The Best 25 NBA Players of the Past 25 Years: 21-25
Being 36 years old and a huge NBA fan, I have seen every great player of the past 25 years for the entirety of their primes, and not just as a child. So this will thankfully not be as difficult as ranking legendary players such as Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Oscar, and West, or even Larry and Magic. Heck, I really was not able to start somewhat intelligently watching MJ until after he succinctly said “I’m Back.” Therefore, this list begins with players whose career started no earlier than 25 seasons ago, so the 91-92 season which welcomed Larry Johnson, AKA Grandmama, into the league as the first pick. Spoiler alert, he did not make the list, nor did anyone from that draft even though Dikembe Mutombo received strong consideration.
My main process in devising this list has been through a combination of what I recall from watching them, statistical analysis, looking at how they were viewed in their time (awards and honors), and reading up on the players. You may be asking what about the rings? Well as some on Baltimore Sports and Life are well aware of, I do not value rings nearly as much as most seem to. I do think they are important, but more important is how players perform when they have legit chances at winning titles. My preference is to judge a player based on how they played, while valuing how they played in high leverage situations such as the playoffs more so, rather than judging players by their situation. Some guys have been blessed to be in amazing situations to win titles, while others obviously have not been, and I do not think it is fair to hold that against those players. If you are interested in further reading on this topic, the great Zach Lowe made a good case for the death of ringz. All that said, ring bias probably does influence me too, it is difficult for it not to.
This list is very much up for debate and you can discuss it on BSL here.
25. Chris Bosh
Resume: 13 years, 11X All-Star, 2nd Team All-NBA 1X, 1X top 5 PER, 1X top 10 PER, 3X top 10 PPG , 3X top 10 RPG, 3rd best player for two title teams
Unfortunately, it is unknown if Chris Bosh will ever play again due to a medical condition related to blood clots, but if his career abruptly ends before his age 32 season, he has done enough to earn enshrinement into the hall of fame. Despite being a five time All-Star during his seven years in Toronto, Bosh was not well known to the casual NBA observer and was questioned by some of the NBA die-hards and those in the business who felt he may have just been a good stats, bad team type of player. The Raptors had only made the playoffs twice and did not advance beyond the first round during his tenure, but it would be difficult to put much blame on Bosh given what surrounded him.
The Boshtrich (yes, that’s one of his listed nicknames on basketball-reference) put that notion to the test when he left Toronto to join up with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in Miami. Bosh was coming off a season where he had a 25 PER and shot 52% from the field while averaging 24 points and 10.8 rebounds a game; all career highs. He sacrificed the opportunity to continue producing those types of numbers to win as the third piece of a title contender, with the first two pieces being ball dominant perimeter players. During the four years the Heat had LeBron and went to the Finals, Bosh saw his scoring average drop to 17.4; however, he proved to be an integral part of that team by making differences in other ways, most notably by helping to space the floor on a team that desperately needed it, and by playing superb defense, even when asked to step up to the 5 in order for the Heat to play small ball. That sacrifice of stats resulted in much more fame and likely respect, but more importantly, he proved he can play winning basketball at the highest level and now has two rings to show for it. He also has a rather famous offensive rebound and assist.
24. Manu Ginobli
Resume: 14 years, 2X All-Star, 2X top 10 MVP, 2X 3rd Team All-NBA, 2X Top 10 PER, 4 rings (2nd, 3rd, and 4th best on team, as well as a role player on the other)
Here is where some people may see some ring bias as Manu does not have a lot of accolades, two All-Star and two 3rd Team All-NBA selections is a bit paltry compared to most of the competition. On the other hand, Manu was rated 61st in the recent ESPN NBA Rank, good for 20th among players from the past 25 years so perhaps this is a compromise between those who place a huge emphasis on rings and those who do not. I do not think so though because Manu was a damn good player. Manu’s accolades and stats were held down due to having less than usual minutes for a player of his stature and by being surrounded by other good to great players, which reduced his offensive load. That said, this is a guy with a 20.9 career PER, which is all-star level, and someone who was a joy to watch due to his creative brilliance. The Argentinian also popularized the Euro-step in the NBA. He was a player that as a Lakers fan, I feared due to his ability to the drive and finish at the basket, excel in transition, hit threes (career 37% shooter shooting 3.9 per game), and just make big shots.
There is of course no way to tell how Manu’s career would have turned out if did not enter an almost perfect situation to play in. He was drafted by the best organization of this time period, played for arguably the best coach ever, had one of the best big men in history to anchor the defense and get buckets, and among other good to great teammates, he has shared the backcourt with Tony Parker for his entire career. Could he have done what someone like Vince Carter did in leading mediocre teams to marginal success? I think the answer is probably yes as Manu did have the ability to score 25 a game as the man on a team and probably would have done a better job at involving his teammates than did Vince with his brilliant ability as a pick and roll passer. Could Vince, plagued by character concerns earlier in his career, have taken a back seat during his absolute peak in order to fit into the Spurs system as well as Manu did? I tend to think not as it would have been too big of a blow to his ego (props to Vince for fitting in as a role player late in his career though) to accept a role off the bench as Manu selflessly did in order to lead the Spurs second unit, which was in great need of a creator and scorer like Manu when that move was made. If the question is who gives you a better chance at winning titles during their career, I would take Manu over Vince.
