In October 1996, NBA commissioner David Stern announced the results of a fascinating and controversial poll of former coaches, former players, and media members. They had been asked to determine the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the NBA.
The group of 50 was honored at All-Star Weekend in Cleveland in February 1997. At the time, 49 were living (Pete Maravich died in 1988 at age 40) and 47 were able to be present for a ceremony at halftime of the Sunday game. Generations of greatness stood together on the Gund Arena floor.
The list was debated. Some players who were left off complained about their omission. And for nearly 20 years, the list has remained a centerpiece of debate. As a generation of players who came after the Michael Jordan era have dominated the NBA, there have been even more questions as to whether stars such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Steve Nash would crack a Top 50 list.
The Globe decided to formulate a new Top 50, including all players from the past 69 years. It was a given that there would be new entries and new omissions.
It was not easy. Some Hall of Famers had to be removed to make room for new players. Production in one era had to be compared with production in another. Players who accumulated great individual statistics had to be compared with those who were great winners and had more team success.
In addition, the Globe did what the NBA didn’t do 19 years ago: We ranked the players, 1 to 50, which should prompt even more debate.
This was an even more arduous task.
Where do you rank someone such as George Mikan, the first dominant center? Do you rank one player over another because he won more championships? Where do you place those whose careers were shortened by injury or who decided to retire in their prime?
Hopefully, this exercise will offer an opportunity to appreciate the greats of the past as well as acknowledge the current players who have achieved greatness.
So check it out and feel free to use it as sports bar conversation.
1. Michael Jordan — Simply the greatest player of all-time. Embarrassed opponents with his athleticism and skills, and helped change the course of the NBA with his dominance. Jordan went undefeated in the NBA Finals, winning six crowns and six Finals MVP awards. A year off to play baseball and a three-year “retirement” likely cost him a chance to approach the all-time scoring mark.
2. Bill Russell — His accomplishments are too numerous to mention, but one is being the great Celtic of all-time. He also has the most NBA championships of any player and was perhaps the game’s greatest defensive center. Simply a legend.
3. Wilt Chamberlain — The Big Dipper was the most dominant player of two generations, with his immense size and uncanny touch around the basket. Chamberlain could have played in the modern era because of his tenacity and rebounding. He is the only player to score 100 points in a game and averaged 50.4 points per game in 1961-62. On the Mount Rushmore of centers.
4. Magic Johnson — The first name says it all. He revolutionized the game as a 6-foot-9-inch man who could play all five positions. He was the definition of a point guard, making his teammates better, and gradually improved his game as his career progressed, fueled by his rivalry with Larry Bird. Reached the NBA Finals nine times and won five crowns.
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — Revolutionized the game with his unstoppable skyhook. Won championships in Milwaukee and Los Angeles, earning six MVPs during his 20-year career, in addition to being the game’s all-time leading scorer.
6. Jerry West — The logo of the NBA was the standard for shooting guards until Michael Jordan arrived. West averaged 27 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists during a 14-year career that included 14 All-Star appearances. Those great Celtics teams stopped West from winning more NBA titles, but he was MVP of the 1969 Finals, a series his Lakers lost.
7. LeBron James — In about his second or third year in the league, it was evident James would make this list. He has been the most dominant player of his era, earning four MVP awards and winning two NBA titles. Powerful and skilled, he is perhaps the greatest small forward of all time.
8. Oscar Robertson — The Big O was a human triple-double, dominating the 1960s with his versatility before joining Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee and winning a championship in 1971. Without the benefit of a 3-point shot, Robertson finished with 26,710 points and added 9,887 assists, which was a record for nearly 20 years. He was a 12-time All-Star and a nine-time first-team All-NBA player.
9. Larry Bird — The kid from Indiana resurrected Celtics basketball in the 1980s and became of the game’s top small forwards with his ability to shoot and to make the right play at the right time seemingly every time. Bird won three MVPs, three NBA titles, the Rookie of the Year, and two Finals MVPs. One of the purest shooters in NBA history.
10. Kobe Bryant — Another no-doubter after a few years into his career, Bryant is one of the game’s great scorers and competitors, having won five NBA titles and an MVP. He once scored 81 points in a game and he resurrected the Lakers franchise following the departure of Shaquille O’Neal. Averaged at least 20 points in 15 of his 19 NBA seasons and is a 17-time All-Star.
11. Shaquille O’Neal — Perhaps second to Chamberlain as the league’s most dominant and physically imposing center, O’Neal bulled his way to baskets and championships. He ran the floor gracefully early in his career, was a four-time champion, three-time NBA Finals MVP, and one-time MVP. He’s sixth all-time in scoring.
