The Best NBA Players Of All Time
This list is overflowing with greatness.
Perhaps more than any other team sport, basketball allows for excellent players to make themselves stand out from those who are merely good. A great basketball player can take over a game almost single-handedly. A truly special one can even lead a team to season-length greatness without needing a ton of help.
In its more than 70 years of existence, the NBA has seen countless star players dazzle fans and plenty of them have even earned enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But, of those NBA stars, who have been the greatest players of all? We searched through the many statistical leaderboards at Basketball-Reference.com and found the players who dominated the game.
We used a mix of traditional stats (like per-game averages) and advanced stats (like value over replacement player) plus other marks of greatness (like championships and All-NBA honors) to put our list together. Current player stats were accurate as of April 10, 2019.
Did your favorite baller make the cut?
#25 — Russell Westbrook (2009-Present)
Killer Stat: 137 Career Triple Doubles
In today’s NBA, nobody stuffs a stat line quite like Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook. He actually places among the all-time greats in that area as well, ranking third in NBA history in triple-doubles recorded.
In 2017, Westbrook made history by averaging a triple-double for the entire season, a feat which no player had achieved in 55 years. Westbrook also ranks ninth all-time in career box plus/minus, a stat that shows a player’s statistical contributions to his team against the league average. He loses some points for his relative lack of success in the playoffs so far.
#24 — John Stockton (1985-2003)
Killer Stat: 10.5 Assists Per Game
Arguably the best pure point guard in basketball history, Utah Jazz icon John Stockton’s scoring average of 13.1 points per game is the lowest on this list, but his average of 10.5 assists per game is second all-time. In fact, he’s one of only two players to ever average more than 10 assists per game for his entire career. Stockton was also a ruthless defender, ranking in the top 10 for career steals per game.
You can get a sense of how irreplaceable Stockton was to the outstanding Jazz teams he led in the 1990s by the fact that he ranks 20th in NBA history in value over replacement player. This is an advanced stat that tells you how much more effective he was than an average bench player who would fill in for him.
#23 — Stephen Curry (2010-Present)
Killer Stat: .4364 Three-Point Shooting Percentage
Arguably the best shooter in history, Steph Curry has also proven himself to be one of the biggest winners ever in the NBA. He’s already won three championships as the leader of the Golden State Warriors dynasty, which has proven to be all but unstoppable.
Curry’s skill at shooting three-pointers is nearly unmatched, with him ranking third all-time in three-pointers made and fifth all-time in three-point shooting percentage. If you prefer advanced metrics, Curry ranks 18th all-time in win shares per 48 minutes, a figure which shows how much an individual player contributes to his team’s wins.
#22 — James Harden (2010-Present)
Killer Stat: 18 Career 50-Point Games
It’s hard to believe that James Harden was coming off the bench as recently as 2012, when he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Since joining the Houston Rockets that same year, Harden has revealed himself to be one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history, averaging 29.0 points per game since the 2012-13 season.
Only three players have ever put together more 50-point games than Harden — and they are all on this list. “The Beard” also ranks in the top 10 of career box plus/minus and win shares per 48 minutes.
#21 — Bill Russell (1957-1969)
Killer Stat: 11 NBA Championships
Hands-down the most prolific winner in American sports history, Bill Russell helped lead the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles in his 13-season career. Russell’s scoring average of 15.1 points per game is lower than most NBA greats but his career average of 22.5 rebounds per game is the second-best mark in history.
Of course, Russell’s era — in which players that matched his 6 feet 10 inch height were far less common — makes his numbers a bit less impressive but he was unquestionably dominant. Russell was also a 12-time NBA All-Star and 11-time All-NBA team selection.
#20 — Julius Erving (1972-1987)
Killer Stat: 16-Time All-Star in 16 Seasons Played
Selected as an All-Star in all 16 of his professional seasons, “Dr. J” was arguably the greatest star in ABA history before that league merged with the NBA in 1976. There, he continued to amaze as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.
He averaged 24.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for his career, and ranks 17th all-time in steals per game for his combined ABA/NBA career. You get a true sense of how special Julius Erving was compared to the players of his era when you realize he was named to 12 All-League teams, which puts him in a third-place tie for the most such honors in history.
#19 — Oscar Robertson (1961-1974)
Killer Stat: 181 Career Triple Doubles
A guard who was truly ahead of his time when it came to doing it all for his team (he played for the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks), Oscar Robertson was the original prototype of a Russell Westbrook- or James Harden-type player. Robertson was the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season and his 181 career triple-double score is 43 more than the player with the second-highest number.
“The Big O” ranks in the top 10 all-time for points per game (25.7) and assists per game (9.5), while his average of 7.5 rebounds per game is also nothing to take lightly.
#18 — Jerry West (1961-1974)
Killer Stat: 27.0 Career Points Per Game
Jerry West was so undeniably good that he was voted the MVP of the 1969 NBA Finals — despite being on the losing team! He’s the only player in history to accomplish that feat.
