NBA’s Greatest 75 Players: Ranking the top 10 peaks in NBA history

Who is the best player in NBA history?

It’s a seemingly simple question and yet one that begs for some definition.

After all, best player is very different than best career.

TOP 75 PEAKS:  11-25 | 26-50 | 51-75

The entire purpose of this project was to assess who the best players were and are at their absolute prime. Stack up the very best version of every single player in NBA history then sort them from greatest to smallest peak. We’re talking pure on-court basketball ability, and nothing else. If you could pick any player in history, with the hopes of winning the title immediately, not knowing the era, rules, coach, or teammates — who would you choose?

That’s the task we gave our panel of over 50 voters who scoured through 250 names before submitting their official ballots.

Check out Part 1 for a complete explanation of our methodology. Today, we’re finally crossing the finishing line with the 10 greatest primes in NBA history.

10) Kevin Durant

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The coldest scorer in the history of the game finishes 10th. Durant finishes two back of Kobe Bryant and two up on Steph Curry, a placement that of course no one will quibble about. However you feel about Durant’s career or the decisions he made within it, it’s very clear that the consensus views his peak among the absolute best ever. Durant’s game is seamless, it’s sharp like skates and from the outside it appears mechanical but not rigid. Durant makes the stupendously sophisticated look utterly simple with an unrivaled ability to score off the bounce unmatched by any player in the history of the game. The man is a natural born hooper and if we did this list again in five years, I’m not sure he doesn’t climb further. You could legitimately argue the version of Durant we saw last year in the playoffs was the best iteration of his game to date, remarkable given he’s 33 and on the heels of fully recovering from a torn Achilles.

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9) Bill Russell

Russell leading the league’s most unstoppable juggernaut for over a decade lands him ninth on the list. Although he was ultimately far more successful than his contemporary challenger, Wilt Chamberlain, he does finish behind him here with the emphasis once again being placed on player peaks. Russell’s ability to lead a team and contribute whatever was needed to get the job done, transcends the tape and those who got to see him play. His most iconic game might be the 30-point, 38-rebound decimation of Pettit’s Hawks to close the 1961 Finals. A reminder that the Finals MVP is his award and is a testament to him playing his best when it meant the most.

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8) Kobe Bryant

Before any controversies, trade requests, internal feuds or flipping of the Gasol brothers, there was, “ Bryant to Shaq! ” Just a young, up and coming Mamba bursting onto the scene, giving the world no choice but to take notice of this rising super tandem and the havoc they were about to unleash on the league. Bryant’s 81 is iconic, his 2008 and 2012 Olympic heroics are unforgettable, and winning two more rings after the O’Neal divorce was delivery of manifest destiny. When was Bryant’s peak? Was it at the end of the three-peat, between the titles or did it come alongside Pau Gasol years later? A storied career for one of, if not the most celebrated personality to ever touch the hardwood.

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7) Larry Bird

Larry Legend’s combination of shooting, playmaking, and competitive fire made him one of the greatest to ever do it. His highlights hold up 40 years later as the flash and creativity he demonstrated are timeless. The original patron of the 50-40-90 shooting bar, Bird didn’t even win the MVP award in those seasons! Finishing just one behind rival Magic Johnson, the panel of voters was decidedly split on the two. Bird finished with an average score of 95.5, to Magic’’s 95.6.

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6) Magic Johnson

Even though his finest moment may have come playing center, Magic maintains his position as the greatest point guard of all-time. Though his peak came later, his Game 6 vs. Philadelphia in 1980 still has an argument for the greatest Finals game of all-time. The 1987 Lakers won 65 games and defeated Bird’s Celtics in the rubber match bout. Johnson was the best player in the series averaging just over 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 13 assists in the Finals. To date, only LeBron James can boast a similar or greater skill set at Magic’s size, an anomaly that the rest of the league could not solve. Unlike Bryant, Magic never won without his superstar running mate but he was able to secure three of the five ever elusive Finals MVP awards during their run together.

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5) Shaquille O’Neal

Every player in the top 10 was unstoppable at their peak but the league didn’t even really have resistance bands for early ‘00s O’Neal.  Following the 1999-00 season in which he won MVP, Finals MPV and an NBA title, O’Neal was robbed of a second MVP award and retaliated by smoking the Philadelphia 76ers, who had both the reigning MVP (Allen Iverson) and Defensive Player of the Year (Dikembe Mutombo) on the roster. O’Neal and his Orlando Magic were also the only team to send Michael Jordan’s Bulls home during the double-threepeat era. Jordan’s shortened season aside, you could argue the faster, leaner O’Neal had an almost equally devastating peak to the later Lakers iteration.

