Top NBA players of all time? The NBA has been around since 1946. In that time, we have witnessed some of the greatest athletes of all time duke it out on the court. There have been different styles of play that crossed over several different eras. Today, shooters dominate the sport, but it was only a few decades ago that the center position ran the game.
We’ve seen defensive dominance, sharpshooting snipers from behind the three-point line, crafty slashers, and all-around godlike athletes. With all of these varying skills, differences in play style, and levels of athleticism, skill, and coaching, it’s difficult to determine who the finest player of all time is. Arguments can be made for players like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell.
All of them could be considered remarkable for different reasons. When looking at the entire picture, we must look at stats, accolades, what the era gave at the time, and what strengths and weaknesses each player had. This will enable us to determine who was truly the greatest. This article will cover my top 10 players who I believe are the greatest to ever play.
Top NBA Players of All Time
Kobe “The Black Mamba” Bryant defined the 2000s. He was drafted directly out of high school in the 1996 NBA draft by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th overall pick. The Los Angeles Lakers had worked out a deal the day prior to obtaining the pick from the Hornets, allowing them to take Bryant. His rookie contract with the Lakers was for $3.5 million.
He was an all-time high scorer with a killer instinct that terrified his opponents. Bryant earned his nickname for being as deadly on the court as the venomous black mamba. He played in the NBA for 20 years, winning 5 championships along the way, including 3 in a row. To this day, Bryant remains one of the most cold-blooded shooters of all time, making 17 game-winning shots in his career and another 7 game-tying shots that led to victories in overtime.
Kobe Bryant was known for his incredible athleticism and clutch shots. You can find highlight tapes of vicious dunks and game-winners with no time left on the clock. What can’t be seen on a highlight reel is the laser focus and mental strength he possessed. Kobe was well-versed and fluent in many languages, including English, Spanish, and Italian. Kobe is famously known for learning French so he could trash-talk Tony Parker. He also heckled Luka Doncic from the sideline in his native tongue of Slovenian. Bryant’s mind was as dangerous as his physical skills in any given game during his career.
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon is one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history. He was born in Lagos, Nigeria, where he began his basketball career before he traveled to the United States to play for the University of Houston. Despite never playing basketball until the age of 15, he dominated wherever he played. During his time in college, he led the Houston Cougars to three Final Four appearances in the NCAA Division One National Tournament. In 1984, the Houston Rockets selected Olajuwon with the first overall pick, selecting him above other greats like Michael Jordan, John Stockton, and Charles Barkley.
Olajuwon went on to become one of the most powerful forces in the NBA. He was an incredible rebounder that was unmatched when it came to defense. Olajuwon led the league in rebounds twice and led in blocked shots three times. In fact, he still tops the all-time list for blocked shots in the NBA by over 500 blocks, with a total of 3,830. This incredible feat led to him being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Olajuwon wasn’t just a defensive standout, he was also effective on the offensive end. He averaged 21.1 points per game for his career. He won two NBA championships during his career and was the Finals MVP for both series. There’s much speculation as to whether he would have won those rings if Michael Jordan hadn’t retired. However, there are also rumors that Jordan retired in order to avoid Olajuwon and keep his Finals record perfect. Regardless, Olajuwon was one of the greatest defenders and big men in league history. He is the only player in NBA history to win the league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP awards all in the same season.
Bill Russell currently has the most championships in NBA history with 11. In fact, he only failed to win a championship in 2 of his 13 seasons in the NBA. Russell also won at other levels, winning the NCAA championship twice in 1955 and 1956. He also won a gold medal for the USA in the 1956 Summer Olympics. Russell is mostly known for his rings, but he should be known as one of the greatest rebounders and defensive men in NBA history.
While Russell wasn’t the main focus of the Celtics’ dynasty, he was still more than impactful in other ways. Russell rebounded better than anyone, leading the league in rebounds 5 times, and averaging over 20 rebounds a game 10 times in his 13-year career. Russell is one of seven players to ever win an NCAA championship, an NBA championship, and an Olympic gold medal.
Russell also helped to bridge the gap in the color barrier in the United States. While he wasn’t the first non-white player to play basketball, he was the first to become a superstar player. He also was a player-coach for the Celtics near the end of his career, making him the first black coach in the NBA and the first black coach to win a championship.
While the NBA didn’t record blocks as a statistic until the ’70s, it’s believed that Russell is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, shot blockers of all time. There are various newspaper reports that record Russell blocking as many as 17 shots in a single game, often earning triple-doubles by way of points, rebounds, and blocks! It’s unclear how many shots Russell missed in his career. However, it’s safe to say that he blocked at least six shots per game, and that’s on the lower end of the spectrum.
Tim “The Big Fundamental” Duncan is the greatest power forward to ever play in NBA history. He was selected first overall by the San Antonio Spurs in 1997 and would play his entire 19-year career with the Spurs. Duncan wasn’t a flashy player but he was incredibly efficient both offensively and defensively. With the guidance of coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan was able to lead a dynasty that lasted nearly two decades. During his career, he won five championships over elite players such as LeBron James twice, Ben Wallace, Jason Kidd, and others.
