A little more than 4,500 players have appeared in at least one NBA game. In addition, 236 players have made All-NBA teams and 437 players have made All-Star teams, according to basketball-reference.com.
So imagine the task of trying to whittle that list down to the 75 best. That’s what we’re doing. With the NBA celebrating its 75th anniversary this season, USA TODAY assembled a panel of NBA experts to rank the greatest 75 NBA players of all time. Today we look at the Top 25. … HYPERLINK TO OTHER TWO LISTS. …
The panel consisted of Jeff Zillgitt, Mark Medina, Nancy Armour, Dan Wolken, Matt Eppers, Larry Starks and Larry Berger of USA TODAY; Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic; Jim Owczarski of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal; Berry Tramel of the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman; Evan Barnes of the Memphis Commercial Appeal; Omari Sankofa of the Detroit Free Press; and former USA TODAY NBA writers J Michael and Greg Boeck
Havlicek was a star at both the forward and guard positions, which once led Sports Illustrated to say his “versatility made him perhaps the finest all-around player in the history of the NBA.” Nicknamed “Hondo” for his resemblance to John Wayne, he averaged 20.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the regular season and 22.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists in 172 playoff games. Havlicek appeared in 13 straight All-Star Games, was an All-NBA first- or second-team selection 11 times and earned a spot on the NBA All-Defensive first or second team eight times. Havlicek’s eight championship rings were third behind Bill Russell’s 11 and Sam Jones’ 10. But there was one play that immortalized him and came in 1965, when he stole the ball with five seconds left to save Game 7 of the conference finals. “Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!” Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most screamed, a moment that remains among the famous plays in NBA history.
Thomas wasn’t the first small, quick point guard to find success in the NBA, but he elevated his status with fearlessness and creative shot-making while making plays for others. Thomas averaged a points-assists double-double four times, including 21.2 points and league-leading 13.9 assists per game in 1984-85. Spending his entire career with the Detroit Pistons, Thomas was a 12-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA, two-time All-Star MVP, two-time NBA champion and 1990 Finals MVP. In those two championships, Thomas averaged 24.8 points, 7.1 assists and four rebounds and shot 51.9% from the field.
After completing his two-year service commitment in the U.S. Navy, Robinson hit the ground running when he arrived in the NBA, winning Rookie of the Year in 1990 and leading the San Antonio Spurs to a 35-game turnaround. With size, speed, strength and agility, “The Admiral” became a force in the paint on both ends of the floor. Robinson won Defensive Player of the Year in 1992 and MVP in 1995 and made 10 All-Star appearances, 10 All-NBA teams and eight All-Defensive teams. Paired with Tim Duncan late in his career, Robinson won his elusive first championship in 1999 and a second in 2003 in his final season.
Pippen remains the NBA’s greatest No. 2 option ever. He eased Michael Jordan’s workload. He defended the opponent’s top player and made Jordan and role players better with his willing passing. Nonetheless, Pippen experienced some frustrations throughout his 17-year career. He struggled through a migraine against Detroit in Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference finals. He refused to participate in the final play against New York in Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals after coach Phil Jackson chose Toni Kukoc over him for the last shot, a choice that ended with Kukoc making the game-winner while Pippen sat on the bench. If not for Pippen’s presence, however, even Jordan admitted he would not have won six NBA titles.
One of the most colorful and candid players in NBA history, Barkley was a dominant power forward despite being vastly undersized for the position. Officially listed at 6-foot-6 but really closer to 6-4, Barkley used his strength, agility and playmaking to prevail against much taller players. He is the shortest player ever to lead the league in rebounding (14.6 per game in 1986-87) and is one of six players with at least 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists. Barkley won the 1993 MVP and led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals, but with 11 All-Star appearances and 11 All-NBA selections, he holds the unfortunate distinction as one of the greatest players never to win a championship.
