Frascella's NBA Top 50 of All Time, The Top 15: Can LeBron or Kobe Snatch Michael's Throne?
Updated: Jun 8, 2022
Don't forget to check out Part I headlined by Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Chris Paul, and Part II starring Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki!
And now, the moment you've all been waiting for, the thrilling conclusion...
16. Kevin Durant, G/F
Resume: 4th all-time in PPG; 2 championship rings; 9th in Efficiency; 21st in total points; 12-time All-Star
15. Stephen Curry, G
Resume: 1st all-time in threes; 3 championship rings; 2 MVPs, 47th in points; 8-time All-Star
14. Giannis Antetokounmpo, G/F/C
Resume: 2 MVPs, 1 championship ring; 6-time All-Star (consecutively); first player ever with 200 points/100 rebounds/50 assists in a single playoff series
I'm lumping these three synopses together because these are all active players, and it was so freakin' hard to rank them in relativity. First, a quick housekeeping note: Durant was actually ranked and summarized in my previous installment, but I'm bringing him back here for the purpose of comparing him to both Steph and Giannis.
Okay, now my key points in the comparisons of the three:
(1) I made this statement when it came to deciding No. 50 on my list: I just have to ask myself a simple question: Who is a better NBA player, Luka Doncic or Steve Nash? And when I framed it like that, to me, there was no question that Nash was far more limited than Luka. Luka is better, period.
Now I have to bring that question back here, to address KD, Steph and Giannis: Very simply, who is the best basketball player of the three?
To me, as an all-around force, I truly think Giannis is the guy here. He's still just 27 years young, and I honestly don't think there is much separating him from LeBron in his prime right now. (Obviously, in just a bit, we'll be seeing LeBron in my top five of all time.) And ya know what? Just on a personal level, I would actually take Giannis as my teammate over LeBron. We'll talk more about LeBron later, but let's just say that I personally prefer superstars who never waiver mentally (always the same guy, like Jordan, Kobe, Duncan etc.)
As for "The Greek Freak," well, we all know the deal by now, right? The nickname was prescient, as Giannis' freakish all-around ability makes him impossible to stop at 6'11", 242 pounds and a 7'3" wingspan. We know he can do it all on both ends of the floor... and how about becoming the first player in NBA history to have 200 points, 100 rebounds and 50 assists in a single playoff series... and how about doing that against these Celtics, the best defensive team in the league and quite possibly the best all-around team?
That's the mark of a true megastar - playing your best against the best, in the postseason.
(2) The current playoffs shifted the tide between Durant and Steph. Prior to these playoffs? I would have told you that Steph's resume rides on Durant's coattails. My former stock lines:
- Steph only won one title without KD, and he did it when Kyrie and Kevin Love were BOTH out for the Cavs in the finals.
- Steph was actually losing 2-1 in that series to Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov (basically).
- Durant was clearly the difference-maker. LeBron's Cavs couldn't handle the Warriors once Durant put them completely over the top. KD was the one who won back-to-back Finals MVPs.
- Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have been elite defenders throughout the "Warriors Dynasty," while Steph certainly has not.
But... take a look again, this season. No Durant for the Warriors, yet they just cruised back into the NBA Finals by systematically dismantling Luka and his Mavs. And the ultimate key is that the league has changed - and Steph Curry is essentially the sole reason for that change. Follow my oversimplified logic, here:
1. Steph is the greatest shooter of all time.
2. Steph's unlimited range takes defenders far away from the rim, which opens up endless opportunities for his teammates.
3. Other teams immediately wanted Steph-like shooters because they saw the way the entire floor opened up.
4. Fast forward... Copycat League... everybody loads up with shooters, spaces the floor, tries the "team" game with constant screening and a lot of tricky back-cutting. One-on-one hero ball fades away (see Nets swept out of the opening round and Mavs unable to compete with the Warriors, asking Luka to do way too much.)
5. With everybody trying to play the same way - the Warriors' way ultimately, dictated by Steph's constant movement and unlimited range - Golden State now has the clear advantage because everyone is simply trying to mimic what the Warriors are already the best at.
6. The Warriors are playing the style that everyone else wants to emulate + Steph is their best player = he is now more valuable than he ever was before.
KD wasn't able to bring that culture to my Nets. They are dinosaurs, now. Steph's style of play and infectious team support have made him better, more valuable and more sustainable than Durant.
13. Moses Malone, PF/C
Resume: 3 MVPs, 2nd in FT made, 5th all-time in rebounds, 10th in points, 1 championship ring, 12-time All-Star (consecutively)
I've looked at it every which way, considered every possible angle...
My conclusion is that Moses Malone is the most underrated player in the history of the NBA. I actually tweeted about this very thought recently, too. I think I've figured out the crux of the whole situation, too. Moses won his MVP awards in 1979, 1982 and 1983, respectively. Right after that, the winners from 1984 through 1992 were: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
Yup, that's it! Just those three mega legends. And many truly believe the Magic/Bird rivalry is what saved the NBA, brought it back to primetime respectability. Then of course, Jordan propelled the league into the stratosphere.
