Editor’s note: Since the NBA Finals ended, MSF writers have been submitting and defending their top 20 NBA players of all-time. You can see the aggregate list here. The goal was to see where Dirk fell, or if he fell, among the top 20 players ever after his sterling playoff run this year.
Below are the thoughts of Jon Washburn, who does include Dirk among his top 20 players ever. He also has the most unique top 3 of anyone who submitted a list, which is why I asked him to provide a detailed description of his top 20. And boy did he. Enjoy.
When I was a kid, Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback of my beloved Indianapolis Colts. One season, we started out 4-0 (we were the last team to lose a game that year) and ended up making the playoffs as a wild card. We went into San Diego and beat the defending AFC champs before going to Arrowhead Stadium and beating the 13-3 Kansas City Chiefs. We ended up losing to the Steelers in the famous “Hail Mary” game, and I cried for what seemed like an eternity.
Through it all, Harbaugh earned the nickname of “Captain Comeback” and became my favorite football player. For several years, I thought he was the greatest player of all time. Why? Because I felt like I shared something special with him. I grew up with him. I liked him. I wanted him to be the best.
It wasn’t until I got a little older and started comparing him to other players that I realized what he was: an inspiring player, but a mediocre one at that.
Life is like that sometimes.
When we like a guy, he holds a higher place in our hearts, regardless of anything else that happens. No matter who else comes along — for me, it was Peyton Manning…who I wanted to trade halfway through his rookie year — that new player will never be as good as the guy we grew up with.
All that to say, 98% of you are not going to like what I have to say in this post.
That’s fine. I realize that while you read this, you will feel like I’m making a personal attack on you. It will seem like I’m criticizing someone that you shared something with, someone who was special to you.
Most likely, I will not change anyone’s mind. That’s the beauty of sports – we all have our opinions, and it takes a lot to change them. It won’t bother me in the least bit if you read through this column and disagree with me. Honestly, I’m not one of those writers who writes controversial pieces just to drive cheap traffic…after all, I spent two months researching a 2700-word piece about college sports that had 18 footnotes and almost nobody read. You don’t have to agree with me, or even like me, but just remember I’m not flooding your inbox or twitter account with death threats, insults, and meaningless hyperboles.
So let’s just get to it. Let’s rank the twenty greatest NBA Players of all time.
A few quick but important notes:
I will be ranking this as if I were a GM creating a team. Knowing everything that we know, who would I draft to start my team? This has two huge ramifications.
A) Peak matters, but so does longevity.
Bill Walton may have had the greatest individual season a center has ever had; the guy missed 24 games in 1978, and was still voted that season’s MVP. You could make a very compelling argument that his peak was greater than any other center’s peak. However, he was really only healthy for 2 1/2 years. Knowing all of this, would you draft him #1 in a fantasy draft? Absolutely not. Would you hope and pray that he slid to the 5th or 6th round and you could post some amazing stats for a short period of time? Of course. But you just need more from a guy you are building your team around. (Remember this when you are beating your face on the table while reading who I had at #3).
We will also have to extrapolate a little bit with some of the current stars. Of course, this is very subjective and impossible to do, but I will try to be as conservative as possible with the predictions.
B) Era matters.
You will see that my list is heavily weighted towards the current era.
I’m not trying to disrespect the older players, but please understand…how good would Bill Russell, an incredibly smart and athletic 6’9” center with a limited offensive game REALLY be in today’s NBA? I’m just not sure. At the end of the day, he has to make the list because of his competitive fire (maybe the greatest competitor ever), his number of rings (simply staggering), and his defensive abilities. But let’s just be honest: we are all mildly terrified that Dwight Howard would pick Russell up, shove him in his pocket, and run all over the court with him. Plus, Russell was playing in a league that was mainly white. Wouldn’t Zach Randolph average like 50 points a game in Europe? Let’s just move on before I start offending people.
Again, none of this is meant as an insult to the old generation. Many of these players accomplished a lot against their peers. Unfortunately, I just don’t know how many of them would be successful if you dropped them into another era.
C) Rings matter…but are not necessarily the ultimate trump card.
Basketball is a team sport. It either takes two superstars, or one superduperstar and great role players, to win a championship. Just because a guy like Charles Barkley never won a ring doesn’t mean he can’t make our top 20. His best teammate during his prime was Kevin Johnson. KEVIN JOHNSON!!!! Let’s give the guy a little bit of a break.
