All sports leagues have their pantheons, but no GOAT argument compels passionate fans like that of the NBA. It rages through hours of sports television, hijacks YouTube comment sections, and has derailed at least one family cookout. The energy that sports fans devote to arguing their sides could power a small windmill. So get ready to argue: here are Vertical23’s top five basketball players ever to play in the NBA.
One of two contemporary players on the list, world-renowned sharpshooter Steph Curry has singlehandedly changed the game—and the science of NBA picks. Since the rebirth of the Golden State Warriors and its modified triangle offense, the rest of the NBA has had to abandon the midrange game and emphasize three-pointers just to keep pace. Curry has already led the long-moribund Ws to 4 championships and 6 Finals in eight years—three of them against no less a legend than LeBron James.
The groundbreaking center of the Boston Celtics took his team to 11 championships as a player and 2 more as a coach. His shutdown defense made him one of the emergent NBA’s first superstars. Moreover, he did so at a time when New England’s metropolis was reluctant to embrace Black athletes.
Throughout his 20 years in the NBA, Kareem notched 38,387 points, making him the all-time leader in points scored. To go along with that historic statistic, he also led the Bucks to their first championship and the Lakers to 5 more. And who can forget his role in 1980’s classic farce Airplane!, in which he played a copilot who was definitely not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
We’ve never seen a player like King James. With high finesse to match an imposing physicality, the crown jewel of the star-studded 2003 NBA Draft inaugurated the controversial “super-team” era of the NBA when he departed his hometown Cavaliers to “take his talents to South Beach.” Heroically, LeBron returned home and did the unthinkable, overcoming a 3–1 Finals deficit to upset the record-breaking 73–9 Warriors and bring Cleveland its first O’Brien Trophy in 2016.
Of course, LeBron left Cleveland again for Hollywood and has already indicated that he will finish his career with whoever drafts his son. Overall, LeBron has won 4 championships in 10 Finals appearances—making him truly the greatest runner-up in NBA history.
The roiling debate for the GOAT of the NBA has boiled down to two names and one question: “Jordan or LeBron?” Everyone must take a side, and Vertical23 is going with #23. Michael Jordan is not only one of the top five basketball players to have played in the NBA but also the greatest who ever played the game. Sure, LeBron is a bigger, faster, stronger athlete—and that’s exactly it. Though no man off the street himself, what defines Michael Jordan is not his physical gifts but his obsessive, almost pathological drive to win at all costs. That desire took him to a perfect six for six in the NBA Finals, historically great statistics, and countless moments of otherworldly, gravity-defying grace along the way. To be alive in Chicago in the 1990s, under the long shadow of Michael Jordan, was to live at the center of the universe—something no one has ever said about Cleveland.