The 30 Best NBA Players of All Time, Ranked

Ranking the best NBA players ever. From Michael Jordan to LeBron James to Steph Curry, these are the 30 best basketball players of all time.

 

The toughest debates may not be the obvious ones.

 

When the Complex Sports crew started to put together this list, we didn’t waffle over whether LeBron deserved to be ranked higher than MJ. Nor did we particularly labor over why Tim Duncan, for instance, deserved top 10 status over Kevin Garnett and Kevin Durant (for now).

 

Instead, the politicking and petty attacks on each other’s basketball intelligence got really heated, over multiple Zoom calls and text threads, when we tried to properly rank Shaq and Kobe and a bunch of point guards toward the bottom of our 30 Best NBA Players of All Time list. It’s guaranteed to get hardcore basketball fans in their feelings and, in our humble opinion, do a much better job than some of those other rankings floating around the interwebs that shall remain nameless.

 

Almost up until deadline, we debated whether Shaquille O’Neal, inarguably one of the best big men in NBA history and a true disruptor on the court, deserved to be ranked higher than the late, great Kobe Bryant. O’Neal was physically and statistically unlike any center the NBA has seen. But how much more credit do you give Bryant for winning more rings and drawing legit comparisons to Michael Jordan?

 

And who do you give the nod to between three legendary guards—Chris Paul, Steve Nash, and Allen Iverson—when there’s only room for one? As each individual involved in this incredibly difficult and necessary endeavor lobbied for the player they thought deserved proper billing, we quickly realized it was going to be hellacious coming to a consensus. There were passionate pleas to weigh unprecedented accomplishments over sustained excellence. Others argued it should be about the numbers and that awards don’t always end up belonging to the most deserved individual.   

 

But decisions had to be made. So for better or worse, here are the best 30 players in NBA history, assiduously ranked. Praise or pillar the selections as you see fit. Some will love the rankings, others will loathe them. We’re cool with what we came up with knowing the next time we update it Kevin Durant could sneak into the top 10.  Our latest entry to the list is Nikola Jokic and with him entering the top 30, we had to remove another all-time great in John Stockton. The discourse never dies and we’re here for it. 

 

30. Allen Iverson

 

It upsets me that people might be shocked that Allen Iverson is included on this list. AI is unquestionably a top 30 NBA player ever. Just look at the accolades. 11-time NBA All-Star. NBA MVP. Three-time first team All-NBA. Four-time NBA scoring champion. Member of the NBA 75th anniversary team.  The list goes on, but Iverson’s cultural impact on the current, and even future, generation of NBA players are more meaningful than his numbers on the court. LeBron James has called him the pound-for-pound best ever. Dwyane Wade has said AI is part of the reason he wore No. 3 during his career. You could go on and on with former and current NBA stars talking about why Iverson was so great and means so much to them. For myself, I’ll never forget Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals. To this day that is still one of the most amazing individual performances on a basketball court that I’ve ever seen. For a guy his size to go out and drop 48 on the road against the heavily-favored Los Angeles Lakers is straight-up unbelievable. —ZF

 

29. Scottie Pippen

 

Way more than just a sidekick to you know who, Scottie Pippen’s greatness is sadly taken for granted by many, including those who saw it with their own two eyes along with the ones basing their assessments solely on what they saw in The Last Dance. But never forget what the GOAT, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, told us in the documentary: “Everybody said I won all these championships, but I didn’t win without Scottie Pippen and that’s why I considered him my best teammate of all time.” If ya don’t know, now ya knowwwww….Pippen’s numbers will likely never wow you because he wasn’t the scorer Jordan was. He never did anything as good as Jordan—except, that is, defend. Pippen is inarguably one of the greatest defenders in NBA history having made 10 All-Defensive squads (8 First-Team selections) during his 17-year career and regularly stifled the opposition’s best player like it was nothing. A Dream Team member and two-time gold medal winner who was skilled enough to be considered one of the 50 greatest by the NBA in 1996, and one of the 75 greatest players ever in 2021, Pippen did so much more than his averages indicated (16.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 5.2 APG). His hybrid play, like Magic Johnson’s, was way ahead of its time. And while he will forever live in the shadow of MJ, real ones know Jordan doesn’t ascend to Zeus status without Pippen doing all the dirty work and turning out to be the perfect complementary player. —AC