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4) Wilt Chamberlain

Though at times a questionable teammate, an insane competitor obsessed with all the numbers and all the records, it was a given that Chamberlain would finish very high on the list. It’s well documented that Chamberlain could prioritize his own numbers over winning but it’s easy to see why when there was nothing that he couldn’t do on the court. When he got called selfish, he allegedly just decided to lead the league in assists. Although his team came up short against Russell’s Celtics often, he nearly doubled his rival in points and shot a much higher percentage from the field. Although ballots throughout the project varied greatly, over two thirds of the ballots scored Chamberlain’s peak as a perfect 100 out of 100, in fact, only Jordan received more nods at the century mark.

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3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Coming in at number three is Cap. One of the league’s most eloquent speakers and captivating thinkers was also perhaps it’s most dominant player. Every year, in line with mock draft etiquette, fans will claim that the next college phenom is going to be the best player ever, the next Bryant, Nowitzki, or James but that was likely true of young Lew Alcindor from the moment he stepped on the court. He was All-NBA in his first season; the MVP, Finals MVP, and a champion in his second. He won MVP awards nine years apart and won three more titles in his late thirties. Not unlike many of the top 20, his exact peak is hard to locate because he was exceptional for so many years. 

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2) LeBron James

As mentioned in the initial part of this project, LeBron’s peak is debatable. That said, the most iconic moment of his career is not. After falling down 3-1 against the Warriors, James and the Cavaliers seemed hooped. The most staunch James fans were understandably pessimistic and then, with his back against the wall, it just appeared like he hit another level. He went for 41-points in back-to-back games and averaged an inexplicable line of 36 PPG, 12 RPG, 10 APG, 3 SPG, and 3 BPG in the three straight games facing elimination to complete the comeback. He smashed the most iconic block in the history of the sport, Kyrie Irving nailed the shot and the story of the season got a last minute rewrite. You could argue 2018 saw him at another level of offensive poise or that 2008 James  was a far superior athlete, or even that 2013 split the distance but he will never play a more memorable trio of games than he did in those 2016 Finals.

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1) Michael Jordan

If you are curious, His Airness edged out the King by 0.8 for the top spot. Only eight voters didn’t give Jordan the maximum rating of 100. The Last Dance aired just in time! Sarcasm aside, the track record is unassailable. You don’t have to be bordering on insane levels of competitive drive to win an NBA championship but Jordan’s style was certainly successful. The man won 10 scoring titles and five MVP awards spanning three very different stages of his career. Many would argue his peak came before the title runs when the Detroit Pistons were sending him home every year, others would argue that his more refined play style during the first three-peat was his apex. In 1996, fresh off getting slapped by O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and the Magic, the Bulls reloaded and came back with a vengeance, winning 72-games and their fourth overall title. My money was on that run. He was rested and unnecessarily but all the same extra motivated. 

Thanks again to the awesome collaborators who took time to pitch in for this project! Make sure to give them a follow as we head into the NBA’s historic 75th season!

Thanks again to the awesome collaborators who took time to pitch in for this project!

Contributors:  Micah Adams,  Quenton Albertie,  Andy Bailey,  Rod Beard,  Ryan Blackburn,  Shawn Coleman,  Ben Collins,  Kevin Cottrell,  Adria Crawford,  Evan Dammarell,  Spencer Davies,  Jabari Davis,  Shamit Dua,   Travonne Edwards,  Farbod Esnaashari  ,  Beau Estes  ,  David Gardner  ,  Andy Glockner  ,  Dan Greenberg  ,  Lauren Gunn  ,  Nicolas Henkel  ,  Chase Hughes  ,  Josiah Johnson  ,  Jason Jones  ,  Dragonfly Jonez  ,  Trey Kerby  ,  Alex Kramers  ,  Dieter Kurtenbach  ,  Mitch Lawrence  ,  Josh Lloyd  ,  Jason Maples  ,  Danny Marang  ,  Oliver Maroney  ,  Kelly Melvina  ,  Janelle Moore  ,  Matt Moore  ,  Law Murray  ,  Krishna Narsu  ,  Eric Newman  ,  Ashley Nicole Moss  ,  Zak Noble  ,  Gina Paradiso  ,  Jeff Pearlman  ,  Andrew Potter  ,  Sam Quinn  ,  Eustacchio Raulli  ,  Billy Reinhardt  ,  Andrew Sharp  ,  Keith Smith  ,  Allana Tachauer  ,  Justin Termine  ,  Brad Townsend  ,  Roosh Williams  ,  Ti Windisch  ,  Ant Wright  ,  Trill Withers  , and  Su York .

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