Please, let's stop defining the basketball players of yesterday by the standards of today.
You know what I'm talking about. It goes like this, "Yes, Bill Russell was a force in his day, but he wouldn't be special in today's NBA."
Um, how do you know? All Russell did is win 11 titles in 13 seasons in his day. That's all. The point for Russell was to win in his day, not our day.
The game is ever-evolving, which means the standards of greatness are ever-shifting. We try to juggle yesterday and today - always a fun juggle - in The Gazette's annual list of the greatest players in NBA history. This season, that list has grown to 43 players.
In 30 years - and I'm serious about this - some blind-to-the-past basketball "expert" will wonder aloud, "Would LeBron James be anything special in the NBA of 2048?"
Stop, please. The greats of yesterday would find, if placed in a time machine, a way to be great in the NBA of today. The most important ingredient to basketball greatness? If you answered physical talent, sorry, you're wrong. The mind is the most important ingredient. It's the will to somehow find a way to be better than everybody else. That's what matters most. George Mikan and Russell and Magic and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant and LeBron willed themselves to supremacy. They didn't share the same level of talent, or skill, or height. They did share an unquenchable will - a desire - to be the best.
The mind ruled yesterday. It rules today. And it will rule tomorrow. Disparaging the greats of yesteryear reveals a lack of understanding of basketball, and of greatness.
Why make a list of the all-time best?
Sports is about more than playing the game.
It’s about taking about the game, too.
To me, the best talking is focused on yesterday vs. today, or sometimes yesterday vs. yesterday. Is LeBron better than Michael? Is Shaq superior to Wilt? Is Curry a better ballhandler than Steve Nash? Could 1950s star Dolph Schayes average 20 points in today’s NBA? (I’m answering yes to that last one.)
You get the picture.
This is my annual look at the top players in NBA history. This year, the list has grown to 43.
Every year, I hear from friends – and enemies – who wonder why, for instance, Pete Maravich didn’t make the cut. (Maravich is one of history’s best college players, but he’s not a top-75 NBA player.) I hear arguments about Wilt vs. Kareem, or Magic vs. Bird, or Oscar vs. West.
The talking can get heated.
Four years ago, I contended that LeBron was not yet the greatest player of all time. The response, mostly on Twitter, from his youthful supporters was often obscene and even more often baffled. The argument for LeBron as No. 1 basically went like this: He’s my favorite player, and he’s playing right now, and I’ve never even heard of a lot of these old people on your (expletive deleted) list.
And yet . . .
The Fun Bunch has a point. It's good - it's best, really - to dwell primarily in the present.
Most of the players on this list are finished. LeBron is not done. He has, maybe, a half-dozen years to continue climbing. He might even pass Jordan. This is starting to look like a probable quest instead of an impossible one.
LeBron's performance in Game One of our current NBA Finals was up there with anybody's basketball performance of any season. He offered us a three-hour examination of unfiltered, highly entertaining genius. (Thanks a lot, J.R. Smith, for throwing away a virtually certain Cavs victory.)
Still, remember this: Michael Jordan played in six NBA Finals. He won them all.
Basketball is the ideal sport for the best-ever discussion. The game has only lived on the national stage since the early 1950s, which simplifies arguments.
In baseball, you can make a strong case for Babe Ruth as the best-ever, and he began his career in 1914.
That was a long time ago. That leads to all kinds of comparing of eras, which can get messy.
In basketball, the first greatest-ever candidate is Bill Russell. He retired in 1969. Russell is still walking among us. He might be distant history, but he’s not ancient history.
Here’s my top 43, and I’d love to hear from you about your top five or 10 or 40 or 50.
Let the arguments begin.
- MICHAEL JORDAN: Jordan played in six NBA Finals. And won them all. He never quit growing as a player. He started his career as the ultimate skywalker. He ended his Bulls career — please, let’s just forget those days with the Wizards — as the game’s ultimate mid-range jump shooter. I traveled to Chicago during Jordan’s final season with the Bulls and on a Saturday night watched him torch the Cavaliers for 47 points. The Cavs used seven different defenders on the past-his-prime Jordan. He set all of them on fire.
