The Official MSF List of the Top 20 NBA Players Ever (and where Dirk Nowitzki falls among the game’s all-time greats)

During this past NBA season’s playoffs, a topic that gained steam with each successive round was where Dirk Nowitzki ranks among the all-time greats.

Before this season, Dirk was considered “too soft” or too much of a “loser” to be included among the upper tier NBA greats. Yet, as Dirk carried his Mavs from one round to the next, vanquishing favored foes and outdated opinions every step of the way, his place in NBA history seemed to skyrocket upwards.

Off site, several MSF writers began debating where Dirk placed among the top 20 NBA players of all-time. We decided that there was only one fair way to determine it: have everyone in the debate submit their top 20 players of all-time, and let’s see what the aggregate opinion turned out to be.

Here are the results:

MSF Writers’ Top 20 NBA Players of All-Time

Rank Player Points
1 Michael Jordan 7
T-2 Bill Russell 17
T-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 17
4 Magic Johnson 23
5 Larry Bird 27
6 Wilt Chamberlain 28
7 Oscar Robertson 44
8 Shaquille O’Neal 45
9 Kobe Bryant 50
10 Tim Duncan 52
11 Hakeem Olajuwan 53
12 Jerry West 58
13 Moses Malone 59
14 John Havlick 84
T-15 Julius Erving 85
T-15 Dirk Nowtizki 85
17 Karl Malone 86
18 Charles Barkley 89
19 Isiah Thomas 93
20 Elgin Baylor 96

Honorable mention: Bob Cousy, Elvin Hayes (97 points), Scottie Pippen (99), Patrick Ewing (24), Rick Barry, LeBron James, Clyde Drexler (101), John Stockton (102), Kevin Garnett, David Robinson (103), Dwyane Wade, Robert Parish (104)

Here is how the points worked:

  • Five MSF writers submitted their top 20 list: Jon Washburn, Brandon Onda, Chris Callaway, Kevin Luljak, and Josh Tinley
  • Each player was given points based on where they fell on each list; #1 received 1 point, #2 received 2 points, and so on.
  • If a player did not appear on a list, he was given a value of 21 points for that list.
  • The total points were then added up and the players were ranked from fewest points to most.

Since assessing Dirk’s place in history was the original goal for this project, let’s highlight his placement first.

Dirk came in tied for 15th with Dr. J, Julius Erving. They are right behind John Havlicek and right above Karl Malone. Personally, I think that sounds about right.

What do you think? Is 15th too high or too low for Dirk?

Here are the individual writers’ rankings and their explanations:

Josh Tinley:

  1. Michael Jordan
  2. Bill Russell
  3. Wilt Chamberlain
  4. Kareem Abdul Jabbar
  5. Earvin Johnson
  6. Larry Bird
  7. Kobe Bryant
  8. Tim Duncan
  9. Oscar Robertson
  10. Shaquille O’Neal
  11. Moses Malone
  12. Hakeem Olajuwon
  13. Bob Cousy
  14. Jerry West
  15. John Havlicek
  16. Julius Erving
  17. Rick Barry
  18. Dirk Nowitzki
  19. Karl Malone
  20. Charles Barkley

I feel confident about my top 9, both that they are the best nine players in NBA history and that they are in the correct order.

Players 10 through 12 could fall in any order. I gave Shaq the edge because of his four rings and three Finals MVPs. Moses gets a slight edge over Hakeem thanks to his three MVPs and longevity. After Jerry West, everything gets muddy. I gave preference to players with titles, which is why Hondo (with 8) ranks above the rest, why Malone and Barkley are behind Dirk, and why Elgin Baylor is sitting at 21 or 22.

The most difficult part of putting together this list was ranking players whose careers ended before I was born. Bob Cousy was the toughest player to place. Cooz won 6 championships (“That’s the only argument I need, Shawn”) and was first-team All NBA for 10 consecutive years. The knock against Cousy is that he never won a title without Bill Russell. (You’ll notice that Scottie Pippen isn’t on this list; he’s fighting with Baylor for #21.) But Cousy was the league MVP in 1957, the Celtics’ first championship year (and Russell’s first year in the NBA). He also created the point guard position as we know it today. (Or so I’ve been told. I wasn’t there to see for myself.)

