Every generation produces an elite group of superstars and hoops fans start excitedly discussing their potential to rival and even surpass the legends of yesteryear. The likes of Steph Curry, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard are lighting up the league at present, but they have a long way to go before they can trouble the best five players in NBA history list. Here is the top five as it currently stands:
5. Magic Johnson
Never has a forename been more appropriate. Johnson was the magician that set the tone for the Showtime Lakers’ awe-inspiring play, with his inch-perfect passing and endless bag of tricks. No-look passes, passes through defenders’ legs, behind-the-back passes, the 6ft 9ins genius had it all in his locker.
He remains the best point guard the NBA has ever seen, blessed with peerless vision. He hit the big-time as a 20-year-old rookie in the 1980 Finals, where he stood in for the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 and delivered probably the greatest post-season performance ever seen. He went on to win five NBA titles, three regular season MVP awards and three Finals awards, and could be even higher on this list, with even more impressive numbers, if his career were not sadly curtailed by HIV and early retirement.
4. Bill Russell
Many would argue that Wilt Chamberlain was the dominant player of his era due to the phenomenal numbers he consistently posted. In 1961-62, Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds, and had a remarkable career, but Russell simply owned him in the post-season. Every time they met in the playoffs, Russell outclassed Chamberlain and drove his team to victory.
Russell ended his career with 11 Championships to Chamberlain’s two, and he is the most decorated player in NBA history. In 13 years he won 11 Finals, and he was the star man in the all-conquering Boston Celtics team. Nobody was ever more successful, and nobody is ever likely to match his achievement, while individual accolades also flooded in for Russell. They did not give out NBA Finals MVP awards at the time, but if they did he would be the record holder by a long stretch thanks to his absolute dominance in the big games. His five regular season MVP awards leave him tied in second place with Michael Jordan, behind only Abdul-Jabbar on six.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Which brings us nicely to the next player on our list, a man who achieved amazing success individually and with his team. Nobody has surpassed Abdul-Jabbar’s six regular season MVP awards, and he was an All-Star during 19 of his 20 years as a pro. He won six NBA Championships and is the league’s leading scorer of all-time by a comfortable margin. Leading lights including Isiah Thomas and Julius Irving branded him the best of all-time, and nobody has ever won more games than him. His ambidextrous skyhook shot has gone down in history, and he displayed great finesse and agility despite being 7ft 2ins tall. He was a leader on the court and a titan of the game.
2. LeBron James
The most frequent debate among hoops fans revolves around who has the edge: James or Jordan? For now we have James second in the list, but he still has the potential to usurp Jordan as he has wound back the clock and is putting in one of the best seasons of his glorious career, aged 33. He is averaging close to a triple double, ranks in the league’s top five for player efficiency and by sheer force of will he is keeping the Cavs in contention this season.
In the NBA betting he is favourite with several bookmakers to win a fifth regular season MVP award, which would bring him level with Jordan and Russell on five, and leave him just one behind Abdul-Jabbar. He has made a habit of dragging lacklustre Cleveland teams to the Finals and has earned success, leading the Cavs back from a 3-1 deficit and driving them to victory over heavy favourites Golden State in 2016. He put in some transcendent seasons at Miami, winning back-to-back Championships, and has been the best player in the NBA for many years now. His sheer power is terrifying, his intelligence on the court is positively intimidating and he is a triple double threat every night. He has unparalleled vision and passing ability and is an exceptionally complete player, with phenomenal shooting percentages and efficiency, and he can point to a host of game-winning performances in the clutch when the stakes were high as proof of his mental strength. James is on course to break all manner of records, and when we look back in years to come he will be regarded by many as the GOAT.
1. Michael Jordan
Right now Jordan holds onto the number one spot as he remains the standard by which basketball excellence is measured. He was invincible on the greatest stage of all, leading the Bulls to six victories in six Finals and walking away with the Finals MVP award every single time. He was also a five-time regular season MVP during an extremely competitive era, and was astonishingly good on both sides of the ball. He led the league in scoring 10 times, but was also an All-Defensive First Team selection nine times.
In 1988 he won the regular season MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and the NBA scoring title, averaging 35 points on 53% shooting, 5.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 3.2 steals and 1.6 blocks. That set the tone for his career and his raging competitive spirit allowed him to accomplish everything possible. He piled up stats, honours and awards and could have been even more successful had he not taken a hiatus to try to make it as a baseball star. Jordan became a one-man brand that transcended the sport, and he remains the GOAT, for now at least.
Martin Green is an experienced sportswriter and has been covering the NBA for many years. He is a Sixers fan and hopes to one day see Joel Embiid threatening this list.