I was reading a list like this earlier this week, and I was absolutely appalled by the rankings that the poster put forth. This was the list I read, and I was inspired to produce a more accurate version (if you follow that link, you'll see that I ripped into their version on the message board, haha).
Obviously no list of this magnitude can be perfect -- comparing guards, forwards, and centers, and old vs. new age players -- but I think my version is a better representation of the best players in NBA history, in order. Before I start, let me explain my rationale:
(1) Five statistical categories will be weighed the most: points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, steals per game, and blocks per game. I'm going with the "per game" statistics because I don't want to punish players for a lack of abnormal longevity, as long as they still qualify for the all-time leaders.
I've chosen points because it's a stat that can be applied to players of all positions, though point guards have a slight disadvantage. Assists and steals are typically guard categories, while rebounds and blocks are big man stats. So one equalizer, and two specialized statistics on each side.
(2) I value players that have led their teams to championship victories. Not championship appearances, but VICTORIES. Now that doesn't mean that players like Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing are going to be punished; it only means that if they're close with a player that has won a championship(s), they may fail in comparison. At least in my eyes.
(3) I've also taken into account the "NBA at 50" campaign from a little while back. The panel of people that voted included superstar players, coaches, announcers, and members of the media. It's difficult to ignore such a respectable group. Of course, that was a little while ago now, so some of the newer players (Duncan, Kobe, LeBron) weren't on there. Clearly they will not be punished for that.
(4) ** IMPORTANT TO NOTE **
Initially I was using NBA.com as my primary source for the all-time statistics, but they only provide the top 30 in each category. It was at that point that I switched to Basketball Reference, only to find that some of their stats were inconsistent with NBA.com's. Why? I don't know. So if some of the rankings look ever-so-slightly off to you, it's because I've been forced to conglomerate the two sites.
That said, here we go...
Walt "Clyde" Frazier-PG-22nd in spg (voted top 50)
Maurice "Mo" Cheeks-PG-24th in apg, 11th in spg
Steve Nash-PG-11th in apg
Dave Bing-SG-48th in ppg (voted top 50)
James Worthy-PF-voted top 50
Earl "The Pearl" Monroe-SG-voted top 50
Nate "Tiny" Archibald-PG-16th in apg (voted top 50)
Sam Jones-SG-10 championship rings (voted top 50)
Bill Walton-C-16th in bpg (voted top 50)
Bill Sharman-SG-voted top 50
Micheal Ray Richardson (why he spelled it "Micheal" and not "Michael," I don't know)-PG-21st in apg, 2nd in spg
Gary Payton-PG-24th in apg, 28th in spg
Carmelo Anthony-SF-17th in ppg
Tracy McGrady-SG-27th in ppg
Dwight Howard-C-14th in rpg, and 23rd in bpg
Willis Reed-C-12th in rpg (voted top 50)
Dolph Schayes-PF-17th in rpg (voted top 50)
Dave DeBusschere-PF-29th in rpg (voted top 50)
"KJ" Kevin Johnson-PG-6th in apg
Ray Allen-SG-38th in ppg
Tim Hardaway-PG-8th in apg
Stephon Marbury-PG-13th in apg
Kevin McHale-PF-voted top 50
Tommy Heinsohn-PF-8 championship rings
Baron Davis-PG-19th in apg, 21st in spg
Gilbert Arenas-PG-22nd in ppg
Lenny Wilkins-PG-24th in apg (voted top 50)
Hal Greer-SG-voted top 50
Chris Webber-PF-43rd in ppg
Mitch Richmond-SG-35th in ppg
Dan Issel-C-47th in ppg
Mookie Blaylock-PG-24th in apg, 5th in spg
Mark Jackson-PG-10th in apg
Robert Parish-C-voted top 50
KC Jones-PG-8 championship rings
50. Billy Cunningham-Shooting Guard
In a close race with many of the "honorable mention" members, Billy gets the nod because he's not only top 50 in points per game...he's actually top 40. Thirty-ninth to be exact, ahead of incredibly famous names like John Havlicek, Moses Malone, Clyde Drexler, and Kevin Garnett.
Billy was a streak scorer that could torch the opposition when he caught fire. Even on an off day, he found a way to get his.
49. Alex English-Small Forward
Along with Dominique Wilkins, Mr. English was one of the small forward snubs for the "NBA at 50" group. In spite of the snub, Alex is 32nd all time in points per game, and is considered one of the smoothest scorers in league history. His style of play was effortless, as few have made the game look so easy.
48. David Thompson-Small Forward
If not for his off-the-court issues, many have said that Mr. Thompson would have been one of the top 20 players of all time. Some, boldly, have suggested the top 10.
