Levels of Excellence – Ranking NBA Players: Level 2


Now that the NBA is 75 years old and has gone through several different eras and styles of play, it makes sense to go back and evaluate the league’s greatest players and attempt to rank them.

To acknowledge the difficulty of comparing players across eras and who played under a variety of circumstances, we’ve decided to stack the players into tiers. The goal in the end is that we can agree on the difference between the players in one tier and the players in the next tier, but that within each tier there will be some valid arguments regarding ranking the players in that tier and comparing them against each other.

For this exercise, we will be excluding players who are still active. It’s difficult enough to rank the players who have retired without making constant adjustments to players who are still playing or trying to project where young players who seem destined for greatness belong at the current time.

Today we will identify players in Level 2, which are the players that consistently produced at an elite level as the first option for contending teams and were the main reason that their teams won multiple titles. How these players compare to each other is endlessly debatable, but all of them would be ranked higher than anyone in Level 3 while also below anyone in Level 1. These players, listed alphabetically, are:
– Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
– Larry Bird
– Wilt Chamberlain
– Tim Duncan
– Earvin “Magic” Johnson
– Shaquille O’Neal
– Bill Russell



From 1984-2023, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Lew Alcindor) was the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. His signature offensive move was the nearly unstoppable ‘skyhook’, which he could execute fluidly with either hand. To modern fans, he is more well-known as being a part of the Lakers ‘Showtime’ dynasty in the ’80s in tandem with Earvin “Magic” Johnson. But long before the NBA exploded in the ’80s, Abdul-Jabbar was a dominant force. He averaged 30.4 points per game, 15.3 rebounds per game, and 4.1 assists per game in 6 season with the Milwaukee Bucks after they drafted him with the 1st overall pick in 1969. Blocked shots were not tracked until the 73-74 season, but it’s likely that Kareem averaged around 3.5 blocks per game over that period as well. In his first season he was a unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year and in his second season he was voted the MVP and led the Bucks to the NBA championship, an astonishing feat given that it was the franchise’s third season in existence. In his first 5 seasons in Milwaukee, the Bucks averaged 61 wins and made two trips to the NBA Finals, winning that one title. Individually Abdul-Jabbar won three MVPs and one Finals MVP, was named 1st-team all-NBA 4 times and an All-Star every year, was named 1st-team all-defense twice, and led the league in scoring average twice while with the Bucks.

By 1975, however, Abdul-Jabbar had grown frustrated with the Bucks and the city of Milwaukee. Oscar Robertson retired in 1974 and the team had not fared well in the NBA draft in its attempts to build around Kareem, repeatedly losing players to the ABA and passing on significantly more talented options.
– In 1970, Gary Freeman was selected with the 16th pick. He didn’t even last a full season in Milwaukee, as he was shipped to Cleveland in February for little-used McCoy McLemore. Future Hall-of-Famers Calvin Murphy and Tiny Archibald were selected with the 18th and 19th picks respectively.
– In 1971, Collis Jones was selected with the 17th pick. He never played for the Bucks, spending his entire career in the ABA. Sharpshooting guard Mike Newlin was selected 24th.
– In 1972, Russ Lee was selected with the 6th pick. He played only 82 games, averaging 2.6 ppg and 1.0 rpg before being traded (inexplicably with a 1975 1st round pick) for little-used reserve Steve Kuberski. Future All-NBA guard Paul Westphal was selected 10th.
– In 1973, Swen Nater was selected with the 16th pick (the first player ever drafted in the 1st round without ever having started a college game, as he had served as Bill Walton’s backup at UCLA). He spent the first 3 years of his career in the ABA, not arriving in Milwaukee until after Abdul-Jabbar was gone. The only player to lead both the ABA and NBA in rebounding, Nater did end up helping the Bucks franchise in the long run; after just one season in Milwaukee, he was traded for the 1st round pick that became Marques Johnson, a cornerstone of the team’s successful run in the ’80s.
– In 1974, Gary Brokaw was selected with the 18th pick. Brokaw, a New Jersey high school legend who then starred on the Notre Dame team that snapped UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, topped out as a backup shooting guard in the NBA. Future Hall-of-Famer George Gervin was selected with the 40th pick, while future All-Stars Billy Knight and John Drew were selected 21st and 25th respectively.