So this is the simple equation when it comes to Moses Malone: (1) He was the best player in the league BEFORE it reached true popularity + (2) He played a slow, measured, grinder style of paint basketball = (3) He became permanently underrated because he didn't play a "sexy" style and his outstanding career immediately got overshadowed and buried by Magic, Bird and Michael.
But the proof is in the pudding. Block out the noise. Moses Malone is a three-time NBA MVP who is 2nd all-time in free throws made, 5th in rebounds and 10th in points. AND he has a ring. What more could we possibly ask for in a pro's career?
12. Larry Bird, SF
Resume: 3 MVPs, 3 championship rings, 12-time All-Star; 9th all-time in triple doubles; 36th in points
Perhaps the "Legend" part of the "Larry Legend" nickname goes an awful long way for Bird. You won't find many lists like these without Bird in the top 10. But the guy only played 13 seasons in the NBA, and that includes 1988-89 where he played just six regular season games. He's not in the top 10 in points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, threes made... none of the individual stats.
But as I've already mentioned and covered before, Larry Bird is a cornerstone player for the legacy and mythology of the NBA. Things were far from great in the late 70s and early 80s - then the Bird/Magic rivalry arrived, and the league took off. Three MVPs and championship rings for Larry Legend at the time when the league was really on the "come up," as the kids say nowadays. Bird had a perfect storm-like impact on the NBA.
And yeah, he's not in the top 10 in points, rebounds, assists, steals, etc... but he was good at everything, really (thus 9th all-time in triple doubles). I've previously mentioned the versatility of Nikola Jokic, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen and others; just put Bird in a similar-but-bigger boat. Those three lack his championship pedigree in relativity.
11. Oscar Robertson, PG
Resume: 2nd all-time in triple doubles; 5th in FT made; 8th in assists; 10th in PPG; 1 championship ring
Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, James Harden and Luka Doncic (all active players). Jason Kidd, fairly recent. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (80s stars). So that leaves Wilt Chamberlain as the only other "old-time" player in the top 10 in career triple doubles.
And "The Big O" Oscar Robertson is second all time in triple doubles. This is a young man's stat - or really, combination of stats - but Robertson was dominating in all facets of the game at a time when that simply wasn't a thing. Babe Ruth hit more home runs in a season than entire teams. Dan Marino led the NFL in passing with 5,084 yards in 1984... when only two other QBs had more than 4,000 yards. This is the type of dominant statistical pioneer that Oscar Robertson was. And forget the raw statistics for just a second; the simple truth is that his all-around impact on the game was unparalleled.
10. Hakeem Olajuwon, C
Resume: 1st all-time in blocks; 9th in steals; 12th in points; 2 championship rings; 12-time All-Star; 2-time Defensive Player of the Year
How is a center ninth all-time in steals? I remember "Hakeem the Dream" quite well, but that career statistic still just boggles my mind.
Hakeem was just incredible - unprecedented big man footwork, feathery soft touch and two-way impact up there with the greatest to ever play the game. Sure, centers shoot threes now, but at the time? Olajuwon was a textbook example of a perfect NBA center.
9. Magic Johnson, PG
Resume: 5 championship rings; 3 MVPs; 6th all-time in assists; 11-time All-Star
For more discussion of both Magic and Oscar Robertson, please be sure to check out my controversial top 10 Point Guards of all time article.
Magic was the winner of the Magic-Bird rivalry, in the end. Five championships to Larry's three. Sixth all-time in assists, whereas Bird isn't top six in anything. More marketability, popularity and staying power. Magic Johnson was the consummate on-court teammate, constantly pushing the rock and delivering assists that no one had ever dreamt of before. He was the undisputed engine that made the "Showtime" Lakers go.
8. Wilt Chamberlain, C
Resume: 1st all-time in rebounds; 1st in PPG (tied with Michael); 4 MVPs; 7th in points; 7th in Efficiency; 2 championship rings; 15-time All-Star
Tough, tough, tough one here. First all-time in rebounds and tied for first in points per game? You could probably make an argument that "Wilt the Stilt" Chamberlain is the greatest statistical player of all time.
But we can't be that narrow in our assessment. We can't rely solely on the stats. The reality is Bill Russell has ELEVEN championship rings, while Wilt whimpers away with just two. Wilt was a dominant physical force and true all-time great, but he lacks the pure winning of my top seven. Bill Russell ended up having his number for a number of different reasons.
7. Shaquille O'Neal, C
Resume: 4 championship rings; 5th all-time in Efficiency; 8th in points; 8th in blocks; 10th in FG%; 15-time All-Star; 3 Finals MVPs
6. Kobe Bryant, SG
Resume: 5 championship rings; 3rd all-time in FT made; 4th in points; 18-time All-Star; 12-time All-Defensive Team; 1 MVP
5. Tim Duncan, PF
Resume: 5 championship rings; 2 MVPs; 5th all-time in blocks; 6th in rebounds; 15th in points; 15-time All-Star; 15-time All-Defensive Team (NBA record)
I'm analyzing these three megastars together because I can see them ordered any which way.
