Building an NBA Top 75 All-Time list
Starting with the most exclusive NBA honors and building out from there.
La Soupe, Pablo Picasso, 1902-03
There are any number of ways in which you can construct a list of the 75 greatest players of all-time, which hand-selected voters have done for the NBA as it prepares to celebrate its 75th season. The NBA published a well-received, fairly non-controversial Top 50 list back in 1996 — the biggest controversy was including a young Shaq on the list. That turned out okay.
You could start with the Top 50 of 1996, figure out how many must-adds from 1997-2021 you have, and for every one of them over the count of 25 you have to debate removing someone from the 1996 list. That quickly gets you there if you’re comfortable trusting the 1996 list, though it restricts you from adding classic players left off that original list.
You could just build it from scratch, listing out your top 75 players ever, perhaps tiering them. I suspect that very few folks making these lists has lived long enough to watch all of these players in their times — the NBA started in 1946 — so you’d have to use markers like stats and awards and a whole lot of inherited lore to figure it out.
You can find some basic markers of excellence to build out an initial list, and then refine it and check it and refine it and check it.
This is what I’m going to do. Note that I did not get an NBA ballot; this is an exercise for readers’ benefit (or my own) only.
I’m starting with a list of all players who have had at least 11 All-Star appearances. This is a pretty exclusive list: 32 players ever. The All-Star Game began in 1951, so we’re only missing a few years in the beginning in terms of universality. We’ll get those early superstars another way.
Here are the 32 players we have from the 11+ All-Star club.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Kobe Bryant; LeBron James; Tim Duncan; Kevin Garnett; Shaquille O’Neal; Michael Jordan; Karl Malone; Dirk Nowitzki; Jerry West; Wilt Chamberlain; Bob Cousy; John Havlicek; Dwyane Wade; Larry Bird; Elvin Hayes; Magic Johnson; Moses Malone; Hakeem Olajuwon; Oscar Robertson; Bill Russell; Dolph Schayes; Isiah Thomas; Charles Barkley; Elgin Baylor; Chris Bosh; Kevin Durant; Julius Erving; Patrick Ewing; Allen Iverson; Chris Paul; Bob Pettit.
Let’s break that list down into players “eligible” for the 1996 list and more current players. First, the vintage players. All of the players who had either retired or played the bulk of their useful careers by 1996 on the list above made the Top 50 list in 1996. That’s 21 players. They are in.
Let’s look at the 11+ All-Stars among post-’96 players. There are 11 on that list. Eight are absolutely on the Top 75 list: Kobe, LeBron, Duncan, Garnett, Shaq, Dirk, Durant, Wade. The other three merit further consideration. That’s Bosh, Iverson and CP3. They are on the Maybe List. We now have 29 players on our big list.
Multiple MVP Winners
Let’s turn to another indicator: multiple MVPs. The MVP award began in 1956, so there’s about a decade-long blind spot by this critera. Is there anyone in that multi-MVP club not already on this list?
Yep, three modern players: Steve Nash, Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo. To me, they are all on the list. Steph is obvious. Nash is there based on winning impact, the two MVPs and helping to revolutionize the game in the 2000s. If Giannis retired tomorrow, would people consider him one of the greatest ever? I mean, did you watch the NBA Finals? Yes, he’s on here.
We’re up to 32 players, almost halfway there. A refresher on who we have so far:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Kobe Bryant; LeBron James; Tim Duncan; Kevin Garnett; Shaquille O’Neal; Michael Jordan; Karl Malone; Dirk Nowitzki; Jerry West; Wilt Chamberlain; Bob Cousy; John Havlicek; Dwyane Wade; Larry Bird; Patrick Ewing; Elvin Hayes; Magic Johnson; Moses Malone; Hakeem Olajuwon; Oscar Robertson; Bill Russell; Dolph Schayes; Isiah Thomas; Charles Barkley; Elgin Baylor; Kevin Durant; Julius Erving; Bob Pettit; Steve Nash; Stephen Curry; Giannis Antetokounmpo.
And our Maybe List: Chris Bosh; Chris Paul; Allen Iverson.
Let’s look at the list of players with 10+ All-NBA appearances. All-NBA has been around since the beginning of the league and is more exclusive than All-Star. There were 10 players per season honored until 1989, when it moved to three teams (15 players). Here are the members of the 10+ All-NBA club who aren’t already on our list:
John Stockton; David Robinson; Chris Paul.
There’s CP3 again. Stockton and Robinson were 10-time All-Stars, just missing our cut-off. All three get on the list. Remove CP3 from the Maybe List. Maybe he should never have been there. We’re now up to 35 players on the Top 75 list including all but three players with 11+ All-Star nods, all multi-MVPs and all players with 10+ All-NBA nods.
