The Top 25 Players of the Past 25 Years
Here are the four parts of this series where I ranked players 21-25 , 16-20, 11-15, and 6-10 in case you missed it, or need a refresher (it has been a while).
This list is very much up for debate and you can discuss it on BSL here.
5. Kevin Garnett
Resume: 21 years, 15X All-Star, 1X MVP, 3X top 3 MVP, 3X top 10 MVP, 4X 1st Team All-NBA, 3X 2nd Team All-NBA, 2X 3rd Team All-NBA, 1X Defensive Player of the Year, 9X 1st Team All-Defense, 3X 2nd Team All-Defense, 2X leader PER, 3X top 5 PER, 4X top 10 PER, 1X top 5 PPG, 2X top 10 PPG, 4X leader RPG, 3X top 5 RPG, 3X top 10 RPG, best player on one title team
The Big Ticket was a game-changer in various ways, both on and off the court. Kevin Garnett pioneered the trend of hyped high school basketball players going directly to the NBA when he was selected 5th in the 1995 draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves. On the court, KG’s length, athleticism, and complete game helped change the mold of power forwards in the NBA and more importantly later in his career, the ideal for the center position. Along with Chris Webber among others, Garnett helped to spark the small ball movement as a big that could not only shoot from distance, but could also put the ball on the floor some and effectively pass in a multitude of situations, not simply out of the post. Those attributes helped Garnett become one of the top scoring big men of his era, averaging about 22 a game during his prime. Going back to Garnett’s athleticism and length, because it is impossible to appreciate his impact on the court without focusing on those facets of his game, he was a true 7 footer despite what he was listed at, with very long limbs, and truly astounding hops, quickness, and agility for a man of his size. That along with his legendary intensity allowed him to be a dominant defensive player that protected the rim, cleaned up the defensive glass, that could also defend out on the perimeter including against the crucial pick and roll better than just about any big the league has seen. Even while well past his athletic prime, KG was able to propel the Celtics to a title as the defensive anchor of the best defense in the league by a wide margin.
Despite being an elite player throughout his twenties, KG only made it out of the first round once with the Timberwolves, losing to a Lakers team that still has two players to come on this list. While you can argue that he could have been better at times in the playoffs and perhaps that he put too much pressure on himself, those Wolves team just weren’t good enough to win championships. He of course later proved his playoff mettle with the Celtics and would have had a good shot at multiple titles with them if not for a knee injury in 2009. Along with his dominant defense and versatile offensive, he was credited for being a great teammate and leader while helping to lead the Celtics renaissance. Some might argue that Garnett does not deserve this high of a ranking considering the aforementioned lack of playoff success with the Wolves and then only winning one title when he was past his peak, but I fear that if anything, I might be penalizing him some for circumstances that he had little to no control over. Flip KG’s situation with Kobe’s or Duncan’s, and the perceived rankings of these players might have flipped as well, he was that good.
4. Kobe Bryant
Resume: 20 years, 18X All-Star, 1X MVP, 4X top 3 MVP, 6X top 5 MVP, 1X top 10 MVP, 11X 1st Team All-NBA, 2X 2nd Team All-NBA, 1X 3rd Team All-NBA, 9X 1st Team All-Defense, 3X 2nd Team All-Defense, 1X top 3 PER, 4X top 5 PER, 6X top 10 PER, 2X leader PPG, 6X top 3 PPG, 4X top 5 PPG, 1X top 10 PPG, 3X top 10 steals per game, best player on two title teams, 2nd best player on three title teams
Be like Mike. Kobe Bean Bryant is the second best shooting guard in NBA history, only surpassed by Michael Jordan. The similarities do not stop there as Kobe modelled his game after MJ, had very similar size and athleticism, was considered the ultimate competitor of his era, was also considered a great defender, possessed a super high basketball IQ, and he too won his titles playing in the triangle for the coach Phil Jackson. Kobe followed Garnett’s example of going directly from high school to the Association, but unlike KG, he was fortunate enough to land in a near perfect situation in LA as a hopeful sidekick to newly acquired Shaquille O’Neal. Bryant certainly took great advantage of that situation in large part due to his tremendous work ethic and great combination of athleticism and skill that he flashed in his first couple of years, resulting in enough popularity to get him an underserved all-star game start. By year 4 though, Kobe was a legitimate all-star playing on a team bound for 3 consecutive titles. While not being the best player on those teams, Kobe was one of the best players in the game and had several great games and clutch moments, with the most notable stretch occurring in 2001, where he led the Lakers to a wins over Sacramento after Shaq fouled out and then over San Antonio, putting up 45 and 48 in those games.