Players who didn’t make the list:
The classic “very very very very good but never great” basketball player. Just look at his playoff record sometime before 1997 when all of the other good teams in the Western Conference were gone. Pretty lackluster. He almost makes the list because of his incredible longevity…but to me, you aren’t winning a championship with him as your best player.
Good at basketball, but cared more about being good at life. And that’s cool. I think he’s happy with how it all turned out for him.
Not enough longevity.
Maybe the worst teammate of all time. Go ahead and find one complimentary statement made about him from one of his peers. I dare you.
Maybe the most overrated player of all time. Switch him out with Derrick Rose on the Bulls this year. So they win 60 games? 50? 45? Are they a playoff team?
How good would he be today? Would he even be Tyler Hansbrough? Maybe. We just can’t be sure.
He revolutionized the PG position, and we should all be grateful. But see Petit, Bob.
Probably shouldn’t even be on this list, but I’ve never seen anyone play the point guard position as well, and if his knee isn’t permanently screwed up, he will most definitely crack this list.
Played too much of his prime in the ABA against players that weren’t allowed to play defense on him because he was too valuable. Only won one ring in the NBA, and he wasn’t his team’s best player.
The hardest guy to leave off this list. Unfortunately, he never won a ring, and may have just played at the wrong time.
One of the greatest competitors of all time – it’s just hard to project wing players that don’t really shoot into the league right now. Would he be an outstanding defender? Yes. Would he be a team leader? Of course. Maybe he’s Shawn Marion, maybe he’s pre-crazy Ron Artest. I’m not sure.
And now onto the top 20.
The Top 20 NBA Players of All-Tme
#20 Dwyane Wade
We have no idea how Wade’s career will go from this point on. In my opinion, he is the fourth greatest shooting guard of all time behind Jordan, Bryant, and Jerry West. To be honest, his ranking on this list will ultimately come down to longevity.
His 2006 Finals ranks among the greatest performances in history. He is clutch. He’s a great defender. He’s a fantastic finisher at the rim. Even if he only plays for another five seasons, he will have played for 13 years, with 12 of them being quality.
He will have had the skill, the competitive fire, the ring(s), and longevity you want from your shooting guard.
With any luck, he will pass up the Logo and finish as the third greatest SG of all time.
#19 Kevin Garnett
His career will forever be hard to truly evaluate because he was stuck on incredibly awful teams for so long in Minnesota. Regardless, he goes down in history as one of the greatest defenders of all time, one of the best passers for his position, and an awesome teammate.
You could probably make the case that he was better suited to be a second banana as opposed to the main guy. This all comes back to his willingness to settle for jumpers instead of going to the basket late in games.
However, he finishes ahead of Malone because of his championship in 2008, and ahead of Baylor because of his longevity (13 quality years and counting compared to just 10 for Elgin).
#18 LeBron James
I’ll keep this quick.
There has never been a better time to hate on LeBron, and much of what you say could be correct. However, no one on this list has more upside (and really, it’s incredible that we can still say that, 8 years into a guy’s career) and even if he plays just another six years, he will finish with some of the greatest stats of all time (and most likely, at least one ring).
Obviously, if he never wins a ring, things will change. But even so, you will be hard-pressed to find a player that does more things well than King James.
#17 Charles Barkley
I’ll just leave this anecdote from Sir Charles himself, courtesy of the B.S. Report from May 19.
“Until Game 2 of 1993, I thought I was better than Michael Jordan. We lost Game 1 because we were scared of the moment, but I went home after that night and told my daughter that we were going to win Game 2 because her father was the greatest basketball player in the world. I went out that night and scored like 47 points, but Jordan scored 53 and beat us.
“That night, I went home, and my daughter was crying. She asked me what happened, and I realized at that point, that Michael Jordan was just better than me.”
So sad. But sometimes, those are just the breaks. Unfortunately for Charles, he played against one of the greatest players of ever, who also happened to have Scottie Pippen on his team.
Fortunately for us, we had the privilege of watching the greatest rebounder ever (pound for pound), one of the most exciting players in the open court, and #17 on our list of all-time greats.
Full Disclosure: Was this pick perhaps slightly influenced by the fact that Barkley is the greatest color commentator in NBA history? Possibly. I’m ok with that.
#16 Scottie Pippen
“The guy rode Jordan’s coattails for his entire career.”
