I’ve always found it difficult to compare players from different eras. The game has evolved so much, the speed, athleticism, style, rules, and strategies have all changed so much. How many 3’s would Larry Bird have made in today’s game where offenses are designed around the 3-point shot? How many points would Michael Jordan average without Gary Payton’s handcheck slowing him down? It’s also extremely difficult to compare newer players against the “old” players because I never had the opportunity to watch many of them play live. For all of these reasons, I have tried to remove some of those challenges of comparison, by limiting this list to only the greatest 10 players in my lifetime. Being born in 1980, this gives us a clean 35 years to consider.
Note that I call this list the “greatest players” not the “best players” or the “most talented players.” To me “greatness” takes into account, not only stats, but also impact on the game, intangibles, coming through in the clutch, winning big games, and body of work. Also note, that you will not find Dr. J or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on my list. This is not because they would not be deserving, but rather because by the time I watched them play, their best years were far behind them. Here’s my Top 10.
#1: Michael Jordan
The greatest player I have ever seen. He was simply the greatest competitor, the greatest winner, the most spectacular, and the most skilled player I have ever seen. When I watched him dismantle my Utah Jazz in the Finals two straight years, I simply never felt comfortable the entire time. I knew Jordan would find a way to win, and he did. This #1 ranking was the easiest on the entire list. MJ is alone at the top and it isn’t even close.
#2: Magic Johnson
Magic was perhaps the best at making his teammates better. He was spectacular to watch, efficient in every way, filled the stat sheet, and won. He was the most important player on his team and his team was always a threat to win the championship. To win 5 titles despite constantly running into Bird’s Celtics in the Finals is an amazing feat. The greatest table setter of all-time.
#3: Larry Bird
Statistically, Bird and LBJ are eerily similar. Bird gives you 3 more rebounds per game to Lebron’s 3 more points. Assists, Steals and Blocks are close and Bird holds a huge edge in intangibles and shooting percentages. Ultimately, it is Bird’s winning and ability to close in the game’s biggest moments that give him the slight edge for the #3 spot over LBJ. Bird’s competitiveness and ability to maximize every ounce of his potential lifts him to this lofty ranking.
#4: Lebron James
The youngest player on this list, with an opportunity to move up. With 6 Finals appearances already, he has been a mainstay on the 1st Team All-NBA and in the Finals for the last decade. He controls the game like no other player in this generation and does everything well. If he can crack the code on maximizing his true potential he may challenge MJ for the top spot before he is done.
#5: Kobe Bryant
Kobe is the closest thing I have ever seen to Jordan. The body language, facial expressions, interviews, shot selection, aerial movements, everything reminds me of MJ. The main difference between the two was that MJ was able to get along with his teammates better and Kobe seemed less committed on the defensive side of the ball. Kobe’s 81 was a masterful performance. Anyone who discounts Kobe’s career because they hold it against him that he’s “not MJ,” has missed out on appreciating a very special talent.
#6: Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq was an unstoppable force. The strongest, largest athlete the NBA has ever seen. His combination of size and quickness was unprecedented. Nobody could guard him 1-on-1 in the post. Had he developed his free throw shooting and figured out a way to get along with Kobe, he would have been ever higher on this list.
#7: Hakeem Olajuwon
When you think of great teams, repeat champions, those teams are stacked with Hall of Famers. Not the Rockets. Olajuwon was by far the best player on those championship teams, with only an aging Clyde Drexler boosting that roster. Hakeem was perhaps the greatest defender to ever play the game and had the most unguardable post footwork in the world. The load he carried on his two championships pushes him ahead of the others.
Statistically, there is an argument the Mailman should be even higher, but ultimately this is as high as I could put a player without a championship. Malone was a devastating scorer, an underrated defender with amazingly quick hands and a dominant rebounder. He placed in the top 5 in the league in scoring average 13 seasons, more than any other player (Jordan 11, Wilt 9). His weight training and off-season conditioning routine changed the way players took care of their bodies.
#9: John Stockton
The most unselfish superstar ever. He could have scored more points had his team needed him to, but with the Mailman next to him he never needed to. His anticipation made him the steals and assist king. His basketball IQ was off-the-charts and he knew how to set up his teammates better than anyone. He hit clutch shots throughout his career and had MJ not gotten in his way, Stockton, like too many in his era, would have had at least two championships.
Some may say, putting Stockton and Malone ahead of Duncan is an injustice and they would have an argument. Duncan falls to 10 in my book because he has had so much help in winning his championships. Hitting big shots is a key to greatness and I remember Parker, Ginobili, and Horry hitting more of those than TD. That said, with 5 championships and 2 MVPs and 3 Finals MVPs along with his consistency and steady influence on great teams puts him on this list at #10.
Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Durant, David Robinson, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Steph Curry