 

28. Isiah Thomas 

 

Zeke’s legacy has been somewhat tarnished over the years by the opinions of his peers and the off-the-court issues he brought on himself while in the Knicks’ front office. However, there’s no denying what he did on the court as the leader on two of the most hated championship teams in NBA history. The Bad Boys wreaked havoc on the NBA’s Holy Trinity of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan and most of the damage that was done was on the orders of the 6’1” point god. Detroit won back-to-back championships in the middle of what many call the toughest era of NBA basketball and made Jordan scratch and claw for years before he finally got the Bulls over the hump. Thomas was a diabolical general who was able to score whenever he wanted and put his team on his back to will them to victory. He’s still in the top five in assists (he averaged 13.9 apg in ‘85) and still gets under MJ’s skin. Zeke not being on the Dream Team is the biggest snub ever, no exaggeration, but he rightfully earned a spot on the NBA 75 team. —AD

 

27. Kawhi Leonard 

 

There’s really only one thing Kawhi Leonard has left to accomplish in his career. That’s a league MVP award, but I don’t think we should knock him for that if that’s missing from his résumé when he ultimately retires. He has the two Defensive Player of the Years, the two Finals MVPs, he’s put a franchise on his back en route to an NBA title, he made the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, and he’s pretty much won his entire career. His season with the Raptors catapulted him up the all time ranks, if we’re being transparent. But if you hold being a third or fourth option in the Spurs system against him, you also have to consider the other side—what if he got the keys to a team earlier than he did? Obviously, Leonard’s regular-season résumé isn’t as strong as others on this list due to injuries and being in that Spurs system, but his playoff performances smokes a lot of people on this list as well. I think Kawhi could end up in the Nos. 15-20 range when it’s all said and done, but this seems like a fair spot to start. —ZO

 

26. Nikola Jokic

 

Nikola Jokic has silenced the critics and doubters. The naysaysers that ridiculed him winning back-to-back MVP awards and discredited his resume because of his team’s playoff results have all been silenced. There’s no debating the greatness of Nikola Jokic anymore. There’s only man on this list with a 30-20-10 game in the NBA Finals. Jokic was already solidified as one of the best bigs of all time but now he’s entering himself into the convo as one the greatest ever regardless of position. He will go down as the greatest passing big man the game has ever seen and when it’s all said and done, he could make a run at being the greatest international player to ever play. Two league MVPs, a Finals MVP, and bringing a franchise to the top of sport for the first time ever. Not bad for a second round pick.  —ZO

 

25. Giannis Antetokounmpo

 

Call it an overreaction if you foolishly insist, but with all the accolades and the company he now keeps after that epic run through the 2021 NBA Finals, Greek Freak absolutely belongs on this list. Old heads might cringe at putting a 26-year-old, after only eight seasons, up here over a number of worthy legends, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is a two-time regular-season MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year, and just earned his first Finals MVP honors after authoring arguably the greatest performance in a close-out game we’ve ever seen. He’s made five All-NBA squads, four times he’s been named to one of the NBA’s All-Defense teams, he’s an All-Star MVP, was the Most Improved Player of the Year in 2017, and was named to the league’s 75th anniversary squad. A guy this young isn’t supposed to have so many accolades on his résumé, especially after he entered the league as such a project. But now that he’s earned his first championship, Antetokounmpo’s entered rarified air. Sure, his game has holes, and Bucks haters will say their run to the title wasn’t the hardest. Who cares? You can’t deny how dominant of an offensive force the Greek Freak is in the paint, how incredible of a defender he’s worked to become, and how inspiring his journey from a skinny kid in Athens to NBA superstar is to millions of basketball fans. Even despite losing in the second round to the Boston Celtics this season, Giannis became the first NBA player in history with 200 points, 100 rebounds and 50 assists in a single series. He’s arguably become the best player in the NBA at this point. Few guys in the league have ever affected the game in all facets like Antetokounmpo does, even if that 3-point shot forever remains a work in progress. Knock us all you want, but we’ll rest easy knowing Antetokounmpo belongs here as a newly minted NBA immortal. —AC

