Everyone loves a debate that has the words “best ever” in it. In the NBA, the discussion about the “best player ever” kind of quieted after Michael Jordon retired the second time, but it's started up again recently with Kobe Bryant earning his fifth ring. So let's take a look at a) who is the best retired player ever out of the usual suspects, and b) which current players are rightfully in that discussion.
The key criteria I'm using to judge players is: improved the team's ability to win in the regular and post-season, great production numbers in regular season and post-season, worked more toward helping the team be a strong unit than toward accruing individual statistics, and was a solid contributor on both the offense and defense.
Best Two Ever
There's actually much less (reasonable) debate over who the two best players ever are than you think. Michael Jordan is one of these two for obvious reasons. Not only did he post great ppg averages throughout his career, his career shooting percentage was 50%, really good for a guard who was clearly the focus of every defense he ever faced. He usually lead the Bulls in assists, and he did so at a PG-like A-TO rate (career 5.3-2.7). His defense was very good, and the 27-55 team he was drafted to improved continually to the point of utter dominance. When he left for two years in the 90's, the Bulls posted their two lowest win totals of the decade before his second retirement in 1998, and they never got out of the Eastern Conference Semifinals without him. His already high numbers remained high or exceeded themselves in the playoffs, resulting in six championships without a real center to hold things down underneath.
The greatest player of all-time was Bill Russell. He is undoubtedly the greatest defensive player ever. He is probably the smartest player ever. He was probably the greatest passing big man ever. He was one of the two greatest rebounders ever. And his will to win no matter what was matched only by Jordan. Where Russell separates himself, even from MJ, was in his ability to unite his team from day one to play as a true unit with little regard for individual statistics; this is why the Celtics' top scorer often didn't top 20 ppg, and why Russell's assists averages were usually second on the team, just behind that of a Hall of Fame point guard (Bob Cousy or K.C. Jones). And Russell's mighty statistics only got better in the playoffs, including multiple years with apg numbers higher than Bill Walton's 5.5 in 1977, often considered the pinnacle of point-center involvement on a Championship team.
Boston won 11 titles in his 13 seasons, and the two misses were when he was injured in 1958 and had to sit out some Finals games, and his first season as a player-coach in 1967, at the helm of an aging team while facing terrible racism as the league's first black coach. Fans like to point out Russell's great supporting cast on the C's, but keep in mind they never even made the Finals before he showed up (during which they basically had the same team as his first season), and they fell right out of the playoffs for two years after he retired (again, with basically the same squad they had in his final season). If you read John Taylor's “The Rivalry,” a great look at the NBA in the 60's, you'll also realize the Celtics seemed to always go on multi-game losing streaks whenever he missed a few contests. And it should be mentioned that Wilt Chamberlain played alongside only two less All-Stars over his career than Russell did (26 to 24), and you have to think that Boston had so many simply because they kept winning titles. There wasn't anything about the Celtics as a team that didn't improve significantly with Russell's presence all throughout his career; Jordan had his own agenda for a while before Phil Jackson reigned him in somewhat during his seventh season.
Why It's Only Two
The sheer regular season numbers posted by Wilt Chamberlain are mind-blowing, but he always did much worse in the playoffs, and he was worthless at the ends of games; he didn't want to take the tough shots down the stretch for fear of missing them, and he tanked his defense big-time in order to keep his streak of never fouling out of a game intact. Despite playing on plenty of loaded teams, he won only one title as the top player on his squad, and that season (1966-67) was clearly his least Wilt-like (14 shots per game after averaging between 25 and 40 in his previous seven seasons). It's well know that he directly got in the way of almost any system his teams tried to play (like cutting off Elgin Baylor's left baseline drives), focused completely on himself all the time, was hated by his teammates and coaches (nine – no one liked trying to handle him), was traded in his prime for nearly nothing, and the Laker players once voted 9-2 against their team buying his contract (meaning no one would have to be traded away). Consequently, his record against Russell was 58-84, and his teams were a pedestrian 4-5 in playoff Game 7's (thanks, Bill Simmons). He was directly to blame for his teams' lacking chemistry and not doing well when it counted.
Of all the superstars in NBA history, Oscar Robertson was one of the most hated and feared by his teammates. His team's never did well in his 10 years in Cincinnati—the team's top win totals in that span were 55, 48, and 45—and he was a distant second fiddle to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his only title team (1971). He was traded for very little before that season, which tells you something about the Royals' thoughts of its star player. He put up some crazy triple-double numbers early in his career, but those went away quickly once the league started signing guards who weren't short and weak, which coincides perfectly with the inclusion of more than two black players per team (just saying).
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar presents the best case of making it a trio at the top of the NBA's “Greatest Ever” list because he put up great numbers on both ends of the floor forever, and he won six titles (five with Magic). He can't join MJ and Russell, however, because he didn't have the drive those two had. Sure he had some bad supporting casts in the 1970's, but the ABA kept plenty of talent away from the NBA until 1976, yet he still played on some middling squads that a super dominant center should never be part of. For example, before Magic Johnson arrived in 1979, the Lakers won 40, 53, 45, and 47 games with Kareem running things – hardly “best ever” material for a guy in his prime.