Nowitzki changed the game with his step-back shot and was credited with ushering in the modern era of power forward play in which players of all sizes were not only encouraged but expected to spread the floor with their long-distance shooting. He was the NBA’s highest-scoring foreign-born player (31,560) and was a 14-time All-Star. Nowitzki played all 21 seasons of his NBA career for the Mavericks, winning league MVP honors in 2006-07 and guiding Dallas to its first NBA title in 2010-11, being named Finals MVP in the process. His career points ranks sixth in NBA history. His 21-season stint with the same franchise is an NBA record. But more than that, his signature one-legged fadeaway has been widely imitated. It has been adopted by stars throughout the league, including Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
If not for Elgin Baylor, the Lakers arguably would never have been able to move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. If not for Baylor, other NBA stars may not have incorporated a running jump shot into their game. Those qualities partly explain why Baylor has been the NBA’s most underappreciated superstar. After the Lakers selected Baylor with their first pick in the 1958 NBA draft, former Lakers owner Bob Short believed the franchise would have gone bankrupt had he not accepted their offer. Baylor also became what most eventually valued in a modern NBA player, including strong shooting, athleticism and footwork. Baylor excelled as a player despite juggling military duties. But his career was struck short by injuries just before the Lakers’ 1972 championship season.
Malone, nicknamed “Chairman of the Boards,” led the NBA in rebounding six times and is one of only four players to have 25,000 points and 15,000 rebounds in his career. He was a three-time MVP and a 12-time All-Star who averaged 20.6 points and 12.2 rebounds for his career. He was the first player to go from high school to the professional ranks, getting drafted by the Utah Stars of the ABA in 1974. Two years later, Malone jumped to the NBA and played briefly for Buffalo before moving on to the Rockets, where he made the playoffs five times. Before the start of the 1982-83 season, the 76ers, who lost to the Lakers in the 1980 and 1982 NBA Finals, were looking for an inside presence to help neutralize Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and signed Malone. Before the playoffs, he made his famous fo-fo-fo prediction. He was off by a game as the Sixers became the first championship team in NBA history to lose just one game in the postseason.
While becoming the NBA’s No. 2 scorer behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Malone was incredibly consistent. He averaged at least 25 points for 11 consecutive years, and he scored 30 or more points in 427 games – the equivalent of more than five seasons. Malone’s 36,928 points are No. 2 on the NBA career scoring list, behind only Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387. One of the most durable players ever, Malone is also second only to Abdul-Jabbar’s 57,446 minutes played with 54,852. Malone’s 14,968 rebounds rank him sixth all time. He was the league’s MVP in 1997 and 1999. A 14-time All-Star selection, he made the All-NBA first team a record 11 times. Three times, he was voted to the All-Defensive first team. The only thing missing from his resume is a championship. Malone and longtime teammate John Stockton led the Jazz to the 1997 and 1998 Finals, losing to Michael Jordan’s Bulls each time.
Julius Erving brought high-flying, gravity-defying acrobatics to graceful new heights with his soaring dunks and gliding layups. Erving’s game had style and substance, making him one of the game’s greatest small forwards. He was the 1980-81 NBA MVP, made the NBA All-Star team 11 times, made the All-NBA team seven times and won one championship. Had he played his entire career in the NBA, he would be much higher on the all-time lists. Instead, Erving, aka Dr. J, played five seasons in the ABA where he won two titles and three MVPs and led the ABA in scoring three times, including 31.9 points per game in 1972-73. Total his points and Erving is the No. 8 scorer in combined NBA/ABA history.
The NBA’s best shooter has “ruined the game,” as Curry likes to say. He collected three NBA championships and countless shooting records with his seemingly unlimited range. Because of that gravity, opponents have swarmed Curry with double teams even at halfcourt, albeit to no avail. Curry has not just become a shooting specialist, though. Curry has become devastating as a playmaker and inspiring as a leader. With all of those qualities, Curry became the architect of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty.
West became known as Mr. Clutch for his miraculous shots, playmaking and willingness to play through pain. But West also played through a different kind of pain – the persistent losing. West cemented the worst NBA Finals record of all time (1-8), seven of those losses against the hated Boston Celtics. Very little of it had to do with West, though. West remains the only player to be named Finals MVP on a losing team when he averaged nearly 38 points in a seven-game series loss to Boston in 1969. West finally collected his first NBA championship trophy three years later with a Lakers team that had the league’s longest winning streak (33 games in 1971-72).
