In honor of the 74th season of the NBA and knowing that we’re all craving basketball content while we’re all locked down during the pandemic, ESPN has decided to release one of their “greatest players of all-time” lists with all your favorite GOATs, legends and NBA superstars ranked.
I mean what else do we have going on? There’s only so much Netflix to watch and cleaning the house that we’ve many of us are having Zoom happy hours, turning to bet on virtual sports games since we don’t have any live sports to watch or wager on, and body weight workouts.
The 74 Best NBA Players Ever
Before we reveal the full list, we wanted to say that, as we’ve discussed ad nauseam, these types of lists are always going to ruffle feathers, but we have a feeling that this latest list is not going to make anyone happy whatsoever – especially Kobe Bryant fans (even though he moved up three spots).
The difference between the 2020 list and the one ESPN did four years ago, is this one seems to be much more controversial almost to the point of trolling us. We’ve included the rankings from 2016 and how many positions players have moved up , moved down, or stayed the same.
The only part that ESPN seems to get right is their top twelve. For the most part, it would be hard to argue that Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar aren’t the top three players in NBA history. Past that, we could have a robust discussion on how Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird are positioned from the #4-7 spots, but that also feels right.
An even more hardy argument could be had on #8-12 and whether Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant , Shaquille O’Neal, Oscar Robertson and Hakeem Olajuwon were too high or too low in that range. However that all seems like nitpicking (and it is nitpicking at this point).
Despite the problems from #13 on, that’s a really solid roster of the NBA’s greatest dozen and there’s no glaring name missing from that twelve if you asked me. Since you’re here and reading this, you are asking me.
Recency, media and other biases
Now here’s the section where everyone complains. Everyone meaning me because I’m writing this.
Past the top-12, issues arise right off the bat. I have big respect for Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant and they should certainly be on the list, but I’m uncomfortable with them at #13 and #14 respectively. It feels like recency bias to place Curry above accomplished legends like Dr. J (15) and Jerry West (16) and Durant over Moses Malone (18) and Kevin Garnett (20).
Two of the worst offenses are Giannis Antetokounmpo at #27 and Anthony Davis at #45. Even though this is only a couple examples, these voters didn’t just on these two players, they voted on the entire list. To me this shows a very clear recency bias. Both of these players are great players in today’s game but placing Giannis above the careers of John Havlicek (33), George Mikan (34), Jason Kidd (35), Kevin McHale (36), and Patrick Ewing (37) feels wholly disrespectful even when Antetokounmpo already has an MVP.
Davis is no doubt a dominant player in today’s game, but if he were to retire tomorrow, he wouldn’t even be in this discussion the next time ESPN releases a list, much less ranking above NBA greats Dominique Wilkins (46) George Gervin (47), Bill Walton (48), Reggie Miller (49) , Wes Unseld (50), and James Worthy (51).
It feels silly that I would even have to say that considering these are supposed basketball experts?
Prerequisite: A proven leader
Lastly, and I’m not trying to be a hater here, but it’s great to see that John Stockton dropped nine spots since 2016.
Still, his being ranked above Isiah Thomas or Steve Nash or Allen Iverson shows a clear lack of real basketball knowledge. Why? Sure Stockon’s has numbers and is the NBA’s iron man, but any list ranking the greatest players in the history of the league has a prerequisite.
That qualification being you’re one of those players that one would select to start your franchise with.
We’re not just speaking to numbers but less-quantifiable traits like leadership, clutch, killer instinct, and wanting to take the big shot. Essentially, we’re talking a player that can create their own shot, take the tough shots and can and will lead your team deep into the playoffs.
I would also say the same about Scottie Pippen. A great player, an obvious Hall-of-Famer, and a great all-time defensive player, but is Pippen really the 21st best player in NBA history? That’s a rhetorical question – with all due respect, we don’t.
Outside of Curry and Durant who are active players, Pippen had the biggest jump among players in the top 25. He jumped four spots since the 2016 list. That’s significant considering we’re talking about the best of the best players in NBA history.
One explanation is the recent release of the Chicago Bulls doc – so there’s likely a The Last Dance effect going on.
The fact of the matter is that, if this was the criteria, Stockton would not be drafted because he’s not a player that you would carry or lead a team as the primary player. Would you choose Stockton over Kidd, Chris Paul, Gary Payton or Clyde Drexler if you had one pick to start a team? Of course, you wouldn’t.
To see a much more accurate list, we encourage this list from SLAM Magazine from 2018. Or if you’re interested in seeing how the list may have looked had ESPN filled out the remaining spots for a top 100 list, click here.
If you’d like to hear more about why Jerry West and Isiah are relatively way too low on the list and why Davis, Stockton and Giannis are too high? We recommend listening to the latest The Hoop Collective podcast episode that spends an hour discussing the problems with this list with real hoop heads Brian Windhorst, Jackie MacMullan, and Tim MacMahon.
(Love that team and definitely the best basketball podcast.)