Just off The Eye Test and my own personal experience, I was very tempted to rank Shaq as the No. 2 player in the history of the game. To this day, I've seen nothing to rival Shaq's pure dominance of the league. You went into a game against prime Shaq knowing you had to foul him every single play. If you didn't send him to the line enough, you ended up getting your doors blown off. Too big, too strong, too fierce... and too damn light on his famously big feet.
But now that we are into my top seven - to me, when all factors are considered, the clear top seven in the history of the game - we really need to pull out the fine-tooth comb. Shaq or Kobe? Well, Kobe had five championship rings to Shaq's four. Kobe was an 18-time All-Star to Shaq's 15. Kobe was 12-time All-Defense to only three for Shaq.
Shaq or Duncan? well, Duncan was also five-to-four in championships. Duncan's also the all-time leader in All-Defense selections and well, Shaq just isn't that. For a good portion of his career, Shaq was a one-way type of player.
And Duncan gets the nod over both Lakers because of his all-around resume and more importantly, Duncan never wanted to break up the band. He never had that type of poisonous ego. In fact, he was the polar opposite - Timmy was a franchise centerpiece you could build around in a variety of different ways. He taught teammates how to dominate both sides of the ball. He didn't always need the ball, or need the shot at crunch time. Tim Duncan was purely about making the best basketball play on both ends of the floor, and he always seemed to do exactly that.
4. LeBron James, PG/SF
Resume: 2nd all-time in points; 2nd in Efficiency; 4 championship rings; 4 Finals MVPs & 4 regular season MVPs; 4th in FT made; 5th in PPG; 7th in assists; 10th in steals; 18-time All-Star; 18-time All-NBA (NBA record)
I mentioned something earlier about Wilt Chamberlain possibly being the greatest statistical player of all time. Well, "possibly" certainly ain't "definitely". LeBron James IS the greatest statistical player in the history of the great sport of basketball. And that distinction holds an awful lot of weight, especially when you add four championship rings to it.
But... ONLY four rings in 15 playoff appearances (26.7% win rate)? Jordan took home six rings in just 13 chances (46.2% win rate). Bill Russell went an astonishing 11-for-13 (84.6% win rate).
Even guys behind LeBron on this list outperformed him: Duncan 5-for-18 (27.8%), Kobe 5-for-15 (33.3%), Shaq 5-for-17 (29.4%) and Magic 5-for-13 (38.5%).
And honestly, I think those numbers summarize things pretty well. LeBron is an absolute statistical monster, but there have been times when his confidence in himself waivered - particularly in the NBA Finals, under the brightest lights of all. So yeah, for me? No top three for LeBron.
I have a nice consolation price for "The King" though... I did rank him as the greatest point guard in the history of the game. Yup... point guard.
3. Bill Russell, C
Resume: 11 championship rings; 5 MVPs; 2nd all-time in rebounds; 12-time All-Star; 6-time Defensive Player of the Year
Did you know that Bill Russell was the first black head coach in the history of the NBA? Did you know that he won two championships as head coach... while he was still playing on the team??!!
Like... what? This is like Michael Jordan trying out minor league baseball, or LeBron showcasing solid acting skills in Trainwreck... except when Russell said I'm gonna try to test my limits, his results were more incredible and applicable to the rankings on this particular list. Two championships as player-coach? That's just bonkers to me.
My initial iteration of this list had Russell as the No. 2 player of all time, but the guy I subsequently ranked there had more all-around impact as an individual player, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, C
Resume: 1st all-time in points; 3rd in rebounds; 6 MVPs; 6 championship rings; 19-time All-Star (NBA record); 11-time All-Defense
First all-time in points... third in rebounds... the most MVP awards of all time AND the most All-Star selections? Honestly... need I say more about the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
1. Michael Jordan, SG
Resume: 1st all-time in PPG (tied with Wilt); 1st in Efficiency; 5 MVPs; 6 championship rings; 6-time Finals MVP (NBA record); 3rd in steals; 6th in FT made; 14-time All-Star; 9-time All-Defense 1st team (NBA record)
The GOAT of all sports, if you ask me.
I would need seven other full-length posts to encapsulate the way I feel about Michael Jordan's place in the history of pro athletics. I'm not gonna keep ya here all day, I'll just try to summarize MJ in one telling sentence:
Michael Jordan is the most clutch, most talented, most gifted, most jaw-dropping, most determined, most ferocious, most unrelenting and most revered player in the history of the NBA. There will never be another like Mike.
John Frascella is a published sports author who has been covering the NBA, NFL and MLB for more than half his life. Follow him on Twitter @LegendSports7 for all things basketball, football and baseball!