How I rank them
I get asked frequently how I rank the all-time players. It is really irrelevant to this page, but to save myself plenty of e-mails in the future, here it is:
CRITERIA - I ask Jordan fans to give me the criteria for how they compare any two players. By doing so, you see that somebody is better than Jordan. With that in mind, here is how I judge players.
It requires speculation, but speculation based on presented facts. Championships are not the determining factor. If Rochester drafts Bill Russell, he doesn't win 11 championships. If the Bulls trade Scottie Pippen for Shawn Kemp and Ricky Pierce in 1995, Michael Jordan doesn't win 3 championships. Championships require front office genius, coaching smarts, luck with injuries, and a break or two.
My criteria is based on how complete a player is at his position and how he can blend his talents in with teammates. For instance, I look for a center who can play high post and low post. Can dominate on both ends of the floor and the kind of player you can run an offense through. I expect a guard to be able to play either point or shooting guard role. If you drew 11 random names out of a hat and chose a random coach, how good is the player in question able to work with this team? That is my criteria. Like I said, it requires speculation, but it also requires knowledge - something Jordan fanatics lack.
With that in mind, here I pick the 7 elite players in basketball in history. At this point, I am waiting to determine if Shaq is worthy of this group. Jerry West is on the next tier, so no, I did not forget him:
#1) Wilt Chamberlain
Strengths: He could dominate in any center role. He could be the focus of the offense, as he proved in his first 7 years. He could be a high post center that you could run your offense through, as he proved in 1967-68, and he could be the defensive dominator (the "Bill Russell" role) as he proved in 1972-73. He could score like no one in history. He could outmuscle and out jump any center in history. He is one of the two most athletic centers to play the game (Russell being the other). He was the greatest rebounder in history. He is on the short list of best defensive center, and when his role was to focus on that, he arguable did it better than anybody (Russell once said Wilt played his role better than he ever could). He finished in the top 10 in assists 3 times.
Weaknesses: He was a horrific free throw shooter (although he shot much better in clutch situations). He lacked an unhealthy competitive streak that Jordan and Russell possessed, and he was too sensitive to criticism, not dunking more because he wanted to prove he just wasn't a tall freak.
Analysis: Wilt played for 7 coaches. He can play in a variety of roles with teammates. He showed he can blend his game and he always elevated his team to a new level. No man can win by himself, but sometimes, Wilt came as close as any man of disproving this. Read my criteria. If you put Wilt with 11 random players, they are going to do very well because he can blend in with a variety of teams.
#2) Oscar Robertson
Strengths: The most fundamentally sound player to every play the game. He did everything well. He scored, he rebounded (the only guard to finish in the top 10 in rebounds). He passed (led the league in assists 8 times). From 1962-66, he averaged 30 points, 10 reb, and 10 assts. In 1968, he became the only player in history to lead the league in scoring average, assists per game, and free throw percentage in the same season. He had no weakness and he thoroughly controlled the game. His size (6'5", 220 lbs) is huge in any era. When he joined the Royals, he improved them 14 games. When he joined Milwaukee, he improved them 10 games (from 56 to 66 wins). He possessed supreme leadership on and off the court, where he served as the president of the players union for over 10 years.
Weaknesses: He had a reputation for getting on teammates when they messed up on fundamentals (such as executing a pick and roll). Some will blame him for not winning more championships, but that was due to poor front office not putting players around him and playing in the era of the Celtics dynasty. He did play on 4 teams with losing records, and had some injury problems later in his career, which resulted in team losses, and could be attributed to his playing extended minutes.
Analysis: The reason Big O is #2 is that O does all things well, but Wilt dominates in so many fields at a level that nobody can approach, and Wilt could take a bad team farther into the playoffs.
#3) Larry Bird
Strengths: Excellent jump shot. Fundamentally sound player. Automatic at the free throw line. The greatest clutch player since Jerry West. Very good team defender (meaning he could play a zone and hide it). His first year, he improved the Celtics 32 games in the win-loss. When he missed 76 games in the 1989 season, Boston replaced him with Reggie Lewis (who was 2nd in most improved player voting), yet the Celtics slipped from 57 wins to 40, despite having Lewis, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish on the roster.
Weaknesses: His lack of athleticism only affected one area: he wasn't a great on-the-ball defender. His hustle shortened his career and made him injury prone, but you don't condemn a player for diving for balls and sacrificing his body for the team.
Analysis: If you doubt his ability to improve a random group of players, look at what he did in college - he took a team of no-names to a near perfect season. His first year in the NBA, without McHale and Parish, he turned the Celtics from a 29-win joke to the best record in basketball. When he missed 1989, they fell apart without him. Oscar Robertson is ahead of him because he was more versatile and played better defense.
#4) Magic Johnson
Strengths: Unmatched size in a guard. He could see over a defense and post up a guard, creating a match-up nightmare. Probably the best, if not most exciting, point guard on the fast break. He can play a variety of roles. He was a supporting player to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he joined the team, and later became the focal point of the offense. He could play fast break and he could play slow-down, as he proved in 1991. He played every position as a rookie in the deciding game 6 of the finals and put up a game for the ages, winning the title without Jabbar.
Weaknesses: He never was the shooter and scorer that Bird was. He developed a respectable shot from the perimeter, but never the deadly jumper of Bird. His poor decisions off the court shortened his career, which ultimately hurt his team. He was a good, but not dominating defensive player.
