The greatest of all-time (GOAT) is an oft-debated discussion in many professional sports these days.
Some fans respect the greats from eras long gone. Others fall victim to the time-honored recency bias and argue that the players of their era are so much better than those of another era. Sometimes it proves true; sometimes it does not.
Either way, the discussion as it relates to the National Basketball Association (NBA) is a close and heated one. With so many all-time talents having laced it up on the court, the list of the greatest professional basketball players is full of outright legends – there’s no other way to put it. It gets debatable up at the top. Indeed, you may or may not agree with who we ranked as the greatest. Read on to check out the 30 greatest players in NBA history:
30. Vince Carter – Raptors/Seven Other Teams:
The high flyer from North Carolina put on perhaps the most electrifying performance in the history of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Yet it’s his record-tying consistency that has earned Carter a spot on the list of the greatest. No, his career averages don’t look that amazing on paper.
But looks can be deceiving. Carter has tied the record for most seasons played by an NBA player with 21, most recently playing for the Atlanta Hawks in 2018-2019. His lower scoring averages in the past several years have dipped Carter’s overall numbers. In his prime, he was one of the best and averaged well over 20 points a game. Not up there with the best of the best, but certainly deserving of a spot amongst the greats.
Hayes may be one of the lesser-known names on this list, but that doesn’t change his status as an all-time legend. He averaged 21 points and 12.5 rebounds with two blocks per game. Hayes was a 12-time All-Star and a three-time member of the All-NBA First Team.
To top it off, he won both an NBA championship, two league rebounding titles, and a league scoring title. Hayes simply doesn’t get the recognition of other greats from his era, yet he should. His body of works speaks for itself as one of the greats.
28. George Gervin – San Antonio Spurs/Chicago Bulls:
‘The Iceman’ is an all-time great with a long list of accolades. He was a nine-time All-Star and a five-time All-NBA First Team member. Gervin led the league in scoring four times in his career. To win his first title, he outscored David Thompson by .07 of a point. Thompson scored 73 points to get there, but Gervin held on by scoring 63 in the final game of the season. He scored 33 points in the second quarter alone.
Of course, he also coined his infamous finger roll and just had the reputation of a calm and cool star. When he retired, he had the most blocks by a guard in league history. He averaged 25.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game throughout his career.
A Spurs legend like Gervin before him, “The Admiral” deserves his due among the greats. Robinson was a two-time champion who won a league MVP as well. He was a 10-time All-Star with four All-NBA First Team nominations. He was also a four-time member of the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
Robinson was known for his prowess at blocking shots. He ranks among the Top 10 most in NBA history. He also won an NBA scoring title and averaged 21, points, 10.6 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game throughout his Hall of Fame career.
Curry already on the list of the greatest NBA players of all-time? Yes, and it could already be argued that he’s the best pure shooter of all-time. He owns the record for most three-point shots made in a season with 402.
Overall, he’s averaged 23.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game for his career. Perhaps it’s his nearly 44-percent mark from three that has defined him, however. Curry has won two MVP awards, made six All-Star teams, five All-NBA teams, and won three titles. He currently faces a new challenge after Kevin Durant left Golden State and Klay Thompson is still sidelined. But if he keeps shooting like he has been for years now, he’ll keep rising on this all-time list.
Wade is a three-time NBA champion who will go down among the best ever. He won the Finals MVP award in 2006. Then he secured another two titles for Miami when Lebron James came to town. Through it all, Wade made 13 All-Star teams and won an NBA scoring title.
He averaged 22 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game from 2003-2019. He played for the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers later in his career, Wade returned to Miami for his final season last year. Time will show he’s arguably Miami’s best player of all-time.
Drafted in 1998 by the Dallas Mavericks, Nowitzki spent his entire 21-year career there. He won a league MVP award. But Nowitzki’s finest moment was when he bumped the Miami Heat led by Lebron James and Dwyane Wade out of the 2011 NBA Finals. There, he won the Finals MVP and his only NBA championship.
