The NBA's Top 75
Before the league unveils its list of the greatest 75 players in history later this month, as part of 75th anniversary celebrations, here is how my list would look if I were an official voter
There are nearly 140 players in the Basketball Hall of Fame with NBA games on their résumés.
Think about that.
That number tells you right away that, without even trying to precisely prognosticate how many active NBA players and recent retirees will end up in the Hall, simple math assures that dozens of the most decorated players in the game’s history have to be excluded from the NBA's Top 75 Greatest Players list that will be unveiled later this month.
That’s how much higher the bar is to make this squad compared to Springfield.
I was honored to receive an invitation from the NBA to join the panel of soon-to-be-revealed voters entrusted with choosing this team of 75 players in conjunction with the league’s 75th anniversary celebration. I admittedly have some regrets now about turning it down, but I decided when I started this Substack to bring some of those old New York Times principles with me. Prime among them: You shouldn’t write about news you have a hand in making.
Yet I always planned to retreat to the rankings dungeon one of these weekends and compile my 75 selections anyway, for public consumption and discussion purposes within our community, and this Newsletter Tuesday struck me as the ideal occasion to reveal them. The NBA will announce its Official Seventy-Five later this month; I didn’t want to wait any longer now that October has arrived.
My methodology: I went into this project intent on keeping as many players from the NBA’s Top 50 list in 1996 as possible. It’s important to remember that the Top 50 list doesn’t suddenly go away — it lives forever — but I was determined to treat the game’s early years with the proper reverence and avoid getting swayed solely by players I’ve covered.
For guidance, I spoke to some fellow scribes from my and previous generations and likewise checked in with a few of the players who will wind up on this list. I fielded similar questions from peers who wanted my guidance. While this obviously isn’t remotely close to the most pivotal job in the world, especially when you remember that the NBA is about to begin its third successive season touched by a global pandemic, it did feel absolutely weighty to go through all the options and try to make these picks properly. Lasering in on the “right” 75 … good luck when there’s really no such thing once you get to the last 10 to 15 slots. We could have fiery feuds about lots of players in that range.
My Top 75 are listed below in four separate categories — each in alphabetical order. Remember that the official voting process does not require placing the players in a 1-to-75 order. Only the names (and the names of the voters but not their full ballots) will be revealed when the results are announced.
I preserved 41 players from the NBA’s original Top 50.
Elaboration: I initially planned to choose 38 to 40 players from the 1996 compilation, but that proved harder than it sounds. The more I researched players I didn’t see play — since my firsthand evaluations of NBA players can realistically go back only as far as the late 1970s — their cases only got stronger. Just when I thought Dave DeBusschere fell shy of essential, I was reminded how much DeBusschere’s arrival changed the trajectory of the most beloved Knicks team in Madison Square Garden history. Ditto for Sam Jones in Boston. I justified keeping Bill Walton because he was regarded as the absolute best player in the league at his all-too-brief peak, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve shortchanged the likes of Paul Arizin, Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer, Jerry Lucas and Nate Thurmond. There’s simply no exact 1-to-75 formula, so I finally cut the 1996ers off at 41 because I was determined to save enough space to rectify two snubs from the Top 50 team that bother me to this day.
I insist (nay, DEMAND) that these two Top 50 snubees earn Top 75 status.
Elaboration: McAdoo is one of 35 MVPs in NBA history. The only MVP who did not make my Top 75 was Derrick Rose, because knee and other injuries prevented the 2011 winner from ever reaching those heights again — and because Rose’s peak couldn’t match Walton’s. Fire away if you wish to denounce this campaign as an offshoot of my well-chronicled Buffalo bias, but I will to continue to shout that McAdoo’s exclusion from the Top 50 was as egregious as Dominique’s. At his Buffalo Braves best, McAdoo was the most feared individual force in the game not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He and Wilkins, who has only slipped a few spots to 14th in all-time scoring despite retiring more than 20 years ago, are ridiculously overdue for this recognition.
I see 15 locks among active and recently retired players.
Elaboration: Everyone in this group is either a regular-season MVP or an NBA Finals MVP. Selecting Giannis was a layup after two regular-season MVP awards … and then last season’s championship. The same holds for Kawhi after he led both San Antonio and Toronto to championships with Finals MVP performances. Jokić? Some will say he hasn’t been in the league long enough, but with one MVP trophy after just six seasons he already ranks as the most impressive second-round pick (No. 41) in modern draft annals. Wade is my closest call to wedge into this 15-man tier but gets there in a nod to his primary role on three Miami championship teams and his Finals MVP status from 2006. As for Westbrook, yes, 184 career triple-doubles are hugely meaningful to me when he has three more than Oscar Robertson … and when Westbrook’s teams boast a .750 winning percentage (138-46) in games he records one.
