Mar 7, 2023 | Blog

Who Are the Best Professional Basketball Players in History?

Basketball is one of the world’s most popular activities, with over 400 million hoopers taking up the sport today. This is in big part due to the growth of professional basketball around the world.
So who are the greatest professional basketball players of all time? What made them great and why should they be remembered today?
That’s what we’re looking into today. Read on to learn more about the best basketball players from the 1950s to today.

The 1950s

While James Naismith invented basketball in the 1890s, we’re going to start our discussion in the 1950s. This is both for the sake of brevity and also because the National Basketball Association began in this decade.

We want to state that these players aren’t listed in any specific order, just highlighted based on their accomplishments. With that said, let’s start with the great Neil Johnston.

Neil Johnston

In the 1950s, Johnston electrified the league with six All-Star selections despite retiring at age 29. He won a ring in Philadelphia while winning the scoring title three times. 

George Mikan

George Mikan only played until 1956 but dominated as a center for the then-Minneapolis Lakers. He led the league in scoring and rebounding multiple times while leaving an imprint on the NBA.

The 1960s

The 1950s were dominated by big players and that trend carried into the 1960s. However, some of basketball’s greatest players made a name for themselves at the guard and forward positions.

Bill Russell

You can’t have a discussion about the greatest ballers ever without mentioning the late Bill Russell. He’s one of the best defensive players of all time and an all-time big man.

He won nine NBA championships with Boston and collected four MVP awards. If All-Defensive teams existed in the 1960s, we’re certain that he’d be on all ten of them. 

Oscar Robertson

Many people remember Robertson from Russell Westbrook’s triple-double crusade in 2017. The Big O arguably deserves way more recognition than just his triple-doubles.

But as the record suggests, Robertson was an all-around player who many consider the best guard of the 1960s. He was a consistent All-Star and won an MVP, cementing his status as an all-time great.

Jerry West

Jerry West is well-known for being the model for the NBA’s logo. He was also an incredible guard in the 1960s. His scoring drove the ’60s Lakers and put them in contention every year he played.

Wilt Chamberlain

If you look at Wilt’s stats, you’d think that he was just playing a different sport. Whether it’s the 100-point game, his field goal percentage, or his rebound records, it just seems absurd.

As a four-time champion, Wilt is easily the most dominant big man in an era riddled with great centers. He was simply out of this world. 

Honorable Mentions

We also want to highlight a few players who aren’t on this immediate list such as Bob Pettit and Walt Bellamy, who each hold records and helped define the game in the ’60s.

The 1970s

Basketball continued to grow in the 1970s despite the NBA facing issues around the league’s image and a lack of TV play. The sport still saw a lot of great champions, including two that we’re featuring in this section. 

Walt Frazier

You might know Walt Frazier as the well-dressed color commentator for the New York Knicks broadcasts. Players from this era instead know him as one of the best guards of the era. 

An excellent passer, elite scorer, and pesky defender, Walt got multiple All-Star nods and was the leader of several Knicks championship teams. It goes without saying that Walt was, and is a legend.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem’s longevity is Tom Brady-esque. While he was also an icon in the 1980s, it’s his time as the centerpiece of the Bucks and Lakers in the 1970s that needs more love.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds countless records that hold to this day. He was an all-around center and an activist. He also invented the “sky hook,” one of the most famous basketball shots ever.

The 1980s

While basketball was already a global sport by the 1980s, this decade introduced us to some of the all-time modern greats. The NBA especially saw an influx of superstars and great talent.

Julius Erving

Julius “Dr. J” Erving was already a legend in the American Basketball Association before joining the NBA in the 1970s. While he only played eight seasons in the league, many people recognize his illustrious career.

A perennial All-Star, a street hoops legend, and an ABA superstar, Dr. J was just superb. He won the Sixers the 1980 championship and pulled off one of the greatest Finals moments while he was at it.

Isiah Thomas

Isiah Thomas has a complicated legacy due to his rough play and his beef with Michael Jordan. That said, nothing can discredit how good Thomas was, even with an injury-shortened career.

At six-foot-one, Thomas showed that short players could still contribute. He scored efficiently and dished the rock to his teammates to the tune of a 1989 NBA championship. Simply put, he was one of the best guards to ever do it. 

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson

It’s impossible to talk about Magic and Larry in different breaths. The Bird-Magic and the Celtics-Lakers rivalries defined 1980s basketball.

Larry Bird was the best small forward of the era, a three-time regular season MVP and two-time Finals MVP. Larry shot, passed, and defended with a toughness that’s often taken for granted today.

His counterpart, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, won five championships and also took home three MVPs. Aside from Isiah, he was far and away the best point guard of the 1980s. Did we mention he’s six-foot-nine as a point guard?

Both Larry and Magic were elite and they spearheaded the Celtics-Lakers rivalry that defined this era. They arguably saved basketball in the U.S. while setting a strong precedent for the 1990s.

Honorable Mentions

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Bill Laimbeer, who embodied the Bad Boy Piston teams of the 1980s. Kevin McHale and James Worthy of the Celtics and Lakers respectively also deserve a shoutout.

The 1990s

If basketball was revived in the 1980s, the sport exploded to new heights in the 1990s. Not only did it truly become a global sport due in part to the Olympic games, but female basketball also got a new stage.

John Stockton and Karl Malone

Now that we have the honorable mentions out of the way, let’s talk about Stockton and Malone. Many note their lack of championship rings, but their accomplishments speak for themselves.

For over two decades, virtually every Western Conference contender faced Stockton and Malone’s Jazz. Their on-court connection is something that their lack of rings can’t deny.

David Robinson

Robinson took the Spurs out of the doldrums in the 1990s. No other center had fundamentals like the Admiral, as the dude could really score.