Somehow, he only won a single championship despite leading nine different Los Angeles Lakers teams to the NBA Finals. West’s career scoring average of 27.0 points per game is the fifth best in history and his 14 All-Star Game selections tie him with players like Michael Jordan and Karl Malone.
“The Logo” also sits at 13th all-time in win shares per 48 minutes, showing how invaluable he was to those great Lakers teams he was part of.
#17 — Kevin Durant (2009-Present)
Killer Stat: 27.0 Career Points Per Game
Love him or hate him, Kevin Durant makes a strong case as the best scorer of his generation, which includes guys like Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry. He’s averaged 27.0 points per game in his career thus far, ranking him in the top five in NBA history. Toss in the fact that he’s also averaged 7.1 rebounds per game and you’ll understand why he’s 10th all-time in win shares per 48 minutes.
Durant takes some flack for joining the already-great Golden State Warriors after he failed to beat them with his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he’s been an instrumental part of that team’s most recent two championships.
#16 — David Robinson (1990-2003)
Killer Stat: 2.99 Career Blocks Per Game
Of all the stats on an NBA box score, blocks are the toughest to come by — but they were nothing for David Robinson. “The Admiral”‘s career mark of 2.99 blocks per game is good enough for fourth best in history. Couple that with his 21.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game and you’ll understand why the San Antonio Spurs great made the All-NBA team 10 times.
Robinson was also a beast in terms of advanced metrics, ranking in the top 10 for both value over replacement player and career box plus/minus. His mark in the measurement of win shares per 48 minutes is second all-time, just barely behind Michael Jordan.
#15 — Chris Paul (2006-Present)
Killer Stat: 9.7 Career Assists Per Game
The best point guard of his generation — and possibly the best ever — “CP3” has proven to be as good at providing scoring opportunities for his teammates as he is at taking them for himself. A massive part of every team he’s ever been on (the new Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers, the Houston Rockets), Chris Paul currently sits in the top five in career box plus/minus and win shares per 48 minutes.
For his win shares per 48 stat, he sits fourth — behind only Michael Jordan, David Robinson and Wilt Chamberlain. His career average of 9.7 assists per game is third all-time and his 2.23 steals per game ranks him sixth all-time. He’s a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer when his time comes.
#14 — Hakeem Olajuwon (1985-2002)
Killer Stat: 3.09 Career Blocks Per Game
“The Dream” was about as dominant as any big man has ever been, proving he could score, rebound and block shots with the best to ever play the game. He put together career averages of 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.09 blocks per game, the latter of which is the best mark among all Hall of Famers.
Hakeem Olajuwon ranks 14th all-time in value over replacement and is 10th for that category when it comes to playoff games. It’s easy to see why he was selected for both the All-Star Game and the All-NBA squad a dozen times while with the Houston Rockets.
#13 — Tim Duncan (1998-2016)
Killer Stat: 15 All-NBA Selections
He might not have been the flashiest player of his day but “The Big Fundamental” was a nearly unstoppable winner in the first part of the 2000s, leading the San Antonio Spurs to five championships.
He averaged a double-double for his career, landing him a ridiculous 15 selections on the All-NBA squad, which ties him for the most in history. Tim Duncan also ranks sixth all-time in value over replacement player and third all-time when you’re just looking at playoff games, showing how paramount he was to those punishing Spurs teams.
#12 — Shaquille O’Neal (1993-2011)
Killer Stat: .5823 Career Field-Goal Percentage
One of the last truly dominant centers in an era of NBA play that’s since become dated, Shaquille O’Neal was a key part of four different championship teams during his career.
Sinking more than 58 percent of his career field goals attempted, O’Neal has the fourth best field-goal percentage in NBA history, and the best such mark among all Hall of Famers. Another stat that might shock you is that O’Neal averaged more points per game than Steph Curry, contributing 23.7 points on any given night — virtually all of which came inside the paint.
#11 — Bob Pettit (1955-1965)
Killer Stat: 16.2 Career Rebounds Per Game
He had a relatively short NBA career with the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks, but Bob Pettit certainly made the most of it. He was named an All-Star and All-NBA selection in all 11 seasons of his career, including 10 first-team All-NBA selections, which is the same number Michael Jordan earned. Pettit’s career numbers are truly staggering, with him averaging 26.4 points and 16.2 rebounds per game. This ranks him inside the top 10 all-time in both categories. Pettit was also the first player to ever be named NBA MVP, an honor he would win twice.
#10 — Charles Barkley (1985-2000)
Killer Stat: 11.7 Career Rebounds Per Game
Averaging a career double-double of 22.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game is the first thing that jumps out about Charles Barkley’s career in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Houston, but when you look at his ranking in advanced statistics, you really see how special he was.
Barkley sits at fifth all-time in value over replacement player and when it comes to career box plus/minus, he ranks only behind two guys named Michael Jordan and LeBron James, revealing Barkley’s overall dominance. The fact that he never got to win an NBA championship is one of the game’s true travesties.
#9 — Karl Malone (1986-2004)
Killer Stat: 25.0 Points Per Game
A defender’s nightmare in his NBA heyday, Karl Malone put up 25 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for his entire career, which lasted nearly 20 years and somehow never resulted in a championship.
