The Best 25 NBA Players of the Past 25 Years: 16-20
Continuing with the best 25 players of the past 25 years, lets check out players 16-20 as ranked by yours truly.
If you missed part one, you can check it out here.
This list is very much up for debate and you can discuss it on BSL here.
20. Pau Gasol
Resume: 15 seasons, 6X All-Star, 2X 2nd Team All-NBA, 2X 3rd Team All-NBA, 2X top 10 PER, 1X top 5 RPG, 4X top 10 RPG, 2nd best player for two title teams
In some respects, Pau Gasol’s case is the big man version of Paul Pierce’s. Consistently really good, but never truly elite, and a significant difference maker on a few teams with a chance at a title. In fact, Pau’s Lakers faced off against Pierce’s Celtics twice with both teams winning once, but the Lakers won an additional title in between those two encounters. Pierce has the Finals MVP award, but Allen and Garnett may have had stronger cases; meanwhile, Gasol probably deserved a Finals MVP himself over Kobe Bryant. Before trades gave Pierce and Gasol a chance at contending, both played for mediocre to bad teams for most of their careers. A young Pierce did lead the Celtics to some playoff success in a meager Eastern Conference before many bad years and Gasol did lead the Grizzlies to a three year run where they averaged over 48 wins a season, but failed to win a playoff game in the much stronger Western Conference. So why Pau over Paul, is it that extra ring? That certainly doesn’t hurt, but more importantly, Gasol played better in his championship window than did Pierce and was the better overall playoff performer. A 20.7 PER compared to 17.3 helps illustrate that along with the better Finals series’.
OK, enough of Paul taking up Pau’s space. Kung Pau has been one of the most skilled big men during this era of NBA basketball, the guy has great footwork, multiple good post moves, can use both hands around the basket, is an excellent passing big, and his strong jump shot has been expanding in range throughout his career. He is also a model teammate that meshed with Kobe on and off the court better than the vast majority of Lakers during the Kobe era. What he does not get enough credit for though is his toughness and defense. Those two positive attributes were keys to the Lakers success as he was one of the better rebounders and shot blockers in the league then and still to this day.
19. Alonzo Mourning
Resume: 15 years, 7X All-Star, 2X top 5 MVP, 2X Defensive Player of the Year, 1X 1st Team All-NBA, 1X 2nd Team All-NBA, 2X 1st Team All-Defense, 2X top 5 PER, 1X top 10 PER, 2X top 10 RPG, 6TH in career blocks per game
For his first eight years, Alonzo Mourning was basically a 20 and 10 guy who also played very strong defense. The last two of those seasons, he lead the league in blocks in route to back to back Defensive Player of the Year awards, was top five in PER, and finished second and third in MVP voting. So in other words, he was a true superstar, something you can only say about Grant Hill among the players listed so far. However, like with Hill, Mourning had his career severely impacted by a medical issue, in this case a non-basketball related issue, which was kidney disease. This took him off the court in his age 30 season so he still should have had a few more great years, instead, after his recovery Zo did have some good basketball in him, but in limited playing time, and not to the heights he had previously seen. He did earn a title with the Heat as a strong bench player towards the end of his career.
So why have Mourning over some of the previous players that contributed at a high level for longer and won at least one title as a major contributor? Simply because Alonzo was the better player in my estimation and while his prime was cut short, he did play at a very high level for eight years and I have no problem cutting him a bit of slack due to the nature of what led to his decline. Young Zo was a tremendous athlete that dominated the paint on defense and finished ferociously on offense, but could also drop a nice baby hook on you. He also never had a losing season in his prime and even led the 96-97 Heat to 61 wins, but lost in five in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Bulls led by you know who. Mourning could have been better overall in the playoffs, but he was still a great to elite center in a time where Shaq, Hakeem, Ewing, and Robinson played that position.
18. Chris Webber
Resume: 15 years, 5X All-Star, 1X top 5 MVP, 4X top 10 MVP, 1X 1st Team All-NBA, 3X 2nd Team All-NBA, 1X 3rd Team All-NBA, 2X top 5 PER, 1X top 10 PER, 4X top 10 PPG, 1X leader RPG, 1X top 5 RPG, 3X top 10 PRG
Chris Webber was drafted by the Orlando Magic and could have paired up with Shaq to create the best big man tandem ever, but the Magic chose to trade him for Penny Hardaway and some draft picks. Rather, Chris Webber was the best player on a 50 win Warriors team when he won Rookie of the Year and could have been the face of that franchise for years, but then he then made a poor decision to demand a trade and ended up with the awful Wizards. Chris Webber could have been a top 20 player ever. One of the great what if players of all-time has to instead settle for being a top 20 player on my list, which is even something many would question.
When Webber came into the league, he was a basketball prodigy that could do things few other bigs could dream of at that time; he could go coast to coast and finish with his tremendous athleticism or make a pass that would remind you of Magic, he could post up, take bigs off the dribble, and could hit a 20 footer. If he was paired with Shaq or was the ideal big man for Don Nelson in Golden State, we may have seen more of that, especially as summer approached, but instead he was plagued by injuries while spending four seasons with a bad Wizards team. He did help lead that team to 86 wins in the last two seasons and one playoff appearance before a trade to Sacramento rejuvenated his career.
