Perhaps no sport creates more arguments over who is the best player to have ever lived than NBA basketball. Magic or Bird. Shaq or Hakeem. Wilt or Russell. Jordan or LeBron. Despite being a wonderful team sport, the prodigious talents of a select few tilt the scales in unimaginable ways in pro hoops; therefore, the debates will always rage on, and GOAT lists will continue to be constructed.
We’re here to add to that tally with our own take on the 25 best players to have ever played in the NBA! Before we begin, a few notes and disclaimers: a mix of statistical analysis, eye test, and personal preference was used to rank these players. In a hotly debated topic such as this one, there will always be differences of opinion because how we rank players is very subjective. I tried to give respect to past generations while also recognizing that the game has changed and evolved, both athletically and stylistically. With that being said, let’s begin!
1. Michael Jordan
Everyone wants to be like Mike, but nobody truly is. Michael Jordan combines accolades, talent, peak, and championship success into one ginormous package to create the most compelling case for the number one spot on the list. He remains the benchmark by which all other players compare themselves, and his run of six titles in eight years with the Chicago Bulls in the post-merger era will never be done again.
2. LeBron James
No player was more hyped leading into his rookie year than LeBron James, and he still surpassed all expectations en route to a remarkable and unprecedented run atop the NBA’s hierarchy. If you distill all of the media attention, hype, and hoopla from the equation, James still comes out as the best player of the 21st century and the second-best player ever. He’s the only player to win a Finals MVP with three teams.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem ranks as the best center in NBA history because he combines peak and longevity. His resume is mind-blowing, including six MVPs, six championships, and a three-decade reign as the best scorer ever. His skyhook gets all of the shine, but his 20 years of consistency made him outlast other names, like Chamberlain, Russell, and Olajuwon.
4. Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson remains the best point guard in NBA history for the time being due to his outlandish success in such a short period. In only 13 seasons, Johnson went to the NBA Finals nine times and won five rings. His charisma and positivity on the court injected a Lakers team that needed it dearly in the 1980s, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s aloofness wasn’t always the most inspiring. His court vision and ability to score when needed make him more than unique and truly special.
5. Larry Bird
He may not have looked like he could play basketball, but Larry Bird’s peak is beyond legendary. With a shooting touch before his time, a nose for the ball, and vision on par with the best point guards, Bird was a Swiss army knife of skills and talents. He would translate well to today’s game, simply shooting more threes and operating as an inside-outside threat like Nikola Jokic. Bird is only one of three players to win MVP three years in a row, the others being Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
6. Tim Duncan
The Big Fundamental is the most consistent big man of the 21st century, and we likely won’t ever see such a steady hand in his position again. Duncan almost single-handedly made the San Antonio Spurs into the prestigious organization they are now viewed as. His no-nonsense attitude toward winning helped set the tone for players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and he was a pillar of the future for Kawhi Leonard. Duncan’s two MVPs and five championships put him in a select company in league history.
7. Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant’s legacy has been romanticized after his tragic death in 2020, but taking the rose-colored glasses off results in the same awe. Bryant was a tireless worker and a God-given talent, an unreal combination of want-to and already-have-it. An unlimited offensive arsenal and aesthetically pleasing set of moves made him the favorite player of nearly every kid in the 2000s. The dialogue surrounding Bryant’s personality and personal life makes it hard for some to judge his legendary game. The five championships and countless buckets do the talking, though.
8. Steph Curry
Nobody has changed the way a sport is played more than Steph Curry. His shooting ability is unfathomable, altering the geometry of a basketball court and forcing defenses to stretch until they tear. But his leadership ability, loyalty to his teammates, calm demeanor under pressure, and flexibility under various situations make him one of one. His insatiable desire to improve and remain among the best in the world late in his career is inspiring and fun to watch. Another ring will push him closer to the top five.
9. Bill Russell
Russell is the biggest cutthroat competitor in league history, even more so than Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. The Celtics legend would vomit before games due to nerves, showing how much a win would mean to him even after collecting more rings than he has fingers. Russell proved that defense is as important as offense in winning an NBA championship. Still, a shortage of offensive skills and a shoddy field goal percentage raises some eyebrows about how he would be fair today.
10. Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt is the most demanding player to rank on this list. His box score magnum opuses, like averaging 50 points in a season or scoring 100 in a game, are skewed by the pace of the 1960s and the lack of perimeter play to spread the floor, which allowed centers an advantage on both ends. Still, his athletic prowess and skill would translate to any time in history. Anecdotal evidence suggests Chamberlain is still the most giant unicorn to have played the game. His strength, speed, power, and agility are ageless. A lack of championship hardware does prove disappointing for him compared to his rival, Bill Russell.
11. Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon is the most skilled center in NBA history. Using his soccer background to propel his footwork, the Dream combined creativity and craftiness to put the ball in the basketball in wondrous ways. Add in that he’s potentially the best defensive player of his generation, and you have a one-of-a-kind player who will never be duplicated. His 1994 season, in which he won his first championship, MVP, and Defensive Player of the Year, is one of the most impressive feats in the sport.
12. Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq is often accused of being all-size and lacking skill, but this isn’t true. O’Neal had many hook shots, post-fakes, and athleticism in his younger years, allowing him to run the floor in transition. The only thing holding him back was his work ethic, as he came into training camp overweight and out of shape, often with the Lakers and Heat. At his peak, though, Shaq was unstoppable.
