Top 5 Greatest NBA Players of All-Time
#5 Oscar Robertson
Cincinanati Royals 1960-1970, Milwaukee Bucks 1970-1974
Possibly the most underrated 2-way guard to ever play, “The Big O” was not only the most versatile guard to ever play, he was the most dynamic and efficient. He remains to this day the ONLY player to ever average a triple-double for a season. This impossible feat will never be duplicated. But it’s not like Robertson experienced one such season, he averaged a near triple-double for his entire career, finishing with an averages of 25.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 9.5 assists per game. In addition to his defensive aggression enabling him to rebound with the frequency of a center, Robertson was the most offensively efficient guard in history by the time he retired, shooting 48.5% from the field and was top ten in field goal percentage eight times. With Robertson, the guard position was redefined and grew from his tutelage. The Big O was a one-of-a-kind talent, worthy of his place among the all time greats.
#4 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Milwaukee Bucks 1969-1975, Los Angeles Lakers 1975-1989
The single most prolific scorer in the history of the NBA. Contrary to popular belief, Kareem did not invent the hook shot; he just mastered it, and converted it into an unstoppable weapon. Kareem’s scoring record remains one of the few remnants from an era when big men dominated the league. Most impressive aspect of Kareem's scoring record is the fact that is was established in a league that allowed players to be mauled to great extent. The "flagrant foul" was not a part of the game at this point. Kareem battled Parrish and Lambier, Moses Malone, and other greats, but he was not only the cream of the crop, he was a tractor that plowed the crops nightly.
His record truly speaks for itself:
• 6-time Champion
• 11-time All defense
• 4-times lead the league in blocks
• 2-time scoring champion
• 6-time MVP
#3 Kobe Bryant
Los Angeles Lakers 1996-2016
If required to describe Kobe Bryant in two words, the most accurate choices: ruthless assassin. No other player accomplished more with less. “But he had Shaq.” Yea, great. He had an aging, often out-of-shape Shaquille O’Neal who was an average defender at best and never possessed the athleticism or speed he was known for in Orlando. Shaq gained a tremendous amount of weight every off-season with the Lakers forcing Kobe to carry the team as Shaq attempted to work himself back into game shape.
But who did Kobe win championship after championship with other than Shaq? A conglomeration of nobodies or far past their prime veterans: Mark Madsen, Devean George, Tyronn Lue, Slava Medvedenko, Rick Fox, Glen Rice (old), Robert Horry (older, and a dreadful defender who hit two shots and folks think he was Kobe's savior...wrong!), Ron Harper (even older)...should I continue?
His work ethic and competitiveness were infectious, motivating young players to outperform their scouting reports and produce on a higher level to appease his insanely high standards. Players like Sasha Vujačić, Luke Walton, Shannon Brown, and Jordan Farmar are a few players that Kobe won his last two rings with that were below average players. But they logged a ton of minutes and produced on a high enough level for Kobe to lead them to the basketball promised land.
The epic ineptitude of Kobe’s supporting cast during his second championship run is often forgotten or ignored. Don’t fall victim to this revisionist history. Take the time to review the rosters of the 2008-2010 Lakers. How Kobe managed to reach the Finals let alone WIN, and win TWICE, is difficult to fathom.
Yes, Pao Gasol was an important fixture on both squads, but he was no world-beater. Remember, he earned his nickname, GaSOFT, for a reason. He was (and remains) an under performing finesse big man who’s game only partly translates in the NBA. When facing tough, athletic big men like Kevin Garnett in the Finals or Kendrick Perkins or others of similar ilk, he was neutralized and rendered ineffective. Lamar Odom was an ideal, versatile sixth man, but he was a sixth man, he wasn’t James Worthy. The only teammate Kobe played with that is deserving of praise is Derek Fisher, and even he, from a talent standpoint was subpar. But unlike most of Kobe’s other teammates, Fisher was a basketball genius who’s competitive fire often matched Kobe’s, which allowed the pair to gel.
With the exception of Michael Jordan, the NBA has never seen a more fierce competitor. He was surly and vengeful in his manic pursuit of perfection. He completely dominated the NBA at a time when parity was at an all time high. Discounting the competitiveness of the league Kobe played is not a dispute worthy of entertaining. Dirk’s Mavs, Wade's Heat, Duncan’s Spurs, Nash’s Suns, Dwight’s Magic, Lebron’s Cavs, these teams were great and exchanged periods of reign over the league. There were no lists as impressive as this to rattle off in any other era.
Kobe dominated a supremely talented league. Throughout his reign Kobe won five championships and was named to a record 12 NBA All-Defense Teams. Unlike the mid to late 80s controlled by Boston, Los Angeles, and Detroit, or the 90s controlled by the Bulls, Knicks and Jazz. Kobe’s own conference had more competition than the entire league in past eras with the likes of Dirk Nowitzky, Steve Nash oh and first ballot hall of famer, Tim Duncan - who all three Kobe faced four times per year. In the Finals he faced and overcame future hall of famers Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Reggie Miller, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett.