His professionalism and humility would exemplify the Spurs organization during the 1990s and into the next decade. The Spurs as we know them just wouldn’t exist without David Robinson.

Cynthia Cooper

Cynthia Cooper was one of the leaders of the 1990s Houston Comet dynasty. Her pick-and-roll talents took the team to new heights as the WNBA first took off.

Even though she joined the league in her mid-30s, Cooper had a big impact on her position. Her regular season and playoff accolades are incredible, but her on-court legacy for women’s basketball is even greater.

Hakeem Olajuwon

Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon was the rare number 1 draft pick that panned out. His back-to-back Finals victories are a testament to that.

He’s remembered for his legendary post moves and borderline unfair defense. Remnants of Hakeem’s game are evident in today’s big men, particularly Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. 

Michael Jordan

It’s the 9’0s, so we have to talk about MJ. He defined 1990s basketball and became a superstar celebrity so big that even the sport couldn’t contain him.

His stardom always started with his skills on the court and his six rings. A fierce competitor with an all-around offensive and defensive game, he was just the best. In the 1990s, everyone either wanted to beat or be like Mike.

Honorable Mentions

There are simply too many ’90s hoopers to talk about, so let’s rattle off a few honorable mentions:

Charles Barkley may have never won a ring, but he was still elite. Dennis Rodman and Gary Payton were both incredible defenders and trash-talkers. 

Reggie Miller made a mockery of teams (and Spike Lee) with clutch moments. Finally, let’s put some respect on Patrick Ewing’s name.

The 2000s to Modern Day

International and women’s basketball grew in the 2000s. The sport itself also saw some seismic shifts in how it’s played. Let’s look at some of the key players from the Aughts and today.

Tim Duncan

David Robinson’s successor, Tim Duncan, is the greatest Spur of all time. Some see him as the best power forward of the era alongside Kevin Garnett.

Duncan’s dominance on defense and finesse on offense carried the Spurs to four rings. He had a great coach and consistent team around him, sure, but it all started with Timmy.

Tamika Catchings

Basketball Museum of Illinois Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings is likely the most complete female basketball player ever. She once finished a season top 10 in points, assists, steals, blocks, and rebounds.

Her success echoed through 2000s and 2010s women’s basketball. Catchings’ tenacity was her strongest attribute, playing hard all the way to her 2016 retirement. 

Allen Iverson

Allen Iverson gave us all he had when he played, crossing up defenders and scoring like a madman. He was the toast of Philadelphia and the textbook definition of a “winner.”

Iverson also defined 2000s NBA fashion, as looking however he wanted and wearing what he liked. His hairstyles and fashion stoked controversy, but his influence is seen in today’s NBA. He was unapologetically himself. 

Shaquille O’Neal

Shaq was basically a cheat code in the early 2000s. While he was great in the ’90s, Shaq took himself to new heights on the Lakers from 2000 to 2004.

His dominant offense was so good the entire league adjusted to his skillset. Players were drafted to counter Shaq, and officiating changed because of him. What really else is there to say about Shaq?

Giannis Antetokoumpo

Every time you see Giannis on TV, you know what to expect at this point. Elite defense, unfair reach, and a truly terrifying transition game. His book is still unwritten, but he’s already becoming an all-time player.

Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant is a controversial figure, but he’s still elite. KD’s smooth and well-rounded offensive game still has us excited for what he’ll do in his later playing years.

Diana Taurasi

You could argue that Taurasi is the greatest female basketball player of all time. As a 20-year vet, she certainly has the stats to show for it. As her career winds down, take a moment to appreciate Diana while we can. 

Stephen Curry

Stephen Curry is already the greatest shooter in the history of basketball. His range and unwavering shooting confidence changed how the game is played today.

Kids today look up to Curry and other players who fit his mold. Smaller, agile, and long-ranged guards are hot right now, and we have Steph to thank for that.

Kobe Bryant

Of all the players who wanted to “be like Mike,” the late Kobe Bryant arguably got the closest. A five-time champion and a basketball icon, saying Kobe had a storied career would be the understatement of the century.

Mamba was an elite defender and we love his fierce and stubborn offense, as he played until his body literally gave up. Kobe has a complicated legacy but it’s forever cemented in NBA history. 

LeBron James

It might be too early to assess LeBron’s career seeing as he’s still playing. With that said, we can safely say he met any and all expectations placed on him since 2003.

He was dubbed the “chosen one” out of high school but still became a four-time champion. In many people’s eyes, he’s already the greatest hooper of all time.

While the jury’s still out on his “GOAT” status, he’s clearly an all-time great. Moreover, he defined basketball for multiple generations just as MJ did in the 1990s.

Honorable Mentions

There have been quite a few players omitted from this section, and we’d be remiss not to shout them out.

Kevin Garnett was an elite forward, and Steve Nash revolutionized “pace and space” basketball. Yao Ming is arguably the GOAT of Chinese basketball, and Vince Carter singlehandedly made basketball cool in Canada.

Understanding the Best Professional Basketball Players

When looking at the best professional basketball players, you’ll find that there are just too many great players to list. We hope this guide helps you understand who was the best and what made them so great!

If you’re looking for a comprehensive look into basketball history in Illinois, we have just what we’re looking for. Give us a visit today and explore the wonderful world of basketball!

Related Articles


What is a carry?

Since late 2022, the NBA has been much more strict about enforcing its "carrying" rules than ever before. Even in the first game after its new focus on this area of the rules, a single player received three violations, confusing many viewers. Though, could you even...

read more

Mining Basketball in Mineral Illinois

Great teamwork between the Basketball Museum of Illinois and the Illinois High School Glory Days website team helped them discover incredible gems (history and memorabilia) in Mineral, Illinois on July 15. Dave Nanninga, the leader of his Illinois High School Glory...

read more