My great-aunt died two weeks ago. It was sad, especially because she was the last of my grandparents’ siblings to pass away (and all four grandparents were long since gone, making this truly the passing of a generation.) During a meal we shared at an mildly upscale restaurant after her funeral, my brother, my cousin, and I talked not about our aunt, not even about our own lives, but how Lebron James could be stopped from winning. Loathing for the stacked Miami Heat united all of the country beyond South Beach, but to our surprise and delight, the beaten-up San Antonio Spurs, whose best three players are all pretty deep into their 30s, prevailed.
This turn of events gave Tim Duncan his 5th NBA championship ring since he joined the NBA in the 1997-98 season. 5 rings in 15 years: a great accomplishment. All of this has made a wide variety of NBA bloggers wonder: how does this remarkable accomplishment reset Tim Duncan’s ranking among the all-time greats? For Duncan, the problem is that his name doesn’t inspire a sense of wonder in the ways the hallowed names of Russell, Jordan, Bird, Chamberlain and others. Duncan was so maddeningly consistent, his game so sound, that we forgot how great he was. So here I am to quantify that greatness.
Here’s what I looked for: individual excellence, a wide variety of awards, ability to win championships, completeness as a player, and finally (this is where I differ from other rankers), I’m also including their ability as a teammate. In other words, you can be an individual player of exceptional talent, but if you persistently undercut your team, behave selfishly, and act like a diva, no amount of native talent can compensate for what that takes away from the table.
1. Bill Russell: Russell was a true champion, leading the Celtics to 11 championships, the greatest sustained run of excellence in any professional sport in American history. Russell changed defense from an afterthought to an art form: he blocked shots with impunity, lived to rebound, and could utterly destroy a team’s game plan. He may not have been the best player on offense, but that wasn’t needed in a team with lots of scrappy shooters. But Russell made camaraderie and a commitment to win his priority; he stood up for his teammates, and led by example, and made the other Celtics want to go as far out of their way to win as Russell did. This is what greatness means: it is more than being an excellent individual, it is inspiring those around you to excellence. Nearly every teammate admired Russell so much that they never dared to do less than their best. Even today, being a Celtic means something special, so when your career still impacts the league 50 years later, you know that you’ve achieved an unparalleled form of greatness.
2. Michael Jordan: We have been hard-wired from our youth to view Michael Jordan as excellence in sports personified. Every advertisement, every jump man logo, prodded us toward this wrongheaded consensus. There were few flaws in Jordan’s game: unstoppable offensively, he could shut anyone down defensively, and he had an indomitable will to win. But he was a terrible teammate, something that undermined the Bulls success: Jordan berated underperforming teammates, and punched a couple of them when they were guarding him too closely in scrimmage. Throughout his career, he bought the hype that he was the greatest ever, and took to calling his teammates “my supporting cast,” a condescending designation that killed a lot of the Bulls’ camaraderie. I’m also convinced that because Jordan was the league’s cash cow, and his success determined how much money it made like no other player before or since, MJ benefitted from favorable treatment from refs throughout his career, allowing him to travel, shove, and trip in ways no other player on this list could get away with. I complain, but even with these flaws, it is hard to argue with 6 rings, multiple scoring titles, routine appearances on All-Defense teams, etc. A player blessed by the gods, his problematic personality keeps him from the top.
3. Magic Johnson: Magic was the ringleader of the amazing 80s Showtime lakers. It’s hard to stop a 6’8″ point guard who could distribute the ball, but also play rough and aggressively when necessary. Magic lived to make his teammates better, and his infectious enthusiasm mattered almost as much as his ball handling skills. Whatever you needed- extra rebounding, an outside shot, another forward, Magic could provide it. Accordingly, he has 5 rings, 3 MVPs, and is the all-time leader in assists per game. But you can argue that his true strength is in how he elevated the game of Kareem (#4), James Worthy, Michael Cooper, A.C. Green, and everybody else he played with.
4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Durability matters. Perhaps the most celebrated collegiate basketball player ever, Lew Alcindor joined a moribund Bucks squad that won at an extraordinarily high level. He became Kareem, and slogged on for years, sullen, uncharismatic, rude to fans, but undoubtedly successful. In the interim, he won 6 titles, led the league in rebounds, blocks, and scoring at different points, and is the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.
5. Tim Duncan: There’s something to be said for the remarkable longevity. 5 titles in fifteen years? 6 finals appearances? He’s called the ‘Big Fundamental’ for a reason: he will consistently get 20 points and 8 rebounds a game for eternity. More than that, Duncan is an exemplary teammate who is not jealous when they win honors and he doesn’t (cases in point: Tony Parker’s NBA Finals MVP in ’07, and Kahwi Leonard in ’14.) He has kept, through extraordinary camaraderie, a remarkable team together for well over a decade.
