Michael Jordan is generally considered the greatest basketball player of all time, but players like LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others also have substantial cases. Just as it’s difficult to compare players from different eras, a player’s value isn’t always the same depending on their position.
While roles might be blurred more in the modern NBA due to the transition to positionless basketball, shooting guards like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson are generally asked to carry the bulk of the scoring load, while a point guard like Isiah Thomas is asked to initiate the offense and set up his teammates.
A player’s stats might be affected due to what their role is, so comparing players from different eras who play different positions isn’t always fair. To make the playing field a little more even, let’s breakdown the top five players of all-time from each position.
Top 5 Best Point Guards
1. Magic Johnson
The No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA draft, Earvin “Magic” Johnson was a superstar from day one. In the Finals in his first year, the 6-foot-9 guard moved over to center in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals for an injured Abdul-Jabbar and put together one of the best championship performances in NBA history, tallying 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals on 60.9% shooting to close out the series, per basketball-reference. His clutch production made him the youngest Finals MVP ever and the only rookie to win the award.
After an injury-shortened sophomore season, Johnson dominated the league for a decade straight. When he retired following the 1990-1991 season after contracting HIV, the Lakers legend had won five out of nine Finals appearances, was a 10-time All-NBA selection, earned three MVPs and Finals MVPs, made 12 All-Star teams, led the NBA in assists four times and in steals twice. He left the game as the all-time assists leader assists with 9,981 and surpassed the 10,000 mark when he made a brief 36-game return to the Lakers in 1996 before retiring for good.
Johnson had an array of ways to attack his opponents. The 1980s Lakers garnered the nickname “Showtime” as a result of Johnson’s knack for flashy passes and his up-tempo style of play, but by the end of his career he added muscle to his large frame and became more of a post scorer for his team as Abdul-Jabbar inched toward retirement. Not known as a shooter in his early years, Johnson also developed an effective spot-up jump shot and improved his free-throw shooting, even leading the NBA with a 91.1% free-throw percentage in 1988-1989.
There was no point guard in basketball history more physically and mentally dominant than Johnson, and he’s got the hardware to prove it.
2. Stephen Curry
Curry is just 32 years old and likely still has plenty of high-quality basketball left, but the Warriors superstar has already cemented himself as an all-time great at his position. He’s by far the most prolific 3-point shooter in the game’s history and has three championships to his name, but his legend goes beyond just his accolades.
After being selected No. 7 in the 2009 draft, Curry’s first three seasons in Golden State were somewhat modest. He averaged 18 points and 5.9 assists in his first two years before playing just 26 games in 2011-2012 due to repeated ankle issues, and it looked like his pre-draft injury concerns were coming to fruition.
But he got stronger and more durable thereafter and he and his team began taking over the NBA landscape in the following years. His 2014-2015 campaign was his ascension as he was named MVP and won the Finals, but it was the following season that put him with the all-time greats.
His 2015-2016 MVP season is one of the best individual campaigns in NBA history. He led the league with 30.1 points and 2.1 steals per game, shattered the single-season record for triples made with 402, was first in PER, true shooting percentage, win shares and VORP. His team also notched the best regular-season record ever at 73-9 but blew a 3-1 Finals series lead to James and the Cavaliers.
Before breaking his hand five games into this season, Curry’s last three seasons with Kevin Durant were slightly worse statistical versions of his second MVP year. The Warriors’ superteam endured much criticism and Curry still didn’t get a Finals MVP despite winning two more rings.
The knocks on Curry are his lack of Finals MVPs, joining forces with Durant after losing the Finals in 2016, his suspect on-ball defense and his toughness, but no one can dispute that he and the Warriors changed modern basketball. When Curry came into the NBA, teams averaged about 18 3-point attempts per game. In 2020, teams average about 34 attempts from behind the arc. That’s no accident.
Golden State was the first perimeter-shooting oriented team to win a championship ever, and Curry’s unique ability to take and make a high-volume of extremely difficult triples inspired a generation of players and teams to do the same. Take the Houston Rockets’ current philosophy for example.
Curry may not be the best passer or defender or most consistent playoff performer on this list, but his impact is felt on basketball courts across the world. He changed what is considered a good shot and altered the strategy of how many teams today build their rosters and attack their opponents.
