Of the thousands of men who have played in the NBA over the past six decades, most have been forgettable. Many have been excellent at one or two skills. Some have been champions. Only a small group have become legends. It's tough to rank those all-time greats based on their talent, their intangibles and their accomplishments. But here goes. Let the debate continue.
Tim Duncan (1997-present)
His restrained personality and no-frills game have made his career the epitome of quiet, sustained excellence. His accomplishments speak for themselves: two MVPs, four titles, 13 straight seasons on both an All-NBA and All-Defensive team. At 37, he's not done yet, having led the Spurs to yet another Finals. But he's already achieved enough to get a slight nod over Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving and Jerry West for the No. 10 spot.
Shaquille O'Neal (1992-2011)
Quiet, consistent excellence? That doesn't describe Shaq's career, which was much louder and more turbulent than Duncan's, but also more fun and more dominant. In his prime, he was an irresistible force around the basket, leading the Lakers to three titles. He got his fourth ring as Dwyane Wade's giant sidekick in Miami and stuck around long enough to make 15 All-Star teams and rank sixth on the league's career scoring list.
Kobe Bryant (1996-present)
Shaq and Kobe will be forever linked, thanks to their great success together in the early 2000s and their great animosity ever since. Legacies are important to both men, especially relative to each other, and we rank Kobe's career just ahead of Shaq's. Not just because Bryant earned his fourth and fifth titles, putting him one ahead of O'Neal. The difference is Kobe's conditioning and professionalism have allowed him to play at an elite level for longer than Shaq did.
Oscar Robertson (1960-74)
With just one MVP award and one championship, he has less hardware than the other players on this list. But you'd have a hard time finding a better all-around basketball player than "The Big O." In his second NBA season, he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists, the only time in league history someone has averaged a triple-double for a season. He nearly did it many more times while making nine All-NBA first teams. His 186 triple-doubles are a record that may never be broken.
Wilt Chamberlain (1959-73)
The numbers say Wilt was the most dominant player in NBA history, and it's hard to argue with seven scoring titles, 11 rebounding titles, four MVPs and a 100-point game. But there are reasons Chamberlain's colossal talent produced just two championships, and not just because Bill Russell had better teammates. Wilt, by many accounts, lacked the work ethic, leadership skills and ferocious will to win that characterize the top five players on this list. He had all of the tangibles but not enough of the intangibles to be the greatest of the great.
Larry Bird (1979-92)
Compared to Chamberlain, Larry Joe Bird had few athletic gifts, but has there ever been a more skilled and competitive player? Arguably the best pure shooter in league history, he once averaged 29.9 points for a season while shooting 52.7 percent from the field, 41.4 on threes and 91.6 from the line. And that was after his three straight MVP seasons and three championships. Dirk Nowitzki is the closest thing there's been to Larry Bird, and he's no Larry Bird.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969-89)
He played in the NBA for two full decades, and each one represented a distinct chapter of his career. In the 1970s, he was the best player in the league, winning five of his six MVP awards as a dominant center on the Milwaukee Bucks. In the '80s, he was a critical cog in the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty spearheaded by Magic Johnson, winning five of his six titles. Through it all, he unleashed the most devastating shot the NBA has ever seen, using the sky hook to score many of his league-record 38,387 points.
Bill Russell (1956-69)
It's true that Russell (6) played with a lot of great players, including Bob Cousy (14), Bill Sharman (21) and Tommy Heinsohn (15). But the Boston Celtics were mediocre before he arrived, and lousy after he left. That's why Russell, while far from the most talented or dominant player in NBA history, was its greatest winner. He defended. He rebounded. And, more than anything, he led. The result? Eleven championships in 13 seasons, a feat unmatched in major American sport.
Magic Johnson (1979-96)
If he didn't share an era with Larry Bird, Johnson surely would have won more than five championships and three MVPs. He would have owned the '80s by himself. But what fun would that have been? Together, the two superstars created an indelible rivalry and revitalized the league from its 1970s stupor. Nothing in NBA history has been more exciting than Magic leading the fast break. At least until the No. 1 player on this list came along...
Michael Jordan (1984-2003)
It's hard to overstate the impact Michael Jeffrey Jordan had on the NBA, the sport of basketball and popular culture. He entertained with his aerial exploits, awed with his competitive fire and charmed with his extraordinary charisma. After six titles, five MVPs and 10 scoring titles, this is his basketball (and marketing) legacy: Everyone wants to be like Mike, but there's never been anyone like him.