Having become arguably the most popular player in the league after winning 3 titles by age 23, Kobe looked like an actual threat to the throne of His Airness, especially since the Lakers seemed poised to win multiple more titles with Shaq still dominating and Kobe ready to take his game to yet another level, while being led by one of the best coaches ever. That was not to be however, as Pop, Duncan, and company defeated the Lakers in 2003, Kobe was accused of rape, then the super team of Shaq, Kobe, Malone, and Payton lost in 5 games to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, all while the rift between Kobe and Shaq grew deeper, resulting in O’Neal being traded to Miami. I won’t get into the rape accusation, but the demise of the Lakers is crucial to the idea that Kobe would do whatever it took to win, which is one of two false Bryant narratives, the other being he was other worldly in the clutch. Kobe was one of the hardest working and most competitive players in the NBA; however, once he reached the point where he wanted to be the alpha, rather than winning being the primary objective, winning on his terms became paramount. This helped to further damage his relationships with Shaq and Phil (read The Last Season) and hurt the Lakers chances at adding more rings. Other than the combustive chemistry during the demise of the dynasty and some issues with the supporting cast, the biggest culprit for their failure to add more hardware was Kobe insisting on shooting a lot more than Shaq (7 more attempts per game during those two playoffs), when their formula for success was predicated on feeding the big fella.
There was of course redemption for the Black Mamba, both in terms of individual and team glory. First, the individual glory: after a year out of the playoffs with Shaq in Miami, Kobe went on a historic 3 year run where he led the league in scoring twice (35.4 in 05-06!), including a 62 point game in only 3 quarters (Mavs only scored 61 through 3) and a preposterous 81 against Toronto, before winning an MVP on a rejuvenated Lakers team in the 07-08 season. As for team glory, reunited with Phil Jackson and with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom providing the Lakers with a dominant frontcourt, Kobe was able to lead the Lakers to two championships. He also won his first and then second NBA Finals MVP. This success showed that the more mature Kobe could be a good leader and a team player, but maybe more importantly for him, it gave him a permanent lead over Shaq in titles. Kobe’s career is truly a remarkable one, with a valley being surrounded by two epic peaks before finally after 20 years, plunging into the Pacific Ocean with a 60 point game, and a victory.
3. Shaquille O’Neal
19 years, 15X All-Star, 1X MVP, 4X top 3 MVP, 3X top 5 MVP, 5X top 10 MVP, 8X 1st Team All-NBA, 2X 2nd Team All-NBA, 4X 3rd Team All-NBA, 3X 2nd Team All-Defense, 5X leader PER, 6X top 3 PER, 1X top 5 PER, 2X top 10 PER, 2X leader PPG, 6X top 3 PPG, 1X top 5 PPG, 1X top 10 PPG, 5X top 3 RPG, 2X top 10 RPG, best player on 3 title teams, 2ND best player on another title team
Shaq was not the ultimate competitor, nor the ultimate whatever it takes to win guy, and he certainly was far from the hardest working player of his era. He also missed games pretty regularly and did not age as gracefully as Duncan. So why is he #3 on this list? Because at the peak of his power and motivation, he may just be the most dominant player I have seen. At 7’1 325+ pounds, Shaq was the strongest player of my lifetime, but what made him so special was that he was able to combine that size and strength with surprisingly strong athleticism, nimbleness, and skill. He overpowered many of big men on his way to a basket shaking jam, but he also had a nice baby hook and a surprisingly quick drop step that he used as a great one-two punch on the block. He could even hit a turnaround jumper with decent proficiency. He also was able to spin off his defender and go up for alley-oops and dominate the offensive glass. One more thing, he was also a very good passer for a center, which resulted in a lot of open three pointers for his teammates. With Shaq typically putting up somewhere around 28 and 12, while shooting just under 60% from the field, his teams were consistently contenders. I feel like no one that preceded Shaq on this list made his team almost a playoff lock assuming health, and a title contender assuming a pretty good supporting cast. He was simply that much of a difference maker.
