Making the Cut: The 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time

No sport evokes the Greatest of All-Time (GOAT) discussion as frequently as basketball. Perhaps it’s because we’ve spent so many years watching LeBron’s biopic—one that has consistently foreshadowed a challenge to the throne—play out in slow motion. Maybe it’s because the athleticism in the NBA is so superior to any other sport in the world that we instinctively expect—and root— for every basketball savant that comes along to climb to the top of the mountain. Or, it could be something as simple as the idea that every player who steps on an NBA court has a shot at greatness. Unlike football, baseball, and hockey where the odds of becoming the GOAT are significantly impacted by what position a player plays, basketball has no such limitation. We can plop ten random players on any floor in the world and it won’t take long for the best player on the floor to stand out. There is something tangibly definitive about the apex predator in basketball, which has historically made identifying the GOAT a fairly straightforward task.

Until 2020, it had been generally accepted that the lineal trail of basketball GOAT had been George Mikan<Bill Russell<Wilt Chamberlain<Kareem Abdul-Jabbar<Michael Jordan. Jordan reached GOAT status in 1993 after three-peating both as NBA Champion and Finals MVP. His undisputed reign would last 27 years without facing a real challenge, which is an eternity in the sports world, and more than twice the reign of any other aforementioned basketball GOAT. While there is little doubt that LeBron had been the dominant force in basketball since the day he put on a Cavs jersey, his trophy case had always been a little light for a real challenge to Jordan’s rule—that is until 2020. After picking up his 4th Championship and 4th Finals MVP by conquering “the bubble,” the long-awaited Jordan vs. LeBron debate could rage in earnest. Although this matter is sure to be debated for years and decades to come, what cannot be debated is that the basketball GOAT is no longer unanimous. Whether this is merely an admirable—but fruitless—challenge to the throne, or a conclusive coronation of King James may not ever be settled, but the key is not to miss the forest for the trees. Sure, there are strong arguments to be made on both sides, but the fact that we even have uncertainty at the top at all is pretty exciting.

The GOAT discussion no doubt bleeds into the larger conversation about the greatest players of all-time. For a sport as cutthroat as basketball, breaking the consensus top-10, top-25, or even top-100 is a badge of honor that only the truly accomplished are privy. Parsing through elite resumes to reach a representative ordering of greatness is fraught with logic traps, and often feels like staring at a Rorschach test. However, with a little TLC (no scrubs on this list) and a concerted willingness to regularly admit to being wrong, a hierarchy begins to emerge. Below I’ve included a comprehensive rundown of the concepts and logic that I used to form the list of the 100 greatest basketball players of all-time.     

The 6th NBA Position, or “the point”

For 56 years, the NBA lived a copasetic existence. Starting lineups featured five unique positions: point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. Players who entered the league were quickly ushered into one of these positional boxes, wrapped neatly with a bow. Cross-training was not part of the NBA job description. Then, in 2003, one man ruined everything. In an instant, the NBA’s harmonious and homogenous paradise quickly turned into amorphous and amalgamative chaos that would fit right in on the Island of Dr. Moreau. This evolutionary leap laid the groundwork for the positional versatility that dominates today’s NBA. Yes, thanks to LeBron James, the NBA is absolute madness… and it’s fantastic!

