Ranking the 20 greatest players in NBA history

Throughout the history of the NBA, there have been many incredible players. Some have been great scorers, while others excelled at defense and rebounding. Their personal and team accolades have left a legacy that keeps them in the minds and mouths of basketball fans to this day.

Like all sports, the NBA has endured its own evolutionary path. From its heyday of physical play and defensive tenacity, through the transition to a athleticism and finesse. Today’s game offers the best of all worlds, as players have truly mastered the craft, leading to the most advanced level of play that has ever been seen on the hardwood.

All of the players on this list have left a strong mark on the game of basketball, and their legacy is forever placed in NBA history. Some players on this list are continuing to add to their illustrious careers, and only time will tell just how they will be viewed when it’s all said and done.

So who is the greatest of all time? Which players have etched their names atop the basketball world? Let’s dive in and take a look at Sports Retriever’s list of the Greatest players in NBA history.

Scottie Pippen

The only Bulls player to play alongside Michael Jordan for all six of his championships, Pippen is an inseparable part of the team’s success in the 1990’s Bulls dynasty. Often overlooked, due to the accolades and attention garnered by his teammates, Pippen was one of the greatest players of his time. A relentless defender, who was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First Team eight times in a row, his physicality and toughness were among the greatest ever. When Jordan stepped away from the game to pursue a baseball career, Pippen was able to flourish on an individual level, leading the Bulls in scoring, assists, and blocks. He was also named All-Star Game MVP, showing just how good he really was, going up against the best players in the league.

Stephen Curry

To be fair, Curry is still adding to his legacy, and his chances of climbing this list are very high. Steph has been on a tear in recent years. In his first MVP season in 2014-15, he led the Golden State Warriors to their first championship since 1975. The following season, he became the first player to ever win the MVP award (his second) by a unanimous vote, also winning the scoring title in the process. He was very deserving of all the recognition, after leading the Warriors to the best single-season record in NBA history at 73-9, breaking the previous record held by Michael Jordan and the Bulls (72-10).

Moses Malone

A very underrated player, Malone reached the peak of his game in 1983, when he won his only title. In that same season, he was the most dominant player in the game, being named league MVP and Finals MVP. He won the NBA MVP award three times during his career. He broke several barriers, including being the first player to ever enter the NBA directly from High School. Malone still maintains the fifth spot on the all-time rebounding list. He is perhaps the greatest offensive rebounder ever, breaking the single-season record twice during his 21-year career.

Karl Malone

“The Mailman” is in second place on the all-time scoring list, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That’s an impressive feat, considering he was able to exceed the scoring production of players the caliber of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who were scoring machines in their own right. After playing 18 seasons for the Utah Jazz, Malone played his final season with the Lakers, in an attempt to acquire the elusive championship he so direly wanted. A true model of consistency, Malone was a 14-time All-Star during his 19 professional seasons. He received NBA MVP honors twice during his illustrious career.

John Stockton

The greatest passer to ever play the game, Stockton is the all-time leader in assists in NBA history. What’s even more impressive is the fact that Stockton’s 15,806 assists are so much more than the second-most assist leader in Jason Kidd, who had “just” 12,091 assists over the career. Stockton also owns the record for the most career steals in NBA history with 3,265, again leading the rest of the field by a considerable margin. Stockton became a staple of the Utah Jazz in the 1990’s, leading the team to two NBA Finals appearances. If it weren’t for Michael Jordan getting in his way, he likely would have been able to get a ring at least one of those times.

David Robinson

Robinson was known as “The Admiral,” due to his service as an officer in the US Navy, prior to entering the NBA. Aside from winning two rings with the Spurs, and being named the 1995 NBA MVP, Robinson became part of the “Twin Towers” along with teammate Tim Duncan. The two worked in tandem to become one of the most dominant interior duos in league history. The Admiral also won the scoring title in spectacular fashion in the 1993-94 season. He was facing stiff competition for the award from Shaquille O’Neal, before scoring 71 points to become the scoring champ. In the process, he broke the Spurs’ single-game points record, previously held by George Gervin.

Jerry West

West has been referred to as “The Logo,” after many have suggested that the league’s infamous logo was crafted based on his playing image. While the league has not officially confirmed the reports, it goes to show the magnitude of his impact on the NBA. West was seen as a very clutch player, with a tendency to elevate his game at the biggest moments. He holds the record for the most average points scored in a playoff series at 46.3 PPG. During his 14 years with the Lakers, West accumulated nine NBA Finals appearances, only winning the championship once – in 1972.

Hakeem Olajuwon

The all-time leader in blocks, Olajuwon provided a huge defensive presence for the Houston Rockets. His scrappy style of play provided an intimidation factor for opposing players who thought about entering the paint. Olajuwon was a driving force in the Rockets two consecutive championships (1994 and 1995), during which he was given the honor of being named NBA Finals MVP both times. He also has the eight most steals in history with 2,162 (most all-time by center), and he is 13th on the all-time rebounding list. Hakeem is the only player in NBA history to tally 200 blocks (282) and 200 steals (213) in the same season (1988-89).

Shaquille O’Neal

Shaq was an unstoppable force in the paint, where nobody in their right minds would dare to step. A physical beast, listed at 7’1 and 325 pounds (although he was likely much more), fouling him was often the best option for opposing defenses. Shaq holds the third-best career field goal percentage ever at 58.2 percent, and he currently ranks eighth on the all-time scoring list. He was crowned Rookie of the Year in the 1992-93 season. As he continued to improve, he eventually became the MVP of the league in 1999-2000, as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Shaq won three consecutive championships with the Lakers from 2001-2002, before winning another ring as a member of the Miami Heat in 2006.