The problem for The Big Aristotle besides what already mentioned was that his free throw percentage lagged behind his field goal percentage almost every year of his career, which left a ton of points on the table and made him and his team vulnerable late in games, often leading to him taking a seat so guys like Kobe and Wade could close out the games without the risk of the hack-a-Shaq. The one not so obvious benefit of Shaq getting to the line so much was it allowed his teammates several more trips to the charity stripe due to being in the penalty.
Despite all of the flaws, Shaq still deserves a spot in the top 3 because, again, he was incredibly dominant. In his first Finals with the Lakers, he averaged 38 and 17, the next year he averaged 33 and 16 in the 4-1 series win over the Sixers after getting through the vaunted West with 0 losses, and then 36 and 12 in his last Finals win for the Lakers over the Nets. Unfortunately Shaq Diesel ran out of fuel a bit earlier than the next guy, which is partially why he did not rank even higher.
2. Tim Duncan
Resume: 19 years, 15X All-Star, 2X MVP, 3X top 3 MVP, 4X top 5 MVP, 3X top 10 MVP, 10X 1st Team All-NBA, 3X 2nd Team All-NBA, 1X 3rd Team All-NBA, 8X 1st Team All-Defense, 7X 2nd Team All-Defense, 4X top 3 PER, 5X top 5 PER, 4X top 10 PER, 1X top 5 PPG, 4X top 10 PPG, 5X top 3 RPG, 5X top 5 RPG, 2X top 10 RPG, best player on 4 title teams, one of best players (a true collective effort) on another title team
Tim Duncan is another player that entered the NBA in a great situation, but in his case he had 4 years of college experience under his belt so he was able to make an instant impact as he made 1st Team All-NBA in his rookie year, and then the 7 years following. Duncan was a consistent superstar that was very good at just about everything you would expect out of a traditional big man. He was not the most exciting player as you may gather from his nickname, The Big Fundamental, nor did he show much personality on or off the court, at least publicly. His team coached by one of the all-time greats, Greg Popovich, was often considered boring even though they were always a contender, evidenced by winning at least 50 games every year of Duncan’s career other than the lockout shortened season when they won the title. Duncan, often considered the best power forward ever despite being more of a center, won 5 titles, with the first and last being 15 years apart.
That is a boring recap for a boring player. The thing is though, he really wasn’t boring if you paid enough attention, and his late career teams developed into basketball nirvana under the wise tutelage of Coach Pop. First off, Timmy was a great teammate, maybe even a legendarily good teammate, with a surprisingly strong dry sense of humor. He was also one of the best defensive bigs in the game despite not being a flashy shot blocker (well I guess that is boring to some). In addition, he put on clinics in the post, both with his back to the basket and facing up his defender and was a willing and proficient passer out of said post. Oh and occasionally he would dunk on someone with authority. Perhaps more important than all that, though, Duncan really did put winning above all else. He was another ultra-competitive athlete with a remarkable work ethic and he did whatever it took to win, regardless of how it fit in with any personal agenda.