I offer extended explanations on my 17 selections that most need it.
Elaboration: Not all of these will inspire debate, but I'm also quite sure that some of my choices — Draymond Green above all — will be far from unanimous. Going down the list ...
🏀 There was no angst here regarding Carmelo. He's up to 10th in league history in scoring, has always been a well-liked and transparent teammate and is still playing at age 37. Those factors outweigh his limited playoff glory with me.
🏀 As the Carmelo elaboration suggests, I'm a sucker for longevity. It’s why, as much as it pains me, I couldn’t bring myself to select my favorite player (Bernard King) from my high school days as a Top 75er. It's also why I couldn't bump Robert Parish from my 41 holdovers from 1996 (Parish is the league's career leader in games played to go with his four championship rings) and central among the reasons why I hold Vinsanity in such high regard. Carter transformed himself from high flier/historic dunker to an enduring elder statesman who played into 40s — something players on the wing, unlike Parish and other centers, just don’t do. He has to make it.
🏀 Call it proximity bias, if you wish, since I covered all five of the Spurs' championships from close range, but I felt strongly about including both Ginobili and Parker. Manu is best sixth man I've ever seen and, as noted in a recent Tuesday newsletter extravaganza, one of only two players (along with Bill Bradley) to win NBA and EuroLeague titles as well as an Olympic gold medal. Parker was just as pivotal at Tim Duncan's side, winning Finals MVP honors in 2007, to secure his own spot. Instinct tells me that Ginobili, Parker and Pau Gasol, as foreign imports, won’t all make the league’s 75.
🏀 Alex English was another 1996 snubee who could not be ignored. I gave strong consideration here to both Tracy McGrady and Adrian Dantley, one of English’s contemporaries, as descendants of scoring machine supreme George Gervin. English would have been the only top-20 scorer in league history to miss out if he were excluded. Perhaps I am putting too much stock in pure scoring numbers, but English made the most sense to me.
🏀 I know there will be pushback on Draymond. I absolutely don't care. The Warriors' ridiculous run of five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals — 1960s Celtics stuff that happened in the modern NBA — would not have been possible with Draymond or Klay, which is why they're both in this group. As a small-ball center and ultra-versatile defender, Green holds a special place in the game's history that overshadows his offensive shortcomings. He also had a key role in two of the most incredible hardwood developments I've ever witnessed and which will likely never be duplicated: Golden State's 24-0 start and 73-9 record in the 2015-16 season before Kevin Durant’s arrival. Green got bonus points with me for his massive contributions to both; I will continue to tout them as shining examples of NBA greatness even though those Warriors fell short of a championship. None of the above happens without Draymond Jamal Green.
🏀 Not sure I would want to coach him, but there's no denying Kyrie's otherworldly skill set in the backcourt, or his role in 2016 in helping Cleveland upend that dynastic Warriors team I just gushed about for several sentences. He’s simply one of the most gifted backcourt players we’ve ever seen.
🏀 Reggie Miller was frankly another automatic for me. As a long-distance marksman, notably in the early years when launching from deep was not embraced like it is today, he was synonymous with the 3-point shot. Throw in the longevity, loyalty to Indiana, showmanship and trash talking and I can't imagine this list without him … or Ray Allen and his nearly 3,000 career triples (2,973). Miller is 21st in career scoring (25,279 points) and Allen is 24th (24,505). More importantly in Reggie’s case, along the same lines as J-Kidd and The Glove and most of all Pistol Pete, he’s someone I found irresistibly must-see.
🏀 My greatest source of regret in this whole process is how tough I was on some great rebounders and defensive specialists. Rodman was the standout of this category to me, but naming The Worm left no room for Dwight Howard, Dikembe Mutombo or Ben Wallace … or two undeniable greats from the Top 50 team (Jerry Lucas and Nate Thurmond) that I dropped.
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There are nine 1996ers that I hate myself for shoving aside.
Here I list 40 other players that I considered for selection, including some current stars (namely Anthony Davis, Luka Dončić and Damian Lillard) I wanted to choose now. Just like Shaq in 1996, Luka will ultimately justify any bold voter’s advance faith comfortably — and all three figure to be part of the NBA’s 100th anniversary team in 2046.
Jo Jo White