Dwyane Wade's recent comments that LeBron James can never surpass Michael Jordan as the NBA's greatest player of all-time got us thinking. Most basketball fans love arguing about who ranks where among the game's very best, but few actually commit to a list of the top players ever.
Not us, though. With the NBA season less than three weeks away, and after LeBron James skyrocketed up the all-time list with his epic Finals performance this summer, it's time to debate the 25 best players to play the game. I'll explain my criteria here.
If everything else is equal, dominance matters to me above everything else. It's not enough to have reached your peak for just a season or two, but a decent stretch of destroying the competition means more to me than maintaining an elite level of play that never quite reached that next stratosphere. In that same vein, versatility is the second-most important quality for an all-timer. If you were able to do it all, you'll rank higher on this list.
Then comes longevity, which is absolutely important. In fact, being able to put together an extended run of dominance trumps everything else. Next comes defense, because it wins championships. Coincidentally enough, rings fall in line behind defense. Titles matter, of course, but I won't hold it against a player if he came up short of a championship -- not too much, anyway. Winning a ring is difficult and takes a team effort. Last but not least is 3-point shooting. The league is just now realizing how important spacing the floor is, but that doesn't mean 3s are more valuable now than they were 30 years ago.
Got it? Good. Now, get ready to yell and scream about these rankings.
Chuck was a logical paradox -- a "6-foot-6" power forward with a taste for McDonald's who actually stood just 6-foot-4 yet somehow gobbled up boards to the point that he earned the nickname "The Round Mound of Rebound."
This list will tend to skew toward the modern era, because the level of competition you played against matters as well. But Baylor was so outstanding with the Lakers that it's impossible to hold his era against him.
One of the greatest shooters and scorers ever -- and a guy who's overrated thanks to a couple of high-profile playoff moments against the Knicks.
If Durant wins a ring (or, more likely, multiple rings), will people forgive him for helping to form one of the NBA's most egregious superteam? Yeah, probably. People love championships.
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If for no other reason than leading the Mavs to their title over LeBron's Heat, Dirk has to be in the top 25. His reign as the best-shooting big man of all-time solidifies his standing.
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"Longevity without dominance or rings": the John Stockton story.
The John Stockton story is also the Karl Malone story, conveniently enough. Bonus points to the Mailman for being one of the few NBA players to fix his free-throw shooting over his career.
Perhaps the first surprising name on this list, KG checks off dominance (particularly on defense, where he might somehow be underrated these days) and championships.
Old Wade is a player trying to fight against age and the rising tide of 3-point shooting in the league. Young Wade was one of the greatest scorers ever.
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A man who sacrificed glory for the sake of the team. No one outside of LeBron James can touch Pippen's versatility, and his defense was second-to-none.
Dr. J made his reputation as a scorer and high-flyer, which is kind of a shame. He was a fantastic playmaker and all-around player as well. When you're that good around the rim, though, that's what people remember.
He's the Logo, after all.
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Maybe the most underrated player in NBA history.
Nothing I can say here will change your mind about where Kobe stands as an all-timer. Let's just move on.
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If Robinson is the most underrated player in basketball, Robertson is the most overlooked. You can point to the different pace of the game and all the context you want; the fact of the matter is the man averaged a triple-double in a season, which is absolutely ridiculous.
Olajuwon had kind of an odd career, peaking as an all-around player in his 30s. Prime Olajuwon was a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the floor. If he played today, he'd give LeBron a run for his money as the best player in the game.
Inside the top 10, we're really splitting hairs. Bird is a bit lower in my book than he might be in others because of the injuries -- and because he didn't revolutionize the game the way Steph Curry is these days. Yes, I penalize Bird for not taking more 3s. Deal with it.
As I briefly mentioned in ranking Elgin Baylor, your competition matters when we're talking about dominance. Wilt was undoubtedly one of the three most dominant players ever, but he played in a weaker era -- and he couldn't overcome his nemesis.
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I used to have Russell in my top three. I've recently had a bit of a "Come to Jesus" moment about the game in its early days, however, and I can no longer in good conscience have Russell ahead of the modern stars in the top six here. If you want to claim he's a top-three player, though, I'm down with that.
Had Magic not retired early, he'd be the second-best player ever.
Duncan defined one of basketball's most successful franchises for almost 20 years. From the moment he stepped into the NBA, he was one of its best players. And while most people won't associate Timmy with dominance, that's only because we're looking at the wrong end of the floor. He was the driving force behind some of the greatest defenses in history. In a game that's often decided by the sum of your errors, Duncan rarely made mistakes.
I understand the arguments against Shaq being even a top-10 player. He took entire seasons off. He was rarely in shape after he won his first championships. And he poisoned locker rooms.
With the caveat that I never watched Wilt Chamberlain, however, Shaq was the single most dominant player I've seen. His ability to pulverize the opposition makes him one of the very, very best in my book.
The all-time leading scorer is famous for his longevity and all the records that came with a storied career. I'm just afraid we ignore Cap's dominance because of his 20 seasons in the league. He was the definition of unstoppable.
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Leading the Cavs back from a 3-1 deficit cemented LeBron's status as the second-best player in NBA history. No one has ever come close to combining his dominance, versatility, and intelligence into one package. It seems absurd to say right now, but LeBron might end up making 10 straight Finals appearances. Hate on him if you want, but only one player can claim to be greater.