With this year’s playoffs upcoming now is a good time to update our all-time player rankings. With 3 active players currently in our top 10, those players and several others in the top 100 can build on their legacy in the coming months.
We’ve listed the greatest NBA players of all time with relevant stats and accomplishments that we leaned on in making the rankings. Longevity is certainly an aspect of this and a player like Nikola Jokic is just entered his prime, so we would expect him to rise in the coming years for example. Other players in their early 30s now will likely have some decline years that will bring the overall averages down as well before this is over if they continue to play longer. We’ve listed games as a distinction for longevity/availability. Some of the mid-30s guys have most of their value banked as they move into a new phase of their careers.
PER is my personal favorite per-possession statistic, mainly because it is adjusted by year and to a player’s era, under the rules they played. It compares the players to the players of their era and how dominant they were. It’s not used exclusively though as you will find players that have higher PER’s and rank lower. It’s just a tool that I believe provides value to see in relation. I’ve also listed Box Plus Minus when available to bring in some team impact stats and defense.
I’m not a championships-only guy like some, but we’ve included that as well for reference in our Jeet Kune Do approach. Make of it what you will. Let’s be honest no one is really a championships-only guy or Bill Russell going against 7 other teams and shooting 44% from the floor would be clear #1. Even the ones that say it’s all that matters don’t have him ranked 1st. There is always more to it.
Where you got drafted to play, who you play with, who your coach is, who your GM is, luck etc, all matter a lot as to who wins championships. That is almost all out of the control of the individual players in a team game. They can only control how well they play ultimately. How much can you really penalize Charles Barkley for example for only making it to the NBA Finals when his best teammate in his prime was Kevin Johnson, and it coincides with Michael Jordan’s prime? It matters, but we care more about what the player himself could be doing.
450 Minimum Games
Let’s talk about the Top 10 NBA Players of All Time more in-depth.
Michael Jordan vs LeBron James: The Battle For Number 1
We have Michael Jordan ranked first, but if LeBron James can log another 3 to 5 years as a top-25 NBA player the longevity is going to be hard to ignore. It’s already hard to ignore in comparison of the two. Whereas Micheal Jordan experienced burnout and took breaks I do think LeBron James deserves to be rewarded for doing this for so long at such a high level. I’m sure the tragedy with Jordan’s father played a part in the first retirement, but he also retired twice while he was the best player in the world.
I had the benefit of watching Michael Jordan since 1989. I was a fan and watch every game of every final’s series the Bulls won. Even as a fan, I believe LeBron James is the best basketball player that has ever existed even if Jordan had the better nba career to this point. I think if you put him on those same Bulls teams in the 1990s under the same rules he wins more. Likewise, if you switched the situation I believe Michael Jordan would have a similar team resume that included nba finals appearances. I also believe he would have had a harder time succeeding in this era as much. The last 10 years especially have seen an explosion on the three-pointer, and that wasn’t Jordan’s game. I believe he would have been left behind a lot more. We detail some of those arguments here.
Michael Jordan remains number one for now in the rankings by a slim margin in NBA history. We will see how long LeBron James keeps going and accumulating stats and potentially other awards and accomplishments. Ten NBA finals and counting for LeBron James. Michael Jordan is the points per game champion, LeBron James the all-time scoring champion. Both were great as a defensive player in their prime as well. They collected the NBA MVP nine times and combined 5 NBA MVP awards for Jordan.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
While his numbers don’t quite hold up overall, that is at least partly because the man played until he was 42 years old. One of the few NBA players to play that long. He was still 1st team All-NBA at 38 years old, but some of the later years brought them down. That longevity though is legendary and also why he held the all-time scoring record for three decades. I was his biggest talking point over Jordan. Now LeBron has taken the scoring title and could very well play past 42 years old and at a higher level from 38 to 42. Kareem likely deserves to be in the conversation with both Jordan and LeBron today. In two or three years if LeBron is still playing at a high level as I expect he’s a clear 3rd in NBA history . He and Magic Johnson were probably the greatest all-time partnership even if he was a little past his prime.
4. Magic Johnson
A 6-9 point guard almost seems outrageous to think about today, much less in 1980. Not only was he capable of playing the position at his incredible size, but he also played it better than anyone else in history has. He did it in a way that showed you could be successful and still have fun as well. There are many ways to play the game and he was a marketable superstar. The NBA really has Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s rivalry to thank for digging the NBA out of a ditch and putting the league on the path to international stardom. The same path Jordan would eventually take brings it to. Magic has his spot in history though. Unfortunately, he was robbed of several years by the HIV virus. Magic was still a very good player when he came back 5 years later in fact. I don’t believe his sickness cost him any titles with the Bulls Dynasty emerging, but he would have still continued to have great seasons and playoff runs in our opinion. We detail how that may have looked here.
