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1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
What? Did you know that the all-time top scorer in National Basketball Association (NBA) history is just the 10th most outstanding player in NBA history? Indeed. Even though Kareem scored a record 38,387 points throughout his playing days, I can’t get beyond the reality that he spent a significant portion of his career getting passes from Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, two of the best point guards in the history of the game. Additionally, his career totals were exaggerated because he played in the NBA for about 10,000 years. (Or ten, or twenty, or whatever.) Despite this, he was a terrifying force who dominated the sport for two decades and mastered the skyhook, considered one of the most beautiful shots the game has ever seen. In addition, he was funny in Airplane! and battled Bruce Lee in Game of Death. Thus he has the most significant cool quotient of anybody on this list by a considerable margin.
2. Tim Duncan
I have a confession to make: despite being a lifetime supporter of the Seattle sports teams, I had a brief obsession with the San Antonio Spurs teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even though this team played at a tempo that put most viewers to sleep by the third quarter, there was a moment of pure beauty buried within the tire-fire of a 78–71 final score: Tim Duncan’s bank shot on several occasions. Shaquille O’Neal, no more minor an expert on nicknames than Duncan, dubbed him “The Big Fundamental” during his peak, and he was considered one of the most fundamental players of all time. While his infamously bland playing style and reserved manner prevented him from having the same kind of cultural influence as the other greats, his four championships, 14 All-Star appearances, and two NBA MVP awards serve as undeniable proof of his incredible skill on the court.
3. Shaquille O’Neal
As a lifetime supporter of all Seattle-area sports teams, I must admit to having a brief but intense obsession with the San Antonio Spurs teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Yes, they played the type of slow-paced basketball that put most viewers to sleep by the third quarter, but there was a moment of pure beauty buried amid the tire-fire of a 78–71 final score: Tim Duncan’s bank shot on several occasions. Shaquille O’Neal, no more minor an expert on nicknames than Duncan, dubbed him “The Big Fundamental” during his heyday. He was considered one of the most fundamental players in NBA history. While his infamously bland playing style and reserved manner prevented him from having the same kind of cultural influence as the other greats, his four titles, 14 All-Star appearances, and two NBA MVP awards serve as undeniable proof of his incredible talent.
4. Larry Bird
Don’t be misled by his modest small-college upbringing or his “Hick from French Lick” moniker; Larry Bird was one of the most intense competitors and best smack-talkers in the history of the National Basketball Association. Bird’s shot release was possibly the fastest of any player in the history of the game, and he’d often signal to his opponent that the shot was going in as soon as it left his hands. During his 13-year career, which was cut short by injuries, he earned three championship rings and made 12 All-Star appearances. As a result of his rivalry with Magic Johnson (who, spoiler warning, you’ll see a little later on on this list), basketball reached an unparalleled level of national popularity in the 1980s that has not been surpassed since.
5. Bill Russell
Russell was the most successful player in the history of the NBA, and he was the ultimate winner. He was a member of the Boston Celtics for 13 seasons, during which he won a league championship in all but two of those seasons. Russell’s remarkable exploits are not diminished because the NBA comprised just 8 to 14 teams during this period, making winning championships a statistically more straightforward task for a single organization. The Celtics had existed for ten seasons before Russell’s arrival but had never once advanced to the NBA championship series during that period. On the other hand, Russell drastically altered the organization’s path and established the Celtics as the most successful team in the NBA during his first season. However, he did not achieve his position on this list due to some airy, ethereal “winningness.” Russell was one of the greatest defensive players of all time, and he revolutionized the importance of shot-blocking in the process. He also had an unbelievable 22.5 rebounds per game average throughout his career.
6. Oscar Robertson
Oh my goodness, this dude. I’m much too young to have ever seen him in action, but his numbers are so impressive that I wish I had a time machine to use only to travel back in time and see him in action. On average, “The Big O” had a triple-double during the 1961–62 season, tallying 31.8% of the team’s points, 12.5% of the rebounding, and 11.4 assists a game. Aside from that, the 12-time All-Star was instrumental in bringing real free agency to the NBA via a historic antitrust lawsuit. This achievement is on par with his awe-inspiring performances on the basketball court.