LeBron entered the league loosely defined as a shooting guard. That designation met an early demise, as his size, athleticism, and versatility eschewed the abilities of the prototypical shooting guard. By his second season, LeBron started garnering the small forward distinction. While small forward may have been a more appropriate classification, that label quickly became outdated, too, after he led the Cavs in assists for the second consecutive season. LeBron’s ball-dominant game and assist totals resembled a point guard more than the shoehorned-fits of shooting guard and small forward, although his 6’8, 250lb frame suggested otherwise. To confuse matters even more, his size, strength, quickness, athleticism, mid-range game, and back-to-the-basket ability would have been Dr. Frankenstein’s capstone had he endeavored to create the greatest power forward of all-time. The second LeBron is assigned a position, the suitability of that assignment begins to erode, and he apparently agrees. As LeBron has evolved the NBA, more and more ball-dominant players from atypical positions have emerged, often creating confusion for fans and analysts trying to match a player with a position, and it’s easy to see why.  While also occasionally filling in at center, LeBron has been officially designated a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, and power forward, often without rhyme or reason for the change. Though James Harden doesn’t quite have LeBron’s versatility, he has also been intermittently listed as a point guard and shooting guard while essentially remaining the same player. And, of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo can be seen playing all five positions in the same game. While the original five positional designations still work for much of the league, there really should be a sixth, one that refers to a ball-dominant scorer who initiates the offense. Instead of trying to get creative with a flashy new term, it makes the most sense to slightly repurpose the meaning of a phrase already rooted in basketball vernacular: the point. In fact, we kind of already made this change without necessarily fully embracing its reach with the advent of the term “point forward.” Though, given how the NBA has evolved over the last decade, that term appears to have been too limited in its scope. As Nikola Jokic demonstrates on a nightly basis, literally any position on the court–including center–has the ability to play the point in today’s game. It only makes sense to drop the position component of the phrase and adopt “the point” as a universal term for a player who initiates the offense regardless of position. This is not to be confused with a replacement term for point-guard since there are still plenty of traditional point-guards in the NBA, and not every team is fortunate enough to even have a player who plays “the point.”

Pre-LeBron, the point guard was universally the primary ball-handler while the other four positions accounted for the brunt of the scoring. Post-LeBron, the best players in the league do both and do them efficiently. The defining traits of a player who plays “the point” are a high usage rate (>28%), assist percentage (>20%), and true shooting percentage (>58%). Pre-Lebron, that player simply did not exist. Uncoincidentally, contemporary players who play “the point” and routinely reach those rates in all three categories—LeBron, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis—also rate the highest on the all-time list. While Kareem, Shaq, Wilt, Bill Russell, and Karl Malone were clearly all-time greats, they relied on a teammate to deliver them the ball at the “right” spot on the court. As the NBA transitions to position-less basketball, players who don’t initiate offense (both as a primary scorer and facilitator) are having less and less impact on winning and, subsequently, have a lower ceiling when it comes to discussing the all-time greats.    

Competition Level

Professional basketball hasn’t always been the global phenomenon that it is today. Until the latter part of the 20th century, college basketball was far more popular, player contracts were hardly lucrative, and job security was virtually non-existent as teams routinely disbanded. As a result, the talent pool supplying the NBA in the early days looked more like Daniel LaRusso’s pool at the South Seas apartment complex in Reseda than the vast ocean that exists today. These volatile early days of the NBA gave way to George Mikan’s dominant reign. Mikan—the league’s first superstar—was a three-time scoring champion who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships. At 6’10, Mikan was also tall. In fact, of the 170 players who played in the NBA in 1949 during Mikan’s rookie season, he was the tallest. Not only was Mikan the only 6’10 player in the league, but 83% of the league was also shorter than 6’7. Ten years later, the NBA welcomed Wilt Chamberlain—the league’s first true megastar. Wilt rewrote the record books on his way to seven scoring titles and four MVP awards. Wilt was also tall. In fact, of the 99 players in the NBA in Wilt’s rookie season of 1959, he was the tallest. Not only was Wilt the only 7’1 player in the league, but 92% of the league was also shorter than 6’10. Notice a theme here? When Mikan and Wilt were the league’s best players, being the tallest player—not the most skilled—was essentially a prerequisite to being the best player. This is supported by Mikan’s underwhelming efficiency. His .404 shooting percentage suggests rudimentary footwork and low-post skill that would be untenable in any era after 1960. Even Wilt—although far more efficient than Mikan—only shot .510 as a high-volume shooter over his first seven seasons, which would be mediocre in today’s game for a player exclusively shooting within ten feet of the basket. Given both were routinely defended by players no bigger than the average small forward in today’s NBA, the role that height played in who ruled the NBA in its formative years is pretty clear. This trend would continue for close to three decades, as 25 of the first 28 NBA MVPs played center. By 1980, the Magic/Bird rivalry had made the league wildly popular. Ratings soared, as did interest in the sport, resulting in a rapidly expanding talent pool. Bird’s MVP in 1984 started a run that continues today that has seen 32 of 35 MVP winners not come from the center position. In the early days of the NBA, the talent pool was so small that being tall—a trait, not a skill—was the most accurate predictor of success. As the league became more popular and the talent pool expanded, quality of play naturally increased, making skill the most important trait for anyone looking to make a career out of professional basketball. Mikan and Wilt were, undoubtedly, the kings of their respective eras. It’s just important to acknowledge the small talent pool that contributed to those reigns.  