Durant did not win an NBA championship until he joined a star-studded Golden State Warriors team that had already won an NBA title, broke the NBA’s regular-season win record and eliminated his former team in the playoffs (Oklahoma City Thunder). Still, what could have been possible without Durant became inevitable with him. Durant led the Warriors to two NBA titles with two Finals MVP performances because of his mastered footwork, mid-range game and length. Durant exuded those qualities while still complementing his star teammates. He had done the same before with the Thunder franchise (2008-16) and afterward with the Brooklyn Nets (2019-present), even after a season-ending injury to his right Achilles tendon.
Olajuwon arrived at the University of Houston as a gangly center from Nigeria in 1981. Twenty-one years later, he retired from the NBA as one of the league’s most intriguing players. Although he was the No. 1 pick in the 1984 draft that included Michael Jordan, few league observers think the Rockets erred in choosing Olajuwon. In his rookie year, Olajuwon averaged 20.6 points and 11.9 rebounds while shooting 53.8% from the field and finished second to Jordan in Rookie of the Year balloting. That was just the beginning. He averaged 21.8 points (nearly 26 in the playoffs) and 11.1 rebounds in 18 seasons. He holds the league record in career blocks with 3,830 and was selected to 12 All-Star teams. Hakeem also ranked among the top 10 in steals four times. He was the first player to record 200 blocks and 200 steals, coming during the 1988-89 season. And in 1994, he became the only player in league history to win Defensive Player of the Year, league MVP and NBA Finals MVP in the same season.
Robertson showed he would be a special player right out of the gate. In his rookie season, he nearly averaged a triple-double, with 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game. By his second season, he had accomplished the mark, becoming the first player in the league to average a triple-double (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists). In his next three seasons, he continued to dominate: 28.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 9.5 assists in 1962-63; 31.4 points, 11.0 assists and 9.9 rebounds in 1963-64; and 30.4 points, 11.5 assists and 9.0 rebounds in 1964-65. Robertson established a league record with his 181 career triple-doubles without much fanfare. The term wasn’t even coined until the early 1980s. Robertson’s feat stood for more than 50 years before Russell Westbrook became only the second player in the NBA to average a triple-double in 2016-17 and then eclipsed Robertson’s career mark last season.
O’Neal became larger than life with his size, play and personality, most notably with the Orlando Magic (1992-96), Los Angeles Lakers (1996-2004) and Miami Heat (2004-08). O’Neal shattered backboards and roughed up opponents while collecting four NBA titles, three Finals MVPs and one regular-season MVP. Still, O’Neal often left others wanting more amid missed free throws, an inconsistent work ethic and personality clashes with teammates, coaches and management. Nothing personified that more than his tension with Kobe Bryant on the Lakers before being traded to Miami. O’Neal’s body then broke down in short stints in Phoenix (2008-09), Cleveland (2009-10) and Boston (2010-11).
The top pick in the 1997 draft, Duncan was a star from Day 1 in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, transforming the franchise into a perennial championship contender that took on his demeanor of quiet, consistent excellence. He won Rookie of the Year almost unanimously before capturing his first championship and Finals MVP in his second season. In 19 years with the Spurs, Duncan finished with five titles and three Finals MVPs to go with two regular-season MVPs, 15 All-Star Games, 15 All-NBA selections and 15 All-Defensive nods. Known as the “Big Fundamental” for his unglamorous yet effective play, Duncan is one of five players in league history with at least 25,000 points and 15,000 rebounds.
Hailing from tiny French Lick, Indiana, Bird became the Boston face of the great Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the 1980s that helped rejuvenate the NBA. Bird led the Celtics to the NBA Finals five times during the decade, winning three championships and two Finals MVPs. With his versatile all-around game, passing and shooting, Bird helped redefine the small forward position. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1980, a 12-time All-Star, a 10-time All-NBA selection and one of only three players in league history to win three consecutive MVP awards (1984-86). Bird played with a bravado to match his skill, always quick to remind everyone else in the 3-Point Contest they were playing for second.
Bryant had a whole second act left unfulfilled after he and his 9-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash in January 2020. But Bryant already left enough of a legacy with his play alone. Bryant won five NBA titles and became the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer through an unmatched work ethic, miraculous shot-making and ability to play through pain. Bryant encountered plenty of adversities (some self-inflicted), including jumping from high school to the NBA, a sexual assault charge settled out of court and mixed support for his demanding leadership style and high-volume shooting. But Bryant sought to maximize his strengths and overcome his weaknesses through sheer will and self improvement.
