Check out our list of the best basketball players ever—as well as our preview of active NBA stars who should have a chance to crack the top 10 once their careers are over.
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Best Basketball Players in NBA History
Few professional sports leagues are as star-powered as the NBA. Sure, the NFL, NHL, and MLB have more than their fair share of megastars. But the NBA, like soccer, really commits to building around one or two players at a time. That opens the door for plenty of all-time greats since stardom is both so common and their faces so recognizable. To that end, our list of the 10 best basketball players ever is a who's who names you definitely know—some of whom are still balling out the Association today.
Don't take our final list as gospel. It is less static than most all-time rankings. A few active names could crack the board one day soon. We'll talk about them. For now, in reverse order, here are the NBA's top 10 stars of all time.
10. Stephen Curry
"Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors accepts key to San Francisco at City Hall" by Steve Rhodes is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Scant few people are going to have Stephen Curry in their top 10 greatest NBA players of all time. Heck, there will be very few who even have him as a consensus top-20 to the top-25 player. They'll be more inclined to go with Oscar Robertson, Kobe Bryant, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett, David Robinson or someone else.
That's ultimately a mistake. Curry's peak may be more truncated than most all-time greats, but his apex is unprecedented. He is the superstar who changed the way basketball is played forever. The league was already leaning heavily into three-pointers, but he's the person who popularized ultra-deep off-the-dribble treys. Younger stars today like Trae Young, Luka Doncic, and even Damian Lillard don't exist without his influence.
Lest we also forget, Curry was consistently the most valuable player during the Golden State Warriors' dynasty that featured two of the best rosters ever assembled. There's some doubt as to how he'll finish his career since the Dubs are aging and banged up, but he has three championships and two regular-season MVPs—one of which remains the Association's only unanimous selection—to his resume. He belongs here.
9. Shaquille O'Neal
"Shaquille O'Neal.jpg" by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Imagine if Shaquille O'Neal stayed in his Orlando Magic body for most of his career. He would have skyrocketed up this list.
Four championships and a crap ton of points, rebounds, assists, and blocks are nothing to scoff at, of course. Shaq was routinely the best player on those Los Angeles Lakers championship teams, not Kobe Bryant.
And yet, there is an air of unfinished business surrounding The Big Aristotle's career. He wasn't in phenomenal shape for a good chunk of his NBA tenure, and while his physical play was more than suited for the era, you can't help shake the feeling that he could have been even more dominant if he wanted to be.
8. Bill Russell"Bill Russell" by Kip-koech is licensed under CC BY 2.0
This isn't just about Bill Russell's NBA-record 11 championships. They matter in this discussion, to be sure, but he's also one of the best defensive players of all time–if not the best defensive mastermind in league history.
Those Boston Celtics teams that Russell headlined in the 1960s are still recognized as the foremost authority on defensive masterpieces today. That's simply mind-melting, and no doubt a testament to just how ridiculously good Russell was in his heyday.
7. Larry Bird"Robert Parish, Larry Bird, Mayor Raymond L. Flynn" by Boston City Archives is licensed under CC BY 2.0
If only Larry Bird never dealt with back injuries. He'd be a surefire top-three presence.
Alas, Bird wasn't blessed with great health. And yet, he still set the hardwood on fire in demonstrative fashion. Bird was a modern-day big man before there were modern-day big men. A 6'9" tower who could shoot threes? And pass? And block shots/play above-average defense? That's what we call a unicorn in today's league. Back then, when such player commodities were even rarer, Bird would have been considered more of an alien from the distant future sent back in time to steamroll inferior beings.
6. Wilt Chamberlain"Wilt Chamberlain making a shot" by Kip-koech is licensed under CC BY 2.0
It doesn't matter that the game has changed since Wilt Chamberlain played. This dude was great.
The big man towered over his opponents, and there was no stopping him as a scorer. Look no further than his 100-point game or the season in which he averaged more than 50 points a night to see that. Not one part of that sentence is a typo, by the way.
Chamberlain was also an understated passer, not to mention a pretty harrowing rebounder. The man was just a dominantly unprecedented specimen for the era, and his numbers, while situationally inflated and a sign of the times, are nevertheless jaw-dropping today.
5. Tim Duncan"Tim Duncan Walks Verizon Center's Floor" by Geoff Livingston is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Yes, Tim Duncan. At No. 5. Tim. Freaking. Duncan.