NBA/ABA Era (or Competition Level II)

The NBA has been the predominant professional basketball league in the world since 1946. However, from 1967-1976, it faced major competition from the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA). In its endeavor to steal eyeballs from the establishment, the ABA aimed to be everything the NBA wasn’t. It started with a sweet tri-colored ball and continued with up-tempo offenses, larger-than-life personas, and pioneering the slam-dunk competition. The ABA’s challenge was so legitimate that the NBA agreed to put an end to the threat with a merger in 1976. The ABA’s lasting legacy isn’t just one of innovation, it also had some of the baddest ballers on the planet. While the NBA was a much bigger league and, therefore, had more overall talent, the ABA’s top-end talent featured some of the best players in the world, including Julius Erving, Rick Barry, and George Gervin. Despite spending significant portions of their primes in the ABA, the trio combined for 15 1st-team All-NBA selections after the merger. The ABA’s impact on the NBA wasn’t just as a competitor, its very existence deprived the NBA of top-end talent, making it far easier for NBA stars to pile-up gaudy statistics and grab post-season hardware.

No NBA star benefited from the ABA more than the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem won six MVPs over his 21-year hall-of-fame career, four coming while the ABA was earnestly siphoning players from the NBA. Without having to compete against Erving, Barry, and Gervin for MVP honors, and Artis Gilmore—arguably the 2nd best overall and defensive center in the world—in the post, Kareem’s path to league MVP was missing critical roadblocks. When the merger finally put Gilmore in the NBA with Kareem, his presence was felt immediately. In four games against Gilmore in 1976-77, Kareem averaged 17.5 points, 10.25 rebounds, and shot 55% from the field while getting to the free-throw line just 3.25 times per game.  In 78 games against the rest of the NBA, Kareem averaged 26.6 points, 13.4 rebounds, 58% from the field, and 6.8 free throw attempts per game. Gilmore would continue to play Kareem to a statistical stalemate over 12 seasons and 50 regular season and playoff games, reinforcing the notion that the ABA’s existence benefited Kareem.

Even if we didn’t have evidence that top-end ABA talent rivaled top-end NBA talent—for which there is ample—we have pretty compelling evidence that the overall competition level in the ABA rivaled that of the NBA. From 1971-1975, the leagues played 155 inter-league exhibition games. While the NBA shrewdly did its best to avoid giving publicity to the ABA off the court, it couldn’t avoid the ABA’s talent on the court, as the upstarts posted a 79-76 record over the establishment, ending all speculation of the quality missing from the NBA. With plenty of evidence suggesting the leagues had similar talent, we can quantify the impact the ABA’s existence had on life in the NBA. The ABA rostered roughly 132 players per year during its run. The NBA and the ABA combined to employ roughly 354 professional basketball players in a given year. The NBA claimed 63% of those players, while the ABA claimed 37%. The takeaway here is that the competition in the NBA for awards and honors consisted of just 63% of the overall talent in professional basketball, suggesting the need to adjust the value of awards and honors during this time.