3. Isiah Thomas
The original Isiah Thomas was the archetype of the two-time NBA champion “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons of the 1980s and one of the most ferocious competitors of his era. He came into the league as the No. 2 pick in 1981 after a stellar collegiate career at Indiana and made 12 consecutive All-Star teams, infamously tormenting Jordan’s Bulls in the process.
Aside from lacking a 3-point shot, which wasn’t a necessity of his era, “Zeke” had no holes in his game. His elite handles allow him to create for himself and his teammates offensively and his tenacity on defense allowed Detroit to dominate on both ends of the floor. His 13.9 assists per game in the 1984-1985 season is the third-highest mark in NBA history and his 9.3 assists career average ranks fifth.
Thomas’ aggressive style clashed with bigger stars of his era like Johnson, Bird and Jordan, but no one could argue that it led to winning. He retired after the 1993-1994 season when he tore his Achilles tendon in the team’s final home game, cutting his career short at age 32. He finished his career with 18,822 points (19.2 ppg), 9,061 assists, and 1,861 steals over 979 games, all Pistons records.
4. Oscar Robertson
“The Big O” was the pioneer of the triple-double. He was the first and only player to average one throughout a season until Russell Westbrook did so in his 2016-2017 MVP season, but Robertson’s record stood for 56 years. In fact, he still averaged a triple-double if you combine his first six seasons.
Robertson was the premiere point guard of his era from the moment he came to the Cincinnatti Royals as the No. 1 pick in 1960, earning 11 straight All-NBA selections and making 12 consecutive All-Star teams. At 6-foot-5, he was a matchup nightmare for opposing guards and his signature high-rising baseline jumper was nearly unguardable.
What eluded Robertson during his prime was a ring, as his Royals won over 50 games and made it out of the first round of the playoffs just once during his 10 seasons with the franchise. It wasn’t until 1970-1971 when he joined Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee that he finally won it all.
Some criticized Robertson for his consistent losing, weight issues and lack of killer instinct, but there’s no denying his otherworldly consistency and dominance. He led the league in assists seven times, scoring once, has a Rookie of the Year and an MVP award and is still the all-time triple-double leader with 181. His resume speaks for itself.
5. John Stockton
If you were to search for the ultimate pure point guard, there’s no other answer than John Stockton. Just the 16th pick in the legendary 1984 draft, Stockton had a quiet first three seasons as a backup to Utah Jazz guard Rickey Green. When he finally earned the starting job in 1987, however, he burst onto the scene.
From 1987-1996, Stockton led the league in assists every season, averaging just over 13 per game in that span. He has the top two single-season assists averages and finished his career with an average of 10.5, behind only Johnson on the all-time list.
The man on the receiving end of most of his dimes was Karl Malone. The two ran the pick-and-roll better than any duo in NBA history and never had a losing season despite playing in an extremely competitive Western Conference.
Due to the number of talented teams in their conference and the dominance of the 1990s Chicago Bulls, Stockton never won a ring. His Jazz came close in 1997 and 1998 but couldn’t overcome Jordan.
Stockton was never flashy and probably didn’t shoot as much as he should have, but there was arguably no one more consistent at running an offense and setting up his teammates. He could see and remember the positions of everyone on the floor, almost always made the right read and used that ability to grab steals on defense. Combine that with his rare durability — he missed just 22 games in his 19-year career — and you have the top assists and steals leader in NBA history with totals so far ahead of the competition that they might never be broken.
Top 5 Best Shooting Guards
1. Michael Jordan
If you watched “The Last Dance” then you probably already know Jordan’s basketball accomplishments, so let’s focus on what makes him considered the greatest player of all time by so many fans, analysts and players alike.
Jordan won all six of his finals appearances, led the league in scoring 10 times, has the highest per-game points average in NBA history (30.1), has five MVPs, six Finals MVPs, 11 All-NBA selections, a Defensive Player of the Year award, and the list goes on and on.
What makes Jordan the best shooting guard is his undeniable physical and mental basketball domination from the guard position. When Jordan came into the NBA as the No. 3 pick in 1984, the league was dominated by big men. When he and the Bulls were unflappable in the 1990s, the game’s pace was even slower and still centered around big men. It didn’t matter. Jordan rose above them all.
No one at 6-foot-6 controlled a game like “Air” Jordan. He could beat you with his athleticism early on and with his mind as he aged. No one could jump higher or had better fundamentals than him. No one was more confident. No one was more competitive.
Criticisms of Jordan stem from his harsh treatment of teammates, his lack of 3-point shooting and having one of the best coaches and sidekicks ever in Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen. But there’s no denying he was the ultimate winner, scorer and Alpha dog to ever play the shooting guard position.
2. Kobe Bryant
Much of the case for Jordan can be correctly applied to the late Kobe Bryant. Many dubbed him the next Jordan coming into the league and he mostly lived up to that moniker.
Bryant was much like Jordan in his statistical output (he put slightly worse numbers across the board), mentality and style. His 3-point shooting was better than Jordan’s, but that can be linked to the era Bryant played in.
Bryant is unique from Jordan in a few ways. His ascension was more gradual because he came to the NBA straight from high school and his first three championships were with a prime Shaquille O’Neal. He arguably cost the Lakers a championship in 2004 against the Pistons when he shot just 38.1% from the field but still took 29 more shots than O’Neal in the five games. But he was also the best tough-shot maker in NBA history.
There are blemishes on his resume that make him No. 2, but that’s nitpicking. He still averaged 35.4 points per game in 2005-2006, scored 81 points in one game, won two Finals MVPs in 2009 and 2010 and was the best scorer of his generation. He created the “Mamba Mentality” that players today try to emulate. His legend lives on.
3. Dwyane Wade
“Flash” came into the league as the No. 5 pick in 2003 behind James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, but had the most success right away. By the end of the 2005-2006 season, he was a Finals MVP and a two-time All-NBA selection and peaked in 2008-2009 when he averaged 30.2 points per game.
Had it not been for James and Bosh coming to Miami in the summer of 2010 and eventually helped the franchise to two more titles, Wade might be lower on his list. Had the Heat won the 2011 Finals, Wade would likely have been Finals MVP, and maybe he’d be higher on some people’s all-time lists.
Wade’s career is truly unique. He had immediate team success, peaked individually on a bad team, played “Robin” to James’ “Batman” for most of his next championship run and then hung around the league on mediocre teams as the savvy vet who could provide 25 productive minutes off the bench.
He was never a great long-range shooter or ball-handler, but Wade possessed elite athleticism, basketball IQ and confidence that allowed him to be an overachiever. He’s a bit undersized for a two-guard at 6-foot-4, but his broad shoulders and strength got him by.
Wade’s knee troubles partly ended the Heat’s dynasty, but he ended his career a 13-time All-Star, a three-time champion, an eight-time All-NBA selection and enjoyed a fun farewell tour.
4. Jerry West
West had a spectacularly tragic NBA career. He made the All-Star team in each of his 14 seasons, made 12 All-NBA teams, five All-Defensive teams, one scoring title and one assist title.
The defining award of his career, though, is the 1970 Finals MVP. He was the first recipient of the award and is still the only player to ever win it despite being on the losing team. If there’s anything to know about West it’s that he doesn’t care about individual accolades at all. He just wants to win, and he unfortunately seldom did so.
Before finally capturing a title in 1972, West’s Lakers always came up short. He and running mate Elgin Baylor were as dynamic an offensive duo as there has ever been in basketball, but Bill Russell’s Celtics always had their number.
West lost seven NBA Finals series before winning one and he lost eight total. Six of them were at the hands of the Celtics. West took losses extremely hard and almost couldn’t handle coming up short time and time again, but to basketball fans, he was viewed as a spectacular star despite his shortcomings.
He finished his career with an average of 27 points per game and was a lethal scorer from all levels. West’s jump shot was the best in the league in his day and his athleticism was criminally underrated. He earned the nickname “Mr. Clutch” for his otherworldly playoff performances despite coming up short on the scoreboard. His basketball IQ was elite, as evidenced by his extremely successful front-office career. It’d be hard to find someone more dedicated to basketball than West, making him deserving of being the league’s logo.
5. Allen Iverson
“A.I.” was one of the most exciting players of his era. He came into the league as the No. 1 pick in 1996, won Rookie of the Year and averaged 27.7 points per game over the next 12 seasons. His signature crossover epitomized the isolation scoring style of the late 1990s and early 2000s and helped earn him an MVP award and a trip to the Finals in 2001.
Iverson led the league in scoring four times and in steals for three straight seasons, but his impact off the court was even larger. He brought Hip-Hop culture to the mainstream NBA and was truly an individual icon for the generation after him. No player was cooler. No player was tougher.
He was never on a truly great team and was criticized for his poor shooting efficiency and sometimes unfocused play, but when he was locked-in, he was one of the best offensive players ever even at just 6-feet.
Iverson didn’t take care of his body and his production quickly dipped after the 2007-2008 season, but for over a decade, he dominated a tall man’s game, making 12 All-Star and seven All-NBA teams.
Top 5 Best Small Forwards
1. LeBron James
“King” James was touted as the next great player coming out of high school in 2003 as the No. 1 pick and somehow surpassed the insane hype placed upon him. After winning Rookie of the Year he went on to make 16 consecutive All-Star teams and earned 15 All-NBA selections, as well as four MVPs and three Finals MVPs.
He’s accomplished everything a player could want at the highest level and is regarded today as the only true challenger to Jordan’s throne in the modern era. He brought the “Point Forward” role to the forefront of the league in the mid-2000s and is still improving at age 35 as he’s leading the league in assist this season with 10.6 per game.
His longevity combined with his all-around ability makes him the ultimate small forward. His only weakness historically was his long-range shot — at which he’s now proficient at — and his free throw shooting. Many have highlighted his lack of a killer instinct and clutch gene in the past, but even those tropes have subsided in recent years.
He only has three rings, but he’s battled some of the best teams of all time in his nine Finals appearances. He’s the only person to make eight straight Finals since Russell’s Celtics. He’s the definition of individual excellence.
2. Larry Bird
“Larry Legend” and his Celtics were the foil to Johnson’s Lakers during the 1980s, and that rivalry pumped new life into a dying NBA at the time. Bird was dubbed “The great white hope” of his day and truly maximized every ounce of his potential.
At 6-foot-9, Bird averaged 25 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists through the first nine seasons of his career. He won three out of five Finals appearances in that span, and his 1985-1986 Celtics are regarded as one of the top teams ever. He’s also the last player to win three straight MVPs, which he did from 1984-1986.
Despite lacking in athleticism, Bird was as tough and as smart as they come. His shooting skills were unmatched during his era and his passing was an artful display of selflessness and anticipation. He talked trash all day long and was money when the game was on the line. What more could you ask for in a superstar?
Back and foot issues hindered Bird in the last few years of his career, but in his prime, there were few players ever better.
3. Kevin Durant
“KD” is a true freak of nature. He’s nearly 7-feet tall and has freakishly-long arms, yet somehow possesses the shooting touch and handle of a guard. What he lacks in strength he makes up for with all-around fundamentals and an unmatched feel for the game. Put that all together and you have arguably the best scorer in NBA history.
Durant was a bucket from day one in the league as the No. 2 pick in 2007 and has averaged 27 points for his career thus far. He’s led the NBA in scoring four times, won the MVP in 2014, made 10 All-Star and nine All-NBA teams and has two Finals MVPs.
What puts him below Bird and James is how those championships came to be. He lost to James in the 2012 Finals with a young team and later blew and 3-1 series lead to Curry in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. After joining the team that beat him that next season, he instantly became the most hated man in basketball.
Durant was absolutely the best player on the Warriors in both his Finals wins, arguably out-dueling James in their small forward matchup. He averaged just under 29 points per game on 51.4% shooting in those playoff runs and hit some clutch jumpers, but because his team was so talented, many discredit his accomplishments on the Warriors.
Whatever your opinion of him is, Durant is without a doubt one of the best players of all time. It remains to be seen how the Brooklyn Nets chapter of his career will be since he’s still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon he suffered int he 2019 Finals, but he’s already done enough to etch himself in the Hall of Fame.
4. Julius Erving
“Dr. J” might be the flashiest and most exciting player of all time, but there’s also plenty of substance behind his endless posterizing dunks and acrobatic layups.
Erving played the first five seasons of his professional basketball in the ABA, during which he led the league in scoring three times, won two championships and was a major reason the two leagues merged. He then landed in Philadelphia for the final 11 seasons of his career and won one of four Finals appearances.
Not being a good perimeter shooter, Erving often used his length and vertical jump to score his many points. He was also gifted with famously large hands that allowed him to palm the ball and adjust his shot mid-flight.
He was hammered for his numerous Finals losses before Moses Malone helped put him over the top in 1983, but Erving never flinched. He was as cool a player as there’s ever been and inspired the likes of Jordan and others to dunk like him. His popularity and success helped keep the league afloat during its most troublesome time in the late 1970s, paving the way for the many great stars to follow.
5. Elgin Baylor
Baylor is one of the most underappreciated players of all time. He changed basketball forever when he came into the league as the No. 1 pick in 1958 as no one before him played with the same athletic flair as a forward. He was the original high-flyer.
The first 11 years of his career were spectacular. He made 11 straight All-Star teams, 10 All-NBA teams and averaged 27.6 points and 13.6 rebounds, peaking at 38.3 points per contest in 1961-1962.
Like West, Baylor could never get past the Celtics, but what made his career a true tragedy is how it ended. Injuries began to take their tole after 1970 and he only played 11 games in his final two seasons before retiring in 1972. The next year, West and the Lakers finally won their first championship. Truly heartbreaking.
But Baylor’s legacy lives on in the athletic forwards that came after him like Erving. He showcased a skillset not present in basketball before him and dominated the game as a result. If only he could have lasted another year.
Top 5 Best Power Forwards
1. Tim Duncan
Duncan is called “The Big Fundamental” for good reason; he’s the most sound and consistent player to ever play basketball. He was an immediate star upon entering the league as the No.1 pick in 1997 until his second to last season in 2015, wracking up back-to-back MVPs, five titles, three Finals MVPs, 15 All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive (most ever) selections and the Rookie of the Year award.
He owned both ends of the floor and was never rattled. Duncan won titles in three different eras of basketball and led by example. His signature bank-shot embodied his grounded and gritty style of play and he was as unselfish of a superstar as the game has ever witnessed.
Duncan wasn’t a great shooter or athlete but played basketball the right way. He had the tutelage of one of the greatest coaches ever in Greg Popovich and was mentored by David Robinson, but that doesn’t take away from his accomplishments. He won 69.4% of his games — the third-highest mark ever behind teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — and his teams never missed the playoffs.
Because of his sheltered personality, Ducan never quite gained fandom or recognition he probably deserved, but there’s no denying he’s one of the greatest to ever do it and did so for longer than most.
2. Karl Malone
“The Mailman” is the greatest offensive power forward of all time. He ranks second on the all-time career scoring list and averaged 25 points and 10.1 rebounds for his career. He’s also the career leader in free throws made and attempted due to his superior physicality and being the focal point of his team’s offense for 18 seasons on the Jazz.
Malone and Stockton had a mutually beneficial relationship on the court that certainly elevated both of their career statistics and legacies, but that’s not a knock on either of them. They were both remarkably durable — Malone missed just 10 games during his Utah career — and reliable but unfortunately never won a ring.
Despite his considerable strength, Malone’s touch on his midrange and fadeaway jump shots allowed him to flourish even when his athleticism began to fade. In his early years, he was perhaps the greatest power ever at running the floor, and his defense began to come together as the years went on.
His last-ditch effort to win a championship with the Lakers in the 2003-2004 season was hindered by an injury that effectively ended his career, but Malone truly embodied the role of a power forward.
3. Charles Barkley
“Sir Charles” is known more to NBA fans today for his brash personality and work as an analyst, but in his day, Barkley was a beast.
Like Malone, Barkley was a victim of the Johnson, Bird and Jordan eras of basketball and never won a ring, but he gave the Bulls some trouble during his MVP season in 1993 when the Suns made the Finals. Barkley had dominated the NBA on the 76ers before that season but never had much help around him.