“He cried on the bench while Toni Kukoc made the winning shot in a playoff game.”
“This guy’s an idiot…he doesn’t even like John Stockton!”
Here’s what I know.
- Michael Jordan didn’t win a single playoff series until Scottie Pippen arrived in Chicago.
- Pippen is the greatest wing defender of all-time (I will argue this to the death…he could defend and shut down four positions, and the Bulls would have lost the 1991 Finals if he hadn’t switched over to guard Magic).
- Until LeBron accomplished it in 2010, Scottie was the only player ever to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals for an entire season in 1994.
- Chuck Daly called Pippen the second best player on the Dream Team…behind you know who. By the way, that team included Magic, Bird, Clyde, Malone, Barkley, Robinson, Ewing, and Mullin. Pretty nice compliment if you ask me.
- After the Bulls won the title in 1993 and Jordan left to play baseball, Pippen played out of his mind and the net effect on the team was a swing of two games. Be honest, that stunned you. You would have thought the loss of Jordan would have affected the Bulls a lot more, right?
Michael Jordan was easily the best guard of the 90s, but to be fair, Scottie was pretty easily the second best. Of course, Scottie benefited from Jordan, but you could make just as compelling of a case that Jordan would not be who he was without Scottie.
I’ll just let long-time teammate Ron Harper finish this point for me.
“Everybody talks about MJ first, but Pip had a more all-around game. Defense, offensive rebounds, and defensive boards: Pip made the game easier for all of us to play.”
#15 Dirk Nowitzki
My, how the tables have turned. Dirk has gone from “soft European star” to “America’s favorite golden boy.”
It’s hard to really pinpoint where Dirk deserves to be on this list. But at this point, he deserves to be ahead of Barkley, Malone, Garnett, and all of the other PFs not named Tim Duncan for the following reasons:
- His fadeaway is the second most unstoppable move of all-time (behind the Sky Hook).
- Not many other players have been unstoppable in crunch time as Dirk, and he cemented this for us in the 2011 Playoffs.
- Offensively, he simply has no holes. He’s a willing passer, incredibly unselfish, and not only the best shooting 7-footer of all time, but one of the best five shooters of all time.
- He’s led the Mavericks to the playoffs nearly every year since he’s been there, and deep into the playoffs consistently as well. While battling against Kobe, KG, Duncan, and Shaq (four of the other guys in our top 20), he’s more than held his own. Quite frankly, he’s a winner.
At this point, he’s played for 13 years, and 11 of them have been quality. A player like Dirk could easily play another five to seven years, even if he was just a rich man’s Sam Perkins late in his career. Give me a minimum 13 great years from a 7-footer who just wins any day of the week.
#14 Moses Malone
Even though he couldn’t speak English (Fo-fo-fo), Moses was probably the greatest rebounder of all-time. Maybe he only did one thing really well, but he did that one thing better than most other players did any one thing.
In a league that had Kareem and Magic, as well as Larry, McHale, and Parish on the same teams in their primes, Moses led his team to a title…convincingly. He comes in at Fo-teen on our list, and might even wear the title as most underrated player of all-time.
#13 Oscar Robertson
I’m torn on the Big O. He averaged a triple-double for an entire season. But how many 6’5, athletic guards would have done the same thing in a league that had the unspoken rule of “only two black players are allowed on each team?” Would a healthy Brandon Roy have done that? Would Jordan have averaged 70 points? What could Vince Carter have accomplished? Ok…I won’t get carried away.
Robertson makes it to #13 based on reputation, but to be honest, I would have had no problems leaving him off this list entirely.
#12 Isiah Thomas
You probably think Isiah is too high for one of three reasons: A: You don’t like him as a person (he was probably the most unlikeable star of the 80s); B: You remember his career after he stopped playing (he was probably the worst GM/Coach of all time); or C: You just forgot about him.
Again, let’s look at some of the things that we do know.
- In 1990, this was the argument: Who is better, Magic, Bird, or Isiah? To be honest, Michael Jordan wasn’t even in the conversation yet.
- At 6’1” (if he was lucky), Isiah is easily the smallest person on our list, and yet he won two titles in the most competitive era of basketball in NBA history.
- He beat Bird, McHale, Parrish, and Dennis Johnson, as well as Magic, Kareem, and Worthy while they were in their primes. Michael and Scottie cannot make that claim.
- He goes down as the greatest pure point guard of all time – a guy who could get his entire team involved for 44 minutes, and then take over the last 4.
