Over the years, basketball fans have seen some amazing players come through the National Basketball Association (NBA). The best NBA players of all time have been thrilling crowds and TV audiences for generations, so it’s important to give them their share of the credit. But, before we dive into our list of the best NBA players in history, let’s talk about the ways they motivate themselves to perform at the highest levels, night in and night out.
The advent of social media gives athletes a way to interact with NBA fans and likewise. Fans have access to players as never before, and social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are to thank for this. Of course, athletes can get themselves in trouble with fans, teammates, and even entire cities on social media, but according to a recent study, the impacts may reach further than simply annoying other social media users with their opinions. A new study by researchers at Stoney Brook University examined 112 NBA players’ Twitter profiles from 2009-2016 and then analyzed their game statistics. The study found that NBA players who ‘Tweet’ late at night, between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., perform worse on the court the next day. Researchers found that those athletes who ‘Tweet’ late at night lowered their shooting accuracy by 1.6 percent and scored one less point per game. Players also took fewer shots and averaged fewer rebounds, steals, and blocks in those games.
If using social media late at night makes players perform worse, then what makes them perform better? Well, according to another recent study, pro athletes regularly perform better against their former teams. Researchers from HSE University, RANEPA and NES analyzed econometric models on game data from the NBA, NHL, and six European football leagues. The study found that athletes perform better against their former teams, but especially against their former teams in their former home arenas and stadiums, as visiting players. Furthermore, players that didn’t see as much playing time with their former teams as they do with their new teams had an extra ‘chip’ on their shoulder. NBA and NHL players with more advanced roles on their new teams took and made more shots against their former teams.
So, who are the legends that have graced professional courts? StudyFinds did the research, consulting 10 sports and basketball-oriented websites in an effort to bring you the best NBA players of all time. Our list comprises the five most frequently listed basketball players from across these sites. As always, feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!
The List: Best NBA Players of All Time, According to Sports Fans
1. Michael Jordan (1984-1993, 1995-1998, 2001-2003)
Easily topping the lists of the best NBA players of all time is none other than the ‘GOAT,’ Michael Jordan. ‘Air’ Jordan played nearly his entire career with the Chicago Bulls, who were virtually irrelevant in the NBA before Jordan’s arrival in 1984, and his iconic status in the city of Chicago may never be surpassed. Simply put, Michael Jeffrey Jordan was a winner, bringing home a staggering six championships throughout the ’90s.
“Michael Jordan is widely known as the game’s greatest player—and for good reason. ‘MJ’ accomplished everything possible in the game, piling up on the stats and awards. On the game’s biggest stage—the NBA Finals—Jordan went a perfect 6-for-6, also sweeping Finals MVP in his appearances. The Chicago Bulls legend dominated both sides of the ball, amassing 11 All-NBA selections, nine All-Defensive First team selections and 10 scoring titles. There is plenty of evidence to support Michael Jordan’s GOAT status,” writes Bleacher Report.
Michael Jordan didn’t just start out dominating the NBA and winning championships right away. It took a while for Jordan to secure his first title. Jordan’s Bulls had to get past the tough and physical ‘Bad Boys’ Detroit Pistons team before they could compete for a championship. Jordan had lost to the Pistons in the playoffs and it was clear the Bulls needed more firepower to help Michael. The Bulls acquired Scottie Pippen in the NBA Draft to help Jordan and the rest was history. Jordan, Pippen, and the Chicago Bulls went on to dominate the NBA Finals for the next several years.
“The five-time MVP was an assassin on the court, taking down opponents of all shapes and sizes. No one was safe from Jordan’s competitive fire as he extinguished all comers on his way to winning six Finals MVPs to go along with his six rings. Jordan owns numerous awards and records, most of which continue to endure to this day. Aside from the championships, Jordan is well-known for hitting one clutch shot after another, culminating in a number of game-winners and buzzer-beaters that are the stuff of legend. What is especially incredible about Jordan’s legendary status is that none of this is made up. He lives up to the hype and the mystique. None of it is a product of the imagination. That’s why if there is anyone who deserves to be at the top of the greatest players list, it’s Jordan,” adds Clutch Points.
Michael beat the likes of Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler, and Shawn Kemp in the NBA Finals. But, Jordan didn’t just dominate on the basketball court. Michael Jordan also changed the way athletes brand themselves and make money off the court. Michael’s Air Jordan shoes are still some of the best-selling sneakers in the world.
“Michael Jordan is undoubtedly the best NBA player of all time and there is no debate. Jordan set the standards for every player coming after him and changed the game both on the floor and off the floor. Throughout his career, the greatest player of all time averaged 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 2.3 steals while shooting 49.7% from the field across 15 seasons. Jordan claimed six championships in six appearances, five MVP awards, six NBA Finals MVP awards, and more as he had one of the most successful careers anyone could have in 15 years,” writes Sportsnaut.