Kobe Bryant

Even during this ultra-competitive era, Kobe was named an All-Star 18 times during his 20 seasons in the league. He was able to win five championships with the Lakers, and was truly an amazing all-around player. On top of his incredible scoring ability, he was selected to the NBA All-Defensive team 12 times during his career. He is the third-highest scorer in NBA history with 33,643 points, and was named league MVP in 2008. He ability to overcome adversity was on full display, as he rebounded from losing in the 2008 Finals, to secure two more championships in 2009 and 2010. Kobe infamously scored 81 points in a single game versus the Toronto Raptors in March 2006.

Julius Erving

Dr. J’s most infamous shot was a reverse scoop, in which he reached around from under the basket to make the layup. But he was able to leave a very strong mark on the game, winning three championships, four Most Valuable Player Awards, and three scoring titles. Dr. J is the only player to ever win the MVP award in both the ABA and the NBA, and was later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. He was truly a revolutionary player, who many of the game’s greats later tried to emulate.

Oscar Robertson

Also known as “The Big O,” Robertson left his mark on the NBA as a 12-time All-Star, and winning league MVP honors once during his 14-season career. He became the first player in history to average a triple-double in a full season, during the 1962 campaign. Oscar is entrenched in Milwaukee Bucks history, as he was one of the key players on the franchise’s only championship team. His skill-set, which was years ahead of his time, was evident from the start of his career. He was named Rookie of the Year after averaging 30.5 points per game and a league-high 9.7 assists.

Larry Bird

“Mr. Clutch” truly had ice in his veins. While his numbers might seem relatively modest for this spot on the list, Bird carried a rare swagger that goes beyond just stats. Creativity was the name of his game, often dishing special passes to teammates, and constantly rising to the challenge in new ways. Let’s also not forget his legendary 3-point contest, in which he raised his hand in celebration, before the winning basket even went in. Sometimes you just know. Bird was the best player in the league for a three year stretch from 1984-86, when he won the league MVP all three seasons. He also helped the Celtics capture three championships in the process.

Tim Duncan

Widely regarded as the best power forwards to ever play the game, Duncan was a silent assassin throughout his 19 seasons in the league. With five championships to his name and three NBA Finals MVPs, Duncan solidified himself as one of the greatest players in NBA history. He was also named league MVP twice during his career and played in 15 All-Star games. His consistency was unmatched, as he is the only player to ever be named to 13 consecutive All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams.

Bill Russell

They say defense wins championships. And if you judge a player’s success solely on the number of championships he won, Russell would be at the very top of this list. During his 13 year career, he was able to win the championship an unimaginable 11 times. Russell has five MVP awards to his name, and he was a 12-time All-Star. He also led the league in rebounds five times. He remains second in NBA history in total rebounds with 21,620.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

In his 20-season career in the NBA, Kareem was an All-Star 19 times. He did a lot of his damage with his sky-hook shot, which was nearly impossible to defend. His strong performances led to six league MVP awards and six championships with the Lakers. He also holds the record for most wins in a career, notching the win column 1,074 times. The definition of a prolific scorer, Kareem remains the all-time scoring leader in the history of the league with 38,387 points. Also a force defensively, he currently ranks third all-time, with 3,189 blocks.

Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt was by far the most dominant player of his time. He holds several records that might never be broken. He is perhaps most notably known for scoring 100 points in a single game, but he has several other records that will blow your mind. In his best season, he averaged a staggering 50.4 points per game. Over the course of his career, he scored 65 or more points on 15 separate occasions, and 50 or more points 118 times. He was also a rebounding machine, illustrated by his record of 55 rebounds in a single game. He also holds the record for averaging 22.9 rebounds in a full season. To this day, he has the most rebounds in NBA history with 23,924 boards.

Magic Johnson

The ultimate point guard, Magic was a wonder from his first year in the league, when he won his first championship with the Lakers. He also was awarded the Finals MVP that season. He went on to win another four championships during his incredible career. Johnson was a great passer, and he remains the all-time leader in assists per game, at 11.2. Magic accumulated three NBA MVP Awards, nine NBA Finals appearances, and twelve All-Star games in his career which lasted 13 seasons. It is amazing to think what he could have accomplished, had his career not been cut short due to medical reasons.

LeBron James

The fact that King James is already second on this list, speaks volumes to the type of greatness we are all witnessing right now. At his age 33-season, LeBron will now play in his eighth consecutive NBA Finals (nine total!). After winning two championships with Miami, he returned to his hometown of Cleveland, where he was able to capture the city’s first championship in 52 years. LeBron has four NBA MVP awards to his name, as well as 14 NBA All-Star selections, a record 12-time All-NBA first team selections, and is the all-time points leader in the NBA playoffs. And his legacy is still being written.

Michael Jordan

The greatest NBA player of all time! MJ transformed the game of basketball. Not only was he an amazing scorer, but he really prided himself in being a top-notch defender as well. His most recognizable accomplishment was winning six championships (two three-peats), and he was named Finals MVP in all of those appearances. He was also named league MVP on five separate occasions, and was an all-star ten times throughout his illustrious career. Jordan still holds the records for most points per game at 30.12. One of the reasons MJ is so highly regarded is that he played his best in the biggest moments. He has the highest ever postseason average PPG at 33.5. In addition, he holds the playoff records for most 50 point games (8), most 40 point games (38), and is the only player ever to score at least 15 points in every postseason game he played. MJ is hands down the greatest of all-time.