Cohen: Ranking Top 20 Players in NBA History
June 24, 2013
Josh Cohen’s Analysis: Now that LeBron James has claimed his second straight NBA title many fans are sorting out where he currently ranks amongst the best in NBA history. Though I believe it is impossible to fairly rank players from different generations, I decided to do so based on a variety of categories, including skills, titles, dominance, relativity, individual accolades, competition and team support. CLICK NEXT for top 20 rankings
#1 Magic Johnson
Cohen’s Analysis:Disregard his temporary return in 1995-96, Magic Johnson, from start to finish, had the most extravagant career in NBA history. He won a title as a rookie playing practically every position, including center in the Game 6 finale against Philadelphia, and reached The Finals in his last season before the HIV announcement. Magic’s charisma, court vision, adaptability and all-around statistical mastery (career averages of 19.5 points, 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds) warrant a No. 1 ranking.
#2 Shaquille O’Neal
Cohen’s Analysis:Shaq never gets the credit he deserves. In fact, most probably don’t have O’Neal amongst the top 10 NBA players of all time. But let’s really assess him properly; Shaq is the most menacing, imposing and monstrous specimen in league history. It was impossible to defend him for a span of eight years or so. He averaged better than 29 points per game in three seasons, captured four NBA titles and led three different teams to the NBA Finals. It’s simply unreasonable to rank legendary centers such as Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell ahead of him considering the competition during their respective eras didn’t have the size to appropriately match up. Shaq would have potentially averaged better than 50 points and 20 rebounds a game if he played in the 60’s.
#3 Michael Jordan
Cohen’s Analysis:MJ is unanimously No. 1 on most people’s all-time best list. However, it’s skewed. Jordan was the league’s superhero when NBA television exposure was blowing up in the 90s. Aside from when he briefly retired to play baseball, Michael was the primary household name in professional sports at that time. He was marketed like no player before him and, as a result, became the face of an entire sport. If Jordan played in the 70s, for instance, and won six titles then, he wouldn’t have gotten the same recognition. Regardless, MJ’s accomplishments were extraordinary.
#4 Kobe Bryant
Cohen’s Analysis:You can certainly argue that if Kobe played the heart of his career during the 90s instead of MJ, he would be widely categorized as the best player in NBA history. For a while, Bryant was overshadowed as an all-time great because he played alongside Shaq. But once he captured those two additional titles in 09 and 10, it was unmistakable that Bryant deserved far more respect. Aside from the extra championship, Jordan’s offensive output was a tad more sensational than Kobe’s.
#5 LeBron James
Cohen’s Analysis:LeBron is rapidly moving up the charts. No athlete has ever been at the center of such constant scrutiny and pressure. Yet, in these last two years, he has finally managed to overcome it all. James is a physical beast, an electrifying athlete and has instinctive court vision that only Magic Johnson can rival. Considering he is still in the prime of his career, it is possible for James to continue to move up in the rankings.
#6 Hakeem Olajuwon
Cohen’s Analysis:Another center who doesn’t get enough acclaim. No other big man in league history had better footwork and more creativity near the basket than Hakeem, who won back-to-back titles in the 90’s and made three NBA Finals appearances. In addition to his unrivaled offensive repertoire, Olajuwon was a first-rate shot blocker (career average of 3.1 blocks per game). It’s no accident that many of today’s stars visit The Dream for instruction.
#7 Larry Bird
Cohen’s Analysis:What makes Bird so extraordinary is that he was still amongst the best players in the league when he could barely stand as a result of a back injury at the end of his career. Most people associate him with being an unparalleled shooter, but Larry was a renaissance man on the court. He is, arguably, the best rebounding small forward ever (career average of 10 rbs) and was a first-class playmaker because of his outstanding passing and court vision.
#8 Oscar Robertson
Cohen’s Analysis:I wasn’t born yet and can only cite research and archived material, but I have always been led to believe that Oscar is the greatest player of his generation. He may not have won all the titles like Bill Russell and may not have been as dominant as Wilt Chamberlain, but in terms of talent and skill, Robertson was the cream of the crop. He remains the only player to average a triple-double for an entire season (1961-62).