Analysis: Bird and Magic is a comparison that will be debated forever. It is extremely hard to pick between the two. In the end, I go with Bird because of these reasons: Magic could play more positions, but Bird had the more well-rounded game. Each won championships with talented supporting teams, but Bird turned a bad Boston team around immediately. Magic joined a 47 win Lakers team and improved them 13 wins, which wasn't as drastic as Bird's 32 game improvement. Then, there was the feud with Paul Westhead in 1982 and the "Tragic Magic" choke in the 1984 finals. It's one thing to miss a shot, but he pulled a world-class choke in those finals. He made up for it with clutch performances, but comparing Bird and Magic is splitting hairs, and that was a big choke that gave Bird the title, that should have been Magic's.
#5) Michael Jordan
Strengths: Dominating scorer. No one was better at creating his own shot. He could attack the basket, pull up for the mid-range jump shot, or post up with a fade away. Legendary clutch plays in the age of prime time televised game were etched in cement. Before his 1993 retirement, he was probably the best defensive guard at roaming the passing lanes and one of the two best on-the-ball defenders at the guard position (I prefer Joe Dumars, but Jordan is at his level). He drew lots of defensive attention and had the ability to hit the open man. He had a rare, if unhealthy, competitive streak, and he dominated 4th quarters line no one.
Weaknesses: He couldn't play with drive-and-dish point guards, which are on about 95% of the teams. He was too turnover-prone and selfish to play the point guard (according to two of his coaches). He couldn't turn the Bulls and Wizards around like others on this list turned their teams around. When he retired, his impact was less than than the others on this list. Even in college, his team only met their expectations when he played a supporting role. He was extremely selfish - fighting with coaches about his scoring role and teammates who believed his points were more important to him than titles. He never proved his teams could be a big winner without the triangle offense, showing a limited ability to blend his game with different players and systems. If he plays on a team full of scorers, and he HAS to be leading scorer, how is that going to help his team win?
#6) Bill Russell
Strengths: Nobody won more than Russell. Winning requires a lot of favorable factors (as I showed at the top), but face it. When Russell was in college, they won 2 championships and 55 straight games, and he didn't play on a powerful team. His first year with the Celtics, they win the title. He won 11 titles in 13 years. The two years he didn't win, they were in the finals (where he got injured) and the conference finals. When he retired, his team failed to make the playoffs. The man had impact! Other strengths: possibly the most athletic center to player the game. Very quick leaper. Excellent timing. Great speed. Not many centers, if any, could run the floor on the break, like Russell. He is regarded by everybody as the greatest defender in history. His timing and leaping made him the greatest shot blocker. Only he mastered the skill of blocking shots to teammates, creating 4 point swings for his team. He finished in the top 10 in assists four times, and finished #2 in career rebounds.
Weakness: Lacked much in the way of offensive moves. He did average almost 19 per game one season, but he still had a raw game. He was fortunate to play on teams that had great scorers. If not, would he be like a better version of Dikembe Mutombo, who didn't win any titles and rarely made noise in the playoffs? He was also a bit small for a center (about 6'10", 220). No doubt he could beef up in todays game, and if Alonzo Morning can be a 6'10" center, then Russell could also, but would he be able to dominate against bigger men? I don't doubt he would excel in any era, but 11 championships and 5 MVPs? I doubt it. Remember my criteria. If he plays on a strong defensive team with little offense (such as Patrick Ewing's Knicks teams in the mid-90s), I don't think they will do that well because Russell couldn't pour in the points, like Ewing did. He needed help on offense.
#7) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Strengths: The greatest and most unstoppable move in history. Can you think of a big man who you'd rather throw it to at the end of the game when your team is down one point? He also had longevity. At 38 years old, he was the best center in the league and won the finals MVP. As a young player, he looked like the 2nd coming of Wilt Chamberlain. Very good defensive player. He could pass out of the double team and shot free throws better than Russell and Wilt (but don't confuse him with Bird).
Weaknesses: Kareem had to have a dominating point guard in order to succeed. In Milwaukee, he had Oscar Robertson. when Robertson retired, they went from the NBA finals to a losing record. The next year, Jabbar went to L.A, where he posted another losing record, playing with hall of fame guard Gail Goodrich. His Lakers underachieved, even though he played with Norm Nixon, until Magic Johnson joined the team and made them great. Jabbar was a major player on those teams, but without Magic, they aren't a contender. That is the biggest reason he is #7. If you draw names from a hat, what are the chances of getting Oscar or Magic? Anything less and Kareem's team will struggle. Furthermore, he was an underachieving rebounder when compared to guys like Wilt, Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Nate Thurmond. Wilt led the league in rebounding at the age of 36. Kareem wasn't even the best on his own team at that age, averaging less than 8 per game.
There you have it. That's how I rank them. I am very consistent with my criteria. Each man has been analyzed and placed. That is irrelevant to this webpage, though. The point is to prove Jordan is not the best. This does not make me a Jordan-hater. I list him as the 5th greatest player in history. So before you send hateful e-mail and tell me that I should respect other opinions, remember - you are writing me. I'm not writing you. If you put Wilt #5, I don't care. Any one of these guys have a good argument for being the best. All I ask is that you tell your criteria for ranking players, and if you are consistent with your method, you will see that somebody probably beats Jordan with your measuring stick.