This is not to suggest Kareem wasn’t a great player. In fact, it’s not hard to make the case that he is the 3rd greatest basketball player of all-time. What it does suggest is a need to avoid taking raw achievements at face value when making inter-era comparisons. For a number of reasons related to degree-of-difficulty, Kareem’s six MVPs are not as impressive as LeBron’s four MVPs. His 15 1st and 2nd team All-NBA selections are not as impressive as Michael Jordan’s 11. “League composition” (or, the percentage of the overall professional-level talent playing in the league) is a pivotal consideration when putting together a comprehensive list of the greatest players of all-time. If we don’t consistently account for it in inter-era comparisons, then we’re destined to end up with a top-100 dominated by players who played prior to the NBA/ABA merger, when the league was at its smallest and weakest.

League Size (or Competition Level III)

Just like we need to emphasize league composition for inter-era comparisons, we need to pay close attention to league size. If we don’t, it doesn’t take long to reach a skewed representation of the greatest basketball players of all-time. Let’s run a partial comparison of three all-time greats from three very different eras: Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, and LeBron James. Russell won 11 NBA Championships, reached 12 NBA Finals, and won five MVPs. Magic won five NBA Championships, reached nine NBA Finals, and won three MVPs. LeBron has won four NBA Championships, reached 11 NBA Finals, and has four MVPs. At first glance, it would seem that Russell has the most impressive resume of the group, with Magic and LeBron battling it out in a close race for second. What we’re seeing is an optical illusion made possible by not taking league size into consideration.

The average number of teams in the NBA during Russell’s 13-year career was nine. The average number of teams during Magic and Lebron’s careers were 24 and 30, respectively. With fewer teams and players to compete against, Russell’s path to a championship and an MVP was statistically easier than it was for Magic and LeBron. Russell’s Celtics had to win 87 playoff games to win 11 championships, or 7.9 games per championship. Magic’s Lakers had to win 54 playoff games to win five championships, or 10.8 games per championship, and LeBron’s teams had to win 64 playoff games to win four championships, or 16 games per championship. It was more difficult for LeBron to even reach the conference finals than it was for Russell to win an NBA Championship. On average, Russell’s Celtics had to be better than just eight other teams to win a championship, while LeBron’s teams needed to beat out 29 other teams. When adjusted for league size, LeBron’s four championships are on-par with Russell’s 11, and his 10 Finals appearances are significantly more impressive than Russell’s 12.

Similarly, LeBron had to beat out an average of 359 players to win each of his four MVPs. Russell had to beat out an average of just 102 players to win each of his five MVPs. While Russell’s raw totals look more impressive in these comparisons, it’s actually LeBron with the more impressive accomplishments when adjusted for league size. If we want to avoid a top-100 list dominated by players who played when the league was at its smallest and weakest, this statistical analysis is imperative when comparing players from different eras with different league sizes. Fortunately for us, the NBA is unlikely to deviate too far from the 30-teams it has now, meaning league size should not be a factor when comparing players who debuted in the 21st century. 

Globalization (or Competition Level IV)

Prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, the only basketball players in the world who were barred from international competition were those who played in the NBA. Due, in part, to America’s waning presence on the international basketball scene despite having the best players in the world, Borislav Stankovic, the Secretary-General of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), had an epiphany of fairness. Even with USA Basketball—the governing body of basketball in the United States—voting against the inclusion of NBA players, Stankovic rallied enough votes to get the rule changed, paving the way for the Dream Team’s historic formation and subsequent dominance in Barcelona.  

