Why 61? Well, in celebration of the first 50 years of the National Basketball Association, the NBA named its 50 greatest players of the first 50 years prior to the 1996-97 season. Eleven seasons later, assuming that the one player per year ratio remains the gold standard, that brings us to 61 players for 61 years.
As with any best-of list, there was debate about several names left off the original list of 50. Today the debate is even more difficult. To make matters a little easier, I decided that the 50 players already on the list are safe. Their honor cannot be taken away from them. They’ll always be remembered among the greatest players ever.
So I set out on a quest to add 11 names to the list, making it the greatest 61 players in the 61 year history of the NBA. To make sure this list is not short-changing anyone, I considered current and recently retired players along with past greats who didn’t make the original list.
Active NBA players needed at least four full seasons of NBA experience in order to warrant consideration because that was what Shaquille O’Neal had as the youngest player named to the original top 50 list. That eliminated names like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Brandon Roy from contention, but the list of qualified candidates remained extensive.
I used basketball-reference.com for the majority of my research and to compile statistical data on the players. In order to find the most deserving candidates I looked primarily at Hall of Fame inductees and NBA All-Star game participants.
After developing an original pool of nearly 75 candidates, I narrowed that list down to 40 finalists comprised of 20 current players and 20 retired players spanning every generation of NBA basketball. The 40 finalists have combined for 248 all-star game appearances.
Categories that I took into consideration included but were not limited to: points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals per game; player efficiency rating, All-NBA team honors; All-Defensive team honors; All-Star game selections; MVP awards and championships won. (Click to download an Excel spreadsheet full of data on the 40 finalists).
Taking all of these factors into consideration, I found this to be an extremely challenging process. It was easy to add players to the list but almost impossible to decide which players to leave off. I went back and forth about the final spots for hours. Every time I thought I had the debate settled, I found a different player who stuck out and the process restarted.
Eventually I settled on a group I was comfortable with, but it wasn’t easy. With only 11 spots up for grabs, the list of names not on the list read’s like a basketball almanac. But in the end, 11 players stood above the rest as newly named members of the basketball’s most elite fraternity, the 61 greatest players in NBA history.
- Kobe Bryant
With 10 all-star game appearances, 5 first-team All-NBA selections, 5 first-team All-Defensive selections and 3 NBA championships, there is no debate for Bryant’s inclusion among the top 61. Throw in the fact that he is still only 29 years old and it’s pretty clear that the real argument may be for Bryant as the best player ever by the time he retires. Currently playing on a Lakers team that many are picking to represent the West in the NBA Finals, Bryant may yet add another championship ring to a résumé that is already Hall of Fame material.
- Tim Duncan
If Bryant isn’t the most established NBA player today, it’s because of Tim Duncan. A 4-time NBA Champion, Duncan has the seventh highest player efficiency rating in NBA history. For those not aware of the new-age statistic, check out the story behind PER. As if his PER and 4 titles weren’t enough, Duncan has also been an all-star every year he’s been in the league, making the All-NBA first-team 9 times, the All-Defensive first-team 7 times and winning 2 league MVPs and 3 Finals MVPs along the way. Despite all of these accolades and accomplishments, Duncan is still underappreciated by the average fan because he doesn’t come with the glitz and glamour. He’s all business, and it seems to be working just fine. Just ask any Spurs fan.
- Kevin Garnett
Before reinvigorating his career this season in Boston, where he may win a second league MVP and perhaps his first NBA Championship, Kevin Garnett played himself into the Hall of Fame with the Minnesota Timberwolves. An 11-time all-star, Garnett is the T’Wolves franchise leader in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. And second place isn’t even close in any of the categories. If the numbers weren’t as great as they are, you could make a case for Garnett to get on this list based on passion alone. Few would argue that anyone plays as hard as he does for the full 82 games.
- Allen Iverson
The 32-year-old Iverson is currently 25th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and his career scoring average of 27.8 points per game trails only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain in NBA history. He was the NBA’s MVP in 2001 and is a 9-time all-star. Seven times he’s been named to the All-NBA team, including 3 first-team selections. But perhaps the most amazing fact of all is that Iverson has done all of this at 6’0” tall and 165 pounds. He’s the size of an ordinary man, but his ability to perform on the court is nothing short of extraordinary.