2. Lebron James (2003-Present)
At this point, there is really only one name that can be mentioned alongside Jordan as the best NBA player of all time, and that’s Lebron James. Even before he played his first professional game, Lebron James was nicknamed ‘King James.’ Not only did Lebron live up to expectations, but he also redefined the way the league operates and the way players influence their teams in free agency. Still, Lebron can’t escape the comparisons to Jordan.
“It can be said that at least one of Lebron’s championships was harder than Jordan’s as he faced a Warriors team with 4 current All-Stars and 2 top 14 players of all time in their prime. Lebron has career averages of 25 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game and has the most career playoff points by far. While Jordan was a better scorer, Lebron was more of a play-maker, averaging 2 more assists per game. Lebron is also a more efficient scorer than Jordan was. Lebron takes 19.5 shots per game for his career while Jordan took 23 and Lebron has higher percentages on field goals and threes. While Lebron is already number 1 on this all-time list, another championship would further solidify this pick- and with the way Lebron recruits talent, another one could be coming soon,” explains The Sporting Blog.
Part of Lebron’s legacy is that he’s a team leader and a team builder. No other player has had as much influence on the way teams construct their roster as Lebron James. James’ influence has made him beloved by other players, and again, this is what makes him different from most of the other all-time NBA greats.
“Long before player empowerment entered the vernacular, James blazed a path to have his endorsements become partnerships, his status as a player become that of a stakeholder, his public persona to include an element of social activism. While James’ individual accomplishments will put his career near the very top of all to have ever played the sport, the blueprint he created will give others a chance to maximize their experience as a professional athlete,” adds ESPN.
Lebron James is an 18-time All Star, 4-time MVP, and 4-time NBA Champion, and his list of accolades keeps growing every year. Lebron isn’t finished playing and he’s already the NBA’s all-time leading scorer having surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabar in early 2023. Lebron has also won NBA titles with three different franchises and in 2016 he brought the city of Cleveland its first major North American sports championship in over 50 years. With one more championship, Lebron could force every major sports publication to rewrite and rerank their best NBA players of all time lists.
“The ‘Greatest of All Time’ debate is discussed by the media almost every season because of James’ nightly exploits.… he has been working his way up the greatest of all time ladder, passing other players in the discussion such as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain. Before his career is over, he may even take over the number one spot on this list, especially if he wins another title with the Lakers after taking home the 2019-20 championship, but that’s a debate for another time. For now, let’s just be witnesses and watch in awe of this phenomenon called LeBron James,” furthers Clutch Points.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabar (1969-1989)
Sky hooking through the lane and into the third spot on the list is none other than the living legend himself, Kareem Abdul-Jabar. Known lovingly by NBA fans and the world over as ‘Kareem,’ the 7-foot-2-inch center played for legendary coach John Wooden at UCLA. Kareem’s basketball career was something special as he played and starred on some of the best NCAA championship teams of all time before joining the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969.
“Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has 6 NBA Championships to his name. He invented the famous and devastating skyhook shot. He has scored the most points in NBA history. He has the most regular-season MVPs (6) ever. These are just few of the inhuman stats that he possesses which are still dwarfed by his impact and consistency towards the game. He was the best player in the league in the 70s. His is a historic and decorated career and his longevity is far from being matched in the current league,” writes Sportskeeda.
Once known as Lew Alcindor, Kareem Abdul-Jabar changed his name in 1971 after converting to Islam, similar to how Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. As critics will tell you, a big part of Kareem’s legacy goes beyond the basketball court.
“Before MJ and LeBron, Kareem ruled basketball. His résumé stands the test of time with six championships, six MVPs, two Finals MVPs, the scoring record and 15 All-NBA selections. His skyhook was an unstoppable weapon, becoming one of the most iconic shots the game has ever seen. But his legacy is so much more than just basketball. Off the court, Kareem has stood taller than his imposing stature, fighting for racial and religious equality,” explains ESPN.
Kareem is truly one of the most iconic sports figures in the history of professional sports in America. Kareem owns a record six MVP awards to go along with his six NBA championship rings. “No one has eclipsed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s six MVP awards and that’s for a good reason. His excellence extends over two decades, winning six championships along the way. Before being part of the Lakers’ Showtime, Jabbar had already won a championship ring with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 but had a long title drought…. But it’s impossible to talk about Kareem without talking about the skyhook. His signature move is one of the most enduring images in NBA history and one that is likely never going to be replicated. The Captain won five more championships with Magic directing traffic during the Lakers Showtime era,” furthers Clutch Points.