Although the Dream Team quickly restored order on the international scene, perhaps its biggest legacy is that it sparked a global frenzy for the sport. Instead of continuing to draw exclusively from a national pool of talent, the NBA would be handed the keys to a global pool that would eventually produce the wizardry of such stars as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Nikola Jokic. The global infusion of talent has been a dream come true for both NBA executives and basketball connoisseurs. There were more international players on 2019-20 NBA rosters (108) than there were total players in the NBA in 1961 (93). International-born players made up an astounding 25% of the total players in the NBA in 2020, after accounting for just 1.7% in 1980. International players aren’t just making NBA rosters, they’re keeping them afloat. Measured by Player Efficiency Rating (PER), international players accounted for 26 of the top 100 players in the NBA in 2019-20. That number will undoubtedly grow as NBA franchises continue to show a willingness to invest in international talent. Over the NBA’s first 51-years, eight international basketball players were drafted in the top 10 with just two coming at #1 overall. In the following 22 years, there were 51 international players drafted in the top 10 with 9 coming at #1 overall.  

With the NBA earnestly scouting players from the entire globe, the league has never been more talented, making it more difficult than ever before to stand-out. As LeBron’s career is scrutinized and his resume is inevitably compared to Michael Jordan’s, it is important to acknowledge how much more competitive the NBA has been for LeBron and his contemporaries than it was for Jordan and his.

Scalabrine (Competition Level V)

The way we’ve been taught to identify historical greatness and handle inter-era player comparisons is to rely exclusively on “performance relative to peers” as the standard-bearer metric. In a vacuum, that would make for a sound approach. However, we don’t live in a vacuum. While it can be a useful tool in certain instances, some leagues are so compromised competitively that we simply cannot take player achievements at face value. To take this concept to the extreme, let’s walk through a thought-experiment that results in Brian Scalabrine being crowned the greatest basketball player of all-time. If in 2001, Scalabrine opted to start a two-team basketball league in the greater Boston area with local YMCA members filling out the rosters instead of embarking on his NBA career, then his basketball legacy could’ve been very different. He’d be working on a two-decade streak of consecutive regular season and finals MVPs, 1st-team all-league selections, and defensive player of the year awards. If we’re simply using “performance relative to peers” to evaluate greatness, then YMCA Scalabrine would find himself listed among the greatest basketball players of all-time. That idea is silly, of course. Scalabrine averaged 3.1 points per game over an 11-year NBA career. We know where he stands in the all-time pecking order of professional basketball players and it’s not especially high. The obvious counter to this thought-experiment is to point out that Scalabrine’s hypothetical YMCA league would not include the best players in the world and the skill level and size of the players it did include would be lacking, therefore muting the meaning of his dominance. This is true, and very relevant to how we need to evaluate the different eras in NBA history.

George Mikan (and, to slightly lesser extents, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell)—like hypothetical YMCA Scalabrine—dominated a competitively compromised league. NBA basketball in the late 40s and 50s resembled more a YMCA league than the product we see on the court today. For starters, the average height in the NBA during Mikan’s rookie season of 1948 was 6’3. At 6’10, Mikan was taller than every player in the league. The rules at the time did not account for players of Mikan’s height. The three-second lane was only six-feet wide and there was no shot-clock. This meant Mikan could take as long as he wanted to establish his position directly in front of the basket before receiving an entry pass over the heads of much shorter players. To suggest Shaq would’ve benefited from Mikan’s NBA would be a massive understatement. Mikan’s skill is often credited for forcing NBA rule changes. A more accurate statement would be to say that Mikan’s height was responsible for NBA rule changes. Height is not a skill, nor is a .404 career shooting percentage. In an era that lacked the modern focus on skill development, being tall was the greatest predictor of success. In today’s NBA, being tall is merely a prerequisite for even being in the league.

Moreover, the NBA’s ban—and subsequent quotas—on black players watered-down the quality of the league not only during Mikan’s entire career but also well into the 70s. Basketball was popular in the black community in the 40s and 50s, and it produced several talented players who were every bit as talented as the NBA’s best players. The all-black Harlem Globetrotters defeated Mikan’s NBA Champion Minneapolis Lakers teams in exhibition games two years in a row in 1948 and 1949. By exclusively playing against white players, Mikan was able to dominate a league missing a significant portion of the best talent in America. Not only did Mikan’s NBA not include black players, but the player pool was further limited by the fact that interest in the sport was regional and basketball wasn’t lucrative enough to attract heavy interest as a profession. This was all a far cry from the player pool we see today fueled by global interest and lucrative salaries.  

