When it comes to basketball skills, everyone has their own opinion about who should take the crown of the court. As with basketball betting, most people have their own unique way of viewing the game and who's the best to ever do it. But having analysed the stats, assessed the techniques and surveyed their impact on the game, here’s who we consider to be the top 10 basketball players of all time.
10. Tim Duncan
Nickname: "The Big Fundamental"
Team: San Antonio Spurs
While showmanship is a big part of basketball, Tim Duncan was more about efficiency and playing a consistently solid game. Unlike other players, his ‘vanilla style’ meant he wasn’t signed up for all the big commercial deals and didn’t become a cultural icon, but Duncan made a huge impact on the sport, ranking third all-time in the NBA defensive efficiency. He also went on to make the 15 all-defensive selections and was a two-time MVP.
In Game 6 of the 2013 NBA finals, many recall Ray Allen’s final second shot to tie the game, but this actually overshadowed Duncan’s unstoppable performance. He had 30 points on 63% shooting with 17 rebounds.
9. Bill Russell
Team: Boston Celtics
A blast from the past, Bill Russell is an NBA legend having only failed to win two championships in his 13 seasons. In addition, he took gold for the USA in the Melbourne 1956 Summer Olympics. Although he wasn’t the first black player in the game, he was the first to become one of the NBA’s superstars and went on to become the first black coach to win The Championship. Russell was also one of the greatest rebounders and defensive players, as well as a top shot blocker. Newspaper reports from his playing days show him blocking up to 17 shots in just one game!
In the 1962 finals facing the LA Lakers where, despite being down 3-2, Russell led the Celtics to a win with 30 points and 40 rebounds which earned him his fourth ring.
8. Hakeem Olajuwon
Nickname: ‘The Dream’
Team: Houston Rockets / Toronto Raptors
Born in Nigeria and having never played basketball before the age of 15, Olajuwon went on to dominate the NBA and being the number 1 overall pick during the Draft. Starting with the Houston Cougars college team and moving over to the Houston Rockets in 1984. He was a top rebounder with the all-time list for blocked shots in the NBA at 3 830. He’s the only player in NBA history to win the League MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP awards in one season. Impressive right?
In the 1994 NBA finals, where he faced Patrick Ewing – the best centre in the league – he managed to outscore the legend by 57 points and end the series. Olajuwon took the MVP award at the finals for his impressive display.
7. Larry Bird
Team: Boston Celtics
Position: Small forward / power forward
Called ‘Kodak’ for his photographic mind, Bird was quite the all-rounder and became the first player in NBA history to get 90% on free throws, shoot 50% on field goals and 40% on three point shots in one season – twice in a career. He would practise three-pointers with his eyes closed! Bird won three consecutive contests as well as three rings and three MVPs in his career.
A competitor at heart, Bird would never shield from a challenge. When teammate, Kevin McHale broke Bird’s franchise record for points in a game with 56, Bird simply went on to score 60 just a few days later.
6. Kobe Bryant
Nickname: ‘Black Mamba’
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Position: Shooting guard / Small forward
From high school to the NBA, Kobe instantly made himself known on the basketball circuit with his killer instinct earning him the name ‘Black Mamba’. During his two-decade playing career, Kobe won five championships – three in a row – and made 17 game-winning shots. He was renowned for his time-defying dunks, as well as his penchant for languages. In addition to English, he spoke Spanish and Italian. He learned French solely to trash talk Tony Parker! And it worked.
There are many to choose from, but one that stands out is a 2006 game against Canadian side, the Toronto Raptors where he scored 81 points – putting him just behind Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 100. Having trailed 18 points in the third quarter, Kobe shot 28 of 46 with 18 of the 20 free throws in the game, pushing the Lakers to victory.
