Top 20 NBA Ballers of My Lifetime

Editor’s note: We are currently preparing an article in which a number of MSF writers submitted their top 20 NBA players of all-time. The goal is to see where Dirk falls in the top 20, or if he even makes it at all. Evan decided to narrow his scope a bit and go with the top 20 players of his lifetime. So we are posting his article first, with the mega top 20 article to come. Stay tuned…

Also note that Evan is 22 and says that he really started watching the NBA during the 1997-98 season.

It’s top-20 NBA Players mania around here right now, all thanks to Dirk Nowitzki’s superstar performance in earning his first ring this month. Everyone from announcers to journalists to bloggers are saying Dirk has hit legendary status, maybe even top 20 of all time. I think that sounds a tad high for Dirk, but he now has some serious hardware to reasonably back up the claim to a top-20 spot.

For my own part, I have always thought that the NBA MVP award was the most meaningful of any of the four major sports. Scan the list and you’ll notice every single winner is a Hall of Famer or well on his way to being enshrined. Dirk has his MVP award, he has his Finals MVP award, and most importantly he has his ring.

But is he on par with Larry Bird? Or is that just the most racially convenient historical comparison bandied by most experts?

Honestly, I don’t really know because I never actually saw Larry Bird play. But I have seen plenty of other great players, so for my Top-20 NBA Players list, I decided to restrict myself to those guys I’ve actually seen play. Here is my list with some highly subjective choices, some no doubters, and perhaps one begrudgingly included sharpshooter who burned my New York Knicks many years ago.

In no logical order:

michael-jordan-v-kobe-bryantMichael Jordan

Any all-time list has to start with Jordan, for better or for worse. It is incredibly hackneyed, yes, but I make my choice having seen Jordan take down two very good Utah Jazz teams, walk away from the NBA for a second time, then make a much hyped and ultimately unfulfilling comeback with the Washington Wizards.

I went to college in DC and I can tell you that Wizards fans still speak in hushed tones about the time they saw Jordan striding through the halls of the then-MCI Center. Even at 70%, Jordan was still the best of all time, and everyone knew it – remember Vince Carter giving up his starting spot on the 2003 All Star squad?

Vince Carter

Speaking of Vince, would any other player have really given up a starting spot on the All Star team for an aging legend? That act seems to encapsulate Carter’s career: he just didn’t care enough to be a winner. He attended UNC graduation the morning of Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the 76ers and then missed a shot at the buzzer that would have sent the Raptors to the Conference Finals.

We as sports fans love to make assumptions about players character or mental makeup, especially for guys that just don’t seem to care that much. It is maybe the most frustrating ascribed personality trait, since fans care so much about sports that they simply cannot fathom a player not giving 100 percent every time they hit the floor.

But damn it if Vince couldn’t dunk with the best of them.

Allen Iverson

Question: who was the player burning up Vince Carter’s Raptors during the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals? Answer: The Answer.

I remember rocking the Reebok I3 sneakers while trying out for my middle school basketball team, trying to cross over just like Iverson. Definitely the coolest NBA player of the last few decades. If you look at Iverson in a vacuum, without the off the court stuff, the tattoos, the “practice?!” incredulity, he may be the best high volume scorer of the last 20 years. He took a lot of shots to get his points, but he was a warrior and played much bigger than his size.

Now he’s trying to come back to the NBA. Please, no one give him a shot. Let us keep the memories, AI.

Chris Webber

This is one of those subjective picks. For whatever reason, I loved Chris Webber. I would stay up late to watch Kings games from the West Coast and always picked the Kings in NBA 2k for Dreamcast. He was such a good passer, such a silky shooter, and such a waste of immense talent. Another career seemingly cut short by injuries and maybe just not caring enough.

Gary Payton

I had a weird thing for Seattle teams as a kid, mostly because I loved Ken Griffey Jr, and I loved the nickname The Glove. Payton was an unstoppable defender and a legendary trash talker – in the same way Michael Jordan always had his tongue out, it seemed Payton’s mouth never closed. Also, those Sonics teams with Payton, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf were absolutely unstoppable in NBA Jam.