Perhaps they aren't that far off. David was a freakish athlete with the natural ability to control a game on either end of the court, though he focused the majority of his attention on the offensive side of the ball.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, however, because he's 27th in career points per game...despite the off-court distractions.
47. Bernard King-Small Forward
He may have fallen short of an NBA championship, but "The King" was one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the game. When Bernard got hot, you can forget about it -- there was no stopping him. He loved to elevate above his defender to get off a clean look, and more often than not he was converting on those opportunities.
Bernard is 26th all time in points per game. One of the greatest Knicks in franchise history.
46. Dave Cowens-Center
Eighth all time in rebounds per game and a member of the iconic "NBA at 50" group, Cowens commanded respect because of his toughness and basketball IQ. Seemingly always in the right position defensively and playing with the correct timing and ability offensively, Dave was a legitimate all-around big man.
45. Dirk Nowitzki-Power Forward
One of the most unique players to ever lace 'em up, Dirk's a 7-footer that can shoot with some of the best 2-guards in history. It's amazing to look at his body type and raw size, and then watch his rainbow jumpers hit nothing but bottom. What a performer.
He's 24th all time in points per game.
44. Bob McAdoo-Power Forward
He's one spot ahead of a very similar player; in fact, Bob was Dirk Nowitzki before Dirk Nowitzki. McAdoo was a big man with extraordinary touch, and he used his silky shot to rank in the top 30 in career points per game. Twenty-seventh, to be exact.
He has the championship rings that Dirk lacks.
43. Vince Carter-Shooting Guard
One of the most talented and athletic players to ever play the game, "Vinsanity" aka "Half-Man, Half-Amazing" took the league by storm when he entered with the Toronto Raptors. He's the best game-dunker we've ever seen, and he has a beautifully soft shooting stroke. He's always made the game look easy.
"VC" is 19th all time in points per game.
42. Wes Unseld-Power Forward
A master on the glass, Wes is 6th all time in rebounds per game. He was an absolute monster in the paint, despite being just 6-foot-7. A prestigious member of the "NBA at 50" club.
41. Adrian Dantley-Small Forward
A swingman with the natural ability to put the ball in the cup, many would be surprised to hear that Adrian is 15th all time in points per game. Ahead of greats like Pete Maravich, Rick Barry, and George Mikan. He was a very efficient scorer in his day.
40. Paul Pierce-Small Forward
"The Truth" is, he's a lot better than I thought he was in the grand scheme. To go with his championship ring from the '07-08 season, Paul is 21st all time in points per game. He's a versatile offensive player with the flexibility to play four positions (everything but center), and he was relied upon to do even more before the days of KG and Ray Allen.
Of late he's shown his surprisingly good defensive skills.
39. Jerry Lucas-Power Forward
Fourth all time in rebounds per game, few (if any) could contend with Jerry under the boards. He was known for a tremendous knowledge of the proper positioning, and a general nose for the ball. Could finish with the best of them, when necessary.
38. Scottie Pippen-Small Forward
He wasn't quite the scorer nor focal point that the small forward at the 37-spot was, but Scottie was one of the most successful players in NBA history. Six championship rings as the Robin to Michael's Batman, and 17th all time in steals per game.
He held his own during Michael's unfortunate hiatus, and he redefined his game during the latter portion of his career with the Blazers.
37. Clyde Drexler-Small Forward
"Clyde the Glide" could float on air like Julius Erving, George Gervin, and Michael Jordan. Clyde and his Blazers had some intense battles with Michael and his Bulls, and unfortunately for "The Glide," the Bulls always seemed to reign supreme.
But Clyde achieved championship glory when he moved on to Houston, where he played alongside Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon.
Glide is 46th all time in points per game, and 13th in steals per game.
36. Patrick Ewing-Center
One of the favorites on that oft-talked about "best players without a championship ring" list, Patrick was a dependable leader for the Knicks for many years. He was a bit old school like the man at the 30-spot; nonetheless, he was effective.
Thirty-sixth all time in points per game, and 13th in blocks per game.
35. Jason Kidd-Point Guard
One of the premier "true" point guards in the history of the game, "J-Kidd" takes his teammates to new heights with his unselfish play. He led an overachieving Nets team to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances, and he's improved the statistical outputs of teammates with the Mavericks, Suns, and the aforementioned Nets.
Jason is fifth all time in assists per game, and 14th in steals per game. He's also one of the top three rebounding point guards of all time. A triple-double machine.