Bill Russell was perhaps the NBA’s greatest champion. All he wanted to do was win, and he did that. He won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics, was a five-time MVP, 12-time All-Star and 11-time All-NBA performer in 13 seasons, averaging 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds in an era when blocks were not official stats. He led the league in rebounding five times, including 24.7 per game in 1963-64. He is the NBA’s No. 2 all-time leading rebounder. There was no Finals MVP during a majority of Russell’s career, but he would’ve won the award at least once, and it’s named after him now. Russell was also the first Black coach in NBA history.
Few NBA stars loomed as large as Chamberlain. His accomplishments remain mythical more than 48 years after he played his final NBA game. He still owns 72 NBA records, many considered unbreakable. He averaged 48.5 minutes during the 1961-62 season, sitting out one six-minute stretch in one game. He averaged 50.4 points per game, scored at least 40 in 63 of the 82 games and scored 50 or more in seven consecutive games. He was the only player in NBA history to average at least 30 points and 20 rebounds per game in a season, which he did nine times. He was also the only player to average those numbers for his career, finishing with 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game in 14 seasons. And did we mention he had a 100-point game as well as a 55-rebound game? Chamberlain was a seven-time NBA scoring champion and an 11-time NBA rebounding champion. He also was a four-time NBA MVP and a two-time NBA champion.
Magic Johnson helped change the NBA for the better. By the late 1970s, early 1980s, the league was in desperate need of a dynamic personality with the on-court skills to match. Johnson arrived at just the right time with an engaging smile and mesmerizing game for the Los Angeles Lakers. At 6-8, he was a point guard with extraordinary vision, skills and passing ability. As a rookie, he was named Finals MVP in 1980, averaging 21.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 8.7 assists. It was the first of his three Finals MVPs. Johnson was a 12-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA selection and three-time regular-season MVP and won five titles, all with the Lakers. He led the league in steals twice and assists four times and is sixth on the all-time assists list and third on the all-time triple-double list. For his career, he averaged 19.5 points, 11.2 assists, 7.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals.
Just over 32 years have passed since his retirement, and Abdul-Jabbar still remains at the top of the NBA’s all-time scoring list. On the Milwaukee Bucks (1969-75) and Los Angeles Lakers (1975-89), Abdul-Jabbar scored most of those 38,387 points with his signature skyhook. Abdul-Jabbar perfected the move by placing the ball over his 7-foot-2 frame, elevating himself on an angle and then sinking the shot with a smooth touch. No one has since duplicated Abdul-Jabbar’s shot, he suspects, because of the work required for something unglamorous. But it yielded results for Abdul-Jabbar, who won six NBA championships and six MVPs.
LeBron James entered the NBA with gargantuan and almost-impossible-to-meet expectations. He exceeded them. James is a four-time champion, four-time Finals MVP, four-time regular-season MVP, 17-time All-NBA, 17-time All-Star, six-time All-Defense and three-time All-Star MVP. He is a complete player with a varied skill set who always seeks to improve his game. A gifted passer, accomplished scorer and dedicated rebounder, James is one of the game’s all-time greats. He is the game’s No. 3 all-time leading scorer and will pass Karl Malone for No. 2 this season or next and could challenge Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for No. 1. He has the second-best all-time player efficiency rating, and James is on pace to become the only player to end up in the top five in scoring, assists and triple-doubles. James also has produced some of the most memorable playoff and Finals moments, including leading his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2016 championship.
Everyone has wanted to be like Mike for his basketball acumen, obsessive competitive drive and trail-blazing endorsement deals. Of course, no one can be like Mike. He led the Chicago Bulls to an undefeated 6-0 Finals record. He became the league’s most dominant scorer ever and one of the league’s top defenders. And he related to people of all backgrounds for his unmatched work ethic. Jordan’s track record isn’t perfect. He struggled initially with trusting teammates and spent his first six seasons without winning a title. His two retirements partly stemmed from burnout. And his demanding leadership style resonated with some and became off-putting with others. But that does not detract from Jordan’s successful quest to become the greatest basketball player ever.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ranking the greatest 75 NBA players of all time: Nos. 25-1
Source: Yahoo Sports