Source: USA TODAYThis should settle it once and for all: Michael Jordan, who will play in his final NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, is the greatest basketball player ever.
Any scale that is used to measure a player’s greatness is flawed and open to interpretation, but USA TODAY factored in every aspect of the game to come up with the greatest player and the all-time All-Star team of greatest players. Just like in All-Star voting, the greatest team was selected by points at their positions, not overall points.
And Jordan, reluctantly, is the man.
”It’s truly an accomplishment, and I take it in a prideful way,” Jordan says of his ”The Greatest” title. ”But I don’t accept it in the sense that I haven’t played against the other great players. I’ve played against some good players and great players in my era, but I don’t get to play against the other guys in other eras.
”I think that’s unfair to those guys as well as to myself to say I’m the best that ever played, because I never played against Wilt Chamberlain. I never played against Jerry West,” Jordan says. ”I respect the older players, and if it wasn’t for them, there is no way I could have become the player that I am. I’ve watched Jerry West. I’ve watched Walter Davis, David Thompson. They influenced my game. They’ve got to have a piece of what I’ve accomplished.”
Magic Johnson says there is no debate. ”Michael is the greatest player ever, and Bill Russell is the greatest winner ever and always will be,” says Johnson, who joins Jordan in the backcourt on the first team.
Also on the first team are forwards Julius Erving and Larry Bird and Chamberlain at center. The second team: guards Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson, Russell at center and forwards John Havlicek and Rick Barry.
The top 10 players from each decade, picked subjectively, were awarded a varying number of points in 10 categories, ranging from individual statistical titles in the NBA and ABA to All-Star appearances to championships.
Jordan, the only one to earn points in each category, was the overwhelming leader at 149. Chamberlain was second (124) and Russell third (118). The only other players to earn 100 or more points were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (114) and Johnson (102).
Russell won a record 11 NBA titles, five league MVP awards, made the all-NBA first team three times and was on the inaugural all-defensive team in his last season of a 13-year career. Jordan has won six titles, five NBA MVP awards and six NBA Finals MVP awards; made the all-NBA first team 10 times and the all-defensive team nine times and won 10 scoring titles in 14 years.
”Michael has done things in sports — forget basketball, sports in general — that no other man has done,” Johnson adds. ”He is always going to be bigger than the game, bigger than sports. He’s a worldwide hero. There will never be another Bill Russell, and there will never be another Michael Jordan.”
Charles Barkley, one of Jordan’s best friends, says Jordan ”took the game to a whole new level, and the (Chicago) Bulls would have won two more titles if he didn’t retire the first time. I put Michael and Magic at the top with Russell and Oscar. I have to give Kevin McHale credit, too, because he was the best player I played against. I’m not on their level. They’re icons; I was just another player.”
The biggest surprise probably is that Cousy beat out West on the second team, but Cousy was the dominant point guard of the 1950s, leading the NBA in assists eight seasons in a row and winning six NBA titles. West never won the MVP award and won one NBA title. He and Cousy were 10-time all-NBA first-teamers.
”Cousy was Magic before Magic,” says K.C. Jones, who played with or against, coached or coached against all 10 players on the two greatest teams. ”He was small, but he had the flair and the wild hook off the wrong foot that always went in. If you’re talking about performing and winning, Cousy belongs there.”
Robertson is the only player to average a triple-double for an entire season (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists in 1961-62). For his 14-year career, he averaged 25.7 points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds.
Johnson revolutionized point-guard play with his passing skills and size (6-9). He won five NBA titles and is the NBA’s career assists average leader. He pulled off one of the greatest single feats in playoff history as a rookie in the series-winning Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. With Abdul-Jabbar home with a sprained ankle, Johnson moved to center and had 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals to help the Lakers win the game and the championship.
Bird had the shot, the passing ability, the flair and the killer instinct — one of the greatest clutch players. ”He was slick and he could shoot the eyes out,” Jones says.
Erving first made his fame in the ABA and added to it in the NBA, making the dunk and the high-flying act the envy of all. Before there was ”Be like Mike,” there was ”Be like Doc.”
Says Johnson: ”Dr. J is like Bill Russell. They just breed class. You want to call them ‘Sir’ when you talk to them.”
Second-teamers Havlicek and Barry are there because of consistency.
Havlicek won eight NBA titles and made the all-defensive team five times. He is the Celtics’ all-time leading scorer with 26,395 points.
Barry, also an ABA star before moving to the NBA, is the most underrated player to be selected. Barry did lead the NBA and ABA in scoring and won a championship in both leagues.
Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit came next.
Chamberlain, who died in 1999, battled Russell most of his career and was the most physically dominant player of any era.
After the lane had been widened from 6 feet to 12 feet to limit the dominance of 6-10 George Mikan, a star of the ’40s and ’50s, the league widened it another 4 feet when Chamberlain came along.
Chamberlain is the only player to score 100 points in a game. He has the other two highest scoring games in NBA history (78 and 73) and 15 of the top-20 performances all time. He averaged 50.4 points in one season and 44.8 in another.
Chamberlain and Jordan also are the only two players (at least 400 games played) with scoring averages of more than 30 points. Chamberlain also led the league in rebounding 11 times, in field goal percentage nine times and even in assists once.
”Russell is beneath Wilt because everything is about offense,” Jones says. ”But Wilt was still a great player. Russell was a communicator and he picked everybody up, and he was also the biggest hustler on the team.
”I can see how Michael and Wilt can be considered the greatest players, but Russell has the titles.”
Still, Jones says Chamberlain was a marvel.
”You can’t judge Russell on statistics alone, and by the same token you shouldn’t judge Wilt only on his statistics,” Jones says. ”He was so good and so dominant that his teammates didn’t know how to play with him. He was so good that he got blamed every time they lost. That wasn’t fair.”
Mikan, with four MVP awards, seven league championships and six scoring titles, also scored highly, as did Moses Malone, with three MVP awards and six rebounding titles.
Abdul-Jabbar had the fourth-highest point total of any player in our judging, but he doesn’t make either team because of Chamberlain and Russell. Abdul-Jabbar won six MVP awards and six championships and is the league’s all-time leading scorer.
”Kareem was the most graceful big man ever, but Wilt was so strong and Russell won all the time,” famed coach Jack Ramsay says, ”and now here comes Shaq,” Shaquille O’Neal.
The next generation
O’Neal, the most dominant player in the game today, and Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant have won the last three NBA titles and are destined to be considered among the greatest if their careers continue in the same path.
O’Neal, who also led the league in field goal percentage the last five seasons and has been the NBA Finals MVP the last three years, probably won’t play long enough to surpass Chamberlain or Russell.
O’Neal, Bryant and Tim Duncan — who in his five years has been in five All-Star Games, made all-NBA five times and has won an MVP award and a championship — head a list of young stars waiting in the wings.
Bryant, who resembles Jordan in style and manner, always has bristled at comparisons between the two. ”His entire career, he has gone above and beyond what everyone has expected of him,” Bryant says. ”That’s quite an accomplishment.”
Allen Iverson had the definitive ”Is Jordan the greatest?” answer two years ago, and he says now that nothing has changed his opinion:
”You can take Michael Jordan’s shoes and try to fill them — all of us could try to put our foot in — and they just wouldn’t fit. There will never be another Michael Jordan, nowhere near it.”
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