Michael Jordan is one of the best ever in NBA history. Are there any current players who can join him in that discussion? Everyone loves a debate that has the words “best ever” in it. In the NBA, the discussion about the “best player ever” kind of quieted after Michael Jordon retired the second time, but it's started up again recently with Kobe Bryant earning his fifth ring. So let's take a look at a) who is the best retired player ever out of the usual suspects, and b) which current players are rightfully in that discussion.
The key criteria I'm using to judge players is: improved the team's ability to win in the regular and post-season, great production numbers in regular season and post-season, worked more toward helping the team be a strong unit than toward accruing individual statistics, and was a solid contributor on both the offense and defense.
Best Two Ever
There's actually much less (reasonable) debate over who the two best players ever are than you think. Michael Jordan is one of these two for obvious reasons. Not only did he post great ppg averages throughout his career, his career shooting percentage was 50%, really good for a guard who was clearly the focus of every defense he ever faced. He usually lead the Bulls in assists, and he did so at a PG-like A-TO rate (career 5.3-2.7). His defense was very good, and the 27-55 team he was drafted to improved continually to the point of utter dominance. When he left for two years in the 90's, the Bulls posted their two lowest win totals of the decade before his second retirement in 1998, and they never got out of the Eastern Conference Semifinals without him. His already high numbers remained high or exceeded themselves in the playoffs, resulting in six championships without a real center to hold things down underneath.
The greatest player of all-time was Bill Russell. He is undoubtedly the greatest defensive player ever. He is probably the smartest player ever. He was probably the greatest passing big man ever. He was one of the two greatest rebounders ever. And his will to win no matter what was matched only by Jordan. Where Russell separates himself, even from MJ, was in his ability to unite his team from day one to play as a true unit with little regard for individual statistics; this is why the Celtics' top scorer often didn't top 20 ppg, and why Russell's assists averages were usually second on the team, just behind that of a Hall of Fame point guard (Bob Cousy or K.C. Jones). And Russell's mighty statistics only got better in the playoffs, including multiple years with apg numbers higher than Bill Walton's 5.5 in 1977, often considered the pinnacle of point-center involvement on a Championship team.
Boston won 11 titles in his 13 seasons, and the two misses were when he was injured in 1958 and had to sit out some Finals games, and his first season as a player-coach in 1967, at the helm of an aging team while facing terrible racism as the league's first black coach. Fans like to point out Russell's great supporting cast on the C's, but keep in mind they never even made the Finals before he showed up (during which they basically had the same team as his first season), and they fell right out of the playoffs for two years after he retired (again, with basically the same squad they had in his final season). If you read John Taylor's “The Rivalry,” a great look at the NBA in the 60's, you'll also realize the Celtics seemed to always go on multi-game losing streaks whenever he missed a few contests. And it should be mentioned that Wilt Chamberlain played alongside only two less All-Stars over his career than Russell did (26 to 24), and you have to think that Boston had so many simply because they kept winning titles. There wasn't anything about the Celtics as a team that didn't improve significantly from Russell's first season through his last; Jordan had his own agenda for a while before Phil Jackson reigned him in somewhat during his seventh season.