I’ll close with this on having Old Man Riverwalk second on my list…him or Shaq was probably the toughest decision I had to make in doing this. By no means is this a perfect list otherwise, but this is where I kept flip flopping over and over again. Perhaps someone will convince me I made a mistake and I’ll have to edit the rankings once again. I wanted to reward Duncan for how great of a teammate and winner he was, where he is arguably the best of anyone on this list. I also wanted to reward him for being unusually graceful and effective in fading from superstardom. However, while Duncan was a dominant player, he wasn’t quite as dominant as Shaq in his peak. Yet, prime Duncan more than held his own against prime Shaq and the rest of the obvious positives for Timmy and the intangibles get him the ever so slight nod over Shaq.
1. LeBron James
Resume: 13 years, 12X All-Star, 4X MVP, 5X top 3 MVP, 2X top 5 MVP, 1X top 10 MVP, 10X 1st Team All-NBA, 2X 2nd Team All-NBA, 5X 1st Team All-Defense, 2X 2nd Team All-Defense, 6X leader PER, 2X top 3 PER, 1X top 5 PER, 3X top 10 PER, 1X leader PPG, 8X top 3 PPG, 3X top 5 PPG, 7X top 10 AST, best player on three title teams
His jump shot having abandoned him for the entire season, his athleticism no longer at its pinnacle, and down three games to one to the best regular season team in history, King James believed that his team could still bring the first title back to Cleveland in 52 years. Not many others believed, including this writer, but LeBron James led his Cavaliers to the upset by averaging about 36 points, 12 boards, 10 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks, including one of the most amazing blocks I have ever seen in a pivotal moment late in game 7. That of course is one of the highlights of LeBron’s postseason career, and there are countless others, such as when he scored 25 straight points for the Cavs in leading them over the Pistons in game 5 of the 2007 Conference Finals, or when he averaged 38, 8, and 8, along with a game winner in a series his team still lost to the Magic, or how about when he dropped 45 in Boston with his Heat down 3-2, which propelled them to a title. He had several more great games of course, as well as some more game winners, but no conversation about his playoff resume can go down without mention of the two years bookending The Decision, the first of which having unusual circumstances and seeing LeBron become very passive in the latter part of that series against the Celtics, the other being when he flat out choked in his first Finals with The Heat, as they lost to Dallas. He left a title out there with that Mavs series, and that series in particular cannot be forgotten or forgiven. It is a scar that will never go away, and one in which it makes it difficult for LeBron to ever pass the ghost of Jordan as he recently said while speaking of his goal of becoming the best to ever play. Other than those two series’, which like I said, are a big deal, LeBron has been an excellent postseason player though.
LBJ is both a complete and flawed player at the same time. Other than his world class passing, none of his individual skills are that remarkable. He had a couple of years in Miami where he was a really good jump shot shooter, but generally he has been more of a guy that teams would like to see settle for the jumper. His ball handling skills allow him to handle the point guard duties and drive to the basket almost at will, but at the same time, he’s a little sloppy with his handle. He finally developed a post-game in Miami, but it was never as artful as Kobe’s for instance. He also has at times looked awkward trying to finish near the basket when he has to get more creative. However, when you combine all that with off the charts basketball IQ and put it in a 6’8 260 pound frame with athleticism we have not seen paralleled in a man of that size, and you end up with an absolutely dominant all-around basketball player (he can play great defense too). No one else on this list has had as big impact on winning as LeBron. He took mediocre Cavs teams deep into the playoffs and then they instantly became one of the worse teams in the league without him before he came back and brought them to back to back Finals. Miami was not nearly as dire as Cleveland before or after, but the difference with and without James was still monumental. He has also had his recent team success in a very difficult league, with perhaps the toughest competition at the top of the Association over the past 25 years. Some of that was brought on by him, and some others before him, trying to form super teams; regardless, winning titles has not been easy the past 5 years, even in the inferior Eastern Conference, although that helps.
LeBron has been the best player of the past 25 years for all the above reasons, but also because he is a great teammate and an unselfish player that plays the game the right way. A unique hybrid between Magic and MJ, it seems like LeBron truly was The Chosen One. We are all witnesses.
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.