5. Wilt Chamberlain
With Chamberlin you have to adjust for the minutes per game and pace he was putting up 50 points per game and 25 rebounds per game seasons. You have to understand the number of rebounds available in those days. Still, the man was putting up numbers the game has never seen before and was a pioneer in the sport. It was a weaker NBA, but there is little doubt Chamberlain was one of the best players the league has ever seen and would have found success in many eras with his physical gifts in NBA history . He’s the only player to score 100 points in an NBA game of course as well. A record as with many of his will likely stand the test of time.
6. Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq is probably the most dominant physical player that has ever played in NBA history. The level of physicality and athleticism he brought at his size was awe-inspiring from the moment he stepped on the court. Shaq was never able to shoot but he always had very understated ball skills. He wasn’t just big, he could also handle the ball and pass well.
Shaq has an all-time legacy regardless, but he’s one player that I believe left some championships out there he could have had if he were more motivated. He came into camp often out of shape and even stated once he got hurt on Lakers time, so he was going to get surgery on work time and not the off-season. Examples like that are what helped cause the demise of his relationship with Kobe Bryant.
He’s a little like the smart guy in college you knew that liked to party, but could have graduated Summa Cum Laude. Shaq seemed to prioritize some things in their life more than grinding 24/7 for his entire career. That has worked out to his benefit as well as a star marketer and personality that has extended well past his playing career on the court. Being 6th on our list is still pretty good even if it cost him a spot or two in his NBA career and is one of the most dominant NBA players.
7. Larry Bird
Bird is credited for helping save the NBA. What is so remarkable to me about his career for the Boston Celtics is how great he at the end, even with so many back issues. The guy was every man it seemed mowing his lawn and pouring concrete in his driveway in the summer. That’s how he hurt his back, was doing home improvements like a manual laborer. I’ve actually wondered if he never hurt what the end of his career might have looked like and how long he could have played for the Boston Celtics. Bird was still averaging 20 points per game, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists at 35 years old. Even while he had to say on the floor just to keep his back in good enough shape to play. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it. I also wonder if Len Bias hadn’t passed away if the Boston Celtics and Bird might have another NBA title.
8. Tim Duncan
What is the opposite of Shaq personality-wise, probably Tim Duncan. Both came into the league at a similar time, and with similar can’t miss feeling drafts. You knew if you won the Shaq sweepstakes you were drafting a can’t miss all-time player. It felt the same way the year Duncan was entering the draft as well. Five championships later he certainly delivered. He was one Ray Allen three-pointer away from 6. Duncan had an incredible career and was still playing at a Finals MVP level at 38 years old when he won his last titles in the NBA Finals. Had Duncan gotten 6 titles it would be very interesting where people ranked him. He was very close but clearly benefited from being with the Spurs. If he had been drafted by the Timberwolves like Kevin Garnett would we be saying the same? It’s some of those variables I think you also have to consider as well when considering the best nba players.
9. Kevin Durant
Another active player that shows little signs of slowing down, and can add to his legacy. I think you have to put Durant here. You can argue about how he got to the Warriors, but he was the best player on what was likely the greatest team ever assembled in NBA history. Lead them to two of the Golden State Warriors NBA title runs. Durant was nearly always among the highest points per game players in the NBA.
10. Steph Curry
Curry changed the game and was almost the same level of dominant force Shaq was in an opposite way the way he warped the defense. He’s a player that could fit on any team. His team attitude and style of game are how Durant was able to end up as an addition to a 73 win team. Steph also showed before and after Durant that he could lead teams to a championship. If he didn’t get hurt the year Cleveland upset them or Draymond doesn’t get suspended he may have had another championship.
Had the Warriors won that championship that year Durant may have never come to Golden State. There is an alternate universe where Curry could have had 4 championships even without Durant. The Warriors were still likely title favorites without him. Curry is the only unanimous MVP in history as well. He’s also active and showing few signs of decline still putting up nearly 30 points per game he remains one of the top NBA players. He should have two NBA Finals MVP as well. He can still add to his legacy as one of the best nba players.
11. Nikola Jokic (updated)
Jokic the two time MVP has per game impact on the level of Jordan or LeBron. We’ve moved him up to 11th after his historic 2023 playoffs. He had a lot to prove in the playoffs this past season to move up. The expectations started this season with a healthy supporting cast finally and Nikola Jokic more than delivered with a historic playoff run. He now owns the #1 playoff PER in history and the other key stats are undeniable as well.
The former 42nd pick in the NBA draft, forget the best passing big man ever, he might be the best passer in NBA history period. He already has old man game and could play at a similar top 5 NBA level for the next 5 to 7 years. He has been remarkably healthy and should continue to add to his resume in a way perhaps his peer in Antetokounmpo may not be able to. The trajectory he’s on could land him in the top NBA top 5 conversations before all is said and done.
12. Karl Malone
With 14 All-Star selections, two MVP awards, and a career point total of 36,928, “The Mailman” is the most decorated ringless player in NBA history. Malone, though, got the unfortunate matchup with the Bulls both times he played in the NBA Finals. Karl Malone had incredible longevity and a great second act to his career winning MVP’s and going to the NBA Finals well into his 30s. The first player without a championship to show up on this list, but Jordan and the Bulls had a say in that as an all time great dynasty.
