Ranking the top 10 NBA players of all-time
Jack Green ranks the 10 greatest basketball players ever, including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Magic Johnson.
10. Hakeem Olajuwon
Accolades: 2x NBA champion, 2x Finals MVP, 1994 MVP, 12x All-Star, 2x Defensive Player of the Year.
No big man has ever combined an elite offensive game with lockdown defence like “Hakeem the Dream”.
The former Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors centre was known for his vast array of post moves and signature “Dream Shake”, but his rare combination of speed and strength also made him an incredible defender and shot blocker.
Hakeem led the Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995, where he got the better off fellow elite centres Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks and Shaquille O’Neal of the Orlando Magic in the Finals.
His performance in that second championship run, when he averaged 33 points per game in the Finals as the Rockets swept the Magic, gives him the edge over Shaq for the 10th spot on this list.
9. Wilt Chamberlain
Accolades: 2x NBA Champion, 1972 Finals MVP, 4x MVP, 13x All-Star, 100-point game.
Chamberlain was the most dominant physical force in NBA history and remains the only player to ever score 100 points in a game – an absurd feat that will likely never be repeated.
Standing 7ft 1in tall and weighing over 300lb at one point in his career, Wilt towered over most of his opposition in the 1960s and early ‘70s and ruled the stat sheets, leading the league in scoring seven times and rebounding on 11 occasions.
Chamberlain could do anything he wanted on the court. In the 1966-67 season, he faced criticism for being selfish and only caring about his own points and rebounds. The following season, he responded by becoming the only centre to ever lead the league in assists.
8. Kobe Bryant
Accolades: 5x NBA champion, 2x Finals MVP, 2008 MVP, 18x All-Star.
Bryant is often cited as “the closest thing to Michael Jordan”, which is no slight given that he modelled so much of his game on the Chicago Bulls legend.
From his meticulous footwork and fadeaway jumpshots to his steely determination and ruthless competitiveness, Bryant was the rightful heir to the NBA throne when Jordan called it quits.
Kobe won three titles very early in his career as part of a dominant duo with Shaquille O’Neal, but the two he won as the unquestioned leader of the Lakers in 2009 and 2010 were arguably his most impressive.
The “Black Mamba” is the owner of two of the most incredible individual performances in NBA history – his 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors in 2006, and a 60-point game in his final appearance before retiring at the age of 37 in 2016.
7. Tim Duncan
Accolades: 5x NBA champion, 3x Finals MVP, 2x MVP, 15x All-Star.
Duncan was never the flashiest player on the court, but the quiet dominance of “The Big Fundamental” epitomised the San Antonio Spurs dynasty of the 2000s.
An instant star after being drafted first overall in 1997, Duncan became an NBA champion in 1999 and would win his fifth and final title 15 years later.
That he was still arguably the Spurs’ best player in that victory at the age of 38 speaks to Duncan’s longevity, and he is one of only two players to win a championship in three different decades.
Duncan’s widely regarded as the greatest power forward of all time, a title that – like this spot on the list – he fully deserved.
6. Larry Bird
Accolades: 3x NBA champion, 2x Finals MVP, 3x MVP, 12x All-Star.
Bird was the face of one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties, the Celtics of the 1980s.
The 6ft 9in small forward led Boston to five Finals appearances in seven years between 1981 and 1987, winning three titles and claiming three consecutive league MVP awards along the way.
Bird was never the most athletic player on the court, but he was one of the greatest shooters ever, had absurd court vision and always stepped up his game in clutch situations.
His shooting streaks were his trademark, and it’s a testament to his ability that even though he played on one of the most talented teams in league history, his team simply got out of the way when Larry Legend got hot.
5. Bill Russell
Accolades: 11x NBA champion, 5x MVP, 12x All-Star.
The greatest winner in the history of basketball, Russell led the Celtics to 11 NBA titles between 1957 and 1969.
The 6ft 10in centre was an exceptional defender, he led the league in rebounding on four occasions, and was above all else an inspirational leader and the ultimate team-mate.
Russell also won five MVP awards – one more than his great rival, Chamberlain – and he consistently bested Wilt when the games mattered most.
He held a 6-1 record over Wilt in the playoffs, including two wins out of two in the Finals, and his stifling defence often brought Chamberlain’s gaudy statistics down to mere mortal levels.
4. Magic Johnson
Accolades: 5x NBA champion, 3x Finals MVP, 3x MVP, 12x All-Star.
Magic was the leader of the “Showtime” Lakers, the greatest point guard to ever play the game, and – along with Bird – responsible for ushering in the golden age of basketball.
At 6ft 9in, Magic’s blend of size and skill meant he was like no guard the league had ever seen when he was drafted in 1979.
He won his first championship and Finals MVP as a rookie, with his Game 7 performance – in which he stepped in at centre for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – among the most iconic games in NBA history.
Four more titles and three league MVP awards followed in a career that was cut short by his HIV diagnosis in 1991.
3. LeBron James
Accolades: 4x NBA champion, 4x Finals MVP, 4x MVP, 16x All-Star.
Most players would be daunted by being nicknamed “The Chosen One” and dubbed the second coming of Michael Jordan while still in high school.
LeBron James is not like most players, though.
In his 16-year NBA career to date, James has embraced comparisons to Jordan by wearing the No. 23 on his jersey and publicly stating that he wants to chase down his idol’s achievements.
He has come close to doing so, too, with four NBA title wins – including bringing the first ever championship to his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers – and a run of eight straight Finals appearances from 2011 to 2018.
No player has ever combined overwhelming physicality with basketball IQ like LeBron, and – having shown no signs of slowing down when winning the 2020 title with the Lakers – he may close the gap even further on Jordan in years to come.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Accolades: 6x NBA champion, 2x Finals MVP, 6x MVP, 19x All-Star.
Abdul-Jabbar is the highest scorer in NBA history and the creator of the most unstoppable move the game has ever seen.
Kareem’s “Skyhook” – which he could make consistently with both hands – contributed a huge amount towards his 38,387 points, and made him an automatic bucket in the post and one of the most feared clutch players ever.
Abdul-Jabbar was more than just a great scorer, though.
He led the NBA in blocks four times, rebounding once, was known by his team-mates as “Cap” or “Captain” due to his leadership skills and led his teams to six titles across a 20-year career at the top.
1. Michael Jordan
Accolades: 6x NBA champion, 6x Finals MVP, 5x MVP, 14x All-Star, 1988 Defensive Player of the Year.
Air Jordan. His Airness. MJ. The GOAT.
Jordan is not just the best NBA player ever, but also one of the biggest icons in sports history.
A 10-time scoring champion and nine-time selection on the All-Defensive First Team, Jordan had it all on both ends of the court and was the most relentless competitor the league has ever seen.
The five-time MVP led the Chicago Bulls to two three-peats in eight years, and could have won even more titles had he not briefly left the game to play baseball in 1994 and then retired as a champion in 1998.
Jordan was the face of the NBA for almost the entirety of his 15-year career, and 17 years on from the end of his final stint with the Washington Wizards everyone is still trying to be like Mike.