The Backpicks GOAT: The 40 Best Careers in NBA History

Welcome to the Backpicks GOAT, a list seven years in the making! You may have seen ESPN, Slam, Elliot Kalb and Bill Simmons take a crack at the top basketball players ever. Maybe you have your own list of the NBA greats. Or maybe you just like reading lists. Either way, this particular one is a little different.

This is less about The List and more about the exercise of player evaluation. It’s intended to be an historical reference, organized by player, that (hopefully) adds to the understanding and appreciation of players, coaches and teams over the years. If you like videos, charts and graphs, you’ve come to the right list.

What This List Is Not

This list will not make traditional “arguments” for players. I won’t attempt to balance Kobe’s championships without Shaq, nor do I care about accolades like All-Star teams or the number of Hall of Fame teammates someone played with. I also don’t care how many rings a player won; the very thing I’m trying to tease out is who provided the most lift. Sometimes that lift is good enough to win, sometimes it’s not.

There are no time machines either — it’s not about how players would do today if transported into the past or future. It’s about the impact each had in his own time over the course of a career.

What This List Is

This list also goes far beyond the box score — indeed, the box score is merely a reference for quantifying tendencies — so if you’re used to citing points per game and Win Shares, this will be a bit different.

Instead, this is a career-value, or CORP list; it ranks the players who have provided the largest increase in the odds of a team winning championships over the course of their careers. This means that having great Finals moments or winning the hearts of fans with innovative passes is irrelevant. You can make a great list with those criteria, but that’s not what this exercise is intended to be.

This list is really about evaluating players based on “goodness,” not merely situational value. (If David Robinson backed up the two best centers ever, he wouldn’t be very valuable, but he’d still be very good.) Players do not earn credit for potential — Michael Jordan helped no one in 1994.

All told, in the last seven years I’ve evaluated over 1,500 player-seasons to compile this list.

Thinking Basketball

As you read player profiles, you will notice little mention of playoff performances or game-winning shots. That’s because sample-sizes are incredibly small; instead, playoffs are included as part of an entire evaluation. I’ll only call out the playoffs if they reflect something larger about a player. If you’re struck by the lack of discussion around clutch play or why “losing” players are ranked highly, all of these topics and more are explained in detail in Thinking Basketball. The book also examines critical components of team building (portability) and individual scoring that are foundational to these rankings. (Buying the book also supports the blog and is greatly appreciated!)

List Criteria

The first step is to evaluate a player season. My practice starts with film study in order to understand context.  Perhaps the most beautiful thing about basketball is that there are so many ways to skin the proverbial cat; 20 points per game for one player is not the same as 20 for another. Of course, some skills are more valuable than others. Here’s a guide to the major ones:

On defense, quality of rotations, court coverage, rim protection and length are all countermeasures to the above offensive criteria. (Rebounding counts too, separately for offense and defense.) I tracked these, shot selection, and passing habits in over 100 hours of video study specifically for this series. (To avoid winning bias, I watched segments of games from random quarters.)

After establishing the skill set and tendencies of a player (“Scouting Report”), I then leverage data to quantify the effect of these tendencies (“Impact Evaluation”). All of this ultimately leads to a numerical valuation that allows me to compare the impact of different seasons. The high-level criteria for determining “best career of all-time:”

  1. Evaluate how much a player impacts different lineups (Global offense and defense)
  2. Calculate the probability change in championships based on his health
  3. Add all his seasons together to determine CORP
  4. Adjust for longevity based on era
  5. Compare who has the highest impact

While the first step is my assessment of a player’s seasons, the next four steps are an attempt at an objective measure of career value using those assessments. To do this, I rely on a championship odds calculator I’ve developed over the years so I don’t have to worry about arbitrarily balancing “longevity” and “peak.” I then make an adjustment for era-based longevity, and typically sort out any close calls by defaulting to the player with the better peak or stronger era.

To simplify things, each player-season can be slotted into different tiers:

  • GOAT Season (30 percent or more chance of a title on a random team, or about +7 points per game on an average team)
  • All-Time Season (23-30 percent or +6)
  • MVP Season (17-23 percent or +5)
  • Weak MVP Season (12-17 percent or +4)
  • All-NBA Season (8-12 percent or +2.5)
  • All-Star Season (5-8 percent or +1)
  • Strong Role Player (3-5 percent or 0)
  • Role Player (1-3 percent or -2 to -0.5)

This allows for easy comparisons between multiple seasons; we can see if two MVP-level Bill Walton seasons are more valuable than, say, five All-NBA seasons from John Stockton.

Ranges, Not Absolutes

This is still only one person’s opinion. A “better” list would come from a group of diverse and highly knowledgable evaluators, like realgm’s top 100 list. I see my value here as a video and data curator and as an analyst of that data; obviously, mileage may vary on the rankings, especially depending on criteria.

With that said, I will try and highlight where there’s wiggle room and the ranges that I believe players fall into, but the final order is based on the most likely answers to me (i.e. gun to my head, how good I think a career was).

