Like all team sports, the NBA has its fair share of legends and pioneers that impacted and changed the game forever. Unfortunately, some greats have been overshadowed by opponents on other teams or even players on their own team. For one reason or another, not every great player the game of basketball has seen gets all the attention and shine. This list won’t have anyone who is unanimously considered to be on the top 10 all-time players list, because all those players are given their proper credit. These are greats who range from the top 20 to hovering around the 50 mark. Also, the list is in no particular order, and number one isn’t necessarily the best player on the list just as number five isn’t necessarily the worst.
- David Robinson: San Antonio Spurs, Center, 1990-2003
Known as the Admiral, Robinson was Tim Duncan’s co-pilot in the early stages of the Spurs dynasty but he’s lesser known for his all-around dominance in the regular season. He and Michael Jordan are the only two players ever to win at least one scoring title and DPOY in their careers.
Through his prime he was awarded league MVP, DPOY, and led the league in scoring, rebounding, and blocks in a five-year time span. He was a stat-stuffing machine at his peak, averaging 27ppg, 11rpg, 3.5apg, 1.5spg, and 3bpg to encompass one of the most well-rounded games for a big man in league history. His 7’1 size with great length and ridiculous jumping speed made him an all-time great rim protector and defender. Robinson’s ability to swallow shots at the rim made him a great help defender but he could play lockdown man-to-man defense on opposing bigs.
On offense, he combined his size and finesse to create a multi-faceted scoring arsenal which made him more explosive than every big that could match his height. He primarily scored from a face-up game with a deadly first step that led to lots of shots at the free-throw line. Robinson’s off-ball value came from his mid-range shot which could be used in pick and pop scenarios and in his face-up game.
A big knock of Robinson was his decrease in production in the playoffs; however, through the 1998-2000 playoffs, the Spurs were -16 with him on the bench but +11 with him on the court. On the offensive side, his play did drop in the playoffs but in those same years Robinson co-anchored what is still the highest-ranked defense in NBA playoff history. While he wasn’t able to carry a team by himself, he was the perfect 1B option on a championship team and had an incredible all-around impact and production at his peak.
- John Havlicek: Boston Celtics, Small Forward, 1963-1978
Even though Havlicek is one of the most underrated players in league history, I won’t deny the fact that he started his career in the perfect situation. Prior to his draft day, the Bill Russell-led Celtics teams had won five championships. He started his career as a sixth man for those teams and averaged 17 ppg in his first three years before becoming a perennial All-Star.
Hondo was a 6’5 guard who was unusually big and strong for his position. This strength enabled him to play the three, which he played for most of his career. He was a very talented scorer who could shoot from the outside even though there wasn’t a three-point line. His ability to hit shots from distance still gave the Celtics a unique dynamic for that era and made them even better on offense. By combining that shooting touch with great playmaking instincts and a willingness to develop into a reliable defender, Havlicek became one of the biggest reasons why the Celtics dynasty lasted as long as it did.
In 1966 he became an All-Star even though he was still the sixth man, making him the first to do so in NBA history. Havlicek’s career can really be broken down into two categories, the time he spent with Bill Russell and what he did after Russell retired. With Russell, he was a four-time All NBA performer, won six titles, led the Celtics in scoring in two of those runs, and was second on the team in scoring in two other championship runs. Post Russell, Havlicek showed off his complete skill set.
For example, in his second season as the lead man he averaged 29,9,7 on 45% shooting. Despite losing an all-time great that decade, he still led the Celtics to two more rings in ‘74 and ‘76 with him as the best player on the team. For his career, John Havlicek is the Celtics all-time leading scorer. In NBA history, he ranks 3rd all-time in assists (over 6k) and 6th all-time in rebounds (over 8k) at the small forward position.
- Jerry West: Los Angeles Lakers, Point/Shooting Guard, 1961-1974
When people first learn Jerry West is still to this day the player on the NBA logo there are unusually two reactions. More casual fans won’t recognize his name. Even more hardcore fans will question why he is the logo when he played in an era with more high-profile legends like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. However, the only reason West isn’t considered a true all-time legend is because of his finals record of 1-8. While this isn’t a fact to ignore, basketball is a team sport and that record doesn’t give an accurate picture of how great West was as a player.
Jerry West was a hybrid guard who could play either the one or the two and play them both at an elite level. He was a terrific scorer, averaging over 30 ppg in the second year of his career. In that season he pushed a far better Celtics team to the limit in the NBA Finals, showing his ability to carry a decent team to great heights.