23. Tony Parker
Resume: 15 years, 6X All-Star, 1X top 5 MVP, 3X top 10 MVP, 3X 2nd Team All-NBA, 1X 3rd Team All-NBA 1X, 2X Top 10 PER, 2X Top 10 APG, 1X Finals MVP, 4 titles (2nd best 2X, 3rd best 2X)
Much of what was just said of Manu can also be said of Tony. Parker was in the same amazing situation and has 4 rings to show for it, he was also a creative foreign guard that was devastating in transition and could get to the bucket and finish in the half court. He has lost a step or two, but the Parisian Torpedo earned that nickname with lightning quick speed, a great handle to go with it, and a blazing spin move. Other than his quickness and ability to get to and finish around the basket, Parker’s best strength was his intermediate game. He shot well above average from 3-10 feet out by using an assortment of floaters, tear drops, and short pull up jumpers. He was also solid from the mid-range, but the primary thing that has held him back from being even greater is that he has never become a significant threat from beyond the three point line. Parker has shot just under 33% for his career while taking 1.3 triples a game, even as he has greatly improved his accuracy in recent years, his volume has not increased. The other small issue with Parker’s game is that he is not nearly as prodigious in setting up his teammates as some of the other point guards you will see on this list.
Despite those flaws, his quickness, ability to score close to the basket, and his moxie made him a great player. During Parker’s first championship quest (his age 23 season), he shot 55% from the field, but only took about 14 shots a game to result in 19 points per game. If needed to, Parker could have been the type of point guard to put up 25 points a game, but that was not what was asked of him, and after some early struggles he has done a tremendous job showing the restraint Pop demanded of him. That’s the type of player one should want on their team.
22. Grant Hill
Resume: 18 years, 7X All-Star, 1X top 5 MVP, 4X top 10 MVP, 1X 1st Team All-NBA, 4X 2nd Team All-NBA, 2X top 5 PER, 2X top 10 PER, 1X top 5 PPG, 1X top 10 PPG
This may seem crazy, but before his career was derailed by a broken ankle and subsequent complications, Grant Hill was a slighter, not quite as athletic version of LeBron James. At 6’8, he could get to the basket at will and finish with the best of them, he could command the offense as a point forward, and he almost averaged ten boards a game in his second year. He could also play some D. What kept prime Grant Hill from being a totally complete player was his outside shot, which was nonexistent when extended to three point range. It really is a shame that in the midst of his prime the aforementioned injury and complications that could be described as malpractice by both the Pistons and the Magic medical staff robbed him of his elite athleticism. Hill would never be the same, but would bounce back to play above average basketball for the Magic when he was healthy enough to do so before becoming a very good role player for the seven seconds or less Suns teams.
Grant is a difficult player to rank because during his peak, he was better than some of the players to come, but he only provided five really good to great seasons before the injury, so the window was short for Grant to win a title as a true star. Unfortunately for Grant he did start out on a team in a great position to win like the prior two players on this list and therefore never made it out of the first round in four playoff appearances with the Pistons, and only advanced further once late in his career with the Suns. Grant Hill will always represent a great what if in NBA history.
21. Paul Pierce
Resume: 18 years, 10X All-Star, 1X top 10 MVP, 1X 2nd Team All-NBA, 3X 3rd Team All-NBA, 2X top 10 PER, 3X top 5 PPG, 2X PPG, 1X Finals MVP, 2nd best player for one title team
I am sure many will think it is crazy to have Paul Pierce this low; after all, he is ranked 45th all-time by ESPN (13th among players eligible for this list) and Bill Simmons rated him 47th in his excellent Book of Basketball that came out in 2010. The Truth was also nearly a career long Celtic and helped bring one of the two most prestigious franchises its first title in over two decades. That carries a lot of weight for many, including Mr. Simmons; but that extra prestige should not result in a boost in the rankings compared to if he had played for the Bucks for instance.
Pierce was a really good and durable player for a very long time, but here is why I rank him comparatively low: he was never elite. Was Pierce ever a top five player in the league? Nope, not even for one season. Was he ever a top ten player? Yes, probably once or twice. Pierce was generally a player in the 11-25 range, and one that had some attitude issues for a chunk of the middle of his career before the Celtics started the super team trend when Danny Ainge was able to pull of trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, two players further up on this list.
Paul obviously deserves credit for helping to bring that title to Boston, but he was not the best player on that team, KG was by a large margin, and he was not especially great in that postseason, rather he was his normal self. That was also a very down time in the NBA as far as great teams go. Overall, his postseason numbers are down compared to his regular season numbers so I am not sure he deserves much of a playoff bonus. So yes, you could win a title with Paul Pierce as your second best player (with two other players very close to him in value), but could you win with him as the best player? Very doubtful unless it was a 2004 Pistons type team, which reminds me, my apologies to Chauncey Billups and the Wallace’s for leaving them off this list, tough exceptions to be sure.
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.