12. Elgin Baylor — If it weren’t for the Celtics, Baylor could have had five more rings with the Lakers. A magnificent scorer and a 10-time first-team All-NBA player, he finished with a career average of 27.4 points per game. Perhaps the best forward of his era.
13. Julius Erving — Perhaps the player of the 1970s, Dr. J became a cult hero because of his leaping ability and athleticism. He led the New York Nets to two ABA titles and was a three-time ABA MVP, then was the 1981 NBA MVP and a won a championship with the Sixers in 1983. He was known for his class and persona off the court during an era when many NBA players were experiencing personal issues.
14. Bob Pettit — A rather overshadowed all-time great, Pettit finished with career averages of 26.4 points and 16.2 rebounds in 11 NBA seasons with the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a 10-time first-team All-NBA player and a two-time MVP.
15. Karl Malone — The Mailman was the prototype power forward, with a hulking physique, running the floor for layups and dunks on passes from John Stockton. He racked up 36,928 points (second all-time) and 14,968 rebounds in his 19-year career and was an original member of the Dream Team. Averaged at least 20 points in 17 of his seasons.
16. Tim Duncan — The Big Fundamental is one of the top power forwards of all-time, leading the Spurs to five NBA titles. A master of the bank shot with defensive prowess, he is a 15-time All-Star, two-time MVP, and is ninth all-time in rebounding.
17. John Havlicek — Hondo was the glue of the late 1960s and ’70s Celtics, and is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer with 26,395 points. He helped the Celtics win eight NBA titles, was the 1974 Finals MVP, and made 13 All-Star teams. Made perhaps the biggest steal in league history to save the Celtics in the 1965 playoffs.
18. Hakeem Olajuwon — The Dream was one of the best centers of his era, unstoppable with his post moves and an imposing defender. He scored 26,946 points in 18 seasons, was a two-time champion, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, the 1994 NBA MVP, and the 1994 and ’95 Finals MVP.
19. Rick Barry — Barry scored a total of 25,279 points between the NBA and ABA and averaged more than 30 points a game in four of his 14 professional seasons, including 30.6 when he led the Warriors to the NBA title in 1975.
20. John Stockton — The league’s all-time assist leader was among the toughest and most productive players of all-time. He racked up assists on passes to Karl Malone but was also an above-average shooter and didn’t mind setting the tough pick.
21. Bob Cousy — The first master of the dribble and the assist, he led the Celtics to six NBA titles, won the 1957 MVP award, and was a 13-time All-Star. At a time when NBA players used basic passes to execute plays, Cousy revolutionized the behind-the-back pass and facilitated Red Auerbach’s offense. Often overlooked is Cousy’s 18.4-point career scoring average.
22. Kevin Garnett — The first high-school-to-pros player of the new era, Garnett not only became a brilliant defensive power forward with scoring prowess, he embodied toughness and leadership, especially in Boston. He has scored more than 25,000 points in his 20-plus seasons, with 15 All-Star nods, one MVP, and nine All-Defensive first-team honors.
23. Elvin Hayes — The Big E played during an era when it seemed every team had a dominant post-up center, and he teamed with Wes Unseld to dominate the boards in the 1970s. He tallied 27,313 points, still ninth all-time among NBA players, and was a 12-time All-Star.
24. Moses Malone — The late Malone was one of the game’s great rebounders, leading the 76ers to the 1983 NBA title. He won three MVP awards, led the NBA in rebounding six times, and finished with 27,409 NBA points. Malone was simply one of the game’s most intimidating players.
25. Charles Barkley — Before he became the most controversial professional sports analyst, Barkley was a powerful undersized power forward who could run the floor on fast breaks as well as rebound and dominate the interior against bigger players. He was MVP in 1993 in leading the Suns to the NBA Finals but never won a title.
26. Isiah Thomas — His career was controversial and sometimes star-crossed, but Thomas’s talents cannot be denied. He was the prototype all-around point guard in a pint-sized package. At 6 feet 1 inch, he could be as dominant as the 6-9 Magic Johnson. He had career averages of 19.2 points and 9.3 assists, and won two NBA titles.
27. Jerry Lucas — Somewhat overlooked in NBA history, he averaged 17.0 points and 15.6 rebounds a game while shooting 50 percent from the field. He was a seven-time All-Star in a 12-year career, and helped the Knicks to the 1973 NBA title.
28. George Gervin — The Iceman had perhaps the coolest nickname in league history, and his length and crafty moves made him an unstoppable scorer during the 1970s and early 1980s. Led the NBA in scoring four times. He also averaged 16.2 points in his final season, playing with a young Michael Jordan.
29. George Mikan — The NBA’s first dominant center, Mikan was a five-time NBA champion with the Minneapolis Lakers. His numbers are not comparable to the other all-time greats because he played just seven seasons before retiring at age 31. Mikan set the standard for the NBA center.
30. Dirk Nowitzki — One of the great international players of all-time. A smooth-shooting forward, he has scored more than 28,000 points in his 17-plus seasons. Nowitzki has made 13 All-Star Games and is a four-time first-team All-NBA player. Helped the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA title.
31. Patrick Ewing — He could not bring a championship to New York, but that shouldn’t take away from the dominant player he was during his 17-year career. He had 24,815 points and 11,607 rebounds and was an 11-time All-Star. Only Michael Jordan stopped Ewing from achieving more success.
32. Kevin McHale — It could be argued that McHale was only the third-best player on his own team, but he was one of the better all-around power forwards of all-time. A seven-time All-Star, he helped the Celtics to three NBA titles, was a two-time Sixth Man of the Year, and made three All-Defensive first teams.
33. Kevin Durant — The youngest player on this list, Durant is headed toward more greatness, as he has emerged into an unstoppable scorer and, like Magic Johnson, has modernized the game as a 6-foot-10-inch small forward. He has all the skills and has amassed more than 15,000 points, and is still only 27 years old. The 2014 NBA MVP.
34. Scottie Pippen — Like Robert Parish, Pippen was never the first option on his team (Michael Jordan took care of that responsibility), but he was a defensive menace who also scored 18,940 points and won six NBA championships. Pippen was the prototype player who could dominate in stretches on both sides of the ball.
35. Nate Archibald — Tiny became the only player to lead the NBA in scoring and assists in the same season when he averaged 34.0 points and 11.4 assists for the 1972-73 Kansas City-Omaha Kings. He was a prolific scorer before joining the Celtics in 1978, then changed his game and became more of a true point guard. A six-time All-Star.
36. David Robinson — The Admiral brought athleticism to the center position in the early 1990s as the NBA strayed from the dominant post player. He finished with more than 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds, led San Antonio to two NBA titles, and was MVP in 1995. Played all of his 14 seasons in San Antonio.
37. Robert Parish — The Chief was known more for his longevity — he played 21 seasons — but he was a capable scorer and rebounder in an era of dominant big men. His numbers are rather deceiving because he was never the first option on his team, especially in Boston, but he received his due with nine All-Star appearances and four NBA titles.
38. Allen Iverson — The Answer was the consummate scoring guard in a pint-sized body, fearlessly attacking the basket with an array of leaners and acrobatic layups. He won an MVP award, averaged 30 or more points four times, and carried an undermanned Philadelphia team to the NBA Finals in 2001. Always controversial, but his talent could never be questioned.
39. Walt Frazier — Clyde was the leader of Knicks teams that won titles in 1970 and 1973 (New York’s last NBA championship). He was a seven-time All-Star and teamed with fellow Hall of Famer Earl Monroe to form perhaps the greatest backcourt in NBA history.
40. Dwyane Wade — The 11-time All-Star has helped the Miami Heat to three NBA titles and emerged as one of the best scoring guards of his generation. Has averaged at least 21 points in 10 of his first 12 NBA seasons and has been a first-team All-NBA player twice.
41. Hal Greer — Boston fans remember Greer, who used to give the Celtics the business during their battles with the 76ers in the 1960s. He won a championship in 1967 and was named to 10 All-Star Games. Without the benefit of the 3-pointer, he remains 32d all-time in NBA scoring.
42. Dennis Rodman — Push aside the dyed hair, off-court antics, and erratic behavior; Rodman was perhaps the greatest rebounder of all-time. During an era when rebounding was a luxury, he consistently grabbed boards with pure hustle. He also slowed down some of the game’s greats with his menacing defensive style. Rodman won five NBA titles, led the league in rebounding seven times, and twice was the Defensive Player of the Year.
43. Paul Arizin — The 6-foot-4-inch forward averaged at least 21 points per game in his final eight seasons with the Philadelphia Warriors, and that was after missing two seasons to serve in the Korean War. He was named to 10 All-Star Games, and led the league in field goal percentage once and in scoring twice. One of the overshadowed all-time greats.
44. Clyde Drexler — The Glide was a member of the original Dream Team and won an NBA championship with the Rockets in 1995. He finished with 22,195 points and was named to 10 All-Star Games. Drexler was overlooked because he played in the Michael Jordan era, but he is an all-time great.
45. Steve Nash — In his unassuming style, Nash racked up assists, knocked down jumpers, collected two MVP awards, and for a stretch was the game’s best point guard. He was the definition of making his teammates better, while using his savvy and intelligence to batter defenses. He led the league in assists five times, is third all-time in assists, and is tops all-time in free throw percentage.