2. LeBRON JAMES: LeBron could carry any team to the NBA playoffs. And we’re talking any team. This is a huge statement, but it’s not an overstatement. James has long been an overwhelming force in the regular season. In the last eight seasons, when he led the Heat and the Cavs to seven rides to the NBA Finals, he’s proven he can deliver clutch and magnificent work in the playoffs, too. LeBron is the most physically talented player ever, a mutant combination of Karl Malone, Magic Johnson and Jordan, with a touch of Wilt Chamberlain’s ultra-complicated psyche thrown into the mix.
- KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: His hook shot remains the most effective offensive weapon in basketball history. Nobody was so dangerous for so long. He was named MVP of the NBA Finals at 38.
- BILL RUSSELL: Eleven titles in 13 seasons. No one will ever top that. No one will ever come close. He’s the greatest winner in the history of team sports. So why doesn’t he rank at the top? That’s easy. He was always surrounded by overwhelming talent. He was the lead actor in a dynasty jammed with superior chemistry and a deep collection of gifted players.
- MAGIC JOHNSON: A revolutionary. A point guard in a center’s body. If Magic had not been stricken with HIV, he might have tangled with Jordan for the top spot. He’s the greatest team player ever. What I mean is, any teammate who stepped on the court with Magic instantly transformed into a superior player.
- WILT CHAMBERLAIN: An amazing talent who could have been even better. Many basketball historians, including one of my favorites, Terry Pluto, make a strong case Chamberlain was better than Russell. Wilt did compile mind-boggling numbers, and when he was surrounded by talent he won two NBA titles.
- LARRY BIRD: For decades, I resisted listening to voices from The Larry Bird Cult. (This is a cult with many members. Trust me on that one.) But the voices have a point. Bird, at his best, flew as high as anyone in basketball history not named Michael or LeBron. And, like Magic, it’s fun to imagine what he might have done if he had remained healthy.
- TIM DUNCAN: Emperor of the Spurs dynasty. For years, Spurs fans have commanded me to place Mr. Boring closer to the top of this list. During his last two NBA Finals, the scales fell from my eyes, and I could see one of NBA history’s finest defenders and winners.
- OSCAR ROBERTSON: Until Jordan arrived, he ranked as the most complete player ever. I’ve talked with a couple dozen players who competed against Robertson. When they talk about The Big O, they are filled with immense respect.
- JERRY WEST: The most down-to-earth superstar ever. And maybe the most tormented superstar ever. He never will recover from all those NBA Finals defeats to the Celtics.
- KOBE BRYANT: Didn’t appreciate Kobe as much as I should have during his long prime, which is now over. Didn’t appreciate him primarily because I despised him. He’s an astounding talent. He’s not the most charming character, but he’s one of sports history’s most relentless competitors. And he’s the rare ball hog who also is a winner.
- SHAQ: A dangerous man. The least-skilled player on this list. And the least-skilled great player in basketball history. If he had been hungry for greatness – and he wasn’t – he could have climbed much higher.
- ELGIN BAYLOR: The first skywalker. A revolutionary and a basketball gentleman. He should have a much higher profile. I used to live in Syracuse, N.Y., once home to an NBA franchise. Fans there still talk about Baylor’s first visit in 1958. He soared a foot-and-a-half above the rim for a slam, but had a little trouble with his air traffic control. While trying to avoid one of his opponent’s arms, Baylor miscalculated his dunk and the ball slammed off the back rim. The Syracuse fans swore the ball bounced all the way past the halfcourt line. This Baylor air show ranks among the best missed dunks of all time.