Amidst all of this, however, the real heartbreak involved the Bucks’ 2nd 1st round pick in 1972, 12th overall, which they had used to select former UMass star Julius Erving. Erving had left college in 1971 and had joined the ABA because the NBA did not accept early-entry candidates at that time. Erving averaged 27.3p/15.7r/4.0a during his inaugural ABA season and was clearly a game-changing talent. He then became eligible for the 1972 NBA draft; in a typical year, a player of Erving’s talent would have been the 1st pick, but as he was under contact with the ABA’s Virginia Squires, many NBA teams were unwilling to use a high pick to take a player who may never be able to play for them. The Bucks, however, already having made one pick at #6, felt that the risk was appropriate and selected Erving.

What the Bucks didn’t know was that Erving had already signed a contract with the Atlanta Hawks prior to the draft. Erving thought that his contract with the Squires would be invalidated after he discovered that his agent had been compensated by both the ABA and the Squires and therefore was not properly representing Erving’s best interest in contract negotiations. The Squires, Hawks, and Bucks all felt like they had a valid claim to Erving’s rights, and the situation ended up in the courts, where it somehow became more confusing. At first, a judge ruled that Erving’s contract with the Squires was voidable and terminated, at which point he joined the Hawks and even played in exhibition games. The Bucks and Hawks then tried to negotiate compensation but were unable to do so, after which the Bucks won a brief legal victory when the NBA’s Board of Governors awarded Erving’s rights to the Bucks, as their view was that the entire credibility and structure of the NBA draft would have crumbled had Erving been allowed to sign with the Hawks in advance of the draft. But Erving never came to Milwaukee and throughout the preseason remained with Atlanta, who vowed to put up a legal fight. In the end, a judge filed an injunction upholding Erving’s contract with the Squires and prohibiting Erving from playing with any other professional team for the length of that contract and the Bucks, instead of pairing another legend with Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson, ended up being awarded compensation from the Hawks in the form of $150,000 and two future 2nd round picks.

The Bucks’ inability to build properly around Abdul-Jabbar, combined with his growing disenchantment with the city of Milwaukee and its culture, eventually made the situation untenable. Kareem indicated a desire to be traded to either New York or Los Angeles; the Bucks were able to accommodate him by negotiating a trade with the Lakers and netting Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith, and Brian Winters in return. The deal itself isn’t as lopsided as people now make it out to be – Smith was an established NBA center who had averaged 11 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks per game for the Lakers over 2 seasons, Winters was a dynamic scoring guard, and Meyers and Bridgeman were rookies who had been selected #2 and #8 respectively in the most recent draft. Given that Abdul-Jabbar forced the Bucks’ hand and that the rules regarding free agency were not clear back them (it’s possible that Kareem could have sat out the season and then been lost without compensation afterwards, for example), the team did as well as they could. In fact, in the year following the trade, the Bucks actually made the playoffs while the Lakers did not. What hurt the Bucks long-term is that none of these players or the pieces they were turned into even reached All-Star caliber level. Bridgeman (13.9p/3.7r/2.5a in 711g) and Winters (16.7p/2.7r/4.3a in 582g) became Bucks’ legends and key contributors to the successful teams in the 80s anchored by Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson. Smith had one productive season in Milwaukee but then was forced to split time with Nater, which didn’t work out; he was subsequently traded to Cleveland for two future 1st round picks, which ultimately became Ernie Grunfeld and George L. Johnson. The major disappontment, however, was with Meyers, who had been the 2nd pick in the 1975 draft. Meyers was a solid player who became plagued by back pain and then suddenly, in 1980, abruptly retired. Recently having become a Jehovah’s Witness, ironically after learning about the religion from Smith, Meyers walked away from professional basketball to devote his time to his religion and his family. His religious beliefs were also the reason he had declined back surgery after being injured.