There was a stretch from 1988-1993 with the Jazz in which “The Mailman” averaged nearly 29 points and more than 11 rebounds per game, but he wouldn’t earn his two NBA MVP awards until after that. Malone’s place in the metric of value over replacement player is third all-time, sitting right behind Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
#8 — Elgin Baylor (1959-1972)
Killer Stat: 27.4 Career Points Per Game
One of the game’s first all-around stars, Elgin Baylor also might have had the worst luck in NBA history, never winning a championship despite helping lead the Lakers to eight NBA Finals appearances in his 14 seasons on the court. Baylor was a beast, averaging 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds per game for his career. That scoring average ranks him third all-time — ahead of even LeBron James — and his rebounding average is 11th best.
Baylor was named to the All-NBA squad 10 times, being a first-team selection every time. He also put up at least 50 points in 17 different games, which is fifth-most all time.
#7 — Kobe Bryant (1997-2016)
Killer Stat: 25 Career 50-Point Games
A winner of five NBA championships with the Lakers, Kobe Bryant proved time and time again why he was one of the most feared competitors in basketball history.
“Black Mamba” is tied for first all-time with 15 All-NBA selections and his 25 career 50-point games help him rank third all-time, putting him behind only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Speaking of that number, Bryant also averaged 25.0 points per game for his career, which puts him at 12th of all time.
#6 — Larry Bird (1980-1992)
Killer Stat: 59 Career Triple Doubles
Larry Bird was about as deadly a shooter as there’s ever been, proving instrumental to the Boston Celtics teams that he led to three NBA championships — and five NBA Finals appearances — in the 1980s.
“Larry Legend” held down averages of 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game in his career, figures which helped him put together 59 career triple-doubles. That’s the seventh-most of all time. Bird also sits in the top 10 for career box plus/minus and value over replacement player in both the regular season and playoffs.
#5 — Magic Johnson (1980-1996)
Killer Stat: 11.2 Career Assists Per Game
Before LeBron James came around, there may never have been a better all-around player than Magic Johnson. The Lakers icon averaged nearly a triple-double for his career, putting up 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists per night in a 16-year span. He’s the only player in NBA history to average more than 11 assists per game and his 138 career triple doubles rank him second all-time, behind only Oscar Robertson.
Johnson’s spectacular play helped him lead the Lakers to five NBA championships in his career and he ranks fourth all-time in value over replacement player for playoff games, showing they couldn’t have done it without him.
#4 — Wilt Chamberlain (1960-1973)
Killer Stat: 118 50-Point Games
As dominant as any single player has ever been in a team sport, Wilt Chamberlain was unstoppable in his day. Towering over most other players, the 7-foot 1-inch giant managed to rip down 22.9 rebounds per game, a number that will likely never be matched for the rest of time.
In addition to being the game’s best rebounder ever, his scoring average of 30.1 points per game is second only to Michael Jordan’s, showing he could be a one-man powerhouse for the four different NBA teams he led. In 14 seasons played, Chamberlain was voted an All-Star 13 times. The 118 different games in which he scored at least 50 points is by far the most ever — 87 more than Jordan, who takes second.
#3 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970-1989)
Killer Stat: 38,387 Career Points
No player in NBA history has matched — or even come within 1,000 points of — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career total of 38,387 points.
He averaged 24.6 points and 11.2 rebounds in his career, which landed him a record-19 All-Star Game selections in 20 total seasons played. Abdul-Jabbar was a key part of six championship-winning teams for the Bucks and the Lakers. He ranks in the top 10 all-time in a host of other categories, including value over replacement player and win shares per 48 minutes.
#2 — LeBron James (2004-Present)
Killer Stat: 27.2 Career Points Per Game
In a generation of prolific production, LeBron James stands apart as the best — and as one of the game’s all-time greats. You can stand in awe of his career stat line of 27.2 points (fourth all-time), 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game, but James is one of those players whose advanced statistics are even more mind-boggling.
In terms of value over replacement player, for both the regular season and playoffs, as well as career box plus/minus, he’s the best in NBA history. His 12 first-team All-NBA selections are the most ever.
The fact that he led his Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat teams to eight consecutive NBA Finals, winning three championships, is also nearly unfathomable in an age where elite talent is spread across the league.
#1 — Michael Jordan (1985-2003)
Killer Stat: 30.1 Career Points Per Game
Michael Jordan and LeBron James are neck and neck at the top of many advanced stat measures in NBA history, but Jordan gets the nod because of his undefeated run in six NBA Finals appearances and his unmatched offensive production.
Jordan is the greatest scorer in NBA history, averaging 30.1 points per game, which is higher than even Wilt Chamberlain. He was also a monster on defense, averaging 2.35 steals per game, which is the best mark among all Hall of Famers and fourth in NBA history.
The Chicago Bulls teams he led in the 1990s featured some stellar rosters but he was the unquestioned leader, as proven by the fact that he ranks first all-time in win shares per 48 minutes, in both the regular season and playoffs.