But in his rookie year, Russell completely changed the franchise’s course and established the Celtics as the winningest team in the NBA. Admittedly, Chamberlain played at a time when post players were significantly smaller and basketball wasn’t drawing the types of athletic marvels we see today, but the man was so incredibly dominant that he deserves a spot in the top five regardless of context. But he didn’t earn his place on this list though some sort of vague, ethereal “winningness.” Russell was one of the fiercest defenders of all time and he redefined the value of blocking shots, in addition to averaging an incredible 22.5 rebounds per game over his career. But he was so much more than a dazzling smile. And, of course, he’s since won two titles (and counting?) Through the publication of this list, James has averaged a Robertson-esque 27.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 steals per game and—unlike the Big O—he was doing so against teams stocked with elite athletes and not players who smoked cigarettes at halftime. The most notable of his scoring feats came on March 2, 1962, when he put up an astounding 100 points in a game, an NBA record that will likely never be broken.
Most famous player ever? In his prime, Duncan, nicknamed “The Big Fundamental” by no less a nickname authority than Shaquille O’Neal, was one of the most sound players of all time.
as a member of the Miami Heat. He racked up three championship rings and 12 All-Star appearances in his injury-shortened 13-year career.
Looking at the NBA starts that suited up this season and played a majority of the games, here is a ranking of the top 20 players in the league right now. The 6’9” Johnson (making him the NBA’s tallest point guard) not only posted the best assists-per-game mark in league history (11.2) but had a tremendous all-around game, as well. I know I risk getting run out of my beloved Chicago on a rail for daring to suggest His Airness isn’t the best player ever but, well, I just don’t think he is. The Spurs dominated the finals to beat the defending champion Heat four games to one. The Celtics had played for 10 seasons before Russell joined the team, never once reaching a championship series in that time. The leading scorer in National Basketball Association (NBA) history is just the 10th-best player ever? While Kareem put up a whopping 38,387 points during his playing days, I can’t look past the fact that he spent a good chunk of his career receiving passes from Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, the two greatest point guards of all time. The 2019-20 NBA season, before it was put on hold, had a large group of players establishing their dominance in the league. I have a confession to make: even though I’m a lifelong devotee to all Seattle sports team, I had a fan-fling with the San Antonio Spurs teams of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. While Kareem put up a whopping 38,387 points during his playing days, I can’t look past the fact that he spent a good chunk of his career receiving passes from Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, the two greatest point guards of all time.
But, who are the best of the best? and fought Bruce Lee in Game of Death, so his cool quotient is easily the highest of anyone on this list. 1. Oh, and the 12-time All-Star also helped initiate true free agency into the NBA through a landmark antitrust suit, an accomplishment just as impressive as his jaw-dropping on-court exploits. Whatever.)
Oh my, yes.
Famously, he played center in place of the injured Abdul-Jabbar in the title-clinching game six of the 1980 NBA finals as a 20-year-old rookie.
While I’m too young to have ever seen him play, his statistics are so mind-blowing that I wish I had a time machine for the express purpose of going back and seeing him in action. In addition to his unprecedented prowess at putting up points, Chamberlain was also the only person to grab more rebounds per game than Bill Russell (22.9), all while averaging more minutes played per game than any player in league history (45.8). But, well, he played alongside another top-25 talent in Scottie Pippen and was coached by the strategic genius Phil Jackson during his most productive years. How much of an explanation do you need here? Don’t be fooled by his humble small-college provenance and the “Hick from French Lick” nickname—Larry Bird was one of the fiercest competitors and greatest smack-talkers in NBA history. The man’s desire to be the best is legendary and propelled him to six championships, five MVP awards, All-Star appearances in every full season he played, and the status as possibly the best defender ever. Be on the lookout for your Britannica newsletter to get trusted stories delivered right to your inbox. Indeedy. Michael Jordan.
Yes, the NBA consisted of just 8 to 14 teams during this period, so capturing championships was a statistically easier feat for a single franchise, but even that fact doesn’t minimize Russell’s historic accomplishments. Indeedy. Once there, he would finish with an emphatic dunk, a foolproof strategy that helped O’Neal lead the NBA in field-goal percentage 10 times in his career.
Unless you agree with me, in which case this was the most meaningful thing I’ve ever written.
