Ranking the top-10 players who appeared on the NBA's 75th anniversary list

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Last week, the NBA unveiled its list of the 75 greatest players – or, because of a tie in voting, 76 – in honour of the league’s 75th season anniversary festivities.

The rollout of the entire event was spread out over three days and ended up being a little anticlimactic, mainly because it was just a list of names sent out, but nothing in a fun, ordered way to spark the kind of fun debate an exercise like this should have done.

In lieu of the NBA opting to rank the list, Sportsnet decided to ask four of its basketball experts to rank the top-10 names seen on the NBA’s 76-player list, as well as to make a case for one player who was probably snubbed from it.

Michael Grange, senior basketball insider

Top-10 list

1) LeBron James: No one has done it this well for this long. Has taken some bad teams to the NBA Finals and won his share when he was on good ones. As dominant as Jordan at his best with a peak that’s approaching two decades, uninterrupted.

2) Michael Jordan: Two great unknowns: what if Jordan had been one-and-done at UNC (vs. coming out after his junior year) and what if he hadn’t retired mid-career to pursue baseball? Could he have won seven titles? Eight? Nine? I don’t think anyone will ever touch going 6-0 in Finals appearances and winning Finals MVP each time, to go along with six league MVPs.

3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Six rings, six league MVPs, and nearly unrivalled excellence and longevity. Ruled the sport at his peak.

4) Magic Johnson: Ahead of his time as a power forward turned point guard. The league has been looking for the “next Magic” even longer than the “next MJ.” Had to retire prematurely; left a lot on the table.

5) Bill Russell: Counting stats get a little overrated in basketball since teams take turns with the ball. Being the fulcrum of 11 championships can’t be overlooked.

6) Wilt Chamberlain: When your counting stats are as crazy as Chamberlain’s, you have to pay attention. Had two titles and would have many more were it not for the Celtics’ Russell-led dynasty.

San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) celebrates after Game 5 of the NBA basketball finals in San Antonio. (David J. Phillip/AP)

7) Tim Duncan: The modern-day Russell. Won five titles over three decades in a small market; led teams to the playoffs every season of his 19-year career. Could dominate offensively when required, but it didn’t matter to him the way winning did.

8) Steph Curry: Has changed the sport, showing what’s possible when the very best – in his case, the best ever – shooters are given the freedom to leverage their skills in ways previously unimaginable. Additionally, he’s a winner, with three titles, five Finals appearances, two MVPs and he’s not done yet.

9) Giannis Antetokounmpo: Another modern star that’s redefining what’s possible, combining defence, playmaking and rim assaults in unprecedented fashion. Already has two MVPs, two DPOYs, a ring and a Finals MVP before his 27th birthday.

10) Kevin Durant: There are a lot of vital components to winning basketball, but the ability to score – and do it in the most difficult situations imaginable – will always be the separator. Has there ever been a more lethal scorer than KD? Has shredded game plans at the highest level of the sport on his way to two titles, two Finals MVPs, a regular-season MVP and five other times in the top-five of MVP voting.

Biggest snub: Dwight Howard
Listen, I’m not that big a Dwight Howard fan, either, and his late-career tour as a designated flagrant fouler off the bench hasn’t done his legacy much good, but it shouldn’t overshadow that for a decade he was one of the most dominant two-way forces in the game.

Eight All-NBA teams, three DPOY awards and four times in the top-five of MVP voting is more résumé than plenty of guys on that list.

William Lou, Raptors Show host on Sportsnet 590 The FAN

Top-10 list
1) Michael Jordan
2) LeBron James
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
4) Magic Johnson
5) Larry Bird
6) Bill Russell
7) Tim Duncan
8) Kobe Bryant
9) Wilt Chamberlain
10) Kevin Durant

My list is fairly close to consensus since I’m hardly a basketball historian.

Michael Jordan celebrates the Bulls win over the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA Finals in Chicago. Decades after Jordan's groundbreaking departure from college, March Madness and the NBA's mega-millions have taken all the novelty out of leaving early for the pros (John Swart/AP).

For me, what matters most is winning, but the overall skill set is also a huge consideration. We can all agree that the sport has evolved, and players today have grown bigger, faster, taller, and stronger, but players who dominated an entire era can never be overlooked.