Whether talking about arrogant fro-Kobe, or unbearably curmudgeon Kobe, he is without a doubt Top 5 All-Time Kobe.
#2 Bill Russell
Boston Celtics 1956-1969
What more needs to be written? The man was the central component to a team that manufactured eleven NBA championships. Heck, a new statistical category (blocks) was created to account for his defensive prowess. Who else can we say that about? Who else literally changed the record books with the advent of a new statistical category? Russell could NOT be scored on, not even by one of the games most prolific scorers, Wilt Chamberlain.
#1 George Mikan
Chicago American Gears 1946-1947
Minneapolis Lakers 1948-1954, 1955-1956
Dismissing Mikan’s dominance over the league would be unwise. Mikan molded the center position into what it evolved with Russell, Chamberlain, Kareem, and eventually Shaq taking the reigns. His influence on the game is the most overlooked and Mikan is unquestionably the most underrated mega star to ever play in the NBA!
Sure, the quick simpleton response is usually: but he played at a time when there were no other legitimate big men. Exactly! He was THE big man! It is often argued that comparing athletes across generations is impossible. I agree, to an extent. However, sheer dominance over a particular era, can be compared. In no other era in basketball, did one player exert as much dominance over the game than Mikan did. Was he the fastest, strongest, best rebounder, passer, dribbler, jump shooter, or defender of all time? Probably not.
But those markers are irrelevant to this discussion. Every player on this list dominated their given era. But 5-time champion, George Mikan is the greatest of all time, because he was the MOST dominant of ANY player in ANY era.
Honorable Mentions (yes, Jordan is intentionally AFTER Magic):
• Ervin "Magic" Johnson
Los Angeles Lakers 1979-1991, 1995-1996
• Michael Jordan
Chicago Bulls 1984-1993, Bulls 1994-1998, Washington Wizards 2001-2003
For Jordan fanatics, keeping MJ out of the Top 5 will be akin to a sacrilegious attack against their basketball deity. Indulge me and the explanation will answer all of your pre-conceived notions of my insanity.
First and foremost, Jordan was the beneficiary of playing alongside the single greatest defender to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. With all due respect and recognition of Gary Payton’s brilliance, he was no Scottie Pippen. Pippen protected Jordan from having to guard opposing teams best offensive performer. What does that mean? It means he was sufficiently rested to perform unearthly feats on offense. That is not to say he took plays off or played poor defense. Quite the contrary, Jordan was a great defender in his own right and he enjoyed the challenge. But refusing to acknowledge how fresh legs contributed to Jordan’s offensive supremacy is a lapse in analytical judgment.
Second, Jordan had the greatest (no, not one of) supporting casts in the history of basketball. Oh, you disagree? Well, if they weren’t so good, how did the Jordan-less Bulls reach the Conference FINALS the following season after Jordan left to play baseball? Conference FINALS?! (*note: When Kobe tore his achilles in 2013, the Lakers were in the lottery the next season) Yes, Jordan put that team over the top. But acting as if Jordan wasn’t playing alongside the most talented team ever assembled is nonsense. Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, Tony Kukoc, Ron Harper and Scottie Pippen, this was a team of all stars. Before there was a "Big 3" in Boston or Miami, there were the 90s Bulls. If ANY player from the Top 5 listed above were added to that Bulls roster in replace of Jordan, they too would win several championships.
That doesn’t make MJ the greatest or even a Top 5 great. It makes him an adept opportunist with the requisite tools to put his team over the top.
Most Jordan fanatics struggle to separate Jordan the transcendent being who forever changed traditional conceptions of sneakers and flight from Jordan the basketball player. Jordan the basketball player was phenomenal! From a skill standpoint, he was uniquely qualified to pick up where Bird, Magic and Isaiah left off. He, like Kobe was an ultra competitor ready to rip your heart out of your chest. But for all his attributes Jordan was not the best defender on his own team, or passer, or jump shooter. He was the most athletic, with the most heart, and was the most prepared to will his teams to victory.
I challenge you to have the composure to look away from the dunk contests, and the shoes, and the commercials, and the persona. Now compare his basketball skill set to the members of the Top 5 listed above. Does he really compare or does he merely satisfy all of your adolescent appreciation of the godlike aura he built?
• Wilt Chamberlain
Philadelphia Warriors 1959-1962, San Francisco Warriors (SFW) 1962-1964, SFW traded midseason to Philadelphia 76ers 1964-1965, 76ers 1965-1968, Los Angeles Lakers 1968-1973