Our countdown of the top 75 player peaks in NBA history continues.
Forget All-Star appearances, ring counts, or career accomplishments, we’re looking squarely at on-court ability in a player’s absolute prime. In other words, If you could pick any player in history, with the hopes of winning the title immediately, not knowing the era, rules, coach, or teammates — who would you choose?
In case you missed it, Part 1 of our countdown spanned the NBA’s entire 75-year history, bridging the gap from George Mikan and Bob Cousy to Joel Embiid and Derrick Rose. It included three of the greatest shooters of all-time, the two best in-game dunkers in NBA history and historic clutch-time shot makers.
TOP 75 PEAKS: 75-51
Later this month, the NBA will be announcing its 75 greatest players in celebration of the league’s 75th season. Instead of the greatest 75 careers, we’re putting our own spin on it and looking instead at individual peaks. Doing so in this manner allows for celebrating the fleeting, yet extraordinary peaks of players like Rose, Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill, three players whose start-to-finish careers do not accurately reflect their spectacular primes.
Check out Part 1 for a complete explanation of our methodology. Long story short: we polled over 50 NBA experts and compiled all of their rankings to create our final top 75.
Today, we’re counting down from 50 to 26. Let’s go.
50) Bob McAdoo
49) Kevin McHale
48) George Gervin
47) Jason Kidd
46) Dwight Howard
McAdoo put up his best individual numbers bravely on non-contenders, only to win his one and only title as a Laker. A song many teams know well.
Kidd’s signature moment was a tough one to hone in on, he might tell you it was winning a title over the Heatles in 2011 but being the general on back-to-back Finals teams still stands out.
There was a time when you could argue Howard was the second best player in the league, which is no small feat given some of the names he sat alongside. The displayed two-way dominance early in his career should not be forgotten behind the shenanigans and bumpy stops later in his career.
45) Clyde Drexler
44) Grant Hill
43) Rick Barry
42) John Havlicek
41) Tracy McGrady
Was Drexler’s defining moment battling with Jordan in the Finals or getting it done over the Magic as a member of the Rockets five years later? Dealer’s choice.
People get cheeky when discussing the early Celtics juggernaut but Hondo was no slouch during his titles, winning the latter two without Bill Russell on the squad, where he secured a Finals MVP for his efforts.
McGrady and Hill are both surrounded by what-if discussions, both players appeared to have a shot at being the league’s top dog and saw that opportunity savagely ripped away due to injuries, are they in the right order here?
40) Bob Pettit
39) Russell Westbrook
38) Luka Dončić
37) Nikola Jokic
36) Anthony Davis
Pettit stands alone in a grouping of otherwise modern players. Few saw Pettit play and numbers from the ‘50s tell an impartial story at best but his name has become legend. How could it not when you close a finals with a 50-point vs. Russell’s Celtics.
Dončić may have had the best statistical three-year start to a career ever and he did it without playing a minute in the NCAA, critics be damned. A top 40 finish without winning a playoff series is insanity and at the same time, he just averaged 36-8-10 in a playoff series that featured Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the perimeter.
Westbrook, Dončić, Jokic, and Davis all finishing this close with a single voter being much higher in each instance is anarchy, comedy, or both. All four players had an average rating of 85 and three decimal places were needed to separate Jokic and Davis. The good news is that NBA Twitter will take this calmly and in stride, right?
35) Steve Nash
34) Patrick Ewing
33) Bill Walton
32) Chris Paul
31) John Stockton
Nash’s peak is understated, the back-to-back MVP awards aside, his playstyle and Mike D’Antoni’s principles led to an offensive revolution that he didn’t fully get to capitalize on. There’s no doubt today, Nash’s numbers would be hit with an insane amount of juice.
Walton might be the best example of a peak vs. career booster. Arguably the best player in the league at his apex, he hit a title, a Finals MVP, and an MVP in a two year span. Is 33 too high or too low for Walton?
Paul and Stockton finishing neck-and-neck might be maddening and yet their careers shaking out quite similar from an achievements standpoint. Paul sits fifth all-time in both assists and steals chasing Stockton’s records but was Stockton actually better at his peak, a question worth chewing on.
30) Scottie Pippen
29) Allen Iverson
28) James Harden
27) Isiah Thomas
26) Elgin Baylor
Pippen’s six rings are his calling card. Fair or foul, it’s hard to tell his story without mentioning Jordan but the success of the Bulls in the one year they were entrusted to Pippen speaks volumes to just how talented he was at his peak.
We are reaching the absolute legend section of the list. Isiah Thomas is one of the most celebrated winners of all-time, Harden is one of the most celebrated players not to win of all-time, what an interesting juxtaposition. This list seeked to free players, at least in part of their circumstances and just acknowledge the talent of each candidate at their peak. Harden is the only player in the top 30 not to play in a finals, so perhaps it’s doing just that.
Keep your eyes out for 25-11 dropping tomorrow!
Thanks again to the awesome collaborators who took time to pitch in for this project!
Contributors: Micah Adams, Quenton Albertie, Andy Bailey, Rod Beard, Ryan Blackburn, Shawn Coleman, Ben Collins, Kevin Cottrell, Adria Crawford, Evan Dammarell, Spencer Davies, Jabari Davis, Shamit Dua, Travonne Edwards, Farbod Esnaashari, Beau Estes, David Gardner, Andy Glockner, Dan Greenberg, Lauren Gunn, Nicolas Henkel, Chase Hughes, Josiah Johnson, Jason Jones, Dragonfly Jonez, Trey Kerby, Alex Kramers, Dieter Kurtenbach, Mitch Lawrence, Josh Lloyd, Jason Maples, Danny Marang, Oliver Maroney, Kelly Melvina, Janelle Moore, Matt Moore, Law Murray, Krishna Narsu, Eric Newman, Ashley Nicole Moss, Zak Noble, Gina Paradiso, Jeff Pearlman, Andrew Potter, Sam Quinn, Eustacchio Raulli, Billy Reinhardt, Andrew Sharp, Keith Smith, Allana Tachauer, Justin Termine, Brad Townsend, Roosh Williams, Ti Windisch, Ant Wright, Trill Withers, and Su York.
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