LeBron James or Michael Jordan? Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain? Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant? Old school or new school?
These debates rage on endlessly in every corner of NBA fandom, and our experts have done their best to answer them, ranking the greatest players in the league’s 74-year history.
ESPN’s NBA expert panel voted on thousands of head-to-head matchups, taking into consideration both total career value and peak performance.
Being in the conversation as the best player of all time means being part of an exclusive club — no disrespect to those who just missed out on the top 10. The list of 10 through 1 crowns the exceptional performers who have their own cases to be the greatest ever.
The Hall of Fame center transformed the game with a combination of agility and explosiveness and size, the likes of which the league had never seen. A four-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, O’Neal averaged a double-double during a career that spanned almost two decades. O’Neal became an All-Star 15 times and earned the 1999-2000 MVP award. The fun-loving big man used his outsize personality to become a global pitchman and analyst after retiring.
— Nick Friedell
1996-2016 Los Angeles Lakers
25.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.4 3s PG
For all of his statistical achievements — the five championships, the 81-point game, the 60-point finale, the league MVP in 2008, the 20 seasons all with the same franchise — Bryant’s lasting legacy is his mental edge and burning desire to master the sport. “Mamba mentality” became more than a kitschy catchphrase after Bryant died; it is now a blueprint for how to chase your dreams. He’ll forever be on the short list of players you’d want to take the last shot with the game on the line.
— Dave McMenamin
Perhaps the only perceived knock on Duncan’s game was that he was boring. He was known as “The Big Fundamental,” dominating for nearly two decades on both ends of the floor with textbook simplicity, such as his midrange bank shot and perfect position defense. More than anything, Duncan was one of the best winners, leading the Spurs to five titles and 1,001 regular-season victories, the most for any player with one team in NBA history.
— Tim MacMahon
1979-92 Boston Celtics
24.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 6.3 APG, 1.7 SPG
Bird and Magic Johnson revitalized the NBA — and the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. Bird led Boston to five NBA Finals and three championships with a blend of shot-making, passing and his feel for the game. He was the league MVP in three consecutive seasons (1984-86), something only Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell had accomplished. Until LeBron James came along, Bird was hailed as the best small forward ever.
— Tim Bontemps
On March 12, 1985, Larry Bird put on a shooting clinic for the ages, scoring a Celtics-record 60 points in a game against the Atlanta Hawks.
1959-62 Philadelphia Warriors, 1962-65 San Francisco Warriors; 1965-68 Philadelphia 76ers; 1968-73 Los Angeles Lakers
30.1 PPG, 22.9 RPG, 4.4 APG
Chamberlain was truly ahead of his time. His numbers — including scoring an NBA-record 100 points in a single game and averaging 50 points per game for an entire season — are mythical. The only reason he doesn’t rank higher on lists of the all-time greats is he won “only” two NBA championships.
1979-91, 1996 Los Angeles Lakers
19.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 11.2 APG, 1.9 SPG
Johnson revolutionized the game, entering the league as the tallest point guard in league history at 6-foot-9. He was a legendary winner, a transcendent passer, an instant highlight and a triple-double waiting to happen. Without Johnson and his rivalry for the ages with Bird and the Celtics, the NBA may not be where it is today. The charismatic Johnson took the “Showtime” Lakers to nine NBA Finals, and they won five titles. His fast breaks and no-look passes catapulted the NBA from an era when Finals games weren’t televised live to the global game it is today.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
The greatest winner in basketball history, Russell claimed 11 titles in 13 years by turning the Celtics into a defensive juggernaut. Russell’s defensive acumen and determination made him the perfect foil for Wilt Chamberlain, as well as one of the players from his era who wouldn’t have looked out of place in later generations. Those qualities also helped him earn five MVP awards and 11 All-NBA selections.
1969-75 Milwaukee Bucks; 1975-89 Los Angeles Lakers
24.6 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.6 APG
No one in NBA history can match Abdul-Jabbar’s lengthy list of achievements. He won a record six MVP awards and was a 19-time All-Star. He won six championships — with the first and last coming 17 years apart — and was named to 15 All-NBA teams, with 10 first-team selections. His unstoppable skyhook allowed him to score more points than anyone in league history, and while he wasn’t flashy, there has arguably never been anyone better.
2003-10, 2014-18 Cleveland Cavaliers; 2010-14 Miami Heat; 2018-20 Los Angeles Lakers
27.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 7.4 APG, 1.6 SPG
Standing 6-9 and weighing north of 250 pounds with a 40-inch vertical, James’ game is built on power, but his passing ability might be his strongest skill. The four-time MVP and three-time champion has reinvented how an athlete’s prime should be viewed; he had the Lakers in the thick of a title hunt as a 35-year-old playing in his 17th season. His chase-down block in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals to help complete a 3-1 comeback against a Warriors team that won 73 games will forever encapsulate his will to win.
The greatest player of all time. Jordan led the Bulls to six NBA championships, winning six Finals MVP awards and five regular-season MVP honors while becoming a global icon on and off the floor. Jordan’s brilliance on both ends of the court defined a generation of basketball and set a new standard for players following in his footsteps. His game transcended the sport.