Nowitzki was a 14-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA First Team winner. This legend averaged 20.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He’ll be a surefire Hall of Famer.
Havlicek stormed out of the gates to start his NBA career, winning four titles in four seasons with the Celtics dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s. By the time he was done, he had won eight NBA Finals, going an unbelievable 8-0 in all of them. That’s an incredible feat only accomplished by three players.
Havlicek was a 13-time All-Star and a four-time All-NBA First Team member, but it was his titles that defined his all-time success. He won the NBA Finals MVP award in 1974. Havlicek averaged 20.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game throughout his legendary career in Boston.
Legendary point guard Thomas will go down in NBA history as one of the flagship members of the famed ‘Bad Boys’ dynasty, and for good reason. He was routinely dishing out dimes for a myriad of high-profile Pistons in his heyday. If he had not suffered a career-ending torn Achilles, Thomas may be much higher on this list.
Either way, he still won two NBA championships and an NBA Finals MVP award. He was a 12-time All-Star, a two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP, and a three-time All-NBA First Team member. Thomas averaged 19.2 points, 9.3 assists, and 1.9 steals a game. He rates in the top 10 all-time in assists despite retiring at only 32 years old.
Stockton is up there with the greatest point guards in NBA history. Pairing with longtime running mate Karl Malone, Stockton incredibly led the Jazz to the playoffs in each of his 19 seasons. He was a 10-time All-Star and made 10 All-NBA teams, with two First-Team selections, six Second-Teams, and three Third-Teams. He led the NBA in assists an alarming nine times and in steals twice.
Stockton was never much of a scorer, averaging 13.1 points per game over his career. But he made up for it in other areas, racking up 10.5 assists and 2.2 steals per game. Stockton could be the best pure passer we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, his stock on this list is tainted somewhat because Utah, despite tons of regular-season success, was never able to get over the hump and win the title.
Continuing the trend of the greatest point guards, Frazier was a shining example of how the position should be played. Frazier had all the accolades to prove it. He was a seven-time All-Star, won the All-Star Game MVP, and made six total All-NBA teams. Frazier also won two championships.
His stats showed he could do it all, as he averaged 18.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game. Frazier was a defensive wizard as well. He averaged 1.9 steals per game and made seven NBA All-Defensive First Teams. A true New York Knicks legend.
19. Scottie Pippen – Chicago Bulls/Rockets/Trailblazers:
Many will suggest Pippen will simply a secondary player who rode Michael Jordan’s legendary wave of success in Chicago. But the fact remains that nearly every major superstar has needed a talented, also historic running mate to get over the proverbial hump and win championships. The examples are many throughout NBA history.
In terms of what Pippen accomplished, he, of course, won six NBA titles with Chicago. He was a seven-time All-Star and won an All-Star Game MVP. Pippen made seven total All-NBA teams and eight NBA All-Defensive First Teams. Indeed, he was a smothering defender. He averaged 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game through his illustrious career. Yes, Jordan helped him win – and he helped Jordan quite a bit too.
18. Kevin Garnett – Minnesota Timberwolves/Boston Celtics/Brooklyn Nets:
Garnett was a Phenom ever since he skipped college and came out of Chicago’s Farragut Academy. He packed a lot into his career from 1995-2016. Garnett was an NBA champ and won an NBA MVP award in 2004. He also made 15 All-Star games and won the MVP there as well in 2003.
Garnett made nine total All-NBA teams. He was also NBA All-Defensive First Team nine times and won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. He could never lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to a championship, making the Finals once. But he finally achieved that goal when he moved on to a more talented team in Boston later in his career. A stifling defensive legend who rates among the best ever.
Like Garnett, Malone came straight out of high school to have a lengthy, legendary career. Malone won an NBA title in 1983, where he was also the Finals MVP. He added three NBA MVP awards to his tally as well. Malone ended up with 12 All-Star Game appearances and made eight All-NBA teams.
