Bill RussellKareem Abdul-JabbarKobe BryantLarry BirdLebron JamesMagic JohnsonMichael JordanOscar RobertsonSteph CurryTim DuncanWilt Chamberlain

The 10 Greatest Players in NBA History

I’m sitting at the bar at El Camion, my favorite Mexican restaurant enjoying the best margarita in town when I overhear a couple of guys getting jacked up over The Debate: Michael vs. LeBron.

I know I should stick to my adult beverage – the chips, salsa and guac – but the LeBron guy is louder and spewing some nonsense about how James would kick Jordan’s ass in a street fight.

Well, yeah. James is 6-8, 255 and the former high school football star looks like he’d able to cover Travis Kelce or Dallas Goedert in the Super Bowl. Jordan went 6-6, 215 and took to baseball. Now if Jordan had a bat in his hands…

Anyway, the tequila wins and I blurt out, “That’s the stupidest argument I’ve heard.”

LeBron’s mouthpiece turns on me like I just knocked over his shot.

“Who the f%&k asked you?!”

I know I should dial it down but that’s the thing about alcohol, right? We tend to get a little too brave and think we’re a lot smarter than we are.

“Well, since I’m old enough to have actually watched Jordan play.” But then I notice Mr. Spilled Shot has balled his hand into a fist. Survival mode kicks in. “Hey, let me get a round.”

Now I’m everybody’s best friend. I agree that James is one amazing basketball player and has used his celebrity podium better than Jordan ever did and he surely has spent a good chunk of change trying to enact change, especially in Akron.

And yes, James might kick Jordan’s ass but the stone-cold assassin known as Michael Jeffrey Jordan would fight dirty so there’s that.

Then I go for the kill shot.

“It would be cool to see how good James would be if he played when hand checking was legal, like when Jordan played.”

“What’s hand checking?” asks slurring Spilled Shot.

“Players could actually handcuff themselves to their opponents on defense,” I quip. “Tough to score when you’re cuffed.”

LeBron’s Loudmouth pauses and appears to be seriously thinking this one through. Before he injuries himself, I explain that after the 2003-04 season, the NBA banned hand checking. Scoring increased from an average of 93.4 points per team in 2003-04 to 97.2 in 2004-05.

“So, guys could hold and grab and get really physical,” said Spilled Shot.

“Yep,” I say a little too smugly. Again, I should take thew win. But even without the tequila, I don’t go quietly.

“Have you ever heard of Bill Laimbeer,” I ask, certain he’s going to say it’s an IPA.

And there, my friends, is the No.1 reason why I believe Jordan is the greatest player to ever lace them up.

 He played in an era when defense was played with a blood-thirsty mentality, and it was played during regular season games – even in the first half! And yes, it was played with hand checking.

There’s more to the Jordan Rules as the greatest. His Airness also transformed the game, playing it above the rim.

There was no such thing as load management.

And James didn’t have to overcome the petty jealousy of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson who took one look at Jordan and knew the gig was up, so they froze him out in the All-Star game and took hand checking to takedowns.

We can sit here all day and compare stats and fawn over algorithms so let’s just acknowledge this. Jordan and James were great scorers and defenders. James, by virtue of his size and strength, is the better rebounder, and he too transformed the game by initiating offense from his power forward/point forward perch.

Jordan, because of his ruthless competitiveness, was the better motivator. He also was the better trash talker, which meant he got into opponent’s heads and bodies. Heck, he got in his own teammate’s heads and pushed them to man up or tap out.

That’s where we begin our list of the 10 Greatest Players in NBA History.

Jordan is No.1. James is No.2.

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – James has ventured into TV and Jordan took a turn in Space Jam (Kobe Bryant won an Oscar!!!), but Abdul-Jabbar was understatedly hilarious in “Airplane,” as Captain Roger Murdock.

Speaking of Air, the Skyhook remains the most unstoppable shot (dunks aren’t a shot) in NBA history. James, courtesy of more than 6,500 points scored on 3’s, will break Jabbar’s career scoring record of 38,387 before the All-Star Break so King James should have an asterisk next to that record.