Some tend to gloss over Duncan in the greatest-of-all-time discussions. He never carried himself like a superstar, so it's easy to let his accolades fall by the wayside in this conversation. But that doesn't make it okay. Duncan belongs in the top five.
He has five NBA championships, was an underrated scorer, will go down as one of the best passing bigs in the Association's existence, and remained an all-time defensive talent until the day he called it quits. Don't sleep on Duncan in this ladder, now or ever. He even has a case to overtake the player-about-to-be-named for the No. 4 slot.
4. Magic Johnson"Magic Johnson at CSUF" by CSUF_Mihaylo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Magic Johnson is the second-best all-around player of all time, behind only LeBron James. That says a lot. LeBron, in fact, has always been more willing to compare himself to Magic than Michael Jordan. That also says a lot.
Johnson could play and defend all five positions, score in volume, rack up assists like a Chris Paul-John Stockton hybrid and still have enough energy to wreak havoc on the defensive end. Years ago, when he was in his prime, people probably thought we'd never see another Magic. Fortunately, we ended up being treated to LeBron James. But it's tough to imagine getting anyone else like Mr. Johnson after him.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar"Kareem Abdul-Jabbar UCLA booksigning" by BellaGaia is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The NBA's all-time leading scorer has to be here.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a revelation on the offensive end. His skyhook is iconic, and his post moves were almost as crafty as Hakeem Olajuwon's body of work. We will never even know how truly dominant Abdul-Jabbar was because the NBA didn't keep track of blocks through the first four seasons of his career. But he did destroy fools at the rim in ensuing years, and his rebounding totals look unreal to this day. His spot as a top-five talent is going to be safe for a long while.
2. Michael Jordan"Michael Jordan" by simplistic.designs is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Michael Jordan remains the greatest of all-time candidate. He has six championships. He could score at will. His mid-range jumpers are legendary. He was an excellent passer and an even better defender. There is nothing not to like about the way he played.
In the end, it's time to declare his reign at the top over. As absurdly dominant as he was, he just wasn't as versatile on the defensive end as a certain someone, nor was he as talented a facilitator as that same someone.
1. LeBron James"LeBron James" by alexwaltasss is marked with CC0 1.0
Controversy at the top!
Look, it's time. It's just time. LeBron James deserves to be put at the top of this list, over the typical consensus great-of-all-time Michael Jordan.
Many people will point to the rings. MJ has six. LeBron has four. That's fine. And it's fair. But LeBron has also been to the Finals 10 times. Who cares that he's 4-6 in those appearances? Getting to the championship round that often is ridiculously hard.
Beyond that, there's just the sheer longevity of his career. He's going on Year 17 and counting. And unlike Jordan, his resume doesn't include any interruptions. He hasn't retired only to come back. There's something to be said about that. And for anyone who still can't look past the rings, well, LeBron hasn't yet walked away. He might still have more championship hardware left in him. Oh, and he still has a legitimate shot at catching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA's All-Time leading scorer.
Active Players Who Could One Day Enter the Top 10
Keep your eye on these guys as they inch closer toward the end of their career...
Here's the list of every player to win league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season:
- Michael Jordan
- Hakeem Olajuwon
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
That should say it all. If it doesn't, bear in mind that it is Giannis who has seized the best-player-alive crown from LeBron James, the best player ever, more often than any other active player.
Putting Luka Doncic in this discussion might seem like a stretch when he's played just two seasons. It's not.
Doncic is face-of-the-NBA material. He's already a top-five player despite having, basically, his entire career in front of him. As it stands, he is the youngest player in league history to finish inside the top five of MVP voting. If he continues along his current course, he'll be a virtual lock to make the top-10 cut in a decade-and-a-half or so.
Kevin Durant would already be in the top 10 or be well on his way if he never suffered an Achilles rupture in 2019. That injury cost him a title and an entire year of his prime he won't get back.
Even more complicated, we don't yet know what he'll look like post-recovery. At this writing, he has yet to rejoin his new team, the Brooklyn Nets. The rest of his career must be approached with the utmost caution, too. Achilles ruptures are typically devastating. Most players are never the same.
Durant will need to buck an overwhelmingly negative trend if he's going to sneak into the top 10 by the end of his career, but he's been dominant enough in the years prior for us to at least consider the prospect.