Ah, the NBA’s GOAT debate.
It’s likely the single most common water cooler topic the league has to offer, a never-ending source of passionate, opinionated disagreement.
Old-timers swear by the greats of their era, insisting their heights can never be reached again; younger generations tout today’s stars for pushing basketball forward.
Subjective criteria often lead the day. Some favor the highest peaks players are able to reach, even if only for a short time, while others prefer longevity and consistency.
The very best of all-time tend to check both boxes, but their precise ordering can vary heavily depending on how one weighs particular variables.
More like this
RadioTimes.com ranks the 10 best NBA players of all time.
Read more: Best NBA players in the league
10. Shaquille O’Neal
One of the game’s biggest figures, both physically and otherwise, Shaq is a perfect embodiment of the “peak vs. longevity” debate. At his very best in the late 90s and early 2000s, and particularly in the playoffs, O’Neal played at a level maybe only two or three others in history have ever reached; he was also known for “playing into shape” and not exactly taking every single regular season game with the utmost seriousness. But with four NBA titles, three Finals MVP awards, 15 All-Star appearances and 14 All-NBA selections, he’s one of the most decorated players ever – and could rank even higher for “peak” enthusiasts.
9. Wilt Chamberlain
By raw stats alone, Chamberlain’s ninth-place ranking among the all-time greats could feel like a slight. The man still owns numerous NBA records that may never fall, boasting preposterous stat lines like his 1961-62 season where he posted over 50 points and 25 rebounds per game. Chamberlain’s teams, however, regularly fell short in the biggest moments: He won just two championships in 15 seasons despite playing in a much smaller league than what we see today, and was regularly bested by another center we’ll see later on this list. And because the ultimate goal of NBA basketball is to take home a title at the end of the season, Chamberlain lands here.
8. Kobe Bryant
Second only to perhaps MJ himself as a modern cultural icon, Bryant was also one of the NBA’s greatest players. Five titles, 18 All-Star appearances, and a stunning 12 All-Defensive team nods are just a brief snapshot of Bryant’s remarkable resume, which also includes a reputation as one of basketball’s true “clutch” greats – his list of game-winners and buzzer-beaters is hilariously long. Bryant’s tragic death in 2020 shocked the basketball world, but his immense contributions to the game and a whole era of fans will never be forgotten.
7. Magic Johnson
Like O’Neal, Johnson is another Lakers legend whose peak is undeniable. While his career was sadly cut short by an AIDS diagnosis, he made the absolute most of every second he was in the NBA: Five titles in 13 seasons, 12 All-Star appearances, three MVPs and four assist crowns. He’s remained one of basketball’s great ambassadors and voices in the decades since his retirement, and will forever be one of the game’s most recognisable legends.
6. Tim Duncan
Duncan embodies both peak and longevity in truly remarkable ways. In 19 seasons, all with the San Antonio Spurs, Duncan was both consistent and elite throughout – from a Rookie of the Year award in 1998 to five championships, two MVPs and 15 All-Star appearances. He’s regarded as one of basketball’s true statesmen, with a quiet and devoted approach that made him a legend in San Antonio.
5. Bill Russell
Russell is the inverse of Chamberlain, his only true peer in his era, in several ways. While his statistics come nowhere close to Wilt’s, his impact on winning was unquestionably higher – as evidenced by the 11 titles the Celtics great racked up in just 13 seasons, often defeating Chamberlain’s team in the process. Widely regarded as the greatest defensive player ever and one of the game’s true winners, Russell was honoured with his name on the NBA Finals MVP trophy in 2005.
4. Larry Bird
One of basketball’s great marksmen before distance shooting was popular, Larry Legend was also one of the NBA’s fiercest competitors. Most players would be thrilled with averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists per game for just one season; Bird put up those numbers for his career, which also included three rings, three MVPs and 12 All-Star games. He’s one of basketball’s best all-around players, and one who regularly came up huge in the biggest moments to boot.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Six titles. Six MVPs, most in NBA history. Nineteen All-Star appearances. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has the most unassailable, consistent resume of any player ever, and a legitimate case for the top spot on this list. From his signature sky-hook to his defensive prowess (he made 11 All-Defensive teams), Kareem absolutely defined the NBA in the 70s and 80s. He’s only added to his legacy as one of basketball’s great ambassadors since his retirement.
2. Michael Jordan
This placement will be an insult to those who can never accept MJ anywhere but the top spot. He’s synonymous with winning, perhaps more than any other athlete in history: A perfect 6-0 in Finals appearances, all six coming with a Finals MVP nod; five MVPs, 14 All-Star appearances and a Defensive Player of the Year title; he even won All-Star Game MVP three times. He’s narrowly edged on this list, but will always be the GOAT for many basketball fans.
1. LeBron James
Even if you quibble with James’ place atop this list, there’s no doubting his remarkable greatness. He combines Jordan’s peak with Abdul-Jabbar’s longevity, still going strong in year 21 of his sterling career. His Finals record doesn’t match Jordan’s, sure, but he’s been there more often (and sometimes with lesser supporting casts). He’s racked up four MVPs and the same number of Finals MVPs, plus 19 All-Star games and the most points in NBA history – and he’s still playing!
Try Radio Times magazine today and get 10 issues for only £10, PLUS a £10 John Lewis and Partners voucher delivered to your home – subscribe now. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to The Radio Times Podcast.