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Nickname: ‘The Captain’
Team: Los Angeles Lakers / Milwaukee Bucks
Abdul-Jabbar’s signature skyhook shot and unblockable swing lob made him one of the NBA’s top scorers and best all-rounders. In high school, Abdul-Jabbar (then Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr) won 71 consecutive games after which he joined UCLA where he won three consecutive NCAA championships. Retiring at an impressive 42, he made it to the finals 10 times, winning six championships and six MVP awards – a record that still stands. Kareem also played with the Bucks for some time
Back in 1980, Abdul-Jabbar set himself apart by winning his sixth MVP award at the end of a cracker season. He averaged 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and one steal in the season. This was also the first of five rings he’d win with the Lakers.
4. Shaquille O’Neal
Team: Orlando Magic / Los Angeles Lakers / Miami Heat / Phoenix Suns / Cleveland Cavaliers / Boston Celtics /
At 7’1 and 315 pounds, Shaq used his incredible bulk to bruise his way to the basket finishing with an emphatic dunk that saw him lead the NBA in field-goal percentage 10 times over. Despite how large he was as a person, Shaq was also sure-footed with a deft touch that saw him become one of the most dominant players in history. Off the court, he had a huge impact on pop culture, acting, rapping and more.
His power dunks are probably the most memorable moments of Shaq’s career such as in 1993 when he was up against the Phoenix Suns and dunked so hard, that he managed to destroy the hydraulic system keeping the hoops upright. This led to the NBA reinforcing their hoops and changing some of the materials to make them ‘Shaq-proof’!
3. Earvin Johnson Jr.
Nickname: ‘Magic Johnson’
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Position: Point guard
When it comes to showmanship, Magic Johnson had it all! His incredible charm propelled the league’s popularity in the 1980s, with his team taking five championships throughout his 13-year career. At 6’9 he was the NBA’s tallest point guard, running the offence to perfection. With Magic’s passing skill and Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring skill, the duo took the ‘Showtime Lakers’ to nine finals with Magic winning five rings. It’s also notable that he helped de-stigmatise AIDS through his high-profile advocacy and is now an entrepreneur providing employment in poverty-stricken areas.
In the final game of his rookie year, Abdul-Jabbar was injured and Spencer Haywood suspended so Magic had to take on three positions – point guard, forward and centre – in the championship game. He won the finals MVP award and earned his first ring. It was Magic.
2. Michael Jordan
Nickname: Air Jordan / His Airness
Team: Chicago Bulls
Position: Shooting guard / Small forward / Point guard
Easily one of the most recognisable basketball players of all time, Jordan was a driven competitor who took six championships, five MVP awards, and all-star appearances in every full season he played. And with his 30.1 points per game, he has the NBA’s highest career-scoring average. He set the record for wins in a season in 1996 – 72 wins and a championship – a record that was only broken two decades later. Off the court, he worked with Nike to create a shoe empire that made him a billionaire, and also starred in Space Jam!
The image of Jordan performing ‘The Shot’ against the Cleveland Cavaliers happened in Game 7. Jordan kept his body straight as he shot over the extended arms over Craig Ehlo to advance the Bulls. Ehlo crumpled to the ground and Jordan jumped up fist-pumping in celebration.
1. LeBron James
Nickname: The King / King James
Team: Current: Los Angeles Lakers
Position: Shooting guard / Small forward
And so we made it to number one. King James is a big guy but he moves with the deftness of a much smaller player and is more well-rounded than anyone who has come before him. He’s currently the only player in the top 10 for points scored and assists, and is in the top 50 all-time in rebounds, as well as recording more than 34 000 points. He has dominated the league since age 18, and almost single-handedly got the Cleveland Cavaliers to the finals in 2007. Off the court, he advocates against discrimination and police brutality.
Game 5 in 2007 saw LeBron’s team facing the Detroit Pistons who had won the finals two years back. LeBron went on to take over in the fourth quarter, scoring 25 straight points in the final six minutes of the game.
We will always debate about who is the true GOAT. The stats show that LeBron is a much better overall basketball player and while Jordan scored more overall, LeBron is a more efficient player, shooting better from two and three-point range. LeBron is also a much better passer and rebounder than Jordan ever was. You can decide.