I might as well mention Larry Bird and Magic Johnson together since that's where they sit in our memory banks. They may be the two most important offensive players ever in terms of their effect on how their teams played. Their outstanding and unselfish passing was contagious, and both did great in the playoffs and brought their teams up to their levels. The big knock on Johnson was his bad defense, and Bird's window of dominance was simply too short to be called the best ever.
When you look at what Russell and Jordan accomplished during their careers, you have to be quite careful when throwing around the possibility of a current player being “the best ever.” Here is a look at some current ballers who writers and announcers like to mention on all-time squads, using the same criteria I used for players from the past.
At least one book has called Shaquille O'Neal the greatest player ever, chiefly due to his overpowering stats in the regular season and the playoffs, being the alpha dog on a Lakers three-peat, and helping every team he played on until age 35 do much much better once he arrived (and they also got much worse once he left). All very compelling stuff, but he has always been unreliable at the ends of games because of his atrocious free-throw shooting, and there's a lot of questions about his drive to be a dominant winner. His teams have been swept out of six playoffs, he's left a lot of franchises on bad terms, and it's hard to say which he put more energy and thought into: his famous All-Star Game parties or his off-season conditioning. He's almost become a cartoon reflection of himself, the guy who just keeps giving himself “Big” monikers and is constantly joking around about running everything. Plus two of those championships were directly due to reffing (LA over Kings in Western Finals in 2001, Miami over Mavericks in 2006).
Kobe Bryant scores a lot of points and has five rings, so it makes sense his name gets mentioned with Jordan's. There are a few stark differences between the two however. Bryant's key attribute is also scoring, but he is a volume scorer, not a skillful scorer. His career 45% shooting mark is low for the league and his team over the past 13 years, and he's never exceeded 47% shooting or 50% eFG% (both league averages) in a season. Never. His A-TO marks (career: 4.7-2.9) are low for a guard and often one of the worst on his team. He was clearly not the top player on his first three titles with Shaq, and his Finals performances in the past two ranks behind the contribution of Pau Gasol. Kobe's shooting percentages and turnover totals are usually worse in the playoffs, and almost always even moreso in the Finals. During LA's three-year stretch without either Shaq or Gasol from 04-05 to 06-07, the Lakers won four total playoff games. If we're talking about the best player ever, you'd think that stretch would be better, like the 9 playoff wins the Bulls had in 1988-89, well before Scottie Pippen was Scottie Pippen, at the apex of the league's level of talent (or their four wins the previous year, and again we're talking about very early in MJ's career with no real help). The Lakers have always had one of the highest payrolls in the league, even during that stretch of mediocrity, so arguments centering around Kobe's lack of a supporting cast make you wonder how Jason Kidd got the Nets into the 2002 Finals with Keith Van Horn putting up NJ's best scoring-rebounding combo with 14.8 and 7.5 on a team whose payroll was $30 million below those of the top two in the league. It also doesn't help that the Lakers' record when Bryant has been injured but Shaq or Gasol/Bynum were in the lineup is 46-11 (.807). When those big men have been out, Kobe's Lakers drop to near .500. The team's improvement without Bryant is the most damning piece of evidence against him.
The most compelling case by a current player is Tim Duncan. He compares more with Russell because of how well he makes a team play as a team. The Spurs have usually won between 65 and 70% of their games each season throughout his career (never dipping below 61%), and they've won four titles, all with Duncan clearly as the team's best player, even in the one season David Robinson was still effective (1999). Sure he had Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but they've combined for four All-Star Game appearances during the Spurs' extended run of greatness, so it's not like he's had great #2 men. Duncan's defense has been overhelmingly great for most of his career, and his statistical contribution has been amazing and steady (21-12 career average, with almost all 13 years looking like that), and he's only improved in the post-season. Duncan's been an above-average passer for most of his career, but he hasn't been as crucial to San Antonio's offensive system as Russell's keystone importance to the Celtics' fastbreak (and an only slightly above-average 51% FG% isn't helping the case of a player who usually leads the Spurs in scoring), plus Russell's defense is better. That's why Duncan isn't at the very top, but the argument for his consideration is a strong one because of how closely his play dictates how well the Spurs work as a team, which always seems to be smart and rock solid.
Kevin Garnett might be the fiercest defensive player in NBA history, and his career has been great and marked by unselfishness, but he and his teams regularly underperformed in the playoffs. He's played up or (usually) down to his teammates when it's counted most for much of his career, which is not the way to get named the best ever. LeBron James obviously has to put some more time together, but it doesn't look like he's on the right path to joining Russell and MJ. He's all kinds of skilled, but his post-seasons have been relative disasters to the point everyone is now questioning his heart and drive. His drive to make tons of cash and to be a spectacle has never wavered, so that's a bad sign, especially since he just joined a team that already has a superstar leader. The decisions that James pressures his GM's into making don't seem to be winners, either.
So there you have it. The two greatest players ever are Michael Jordan and Bill Russell, with the legendary Celtic winning the big crown. Tim Duncan has a strong case for being included at the top, but it's not quite strong enough, although it is better than any of his contemporaries.