Sure, he is an unlikeable guy, and he was a terrible GM. But Isiah Thomas could ball, and that’s what we are drafting for our team: the player, not the retired legend.
#11 Wilt Chamberlain
The hardest guy on this list to place. He put up the most mind-boggling stats in NBA history, but again, wouldn’t D-Howard, Shaq, Hakeem, Robinson, etc. put up equal stats in a league that was small and white?
In the end, Wilt just doesn’t seem like he was a winner. He only won two championships, and only one of those came on a team where he was the best player.
#10 Shaquille O’Neal
When he wanted it, he was the most dominant player I have ever seen. Unfortunately, he only wanted it for like two and a half seasons. Fortunately for him, he was still good enough to win four titles, even though he wasn’t really giving 100% for two of those teams.
I take him over Wilt because of his four rings, humorous personality, and sweet nicknames. If he had ever worked for it, he could have been a top 3 player of all time. I think Shaq is ok with how it all turned out though. He will have to settle for being #10 and the most likeable superstar of the 00s.
#9 Hakeem Olajuwan
- “The Dream Shake.” Nobody has ever been smoother at the center position, and we will probably never see another player like him.
- He absolutely dismantled all of his rivals in the 90s – Robinson, Ewing, and Baby Shaq. Shaq couldn’t do that, and Wilt definitely didn’t do that.
- “Stocks.” Bill Simmons blew this out in his book, but if you combined steals and blocks into one category called “stocks,” nobody has ever come close to the crazy stats the Dream put up. Only one player in history has over 5900 stocks, and it’s the Dream at 5992. Oh, and nobody else has more than 5500…or 5000…or 4500. Yep, nobody has ever come close to Hakeem’s unbelievable defensive numbers.
- He played for 18 years, and 14 of them were quality. His longevity is, simply, unmatched when it comes to franchise centers.
This is getting a little tedious, so let’s just bang out the next few guys with one or two sentences.
#8 Jerry West
The Logo is still the only player in NBA History to be voted the NBA Finals MVP on a losing team. Dude could ball, and if he was a Celtic instead of a Laker, he would probably be higher on this list.
#7 Tim Duncan
The greatest power forward of all time won as many rings as Shaq, and was a more complete player for the entirety of his career.
#6 Bill Russell
See my previous thoughts on Russell. To be honest, I’m not sure I would really draft him ahead of Tim Duncan for my team in today’s world, but the guy deserves to at least be ranked as high as his number.
#5 Larry Bird
Larry Legend was the most intelligent player in NBA History, as well as one of its fiercest competitors and most clutch finishers. Plus, he’s from Indiana; he has to be this high.
#4 Magic Johnson
Finishes ahead of Larry because of the number of rings (5 to 3) and his longevity (12 quality years compared to 10).
#3 Michael Jordan
#2 Kobe Bryant
#1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Please let me give my reasons before you flood my (and my editor’s) inbox with rude comments.
Michael Jordan is easily the most universally liked person of the three. According to most people, Kareem was “some Muslim activist” and Kobe is a “6 for 24 shooting adulterer.”
Personally, I have no idea why Jordan is universally loved more than the other guys. The guy is addicted to gambling, has had more affairs than any other athlete not named Tiger Woods, and allegedly punched teammates in practice for not trying hard enough. He gave a nearly hour long, vindictive Hall of Fame speech where he basically admitted that he had respect for nobody, and he even told his son he felt bad for him because he could never live up to his old man. Michael Jordan is not a good guy by any definition…but everyone loves him anyway. That’s fine.
Let’s try to put aside personalities for a minute though and really judge these guys as players.
Jordan won all of his titles from 1991 to 1998, the second weakest era in NBA History.
The weakest era coincided with the ABA, when all the good players were split in half, making both leagues weaker. But 1991 to 1998 was almost equally as poor. Don’t believe me? Let me throw this at you.
From 1991 to 1998, Michael Jordan only beat ONE team that had another top 20 player in his prime – the 1993 Phoenix Suns. Past that, he only beat one other team that had another top 20 player at all…the 1991 Lakers. When you take into account the fact that Jordan was also playing with Scottie Pippen (maybe he’s not #15 on your list, but you can’t argue that there was another guard as good in the decade), it’s not surprising in the least bit that Jordan won six rings. Looking back on it now, the Knicks were overrated (Ewing was soft, and who was guarding Jordan…6’2” John Starks? Please), the Lakers were old, the Blazers, Suns, and Sonics were just not as good, and the Jazz excelled at choking.