#9 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Cohen’s Analysis:Sometimes longevity and consistency is the most important attribute for an athlete. Kareem was all that and more. He played 20 years in the NBA, won six titles, is the league’s all-time scoring leader (38,387) and fashioned the skyhook like nobody else. The only thing that diminishes Kareem was the fact that he never definitively was the best player on any of his championship teams (Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson).
#10 Tim Duncan
Cohen’s Analysis:Duncan may be the most cerebral player in NBA history. It’s no accident that he is nicknamed the Big Fundamental. While he is still an effective player, Duncan in his prime was a load to deal with on both ends of the court. Playing in a small market like San Antonio never helped his status, but his four rings clearly warrant a top 10 ranking.
#11 Wilt Chamberlain
Cohen’s Analysis:Perhaps I am too young to appreciate the accomplishments of some of the league’s best of the 60s and 70s, but I am a pedant on relativity. Would Wilt, who averaged over 50 points in one season, over 30 during his first nine years in the league and over 20 rebounds in his first 12 seasons, average half that in today’s game? How would he fair if he was matched up against more recent dominant centers like Shaq, Hakeem and Ewing? Something tells me his stats and reputation as an all-time great would have significantly dropped.
#12 Bill Russell
Cohen’s Analysis:Russell won 11 NBA titles, was a five-time league MVP and a 12-time All-Star, but like it is for Chamberlain, I just don’t believe he would have that same glory if he played in an advanced era. What he accomplished was extraordinary, but his stock substantially drops when I weigh in those other factors.
#13 Isiah Thomas
Cohen’s Analysis:I have always felt the greatest individual performance in NBA history was Isiah’s in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals when he scored 25 of his 43 points in the third quarter on a badly sprained ankle. The Pistons lost that game, but Thomas’ dazzling display and toughness was absolutely amazing. What makes Isiah even more special is the fact that he completely changed the culture in Detroit. The year before Thomas was drafted, the Pistons won 21 games. In Isiah’s first season, they won 39. And eventually Detroit captured two titles several years later.
#14 Scottie Pippen
Cohen’s Analysis:There is no player in NBA history more overshadowed than Pippen, who will forever be recognized as Jordan’s wing man. A tenacious defender, a supreme ball handler and an electrifying attacker, Pippen had all the tools to be the No. 1 option on a team and achieve big things. In the year MJ played baseball, Pippen averaged a career-best 22 points, almost nine rebounds and nearly six assists.
#15 Dirk Nowitzki
Cohen’s Analysis:Dirk revolutionized his position. His smooth jump shot together with his length made him an impossible cover. Nowitzki has a championship ring and MVP at his side and who knows, perhaps there is still more left in the tank for the greatest foreign player ever.
#16 Karl Malone
Cohen’s Analysis:If Malone found a way to lead his Jazz to just one title, people would have a different perspective of him. But in those two years Utah was in The Finals, MJ got the best of him. Nevertheless, The Mailman’s elbow jumper will likely forever be unrivaled.
#17 Dwyane Wade
Cohen’s Analysis:There was a time when some thought Wade was on his way to surpassing Kobe Bryant as an all-time better shooting guard. Though the rings are starting to stack up, knee problems have diminished his rise rather significantly. However, Wade’s performance in the 2006 NBA Finals was one of the most electrifying individual efforts of all time.
#18 Kevin McHale
Cohen’s Analysis:McHale was one of the best at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line and his remarkably long arms made it very difficult for opponents to deny him down low.
#19 Julius Erving
Cohen’s Analysis:If the Doctor played his entire career in the NBA rather than partially in the ABA, he would probably be much higher in the rankings. While in the ABA, Erving won two championships and two playoffs MVPs. He was still outstanding when he was acquired by Philadelphia, where he won an MVP award (1981) and title (1983).
#20 Jason Kidd
Cohen’s Analysis:Some forget just how good Kidd was when he was in New Jersey, where he guided the Nets to two straight NBA Finals appearances. He also was sensational during his two separate stints in Dallas and in Phoenix. Though he didn’t win two MVPs like his former teammate Steve Nash, Kidd was an all-around more effective player and eventually won a title with the Mavs in 2011.