The Lakers, meanwhile, now had their centerpiece in Abdul-Jabbar and began to build a team around him. Kareem acclimated himself to Los Angeles in spectacular fashion. In his first two seasons with the Lakers, he won the MVP award. Over his first 4 seasons in Los Angeles, Kareem averaged 26 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 blocks per game. The Lakers, however, fell short each year in the playoffs, as Abdul-Jabbar’s individual dominance could only carry the team so far. Adrian Dantley, operating in the 6th man role, was not yet the unstoppable scorer that he would later become in Utah, and Norm Nixon and Jamaal Wilkes were the only reliable starters. Also, during a time when the NBA was having an image problem and was competing with the ABA for talent and for the attention of sports fans, it didn’t help that the league’s best player was not on one of the better teams or that he generally was a recluse who had an adversarial relationship with the media.

In 1979, however, things changed. The Lakers were bought by Jerry Buss, drafted Magic Johnson, expanded the role of Michael Cooper, and traded for Jim Chones and Spencer Haywood. Basketball became fun again. In that first year playing with Magic, Kareem won his 6th MVP and the Lakers won the title, and over the last 10 years of his career, the Lakers averaged 59 wins per seasons, made it to 8 NBA Finals, and 5 NBA Championships. At some point during this run in the 80s, Kareem handed over the torch to Magic but there were still moments in his older years where he dominated younger adversaries such as Robert Parish, Moses Malone, and Hakeem Olajuwon. In 1985, he became the oldest player ever at age 38 to win the NBA Finals MVP after averaging 26 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists per game against the Celtics.

Abdul-Jabbar set new standards with regards to longevity and physically fitness. In addition to all of the amazing stats that he accumulated over his 20-year career, his advanced stats are also impressive. He led the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating 9 times, in Win Shares 9 times, and in Box Plus/Minus 6 times. He was also fairly durable; his 1560 regular season games played is 2nd behind Robert Parish and he averaged an astounding 36.8 minutes per game over 20 seasons (averaging 42.7 minutes per game during his 6-year stint with Milwaukee). When considering this durability combined with his individual dominance at both ends of the court, team success, and signature shot, there can be no doubt about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s place amongst the greatest players to ever play NBA basketball.


Larry Bird was not an exceptional athlete and yet he excelled at all phases of basketball. He was an elite passer who always seemed to know where everyone was at all times. He was an elite defender whose instincts, anticipation, and awareness gave him the extra half-step he needed to make steals or position himself for rebounds. He was an elite shooter, the first player to really weaponize the three point shot, which at the time was a fairly new innovation to the game. He was elite under pressure, repeatedly making plays in clutch moments to help the Celtics win close games.

Upon entering the NBA after a storied career at Indiana State where he averaged 30.3p/13.3r/4.6a/2.6s over 3 seasons and came within one game of an undefeated season and a national championship, Bird immediately transformed the Celtics into a contender and (together with Magic Johnson) transformed the league into an entertaining product for mainstream audiences who embraced their team-oriented style of play. When Bird and Magic joined the NBA, the most recent NBA Finals had not even been televised live but instead was shown on tape-delay. Fast-forward a couple of years to find the NBA now featured on Sunday afternoons, typically with either Bird’s Celtics or Magic’s Lakers being one of the combatants. The 1979 NBA Finals had a 7.2 television rating; by comparison, Game 7 of the 1984 Finals between the Celtics and the Lakers had a 19.3 television rating.

The Celtics had won 32 and 29 games respectively in the two seasons preceding Bird’s arrival, but in the 12 full seasons that he played for the team they averaged 59 wins and never won fewer than 51 games. Bird and the Celtics won the NBA championship in 1981, 1984, and 1986, and lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals in 1985 and 1987.

Bird won the 1980 Rookie of the Year award. He was the last NBA player to win 3 consecutive MVP awards when he accomplished the feat each year from 1984 to 1986, and finished as the runner-up for the award 4 other times. Over 897 regular season games with the Celtics, Bird averaged 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, and matched that by averaging 23.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 1.8 steals per game over 164 playoff games. He led the league in free trow shooting percentage 4 times, and for his career shot 51% from two, 38% from three, and 89% from the free throw line. In 1986 he led the league in three point field goals and attempts while also racking up 10 triple doubles and leading the Celtics to a 40-1 home record. He led the league in Player Efficiency Rating twice, Win Shares twice, in Box Plus-Minus 4 times, and in Value Over Replacement Player 4 times.