If the NBA insists on referring to what happened 35 years ago as a merger, and not a four-team expansion, then players’ ABA careers have to count. Thus Dr. J and Rick Barry both make the list. Barry especially feels a bit high. The 17th-best player in history shouldn’t change teams as frequently as Barry did. And the advanced metrics do him no favors. (#44 all time in PER; #62 in win shares per 48 minutes.) But Barry gets credit for winning titles in both leagues and leading a Warriors team with marginal talent to a four-game sweep of the Washington Bullets (led by Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes) in the 1975 Finals. Barry also made 5 All-NBA First Teams (as many as Barkley and one more than Dirk) and 4 All-ABA First Teams.

Jon Washburn:

  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  2. Kobe Bryant
  3. Michael Jordan
  4. Magic Johnson
  5. Larry Bird
  6. Bill Russell
  7. Tim Duncan
  8. Jerry West
  9. Shaquille O’Neal
  10. Wilt Chamberlain
  11. Hakeem Olajuwan
  12. Isiah Thomas
  13. Oscar Robertson
  14. Moses Malone
  15. Dirk Nowitzki
  16. Scottie Pippen
  17. Charles Barkley
  18. LeBron James
  19. Kevin Garnett
  20. Dwyane Wade

Editor’s note: I immediately balked at Jon’s list because he *gasp* does not have MJ at #1, so I asked for his explanation. Here it is:

Kareem: 20 years, 18 quality.
Kobe: 15 years and counting, 13 quality and counting.
Jordan: 15 years, 11 quality. (Broken foot in 86, comeback year in 95, both Wizards seasons.)

Don’t worry, I will make the argument (in a future post) that Jordan’s PEAK was higher than anyone’s…but Kareem and Kobe had better CAREERS.

If u are starting a team, and u have the first overall pick, who do u take?

  • A center who will be the greatest scorer of all time, win 6 rings (3 basically by himself), and play for the next 20 straight years.
  • A SG whose peak is unmatched, but will leave the team in 2 years during his absolute prime (and oh, by the way, he only beat ONE transcendent star while that star was in his prime).
  • Or a SG that gives u 95% of the second guy, but gives u (at least) 3 more quality years, never leaves ur team high and dry, and wins only one less title in a FAR MORE competitive era.

Lots of people (including you) might still take Jordan, and I’m cool with that. I just think we should measure someone’s entire career, rather than pull out 6 years during the weakest era in NBA history when a player may have had the second best player in the league as well as the greatest coach of all time on his own team.

Brandon Onda:

Click here to see Brandon’s list, which was posted last week.

Chris Callaway:

  1. Michael Jordan
  2. Bill Russell
  3. Larry Bird
  4. Magic Johnson
  5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  6. Wilt Chamberlain
  7. Oscar Robertson
  8. Tim Duncan
  9. Jerry West
  10. Shaquille O’Neal
  11. Hakeem Olajuwon
  12. Moses Malone
  13. Kobe Bryant
  14. John Havlicek
  15. Julius Erving
  16. Dirk Nowitzki
  17. Elgin Baylor
  18. Karl Malone
  19. Charles Barkley
  20. LeBron James

After this years finals, Dirk Nowitzki deserves to break free from the “Best Players to Never Win a Championship” group, but I think he still sits at the bottom of the “Best Players Ever” group.  Dr. J, Moses Malone, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson are the only players above him to only won one title, and yeah, they are pretty good. I think this is as far as Dirk will ever move up a list like this, as I don’t see the Mavs winning any more titles with him. He will inevitably get passed by the likes of Dwyane Wade and LeBron if the Heat can win not 1, not 2, not 3…titles, which I think will unfortunately happen.

As for the top of the list, I think it’s fairly hard to go against Jordan and Russell 1-2. Russell may have more titles, but c’mon, it’s MJ. I like Bird over Magic and Kareem, as I think Bird was the better player whose body broke down too soon. Havlicek and West had brilliant careers, but if Kobe can find a way to win one more title, I think he vaults all the way up to #7.

Kevin Luljak:

Kevin definitely had the most unique picks. It will be coming soon as its own post…

So…we showed you ours; now show us yours. What does your list of the top 20 NBA players ever look like? Chime in below.

About Jerod Morris

I love words. I write for Copyblogger and founded MSF, The Assembly Call, & Primility. I practice yoga, eat well, & strive for balance. I love life. Namaste. Say hi on Twitter, Facebook, & G+.