Also consider the extra mileage Jabbar put on his 7-foot-2 frame running baseline to baseline, which is why he took up yoga – in 1976! He is a Renaissance Man and was the most innovative and unstoppable post player in history.

4. Magic Johnson – Every NBA player cashing a paycheck today should send a commission to Magic and Larry Bird. They saved the league and, in a way, each other. Just like Walt Frazier’s 1970 Game 7 line of 39 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds will live forever, so will Magic’s 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals.

Oh right. The point guard did that playing center in place of an injured Abdul-Jabbar. As a rookie. He is the only rookie to win the NBA Finals MVP award.

Behind the best smile in league history was a fierce competitor and the greatest point guard in NBA history. His 2,346 playoff assists remain a record. James is second (1,919). He will catch Abdul-Jabbar’s points record but Magic’s playoff assist mark might be safe.

5. Bill Russell – When asked to name my Greatest Starting Five of All Time, I choose Russell over Abdul-Jabbar. He was a better defender, and no big man was a better galvanizer of teams.

Blocked shots weren’t a statistic when Russell played but according to published analytical data, Russell averaged 8.1 blocks per game, second only to Wilt Chamberlain (8.8).

Here’s what sets Russell apart – 11 NBA titles. No player in major team sports won more. Oh yes, his 22.5-rebounds per game average is sick.

6. Larry Bird – If this was a list of Greatest Trash Talkers, Bird would be at the top, edging out Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant. Let’s go retro here. Bird talked the talk and walked the walk. No player in NBA history saw the play developing before it did like Bird.

People’s Exhibit A: The steal and pass in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the 76ers. People’s Exhibit B: The offensive rebound of his own shot to switch-hands putback in Game 1 of the 1981 NBA Finals. Want stats? One of only two players to win MVP in three straight seasons.

7. Tim Duncan – You didn’t want to play poker against the straight-faced Duncan – or basketball. His game was a masterpiece of efficiency, fundamentals, and success – five NBA titles, three Finals MVPs and the only player in NBA history to be named All-NBA and All-Defensive honors in his first 13 seasons.

8. Kobe Bryant – The Late Great Black Mamba. More than the five NBA titles is the nine time All-Defensive First Team accolades – the epitome of his Mamba Mentality. Bryant was the closest player we’ve seen to a second coming of Jordan, his mentor. Mr. Student of the Game – and Life.

9. Wilt Chamberlain – The only other player to be win NBA MVP in three straight seasons (four overall) and the only player to score 100 points in a game. Everything about the 7-foot-1 Stilt was big including his stats – 31,419 points, 23,924 rebounds, 4,643 assists and his claim of having bedded 10,000 women.

10. Oscar Robertson – To this day his greatness has not been fully appreciated. In an era with no three-point shot, the 6-foot-5 not-so Big O averaged a triple double in 1961-62 with 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. It would stand for more almost 50 years.

Honorable Mention:

Shaquille O’Neal – If I was as big and strong as Shaq and people were Hack-a-Shaqing me, I’m ending them. His composure was as big a reason for his success (4-time NBA Champ; 3-time Finals MVP) as his talent.

Steph Curry – When Jordan reigned supreme, schoolyards across the country were crowded with players trying to get to the rim. Curry has them stepping back and draining 3’s. A 4-time champion, 2-time MVP, Final MVP, and game changer.

Jerry West – Mr. Clutch. The Logo. The only player from a losing team to win Finals MVP (1969) when he averaged 37.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists.


Lenn Robbins
Sports Journalist
Hi, I'm Lenn Robbins, a long-time sportswriter who still holds the detention record at Bildersee Junior High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., where I was born and raised. I came out of the womb a Mets fan, was baptized a Knicks fans and through the power of TV, became a Cowboys fan, which explains why I'm in group therapy. The name of my fantasy football league team is Sexual Chocolate. Anyone who can explain the origin of said team name, please h
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