The Greatest NBA Players of All Time, 75th NBA season edition



The debate regarding the greatest NBA players of all time has changed a lot since the last time I ranked the greats. Nine years ago one of the players on this list was just beginning his ascension. At that time the debate regarding the legends of the game was also a bit less fluid. The intricate disagreements regarding specific placement on the list caused fiery disagreement. Perhaps with the hindsight of this year, as the 75th NBA season, the NBA created an anniversary team of the best 75 players. Realistically, that framework is a more appropriate mindset. Creating the elusive perfect ranking is tempting in the age of ultra-analytics. In reality, more of a tiered-echelon ranking is the appropriate methodology. It’s not a “who is 8th best?” or “who has more rings?” question. There’s “levels to this,” as the saying goes.


There is an important point to make, however: defining what it means to be one of the greatest NBA players of all time. The Answer to that question is not synonymous with the most talented basketball players of all time. It is not the most prolific champions of all time. The greatest NBA players of all time is the players who most successfully combined three characteristics: individual talent, team success, and cultural influence. Basketball, as a strong man game, has grown in large part due to its icons so considering cultural influence is a necessary consideration. This is especially relevant as Forbes anoints the NBA's foremost current superstar, LeBron James, a billionaire.


Two notable names left off the list: Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan. Duncan, as a prolific champion and someone that made my previous list, just did not have the same cultural impact as the below top 10. He was an incredible talent and a true leader, but his success never quite translated into the zeitgeist. It is no knock against his resume, just a fact that warrants consideration in ranking the GOATs. And Durant, who I believe has a strong argument as the greatest scorer of all time, took a hit this year. He joined an established Warriors’ team that had just knocked his Oklahoma City Thunder out of the playoffs that further proved in 2022 he was a piece in the puzzle, not necessarily the piece. 


10. Wilt Chamberlain


Wilt was a game changer and one of the two most dominant players in the earliest days of the NBA. He put up 43 and 28 in his first NBA game and did not stop there. But I bumped him down a number of spots since the 2012 ranking. Why? His individual talent translated to just one NBA title in a less talented league and his name and brand does not have the same significance as the nine players above him in this list.


9. Shaquille O’Neal


Shaq was as dominant as any NBA player in history. A four-time champion and former MVP, he was able to lead the early 2000 Lakers to championships then return with Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. When you think about players to start a franchise around, his talent alone is probably top five. Add on top that his voice was always one of the funniest and loudest in basketball, and his cultural influence continues to grow as an analyst on TNT’s Inside the NBA.


8. Kobe Bryant


A lot of the comparative pieces on this site have been notably critical of Kobe. But as I rethought what greatness means in a holistic sense, Kobe belongs in this conversation more than the guys I bumped him for. Prolific scorer, champion, investor and thinker with possibly the second most popular shoe brand in basketball history? The overlap of the Kobe-LeBron era was significant but when you think about the success and impact that Kobe had on the game, he objectively belongs higher than Oscar Robertson and Tim Duncan.





7. Bill Russell


As the namesake of the Finals MVP award, Russell was the original champion. As a player and player-coach, Russell dominated his era more than any other player dominated their era. But as the player from the earliest era of basketball as compared to any others on this list, he is the most difficult to rank. The NBA was a much less talented league that Russell and Wilt undoubtedly physically dominated. And as the preeminent champion of that time and a larger face of the league, you have to give him the edge to the man who scored 100 points in a game.


6. Larry Bird


The most historic franchises in NBA history are the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. And while more recent decades of the NBA have been dominated by the Lakers half of this rivalry, Russell and Bird are the reason that the Celtics held the franchise record for most NBA championships until the Lakers tied them two years ago. Bird’s trash talking, unapologetic style personified that old-school signature style. And to combine that with such shooting excellence as to establish the 50-40-90 club, the three-time champ and three-time NBA MVP will likely be tied to Magic as a fixture in the NBA’s top 10 greatest of all time.


5. Magic Johnson


Magic and the Showtime Lakers dominated the 80s and brought a brand of basketball that mastered the performative artistry that the game had never seen. When you think about all-time champions, game changers, masters of the profession, and the more dominant half of one of the NBA’s most legendary rivalries, you think Earvin Magic Johnson. And with his transition after his career to the player-analyst he has become, you can easily credit Magic as someone who opened the door for future independent-minded artists like Allen Iverson and star-to-analyst transitions that made the way for former Inside the NBA players like Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley.


4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


Kareem is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. A numbers discussion beyond such a prolific scorer and champion that thrust Los Angeles into the throne as the most successful franchise post-Russell would be difficult without placing Kareem higher on this list. Many former players and many pundits argue he should be no. 1. As an outspoken advocate for justice in America, Kareem was literally at the table with Muhammad Ali, possibly the most influential athlete of all time. So when you combine his individual talent, team impact, and cultural influence, I only count three players above him.


3. Stephen Curry


Steph Curry’s resume has similar rings to Jordan and LeBron. Four championships, the winningest NBA season of all time, the only unanimous NBA MVP season, a 2022 Finals Game 4 now compared to The Flu Game, revival of a previously completely irrelevant Under Armor company in the basketball shoe game, and a play style that destroyed previous three-point records like they were amateur records. Curry changed the game and style of players that entered the game even before his career ended. Curry is already cemented as the third greatest of all time. And if perhaps his largest aspiration, below, becomes a reality…

2. LeBron James


After winning with his third franchise in 2020 with the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron became fairly unanimously the second-greatest player of all time. His combination of individual talent, team impact, and cultural influence is only surpassed by one.


1. Michael Jordan


Jordan owns six championships, endless signature shots and moments, the most famous shoe brand, and a legendary game that even one of the greats on this list emulated. Even when I wrote a head-to-head comparison 10 years ago on LeBron vs. Jordan, the conclusion was simple.

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