(Originally written by B.C. on October 17, 2013)
As the NBA revs up for its 2013-14 campaign, All 30 of its teams are in the position to start with a clean slate. Rookies will be given a chance to prove their worth by playing up to their expectations, the league’s veterans will look to maintain their staying power by giving a maximum effort, and the league’s stars will attempt to add to their already extensive body of work by continuing to play like the revenue-generating star attractions that they have become in their years of playing in the NBA. The one team that will be at the top of the NBA’s totem pole is the defending champion Miami Heat, whose megastar, LeBron James, is already being mentioned in discussions as an all-time NBA great. There is nothing new about these debates over who is the greatest player of all time. However, I would like to add that the discussion is always an interesting and provocative one. Here’s my take on the topic of “the greatest NBA player(s) of all-time”.
If we’re going to discuss who’s the greatest NBA player of all-time and/or discuss a small and exclusive group of transcendent players, then it is only fair to start with the NBA’s first true superstar, George Mikan. Mikan was the star center of the Minneapolis Lakers (now the Los Angeles Lakers) who led his team to five NBA championships between 1949 and 1954. In fact, one account shows that when Mikan’s Lakers arrived in New York City to play the Knicks, the marquee outside of Madison Square Garden read: “Geo Mikan vs Knicks”. Such sensationalism has become commonplace as it pertains to the NBA’s stars, but in the 1950’s, the fans were not accustomed to hyperbole of that magnitude.
As the 1960’s approached, the NBA offered a new crop of superstars. These players have also been mentioned as players who possessed once-in-a-generation talent, and this caliber of talent often garnered championships and numerous individual accolades for these special players. The biggest names of 1960’s NBA would undoubtedly be Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics center and defensive stalwart who served as the anchor of a Celtics team who won ELEVEN NBA championships in his 13 years of playing, Wilt Chamberlain, the NBA’s “Paul Bunyan” figure whose dominance on the court oftentimes portrayed Chamberlain to be head and shoulders above his competition (no pun intended), Oscar Robertson, the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) guard who AVERAGED a triple-double for an entire season during the 1961-62 NBA season, and L.A. Lakers guard Jerry West, whose marksmanship and scoring ability prompted fans to nickname him “Mr. Clutch”. The NBA took their respect of West one step farther, and made his silhouette its logo. Let’s not forget Jerry West’s high-flying teammate, forward Elgin Baylor, who was known as the first NBA star that played a highly athletic and acrobatic style that countless players future generations would implement into their own games, and revolutionize the game of basketball forever.
Perhaps no other player of his era could carry Elgin Baylor’s torch of the NBA’s high-flyer like Julius Erving, aka “Dr. J”. In spite of his peers playing a similar slam-dunking, acrobatic style (Connie Hawkins and David Thompson are two players who come to my mind who played like this), Erving was the sole player who was the face of basketball in the 1970’s. With his big afro, slam dunk contest winning athleticism, and immense talent, Dr. J was a player who stood out among the crowd, and was loved by many fans of various backgrounds.
Although Dr. J’s reign of NBA greatness extended well into the 1980’s (he won his only NBA championship in 1983, and didn’t retire until 1987), the decade would usher in yet another group of players whose charisma, talent, and winning ways would help to carry the NBA to heights that it had never been to before in terms of profitability, popularity, and its overall place in the realm of American pop culture. These players were named Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan, who could arguably be responsible for the NBA’s popularity explosion over the past three decades by himself. Despite the influx of elite players into the NBA during the 80’s, Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics fought for the lion’s share of success in the NBA during that time, with Magic winning five NBA titles, two Most Valuable Player trophies (he’d win his third and final MVP award in 1990), and Bird winning three NBA titles and three MVP trophies. Isiah Thomas would lead the Detroit Pistons to their own run of back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990, cementing his own legacy as an NBA all-time great. On a side note, I’d be in violation of honoring NBA greats if I failed to mention Magic’s legendary teammate, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is the league’s all-time leader in points, MVP awards, six championships, and a playing career that stretched over an impressive twenty years that ended in 1989.
After Thomas’s Pistons’ 1990 NBA championship, the decade of the 90’s would prove to be known as “The Jordan Era”. In the 90’s, Jordan never started a full NBA season that did not end in a championship, which in itself shows MJ’s dominance of that decade. With six NBA championships, five NBA MVPs, a 1992 Olympic gold medal, and a status that was bigger than the game of basketball itself, Jordan hands down the face of the 90’s NBA. Only two other teams could have the honor of being NBA champions during the Jordan Era, and that would be the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, and the San Antonio Spurs in 1999, led by David Robinson and a young legend in the making, Tim Duncan.
Two-time MVP Tim Duncan would lead the San Antonio Spurs to win three more NBA championships in the decade of the 2000’s, but perhaps no other team or combination of individual players would be more compelling to watch than the physically imposing and dominant Shaquille O’Neal and his young running mate, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant, at the time one of the latest products of the “Elgin Baylor Academy for Exciting NBA Daredevils and Acrobats”, became the missing piece that O’Neal needed in order to aid him in winning their first NBA championship in 2000. Although O’Neal had previously been to the NBA Finals in 1995, his Orlando Magic fell to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets at that time. However, his luck would change after joining forces with Bryant and a solid supporting cast of veterans to march to the 2000 title. This run would extend three consecutive years 2000-2002. After leaving the Lakers to play for the Miami Heat in 2004, O’Neal would win another championship as a member of the Heat in 2006. Bryant, O’Neal’s former teammate, would become a force to be reckoned with as the fortune of the Lakers franchise fell squarely on his shoulders beginning with the 2004-05 NBA season. He would produce his greatest offensive output and one of the greatest individual scoring seasons in the 2005-06 season, after setting several scoring records. Although Bryant would experience much individual success as a player, his Lakers would suffer disappointing losses in the playoffs before finally winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, which would increase Bryant’s individual NBA championship count to five total.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t the only NBA luminaries of the decade of the 00’s. Since 2000, the NBA has produced many great stars and winners, including names like Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony, but the biggest name of upcoming stars in the 2000’s was a young forward out of Ohio by the name of LeBron James. Drafted in 2003, James lived up to the enormous expectations placed upon him by fans and media alike, and shattered those same expectations in the process. In spite of his on-court greatness, James would not achieve the status of NBA champion until 2012, his ninth NBA season.
After winning his first NBA championship in 2012, LeBron would lead his Miami Heat team to a second consecutive title in 2013. Time will tell if James can continue his current run of NBA dominance. In the meantime, let’s just sit back, relax, and watch history unfold. LeBron has only added to the NBA’s colorful history as being one of the many once-in-a-generation players who stand out like a diamond in the rough.