Over the course of the week, I will be ranking the best big men, wings and point guards of all time. First up are the bigs. These are the guys with a variety of roles — scoring, rebounding, setting screens, guarding the rim and generally policing the paint.
1. BILL RUSSELL
By evolving the blocked shot from an accident to an art, No. 6 simply revolutionized the game. In addition to his incredible defense, Russell could score when he had to (15.1 PPG for his career) and, since he was as quick as a point guard, the Celtics were able to run a unique five-man fastbreak.
2. KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR
The NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem’s sky hook was the ultimate weapon. Angled jumpers and spin moves were also part of his arsenal. Double-teaming KAJ was risky because of his alert passwork. He wasn’t an agile defender or rebounder, but at 7’2” and 270 pounds, his mere presence and athleticism always made him a force to be reckoned with on the uphill end of the court.
3. SHAQUILLE O’NEAL
Simpy a powerhouse in the paint. Legalized double-teaming greatly inhibited his offense, but Shaq was still the ultimate pivot-man of his generation.
4. WILT CHAMBERLAIN
Had he been as mean as Russell, as arrogant as Kareem and as motivated as Shaq, “The Big Dipper” would be remembered more for his double-digit championships (he won only two) than for averaging as many as 50.4 points and 27.2 rebounds in a season.
5. TIM DUNCAN
“The Big Fundamental” could do just about everything — pass, shoot, rebound, set bruising screens and play top-notch help defense. Which meant that he had several ways to come up with the winning play in tight ball games.
6. KEVIN MCHALE
On offense, he had more moves than a belly dancer. Moreover, his defense was just as dominant. He stood “only” 6’10”, but he had such long arms and T-square shoulders that he played as though he was a tall as Kareem.
7. HAKEEM OLAJUWON
There’s never been a more athletic big man than Hakeem “The Dream.” Scoring and rebounding were his strengths, but he was also celebrated for his shot-blocking — leading the league three times in this department with a high of 4.59 per game (1989-90). The only flaws in his game were minor ones — forcing his dribble into crowds and making bulls-eye passes.
8. NATE THURMOND
A defensive stalwart and dynamic rebounder, Thurmond also routinely scored over 20 points per game (1967-72). He was the only opponent who could prevent Chamberlain from scoring with his trademark finger-roll.
9. WILLIS REED
The Knicks’ “Captain Courageous,” Reed could shoot from mid-range, post up with power, set teeth-rattling screens and play monster defense. He’s best remembered for his dramatic appearance in the seventh game of the 1970 Finals when, with one injured leg unable to bend, he hit his first two shots and so intimidated Chamberlain that New York cruised to victory.
10. DAVE DEBUSSCHERE
Because of his chest-to-chest defense, long-distance shooting and good enough ball handling to have played the point during his tenure with the Pistons, he was the unsung hero of “The Old Knicks.” Moreover, DeBusschere was arguably the best one-on-one defender at the power-forward position.
11. KARL MALONE
Why is this two-time MVP not higher?
Because he routinely choked in the clutch. Because his defense consisted of swiping at the ball while his opponent was loading up to shoot. Because it was John Stockton who maximized Malone’s skills.
12. DOLPH SCHAYES
In the mid-’50s to the early ’60s, Schayes owned the boards, was a dependable 20-plus scorer and was the rare NBA player who maintained his All-Star status after the 24-second clock was established. Despite his mild-mannered approach to civilian life, nobody was tougher than Schayes when the lights were turned on.
13. DENNIS RODMAN
A five-space rebounder, in-your-face-defender and superb athlete. His characteristic screwball antics deflected attention from his genius-level basketball IQ and the fact that Rodman was a winner.
14. BOB PETTIT
A relentless rebounder (16.2 per game for his career), high-volume scorer (26.4 lifetime scoring average), Pettit was always at his best in the clutch.
15. JAMES WORTHY
Here’s an indication of why the nickname “Mr. Big Shot” came to be: During the 16 regular seasons that encompassed his career. Worthy shot 52.1 percent and averaged 17.6 points. In the playoffs, he shot 54.4 percent and tallied 21.1 PPG. Simply put, he was one of the most dependable clutch player ever.
NOT MAKING THE CUT
KEVIN GARNETT for being the ultimate choke artist. Indeed, several NBA coaches dubbed him “The 46 Minute Man.”
CHARLES BARKLEY for playing defense only when he was in the mood, and for insulting his teammates for being out of shape when he usually came into training camp 20 pounds overweight.
ELVIN HAYES for his pathetic defense, fundamentals and general attitude.
BOB MCADOO for being selfish, soft and not much interesting in playing defense.
GUS JOHNSON for lacking DeBusschere’s shooting and ball-handling skills.
BILL WALTON for not being around long enough.
DAVID ROBINSON for being the tallest “Mr. Softee” the NBA has ever seen.
PATRICK EWING for being another infamous clutch-time choker.
YAO MING for his lack of stamina, poor lateral movement and slowness off the floor that allowed smaller, quick-leaping opponents to touch too many of his shots.