The 5 All-Time Greatest Basketball Players


1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

What? Is it true that the all-time top scorer in NBA history is only the 10th best player ever? Indeedy. While Kareem had a career high of 38,387 points, I can’t ignore the reality that he spent much of his time receiving passes from Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, two of the best point guards of all time. His career numbers were also exaggerated by the fact that he spent nearly 10,000 hours in the NBA. (Or twenty, whatever.) Regardless, he was a terrifying force who dominated the sport for two decades and created the sky hook, one of the most beautiful shots ever seen in the game.


2. Tim Duncan

I have a confession to make: I had a fan-fling with the San Antonio Spurs teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, despite being a longtime supporter of the Seattle sports teams. Yes, they played the kind of slow-paced basketball that put most fans to sleep by the third quarter, but Tim Duncan’s bank shot was frequently a thing of pure beauty among the tire-fire of a 78–71 final score. Duncan was one of the most sound players of all time in his heyday, earning the nickname “The Big Fundamental” from none other than Shaquille O’Neal. While his bland playing style and reserved personality prevented him from having the same cultural influence as the other greats, his four victories did.


3. Shaquille O’Neal

Shaquille O’Neal is on the opposite end of the “attractive play” scale from Duncan. Where Timmy would use his great footwork to wiggle his way past an opponent in the post, Shaq would frequently use his enormous size (7’1″ and 315 pounds) to muscle his way to the basket. Once there, he’d finish with a thunderous slam, a tried-and-true method that saw O’Neal lead the NBA in field-goal percentage ten times during his career. But O’Neal wasn’t all muscle; he was also incredibly agile for such a large man, and his close-range jump shots were deftly executed. On the other hand, his free-throw shooting…


4. Larry Bird

Larry Bird was one of the fiercest competitors and greatest smack-talkers in NBA history, despite his humble small-college origins and the nickname “Hick from French Lick.” Bird had possibly the fastest release of anyone who had ever played basketball, and he’d frequently inform his opponent that the shot was going in as soon as it left his hands. In a 13-year career cut short by injuries, he won three championship rings and appeared in 12 All-Star games. Furthermore, during the 1980s, his rivalry with Magic Johnson—who, spoiler alert, you’ll see later in this list—launched basketball to an unprecedented degree of national popularity from which it has never recovered.


5. Bill Russell

Russell was the most successful player in NBA history. In all but two of his 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, he won a league championship. Yes, with only 8 to 14 teams in the NBA at the time, winning championships was statistically simpler for a single franchise, but that fact doesn’t diminish Russell’s remarkable achievements. Before Russell joined the team, the Celtics had never made it to a championship series in their 10-year history. Russell, on the other hand, radically changed the path of the franchise in his first season, establishing the Celtics as the NBA’s winningest team. He didn’t, however, earn his spot on our list through some hazy, ethereal “winningness.”