7. Wilt Chamberlain
Given that he was playing when the vast majority of players were substantially more minor, and basketball didn’t attract the sorts of athletic wonders that it does now, Chamberlain deserves to be included in the top five regardless of the circumstances he played. Chamberlain holds the record for the best single-season scoring average in the history of the NBA, which he achieved in each of his first four professional seasons. The most remarkable of his scoring accomplishments was on March 2, 1962, when he scored an incredible 100 points in a single game, setting an NBA record that is unlikely to be matched. Not only was Chamberlain the only player in NBA history to average more minutes per game than any other player in the league’s history, but he was also the only one to average more rebounds per game than Bill Russell (22.9), all while averaging more points per game than any other player in the league’s history (45.8). In 1970, Chamberlain was not named to the All-Star team for the first time in his 14-year career, a season in which he was restricted to only 12 regular-season games due to an injury. However, he still managed to lead his club to the NBA Finals upon returning from injury.
8. Magic Johnson
Johnson’s charisma, which made him one of the most effervescent personalities to ever play in the NBA, was a significant influence in the tremendous surge in popularity of the league that occurred throughout the 1980s. But he was so much more than a glistening grin on his face. In his 13 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson’s otherworldly passing set the foundation for the “Showtime” Lakers teams that won five championships during his tenure with the organization. Johnson, who stands at 6’9″ and is the NBA’s tallest point guard, not only had the most significant assists-per-game number in league history (11.2), but he also had a fantastic all-around game. As a 20-year-old rookie, he made history by filling in for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the title-clinching game six of the 1980 NBA finals, which sealed the championship for the Lakers. It’s also worth mentioning that, while it has nothing to do with his ranking on this list, it’s still incredible and noteworthy that he has successfully fought HIV for more than two decades, contributed to the de-stigmatization of AIDS through his high-profile advocacy, and launched a second career as an entrepreneur who opens businesses primarily in impoverished areas to spur urban revitalization. So, sure, Magic Johnson is a cool dude.
9. Michael Jordan
I’m fully aware that I face the danger of being dragged off the streets of my beloved Chicago on a rail for daring to claim that His Airness isn’t the most outstanding player in history, but, well, I don’t believe he is. Who is the most well-known player in history? Absolutely. Who is the most significant player in history? It’s entirely possible. The most excessively competitive to the point of never having normal human relationships with anyone? Oh my goodness, absolutely. Because of his relentless pursuit of excellence, he has won six championships, five MVP honors, been in All-Star games in every season he has played, and is widely regarded as one of football’s most outstanding defensive players of all time. He also has the most remarkable career scoring average in the NBA, averaging 30.1 points per game. In his most productive years, he could do so because he could play with another top-25 player in Scottie Pippen and was coached by the strategic genius Phil Jackson. He was excellent, but he got a lot of assistance, at least more than the previous man on this list. Moreover, it’s amusing to poke fun at all the Chicagoans who are, for the most part, very self-conscious about their sports achievements. Did you know that the 2013 Seattle Seahawks had the top defense in the history of the National Football League?
According to the NBA, the guy many fans (incorrectly) regard as the most overrated choke artist in the game is the most outstanding player who has ever stepped foot on a basketball floor. LeBron James performs things that shouldn’t be physically feasible for a human being to achieve. His frame dwarfs most NFL players, but he moves with the elegance and skill of the game’s best agile guards. Furthermore, he had to deal with the immense strain of being dubbed “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated as a youngster, but he has outperformed the enormous expectations placed upon him. As good as previous athletes were, they were never subjected to the 24/7 pressures of 21st-century media, which James has handled admirably. James has averaged 27.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 steals per game since the publishing of this list, and he has done so against teams stacked with great athletes rather than groups that had players that smoked cigarettes at halftime, unlike the Big O. When many criticized him for failing to win titles early in his career, they could not see that he almost single-handedly carried an understaffed Cleveland Cavaliers team to the 2007 NBA Finals at the age of 22. And, of course, as a member of the Miami Heat, he’s gone on to win two championships (and counting? ). Besides constantly pulling off feats that I’ve never seen before, he has also continually improved his game to correct the relative weaknesses previously pointed out to him. Isn’t it pretty much all you could ask for from the greatest of all time?