34. Paul Arizin-Shooting Guard
Mr. Arizin and the man at the 33-spot are nip-and-tuck in the rankings. Arizin has the slightly superior raw statistics, but No. 33 has something spectacular working in his favor. You'll have to read on to see.
Paul is 22nd all time in points per game, and was voted one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players at the turn of the century.
33. John Havlicek-Shooting Guard
"Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!"
A play call that is forever etched in our minds, even if we weren't alive at the time (which many of us weren't.)
But Johnny isn't at the No. 32 spot for a single play; no, he's here because of his eight NBA championship rings. He was unshakable in the clutch, and productive in the regular season. In fact, Havlicek is in the top 50 in career points per game. More specifically, he's 40th.
32. Nate Thurmond-Center
Often overlooked in a debate about the greatest centers to ever play the game, Nate was especially defensive-minded. Perhaps that's why he's overlooked, as scorers often get the vast majority of the attention.
The big fella is fifth all time in rebounds per game (a very impressive number), and 22nd in blocks per game. He was an unselfish teammate, and one that could be counted on to control the lane defensively.
31. David Robinson-Center
This 32, 31, 30 section is nearly interchangeable. "The Admiral" fits in the middle of this trio because he's the best scorer of the three, but also the weakest rebounder. Both Nate Thurmond and the center at the 30-spot are in the top 16 in rebounds per game, whereas Robinson isn't in the top 30.
However, he is 34th all time in points per game, and fourth in blocks per game. The latter ranking really stands out.
30. Moses Malone-Center
One of the best of the 80's, Moses featured an old school style of play. Slow, deliberate, and physical. He was an excellent on-court leader as he could get you a clutch bucket, or anchor a key defensive stop.
Forty-fourth all time in points per game, and 16th in rebounds per game.
29. Pete Maravich-Point Guard
I'll call him a point guard because he seemingly always had the ball in his hands, but his shot attempts represent that of a shooting guard. Regardless, "Pistol Pete" was one of the most entertaining players to ever grace a basketball court. He was "White Chocolate" long before Jason Williams.
Shifty, fancy, and electric, Pistol is 17th all time in points per game. He could slice through an entire defense -- one against five.
28. Dominique Wilkins-Small Forward
"The Human Highlight Film" was an unstoppable offensive player in his prime. The later seasons of his career were ugly -- 'Nique was overweight -- but when he was young and springy he was worth the price of admission. He was a jaw-dropping vertical leaper, and he finished with authority.
'Nique is 12th all time in points per game, ahead of contemporary scorers like Carmelo Anthony, Vince Carter, and Paul Pierce.
27. John Stockton-Point Guard
One half of the most polished pick-and-roll combination the league's ever seen, John is second all time in assists per game, trailing only the great Magic Johnson. To complement his impressive assist numbers, John is ninth in career steals per game, a ranking that showcases his surprisingly quick hands.
Will be remembered as one of the most intelligent players in the history of basketball.
26. Charles Barkley-Power Forward
On "Inside the NBA," "Sir Charles" always says that Karl Malone and Tim Duncan are the greatest power forwards of all time; and of course, he adds himself to the discussion. But Chuck neglects to mention the players that I have at the No. 17 and No. 10 spots overall, and they're actually two of the top three power forwards in the history of the game.
As for the man himself, Charles is 26th in career points per game, and 20th in rebounds per game. He might be a bit of a "mystique player," something you'll read about when you reach the No. 14 spot.
25. Kevin Garnett-Power Forward
Similar to the Hakeem Olajuwon/Tim Duncan debate later on in this post, it's awfully close between KG and Sir Charles. Both are in the top 50 all time in points and rebounds per game, so I'm giving the nod to Garnett because he is more of a defensive presence than Charles ever was.
And he has that championship ring that was oh-so-elusive for Chuck.
24. Julius Erving-Small Forward
As far as soaring through the air and astonishing fans, commentators, coaches, and even opposing players, "Dr. J" was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. Many of us can picture that legendary underhand scoop of his from one particular postseason -- gliding, using the rim as a shield, and finishing on the opposite side...all with one hand.
Unfortunately for "Doc," some of his prime years came in the ABA. As a result, he's only 30th all time in NBA points per game, a number that surely would have improved had he entered the league earlier.
23. Isiah Thomas-Point Guard
One of the worst executives in the history of the NBA, Isiah was anything but when he wore the Pistons' uniform. A phenomenal clutch player with the ability to take over a game with his scoring, or distribution. A hard-nosed player of the "Bad Boys" era, Isiah was a ferocious and skilled competitor.
Fourth all time in assists per game, and 22nd in steals per game. What a talent.
