With the season on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, ESPN polled its NBA experts to rank the greatest players in the league’s 74-year history. It’s no surprise that Michael Jordan ended up on top, but there were close calls and heated debates throughout the rankings — and outside of them.
We turned back to our experts to take a closer look at some of the biggest questions coming out of this year’s edition of all-time NBArank, and we asked those experts to look into their crystal ball at what this list might look like in a few more years.
1. What’s your biggest takeaway from the rankings?
Tim Bontemps: That doing any list like this is hard. It is easy to poke at specific decisions, whether it’s why a certain player is on it or not, or why one player is ranked ahead of another. But trying to compare players going up against one another can be difficult at times, as we see almost every year with the MVP race. Trying to do it over the course of the history of the sport, and all of the various eras and changes it has undergone? That is another problem entirely.
Andrew Lopez: Stephen Curry vs. Kevin Durant will be a debate that follows both players for the rest of their careers. Durant holds the edge in Finals MVPs (2-0), first-team All-NBA selections (6-3) and total All-NBA selections (9-6) while Curry is first in regular-season MVPs (2-1) and total titles (3-2). When ESPN last did this exercise in 2016, Durant was No. 22 and Curry was No. 23.
Dave McMenamin: I remember how big of a deal the NBA at 50 celebration was for the league’s golden anniversary in 1996. Twelve of those 50 players not only don’t make our top 50 but don’t make our top 74. That means we have 38 from the original list chosen by the league and 36 new faces, which speaks to the advancements in the league in the past two decades but could also suggest some recency bias.
Kevin Pelton: That the timing of “The Last Dance” seems to be influencing the rankings. Scottie Pippen is the only player who was in the Hall of Fame at the time we last ranked players historically in 2016 to move up at least four spots from then, and Dennis Rodman also moved up two spots. Meanwhile, some of the players the Bulls vanquished in the Finals have tumbled: Gary Payton by 12 spots and Clyde Drexler by 21, the largest drop of anyone between the two lists.
Tim MacMahon: Recency bias played a significant role in these rankings, both positively and negatively. I believe Giannis Antetokounmpo is en route to all-time greatness, but it’s ridiculous for a 25-year-old who has never played in the Finals to be No. 27 on the list. Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony both clearly belong thanks to their overall bodies of work, but their reputations have been tarnished by their decline and difficulty adapting to the NBA’s changes in recent years.
2. Which player most deserved to make the top 74 but didn’t?
Lopez: It feels like Chris Webber should be on the list. A five-time All-NBA selection, Webber played 15 seasons and averaged 20.7 PPG, 9.8 RPG and 4.2 APG. Webber has a career PER of 20.9, and every eligible player ahead of him has made the Hall of Fame — a call that already feels overdue for Webber.
McMenamin: What if I told you there was a guard with 10 rings, five All-Star appearances and a career scoring average of 18.9 PPG in the playoffs and he wasn’t on this list? It would have to be a mistake, right? Sam Jones, known as “Mr. Clutch” by Boston Celtics fans, has a pretty compelling case to make it.
Pelton: Dolph Schayes. For better or worse, our voting panel largely ignored the 1950s, with George Mikan the only player in the top 74 who retired earlier than 1965. That worked against Schayes, a 12-time All-NBA pick who earned that honor every season in the 1950s.
MacMahon: I’ve already mentioned a couple of active players who were glaring omissions, so I’ll go to an earlier generation and pick Adrian Dantley. He was simply one of the most efficient elite scorers in NBA history. Of the 70 instances when a player averaged at least 30 points in a season (minimum: 50 games), Dantley accounted for three of the top six when ranked by true shooting percentage. We included 14 of the 15 players who had multiple seasons averaging at least 30, with Dantley the lone exception.
Bontemps: I know Dwight Howard’s reputation has taken a hit the past few years, but it is absurd that he did not make this list. There have been 26 players in NBA history named to the All-NBA first team at least five times. Only two of them — Howard and Dolph Schayes, one of the first stars in the history of the sport — did not make the list. He was clearly the NBA’s second-best player behind LeBron James over a five-year period, and nearly carried the Orlando Magic to a title in 2009. Because people don’t like him or his personality, his game has been given short shrift for years now. But that doesn’t change the fact that Howard will unquestionably be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and that he should definitely be part of any list like this.
3. Which player in the top 74 is ranked too high?
McMenamin: Dennis Rodman. He was a joy to watch and a pain to coach. His five rings and two Defensive Player of the Year trophies certainly put him in consideration for having one of the best careers of all time. But he was so one-dimensional that he became an offensive liability at times — averaging 7.3 points and shooting 58.4% from the free throw line for his career. I’m not saying he should be off the list, but I’d slide a handful of names ahead of him.