He averaged 20.6 points and 12.2 rebounds over the course of his 20 seasons in the NBA. Malone led the NBA in rebounds an astonishing six times. Sadly he passed away in his sleep nearly four years ago.
16. Kevin Durant – Oklahoma Thunder/Golden State Warriors/Brooklyn Nets:
Durant is bound to be one of the most polarizing players on the list of NBA All-Time greats. Some will have him ranked higher than this; others will have him much lower. What is not in question are his otherworldly skills at scoring with the basketball in his hands. He’s a four-time NBA scoring champion, averaging 27.0 points per game in his career.
Many criticize his decision to join what was already a dynasty in Golden State. But it worked for him regardless. He won two NBA championships with the Warriors and was named the Finals MVP in both victories. Durant also has an NBA MVP award to his credit. He’s a 10-time All-Star and two-time All-Star Game MVP. Durant has made nine total All-NBA teams. He now faces the daunting task of recovering from a torn Achilles tendon in the 2019 NBA Finals. He’s also signed with a new team in Brooklyn. If he can come back in form, which is no guarantee, he’ll continue rising up this list towards a spot among the true legends.
“Dr. J.” was an innovator of the high-flying, crowd-pleasing style of basketball theatrics that fans enjoy to this day. Few, if any, could compare to his flair in dunking the basketball during his prime. But he could also get the job done in big games on the court.
Erving won an NBA championship with Philadelphia in 1983 and was named the NBA MVP in 1981. He was an 11-time NBA All-Star and won the NBA All-Star Game MVP twice. ‘Dr. J.’ won seven total All-NBA nominations. He also has a very decorated list full of accomplishments in the ABA. While those don’t count in terms of this discussion, he perhaps could have been a lot higher on this list had he spent his entire career in the NBA. Regardless, an all-time great nonetheless. He will always live on in classic slam-dunk highlight reels.
“The Mailman” is a perhaps underrated great who deserves his due among the greatest NBA players of all-time. Alongside longtime running mate John Stockton, Malone played 18 decorated years in the league. He was a two-time NBA MVP, a 14-time All-Star, and won the NBA All-Star Game MVP award twice. Malone made 11 All-NBA First Teams and 14 total All-NBA teams in those years.
Malone also made the NBA All-Defensive First Team on three occasions. Overall he averaged 25.0 points per game, 10.1 rebounds per game, and 3.5 assists per game. Like Stockton, Malone’s stock takes a hit due to the fact the Jazz never won an NBA title despite all of their regular-season success. Malone will go down in history as one of the best despite that.
Olajuwon is an all-time great center who owns one very rare, historic accomplishment that no other player in NBA history has accomplished. In 1993-94, ‘The Dream’ won the NBA MVP, NBA Finals MVP, and Defensive Player of the Year award. That may not ever be accomplished again, especially in today’s offensive-minded NBA climate.
All told, Olajuwon won two NBA Finals with the great Rockets teams of the 1990s and was named the NVP of both. He was a 12-time All-Star and made 12 total All-NBA teams as well. Olajuwon was named the Defensive Player of the Year twice and made the NBA All-Defensive First Team five times throughout his career. He led the NBA in rebounding twice and blocks three times. Olajuwon averaged 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks per game in his legendary career.
Jerry West is simply an iconic member of the Los Angeles Lakers who is immortalized in more ways than one. First of all, like Hakeem Olajuwon, he has an accomplishment that no one else has achieved. West is the only player in history to win the NBA Finals award while being a member of the losing team. He did so in 1969. But West also won an NBA title with the Lakers in 1972.
He made 14 All-Star Games and won the MVP award there. West also made 12 All-NBA teams and was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team four times. West led the NBA in scoring in 1970 and in assists in 1972. He averaged 27.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game in his career. And he’s the man who is immortalized on the NBA logo. West will remain etched in the annals of NBA history forever.
11. Oscar Robertson – Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks:
Robertson paved the way for players like Russell Westbrook of today with his versatile style. He broke into the NBA averaging 30.5 points per game as a rookie, and he averaged more than 30 a game in six of his first seven NBA seasons. Robertson was the first player to average 10 assists per game in the NBA.
He was also the first guard to ever average over 10 rebounds per game, a feat he accomplished three times. He’s a 12-time All-Star and a nine-time All-NBA First Team recipient. Finally, Robertson is the ninth highest per game scorer in NBA history. He won an NBA title in 1971 playing alongside a young Lew Alcindor on the Milwaukee Bucks. Robertson is just one of the best and most well-rounded to ever play.
The towering Russell needs no introduction. He won an insane 11 NBA championships in his 13-year career with the Boston Celtics. That will most likely never be repeated. In terms of individual achievements, Russell was a five-time NBA MVP winner. He made 12 All-Star Games and was named the MVP in 1963. Russell was also named to 11 total All-NBA teams and led league in rebounding four times.
His rebounding average was simply astronomical. While he only scored 15.1 points per game throughout his career, he averaged 22.5 rebounds per contest. He also tallied 4.3 assists per game – great numbers for a big man. Russell’s perceived level of competition faced may prevent from being up with the top five players of all-time, but he’s right there with them because of his record success in Boston.
The dominating O’Neal was the most physically imposing figure in NBA history by far. Standing 7’1” and weighing 325 pounds, opposing teams often resorted to simply fouling him with the ‘Hack A Shaq’ strategy to make him revert to his only weakness – shooting free throws.
But it didn’t work. O’Neal won the NBA championship four times and was named Finals MVP in three of those victories. He won an NBA MVP award in 2000. He was also a 15-time All-Star who won the All-Star MVP award three times. O’Neal made 14 total All-NBA teams in his career. Finally, he owns two NBA scoring titles. The massive-yet-athletic “Shaq” averaged 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game in his historic career.
While Shaquille O’Neal found success with powerful, flashy dunks, Duncan found his own with a quiet mastery of the fundamentals of basketball. As one of the greatest big men in NBA history, Duncan won five NBA championships and was the MVP of three Finals.
He was also a two-time NBA MVP winner. Duncan made 15 All-Star games and won the MVP there in 2000. He made 15 total All-NBA teams in his career, including 10 First Team selections. Duncan also made 15 NBA All-Defensive teams as well. He was as consistent as they come, averaging 19.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game in his legendary career. He’ll never be the flashiest, but he’s one of the greatest.
A true Lakers legend amongst a never-ending sea of Lakers legends, Bryant spent his entire 20-year career with the NBA’s most storied franchise. He was the youngest player in NBA history to score 30,000 points. Bryant won five NBA titles and was named the Finals MVP in two of those. He owns one NBA MVP award from the 2008 season.
Bryant was an incredible 18-time All-Star, winning the MVP award in that game four times. He made 15 total All-NBA teams, including 11 First Team nominations. Bryant also made nine NBA All-Defensive First Teams. He was the NBA league scoring champion twice. Few could fill up the stat sheet like Bryant could when he got hot. He once scored 81 points in a game against the Toronto Raptors. All told, he averaged 25.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game as one of the best offensive players to ever play.
Bird is simply one of the best pure shooters in basketball history. His accomplishments are many, proven by the fact he is the only person in NBA history to win Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, NBA Finals MVP, All-Star MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year. It’s going to be difficult for anyone to even come close to all those accolades.
But that was far from all Bird accomplished. He was a three-time NBA champion and two-time Finals MVP in 1984 and 1986. Bird won the NBA MVP award twice. He was a 12-time All-Star and won the All-Star MVP award in 1982. Bird made nine All-NBA First Teams in his decorated career. And of course, he won three 3-Point Shootouts as well. He averaged 24.3 points, 0.0 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game in his legendary career, proving he belongs high among the best of all-time.