C-Webb instantly turned the Kings into a winner and within a few years they were a legit title contender playing beautiful team basketball with their star playing at a near MVP level. The outcome of one series will have an everlasting negative impact on Webber’s legacy though, that series of course was the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Shaq and Kobe led Lakers. The Lakers won the series in seven games and went onto sweep the Nets in the Finals, but the series is one of the most controversial in NBA history with many conspiracy theorists pointing to it as evidence of a rigged league due to the very questionable officiating that helped the Lakers prevail (LA slightly more beneficial to ratings than Sacramento). Webber, not known for clutch play did shoot horribly from the FT line (16-35), but was great otherwise with a stat line of 24.3 PPG, 10.9 RPG, and 6.3 APG while shooting 51% from the field. If the Kings don’t get shafted by the refs, the Kings would have beat the Nets and Chris Webber would be known as someone who led a team to a title, instead he is known as someone who just couldn’t get it done in the big moments. Is that fair? I don’t really think so and that is why he is in my top 20, because he was a top 20 player of this period if not penalized for falling short of a title.
17. Dwight Howard
Resume: 12 years, 8X All-Star, 4X top 5 MVP (had a strong case in 10-11), 1X top 10 MVP, 3X Defensive Player of the Year, 5X 1st Team All-NBA, 1X 2nd Team All-NBA, 2X 3rd Team All-NBA, 4X 1st Team All-Defense, 1X 2nd Team All-Defense, 2X top 5 PER, 2X top 10 PER, 5X leader RPG, 5X top 5 RPG, 1X top 10 RPG, 8X top 3 FG%
Before you scoff, check out his resume; it took me a while to write that one out. Dwight Howard has surely fallen off at this point of his career, but he was an elite player in this league for 6 years and has several borderline All-Star caliber seasons surrounding those elite years. He led his Magic to the Finals and generally has stepped up his level of play during the postseason. Dwight had his problems with Kobe in his one year in Los Angeles, and his persona doesn’t scream winner, but he is one. Prime Dwight, with a decent shooting oriented supporting cast, basically ensured a 50 win season and a chance at a nice playoff run. He has fallen prey to Shaq’s calls for him to be more like a traditional center, but a younger Dwight, along with playing stellar defense, fit in really well offensively as a dominant pick and roll big man who was more effective as a post-up player than people remember. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned that he is one of the most athletic freaks the league has ever seen. It looks like he’s cut from granite, his former strength coach raved about his sprinting ability on the track, and we all know he could jump out the gym.
It will be interesting to see where Dwight goes from here as a new member of the Atlanta Hawks. His athleticism is still great, but no longer breathtaking, his new team doesn’t seem like the best fit for him, and he has to come to grips with what role is best for him at this point in his career. All that said he will still likely be a high level contributor for the next few years. More importantly in terms of his ranking, he was an elite player and in the right situation, could have led a team to a title, and absolutely could have been the second best player on a title team.
16. Russell Westbrook
Resume: 8 years, 5X All-Star, 2X top 5 MVP, 1X top 10 MVP, 1X 1st Team All-NBA, 4X 2nd Team All-NBA, 2X top 5 PER, 3X top 10 PER, 1X leader PPG, 1X top 5 PPG, 2X top 10 PPG, 2X top 5 APG, 3X top 10 APG
Another absolute physical freak, Russell Westbrook can go coast to coast with the ball faster than just about anyone to ever play in the NBA, and he can finish more ferociously than just about anyone ever as well. This guy goes all out almost all the time, which is not easy to do while playing 82 games a year while making some deep playoff runs. He is one of the best scorers in the league, but has also become one of the leaders in assists, oh and he’s the best rebounding point guard in basketball. Russ has also been an integral part of a team that made the Finals and another team this past season that came agonizingly close to another Finals appearance.
He has done all of this by the age of 27; yet, he is a lightning rod for criticism. This is mostly due to three reasons: he has been in the spotlight as a young superstar for a team that was expected to compete for titles for many years, he came into the league more as a scoring guard but has been asked to play the point which has not always been smooth, and he’s played alongside one of the most natural scorers this league has seen so he gets criticized when he shoots a lot. There is validity to some of the criticism, but at this point he has evolved into an elite player that mostly balances scoring and facilitating rather well as evidenced by his reduction in shots this past year as his assists climbed to over ten a game. Next year he won’t have to worry about passing to Kevin Durant, so I expect more shooting from him and a line like 30-8-10 seems very plausible. There is some forward thinking in ranking Russ this high, but he is already a very accomplished player and I have confidence that barring injury, he should have a few more great years in him before slippage in athleticism diminishes his game.
Michael grew up in Owings Mills, MD, but also lived in Southern California for 12 years. He is a lifelong Orioles fan, a lover of travel, the outdoors, craft beer, and the NBA. Michael is a high school social studies teacher in Baltimore, where he also resides.