Multiple Finals MVPs
Let’s turn to a measure of a slightly different but all-important level of excellence: Finals MVP. Twelve players have won multiple Finals MVPs. Two of them are not yet on our list: Willis Reed and Kawhi Leonard. Reed had a fascinating, short career with just five All-NBA nods — competition was stiff! — and one MVP but two Finals MVPs. He’s on the Top 50 list from ‘96, too. He’s in. Kawhi? No MVPs, only five All-Stars, only five All-NBA nods. But two Defensive Player of the Year awards and seven All-Defense nods plus those two Finals MVPs — he’s in, too.
We’re up to 37 now.
Vintage Players Honored in ‘96
Let’s go back to our Top 50 list from 1996 to see who has been left out to this point. We have:
Tiny Archibald; Paul Arizin; Rick Barry; Dave Bing; Dave Cowens; Billy Cunningham; Dave DeBusschere; Clyde Drexler; Walt Frazier; George Gervin; Hal Greer; Sam Jones; Jerry Lucas; Pete Maravich; Kevin McHale; George Mikan; Earl Monroe; Robert Parish; Scottie Pippen; Bill Sharman; Nate Thurmond; Wes Unseld; Bill Walton; Lenny Wilkens; James Worthy.
Modern Players With 100+ Win Shares
Now let’s look at other post-1996 players who we haven’t added on yet. We’ll pull this list together using total Win Shares since 1994 (backing up a couple seasons prior to ‘96), via basketball-reference.com. We want to see who’s in the mix here. Win Shares isn’t a great measure for this, but should get us a big pile of potential candidates.
There are 39 players with at least 100 Win Shares (rounding up) since 1993-94. Fourteen are already on our Top 75 list. That leaves these 25 players (in descending order of total Win Shares):
Paul Pierce; Ray Allen; Pau Gasol; James Harden; Jason Kidd; Dwight Howard; Gary Payton; Vince Carter; Shawn Marion; Chauncey Billups; Reggie Miller; LaMarcus Aldridge; Tony Parker; Elton Brand; Manu Ginobili; Chris Bosh; Rasheed Wallace; Carmelo Anthony; Russell Westbrook; Dikembe Mutombo; Tyson Chandler; Jason Terry; Andre Miller; Eddie Jones; Grant Hill. What a list. Allen Iverson just misses it, by the way.
Pruning the Modern Candidates
With the 36 on our list, plus the 25 members of the Top 50 list in 1996 and the 25 players here, that’s 86. We can’t just take them all. So let’s prune at least 11 players off this Win Shares since ‘94 list. I’ll remove Eddie Jones, Andre Miller, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler, Elton Brand, Marion and LMA off the top. Sorry, guys. I also, regrettably, will remove Sheed from contention. Zero All-NBA nods, just four All-Star nods.
Let’s sit Billups, Pierce and Parker in a Merits Further Consideration (Finals MVP) bucket off to the side. THERE IS BOSH AGAIN. Still on the Maybe List. Let’s set Gasol and Ginobili aside. I’m also going to put Allen, Payton, Carter and Miller on the Maybe List.
Seven players left. Let’s deal with them.
James Harden, nine All-Stars and counting, seven All-NBAs and counting, an MVP, three scoring titles, five top-3 MVP finishes, IN IN IN. James Harden is definitely one of the top 75 NBA players of all-time, and I will not debate this.
Jason Kidd, a strong case with six All-NBAs, 10 All-Stars, five assist titles, two top-5 MVP finishes, a championship. High on the Maybe List.
Dwight Howard: 8 All-NBA, 8 All-Stars, 3 DPOYs, 4 top-5 MVP finishes, five rebounding titles, two blocks titles. He’s in.
Carmelo Anthony. Oh boy. Advancing him over to the Maybe List with Special Commendation.
Russell Westbrook: nine All-NBAs, nine All-Stars, an MVP plus three more finishes in the top-5, two scoring titles, three assist titles, the No. 2 highest usage rate of all-time!, averaged a triple-double in four of the last five seasons. Russell Westbrook is in.
Dikembe Mutombo: four DPOYs, yes, but only three All-NBAs. Eight All-Stars. Never a top-10 MVP finish. Two rebounding titles, three blocks titles. Clearly a step down from Howard in terms of active recognition. Maybe List.
And now Grant Hill, who definitely would be on the Top 75 list if not for injury. The peak was pretty high with five straight All-NBA nods beginning in his second season. But he only cracked the top-5 in MVP voting once in that span, and never got close to that level again. I’ll put him on the Maybe List but it’s probably going to be a no.
