The coronavirus sports hiatus has given us all time to reflect on the past. For the last few weeks, "The Last Dance," has taken us through all facets of Michael Jordan's career and the landscape of the NBA in the 80s and 90s. Here at CBS Sports, we recently took a look at the, with Jordan firmly at the top.
This is also a perfect time to look forward, however. Which current NBA stars have the best chance to one day make it onto the list of all-time greats? It's hard to properly gauge careers that haven't finished yet, but that didn't stop LeBron James and Stephen Curry from becoming the only two active players to make our top 15. For others still playing, however, much of their legacy depends on the next several seasons.
Before we get into which current players have the best chance to eventually make the list, first we need to examine the top 15 NBA players to see what type of accomplishments it takes to get there. Throwing out Celtics great Bill Russell, who is an anomaly in a few categories (11 titles and no Finals MVPs because the award, now named for him, didn't exist yet) and Curry, who's just 10 seasons into his career, here are the averages of the remaining top 13 NBA players of all-time (combined ABA/NBA stats for Julius Erving):
- 28,714 total points
- 14.5 All-Star appearances
- 12.5 All-NBA selections
- 2.7 MVP awards
- 3.5 championships
- 2.2 Finals MVPs
So when we look at this next group of players, keep those numbers in mind. The characteristic that stands out the most is winning. Every player on the list has at least one NBA title, and all but three have multiple. Outside of Russell, the only players without a Finals MVP award are Curry, Oscar Robertson and Erving, who won two ABA Playoffs MVP awards. So the criteria is clear -- you need to have a boatload of accolades to go along with winning on the brightest stage.
With that, let's start with the only active non-LeBron player on our list, Curry, to see whether he deserved to make it over the current player most likely to eventually make the list, Kevin Durant. The fact that they were teammates makes this even more fun.
Stephen Curry vs. Kevin Durant debate
Curry and Durant are really the only two current players besides LeBron with any claim to the top 15 at this point in their careers and, upon first glance, