The true hallmark of a great player has rarely been just talent in the history of the NBA. Talent and natural ability are very important but the NBA has always had arguably the greatest athletes in the world throughout its history. Talent is also not that difficult to find in the world and every player that makes it to the highest level works as hard as they possibly can. It begs the question of what sets the truly great players apart from their peers.
One of the most common answers is something commonly associated with the widely-accepted NBA GOAT, Michael Jordan. MJ was known for being extremely competitive, someone with a compulsion when it came to winning, and someone who would do whatever it took to get the win. According to Rick Fox, who played for the Boston Celtics in MJ's era, that was something he had in common with the great Larry Bird. He explained further on the Icons Club podcast.
“In that era, they were hunters, they were sharks! They were looking for every little edge they could get. Just like if you just even try to get their attention, their approval or validation, you were showing a sign of weakness.”
Jordan and Bird both have several legendary stories of them talking smack to the competition and backing it up. The thought of beating their opponents thoroughly was a huge factor in what made both of these legends as good as they were.
An element of that mentality still exists in the game today, LeBron James recently spoke about how he will sometimes look for people that are hating on him in the crowd to get himself going. The same is true with opposition players and watching the best take it upon themselves to beat the player guarding them is a huge factor in what makes watching basketball so exciting.