- RICK BARRY: I once instigated heated basketball arguments by telling friends and enemies that Barry (who has lived in the Springs since 1983) was nearly as dangerous as Larry Bird. These friends and enemies dismissed all points and acted as if I had just said the moon landing was staged. So I promised to never again state my case. (By the way, I do believe we landed astronauts on the moon.) Still, please, at least consider that the Bird-Barry discussion has merit. Look at Barry’s numbers: he averaged 24 points in his career, same as Bird. Look at the way Barry carried — as no other player ever carried — the Golden State Warriors to the 1975 title. Bird and Barry were remarkably similar players and belong close to each other on the all-time list. One quick Barry story: I was talking a few years ago with former Sonics superstar Spencer Haywood about Barry. (Haywood and Barry often did battle on the court.) Spencer spent a few minutes raving about Barry’s accomplishments before announcing, “Rick Barry is the greatest white player of all time.” Spencer then took a long pause, all the better for comic effect, before completing his announcement. “And Rick was about the 75th best player of all time.” Thanks, Spencer. (Sidenote: Haywood has a strong Colorado connection. He played for Trinidad Junior College and for one glorious season with the Denver Rockets in the American Basketball Association.)
- JOHN HAVLICEK: He played in eight NBA finals. He won them all. And he scored nearly 5,000 more points than Bird.
- HAKEEM OLAJUWON: Sure, The Dream Shake was a walk, but what an astonishing talent. I saw Hakeem play for the University of Houston when he as a confused freshman. Two years later, he was America’s finest college basketball player He started the NBA’s flood of international players.
- BOB PETTIT: One of the great power forwards in NBA history. He retired in 1965 and is largely forgotten, which is sad. He overwhelmed everyone in his day, and everyone includes Bill Russell.
- JULIUS ERVING: The most entertaining, dazzling basketball player ever? Maybe. For pure thrills, only Jordan and David Thompson could battle with Dr. J. Will long remember watching The Doctor rise to the heights during his second season in the ABA in 1972. (Yes, I am old.) He dunked on various Rockets (later to become the Nuggets) a half-dozen times in downtown Denver. What a show. And what a ‘fro.
- MOSES MALONE: If Moses had been blessed with bigger hands, he would have been illegal. His little hands limited his shooting. He handled himself like a boxer in the lane. Another dangerous man.
- KARL MALONE: Not a big fan, but it’s difficult to argue with The Mailman’s numbers. Too bad Malone and John Stockton never quite found a way to bring a title back home to the small market of Salt Lake City.
- DIRK NOWITZKI: I’d seen Dirk play in person and TV dozens of times, but never truly appreciated his skills until the 2011 NBA Finals. Through dogged, exhaustive effort, Dirk constructed one of the most dangerous offensive machines in basketball history. He’s one of the greatest jump shooters ever, but he’s not soft. He dropped his biggest baskets in the 2011 series on courageous drives to the basket.
- GEORGE MIKAN: I’ve talked to a dozen players — NBA pioneers — who battled against Mikan. Many of these players later battled against Russell and Chamberlain. These pioneers speak with immense respect for Mikan, one of the game’s all-time winners. If you’re doubtful about this selection, please consider a few facts: Mikan finished his career with seven — yes, seven — straight titles, and in his best three seasons averaged 28 points, 14 rebounds and three assists.
- JOHN STOCKTON: What an imaginative passer. Like Magic, he could make any teammate – well, almost anybody - look good.
- ISIAH THOMAS: No, he’s not Mr. Sunshine, but he was the soul of those Bad Boys from Detroit.
- DWYANE WADE: Wade in 2008-09: 30.2 points, 7.5 assists and 5 rebounds per game. And he finished third – and distant third – in MVP voting behind winner LeBron James and runner-up Kobe Bryant. Wade, like Carmelo Anthony, had the misfortune of competing in an era of sensational swing players.
- KEVIN DURANT: I’ll wish, for now and evermore, that Durant had remained in Oklahoma City for the 2016-17 season. If he had stayed with the Thunder, we might have watched the most dramatic Western Conference Finals of them all.
