Ranking the NBA’s top 75 players started easy. Jordan, LeBron, Kareem, Wilt, Magic, Russell, Oscar, Baylor, Bird, Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, Hakeem, Erving, Durant, West, Curry, Malone (both Karl and Moses), Baylor, Mikan, Pettit.
The list goes on: Stockton, Iverson, Kidd, Garnett, Isiah, Pippen, Havlicek, Wade, Ewing, Kawhi, Giannis, Harden, Nash, Paul, Nowitzki.
It was easy.
Until it wasn’t.
Somewhere around No. 50, it became more difficult to narrow the NBA’s greatest players to just 75.
That was reflected in the number of players who received a vote in USA TODAY’s ranking of the 75 greatest NBA players.
A 15-person panel – 15 USA TODAY Sports Network writers, reporters, columnists and editors and two former USA TODAY NBA reporters – voted for more than 120 players as we attempted to not just name the greatest 75 players in NBA history but rank them 1-75.
The NBA is paying tribute to its 75 seasons with a series of events celebrating the league’s history, including the announcement later this month of the NBA’s 75 greatest players.
The NBA’s list – determined by «a blue-ribbon panel of media, current and former players, coaches, general managers and team executives» – and USA TODAY’s list are sure to generate discussion online, in group texts, in living rooms, at backyard gatherings and neighborhood bars – lively, passionate and heated discussions because agreement will not be universal.
Trimming the list to 75 players was difficult enough and I was crestfallen when I had to leave off players who could easily make the list. Of my 75, I could replace 15-20 players with another 15-20 and feel confident with my selections.
It went from difficult to mental anguish when I had to slot my players in numerical order. It’s like ranking the best all-time bands.
What is the difference between 1 and 2 or 19 and 20 or 54 and 55 or 75 and 76? I spent considerable time comparing players and took several factors into account: stats – both traditional per game averages and advance stats such as shooting efficiency and offensive and defensive efficiency and PER – championships, MVPS, All-Star Game appearances, All-NBA selections and impact on the game.
Then, I spent time on the phone with colleagues and friends and asked my dad, who began watching the league in the late 1950s with Bob Pettit and the beginning of the Celtics dynasty, to send me his list (his top five were LeBron, Jordan, Kareem, Russell, Magic and his last five were Lanier, Lillard, Greer, Gilmore and Dumars). We all made points convincing each other of why a player should be on the list and where on that list that player should be.
Sometimes the difference between players came down to personal preference. Whose game speaks to you more?
Finding a place for players from the late 1940s and 1950s became a chore, too. Other than trying to put the ball in the hoop, the early NBA is just a shell of the product that has evolved into what you see today.
The Ringer’s Bill Simmons tweeted: “Here’s the 10-man 25th anniversary team (voted in 1971) — I’m guessing half will get left off the final 75 list cuz of recency bias. PS: I had 8 of the 10 on my 75 list; they were too important/influential even if the sport was different.”
USA TODAY’s top 75 had seven of those 10 25-year anniversary players on its list, and there are 11 current players – and could’ve and perhaps should’ve been more – on the list. Recency bias was not an issue.
As difficult as this exercise was, it was also a valuable refresher course in NBA history and a reminder of just how many great players contributed to the league’s humble beginnings in 1946 and its star-laden present.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why ranking the 75 greatest NBA players of all time was no easy task