46. Lenny Wilkens — A smooth guard who was a nine-time All-Star and tallied 17,772 points during his 15-year career. He perhaps is underrated because he played in just 64 playoff games, but he was a brilliant point guard, finishing among the top 10 in assists in 12 seasons.
47. Reggie Miller — The game’s greatest long-range shooter, Miller helped modernize the league by making the 3-point shot a serious weapon. Shot an impressive 39.5 percent from the 3-point line for his career, piled up more than 25,000 points, and was a five-time All-Star.
48. Gary Payton — The best defensive guard of his era, Payton made defense cool and trendy, constantly harassing opposing guards with his aggressive style and trash talk. In addition, Payton scored more than 21,000 points and helped Miami to the 2006 title. He won a Defensive Player of the Year award and is fourth all-time in steals.
49. Paul Pierce — Perhaps Pierce would not have been a candidate for this list several years ago, but the Celtics’ resurgence and his ability to hit big shots and score at will without great athleticism make him an all-time great. Now in his 18th season, Pierce has scored more than 25,000 points, has been named to All-Star teams 10 times, and is fourth all-time in 3-point field goals.
50. Dolph Schayes — The big man amassed more than 18,000 points and 11,000 rebounds in his 15-year career, mostly spent in Syracuse. A 12-time All-Star, he remains 16th all-time in rebounds per game, although he retired 51 years ago. He also led the NBA in free throw percentage three times.
Losing their place
The following players were on the NBA’s original list but did not make the Globe’s revised Top 50:
Dave Bing — A seven-time All-Star who spent his final season with the Celtics, Bing was a dominant guard for his first seven seasons. But he was named to the All-NBA team just twice. In comparison with other scoring guards, Bing slipped off the list.
Dave Cowens — Known for his gritty play and leading Boston to NBA titles in 1974 and ’76, Cowens will always be one of the great Celtics. But he just wasn’t dominant long enough. Cowens played 11 seasons, but one of those was a 40-game comeback stint with the Bucks.
Billy Cunningham — A great coach and a 76ers legend, Cunningham was a prolific scorer who also spent two sparking seasons in the ABA. This was a difficult decision because Cunningham was one of the league’s better scorers for five years. But his career was over by age 32, and he played just 132 out a possible 248 games in his final three seasons.
Dave DeBusschere — If this were an all-time defensive team, DeBusschere would be on the list. He also averaged a double-double for his career and helped the Knicks to two NBA titles. But in comparison to other power forwards, DeBusschere was pushed off by more accomplished scorers.
Sam Jones — He is known as one of the great winners of all-time, helping the Celtics to 10 NBA titles in his 12 seasons. But statistically, Jones didn’t enjoy his best years until later in his career, including averaging 25.9 points at age 31. His scoring was impressive for his age but there were players in later generations with more prolonged scoring success.
Pete Maravich — A magician on the court, Maravich was one of the game’s great showmen, but his career just wasn’t long enough to warrant keeping him on the list. He was a dominant player for his first seven years but his career ended with three injury-shortened seasons.
Earl Monroe — The Pearl was one of the great ballhandlers and acrobatic players of his era, and he teamed with Walt Frazier in one of the great backcourts of all-time, but strangely, he made only one All-NBA team, following his second season with the Baltimore Bullets. Monroe seemed underappreciated even during his own time.
Willis Reed — Like Maravich, Reed was dominant in his first seven seasons, but he played only 99 games in his final three years and retired at age 31. Reed forever will be known for playing on a torn thigh muscle during the 1970 Finals and for being one of the game’s most courageous players.
Bill Sharman — An all-time great Celtic whose No. 21 is retired, Sharman is more a victim of his era, having dominated in the 1950s, when the NBA was still a growing league that was slow to integrate. Sharman led the Celtics to four NBA titles and was an eight-time All-Star. Another excruciating decision.
Nate Thurmond — Once again, if this were a list of just the greatest rebounders and defensive players, Thurmond would easily make the cut. He averaged 15.0 rebounds per game, fifth all-time. Despite his dominance, however, Thurmond was never named to an All-NBA team.
Wes Unseld — The 1969 MVP and one of the game’s great screen setters and outlet passers, Unseld was a great center. But he averaged just 10.8 points per game for his career, and there were more new-generation players with higher accolades.
Bill Walton — If he had had anything close to a full NBA career, he would easily make the list. But his surgically repaired feet never allowed him to be one of the all-time greats.
James Worthy — He was a great playoff performer, and the primary reason the Lakers won back-to-back titles in ’87 and ’88. But when comparing his regular-season stats to those of his contemporaries, they just don’t stack up. He was the Finals MVP in 1988, but only twice made an All-NBA team — both on the third team.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.