- STEPH CURRY: The Age of the Dunk has ended. Curry is leading us all – whether we want to go or not – into The Age of the Long Shot. The 3-pointer is all the rage in the NBA, which means 11-year-olds are launching – and missing – 3-pointers all over America, even as we speak. Oh, well. Curry is a triumph of skill over athleticism. Always remember this: Curry wanted to play at Virginia Tech, his father’s alma mater. Virginia Tech didn’t offer a scholarship. Curry wasn’t done with his game. An obsessive worker, he willed himself into the world’s best guard.
- KEVIN GARNETT: Mr. Versatile even during those years when he labored in exile in the Great White North of downtown Minneapolis.
- CHARLES BARKLEY: Oh, what might have been. Stupendously talented. Not so stupendously disciplined.
- BOB COUSY: Basketball’s first great showman. But, like Dr. J and Jordan and David Thompson and many of his other fellow entertainers, much more than a mere showman.
- WALT FRAZIER: Leader of one of basketball history’s ultimate teams, the championship Knicks.
- ELVIN HAYES: In the ancient days of the late 1960s, even the finest of rookies arrived in the NBA after four years of college. Hayes, fully formed, averaged 28 points and 17 rebounds in his debut season.
- GEORGE GERVIN: The Iceman was not the most devoted defender, but he was blessed with an arsenal of shots. Yet another showman from the ABA.
- DAVID ROBINSON: What an athlete. What a surprise. Robinson arrived at Navy as a skinny, 6-foot-8, lightly regarded freshman. He departed as a dominating 6-foot-11 center, the best college player in the land. Robinson would be higher on this list, but he didn’t arrive in the NBA until he was 24, after his service commitment. Check out his 1993-94 season: 29.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and, most remarkably, 4.8 assists per game.
- KEVIN MCHALE: He had the great fortune and great misfortune of playing beside Larry Bird in Boston. He would have been the main attraction of almost any other NBA franchise. McHale offered an astonishing, and entertaining, collection of pivot moves. Always fun to watch this master at work in the paint.
- SCOTTIE PIPPEN: Yes, he was Michael Jordan’s sidekick, but he ranks among the NBA’s all-time best defenders and winners. And in his post-Jordan life, he almost carried the Trail Blazers to the finals and a title.
- DOLPH SCHAYES: One of the great stars of the 1950s. Dolph’s game was remarkably similar to the one that Larry Bird showed America decades later. A superb long-range shooter, a ferocious rebounder and basketball’s all-time king in persuading refs to call fouls on the other guy. He led the Syracuse Nationals to the 1955 NBA Title. (The Nationals later became the 76ers.) And get this: Dolph arrived in the NBA at age 20, with a degree in engineering from prestigious New York University.
- PATRICK EWING: While at Georgetown, Ewing specialized in defense. While laboring for the Knicks, Ewing became a premier offensive weapon. If his knees had not betrayed him, would have soared even higher on this list.
- HAL GREER: A star for the Syracuse Nationals and 76ers in the 1960s, Greer ranks among the quickest and fastest players to ever compete in the NBA. A specialist in the 15-foot pull-up shot, a shot his fans swear he never missed.
- WILLIS REED: In the old days, the NBA was dominated by centers. Reed, a warrior in the middle, twice led the Knicks to NBA Titles while outbattling Wilt and Kareem.
- DAVE BING: A success story with chapters that have nothing to do with basketball. A superstar with the Detroit Pistons in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bing returned to the economically depressed Motor City in the 1980s to open a steel company. Against all odds- and we’re talking serious odds – his company became a success. Bing later was voted mayor of Detroit.
- ALLEN IVERSON: I watched Iverson play when he was a freshman at Georgetown. Back then, he weighed 150 pounds, maybe. He was the quickest player I’ve ever seen. He remains the quickest player I’ve ever seen. Later, he was, like Charles Barkley, vastly interested in The Fun Life that stalks NBA players. He was great. He could have been even greater. Sidenote: Iverson was a superlative high school quarterback. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun saw Iverson work his HS football magic. Calhoun says Iverson could have been – even with his skinny frame – a college star.
- JASON KIDD: A point guard with the might of a power forward.