Duncan was known for being efficient, but his defensive skills are what truly made him a remarkable player. To this day, he is ranked third all-time in NBA defensive efficiency. Even though he never won a Defensive Player of the Year award, he was a 15-time All-Defense selection and a 2-time MVP. Duncan was able to play a solid, fundamental form of basketball. He made the right passes and plays to win games with players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. These players would be relative unknowns if not for the success they had under Duncan.
Duncan isn’t a flashy player by any means, which is why I believe he falls down many all-time lists. He never was about the money or jewelry, it was always about winning. Duncan can still be found wearing his flannel shirts and ill-fitting jeans even after retirement. Though he doesn’t have a crazy shoe deal or a million commercials, it can’t be argued that Duncan is one of the greatest players to ever step on a court.
Earvin Johnson Jr.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. was one of the pillars of the NBA during the ’80s. He was drafted first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1979 draft. The same year he was drafted, Magic won the Rookie of the Year award and won the NBA championship. He was also the Finals MVP that year. As a point guard, it was his job to run the offense. He did it to perfection as he led the league in assists four times during his career.
Magic began his winning ways in college when he took the Michigan State Spartans to the NCAA Championship. He then faced off, for the first time, against his career rival Larry Bird. Magic was able to overcome Bird, winning the Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four. Their rivalry would continue into the NBA, where Magic and Bird faced off in the Finals three times. Magic and the Lakers came out on top twice.
Magic and the Lakers were part of the greatest dynasty the Lakers have ever had. They became known as the “Showtime Lakers” due to their fast-paced, run, and gun style of offense. With Magic’s passing abilities and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring skills, the Lakers and Magic were able to win five rings while appearing in the Finals nine times.
Magic’s career was absolutely outstanding. Even though he won five championships during his career, he could have won even more if not for his health. Magic had to retire abruptly in 1991 when he announced to the world that he had contracted HIV. He didn’t play again for four years until he returned for a brief 32-game stretch before retiring for good in 1996. In Magic’s 13-year career, he made it to nine Finals and won five.
There’s nothing more difficult than deciding who is better between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The two have the greatest rivalry in the history of basketball, and possibly in any sport ever.
The bird was drafted sixth overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1978 NBA Draft. He started at small forward and power forward for the Celtics for his entire 13-year career. Bird excelled in all aspects of the game, particularly in shooting, but he was also strong defensively and in his passing game. The bird was the first player in NBA history to shoot 50% on field goals, 40% on three-point shots, and 90% on free throws in a season. He did this twice in his career. He also won three consecutive three-point shooting contests. He would even practice shooting three-pointers with his eyes closed.
Bird’s craft and practice were one thing that led to his perfection and dominance. The bird would dribble throughout the Celtics court, one that has its original Tennessee oak wood still in place to this day, to find the difference in each board. It was known that the old floor had “dead spots” where the ball wouldn’t bounce quite as high; Bird learned the location of every one of them. He would defend players in the direction of these areas and use the spots to aid him in stealing the ball. This, among other things, is one of the examples of amazing practices that gave Bird the nickname “Larry Legend.”
Bird led a successful dynasty for the Celtics, winning three rings and three consecutive MVPs during his career. Bird is one of three players to ever earn the award three years in a row. He was a talented fundamental ballplayer who could score with the finest of them and defend anyone who came his way. His career is filled with things that few have accomplished, such as winning three consecutive MVPs, shooting unmatched field goal percentages, and sweeping Michael Jordan twice in the playoffs. He was a killer on the court and he’ll forever be known as one of the greatest players of all time.
Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
With Bird and Magic being so close in the standings, I thought it would be helpful to put a brief comparison of their careers side-by-side and look at their head-to-head matchups. In their careers, the two rivals faced each other 18 times in the regular season and 19 times in the playoffs. The final record in the regular season was 11–7 in favor of Magic Johnson, and the final record in the playoffs was 11–8 in favor of Magic as well. Magic also has a 2–1 record against Bird in the head-to-head Finals series. Below are how the two matched up statistically in their matchups.
Shaquille “Shaq” O’Neal is the most dominant player in the history of the NBA. He played center for the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Boston Celtics. Shaq was also known as “Diesel” due to the fact that he was a hulk of a man. He stood 7’1″ and weighed about 325 pounds. Despite Shaq’s enormous size and power, he was much more than an unstoppable force due to his size. Shaq was incredibly athletic, handling the ball well and being able to find his way in and out of lanes to score and grab rebounds. He famously played Michael Jordan one-on-one and crossed Jordan on his way to the basket.
Shaq dominated the court both offensively and defensively. During his career, he scored 28,596 points; this currently gives him the 8th all-time record for career points. He also grabbed 13,099 rebounds, which places him 15th for the all-time record. Defensively, he has blocked 2,732 shots, placing him 8th all-time in that category as well. So not only could Shaq score, but he could also rebound and defend with aplomb.
