While we’re all locked in our houses, I decided to take the opportunity to spend some time doing two things I love: Writing and arbitrarily ranking things. Why top 7? Because 1) 7 is more interesting than 5 but less open-ended than 10 and 2) Subtle tribute to the greatest, John Elway (but that’s another list for another day).
As an NBA expert* I decided to sit down and write out the definitive** ranking of the seven best players in the league’s history. If you think I’m wrong, the rules of the internet dictate we have to walk away thinking of each other as terrible people who don’t know anything about basketball.***
*guy who watches a decent amount of NBA
***rules are rules, man
So, without further ado…
7. Wilt Chamberlain
It’s tough to accurately rank any of the legends before 1970 (or even 1980 for that matter), so let’s pretend I’ve seen a ton of ancient NBA games to justify this ranking. The league was smaller back in the day, the competition was clearly weaker, and the game sure seemed a lot easier for imposing figures like Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Still, the numbers are what they are and they’re pretty mindblowing, regardless of era. And, with what limited footage we do have, it’s plain to see that Wilt was a complete player who could score, pass, defend, and rebound – not to mention his spectacular athleticism.
6. Kobe Bryant
This post is already going to be ridiculously long, so I’m going to sum this one up by saying that in a time with historical greats like Shaq, Dirk, Duncan, and Nash, Kobe was consistently the best player and became the defining figure of the era.
5. Larry Bird
4. Magic Johnson
The MVPS and championships are there. The highlight reels and legendary games are there. The influence is there – their long-running rivalry is widely credited with exponentially growing the league’s popularity leading into the Jordan era, so their influence can’t be denied. They represented the ultimate clash of styles – flash vs. fundamentals, LA vs. Boston, the guy with the Hollywood smile and charisma vs. the guy who looked like your neighbor’s dad who coached the city t-ball team. Magic’s versatility and team success give him the slight advantage.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
The case is simple: NBA’s all-time leading scorer, 6x MVP, 2x Finals MVP, 5x All-NBA Defensive team, 6x champion between two franchises, one unstoppable, iconic shot. In a sense, he got to enjoy a decade of individual success followed by a decade of team success. Not a bad career path. And he did it all while dragging Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.
2. Michael Jordan
1. LeBron James
I know, it’s considered heresy to have anyone but MJ as #1. We’ll get to why I did that, but first I need to establish that this isn’t me trashing His Airness. You don’t need me to tell you that Michael Jordan was a great basketball player. 5x MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, 2x Olympic gold medalist, best player on 6 title-winning teams. Career scoring average over 30 points per game. Saved the Looney Tunes from interplanetary kidnapping. Aside from all of that, he was simply the coolest guy on the planet. The black Air Jordans, the tongue hanging out, the shoulder shrug, the #23, even the cheesy earring – all iconic to an entire generation. He might be the most famous athlete in history. There’s no denying his greatness, and that’s not what I’m here to do.
However, I do think there’s a case to be made that LeBron deserves #1. I made that case in-depth here, but for the purposes of this article I’ll limit myself to these three points.
- The arguments for Jordan are often made based on memories, not facts. Michael Jordan the myth was better than Jordan the player because no human being could ever be as good as Michael Jordan the myth. He never missed a big shot. He didn’t need any help. He played against defenses that were far better than those in any other era. For goodness’ sake – fans ranked him as the greatest NCAA player of all time when no legitimate analyst would have him in the top five of college players.
Thanks to YouTube and Basketball-Reference, the mythologizing can be fact checked and it does bring him down a notch from the flawless player everyone remembers.
- The championship rings and finals record aren’t viable arguments. A number of LeBron’s finals performances were statistically better than MJ’s last three finals performances. In his three series losses to the Warriors LeBron averaged more points, rebounds, and assists and had a better shooting percentage than Jordan did in his three finals wins from 96-98. Lebron lost all three because his team was hopelessly outgunned against a team with potentially 5 Hall of Famers. I suppose if LeBron really had the winning gene he would’ve thought to be born at a better time, or kept the 2nd best player in the world from joining the only 73-win team ever. Alas, he just didn’t want it bad enough.
- LeBron checks off all the boxes. He can score as well as anyone, he rebounds, he’s been one of the best passers in the league for much of his career, he can and does defend all five positions (typically at an elite level), and his blend of power and agility means his athleticism rivals the best athletes the league has seen. On top of all of that, he goes about his business efficiently. His routinely high shooting percentages and assist totals show he’s a master of making the right decision. And, he’s the best we’ve ever seen at coming through when it matters most. His career elimination game averages are 34-12-8. If you had to build a perfect basketball player robot, he’d look a lot like LeBron. And if Dwyane Wade’s knees fail and Kevin Durant joins a 73 win team to prevent your roboplayer from winning championships, you shrug your shoulders and move on. Doesn’t mean he’s any less of a player.
Obviously it’s a debate that can go on for days, but that’s my 7. Tell me why I’m wrong.
 stats via twitter.com/megatoughscene