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Ten Greatest in NBA History.

1. MICHAEL JORDAN

My fear is that the media and fans have totally overblown MJ’s greatness, to the point where the younger fans are sick and tired of hearing about it. And can you blame them?

According to today’s media, and most fans, Michael would be scoring 40 points per game, he never missed an important shot in his career, always came through when needed, and defeated the titans as Zeus’ right hand man.

I mean really, the man is the greatest ever, but do we really need to make a myth out of him? Can we just accept him for what he was, an absolutely amazing player who was ultra competitive, clutch, intelligent, and charismatic, but also with numerous faults, just like any other player?

I think the real appreciation of MJ would be to acknowledge his shortcomings along with his greatness. Otherwise you’re just worshiping a Nike/Coke-manufactured mannequin, somebody who never really existed in real life.

But at the same time, that’s probably a part of his greatness - raising a whole generation of kids willing to defend him until their last breath is not a small feat.

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Just missed my Top 10 cut (in no particular order): Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Dr. J, Havlicek, etc.

Ten Greatest in NBA History.

2. KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR

Without a doubt the best end-to-end career in NBA History.

Twenty years, most All-Star appearances, most career points, most MVPs won, winning rings 17 years apart (6 rings in total), 2 Finals MVPs (in reality it should have been 3 - despite Magic’s epic Game 6 in the 1980 Finals, Kareem was unquestionably the best player in that series), 10 times 1st All-NBA, the unstoppable skyhook…a man who defined the NBA for 2 decades and carried it before Dr. J, Magic, and Larry took over.

Ten Greatest in NBA History.

3. WILT CHAMBERLAIN

I’ve never seen a more disrespected legend. It seems like shitting on Wilt has become somewhat of a trend since Bill Simmons (a huge Celtics, and with that a Bill Russell fan) threw a bunch of anecdotes at us in order to convince us that Wilt was a douche (true, but irrelevant to the question at hand) and that 30 points + 23 rebounds per game was not all that impressive. And…it worked!

Not a winner? He had to contend with Russell’s stacked Celtics teams, and he won 2 rings anyway, same as you know, LeBron, and only 1 less than Bird.

Selfish? Averaged 4.4 assists over his career, definitely not a joke for a center. Also, he led the league in assists during the 1968 season.

Russell was his kryptonite? Wilt consistently outperformed him in head-to-head battles, only to see Russell’s great supporting cast decide the game/series.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Almost all of the rhetoric you hear about him has evolved into some sort of a folktale. Was Russell a better guy to hang around and more liked? Absolutely. But unless you’re doing a “guys I’d like to have a beer with” list, that should only be a small part of the comparison.

Ten Greatest in NBA History.

4. BILL RUSSELL

The greatest leader of all time, the greatest defensive player of all time and the greatest winner of all time.

So why not the greatest player of all time, or at least higher on my list?

Well, forgive me for not putting that much stock into winning rings in a league which had less than 10 teams (how come nobody mentions that today?). Of course, it’s still an amazing accomplishment, but you should win every year when you have an amazing roster full of Hall of Famers, led by arguably the greatest coach/manager of all time in Red Auerbach.

OK, so why not put him lower on the list?

You can’t really fault the guy for playing in the era he played in. You can only play what’s out there, you can’t choose your opponents, and we’re all judged by how we fare against our peers. It would be unfair to hold Russell to a different standard. I always have a hard time striking the right balance when evaluating players of the past, which is why my list often changes (though not drastically). 

Ten Greatest in NBA History.

5. MAGIC JOHNSON

Other than Michael Jordan, probably the only player who was and is larger than the game itself. 

No team has ever taken on its best player’s persona quite like the Showtime Lakers. His charisma was a goldmine for the sports industry, and his rivalry with Larry revived a league which was showing Finals games on tape-delay just a couple of years before.

Like Larry, his career was relatively short (due to different reasons), which eventually cost him a couple of spots on my list.

Ten Greatest in NBA History.

6. TIM DUNCAN

We all know there’s not much to say about this guy. The perfect teammate who consistently (and quietly) gets the job done.

Around 2011 everybody thought he was done (remember 13 ppg?), and then he experienced some sort of a Renaissance and won his 5th ring - and really should have been 6th, if not for Pop’s epic coaching lapse and Ray’s unbelievable clutchness. 

This career revival puts him past Kobe and Shaq as the best player in the post-MJ era, and with the Spurs core roster, coaching staff, and Kawhi’s rapid development, there may be more rings coming.

Ten Greatest in NBA History.

7. KOBE BRYANT

Michael Jordan Lite (not an insult, quite the contrary) and the most durable guard in NBA History. In fact, his longevity is a major reason for his place on this list.

In the post-Jordan era, no player has been more consistently great than this guy. I remember watching him shoot air ball after air ball in that 1997 Utah series, knowing that it could go one of two ways - break him or make him.

We know what happened, and the rest is history, as he consistently defied the odds and showed his mental toughness in the face of numerous controversies and scandals: scrutiny from most fans after being dubbed the next Michael Jordan, the rape allegations, the beef and split-up with Shaq/Phil, the early round exists pre-Gasol trade, and bouncing back from the devastating Finals loss against the 2008 Celtics.

Now he’s facing perhaps the biggest challenge in his career - overcoming an injury that had him sidelined for about a year. If he can pull this one off, there’s nothing this guy can’t do.

Given his age and the team roster he’s stuck with, I doubt he’ll be moving up this list, but he’s proven us wrong in the past. As a Lakers fan, I hope he can do it again.

Ten Greatest in NBA History.

8. LARRY BIRD

The East Coast version of the Magic/Bird conundrum, and the personification of hustle, grit, clutchness, team play, and sacrifice.

Unfortunately, his career was cut short by everything that made him great. Taking every charge, diving on the floor after every loose ball, playing injured, and not backing away from any duel would take their toll on anybody’s body.

Such a short career (only 10 seasons with more than 60 regular season games played) makes me put him at 8, but that’s because as a basketball fan I put a lot of emphasis on longevity. If your criteria is more about focusing on players’ peaks and not sustained greatness, Larry the Legend would probably be top 5.

Ten Greatest in NBA History.

9. SHAQUILLE O’NEAL

This guy’s prime was better than anybody else’s prime. Yes, more dominant than MJ, Kareem, Magic, Wilt, Russell (considering the competition the last two faced), etc. 

However, the issue with the Big Fella was that he couldn’t sustain it, as he wasn’t 100% invested in the game. Refining his talents and staying in shape often took a backseat to his other interests - music, movies, and living it up with his friends and showbiz partners. His athleticism (and with that, his ability to contribute in any significant way) quickly faded after the 2006 championship with the Heat, and his misunderstandings with Penny, Kobe, and Wade kept him at “only” 4 rings.

Being the 9th greatest to ever lace them up is not a small feat. However, with his talent, size, and athleticism, it feels like he left a lot on the table. 

Ten Greatest in NBA History.

10. LEBRON JAMES

As a Lakers fan, I’ve never been a huge fan of LeBron, which doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate his greatness. The dude is unlike anything we’ve seen in this league.

I understand rooting against him, but to hate him completely misses the point of sports. We need great polarizing players, they make the game a lot more interesting. Much like the 1960’s NBA fans discovered with Wilt, we will miss him when he’s gone. 

He has a lot of quality basketball left, so it’s safe to assume that he’ll be higher on this list before it’s all said and done.

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