4. Magic Johnson (1979-1991, 1996)
Speaking of the Showtime Lakers, the fourth spot on the list belongs to the greatest passer in basketball history – Magic Johnson. Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson was one of the most electrifying players the NBA has ever seen, and he led the Lakers franchise to a whopping five NBA titles over the course of his exciting career.
“Magic Johnson began his career with greatness and never looked back. He won Finals MVP as a rookie when he famously started center in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. The Finals were like a second home to Magic and the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers, as they made nine trips during his illustrious career. The 6’9″ point guard used his large frame to shred defenses with precision. Magic’s 12.3 assists ranks first all-time in the playoffs. In his 14-year career, he amassed 10 All-NBA selections,” explains Bleacher Report.
Magic Johnson was big enough to fill in at center for Kareem but skilled enough to play at a very high level in Kareem’s place. And Magic did that as a rookie. However, Magic made his mark as the most skilled passer the NBA has ever seen. Perhaps no other player in history could see the court and anticipate his teammate’s movements the way Magic Johnson did.
“Magic Johnson is the best point guard of all time and it is not a surprise to see him sit in the top five of best NBA players in history. Johnson averaged 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, and 1.9 steals across 13 years of action. The point guard had an incredible eight seasons of averaging at least 11 assists per game in his career. Johnson won five championships, three MVP awards, and three NBA Finals MVP awards. He remains one of the most notable players from the 1980s with his battles against Bird. The Boston v. Los Angeles rivalry lives on as it peaked with Johnson during the Golden Age of the NBA,” writes Sportsnaut.
Magic’s career was cut short due to his testing positive for HIV. Magic’s retirement announcement was one of the most devastating press conferences in NBA history. However, that was just the start of Magic’s next chapter in life as he’s one of the most successful retired athletes in history. Magic has an ownership stake in several professional sports teams including the Los Angeles Dodgers of the MLB. Undoubtedly, Magic Johnson is one of the most beloved and iconic NBA players of all time.
“Adding Magic, the top pick of the 1979 draft, catalyzed the Lakers’ dynasty. Johnson helped the team to a championship as a rookie, filling in for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the clinching win. Behind Magic’s unparalleled playmaking at 6-foot-9, the Lakers won four more titles, eclipsing the rival Celtics in the decade as Johnson won both MVP and Finals MVP three times before an HIV diagnosis forced him to (mostly) retire at age 32,” furthers ESPN.
5. Bill Russell (1956-1969)
Bill Russell’s 11, yes 11, NBA championships are the most by any player in NBA history. Although Bill Russell played over 50 years ago, his impacts on the game of basketball are still unrivaled to this day. Simply put, Bill Russell is perhaps both the best defender the game has ever seen and the winningest basketball player of all time.
“The greatest defender in the game’s history led the Boston Celtics to a record 11 NBA Championships. Bill Russell is an interesting case, as his offensive stats don’t jump out at you, but his impact went far beyond numbers. Russell could flat-out dominate the game defensively. Still, his career averages are nothing to sniff at, and if blocks and Finals MVPs were counted/awarded throughout his career, he would’ve won plenty of those. Russell is the greatest winner in all of sports. His 11-championship count may be the safest record in the NBA game,” explains Bleacher Report.
Some of Bill Russell’s stats are mind blowing. Bill Russell went toe-to-toe with Wilt Chamberlin throughout his career, and the two players are forever linked and talked about together in most NBA circles. And similar to some of the other all-time greats on this list, Bill Russell’s impact was felt on and off the court.
“Russell dueled with Chamberlain throughout his career and finished it with 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists while shooting 44% from the field in 14 seasons.. The Hall-of-Famer was a civil rights pioneer and had a tremendous impact off the court. The NBA retired the No. 6 jersey league-wide after Russell’s death in 2022 which makes him the only player to ever have this honor in the league’s storied history,” writes Sportsnaut.
Clearly, there will never be another Bill Russell in the NBA. Russell stood for what he believed in and that carried over to the basketball court. NBA teams and coaches didn’t always like their players playing in the Olympics for Team USA, and that was the case for Bill Russell. Regardless, he found ways to win, and his 1956 rookie season is all the evidence you need to show Russell’s passion for the game.
“Russell’s accolades are unmatched. He won an NBA record 11 championships. He captured the MVP award five times, trailing only Abdul-Jabbar’s six. Russell led the NBA in rebounding five times, averaging 22.5 rebounds per game throughout his career. He made the All-Star Game in 12 of his 13 seasons, falling short of the honor only during his rookie year when he missed part of the campaign to play on the 1956 Olympic team. He led the United States to the gold medal that year and then guided the Celtics to their first NBA title months later,” writes The Athletic.
You might also be interested in:
- Bleacher Report
- The Athletic
- The Sporting Blog
- Clutch Points
- Players Bio
- Wolfgang Sport
- Rookie Road
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