(On a related note, it is incredibly satisfying to see Schrempf cameo on Parks and Recreation every once in a while.)

Tracy McGrady

Vince Carter’s cousin in game and in spirit. McGrady looks like he is sleeping through games because of his droopy eyes, and it can be very infuriating. But he may have had the most unique skill set of anyone on this list – it seemed like he could score from anywhere at any time.

Remember his 13 points in 33 seconds? A legendary scoring binge.

Ray Allen

I debated putting Reggie Miller here, but I hate Reggie Miller and this is my list. T-Mac’s 13 in 33 is the best scoring binge of all time, because 8 in 18 NEVER HAPPENED.  But while Miller is probably the best outside shooter of the last 20 years, Ray Allen is the better all-around player. He has really had quite the career, from superstar to trade bait to a resurgence on the other side of 30 as a contributor for a championship squad.

Kevin Garnett

Maybe the scariest player I’ve ever seen. The opposite of Vince Carter. He would run through a brick wall. Not for anything, just for fun.

Jason Kidd

Hanging on forever, finally earning his first ring, and seemingly always in the right place at the right time. An appallingly bad shooter for most of his career, and yet a guy you would never want to see on the other team.

Tim Duncan

Could you put together a YouTube video of Duncan highlights that won’t put you to sleep? Probably, but I will mostly remember Duncan for being great and awful to watch and bugging his eyes out at every chance.

Shaquille O’Neal

I have written about Shaq before but it bears repeating that he could have won the MVP every single season during his prime and it still would not have been enough.

Kobe Bryant

Oddly enough, the closest thing we will ever get to Michael Jordan in the immediate future. He is constantly evolving and adapting his game from a high flyer as a kid (below) to a beefed up slasher to a deadly shooter. And probably the undisputed king of the twisting, spinning circus shot.

Dwyane Wade

Unless it’s this guy.

LeBron James

I really, truly hope he comes back next season with a vengeance. He’s entering that Shaq phase of his prime in that he probably deserved the MVP award this year, and will probably deserve it every year for a while. Ultimately will be judged by championships. Most hated, but also the top selling jersey in the NBA. Hmmm…

Dirk Nowitzki

His game is like a trapeze act – your heart drops every time he spins and launches a high arcing shot, and you think there is no way he can land it. And almost every time, like clockwork, bottom of the bucket.

Steve Nash

Dirk’s former running mate and probably the most fun player in the NBA. He just seems like a cool guy, right? With the hair flopping and the shots that always fall, a real treasure. I really hope the Knicks don’t trade for him and his creaky back.

Chris Paul

However, I DO hope the Knicks get him and his balky knees.

Amar’e Stoudemire

Speaking of balky knees. A veritable Six-Million Dollar man and a marvel of medical science. The fact that this guy can still dunk like a beast makes absolutely no sense, and makes me want to transport his surgeon back 10 years to save Chris Webber’s career too.

Carmelo Anthony

I am so excited for the 2011 Knicks, in case you haven’t figured that out yet.

Kevin Durant

I don’t really know what will happen with Durant. It seemed like he poised for a transcendent season, and basically hit a plateau at very very very good. But besides the crazy beautiful shooting stroke, he can dunk like very few others.

Blake Griffin

Finally, the one guy who can absolutely shut down the internet like a Blake Lively sexting mishap. There are basically two schools of thought on Blake Griffin:

  1. HOLY CRAP!!!
  2. What if he develops a jump shot HOLY CRAP!!!

There have been a lot of incredible players in NBA history, but guys like Griffin and Derrick Rose and Deron Williams and Stephon Curry and Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook around, there is a talent glut like never before in my lifetime.

Until the lockout ruins it all.


  1. What about Carl Malone and John Stockton. You left out the best duo in the business.

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