So who did Jordan really beat during that time?
Expansion had weakened the NBA to a certain extent. Magic, Bird, Isiah, Kareem, and Moses were all washed up. The “too much too soon” era was also in full force, as guys like Glenn Robinson, Chris Webber, Derrick Coleman, and others were given unbelievably bogus contracts that caused them to stop working and waste their potential. Shaq and Penny were too young and immature. Payton and Kemp only got along for like one year. Hakeem didn’t have good enough players outside of ’94-’95. Jordan only really had to beat three peers: Clyde, Barkley, and Malone. And none of their second best players even came close to Scottie Pippen. In fact, none of them really compared to Scottie.
On the other hand, Kobe had to battle against Duncan, Dirk, and KG every single season in his own conference! Meanwhile, Kareem had to beat individual teams that had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Bill Walton, Dennis Johnson, and Danny Ainge on them.
Listen, I’m not going to sit here and make comments like, “Jordan never would have won anything unless all the other greats retired and the league wasn’t so weak.” But the fact is that Jordan never DID win anything until all the other greats retired and the league was weaker.
You can argue that Jordan would have been great in any era, and that he was so competitive he would have won championships against anyone. The fact is, though, that he didn’t.
Of the three players, Jordan by far had the shortest reign.
If you take out 1986 (the year he got hurt), ’94 and ’95 (the years he played baseball), and everything after 1998, that leaves us with a total of eleven quality years of basketball for Air Jordan. Now I will be the first to admit that those eleven years may be better than Kobe’s best eleven years, or Kareem’s best eleven years. But when it comes to an entire career, those eleven years better be enough better to overcome the longevity of the other two.
I just don’t think that’s true in this scenario.
Kareem played for a startling 20 seasons, and was an All-Star for 15 of those years. He won six rings, just like Jordan, and in the words of Bill Simmons, nobody in NBA History can approach the next two lines:
Kareem, 1971: 27-19-3, 61% FG, Finals MVP
Kareem, 1985: 26-9-5, 61% FG, Finals MVP
If I’m building a team, I would take 20 years of a 7’3” big man with the most unstoppable scoring move of all time over 11 transcendent years from a SG who never actually beat anyone of note.
Photo source: RHF Collective
As for Kobe, the argument is a little tougher, but I stand by it.
Jordan’s stats are a little better. While the caliber of athlete he was playing against was laughable compared to Kobe’s era (just imagine how many points Kobe would score if he was guarded by Jeff Hornacek in back-to-back NBA Finals’), Kobe’s era is much more conducive to scoring (just imagine how many points Jordan would score in a league that’s not allowed to hand check), so nobody really had a clear advantage, and Jordan wins the stats argument.
At this point, Kobe’s played for 15 years (just like Jordan), but 14 of them have been quality. It’s hard to say how many he has left, but at 33, he could easily have anywhere from 2 to 5 more seasons left with 2 or 3 of them being quality. He’s won one less ring, but he’s had to beat at least one of the guys on this list in every single one of his championship seasons.
It’s an incredibly tough choice. Do I take the guy with a slightly higher peak, or the guy that gives me greatness for a longer stretch of time? In the end, I would take Kobe’s career over Jordan’s peak.
Obviously, you would be happy to have any of the guys in the top three. All three guys lucked out with teammates to a certain extent. Kareem had Magic – the best teammate of the three – for five of his titles, but he also beat teams that were much more stacked than Kobe and Jordan. Kobe had Shaq and then Pau for his five rings. And Jordan had Scottie for all six of his.
However, because Kareem and Kobe had to do it against harder competition, and because their careers were longer than Jordan’s, they finish ahead of Air…even if I’m the only guy who thinks so.
Commence vitriolic anger…NOW!
The comment section awaits.
Seriously, I’d love to hash this out further with anyone that’s interested. If you prefer to express your opinions privately, you’re welcome to e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, though we encourage you to comment publicly so everyone can enjoy the debate.
* – Jim Harbaugh photo source: My350Z.com
* – Scottie Pippen photo source: NBA.com
* – Hakeem Olajuwon photo source: Ultimate Youth Basketball Guide
* – Michael Jordan photo source: Promethean Times
* – Kobe Bryant photo credit: Getty Images via Zimbio