Stats Glossary

Throughout this list, I’ll use the following metrics regularly:

  • Efficiency (for individual players) – This is measured in true shooting percentage (TS), or occasionally points per scoring attempt (PPA). In the simplest terms, PPA estimates how many “attempts” were actually two-shot fouls, and takes the total number of points scored from 3-pointers, 2-pointers and free throws divided by attempts. True shooting divides PPA by two. In order to compare efficacy across years, this is almost always cited as relative to the league average (rTS). NB: Postseason rTS values are relative to the league (not the opponent) unless otherwise specified.
  • Efficiency (for teams)
    • Offense  This is an estimate of points scored per 100 possessions, or the team’s offensive efficiency. It is often cited as relative to the league average or “relative offensive rating” (rORtg). For the playoffs, rORtg is the difference between the team’s raw offensive rating and the opponent’s regular season defensive rating.
    • Defense – This is an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions, or the team’s defensive efficiency. It is often cited as relative to the league average or “relative defensive rating” (rDRtg). For the playoffs, rDRtg is the difference between the team’s raw defensive rating and the opponent’s regular season offensive rating.
  • Creation – This is an estimate of how many shots a player created for his teammates per 100 possessions played. It’s also sometimes referred to as a percentage.
  • SRS – The “Simple Rating System,” it is a measurement of point differential for teams, adjusted for schedule strength. SRS is highly predictive of regular season wins and more predictive of games and playoff series than win percentage alone. For this series, a teams “win-pace” is based on its SRS.
  • The Big 3 / Big 4 – These are the three primary offensive dimensions of the advanced box score: Scoring rate (points per 75 possessions), efficiency (rTS) and creation. A fourth dimension — “The Big 4” — includes turnovers (modified for the presence of creation). “Scaled” graphics (sometimes titled “Normalized”) shrink each dimension on an axis of the same length for an equal comparison between them.
  • WOWY / APM – These are the non-box score, scoreboard-based family of plus-minus metrics and some of the most important measuring tools we have in basketball. Most of the references to these are summarized in the historical WOWYR series and this post on the historical compilation of plus-minus metrics.

Who Am I?

The Backpicks Top 40

The series is intended to be read in the order the profiles were released, which is noted next to each player (from nine through 30), beginning with Wilt Chamberlain. Players 31-40 are profiled in small blurbs, most players from 21-30 have limited video-based scouting reports, and all profiles in the top-20 feature full video-based scouting reports. The final eight can be read in any order.

List updated after the 2019 season.

*Limited video-based scouting report 

  1. Ray Allen
  2. Clyde Drexler
  3. Kevin McHale
  4. Elgin Baylor
  5. Artis Gilmore
  6. Paul Pierce
  7. Jason Kidd
  8. Walt Frazier
  9. John Havlicek
  10. Bob Pettit* (2)
  11. Reggie Miller (10)
  12. Rick Barry(5)
  13. Patrick Ewing(11)
  14. John Stockton (12)
  15. Moses Malone(7)
  16. Scottie Pippen(13)
  17. Dwyane Wade(17)
  18. Kevin Durant(22)
  19. Charles Barkley (14)
  20. Chris Paul(18)
  21. Stephen Curry
  22. Steve Nash (19)
  23. Dirk Nowitzki (20)
  24. Jerry West (3)
  25. Julius Erving (6)
  26. David Robinson (15)
  27. Karl Malone (16)
  28. Kobe Bryant (21)
  29. Oscar Robertson (4)
  30. Larry Bird (8)
  31. Magic Johnson (9)
  32. Wilt Chamberlain (1)
  33. Kevin Garnett
  34. Tim Duncan
  35. Hakeem Olajuwon
  36. Shaquille O’Neal
  37. Bill Russell
  38. Michael Jordan
  39. LeBron James
  40. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Addenda:

Fall 2022 Podcast series update (old rank in parentheses) 

  1. Clyde Drexler (39)
  2. Isiah Thomas (honorable mention)
  3. Elgin Baylor (37)
  4. Walt Frazier (33)
  5. Paul Pierce (35)
  6. Patrick Ewing (28)
  7. Artis Gilmore (36)
  8. Jason Kidd (34)
  9. John Havlicek (32)
  10. Bob Pettit (31)
  11. James Harden (unranked)
  12. Reggie Miller (30)
  13. Rick Barry (29)
  14. Moses Malone (26)
  15. Scottie Pippen (25)
  16. Dwyane Wade (24)
  17. John Stockton (27)
  18. Steve Nash (19)
  19. Charles Barkley (22)
  20. Kevin Durant (23)
  21. Julius Erving (16)
  22. David Robinson (15)
  23. Jerry West (17)
  24. Chris Paul (21)
  25. Stephen Curry (20)
  26. Dirk Nowitzki (18)
  27. Oscar Robertson (12)
  28. Karl Malone (14)
  29. Kobe Bryant (13)
  30. Magic Johnson (10) 
  31. Larry Bird (11)
  32. Kevin Garnett (8)
  33. Wilt Chamberlain (9)
  34. Tim Duncan (7)
  35. Hakeem Olajuwon (6)
  36. Shaquille O’Neal (5)
  37. Bill Russell (4)
  38. Michael Jordan (3)
  39. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1)
  40. LeBron James (2)