Every barbershop’s favorite argument is who is the G.O.A.T? The majority consensus is always Michael Jordan, and it is hard to argue against. But for me, the true debate lies between the top 2-10 slots for greatest players of all time.
Do we judge it off of individual accolades? Or is there value in team success? How do we compare players like Bill Russell to the likes of Shaquille O’Neal? Comparing players from different eras and getting a definite answer is impossible. But that is exactly what makes these debates entertaining.
My rubric for ranking these players is:
- Impact on the game
- Overall ability and individual accolades
- team success
- strength of competition
- Iconic Moments
With that said, get ready to argue with my top 10 list.
Honorable Mention: Hakeem Olajuwon
The casual basketball fan probably don’t know much about Hakeem “the dream” Olajuwon, however he is more than deserving to crack the top 10 list. But I do have him just missing. Nonetheless learn about this legend.
“The Dream” was about as complete of a player as any big man who took the floor. Olajuwon could score, rebound and block shots as good as anyone on this list, and holds one of the coldest moves ever. His “dream shake” in the post had guys like Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone scratching their heads. Nobody had an answer to the counters moves Olajuwon had in the post with his swift footwork and pump fakes.
With career averages of 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.09 blocks per game (most by a hall of fame player), and a 2 NBA championships, Olajuwon almost cracked my top 10, but it would’ve been harder to leave the next man off the list.
10. Wilt Chamberlin
Anytime you’re watching an NBA game and they show an all time statistic, Wilt Chamberlin is on that list. Often it will say “other than Chamberlin” because his numbers are light-years away from any other NBA players.
Records Chamberlin owns
- points in a NBA game 100
- 118 different games in which he scored at least 50 points
- 23,924 rebounds, 22.9 rebounds per game
- Take a look at the full list here
The two things keeping Chamberlin from being higher on the list are championships and strength of competition. Wilt only won 2 championships, where as the rest of the big men on the sit all have more. Much like the argument against Bill Russell, the competition in the 60’s and early 70’s was nothing compared to the modern NBA. It was really just the two of them fighting for the top spot for most of their careers.
9. Bill Russell
I can already hear the comments coming my way with a Boston accent. 11x NBA Champion in 13 years! Averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game. 12x All-Star, 11x All NBA. How is he not top 3 all time?
Well strength of competition matters to me, and take a look at some of the guys running the floor in the 1960’s. They resemble my un-athletic ass. Most people in the era were much shorter than Russell who stood 6’10 with the only true threat to his success being Wilt Chamberlin.
His impact on the game, and more so society is just as impressive as any feat he accomplished on the hardwood. A civil rights leader, balancing racist Boston fans while having to lead their team to success. Russell is a living legend and a person all NBA players should strive to be. While I have Russell as an all time great person to ever walk the earth, he lands in on this list at 9th.
8. Larry Bird
If I were making this list a few years ago, Bird would be higher on the list. At one point he was the very best Forward to play the game. Career averages of 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, Larry Legend was as dominant player the 1980’s had to offer. His 59 career triple-doubles ranks 7th all time, and his jump shot is still one of the sweetest the league has seen.
Bird, alongside Magic Johnson, saved the NBA from going under in the early 80’s. One half of the leagues best rivalry, Bird accounted for a huge population of NBA fans. You were either Bird or Magic, Celtics or Lakers. Truth be told, regardless of the side you chose, the 1980’s were a good time.
Bird and the Celtics won three NBA championships and made five NBA Finals appearances during the decade. Only few players in the history of the game can say they participated in half of the decades NBA Finals. Bird is one of them.
7. Tim Duncan
Far from the flashiest player of his day, but “The Big Fundamental” is one of the best winners the game has ever seen. Duncan is 5x NBA Champion, and should have been a perfect 6-0 in the finals if Popovich had hick on the floor to close out Game 6 in 2013, but that’s a story for another day.
Playing in an era that had the greatest Power Forwards the game has ever seen, Duncan shined brightest. Kevin Garnett was more intense, Chris Webber more athletic, Dirk with the iconic fadeaway, all pale in comparison to Duncan. You probably can’t even recall a single play from the 19 year career, but Duncan did everything by the textbook and won.
He averaged a double double for his career, landing him a record 15 selections on the All-NBA team.
Looking for an iconic run? Look at how he put the Spurs on his back in 2003, running through peak Shaq and Kobe, all the way to a NBA Finals win.
6. Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq won’t ever admit it, nor place himself ahead of the big men that name before him, but that’s just because he’s respectful of them paving the way. Unlike Wilt and Russell, Shaq played in an era where every night he was up against a formidable foe. And for the most part Shaq walked away winning not just the game, but the individual battle.
Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Chris Weber, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Morning, Dikembe Mutombo, you name them and Shaq handled them.