 

24. Dwyane Wade

 

 

Flash! There should be no shock that Dwyane Wade lands on this list. He’s a three-time NBA champion with a Finals MVP, a 13-time All-Star, a seven-time All-NBA member, three-time All-Defensive team members, has one NBA scoring title, and a spot on the 75th anniversary team—something Wade told us he still can’t believe. Once Wade burst onto the scene in 2003 it was almost immediately clear that he was special. From the high-flying dunks to the clutch mid-range jumpers off that patented D Wade pump fake, there was moment after moment where No. 3 left fans in awe. And though Wade played for the Bulls and Cavs later in his career, he’ll always be remembered as a member of the Heat. The moments he delivered in South Beach will live in basketball infamy. The arena on Biscayne will always reside in Wade County. When you’re ranking the best shooting guards of all time, just make sure you have Wade after MJ and Kobe. As he told us in a recent interview, you can’t talk basketball without mentioning the king of Miami-Dade County. —ZF

 

23. Moses Malone

 

The rare legend that bounced around the NBA during his days in the league, know that Malone playing for seven different franchises in the Association shouldn’t distract from the fact he is easily one of the best centers of all time. The three-time MVP and 1983 Finals MVP was a 13-time All-Star, eight-time All-NBA selection, member of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, and a rebounding machine practically unrivaled during the 70s and 80s. Six times Malone, nicknamed the Chairman of the Boards, led the NBA in rebounds and for 14 straight seasons, he averaged double-digits cleaning up the glass. Only eight players in NBA history have won three or more MVP awards and Malone doesn’t get anywhere near the love that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson—the other two players to win three MVPs—receive. You get that because it’s Bird and Magic we’re talking about and they basically saved the NBA in the 80s. But Malone’s accolades compare quite favorably. A Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2001, Julius Erving introduced his former teammate before Malone’s enshrinement speech and Dr. J joked with the audience that evening, “Just think about the sound of that name. He had to get famous. What a waste of a name if he didn’t make it.” Malone made that name synonymous with rebounding, winning, and ultimately, immortality. —AC

 

22. Elgin Baylor

 

Elgin Baylor never won a ring. But just because Baylor technically never won a title in his 14 years with the Lakers, two of which he spent in Minneapolis, don’t let that cloud how incredible of an offensive force he was and GOAT candidate during the league’s early days. The No. 1 overall pick in the 1958 NBA Draft, the Rookie of the Year in 1959, an 11-time All-Star, and an astounding 10-time First-Team All-NBA selection, Baylor of course resides on the NBA’s 75th anniversary team as he more than lived up to the hype when he entered the league and left it averaging 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds per game. He was innovative offensively, the first player in NBA history to pour in 70 points in a game, and inarguably will go down as one of the game’s best forwards. A no-brainer Naismith Hall of Famer inductee in 1977, the only thing missing from his sterling résumé was a championship. Technically, Baylor earned one since he was part of the 1971-72 Lakers squad that won it all, but he only played 9 games that season, retiring well before the playoffs started because of a nagging knee injury at age 37. Regardless of whether you consider Baylor a champion or not, know that another immortal on this list thinks Baylor deserves way more props than he receives. “Who do I think was the greatest? Oscar Robertson once asked. “This might shock you: Elgin Baylor. I’d love to see some of today’s greats playing against Elgin. They couldn’t guard him. Nobody could.” —AC

 

21. David Robinson

 

The Admiral. David Robinson is a true generational talent comes in at No. 21 on our list. That really shows you how hard it is to rank these guys. A two-time champion, MVP, 10-time All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year, four-time first team All-NBA guy can’t crack the top 20. Maybe we have Robinson too low, but when you get to this point, and you’re comparing ultra great players to ultra great players, it’s basically like splitting hairs. In Robinson’s case, his greatness was never flashy, but his presence and play helped propel the San Antonio Spurs dynasty, which was of course then carried on by Tim Duncan. Robinson was a guy who really did it all, and his numbers prove that. Robinson averaged a 21.1 PPG and 10.6 RPG double-double for his career while racking up 3.0 BPG in the process. That’s flat out impressive. Not only were Robinson’s numbers at an elite level, but he brought an athleticism to the center position that was rarely seen for his era and that’s why he’s on the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. The Admiral was able to do it all and then some. —ZF