22. George Gervin-Small Forward
"The Iceman" was as slick as they come on the basketball court. Featuring his patented finger roll, George slashed to the rim and finished as well as any other. Only for him, it wasn't "slashing" -- it was much smoother and cooler than that. Thus the nickname.
Statistically, he is eighth all time in points per game. Somehow, he was never part of an NBA champion.
21. Allen Iverson-Shooting Guard
"The Answer's" not my type of player (in the Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady chucker mold), but it's difficult to ignore his statistical production. Fifth all time in points per game, and sixth in steals per game.
Certainly impressive for a player of his size and stature. He's near the top of that "best players without a championship ring" list.
20. Bob Cousy-Point Guard
One of the most unselfish players of all time, "Couz" helped Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Tommy Heinsohn, and KC Jones reach the fullest of their potential. Couz is 15th in career assists per game, and boasts six nba championship rings.
Bob is one of the founding fathers of the point guard position, played the way it's supposed to be played.
19. Rick Barry-Small Forward
Rick's one of only a handful of players in the top 20 in career points and steals per game. To be exact, he's 20th in ppg, and 14th in spg.
And who could forget about his patented underhand free throws?
18. Karl Malone-Power Forward
Not all that dissimilar from Charles Barkley and Kevin Garnett statistically, "The Mailman" ultimately differentiates by ranking 11th all time in points per game. Neither Sir Charles or KG crack the top 20, let alone the top 11.
Maybe a little overrated for his career, as he never won a championship and was very dependent on the timing and precision of John Stockton's passes.
17. Elvin Hayes-Power Forward
Like the power forward at No. 10 overall, Elvin is perpetually underrated. I don't know what it is about power forwards, but they seem to fly under the radar in "all-time greats" discussions.
As for Elvin's specifics, he's 37th in points per game, 14th in rebounds per game, and 24th in blocks per game. Only Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have better collective production in those categories. Talk about impressive company.
16. LeBron James-Small Forward
He still has plenty to prove, but as far as raw ability goes, he's arguably the most talented player in the history of the sport. It's either him, or Michael Jordan.
Naturally gifted, massive, and explosive -- LeBron is virtually unstoppable. The knocks on him are still inconsistent perimeter and free throw shooting, and despite those he's third in NBA history in points per game. Few, if any, could handle the ball as well as he does for his size. Once he gets a ring he's jumping right into the top 10.
Or should I say, if he gets a ring.
15. George Mikan-Center
He revolutionized the center position, as many of us have practiced "The Mikan Drill" on our middle school, junior varsity, varsity, or collegiate teams. George is 25th all time in points per game, and 10th in rebounds per game.
He was Bill Russell before Bill Russell, leading his team to five NBA championships in a very short period of time.
14. Larry Bird-Small Forward
Larry's what I like to call a "mystique player." This is an idea I introduced in my 30 Greatest Players in MLB History post, when discussing players like Bob Gibson, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays. Mystique players are unquestionably superstars, but their cold, hard production falls short of the reputations that precede them.
"Larry Legend" is one of the premier three-point bombers of all time, but I can't place too much weight on that because of the number of greats who never had a three-point line, or three-point statistic. Thus I turn to points per game, where he ranks 15th in the game's history. To his credit, he was relentless and effective when the stakes were at their highest.
13. Hakeem Olajuwon-Center
On the offensive end, "The Dream" was a finesse big man, and a joy to watch. On the defensive end, he was quietly aggressive and as effective as many of the openly tenacious centers.
Thirty-first in points per game, 27th in rebounds per game, and third in blocks per game. Place those numbers alongside two championship rings, and you have one of the top centers anyone's ever seen.
12. Tim Duncan-Power Forward
It's a tight one between "The Big Fundamental" and "Hakeem the Dream." The statistical differences are near negligible, so I'm taking Timmy's four rings over Hakeem's two.
Duncan is 33rd all time in points per game, 20th in rebounds per game, and 14th in blocks per game. A cerebral player, and leader on both ends of the court.
11. Elgin Baylor-Small Forward
The premier small forward in the game's history; relative to his era, Elgin is one of the most explosive and unstoppable offensive players. He was comfortable scoring around the rim, in the mid-range, and from distance. There was little to nothing the opposition could do to contain him.
He's fourth all time in points per game, and ninth in rebounds per game. The latter is an astonishing ranking considering Elgin's position: small forward. One would think the top 10 would be reserved for centers and power forwards, but Elgin was that athletic, and that active on the boards.
