough into the playoffs quite enough times include Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, David Robinson, Dirk Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, Artis Gilmore, and current stars like Chris Paul and Kevin Durant.
Quick positions breakdown: 5 guards (Jordan, Magic, Bryant, West, and Jones), 5 centers (Russell, Kareem, Wilt, Shaq, Hakeem), and 5 forwarders (LeBron, Duncan, Doc, Bird, Pettit)
Quick era breakdown: 5 Late 1950s to Early 1970s (Russell, Wilt, West, Jones, Pettit), 6 Mid 1970s to Mid 1990s (Jordan, Kareem, Magic, Doc, Bird, Hakeem), 4 Late 1990s to Early 2010s (LeBron, Duncan, Shaq, Kobe)
Tags: allen iverson, Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Carmelo Anthony, charles barkley, Chris Paul, dirk nowitzki, Doctor J, Dwyane Wade, Elgin Baylor, greatest players, hakeem olajuwon, isiah thomas, John Havlicek, John Stockton, Julius Erving, kareem abdul jabbar, Karl Malone, Kevin Durant, kevin garnett, kobe bryant, Larry Bird, lebron james, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, NBA, nba player ranking, Oscar Robertson, sam jones, Shaquille O'Neal, tim duncan, Wilt Chamberlain