Later in his career, Bird was hampered by a series of debilitating injuries: frayed Achilles tendons, bone spurs in his heels, and a back injury so bad that he had to lay down on the floor during timeouts rather than sitting on the bench. He only played 186 of 328 possible regular season games and physically labored through the games that he did play and yet he still dominated, averaging 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists per game while shooting 48% from two, 37% from three, and 92% from the free throw line.
Check out this epic performance in his last season in 1992 against a loaded Trail Blazers team that made the NBA Finals that season, where Bird threw up a 49-point triple double highlighted by his circus shot to tie the game at the end of regulation.

Bird was also a part of the legendary ‘Dream Team’ that dominated opponents in the 1992 Olympics and won the gold medal in basketball for the United States. Due to chronic back injuries, it was actually the last team that Bird would play for; he was limited to 2 games of spot duty but still managed to make 8-11 field goals, including 3-4 three pointers. The team averaged 117 points per game, won every game by at least 38 points, and never once called timeout.

Larry Bird’s dominance for 15 years in college, professional, and international play clearly establishes him as one the game’s all-time greats. He was also clearly aware of his own greatness, constantly trash-talking opponents, telling them how he was going to defeat them and then doing just that. Early in his career, opponents would underestimate his ability due to the way he looked and talked and was hyped up by the media; that didn’t last long, however. Bird’s trash talking even continued into All-Star weekend, where he won 3 consecutive three point shootouts and mocked the other competitors. Opponents grew to fear Bird and how he might make them look bad, which he then used as a mental edge to widen his advantage even more. Teams were hesitant to create too much contact in closing moments because of his prowess at the foul line, which along with his height gave him the space that he needed to get off shots when and where he wanted to. But Bird’s greatest clutch moment was a defensively play, when in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons with just seconds to play, he anticipated the inbounds pass from Isiah Thomas, stole the ball, and hit a cutting Dennis Johnson with a perfect pass for the winning layup. Fittingly, the Eastern Conference Finals MVP award is now named after Larry Bird.


Wilt Chamberlain won two NBA titles, the fewest of any player in this tier. And while that is certainly part of his story, to paint his entire career with that one brush would be disingenuous. Chamberlain’s teams were successful. In 14 seasons, he made the playoffs 13 times, and reached the NBA finals 6 times. 5 times his season ended with a game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics and his main rival Bill Russell; in contrast to the teams that Chamberlain played for, the Celtics were a well-run organization with a clear philosophy, continuity, and a deep roster full of future Hall of Famers. Chamberlain’s team won 18 of the 29 playoff series in which he played, and in 160 playoff games he averaged 47.3 minutes, 22.5 points, 24.5 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game. His postseason scoring averages were consistently lower than his regular season performance but that was to be expected given the increased level of competition and increased number of double-teams that he would see.

Chamberlain was the greatest offensive force that the NBA has ever seen. His only weakness was his subpar free throw shooting (career percentage of 51.1%) and teams did put him at the line 10 times per games to try and take advantage of that, but that did little to slow down Chamberlain. Even a partial list of his achievements and records is staggering:

