After having evaluated the top players historically at each position (C, PF, SF, SG, PG), it's time to put it all together and try to create one list. As I've stated before, the key thing I'm looking for is a player's ability to improve his team's odds of winning games and contending, so both regular and post-season success are factors.
There are a zillion considerations that could fill an entire article of their own when putting together any list like this, but I'll try to standardize how I look at the players without complicating things too much. My scenario for considering the value of these players in helping a team contend is:
I can add two good players to a squad whose remainder is 10 average players that cover all the positions, and our goal is to play together for 10 years in a modern-style league and to contend for and win as many titles as possible. The two good players will use their best 8-year stretch throughout the hypothetical decade (considerations allowed for freak injuries, forced to be a backup for too long, baseball sabbaticals, etc – and we're talking abilities & intangibles here, not their stats), with two random seasons from their career that don't fall in the 8-year stretch thrown in at two random spots. So you get the best 8-year stretch of two players, plus two other random seasons from their careers (this helps guys like Parish, hurts guys like Reed), and you want to do as well as you can next to otherwise average teammates for a decade.
That's the basic scenario, and these top-50 are generally grouped by what their role would be as one of those two good players. This isn't a perfect scenario, but it's at least an attempt to consider them all under the same pretenses. Some of the guy's careers are very difficult to place into it, but I attempted to consider a fairly consistent version of it for everyone.
This final group, players 1 through 9, are here because they can lead a team to contention nearly every year in the decade, almost no matter who the other good player is. They are nearly certain to win a few titles and avoid any significant stretch of disappointment.
The rest of the top 50 is:
9. Hakeem Olajuwon - Hakeem was one of the best defensive players of all-time and carried some really underwhelming Rockets squads on offense and defense for years after his on-the-verge-of-greatness '86 team fell apart from under him. With Jordan playing baseball in '94 and '95, Hakeem quickly and definitively wrapped up the "second best player of the 90's" debate while beating HOF big men Ewing, Malone, Barkley, Robinson, and O'Neal in the playoffs during consecutive title runs. Olajuwon knew how to carry ho-hum teams for a long period of time, and that puts him in the top group.
8. Magic Johnson - Why he's above Hakeem: Magic completely revolutionized his team's offense through infectious leadership to a larger degree than Hakeem could with his team's defense. Even with the Dream Shake, Hakeem's FG% for a big was never great--just slightly above-average--and he wasn't much of a passer. Magic made teammates better and lifted their confidence to a degree few superstars ever have, including Hakeem.
7. Shaquille O'Neal - Why he's above Magic: Shaq was an absolute force of nature on both ends of the court for 13 years (and nearly unstoppable in numerous playoffs), making a huge impact on his teams' success despite some immature casts (Orlando) and internal alpha-dog battles with Kobe on LA. Magic's support was greater and/or more cohesive (and provided strong interior defense to cover up this glaring deficiency in Johnson's game, so he needed a more specific team around him than Shaq - this is big since O'Neal could be the central figure on O and on D), but Magic also spent most of his first 5 seasons with a questionable-to-bad reputation in the clutch and as a teammate, giving him only 7 seasons of definitely-nothing-to-worry-about-here leadership. You receive more of a complete impact for longer with Shaq.
6. Larry Bird - Why he's above Shaq: Bird sacrificed absolutely everything to win games, whereas Shaq could be rather blase a lot of the times. Even when Boston was overmatched in a playoff series, they never got swept with Bird (swept twice with him injured). After his rookie season, Larry's teams won at least 2 games in every other series (for the record, Magic's teams won 0 or 1 games in a series 6 times, which seems like a lot considering everything they had going for them); Shaq-lead teams were much more capable of underperforming and were swept many times (8-6 in series sweeps during his career through Miami). In the same vein, Larry's autobiography is titled "Drive"; O'Neal's is titled "Shaq Talks Back." If you need a leader to go to battle with for a decade, you pick Bird over Shaq.
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar - Why he's above Bird: Bird had a much more all-encompassing offensive game that made his team gel during his prime years, but Kareem's peak was still great offensively (Sky Hook and underrated passer) and included phenomenal defense. Remember that Kareem's peak was much longer and played out next to much worse surrounding talent, and he then filled the role of super-duper second fiddle for 5-6 years.
4. Michael Jordan - Why he's above Kareem: In his prime, Jordan did more to raise the collective level of his teammates (even before Pippen was great and in '97-98 when Pippen was out for half the year) than the "moody" Kareem. When it came to the most crucial games, Jordan was going to kick someone's ass and everyone knew it, whereas Kareem would do the same if that someone wasn't Moses Malone, Willis Reed, or super-old Wilt Chamberlain - basically anyone who played physical inside.
3. Jerry West - Why he's above Jordan: The two iconic SG's are virtual equals in terms of scoring, defending, contagious drive and confidence, and clutch/playoffs success. West gets the nod because he also had elite PG skills, was a far superior outside shooter who would have thrived with a 3-point line, and he could mesh personality- and role-wise with more types of teammates. West could play next to other alpha scorers and not lose his value or rock the boat with them.
2. Tim Duncan - Why he's above West: West and Duncan were both great at doing a lot of things on both sides of the ball that showed up and didn't show up in the box scores to help elevate their team for years, but Duncan as one of the elite defensive bigs of all-time was able to add more value to his team than a great SG. West, Jordan, and Magic were all certainly better at raising their clubs' offenses than Duncan, but not by the width of margin Duncan had over them on defensive effect.
1. Bill Russell - Why he's above Duncan: Pretty much everything Duncan was great at, Russell was even better at: defense, rebounding, clutch play, being an important facilitator even when not scoring a lot, raising everyone's level of play. Russell's teams were 27-1 in playoff series throughout his career when he was healthy; they were 0-1 when he wasn't healthy. Considering his effect on Boston's offense is far greater than most fans are aware, and his defensive influence/value is the best ever, there are a lot of reasons to call Russell the Greatest Of All Time.