At the peak of their powers and in their absolute prime, who are the greatest players in NBA history?
You’ve heard the old arguments, you’ve memorized the ring counts, and you know not all teams are even, so let’s change the frame.
If you had to pick players based on how insane they were at their absolute peak rather than on the totality and success of their careers, how different is the all-time list?
A collection of over 50 NBA beat writers, national media members, and #NBATwitter stars weighed in to answer exactly that.
The process will never be perfect when it comes to answering unanswerable questions but with a large number of voters, the list holds more of a collective mindset than any individual project on this has to date.
Keep in mind, everyone’s ballot was quite different. Some voters were very measured in how high they rated player peaks compared to the top names of this list, others saw a larger number of names garner rating in the high ‘90s. To score the picture, on the top end, one voter gave out 18 ratings of 100 and on the low end, another voter only had two players over 90! Different strokes for different folks.
Of course with any list it’d be tragic not to note the honorable mentions, so without further adieu, the 10 names who just missed this list: Shawn Kemp, Paul George, Nate ‘Tiny’ Archibald, Draymond Green, Dennis Rodman, Yao Ming, Jimmy Butler, Adrian Dantley, Chris Bosh, and Manu Ginobili.
OK. On to the good stuff…
75) Tony Parker
74) Reggie Miller
73) Pau Gasol
72) Elvin Hayes
71) Klay Thompson
Parker finishing one ahead of his teammate for the last spot on this list feels cruel but also like cosmic intervention. The former 2007 Finals MVP also sliced right on by Gilbert Arenas, Chauncey Billups, and Tim Hardaway to secure his place.
Meanwhile, Hayes and Gasol can stake claim to two of the most unheralded yet spectacularly solid peaks for bigs. Hayes came out firing from Day 1, winning the scoring title as a rookie before eventually filling it up as a 20-10 machine for a title team. The recently retired Gasol immediately elevated Kobe Bryant’s Lakers from fringe playoff team to three-time Finalist.
70) Bob Cousy
69) Bernard King
68) Alonzo Mourning
67) Pete Maravich
66) Ray Allen
How do you even begin to compare someone like Bob Cousy with the above-the-rim, net-torching point guards of today? Unequivocally on another level relative to his era-specific peers, how does his peak translate across time?
Speaking of hard to rate on our list of 259, Pistol Pete’s career ran relatively short and the ‘70s were a hard era for league viewership. He came as Wilt Chamberlain was leaving and left before Michael Jordan set foot at UNC! He is well renowned for his skill and showmanship, was ahead of his time as a shooter and yet he never led a team out of the first round as a starter. Was his peak in Atlanta or New Orleans?
Peak King went toe-to-toe with prime Larry Bird in the first of three MVP runs for the Legend. If you are wondering why he jumped ahead of comparable scorers with longer careers like Dantley, David Thompson, or Alex English — that’s why.
And often compared to Miller and Thompson, Allen manages to finish higher than both. His career high in WS/48 and his 5th place MVP finish came as Buck, though many remember his prime being in Seattle. Allen arguably outplayed Allen Iverson in the 2001 Conference Finals and his Bucks were one win from their own date with the inevitable Lakers that season. What if…
NBA POWER RANKINGS: Best-case scenarios for all 30 teams
65) Derrick Rose
64) James Worthy
63) Vince Carter
62) Willis Reed
61) Walt Frazier
Rose’s career may not amount to a top-75 finish but being the youngest player named MVP certainly led to him getting a boost in this project.
The best athlete in the league, half-man, half-amazing while shooting over 40 percent from three in just his second season in the NBA? Matt Barnes just said Vince Carter was the most gifted teammate he ever played with, extraordinarily lofty praise for someone who played alongside Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry. Perhaps Carter’s peak is underrated because people expected more growth after his ballistic career start and it didn’t really ever occur.
Frazier — by far the best player in “The Willis Reed Game” — finishing one in front of his co-star running mate? You can’t make this stuff up.
60) Paul Pierce
59) Chris Webber
58) Kyrie Irving
57) Carmelo Anthony
56) Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway
Webber may have got shafted in the 2002 Western Conference Finals but the panel of voters clearly thought highly of his peak as he ranked well ahead of a lot of the names he’s often compared with such as Bosh, Gasol, Kemp, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Rasheed Wallace.
Anthony’s second-place MVP finish cost longtime friend and — now teammate — James a unanimous MVP! One of the current generational favorites, yet another player we have to ask: was his peak as a Nugget or a Knick?
Neither Irving, nor Hardaway was ever the best player on a title team but in a list that rewards individual talent, it’s easy to see why two of the best number two options to ever do it have risen so high.
NBA POWER RANKINGS: Best-case scenarios for all 30 teams
55) Dominique Wilkins
54) Gary Payton
53) George Mikan
***The NBA did not award an MVP until the 1955-56 season, the last year of Mikan’s career which began in 1948.
52) Damian Lillard
51) Joel Embiid
Before Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo there was Payton and Kemp. Imagine a world in which George Karl put Payton on Michael Jordan for the entirety of the 1996 NBA Finals. Where does the Glove finish on this list if he’s picking up MJ the whole series?
Mikan falls into the same conversation as Cousy. Would Mikan’s game hold up today? Probably not but they didn’t even give out the MVP award until 1956 and Mikan’s peak was years prior. Mikan would have multiple MVP awards had it been an award given out in his time. There was no comparable powerhouse during his run.
Ben Simmons’ drama continues to swirl but the Philadelphia 76ers have a near top-50 talent in the middle of his prime, Embiid soaring up this list despite limited experience and success in the playoffs is a testament to his talent. This won’t be the last time a current player makes a splash either.
Check back in tomorrow as our countdown of the top 75 peaks continues with 50-26.
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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