6. Kobe Bryant: I hate the universe for forcing me to put Kobe this high; he’s easily the player I like least in this whole lot. 5 rings is a compelling argument, and Kobe worked his ass off to remain this good for this long, working hard all summer to add some new trick to his game every off-season. Although he is reaching the end of his career, he has consistently made any team he plays on while healthy a contender, has multiple scoring titles, and has not neglected defense. He is a complete player in a way his celebrated teammate Shaq is not (one reason among many why Shaq does not make my top ten.)
7. Larry Bird: Bird’s blue-collar ethos and wiseass persona belie an amazing sense of vision, as though he saw games unfolding in a different dimension the rest of us mortals couldn’t see. Bird was a rare forward who didn’t just rebound and take high-percentage shots, but shot from the outside, won 3-point contests, and was perhaps the best passing forward of all time. He led the Celtics to 3 titles and made them perennial contenders, but his just okay-ish defense, and an injury-racked end to his career put him at #7 for me.
8. Lebron James: Lebron will probably overtake Larry and Kobe by the time his career is over. He might be the most physically gifted player on this list, with an ability to play small or power forward as needed, excellent passing, strong defense, and very few holes in his game. And yet, the poor guy can’t get a break- he went from being “Disappointing in the Playoffs” Lebron in Cleveland to “He’s so Unstoppable he must be destroyed” Lebron in Miami- people despise him when he loses, and fear him when he wins. The honors keep racking up: 4 MVPs in five years, a scoring title, perennial appearances on All-NBA and All-Defense teams. For all these gifts, James fails in the clutch a little too often for my liking, and a 2-of-5 record in the finals is a blot on his resume. But still, “championships or you are a terrible player” arguments can be extreme sometimes; just getting to the Finals after an 82-game season is a remarkable achievement in human endurance and dedication. As demonstrated by…
9. Jerry West: Proof that rings and MVPs aren’t everything. West is the only one in my top ten without an MVP, and just one championship ring. Why, then, is he here? World class defense, remarkable performances in the clutch, and leading the Lakers to the finals 9 times in 12 years.
10. Wilt Chamberlain: Proof that the stats can lie. Chamberlain was unleashed into a league filled with slow 6’5″ power forwards named Norman; small wonder he dominated as a seven-footer in an almost all-white league. His accomplishments: all the scoring titles, all the rebounding titles, the 100-point game, matter, for sure. But he had significant flaws in his game: a lackadaisical attitude toward practice, he could only shoot within 10 feet of the basket, his terrible free-throw shooting. Wilt was also untrainable, and except for the 1967 season, expected his teammates to service him. His weird obsession with stats became a hinderance: he once took his team into the tank so that he could be the first center to lead the league in assists; he also wanted to get through his career without ever fouling out of a game, so he would repeatedly shut down after that 4th foul. Anyone who praises Chamberlain’s statistical accomplishments is only feeding into this narcissistic behavior. And If Wilt’s so great, why did he consistently fail when it mattered? Why were two excellent teams willing to get rid of him for pennies on the dollar? Why was he unable to win a championship except on teams loaded to the gills with help?
Rounding out spots #11-20, I’d put, in something approximating this order: Shaq, Oscar Robertson, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, John Havlicek, Kevin Garnett, Isaiah Thomas, and Bob Pettit.
What? You want me to name all 100 greatest players, you say? I’ll do this in greater detail some day, but if we’re ranking them in “chunks” of ten, here’s how I’d do it:
#21-30: Walt Frazier, Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, Bob Cousy, Scottie Pippen, Dirk Nowitzki, John Stockton, Dwyane Wade, David Robinson, George Mikan
#31-40: Willis Reed, Kevin McHale, Patrick Ewing, Rick Barry, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Steve Nash, Clyde Drexler, Dolph Schayes, Allen Iverson
#41-50: Kevin Durant, Sam Jones, Billy Cunningham, David Cowens, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Dennis Johnson, George Gervin, Wes Unseld, Paul Arizin
#51-60: Bill Walton, Bob McAdoo, Paul Pierce, Elvin Hayes, Pete Maravich, Nate Thurmond, Joe Dumars, Robert Parish, Bill Sharman, Reggie Miller
#61-70: Dominique Wilkins, Hal Greer, Neil Johnston, Tony Parker, Bernard King, Lenny Wilkens, James Worthy, Ray Allen, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe
#71-80: Chris Mullin, Tiny Archibald, Dave DeBusschere, Dave Bing, Sidney Moncrief, Alex English, Dennis Rodman, Chris Webber, Paul Westphal, Dave Thompson
#81-90: Connie Hawkins, Jack Twyman, Grant Hill, Bob Lanier, Alonzo Mourning, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Hardaway, Artis Gilmore, Adrian Dantley, Ed Macauley
#90-100: Bobby Jones, Jerry Sloan, Tommy Heinsohn, Ben Wallace, Bobby Dandridge, Michael Cooper, Maurice Cheeks, Guy Rodgers, Joe Johnson, Gus Johnson