13. Kevin Durant
Even after 15 years of watching him, it still is confusing how someone can have the scoring ability that Kevin Durant possesses. KD is built like a power forward who never filled out in weight, but he plays like a guard who can shoot from anywhere on the floor. Durant would be your guy if you needed one bucket to save humanity. Even if he never wins another championship post-Warriors tenure, Durant’s legacy is secured as an all-timer.
14. Jerry West
While some younger fans want Jerry West’s presence as the logo of the NBA to be substituted for another player’s likeness, this would be very disrespectful to the defining guard of the 1960s. West's grit garnered the respect of even his most hardened peers, such as Bill Russell. He had every tool in the box you would want out of a combo guard, with a quick release, a decent handle, and sturdy defensive skills.
15. Oscar Robertson
Before Russell Westbrook became the second player to average a triple-double in a season, this was the defining achievement of The Big O’s career. I hope Robertson doesn’t fade out of the memories of the NBA fans due to him being usurped in a relatively unimportant statistical threshold. Robertson was an all-around player who did much more than the box score represented, and that’s saying something. Robertson was proof that big guards would eventually take over the league.
16. Moses Malone
I don’t think there’s ever been a three-time MVP in any sport more forgotten than Moses Malone. Maybe it’s because he played for too many teams, or perhaps he gets overshadowed by his 76ers teammate, Julius Erving. Still, Malone was an absolute force on the boards and in the interior as an offensive presence. Malone is the best offensive rebounder in the sport's history, with over 2,000 more boards than his next closest competitor.
17. Julius Erving
Dr. J did most of his best work in the American Basketball Association, which was the only thing holding him back from moving higher on the list. Erving was the first player to use dunking as a tool on the open floor, a shift in the NBA that still stands today. Even after his prime had passed, he still won an NBA MVP and a championship in an 11-year career with the Philadelphia 76ers.
18. Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzki connected with the Dallas Mavericks fanbase in a way not many other stars have in sports. With an unguardable arc on his shot and an insatiable desire to lead the Mavs to the promised land, Dirk was a great example of perseverance and consistency. He was an NBA MVP and a 14-time All-Star. He led the way for big-framed scorers like Kevin Durant and even the prodigious Victor Wembanyama.
19. Elgin Baylor
Elgin Baylor was the first big, athletic guard in NBA history. Baylor proved that the game needed more airtime and introduced various ways to score that weren’t prevalent before his time in the 1960s. Add that he served in the military while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, and you have one of the most underrated talents in the league’s 76 years. Baylor averaged over 38 points and 18 rebounds a game in 1962, one of the best stat lines in a season ever.
20. Kevin Garnett
Thank goodness Kevin Garnett finally accepted a trade to the Boston Celtics in 2007 to win that allusive title that evaded him in Minnesota. Even without that accomplishment, The Big Ticket was one of the most complete power forwards in the sport's history. With a killer midrange jump shot, insane one-handed rebounding technique, and infinite defensive energy, KG was a precursor to some of the more modern players we see at his height today, like Joel Embiid.
21. Dwyane Wade
Two distinct parts of Dwyane Wade’s career contributed to his greatness: the pre-LeBron James stint with the Miami Heat in which he led the team to the 2006 title and made the team a perennial playoff contender, and when he was able to take a backseat to LeBron and win two more championships in 2012 and 2013. Wade is one of the craftiest guards in league history, finding a way to score at will without any sort of three-point shot.
22. Charles Barkley
Before he was the most entertaining and controversial NBA media personality of all time, Charles Barkley was a unicorn at the power forward position. Sir Charles had no business averaging over ten rebounds per game in 15 of his 16 NBA seasons. Still, his heady intelligence at the rim and bellicose mindset helped him overcome his undersized frame. Barkley may have never won an NBA title, but his career should never be distilled down to that qualifier. He was indeed one of the defining players of the 1980s and 1990s.
23. Karl Malone
The Mailman has had a dark personal life that has deservedly clouded his reputation in recent years, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t still one of the most effortless scorers ever at the power forward position. With the help of John Stockton, Karl Malone led the Utah Jazz to multiple NBA Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998 before succumbing to the Chicago Bulls. Malone averaged at least 23 points per game for 14 straight seasons from 1987 through 2001.
24. Nikola Jokic
The reigning NBA Finals MVP has changed the center position forever, showing fans and league executives that big guys can play with the same skills as guards. Scratch that; there is only one Joker. The Serbian has been the best passer in the league for a while now. He’s the consummate teammate and professional, and he is also able to drop 40 points at any given time if the Nuggets demand more offense from him. His success is the ultimate sign that skill will always win out over athleticism at the end of the day. Like Giannis, Jokic will rise in these lists with just a few more seasons of the same production.
25. Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Greek Freak has become more than just an athletic marvel one decade into his career. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a savvy playmaker, a versatile defensive player, and a dominant post presence, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Shaq. His singular greatness has been the primary catalyst in the Milwaukee Bucks' perennial title-contending status. However, the franchise must modernize its roster to give Giannis the best chance of winning another NBA championship.
As it stands right now, he is one of the 25 greatest players ever. Longevity will push him well into the top 20 when he retires, even if he never wins another ring.