Shaquille O’Neal was a key part of four different championship teams during his career, including the 3 peat with Kobe in Los Angeles. His career averages of 23.7 points on 58% form the filed and 10.9 rebounds per game don’t do justice when describing how dominant he was. For 19 seasons, Shaq shattered backboards, struck fear into defenders hearts, all while becoming the most lovable giant the game has ever seen.
Another stat that might shock you is that O’Neal averaged more points per game than Steph Curry, contributing 23.7 points on any given night — virtually all of which came inside the paint.
5. Kobe Bryant
You can’t say Shaq without immediately thinking Kobe. So it is fitting that I have these two back to back on this list. For 20 seasons, Bryant made NBA fans feel. Feel hate, love, joy sadness. It is the greatest compliment I could give him. There was nobody who was in the middle on Kobe, you either loved him or hated him. And I loved him.
Kobe is tied for first all time with 15 All-NBA selections and his 25 career 50-point games rank him third all time, behind only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. While he wore 8 and 24, the number 25 was prevalent in his career as Bryant also averaged 25.0 points per game for his career, which puts him at 12th all time.
Despite two other Lakers being ahead of him on this list, he is the best Laker player of all time. From his rookie year to his final game, Bryant represented the Lakers brand.
Some records Kobe still owns today
- Youngest player to ever play in an NBA Game
- Youngest player to make an All-star game
- 16,161 points at the Staples Center, just under half his career total.
- oldest player to score 60
- All Star game MVP’s
Kobe is the closest thing we will ever see the Michael Jordan. His mannerisms, his demeanor, his fadeaway, all identical to MJ, so that combined with the resume, Bryant cracks the top 5.
4. Magic Johnson
Remember all the things I said about Bird’s importance to the game, well Magic is the other half. Magic and Bird are amongst the greatest rivalries in sports. But together they lifted the NBA out of the gutter, away from the rampant drug use in the league. Man before Magic and Bird, the NBA Finals were on tape delay.
Magic’s resume speaks for itself. The Lakers icon averaged nearly a triple double for his career, putting up 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists per night in a 16-year span. He’s the only player in NBA history to average more than 11 assists per game and his 138 career triple doubles rank him third all time, behind Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook.
When we talk iconic moments, we think his baby hook shot in the finals when playing center because Kareem couldn’t play. And what about his fast break no look passes, creating the name “Showtime” Lakers. Magic is more than just a basketball player, he is a generational icon.
3. LeBron James
I’ll probably get the most heat for this one but trust me I have my reasons. While the career is far from over and he still has the chance to move up, I struggled to place him ahead of the next two guys.
James’ career stat line of 27.1 points (fourth all time), 7.4 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game somehow doesn’t fully express how great he really is.
James is the player of the generation winning 4x league MVP’s, 3x Finals MVP’s, 3x All Star Game MVP’s, making 9 NBA Finals, 15x All NBA Team,5x All Team Defense.
For someone who doesn’t have an iconic move, and never labeled an elite scorer like MJ or Kobe, James has eclipsed both players on the all time scoring list with 34,087 career points. There is a chance he becomes the all time scorer.
Having James 3rd, rather than the overwhelming consensus 2nd, has nothing to do with him, but rather everything to do with giving proper respect to the next man on the list who is often overlooked when debating this topic.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
When you take High School, College and NBA careers into consideration, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the undeniable GOAT. But for this list we are keeping it strictly off the NBA careers.
Abdul-Jabbar is the all time leading scorer with 38,387 points. He averaged 24.6 points and 11.2 rebounds in his career, which landed him a record-19 All-Star Game selections in 20 total seasons played.
Abdul-Jabbar was a key part of six championship-winning teams for the Bucks and the Lakers.
Want to talk iconic shots? There is no move more dominant, and more attributed to a single player than Kareem’s Sky Hook. He is on record saying that the sky hook never got blocked while he was in his prime, and I am not surprised. Standing 7 foot 2, the height and separation he would get with the sky hook made it literally unstoppable. Oh and he was hitting it from close to the 3 point line at times.
I don’t understand how Kareem gets overlooked when all these things work in his favor.
1. Michael Jordan
Jordan is the greatest scorer in NBA history, averaging 30.1 points per game, which is higher than even Wilt Chamberlain. He was also a monster on defense, averaging 2.35 steals per game, which is the best mark among all Hall of Famers.
MJ is a 6x league MVP, 6x Finals MVP, 3x All Star Game MVP, 1x Defensive Player of the Year, 10x All NBA Team, 9x All defensive team.
He is perfect in his 6 NBA Finals appearances, with some of his most iconic moments taking place in the Finals. The dagger in Utah Game 6 1998, the 6 three pointers and shrug against Portland, and his up and under layup against the Lakers.
Jordan became a global icon, and goes beyond the sport. He built upon the work of Magic and Bird, taking the sport to never before seen heights.
The resume, impact on the game, and team success all combine to make Jordan the G.O.A.T, but you all knew that going into this article.