So we’ve admitted three more current players, up to 40 total now.
Let’s look at our Finals MVP club: Pierce, Billups and Parker. No one has gotten more career mileage out of a Finals MVP than Pierce. Four All-NBAs, never serious consideration for regular season MVP, no scoring titles despite primarily being a scorer. Pierce is on the Maybe List. Billups had a more rounded career, but put him there, too. Parker’s career looks a bit similar to Pierce in aggregate, though he has the four championships. To the Maybe List for him, too.
Let’s revisit Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili now. I … just don’t think so. Four All-NBAs for Gasol and the titles. Two All-NBAs for Manu and the titles. I’m not thinking that does it. Maybe List!
I have four more nominees for the Maybe List that didn’t make the statistical cut: Dennis Rodman, Tracy McGrady, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard.
The Final Decisions
Alright, let’s recap the 40 players on our Top 75 list:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Kobe Bryant; LeBron James; Tim Duncan; Kevin Garnett; Shaquille O’Neal; Michael Jordan; Karl Malone; Dirk Nowitzki; Jerry West; Wilt Chamberlain; Bob Cousy; John Havlicek; Dwyane Wade; Larry Bird; Elvin Hayes; Magic Johnson; Moses Malone; Hakeem Olajuwon; Oscar Robertson; Bill Russell; Dolph Schayes; Isiah Thomas; Charles Barkley; Elgin Baylor; Kevin Durant; Julius Erving; Bob Pettit; Steve Nash; Stephen Curry; Giannis Antetokounmpo; Kawhi Leonard; Willis Reed; Chris Paul; John Stockton; David Robinson; James Harden; Dwight Howard; Russell Westbrook; Patrick Ewing
And then we have 25 from the 1996 list who are unaccounted for. For vintage players, there are three big prior snubs that should be addressed: Dominique Wilkins, Bob McAdoo and Adrian Dantley need consideration.
And upon further consideration, the first two are in. Nique had seven All-NBAs, nine All-Stars and three top-5 MVP finishes. McAdoo somehow has just two All-NBA nods, but won MVP, three scoring titles and finish No. 2 in MVP twice. Yes, he finished No. 2 in MVP in 1976 and won the scoring title … and didn’t make either All-NBA team. Weird. Nique and McAdoo are in. We’re up to 42 plus the 25 unaccounted-for ‘96ers.
Dantley had just six All-Stars, two All-NBAs and no top-5 MVP finishes, but he won two scoring titles and is among the most efficient high-scorers in NBA history. Maybe List.
The Artis Gilmore Asterisk
The Artis Gilmore Asterisk is that if you include ABA stats Gilmore is definitely in but you can’t really include ABA stats until the NBA integrates those records into the NBA record books. If this were the Top 75 Male Basketball Players of the Past 75 Years, Gilmore is there. Alas.
Back to the Final Decisions
Adding the remaining ‘96ers gives us 67, meaning we can admit eight players from the Maybe List, or more if we disqualify players from the 1996 list.
Here’s the 20-member Maybe List: Dennis Rodman, Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony, Dikembe Mutombo, Grant Hill, Adrian Dantley, Chris Bosh, Allen Iverson, Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Ray Allen, Gary Payton, Vince Carter, Reggie Miller, Tracy McGrady, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard.
Here are the lowest ranking members of the 1996 list, in my book: Bill Walton (incredible two-year peak; is that enough?), Lenny Wilkens (never made All-NBA — never voted as one of the four best guards in the league?!) and Dave DeBusschere (one All-NBA team, third best player on the Knicks title teams, all-time defender but is that enough?).
And now, a brutal decision to select the top eight players from the Maybe List:
Damian Lillard — look at the stats, he’s already here
Those six are in. Now we decide if any remaining members of the Maybe List should knock Walton, Wilkens or DeBusschere off the list.
My top contender on the Maybe List is Anthony Davis. Wilkens never be named to an All-NBA team as one of the four best guards in the league is really bothering me. Davis might go over even Walton or DeBusschere for me, so I’ll take him over Wilkens.
The next group of my Maybe List candidates could have cases against DeBusschere, but having watched their careers I don’t feel strongly enough to make it, obviously having not been able to witness DeBusschere’s career.
The remainder of the Maybe List is eliminated. Walton and DeBuscchere stay on.
The Final List
Here’s our final official unofficial GMIB Top 75 NBA Players of All Time List.
Any oversights are mere mistakes, not malicious disrespect. Sound off in the comments or the Discord.
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