None of this was Mikan’s fault, of course. He played the cards he was dealt and he did it better than his peers. He was the best player in the NBA for five consecutive seasons. However, using Mikan’s performance relative to his peers is insufficient in determining his place in NBA history. He was 7 inches taller than his average competitor. The league rules had not been made to account for tall people. Black players were not allowed to play in the NBA. Low pay and regional interest contributed to a tiny pool of talent to draw from. One of the most important tasks when creating a top-100 list is to establish a way to rate players from different eras against each other. The easiest way to do this is to use “performance relative to peers.” However, there are limitations to such an approach. Without acknowledging these limitations, George Mikan would have to be considered one of the five greatest basketball players of all-time, and Brian Scalabrine would be at the YMCA of Greater Boston right now posting up a 5’4, 57-year old MIT professor with heel spurs and a pacemaker. 

Efficiency 

After we adjust for competition level, the first place we need to look to identify greatness is offensive efficiency. With enough shot attempts, anyone can average 20+ points per game. We’re interested in the players who do it with the fewest attempts. Fortunately, we have two useful tools to find these players: eFG% and True Shooting Percentage. Let’s start with eFG%. There have been 62 players (min. 400 games) in NBA history who have averaged at least 20 points per game over their careers. High-volume scorers have been plentiful throughout NBA history. Efficient high-volume scorers, on the other hand, is another story. Of the 62 players who averaged over 20 points per game, just seven have an eFG% greater than 54%. Those seven players are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Steph Curry, Charles Barkley, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Unsurprisingly, all six players have at least one MVP award, and the total MVP count between them is 17. By narrowing the parameters even further, we really start to see the cream rise to the top. Shaq and Steph Curry are the only players in NBA history to average 20 points per game with an eFG% above 56%. In the last 30 years, only one player has led the league in eFG% while also averaging at least 20 points. That player is Shaq, and he did it five times. LeBron, Kevin Durant, and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players to have a career average of at least 27 points per game and an eFG% above 54%.  

Switching to True Shooting Percentage, we see many of the same names with the notable addition of perhaps the most underrated player of all-time: Adrian Dantley. Dantley is rarely in the discussion of all-time greats. He was nowhere to be found on the list of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History released by the league in 1996, and he’s even more of an afterthought today. Despite the snubs, Dantley’s True Shooting Percentage tells a different story, revealing a brilliance that has been hiding in plain sight for four decades. Dantley is the only player in NBA history to post consecutive seasons of at least 30 points per game and a True Shooting Percentage of at least .620, and he did it four years in a row. Dantley is the only player in NBA history with a career average of at least 24 points per game and a True Shooting Percentage of at least .616. There have been three seasons in NBA history that have produced 30 points per game with a True Shooting Percentage greater than .651, Dantley has two of them (Steph Curry is the other). Dantley is clearly one of the most, if not the most, efficient high-volume scorers in NBA history, even if it takes relying on tools like eFG% and True Shooting Percentage to let us know.

Although there are several ways to identify great basketball players, identifying those who combine high-volume scoring with efficiency is at the top of the list. If a player is rated higher than expected in the top-100, it’s probably because of how efficient that player was as a high-volume scorer. If a player is rated lower than expected in the top-100, it’s probably because of how inefficient that player was as a high-volume scorer. Scoring efficiency is also one of the primary reasons that LeBron edges past Michael Jordan as the GOAT. LeBron has many advantages in a head-to-head comparison with Jordan, including size, vision, positional flexibility, three-point shooting, rebounding, and strength of the league, but the biggest advantage he has is his efficiency as a scorer. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.