Again looking at the 1-8 record you’d think he gets worse in the playoffs, but that is simply false. West has the third-highest playoff scoring average of all time at 29 ppg (without a three-point line). In the 1965 playoffs, he averaged over 40 ppg which is the 2nd highest mark ever. Mr. Outside was so individually great he swayed voters to make him the Finals MVP despite his team losing the series. How could you blame them when he put up 38,7,5 on 49% shooting in that series?
For his career, West made the All-Star game every year of his career (14) and averaged 27 ppg in a big man-centric era that didn’t have a three-point line. If you think he was just a scorer, think again. West led the NBA in assists once and averaged nearly 7 apg for his career. He also made five all-defensive teams, but here’s the catch. The all-defensive teams were invented in 1968 which meant he made it five times in the only six tries he had. West had incredible individual skill and significantly raised the floor of every team he was on.
- Elvin Hayes: Washington Bullets, Power Forward, 1969-1984
The best way to describe Elvin Hayes is this: He was the original Mr. Fundamental (Tim Duncan’s nickname). Nothing about his game was flashy at all, but what he lacked in style he made up for in durability and consistency.
At his peak, he was an athletic forward with a very advanced post-game. His signature moves were a post fadeaway and a mid-range jumper from a triple threat position. As I mentioned before, durability is the name of the game with Elvin Hayes. He played in the NBA for 16 years and missed a grand total of 9 regular season games. No, that’s not a typo. Hayes played in 80 games or more per year in every year of his career. Hayes was a true iron man, which helped make him one of only a few players to be top 10 all-time in two statistical categories. He amassed over 16k rebounds for 4th all-time and over 27k points for 10th all-time.
It’s not just the great statistical longevity. Hayes made 12 All-Star teams, was a 6 time All NBA performer, made 2 all-defensive teams, earned a scoring title, and garnered 2 rebounding titles in his career. But did all these points and rebounds actually contribute to a championship effort? Yes, in 1978 the Bullets won their only championship with Hayes and Wes Unseld leading the team to victory over the SuperSonics in the Finals. Hayes himself averaged 21 ppg and 12 rpg but was robbed of Finals MVP despite leading his team in scoring and being on par defensively with Unseld.
Even though he only won one ring, Hayes’ championship run is one of the more valuable in the league’s history. It came in an era with players that were just better than him, and the Bullets were not seen as a true contender until they actually won the championship. Hayes isn’t an all-time legend like others from his era but his durability and underrated production make him one of the best players of that generation.
- Chris Paul: Hornets/Clippers, Point Guard, 2006-present day
CP3 is underappreciated because he hasn’t racked up all the personal accolades or won as much as some of his peers at the same position. Everyone sees him as a top ten point guard at the very least. However, he’s a lot closer to number five than ten.
Paul ranks in the same tier as the likes of Nash, Kidd, Westbrook, and Stockton for most commentators. However, I believe he’s in a tier above with Robertson, West, and Thomas. This is primarily due to the fact that the biggest career deterrent for Chris Paul hasn’t been a flaw in his game or an opposing player, but rather that his health has been haunted by injuries constantly.
We shouldn’t make assumptions of what Paul was or is capable of due to this fact. The Point God has one of the most complete skill sets in NBA history regardless of position. On offense, he’s an extremely efficient scorer (47/37/87 career shooting splits) who has the capability to have a big scoring night when he needs to. His ball-handling is up there with anyone and even at 6’0 tall, he can still finish over anyone in the NBA at the rim. Paul’s mid-range jumper is the best I’ve ever seen and he’s a good career three-point shooter as well.
We haven’t even mentioned CP3’s most special ability, playmaking. That is why they call him the Point God. Paul is undoubtedly one of the most skilled passers and productive playmakers of all time. Assists aren’t the best way to capture playmaking skill, but Paul is top 6 in total assists of all time, top 4 in assists per game, and the 2nd highest assist to turnover ratio of all time.
Defensively, he’s made 7 All-Defensive first teams and led the NBA in steals 6 times (which is three more than the next player). These steal records are an indication of Paul’s off-ball prowess on defense and at his peak, he was a lockdown on-ball defender. Chris Paul’s remarkably complete skill set and ability to elevate every team he’s on gives him a good case to be a top 5 point guard of all time.