… The four highest all-time NBA single-season scoring averages all belong to Chamberlain…in his first four professional seasons. This list is, naturally, incredibly subjective, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Moreover, his rivalry with Magic Johnson—who, spoiler alert, you’ll see a bit later in this list—during the 1980s launched basketball into an unprecedented level of national popularity that the sport has never fallen from.
Of course Michael Jordan is No.
He’s bigger than a good portion of the players in the NFL and yet he still moves as gracefully as the most nimble guards in basketball. He was amazing, but he had a lot of help, at least more than the last guy on this list. Most important player ever? By signing up for this email, you are agreeing to news, offers, and information from Encyclopaedia Britannica.
While his famously vanilla playing style and quiet demeanor kept him from having a cultural impact similar to the other greats, his four championships, 14 All-Star Games, and two NBA MVP awards are indisputable evidence of his fantastic ability. The uber-confident Bird had arguably the quickest release of anyone to ever play basketball and he’d often let his defender know that the shot was going in soon after it left his hands.
Absolutely. During the 1961–62 season, “The Big O” averaged a triple-double with 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists per game. Not only does he routinely pull off feats that I’ve never before seen, he has consistently evolved his game to fix the relative weak spots he was previously criticized for. Johnson’s otherworldly passing set the stage for the “Showtime” L.A. Lakers teams that captured five championships during his 13 years with the franchise.
And, frankly, it’s sort of fun tweaking all the Chicagoans who are surprisingly defensive about their sporting accomplishments. Where Timmy would work his way around an opponent in the post with his superb footwork, Shaq would often use his extraordinary bulk (7’1” and 315 pounds) to bully his way to the basket. has been obsessively watching sports for nearly three decades and arguing about them with friends for nearly as long. He won a league title in all but two of his 13 seasons as a member of the Boston Celtics. What? As magnificent as earlier players were, they never had to deal with the 24/7 stresses of 21st century media, which James has with aplomb. Tim Duncan (right) of the San Antonio Spurs stretches to block a shot by Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat on June 12, 2014, in game two of the NBA finals. Related: did you know that the 2013 Seattle Seahawks had the best defense in NFL history? When people knocked him for not winning championships early in his career, they overlooked that he almost single-handedly took an overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers squad to the 2007 NBA finals at just 22 years old. What? 6 Buildings You'll Want to Visit in the Netherlands, Irony, Oxymoron, Alliteration, and More: A Quiz. Most obsessively competitive to the detriment of ever having normal human relations with anybody? So, yeah, Magic Johnson—neat guy.
Plus his 30.1 points per game is the NBA’s highest career scoring average.
Quite possibly. LeBron James just does things that shouldn’t be humanly possible. Oh, and while this has nothing to do with his ranking on this list, it’s still incredibly awesome and noteworthy that he has successfully fought off HIV for over two decades, helped de-stigmatize AIDS through his high-profile advocacy, and launched a second career as an entrepreneur who opens businesses predominantly in poverty-stricken areas in efforts to spur urban revitalization. But O’Neal wasn’t just pure physicality—he was surprisingly graceful for such a massive man and he had a deft touch with his close-range jump shots. Adam Augustyn is Managing Editor, Reference Content at Encyclopædia Britannica. His free-throw shooting, on the other hand…. Also, his career totals were inflated by the fact that he played roughly 10,000 years in the NBA.
One of the most ebullient personalities to ever play in the NBA, Johnson’s charm was a major factor in the massive increase in the league’s popularity during the 1980s.
Moreover, he not only faced the incredible pressure of being anointed “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated as a teenager, but he’s actually exceeded the lofty expectations set for him.
At the opposite end of the “attractive play” spectrum from Duncan is Shaquille O’Neal.
Nevertheless, he was an awesome force who dominated the sport for two decades and perfected the sky hook, one of the most gorgeous shots the game has ever seen. Plus, he was hilarious in Airplane!
Ervin Johnson of the Minnesota Timberwolves fouling Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers during a game in the 2003–04 season. Oh jeez, this guy.
Russell was the ultimate winner in the history of the NBA. Yes, they played the kind of slow-paced ball that put most fans to sleep by the third quarter, but there was often a thing of pure beauty hidden among the tire-fire of a 78–71 final score: Tim Duncan’s bank shot.
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