 

20. Julius Erving

 

Dr. J was everyone’s Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. The NBA merged with the ABA in ‘76 because of the Doctor (there were a bunch of other great players too like George Gervin) and he continued to take another league by storm after winning two chips with the Nets in the ABA. He helped the Sixers make the Finals during his first season in the modern NBA, but lost to Bill Walton’s Blazers in six games. Dr. J floated through the air as his lanky limbs cut to the rim and his hair blew in the wind. I can only imagine how that shit looked back in those days. It was probably like watching an alien. Sometimes I watch his reverse layup during the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the 1980 Finals against the Lakers and try to figure out how the hell he was able to stay in the air that long. And he’s not all style and flair either. Erving’s career numbers are just as impressive as his plays. He averaged 24.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 4.2 APG, 2.0 SPG, and 1.7 BPG. He also made 11 NBA All-Star teams, won three MVP awards across the NBA and ABA, and made the 75th anniversary team. Dr. J is the godfather of the modern NBA. —AD

 

19. Karl Malone

 

Karl Malone falls into a long list of players from the 90s who were really good but ultimately overshadowed by Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Losing two Finals defeats at the hands of MJ and company certainly didn’t help. Still, Malone is the No. 2 scorer in NBA history and averaged 25.0 PPG over his 19 seasons in the league. He was a two-time NBA MVP, appeared in 14 All-Star games, made first team All-NBA an insane 11 times, and is a member of the 75th anniversary team. The numbers show that Malone is easily a top 20 player in NBA history. His career will undoubtedly always be tied to the failures to win a ring, but the production was always there for Malone. —ZF

 

Clutch jerru

 

Before he was known as The Logo, his teammates called him Mr. Clutch. Jerry West was that lethal shooting the ball—an absurd 47.4 percent for his career—and retired after the 1974 season ranked in the top 5 in points scored, points per game, free throws made, and assists. Despite going to nine NBA Finals with the Lakers, West won only one title in 1972. But one of the greatest guards ever made the All-Star team each of his 14 seasons in Los Angeles, made 12 All-NBA squads, was a five-time All-Defense selection, and a no-brainer to make the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. West legitimately did it all, including leading the league in scoring during the 1969-70 season and assists during his lone championship season. Sure, he played with some other legendary Lakers and the 1-8 record in the Finals stands out. But as great as he was in the regular-season, West shined in the playoffs. He averaged 30 or more seven times, including a preposterous 40.6 per over 11 games in 1965. The way every player gets compared to Michael Jordan nowadays, that’s how it was with West back in the 60s and 70s. He was the gold standard and wholly worthy of being cast as the league’s logo, even if he not so secretly disdains the honor. —AC

 

17. Dirk Nowitzki 

 

 

Yet another tough ranking. This section of the list includes a lot of legendary big men from NBA history, but Dirk ultimately lands at No. 17 because of the way he changed the game. Before Dirk, rarely did you ever see a 7-footer in the NBA launching from deep. Now just look at the NBA today. If your team doesn’t have a big man that can shoot from 3, you’re not winning anything. Dirk brought about change that fundamentally altered the way the NBA is played. Above all of that impact, Dirk’s numbers and accolades back up his spot on this list. He dropped over 30,000 points in his career, won an MVP award, made 14 All-Star appearances, earned a spot on the NBA’s 75th anniversary squad, and racked up countless other honors over his career. And though this isn’t all that important, Dirk was able to do it with the same franchise for his entire career. And I didn’t even mention how magical he was during the 2011 NBA Finals when his Mavs upset LeBron James and the Heat. —ZF

 

16. Charles Barkley 

 

Crazy that Chuck is now underrated. A member of the NBA 75 team, people forget that he dominated for years as a 6’6” power forward. The Mound Round of Rebound was a beast on the boards, averaging 11.7 for his career even with his “down” years in Houston. Barkley couldn’t be stopped offensively either, beating out Jordan for the ‘93 MVP and taking his new team the Suns to the Finals where he lost to Jordan’s Bulls in six. Chuck played bigger than he was and was way more athletic than he was perceived.

Gideon Canice

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