Pelton: Pete Maravich. Given his amazing exploits at LSU playing for his father, it’s possible that Maravich’s career would have gone better had he played with the 3-point line and modern spacing. Maravich’s actual career, however, was mostly filled with low-calorie scoring that didn’t translate into team success. I don’t think he belongs among the top 100 NBA players all time.
MacMahon: This might not help with my ambitions to make more appearances on The Jump, but it’s hard to justify Tracy McGrady’s spot at No. 52 overall, 22 rungs higher than he is on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. T-Mac was certainly much more than just a scorer, but his lack of playoff success and longevity should be held against him when compared with the league’s legends.
Bontemps: If this were a list of the 74 most important players in the history of the sport, or the 74 to make the biggest impact on it, Vince Carter would merit inclusion. He helped establish basketball in Canada and influenced the current generation of Canadian stars hitting the league. He is also widely considered the greatest dunker of all time. But while he’s had tremendous longevity, and has been one of the league’s model citizens, it’s hard to justify his ranking where it is, or, arguably, his being included at all.
Lopez: If we were ranking a player’s peak, Bill Walton might be properly ranked or even undervalued at No. 48. But ranking an entire NBA career, Walton’s injuries just zapped him of his talents far too early. He was a great NBA player, but other players had better careers and should bump Walton out of the top 50.
4. Which player in the top 74 is ranked too low?
Pelton: Clyde Drexler, who seems to have dropped mostly because of the focus in “The Last Dance” on the way Michael Jordan made him pay for the media claiming Drexler and Jordan were on the same level entering the 1992 NBA Finals. Drexler ranks 44th in my championships added metric, and the 13-spot difference from his finish in the voting is the largest for any player who retired after 1965 and played his entire career in the NBA.
MacMahon: Compare the six wings between No. 49 and 57 — Reggie Miller, Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Ray Allen and Clyde Drexler — and explain to me how Drexler was the lowest-ranked among that group. Drexler had the highest career scoring average of that group and was the best rebounder, passer and defender. Drexler is the only one on that list who was the best player on a Finals team (twice with Portland) and he won a ring as a star with the Rockets.
Bontemps: Rick Barry is a victim of some of his prime years coming in the ABA and, as a result, his NBA numbers looking lesser than they otherwise would. Barry was a first-team All-NBA selection five times — with those selections coming both before and after his ABA career — and was named to four straight first teams in the ABA. Only 14 players have been named to the first team nine or more times, and Barry ranks last among them. He might not ever win a popularity contest, but he won a championship in both leagues and was consistently among the best players in the sport for a decade. He should be a solid 10-20 spots higher than he is.
Lopez: He hasn’t had the team success or individual accolades of other point guards (although you can argue he should have had an MVP in 2007-08), but Chris Paul should be in the point guard cluster around 28-31 with John Stockton, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and Isiah Thomas instead of the one at 39-41 with Walt Frazier and Bob Cousy. And as this year has shown, he isn’t slowing down like many thought he would.
McMenamin: Ray Allen. He was the best outside shooter of his era, hit perhaps the biggest shot in NBA Finals history and had more than two full seasons’ worth of playoff games — winning two rings and making four trips to the Finals in the 171 postseason games he suited up for. He’s too low at No. 56.
5. Bold prediction: What will change most about this list by the end of the 2022-23 NBA season?
MacMahon: Anthony Davis probably has the best chance among active players to shoot up the rankings over the next few years, considering his talent and the likelihood of him playing for a contender. You could argue that Kevin Durant is underrated as is (No. 14, a spot behind Stephen Curry?) and he could cement top-10 status with a strong comeback in Brooklyn from his Achilles tear.
Bontemps: Both Kawhi Leonard and Antetokounmpo will merit inclusion among the 20 best players of all time. I would argue that both players are too aggressively ranked right now, given that they have only had a few seasons playing at their current level (each has been selected to only three All-NBA teams so far). But with another four seasons (including this year’s playoffs, if they happen) in the books, if both are able to stay on their current pace, they should do enough to not only justify their current ranking but also earn a hefty bump up the ladder.
Lopez: We’ll be arguing about Antetokounmpo’s place on the list and whether he’s deserving of being a top-15 player of all time. The end of the 2022-23 season is three years from now, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Greek Freak could add two more MVP trophies by then, giving him a total of three — something only eight players have accomplished in NBA history.
McMenamin: If Kevin Durant comes back from his Achilles injury looking like the KD of old, he could vault into the top 10 by stringing together a strong couple of seasons and putting Brooklyn in the mix for a championship or two.
Pelton: There already has been a little bit of projection in putting Antetokounmpo 27th on the list, even if we assume he’s set to win a second consecutive MVP award. Nonetheless, three more healthy seasons from Giannis should firmly establish him as one of the 20 greatest players in NBA history.