  • Won Rookie of the Year, MVP, and All-Star Game MVP in the same season
  • Won 4 MVPs and 1 Finals MVP
  • 1st-team All-Defense in his last two seasons (awards not given until 1969, Wilt’s 11th season)
  • Most points in a single game: 100 (2nd – Kobe Bryant: 81)
  • Most field goals made in a single game: 36 (other best – Rick Barry: 30)
  • Most free throws made in a single game: 28 (tied with Adrian Dantley)
  • Most points per game in a single season: 50.4 (other best – Michael Jordan: 37.1)
  • Most 50-point games in a single season: 45 (no other player ever had more than 10)
  • Most 40-point games in a single season: 63 (other best – Michael Jordan: 37)
  • Most career 60-point games: 32 (2nd – Kobe Bryant: 6)
  • Most career 50-point games: 118 (2nd – Michael Jordan: 31)
  • Most career 40-point games: 271 (2nd – Michael Jordan: 173)
  • Most consecutive 30-point games: 65 (2nd – James Harden: 32)
  • Most seasons leading league in free throw attempts: 9 (2nd – James Harden/Karl Malone: 7)
  • Most rebounds in a single game: 55 (2nd – Bill Russell: 51)
  • Most rebounds per game, career: 22.89 (2nd – Bill Russell: 22.45)
  • Most rebounds per game in a single season: 27.20 (other best – Bill Russell: 24.74)
  • Most seasons leading league in rebounds per game: 11 (2nd – Dennis Rodman: 7)
  • Most 30+ point / 30+ rebound games: 124 (all other players ever combined: 24)
  • Only player ever to average at least 23 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists per game in a single season (Chamberlain did it twice)
  • Most field goals in a game without a miss: 18
  • Most consecutive field goals made: 35

Chamberlain was the only player besides Michael Jordan to retire with a career scoring average of over 30 points per game. He led the league in Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares 8 times. He made 13 All-Star teams, missing out only once after injuring his patella tendon early in the 69-70 season; he returned in time for the playoffs and, despite not yet being fully recovered, led his team all the way to the NBA Finals (somehow averaging over 22 points and 22 rebounds per game) before they were dispatched by the New York Knicks. Chamberlain was also the defensive force anchoring the 71-72 Lakers team that won a league record 33 consecutive games and ultimately finished 69-13 in the regular season on their way to a championship.

Even more impressive than Chamberlain’s prowess scoring, rebounding, and defending was his durability. In the 1961-62 season, Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes per game as he played every minute of every game, including overtimes, except for 8 minutes of a game where he was ejected after receiving a second technical foul. He led the league in minutes played per game in 9 of his first 10 seasons and averaged an astounding 45.8 minutes per game over his career, which spanned 1045 games. Unbelievably, Chamberlain never fouled out of a game in his entire career. His averaged a remarkably low 1.6 fouls per 36 minutes over his career.

Wilt Chamberlain also revolutionized the game of basketball. Several rule changes were implemented as a direct response to his dominance. The lane was widened, offensive goaltending was implemented, and more regulations were put in place regarding shooting free throws and inbounding the ball. Opposing coaches obsessed with finding new and innovative ways to contain Chamberlain. Some techniques were more of a physical nature, designed to affect the big man’s focus and temperament. Over time, this did wear on Chamberlain and there were times when the game was no longer fun for him. And until breaking through in 1967 and winning his first his first championship, the losing wore on him as well. He clashed with multiple coaches, teammates, and owners over the years. Chamberlain’s on-court dominance subjected him to intense public scrutiny and criticism, as most fans had trouble understanding how someone so physically overpowering could lose so many big games; in the inevitable comparison to his chief rival Russell, he had no chance. As Chamberlain often said himself, “no one roots for Goliath”.


Tim Duncan may be the most boring NBA superstar ever. He was also the greatest power forward ever to play, which is quite a statement given that the likes of Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Bob Pettit, and Karl Malone terrorized opponents for years. Duncan was considered ‘boring’ because he rarely did anything overtly flashy, he didn’t jump out of the gym, he didn’t make acrobatic slam dunks in traffic, he didn’t make behind-the-back passes, he didn’t humiliate defenders with a slick handle, and he didn’t overpower his opponents with brute strength. What Duncan did was consistently make the right play, outwork opponents at both ends of the court, rebound the basketball, come through in the clutch, and win games.

Duncan entered the NBA a bit more seasoned than most rookies after having spent four seasons at Wake Forest. An unheralded recruit from the Virgin Islands, Duncan eventually blossomed into a 2-time conference player of the year. Amongst major college players in the modern era, Duncan ranks 1st all-time in rebounds and 2nd all-time in blocked shots. He then transitioned into the NBA without skipping a beat; Duncan not only was honored as Rookie of the Year but also was voted 1st-team all-NBA as rookie after playing all 82 games and averaging 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.5 blocks per game. No rookie has accomplished that feat since, not even LeBron James.