For the purposes of this list the word “best” will be tied to the concept of impact, with importance on immediate impact. This will not be about best stats, best scorer, best-looking in their uniform, best sneaker sales, best tattoos… it will be about best impact on the goal of all serious athletes….. winning.
Michael Jordan of course appears on the list, but not where those in the ESPN Generation would like him to be. Too bad. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird didn’t need 7 years in the league, Tex Winter and Phil Jackson’s triangle offense and Scottie Pippen to win immediately. Apologies to Spawn of Stuart Scott, but Michael Jordan’s greatness is overstated by those born after 1980 in comparison to others before him.
LeBron James does not make the list this time around. He’s only 26, so he’s got time to make up for his woeful shortcomings in the clutch. Still, you only have one chance to win early and often, that ship having sailed for Lebron after several years in the league and two lost NBA Finals on his resume.
10) Bill Walton
Read up on what he was in college and what could have been in the pros were it not for some bad luck with health. At age 24 he was the Finals MVP averaging, 18 PPG/ 15 RPG/ 5 Assists and 3 Blocks. From ages 26-30 he played 14 NBA games because of a myriad of ailments to his feet and knees. He was a key contributor to a 2nd NBA title with the 1986 Boston Celtics, averaging 19 minutes per game as the primary big off the bench.
Coming off his stellar NCAA career at UCLA, Walton is considered one of the biggest “What If’s?” of all time, however his 2 college championships and 2 pro championships were enough to solidify his all time great status.
9) Shaquille ONeal
Center on a three-peat Laker team and won again in Miami with Dwyane Wade. Wonder what Shaq could have done if he ever seemed to truly care.
8) Kareem Abdul Jabbar
NBA all time scoring leader, able to drop that sky-hook into his 40’s. Magic may have been the straw that stirred the drink for the 80’s Lakers, but Kareem made it a very smooth, strong cocktail.
7) Wilt Chamberlain
Best and silliest stats of all time. 30+ PPG, 25 RPG, etc. Terrible free throw shooter and it hurt him big time. 2 rings on 2 teams, one towards the end of his career for the most dominant player the sport will ever know.
6) Kobe Bryant
Hate him if you want, and many do. Sick, just sick, and showing no signs of slowing down. 5 rings and counting for the Black Mamba. (At this writing the Lakers got Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill at the trade deadline. Who’s betting against them this year?)
5) Tim Duncan
20 pts, 11 reb, 3 assists, 2 blocks every night; like clockwork. 4 rings spread out over 10 years without another “All Time Great in their Prime” on the roster. Most underrated player of all time. The Big Fundamental.
3) Larry Bird/Michael Jordan (Tie. Sorry I’ll never do it again, but it’s that close.)
Jordan won six titles to Bird’s three. Jordan was in the league for some seven years before the Bulls closed the deal. The Boston Celtics were a lottery team in 1979, Bird’s senior year at Indiana State. Red Auerbach was so sure of Bird’s ability he drafted him as a junior in June of 1978 and waited a year for him to arrive.
The 29 win Celtics of 1978 became the 61-21 Celtics of 1979. They lost to the 76ers in the Eastern Conference playoffs, winning the first of 3 Championships in Bird’s era in his second year. Bird’s rookie numbers 21PPG/10 RPG/4.5 assists/1.7 steals. His lifetime marks came to 24 PPG, 10 RPG, 6 asst, 2 steals, 1 block, and .496 FG%.
The argument that Bird played with Hall of Famers Kevin McHale and Robert Parish is not taken seriously by most observers of the NBA. Bird is known to have made Hall of Famers out of the two, and McHale is even on record as saying it.
Michael Jordan’s Bulls gradually improved in each of his first 6 seasons and when things finally clicked, they sure as heck clicked. Michael Jordan’s greatness is not lost on anyone who watched his career ascend at identically the same rate as ESPN, his own built-in hype machine.
When Jordan finally got the perfect coach, the perfect system and the perfect supporting cast, he was brilliant. He was, however, nothing like the immediate transformational force of Bill Russell, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. Nor was he so immediately impactful as……
2) Earvin “Magic” Johnson
Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans bested Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game.
That June he was selected 1st overall by the LA Lakers and the following May the Lakers won the NBA Championship, in Magic’s first year. Kareem Abdul Jabbar could not play in the Game 6 clincher, so their rookie point guard played center and scored 42 points while sinking 14 of 14 free throws. For his efforts Magic won Finals MVP.
Magic’s Lakers won 5 Championships in his 11-year NBA career. Kareem Abdul Jabbar had been on the Lakers for 5 years before Magic arrived and had not won a championship.
1) Bill Russell
Russell won back to back NCAA Championships at the University of San Francisco before being drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1956.
The Celtics won the NBA Finals his rookie year and 11 of his 13 seasons, before he retired in 1969 at age 34. (In his final season he was player/coach, as he’d been for the previous three, and averaged 19 rebounds and over 4 assists per game. The Celtics won the Finals and he retired completely as a player and coach. The following season, the team that had won the Finals the previous year, won only 34 games and missed the playoffs.)
Russell’s spot atop this list is not about what others failed to do, but rather what he did. He played NCAA and NBA ball for 15 seasons and his teams won 13 championships.
Bill Russell had the most impact on his team’s success and therefore is the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
Russell’s career averages were 15 PPG/ 22.5 RPG/ 4.7 APG; Steals and blocked shots weren’t tracked in Russell’s days, but conservative estimates are that he would have averaged 3 steals and 4 blocks per game had they been.