  1. My Top 20 NBA Players of All-Time:

    1) Michael Jordan
    2) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
    3) Bill Russell
    4) Wilt Chamberlain
    5) Oscar Robertson
    6) Kobe Bryant
    7) Magic Johnson
    8) Larry Bird
    9) Shaquille O’Neal
    10) Jerry West
    11) Hakeem Olajuwon
    12) Moses Malone
    13) Julius Erving
    14) John Havlick
    15) Kevin Garnett
    16) Tim Duncan
    17) Karl Malone
    18) Dirk Nowitzki
    19) Elgin Baylor
    20) Charles Barkley

  2. NBA Fan says:

    Nice article, Lets see the other guys picks.

  3. tonythestatmaster says:

    1) Michael Jordan
    2) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
    3) Bill Russell
    4) Magic Johnson
    5) Kobe Bryant
    6) Larry Bird
    7) Wilt Chamberlain
    8) Shaquille O'Neal
    9) Tim Duncan
    10) Oscar Robertson
    11) Hakeem Olajuwon
    12) Moses Malone
    13) Jerry West
    14) Isaiah Thomas
    15) Charles Barkley
    16) Dirk Nowitzki
    17) Dwayne Wade
    18) LeBron James
    19) Allen Iverson
    20) Kevin Garnett

    The first 13 I like a lot. 14-16 could go either way. 17-20 probably isnt right but James will eventually be in the top 20 if not already and Iverson is the person I think people forget about. Does he deserve to be in the top 20? Probably not but I just put him in there to give him a bit of respect. This wouldnt necessarily the exact list Id give to ESPN for a resume if you get what I mean lol.

  4. JordanHater says:

    Lets see Kevins UNIQUE picks……………gotta be better than this

  5. Moses Malone was ranked twice at #13 and #17

  6. 1) Jordan
    2) Abdul-Jabbar
    3) Bryant
    4) Magic
    5) Bird
    6) Russel
    7) O'Neal
    8) West
    9) Olajuwon
    10) Malone
    11) Erving
    12) Nowitzki
    15) Garnett
    16) Duncan
    17) Malone
    18) James
    19) Baylor
    20) Barkley

  7. MLGENTRY21 says:

    I don't understand how the era Kobe Bryant played in is any stronger than Jordans? In fact I believe it is weaker. To knock the teams those bulls have beaten does not make sense to me. The bulls beat the Lakers, Trailblazers, Suns, Supersonics, and the Jazz to win their six NBA titles. I will agree that the 91 Lakers were a washed up team, but all the others were superb. The lakers have defeated a run down Reggie Miller, a 5 foot 10 ball hog, The New Jersey Nets, a decent Orlando Magic team, and a great Celtics team. To even compare any of these teams (Excluding the Celtics) to the teams Chicago beat…It wouldn't be close. The two Jazz teams are one of the best teams in NBA history in my opinion, and if it wasn't for Jordan they would have surely won. The 96 Sonics team had a big 3 that would compete with anyone in the league today in Gary Peyton, Shawn Kemp, and Detlef Shrempf.Even the Eastern Conference teams the Bulls defeated were solid.. The Knicks and Patrick Ewing; that team (when coached by Riley) was one of the toughest teams in sports. The 98 Pacers were a fantastic team, and took the Bulls to seven games, even the Cavaliers of the early 90s would have been able to compete maybe even beat the 00 Pacers, 01 Sixers, and the 09 Magic. I would go as far as to say the first 3 titles Kobe won with the Lakers were solely due to Shaq. Now I know the Bulls never would have won without Phil or Scottie…But would Shaq have won without Kobe? What if he had Tracy Mcgrady or Vince Carter playing along side him? I think there is a good chance the lakers would have still won those first 3 titles. If you add in the fact that there was no Hand check rule in Jordans prime..This allowed defenders to attempt to sway and control his movements with their hands..A huge advantage for the defense. By the time Kobe rose to stardom, the handcheck was already one of the most frequently called fouls in the league. I respect your argument for Kareem, while I disagree it does make a lot of sense…but I don't see how Kobe Bryant will ever be better than Michael.

  8. it amazes me when these supposed “professional” writers, don’t proof read their entire articles, or just have mistated facts & stats. a previous poster ALREADY had to correct Moses/Karl Malone entry error. and it lists Pat Ewing as “honorable mention” at 24 points ??? if he REALLY had 24 points, he would be #5 on all time list. how do these guys get PAID for writing these articles ??? if most people working “real jobs”, made that many errors at their job, they would be fired.

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