In a sport like the NBA, which lends itself so well to statistics and the counting of points, rebounds, assists, and a thousand other data points, compiling a ranking of the best athletes who have played in America’s most famous league is nearly impossible. There is a chance that quieter protagonists and stories could be forgotten, even though they have left their mark on the pages of this field.
There are many, many basketball players who have made important contributions, but who is it that most of all has been instrumental in defining their generation or even those that came after him? So let’s try to draw up a ranking of the best players in NBA history, reducing the calculation of the greatest to five athletes.
“By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.” The official website of the NBA writes it, we don’t have to say it. Rankings like this are inevitably subjective, but perhaps never more so than in this case: Michael Jordan is the best player in NBA history, both in terms of what he accomplished on the court and in terms of popular acclaim.
Other names can be debated, but not his. Every time we talk about the “GOAT” in basketball, his figure is undoubtedly the one that comes to everyone’s mind. You don’t need to be the all-time leading scorer to be the greatest ever. The NBA owes a lot—not everything, but a lot—to Michael Jordan, both in terms of popularity and for what the former Bulls and Wizards have represented for basketball. A concentration of explosiveness, technique, grace, love of competition, and passion for the sport he practiced, MJ has somehow redefined basketball for those who had to deal with him at the time and also for those who came later, forced by the force of things to look to him as the highest aspiration.
His incredible career of six rings with one retirement in between for a stint in professional baseball, an undefeated Finals career, six Finals MVPs, and so much more is not enough to describe the impact His Airness has had on the industry and the world sports universe. He is perhaps the most influential and well-known athlete in history. His elevated silhouette has become the logo of his Nike Air Jordan shoe and apparel line, and the stick-out tongue has become the universal symbol of competitive trance. Michael Jeffrey Jordan is undoubtedly the best player in NBA history.
Here we are in Los Angeles, on the Lakers side, and this time to remember one of their best centers ever (Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal are not needed): Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., changed his name following his conversion to Islam. Abdul-Jabbar is the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, with 38,387 career points, a record that only LeBron James can break for the time being.
Six feet tall at just 14 years old, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a highly effective rebounder and skilled defender, but he is primarily remembered for his signature “sky hook,” his distinctive way of shooting for baskets almost stepping over the opponents that allowed him to find many successes in his career. His physicality, combined with his technical skills, earned him six titles—one with the Milwaukee Bucks and five with the Lakers—as well as six nominations for MVP of the season and 2 for MVP of the Finals.
Perhaps one of the most unfairly contested players in NBA history, LeBron James is the only one still active on this list and undoubtedly deserves to be counted among the greats. He is in second place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and still does not intend to quit. James is probably the most dominant player of his generation, both in terms of physical characteristics and technical qualities.
LeBron James can boast four rings so far, including two with the Miami Heat, one with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and another, most recently, with the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as just as many Finals and regular season MVP nominations. His most memorable triumph, however, came with the Cavaliers in 2016, when they trailed 3-1 in the Finals series against the Golden State Warriors, who were better than ever: his cry “Cleveland, this is for you” became instantly iconic.
In fourth place in this special ranking is Kobe Bryant, a player active more recently than Chamberlain, who unfortunately died prematurely in 2020 in a tragic helicopter accident in which his daughter Gianna was also involved. Nicknamed “Black Mamba” by his own will, Kobe spent all twenty years of his career wearing the yellow and purple colors of the Los Angeles Lakers, winning five titles and becoming, among other things, the only one to have come close to Chamberlain’s record with 81 points scored against the Toronto Raptors in 2006.
Growing up in Italy (between Rieti, Reggio Calabria, Pistoia, and Reggio Emilia), Bryant was best known for his “Mamba Mentality,” a combination of love for competition and passion for basketball that he brought out in every single moment of his life as an athlete and earned him the praise of Michael Jordan, who has repeatedly stated that he has partially revised his attitude. After his retirement, he wrote a farewell letter titled “Dear Basketball,” which inspired an animated short film, making Kobe Bryant the first NBA player to win an Academy Award in 2018.
Finally, this list finishes with the name of Wilt Chamberlain. We didn’t want to talk about numbers, but with him in particular, an exception must be made: one who, for many years, has been fantastic on many statistics, leaving a mark that still lasts today. Chamberlain was an active center between the end of the 1950s and the first half of the 1970s who changed basketball above all in terms of physical skills. Until that moment, in fact, professional players were mostly men of average height, and Chamberlain’s height of no less than 216 centimeters allowed him to excel not only over his opponents in basketball but also in other disciplines such as the high jump, the shot, and the 400-meter dash.
Among the many records he held in his career, the most impressive is certainly the one for the most points scored in a single game in NBA history: a good 100, a triple figure reached on March 2, 1962, with the Philadelphia Warriors jersey against the New York Knicks, at a time when, among other things, the three-point shot did not exist. The one who came closest to this monstrous figure in a game was Kobe, who in 2006 scored 81 points.