Perhaps the most proficient and polished post scorer to ask for the ball on the block is “The Dream.” Olajuwon had incredible footwork, which many players have subsequently sought out in the offseasons to improve, in addition to strength, athleticism, and touch. He may have been even more effective as a defender, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors twice and establishing a career-high mark for blocks. He’s one of the best at this level as a defensive player. Olajuwon made the most of Jordan’s retirement making the NBA finals and winning them and the NBA Finals MVP’s.
14. Moses Malone
In addition to having a distinguished career, Malone is the only person to have won back-to-back MVP awards with two separate teams. He achieved success with the Rockets in 1982 before being transferred to the 76ers, where he triumphed in 1983 and earned the MVP, championship, and NBA Finals MVP awards. His offensive rebounding record will likely never be broken. He needed Dr J to get over the hump, but winning three MVP’s in an era where Kareem was a top player is big time stuff for one of the greatest NBA players.
15. David Robinson
In his prime, David Robinson had one of the best bodies in NBA history, with a physique that appeared to be made of clay. He spent years torturing opponents on both ends with his size and power, doubling as a high-caliber scorer and extraordinarily effective defender, especially when it came to defending the rim. However, Robinson didn’t succeed until Duncan turned things around, which diminished his standing on this list. We see that more as being a great team player. He got a little bit of a later start after serving in the Navy but at his peak was one of the most dominant big men the game has ever seen. The NBA championships were certainly aided by the arrival of Duncan.
16. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis is still writing his NBA legacy but with 2 MVP’s and an NBA championship already he’s well on his way. On draft night in 2013, Antetokounmpo, then 18 and from Greece, was a relative unknown. Since then, he has developed into one of the most powerful players of his age. He has won several awards since joining the league, including MVP (twice), Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player, and MVP of the Finals. Unfortunately as depended as he is on athleticism this is the point he might start a steady decline as and NBA players. Regardless individually he has banked enough of a resume to place him here.
17. Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant won 5 NBA championships, NBA MVP, and had one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history. In those five titles he had two NBA Finals MVP awards. He did it more inefficiently than most on this list. Had he landed with another franchise his entire career as the only good player I’m not sure he’s as high on this list. The Lakers always had expensive payrolls and put great teams around him most years.The 81 points scored against the Raptors is one of the greatest legendary games ever in league history. The All NBA first team defensive teams he made we question.
18. Kevin Garnett
When Garnett was selected fifth overall by the Timberwolves in 1995, he became the first high school athlete to enter the professional ranks in more than 20 years, paving the way for the prep-to-pro pipeline that followed. And after joining the NBA, Garnett contributed to the modernization of the big-man game. He was one of just three players in NBA history to record at least 20,000 career points, 10,000 lifetime rebounds, and 5,000 career assists. He played like a swingman, hitting midrange shots. Garnett played with unmatched fervor and has a talent for trash talking on par with the best in the game. I often wonder how differently his and Tim Duncan careers would have been if they swapped franchises. Being drafted by the Timberwolves likely hurt his all time legacy.
19. Charles Barkley
Barkley was a rebounding monster despite having his height recorded as 6-foot-6 his whole career and later admitting he was shorter. He wasn’t given the nickname “Round Mound of Rebound” by accident, right? He became the shortest rebounding champion in NBA history during the shot clock era in 1986?87 when he averaged 14.6 rebounds per game. Barkley had the poor luck of being in the same draft class of Jordan and having his prime coincide with Jordan and the Bulls peak.
20. Julius Erving
Dr. J transformed dunking, which huge guys did around the hoop, into an art form. He started his career in the ABA which likely hurts his NBA legacy a little.
21. Dirk Nowitzki
Nowitzki winning an NBA championship as the only All Star on a Mavericks team over prime Lebron, DWade, and Bosh will go down as one of the greatest unexpected wins ever.
22. Oscar Robertson
Robertson put up incredible numbers, but when you adjust for pace and how poor the shooting was and how many rebounds were available they become more pedestrian. He was still a pioneer of the game and one of the best to ever play.
23. Dwyane Wade
Wade won a championship and finals MVP without LeBron. That needs to be remembered, as does the role in his own organization that he ceded to LeBron. The partnership paid off winning 2 more titles.
24. John Stockton
Stockton likes so many from the Jordan Bull’s dynasty era essentially blocked them from winning. I’ve been told this is a somewhat controversial rankings as he’s to high. There is certainly a case he should even be higher. The incredible longevity can not be understated. He was essentially the same quality of player at 40 as he was in his prime. He never saw much drop off other than playing a few more minutes. You can’t have the NBA all time assist and steals leader any lower in our opinion.
25. Chris Paul
Paul became the first player in NBA history to achieve 20,000 career points and 10,000 career assists while still going strong in his 17th season. Additionally, he is third all-time in steals. He has a lot of longevity on his side.