During his 11 straight All-Star and All-NBA seasons, Barkley averaged around 24 points, 12 rebounds and four assists on 54.5% shooting. His defense and playing weight were suspect at times but he was a true force of nature on the glass, in the post and even handling the ball on the fastbreak.
Barkley joined Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1996 to make one last push at a title, but Stockton’s buzzer-beater in game six of the Western Conference Finals put an end to his last good chance.
Although some of his comments were controversial and his attitude was sometimes rigid, Barkley put his stamp on the game like few have before or since.
4. Kevin Garnett
“The Big Ticket” restarted the trend of high school players coming straight to the pros after his immediate success when he was picked fifth in the 1995 draft. By his second season, Garnett was a star in Minnesota and displayed a more versatile skill set than many of his peers playing the same position.
Garnett has the most well-rounded prime statistics of any power forward. From 1999-2007, he averaged 22.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.6 blocks. He was an offensive machine while also wreaking havoc on defense with his endless energy and competitive fervor, helping him win MVP in 2004, but didn’t have much help around him to take down the dynasties of the Lakers and Spurs in the Western Conference.
His production dipped when he joined the Celtics to form the big three, but his impact on the team was much needed. He won his lone title and Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 and slowly declined until his retirement thereafter, becoming more of a shooting threat in the process.
Garnett finished his career as a 15-time All-Star and 12-time All-Defensive member, as well as nine All-NBA selections. He’s somewhat surprisingly reinvented himself as a media personality, but you can still feed his fiery passion for the game when he speaks.
5. Dirk Nowitzki
Nowitzki is a product of hard work to go along with his 7-foot frame. The German-born sharpshooter struggled mightily in his rookie campaign and thought about giving up basketball entirely, but teammate Steve Nash took Nowitzki under his wing and gave him confidence that he could play at the highest level. Nowitzki came back the next season a reinvented player and his career never looked back.
When Nowitzki came into the NBA as the unknown No. 9 pick in 1998, foreign players still held the stereotype of being soft and unable to lead a team to a title. But Nowitzki changed that narrative by the end of his 21 seasons in Dallas.
He was never a great rebounder or defender, but 3-point shooting prowess as a big man paved the way for the good shooting centers and power forwards of today. Nowitzki finished his career a 38% shooter from behind the arc with an average of over 20 points per game.
His signature one-legged fadeaway jumper and pick-and-pop lethality allowed him to be extremely productive for so long despite not having some of the physical tools of his peers. His Mavericks were always competitive in the 2000s, and despite losing the Finals in 2006 and dampening his 2007 MVP season with a first-round loss to an eighth-seed Warriors team, he overcame the championship hurdle in 2011 against the big-three Miami Heat and won Finals MVP.
Nowitzki expanded what a big man could be in professional basketball and inspired many foreign players to realize their dreams of playing in the league.
Top 5 Best Centers
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Abdul-Jabbar exemplified greatness during his 20-year NBA career. Like James of his era, Abdul-Jabbar was built up to be the next big thing out of high school. He’d live up to the hype at UCLA and even more so in the NBA, where he became the league’s all-time leading scorer.
The 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar was by far the premier player of the 1970s, winning six MVPs and a Finals MVP with averages of 28.3 points, 14.4 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in that span. It wasn’t until Johnson came along, however, that the championships came rolling in.
He won five more tiles with Johnson and the Lakers in the 1980s while slowly relinquishing the offensive duties to Johnson and James Worthy as he aged. Abdul-Jabbar’s signature skyhook allowed him to always be an offensive threat even when his athleticism deteriorated, and his calm leadership and unwavering knowledge of the game built Los Angeles into a dynasty.
His 19 All-Star appearances are the most ever, as are his 15 All-NBA selections. He has too many accolades to list, and when taking into account his peak and longevity, he has a strong case as not only the best center ever but also the greatest of all time.
2. Shaquille O’Neal
“Shaq” was by far the most physically dominant player of his era, and was so from the moment he came in as the No. 1 pick in 1992. His Magic team in 1995 was the only team of that decade to defeat Jordan’s Bulls and there was no better center in the league by the time he got to the Lakers in 1997.
