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Bob Ryan

ESPN takes its shot at the NBA’s all-time top 30 — and it’s pretty much on target

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird both made ESPN's list of the 30 greatest NBA players — hardly surprising.AP Photo/Lennox McLendon

People love “Best Of” lists. I sure do. But the one guarantee concerning said lists is that they cannot please everyone. In the end, they are all subject to opinion, and somebody usually walks away angry, very angry.

Apparently not satisfied with the official NBA 75th Anniversary Team of a few years ago, ESPN has commissioned its own all-time Top 30 list. I was prepared to hate it, but — surprise, surprise — they got it right, at least at the very top, where it most matters.

Take a look. I have no argument with Nos. 1 through 8. I have long said that any listing of Top 10, or even Top 5, all-time NBA players must start with the three transcendent centers. The ESPN list therefore has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at 3, Wilt Chamberlain at 5, and Bill Russell at 6. I would, of course, have Russell at the top of that group, but I’m pleased to see the Big 3 get their proper due.

Michael Jordan and LeBron James are their 1-2, and I’m in agreement with that. They have Magic Johnson at 4 and Larry Bird at 7. Wherever you put them, they should be tied. They’d each love that.


Tim Duncan checks in at No. 8, and he’s my guy, although I will gladly entertain arguments for Oscar Robertson (9), Kobe Bryant (10), Stephen Curry (16), and the grossly underrated John Havlicek (26), who was every bit the equal of Robertson and Jerry West (19).

John Havlicek slotted in at No. 26 on ESPN's ranking of basketball's 30 best players ever.Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff

Celtics fans, do you want the bad news? You know how many people on this list wore a Lakers uniform? The answer is 10. I bet you forgot that’s where Karl Malone ended his career. This includes Minneapolis Lakers great George Mikan. All right, you know how many people on this list wore a Celtics uniform? Five. I must say I can’t argue with any of the Lakers choices, although I am no big fan of the Mailman.


Speaking of Mikan, where was The Cooz? A list such as this has a responsibility to honor historical impact, which is why I place Curry so high. His shooting exploits, plus his accessible personality, make him the most influential player of the 21st century. Bob Cousy had a similar impact on backcourt play, and passing in general, during the 1950s and ’60s.

Were you to stop the average American sports fan on the street in, say, 1958, and say, “Name a basketball player, any basketball player,” the majority would quickly answer, “Bob Cousy.” He was truly “Mr. Basketball,” and his omission from this list is borderline criminal. (I told you no list could satisfy everyone.)

There are five active players on the list, and I have no complaints. We have LeBron (2), Kevin Durant (12), Curry (16), Giannis Antetokounmpo (18), and Chris Paul (29). This naturally leads us to wondering which additional active players might someday crash the list. Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic is certainly on his way. Could Joel Embiid join him? If he doesn’t self-destruct, could Ja Morant construct a stellar career?

No, I don’t think Victor Wembanyama is quite there yet. Let’s wait till he actually plays in an NBA game.

Note that three of the last four names I’ve just mentioned belong to players outside the United States. The growth of international talent is the big basketball story of the last 30 years, and thus we have Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon (13), German Dirk Nowitzki (17), and Greek Antetokounmpo rightfully honored.


Giannis Antetokounmpo ranked No. 18 on ESPN's list, was one of three international players to make the cut. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

There are so many tough omissions. One that pains me is Bob Pettit. There was a time, pre-Bird and LeBron, when the two starting forwards on the all-time Top 5 would have been Elgin Baylor (20) and Bob Pettit, who failed to make the cut.

Pettit’s career was relatively brief (1954-65) but highly productive, as his point-per-game averages ranged from 20.4 to 31.1. He famously scored 50 points in a deciding Game 6 of the 1958 Finals to deny the Celtics a second championship.

But the ultimate testimony to his dominance at the forward position came from his phenomenal All-Star Game performances.

He averaged 20 points and 16 rebounds in 11 All-Star appearances, and included among them games of 20 points and 24 rebounds, 28 points and 26 rebounds, and 25 points and 27 rebounds. Come on!

A case also can be made for Dominique Wilkins, whose career average of 24.8 ppg includes averaging 25 points or better 11 times. He was, remember, known as the “Human Highlight Film.”

I’ll give one more: Allen Iverson. Begin with the fact that he was a cultural phenomenon beloved by countless fans for his swagger, wardrobe, and gutsy style of play. He finished with a career average of 26.7 ppg, with four years in excess of 30. There was never a tougher, more fearless player, and at 6 feet, he led the league in minutes played seven times. Think about that.


Allen Iverson's cultural impact and dominance at 6 feet makes him one of the tougher omissions from ESPN's all-time rankings.Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

As an aside, what distinguishes the NBA among the other major sports is how many players are readily identified by just one name. I give you on this list Michael, LeBron, Kareem, Wilt, Magic, Russ (maybe not so much), Larry, Oscar, Kobe, Hakeem, Julius, Moses, Steph, Dirk, Giannis, Jerry, Elgin, Charles, and Isiah. No last names needed for those gentlemen.

ESPN, you know you can’t please ‘em all. But I’m a hard marker and I say you did pretty well.

The top 30 all-time NBA players, per ESPN

1. Michael Jordan

2. LeBron James

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

4. Magic Johnson

5. Wilt Chamberlain

6. Bill Russell

7. Larry Bird

8. Tim Duncan

9. Oscar Robertson

10. Kobe Bryant

11. Shaquille O’Neal

12. Kevin Durant

13. Hakeem Olajuwon

14. Julius Erving

15. Moses Malone

16. Stephen Curry

17. Dirk Nowitzki

18. Giannis Antetokounmpo

19. Jerry West

20. Elgin Baylor

21. Kevin Garnett

22. Charles Barkley

23. Karl Malone

24. John Stockton

25. David Robinson

26. John Havlicek

27. Isiah Thomas

28. George Mikan

29. Chris Paul

30. Dwyane Wade

Boston Globe Today: Sports | September 22, 2023
Watch today’s full episode of Boston Globe Today: Sports from September 22, 2023.

Bob Ryan can be reached at robert.ryan@globe.com.