- LeBron James
He just turned 23 years old in December, but he’s already one of the greatest players in NBA history. In his first season he was rookie of the year. Each season since then, he has been an all-star. Now in his fifth season in the league, James is averaging more than 30 points per game. He averaged 31.4 in 2005-06. But while he wears number 23, his all-around game has people comparing him to Magic Johnson as much as Michael Jordan. He almost single-handedly willed the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference championship last year, and he’s the most feared matchup in the East again this year. His résumé is a work in progress, but no one has entered the league with as much hype—Sports Illustrated cover as a high school junior, for starters—and then lived up to it and exceeded it, as James has. With such great returns so early in his career, there’s no limit to his potential. But James’ name belongs among the game’s greats right now.
- Dennis Johnson
Playing the last 7 seasons of his career with the Boston Celtics, Dennis Johnson was overshadowed by the likes of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, all of whom made the NBA’s 50 at 50 list. But Johnson was an NBA Finals MVP back in 1979 with the Seattle Supersonics. For his career he averaged 14 points and 5 assists per game. But he made his greatest impact on the other end of the court where he was 6 times named to the NBA’s All-Defensive first-team. Johnson enjoyed great individual and team success in his career as a 5-time all-star and 3-time NBA Champion, earning him a spot among the best ever to play the game.
- Neil Johnston
You’ve probably never heard of Neil Johnston. I hadn’t either, but the Philadelphia Warriors great is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and for good reason. His career average of 11.3 rebounds per game is 19th best in NBA history. Plus, he led the league in scoring three years in a row from 1953-55. He was named an all-star six times and named to the All-NBA first-team 4 times. He also played a key role on the Warriors’ 1956 championship team. Finally, while there was no such stat as PER back in the 50s, Johnston’s PER is 9th best in league history, directly ahead of Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If that’s not elite company, I don’t know what is.
- Jason Kidd
Arguably the best point guard of his era, Jason Kidd is still producing at a high level. He was named to his 9th all-star team this season. He is currently 5th on the NBA’s all-time assists list, and he’ll likely pass everyone other than John Stockton on that list within the next 2-3 years. He’s also 11th in steals in NBA history. Additionally, Kidd has made the All-NBA first-team 5 times and the All-Defensive first-team 4 times while leading the New Jersey Nets to consecutive NBA Finals appearances in 2002-2003. Known as a teammate players want to play with because of his passing ability, Kidd has to be included in any discussion about great NBA point guards.
- Gary Payton
If Kidd was not the best point guard of his generation, Gary Payton was. Known as “The Glove” for his tenacious defense—he was named to the NBA All-Defensive first-team 9 times—Payton was also a gifted scorer, averaging 18.9 points per game for his career. Only six players have recorded more minutes made in their career than Payton, who ranks 3rd all-time in steals and 7th in assists. After falling just short of a championship in 1996 with Seattle, Payton returned to the Finals as a Laker in 2004 before finally winning a ring in 2006 with Miami. His ability to contribute to winning teams late in his career despite a decline in his physical ability helped put Payton on this list ahead of others offering stiff competition.
- Dwyane Wade
In the midst of Miami’s horrid 2007-08 campaign—they have a league worst 9-41 record at the all-star break—Wade was the last inclusion on this list, narrowly edging the other 29 finalists who did not make the cut. Yet despite having completed only four seasons and missing significant parts of this and last season, Wade’s performance has been so good and his potential is so great that I cannot see him failing to justify this selection among the greatest players of all-time. Consider this the Shaquille O’Neal exemption. What Wade has done, however, that even O’Neal hadn’t at this stage of this career is win an NBA Championship. Wade was even named Finals MVP. That honor coupled with 4 all-star appearances in five seasons suggests that Wade deserves this recognition despite his relative youth.
- Dominique Wilkins
The final name on the list, alphabetically, is one that many felt should have been included on the original list. Many also felt he should have been included on the original Dream Team roster (Christian Laettner? Really?). Wilkins was a 9-time all-star not to mention a 2-time slam dunk champion. He was voted to the All-NBA team 7 times, including once to the first-team and 4 times to the second-team. He averaged nearly 25 points per game for his career, and is 9th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He was known as “The Human Highlight Film” for his thunderous dunks, but his dunks should not overshadow the rest of his career as a big scorer in the NBA that rivaled Michael Jordan and Larry Bird in the late 80s.
Nearly 2,000 words later, there’s your answer to the question about the 61 greatest players in NBA history. Add those 11 to the original list of 50 (see sidebar, top right, for the complete list). Who should be selected as number 62 next year? Who should be on this year’s list that was not included? Who snuck onto the list that should not have? Weigh in with your thoughts.
For more information, visit MattHubert.com.