Johnson is largely considered the best point guard in NBA history and for good reason. He stormed into the league his rookie season and won both the NBA title and Finals MVP award, proving a sign of things to come. Johnson won four more titles in L.A. and three total Finals MVP awards.
He was a 12-time All-Star, winning the MVP award in two of those games. He made nine All-NBA First Teams. Johnson led the league in assists four times and steals twice. Throughout his career, Johnson averaged 19.2 points, 11.2 assists, and 7.2 rebounds per game. The 11.2 assists per game is the highest average in NBA history. While he was a somewhat controversial figure in the latter stages of his career, Johnson ranks up there with the best to ever play in the NBA.
4. Wilt Chamberlain – Philadelphia Warriors/76ers/Los Angeles Lakers:
‘The Stilt’s’ greatest records still hold true today. He holds the NBA record for most points in a single game with 100. He’s also the only player to average more than 40 or even 50 points per game in a season. Chamberlain was dominant, winning two NBA titles and a Finals MVP in 1972.
He was four-time NBA MVP and made 13 All-Star games, winning the MVP in 1960. Chamberlain made seven All-NBA First Teams. But it was his individual scoring and rebounding skills that separated him far from the rest. Chamberlain was a seven-time NBA scoring champion and 11-time rebounding champion. He even led the league in assists in 1968. All told ‘The Stilt’ averaged 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game in his all-time great career.
Now is where the NBA’s greatest of all-time debate really heats up. James is no doubt in the top five players of all-time, but can you really rank him above the two all-time greats above him? Some would vehemently argue yes while others would say not a chance. In any case, James accomplishments are historic in their own right.
He’s a three-time NBA champion and won the MVP award in all of those wins. James is also a 15-time NBA All-Star, having won the MVP award in that game three times. He’s made 12 All-NBA First Teams. James also added five NBA All-Defensive First Team awards to that list. Finally, he’s won four NBA league MVP awards. James is the all-time leader in NBA Playoff scoring and fourth all-time in regular-season scoring. Perhaps the only knock on him would be his multiple Finals losses, but he hasn’t always had the team to win. James is still playing at an elite level and could rise up to the top spot on the list of the NBA’s greatest players ever.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Milwaukee Bucks/ Los Angeles Lakers:
The one-time Lew Alcindor is a true legend of the game. Abdul-Jabbar owns the NBA records for most league MVP awards with six and the most All-Star Game appearances with a whopping 19. He led his teams to the playoffs in 18 of his 20 seasons and made the Finals 10 times. Abdul-Jabbar was a six-time NBA champion and won the MVP in two of those championships.
He made 15 total All-NBA teams including 10 First Team selections. Abdul-Jabbar was selected to five NBA All-Defensive first teams. He led the NBA in scoring twice, rebounding once, and blocks four times. Topping it off, Abdul-Jabbar is the all-time leader in points scored and most importantly, wins. It’s tough to argue with this resume.
1. Michael Jordan – Chicago Bulls/Washington Wizards:
Now we’ve reached the mountaintop. While there are some truly amazing players preceding him on this list, the fact simply remains that Michael Jordan is the best NBA basketball player to ever play. He’s a six-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls and he won the Finals MVP in all six of those iconic victories. Jordan even retired to go play baseball then came back and won his second three titles. Adding to that, Jordan was a five-time league MVP as well.
“Air” Jordan made 14 All-Star games, taking home the MVP award in three of them. He made 10 All-NBA First Teams. Jordan had nine NBA All-Defensive First Team awards and was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. In a huge achievement, he was the NBA scoring leader 10 times throughout his career. Jordan also led the league in steals three times. He was also well known for his dunking prowess, particularly in his historic Slam Dunk Contest battles with Dominique Wilkins. Jordan also remains a leading figure in the sports apparel business and created a massive industry with his Air Jordan brand. But what he’ll be remembered for most are his epic three-peats with Chicago, feats that probably won’t be repeated.
For those and his massive all-around success, Michael Jordan is the greatest NBA player of all-time.