Biggest snub: Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving is a clear snub when you consider all the moves in his arsenal. You cannot name 10 players who can make all the shots and demonstrate the skill that Irving plays with.

The one thing working against him is the lack of team success outside of his time with James, but not every player’s game is about floor raising, just like how not every player can rise to the moment the way Irving can. There aren’t 75 players on the list who can do what Irving did in the 2016 Finals.

Steven Loung, NBA section editor

Top-10 list
1) Michael Jordan
2) LeBron James
3) Bill Russell
4) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
5) Magic Johnson
6) Tim Duncan
7) Larry Bird
8) Wilt Chamberlain
9) Shaquille O’Neal
10) Steph Curry

My list will likely look very similar to most. To me, it’s indisputable that Jordan is the greatest player of all time as I believe he would dominate just as much across any era, and during this modern era of basketball, he would probably be even more unstoppable given how fouls are called – plus, he’d almost certainly add a more reliable three-point shot.

As for Nos. 2-5 on the list, I think these men are all to be top five players of all-time, it’s just a matter of where you want to order them.

Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry looks on during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls in San Francisco, Monday, March 29, 2021 (Jed Jacobsohn/AP)

As for the bottom five, when his career is all said and done, I’m almost positive I’ll move Curry up the list at least a couple of spots. Yes, he did benefit from the way the game changed, but he took that opportunity and then proceeded to revolutionize the sport as we know it. Curry’s not only the greatest shooter basketball’s ever known, he’s acutely aware of that fact and has terrorized the league – with James in it – because of it.

Biggest snub: Manu Ginobili
This is real simple: Ginobili was a four-time NBA champion, probably the greatest Sixth Man in the history of the game, which he did willingly for the good of those great Spurs teams. He's an all-time international performer, and he basically introduced the Eurostep into the NBA game – a move that’s copied and utilized by just about every big-time modern scorer these days, including James Harden – who’s on the list, by the way.

Blake Murphy, co-host of the FAN Morning Show on Sportsnet 590 The FAN

Top-10 list
1) Michael Jordan
2) LeBron James
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
4) Bill Russell
5) Magic Johnson
6) Wilt Chamberlain
7) Shaquille O’Neal
8) Larry Bird
9) Tim Duncan
10) Oscar Robertson

The further down the list you go, the easier it is to nitpick and move guys around. The more interesting debates come up beyond the top 10 – Kevin Durant is my favourite to try to rank right now, because he’s sniffing the top 10 already and will probably get there with any projection from here – so the top 10, for me, is mostly an exercise in appropriately recognizing history.

It’s not as if I’ve been around to watch 75 years of the NBA, and so there’s a major element of relying on historians, statistics, and legacy to split some of the hairs at the very high point of the rankings.

The top six here are more or less indisputably top-10 names, however you want to shuffle them. O’Neal probably qualifies there, too, while names like Kobe Bryant, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Jerry West, and Kevin Garnett have cases to assail a Robertson (historically significant!) or Duncan (a mammoth, mammoth winner and elevator of those around him).

For now, Jordan stays ahead of James. With that said, though, James may still have a few years left in him, and a fifth title and/or MVP to go with what could be a record 20 all-star appearances and top-three all-time marks in points, win shares, minutes played, VORP and more will likely give him the best argument on a basis that doesn’t include the more ethereal elements of Jordan’s dominance and importance.

Biggest snub: Alex English
I thought about taking up the mantle for Pau Gasol or Manu Ginobili, but plenty of people have done that since the list of 76 was released. Instead, I’ll throw it back to a former Raptors assistant coach, a Hall of Famer, a scoring champion, and one of the top-20 scorers in NBA history (it’s easier to make a case for “snubs” with the newer generation of players; they have time, and English should have been acknowledged on the 50th anniversary list, too).

English was a monster when it came to scoring in an era where three-point usage was minimal and creating space for yourself was an art form, the type of skill set that you can see now in players like DeMar DeRozan. Over his 12-year peak, English averaged 24.4 points on over 50 per cent shooting with 5.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and one steal, finished top-20 in points per-game nine times, made three All-NBA Second Teams and eight all-star teams. He also carved out a post-playing role as a key figure in the NBPA, an assistant coach, an analyst, and a humanitarian.

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