Shaq moved on to create a successful career for himself outside of basketball as well. It’s rare to find a person who doesn’t know who he is, even if they didn’t watch him play. He’s been an actor, spokesperson, rapper, and more. His impact on the game and pop culture is unmatched, and his play is often forgotten or dismissed as “great due to his size.” The fact remains that Shaq was the absolute GOAT at his position and his exemplary play is the reason he’s a four-time champion and an MVP. It’s also why he’s one of the greatest to ever play the game.
At the age of 24, the NBA icon was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. converted to Islam and took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, meaning “noble one, servant of the Almighty.” Kareem was a dominant basketball player from the time he stepped onto a court. In high school, Kareem won 71 consecutive games. After joining UCLA, he was on to win three consecutive NCAA championships, earning the Tournament MVP all three years, a record that still holds today. He was drafted first overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969. He played in Milwaukee for six seasons before finishing his career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kareem became one of the league’s most prolific scorers and all-around players. He used his signature “skyhook” shot, an unblockable swing lob, to dominate his opponents. During his career, Kareem took his team to the Finals 10 times, winning 6 championships. He also won six MVP awards, a record that still stands. At Kareem retired at the age of 42, he held the record for most points scored, most rebounds, most blocks, most games played, and most wins.
Kareem was the focal point of the greatest Lakers dynasty in the franchise’s history. He led the team, later known as “The Showtime Lakers,” in a fast-paced offense that left opponents in the dust. The team capitalized on the fast break, running up and down the court and scoring quickly. Despite his offensive effectiveness, he was also an incredible defender, earning an All-Defensive selection 11 times.
More importantly than the game of basketball, Kareem was also an advocate who stood for what he believed in. He protested multiple times to stand up for what was right. In 1968, he boycotted the Olympics to protest the way African-Americans were treated in the United States. When Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War, Kareem traveled to join other outspoken black athletes like Jim Brown to support his decision. Kareem’s activism is still seen as a strong area of influence, with young athletes like Colin Kaepernick continuing to fight for their beliefs through the platform sports create. Without Kareem, this may never have been possible today.
I know what you’re thinking, Michael Jordan at #2 is blasphemy. His “Airness” brought the game of basketball back to life when its ratings were at their lowest point. He was marketed better than anyone, putting the Jordan brand on a pedestal that has yet to be reached. Jordan is synonymous with basketball. When people think of the sport, they typically think of Jordan. However, he still sits in second place for me.
Jordan is the greatest scorer in the history of the game. He wasn’t born with the power of Shaq or the size of Kareem, and yet he could not be stopped by any player on the court. He won the league’s scoring title 10 times during his career, adding to his wins. Jordan won more than anyone. He set a record for wins in a season with the Bulls in 1996. He led the team to 72 victories and a championship, a feat that wasn’t broken for 20 years. He also has two separate three-peat championship runs, and a stellar 6–0 Finals record.
Jordan was offensively godlike and was also a great defender. Jordan led the league in steals three times and was an all-defensive selection nine times! He also led the postseason in steals twice and scored 10 times. Jordan was an unstoppable force throughout his time in the league, even with two separate retirements during his career.
Michael Jordan was a visionary who took his dominant play on the court and built an empire with it. He’s the greatest scorer the game has ever seen; his unblemished Finals record is something that many people claim makes him the best. He completely owned the ’90s, he created a shoe empire that made him a billionaire, and he created some of the greatest kids’ movies of all time. Jordan is absolutely one of the best to ever do it.
LeBron James is the greatest player of all time. He has dominated the NBA since breaking into the league at the young age of 18, fresh out of high school. When James came into the league, he was looked at as “The Chosen One” who would take the mantle of greatness from Jordan, and he did. LeBron has done things that no other player before him has been able to do. He carried a decrepit 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers team to the Finals all on his own. He’s defeated not one but two of the league’s greatest dynasties for championships, the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. He also brought a championship to Cleveland after a 52-year championship drought.
Not only has James accomplished remarkable things, but he also plays at a higher level and a more well-rounded level than anyone in history. James can do it all. He can score on any given night, he can rebound the ball, and he is the greatest passing forward in league history. He currently is the only player in league history that sits in the top 10 for points scored and assists. He also sits in the top 50 all-time in rebounds. He’s the only player ever to record over 34,000 points. 9,000 assists, and 9,000 rebounds.
James recently finished playing in his 17th season, and yet he still is arguably the most valuable player in the league and is unarguably a top-five player. He has dominated in his youth, his prime, and now in his later years. When the game is on the line, even if he doesn’t win, he will be the best player on the court.
Outside of basketball, James also impacts the world in a positive manner. He created a school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, that is specifically made for students who come from poor and/or broken homes. He’s guaranteed each of the students a full-ride scholarship if they graduate through his school, ensuring 2,300 kids will get a college education when they may not have previously had the chance. He has advocated for African-Americans against police brutality and has spoken out against discrimination throughout America. He’s an advocate for positive change and improved culture. All of these things, combined with his many accolades, make him the greatest basketball player in the history of the game.