10. Bob Pettit-Power Forward
The greatest power forward of all time is also one of the most underrated players...at any position. Rarely is Pettit's name brought up in "best player of all time" discussions, and yet he's seventh in points per game, and third in rebounds per game. An incredible combination of numbers.
Few boast Pettit's statistical prowess, and in my opinion, he's the father of the power forward position. At least in the manner that we know it.
9. Bill Russell-Center
He doesn't quite have the numbers of the others in the top 10 (not even in the top 50 in points per game), but that's only from a statistical standpoint. One number that he does have, is 11.
What does that 11 represent?
Eleven championship rings. Completely and utterly mind blowing. Bill's also second in the history of the NBA in rebounds per game. He had the pleasure of playing for Red Auerbach, and playing on the greatest team ever assembled. Those champion Celtics were a team in every sense of the word, and Bill was their centerpiece.
8. Earvin "Magic" Johnson-Point Guard
The second-best point guard in the history of the NBA, Magic is actually first in assists per game. He wasn't nearly as explosive a scorer as the point guard at the No. 4 overall spot, and he had the help of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, and Byron Scott in the assists category.
Not to take anything away from Magic, but people love to say that "Kobe had Shaq." Well, Magic had Kareem and Worthy. I'll take two stud big men over one.
What Magic also had, was five NBA championship victories. I have love for that.
7. Kobe Bryant-Shooting Guard
He's been the best player in the NBA for quite some time now, and this fourth championship is certainly important to his legacy. "The Black Mamba" is 10th all time in points per game, ahead of glorified stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird.
Kobe's the closest thing to Michael Jordan as far as mannerisms, style of play, calm under pressure, and fourth quarter production. Will he match Michael's six championships? Only time will tell...
6. Shaquille O'Neal-Center
The most dominant force of the past 20 years, Shaq (in his prime) had an uncanny mix of raw size and offensive quickness, particularly in the footwork department. Shaquille is 13th all time in points per game, 24th in rebounds per game (should have been better), and 15th in blocks per game.
Those impressive numbers accompany his four championship rings. It's all good for "The Big Tweet."
5. Jerry West-Shooting Guard
Regarded by many as the best pure shooter the game's ever seen, Mr. West is one of only three players in the top 30 in three of the five major categories. The others are Shaquille O'Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The trio does the Laker family proud.
Jerry is sixth all time in points per game, 24th in assists per game, and third in steals per game. Everyone knows about his perimeter shooting touch, but few realize what an incredible passer and defender he was. An outstanding all-around threat.
4. Oscar Robertson-Point Guard
"The Big O" is the greatest point guard in the history of basketball. He was the LeBron James of his day as far as triple-doubles go, and he's third all time in assists per game. Everyone knows he could dish the rock, but did you know he's ninth all time in points per game?
Absolutely incredible. Ahead of megastars like Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There was nothing Oscar couldn't do on the basketball court.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, aka Lew Alcindor-Center
It's pretty close between Kareem and the center that occupies the No. 2 spot, but his statistics aren't quite as eye-popping. They're incredible -- and that's not surprising if he's the third best player in the history of the NBA -- but they place Kareem on the outside looking in for the 2-spot.
Fourteenth in points per game, 24th in rebounds per game, and ninth in blocks per game. That to go with six championship rings. Pretty amazing for the king of the "Sky Hook."
2. Wilt Chamberlain-Center
If the player at No. 1 is the best of all time, then Wilt is the most dominant. Remember what Shaq said when he played with Kobe?
"Kobe's the best player in the world, and I'm the most dominant."
Well that's what we have here with Wilt and the following god at the top spot. "Wilt the Stilt" is tied for first all time in points per game, and is also first in rebounds per game. He may have played against smaller opponents during an era without the three-second violation, but he couldn't change the time period that he played in, nor the NBA rules of the time. Can't be punished for that.
1. Michael Jordan-Shooting Guard
It's difficult to do this man justice with words. His style of play was beyond words; more expressive, more beautiful, and more incredible. Michael is likely the greatest athlete in the history of sports, and what more can be said after that?
As far as the statistics go, he's first all time in points per game, fourth in steals per game, and he boasts six NBA championship rings. He's the premier clutch player in the history of the game, and arguably the best under pressure in any sport.
Michael Jordan is not a man...
He's a superhero.
And that's that. I openly welcome all comments and opinions. Many thanks for reading.
(The Red Sox are the new Yankees. How did they make the transition? "JFro," aka John Frascella, is the author of "Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land." It's the first full-length book centered on Boston Red Sox's popular general manager Theo Epstein. Preview or purchase it online at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or Borders. It's currently stocked in Barnes and Noble stores throughout the U.S. Also, check out John on Twitter.)