From age 20 to 30, O’Neal averaged 27.6 points and 12.1 rebounds on 57.7% shooting. In an era where the pace was slow and the spacing was poor, O’Neal routinely bullied his way to the rim and earned three straight Finals MVPs as a result, with his only MVP coming in 2000.
O’Neal’s second and third acts of his career were less noteworthy. He won his fourth and final title in 2006 on the back of Wade but never really helped his teams win thereafter. He was notoriously bad at staying in shape in the offseason, which likely caused his production to decline less gracefully than most.
Some argue how O’Neal would fare in today’s pace and space game, but it honestly doesn’t matter when he played. No one could match up with him. No one even came close.
3. Wilt Chamberlain
“The Big Dipper” is the subject of much debate. Some say he’s the true greatest player of all time while others say he only dominated because the competition was poor during his era. In truth, it’s not that simple.
Chamberlain was the best player of the 1960s by any measure. He led the NBA in scoring during his first six seasons in the league — including his famous 50.4 points per game in 1961-1962, the same season he scored 100 points in a single game and played all but seven minutes of the entire season — while being near the top in shooting percentage. He averaged 22.9 rebounds per game in his career and has the single-game rebounding record of 55, which came against his rival, Russell. When people called him a selfish player, he started passing more and led the league in total assists in 1967-1968. He’s also the all-time rebounding leader and retired the all-time leading scorer.
For as great as he was as an individual player, what brings Chamberlain down in the all-time rankings is his lack of rings. He has only two, and just one during the Celtics’ run. He certainly didn’t have the talent around him that Russell did for most of those years, but he was so larger than life, people still held it against him.
Chamberlain was a stat-crazed player initially who transitioned into a great team player by the time of his retirement. He was a track and field star before playing in the NBA and is unequivocally one of the best athletes to have ever played the game, but he’ll always be associated more with gaudy numbers than winning.
4. Bill Russell
Russell was the antithesis of Chamberlain. He was a team-first player who did all the dirty work and didn’t care about stats. His teams won 11 championships in his 13 seasons as a result, including eight straight.
His habit of winning is what typically thrusts Russell into all-time lists and debates. It’s hard to argue against the winningest player in the game’s history. But he did have the advantage of several Hall of Fame teammates and a pioneering coach in Red Auerbach.
Still, Russell was maybe the best defender ever by many people’s accounts who saw him play. They didn’t track blocks or steals during his era, but many say he’d get 10-plus blocks in a single game often. His instincts were ahead of his time and he invented the strategy of blocking a shot to start a fastbreak.
He was an effective scorer in his day but didn’t focus on it too often since he had more offensively talented teammates. He focused on cleaning the glass, for which he led the league five times.
Russell finished his career a five-time MVP and 11-time All-NBA selection. Had there been a Finals MVP in his day he’d probably have a few of those too. He seems fine with the award being named after him, though.
5. Hakeem Olajuwon
“The Dream” was the No. 1 pick in the 1984 draft, two spots ahead of Jordan, and was an immediate superstar. Alongside Ralph Sampson early in his career, the pair gave Bird’s 1986 Celtics a run for their money in the Finals in just Olajuwon’s sophomore season.
Once Sampson succumbed to knee issues, Olajuwon struggled to mesh with his Rockets teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s. His skills on both ends were of the best in the league, but it wasn’t until after Jordan’s first retirement that Olajuwon cemented his legacy.
In the two years Jordan missed the Finals in the 1990s, it was Olajuwon who took the mantle as the best player in the game. He won his lone MVP in 1994 and tormented David Robinson in their playoff matchup when the Spurs center won it the following season, famously implementing the “Dream Shake.”
Olajuwon was elite until the late 1990s when his abilities left him, but from 1984-1997, he averaged 24.2 points, 12 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 3.4 blocks, displaying some of the best post play ever in the process. He’s a 12-time All-Star and All-NBA selection and has two Defensive Player of the Year awards. Olajuwon ended his career in the top 10 all-time in blocks (first), scoring, rebounding and steals, and is the only player in NBA history to retire in the top 10 for all four categories.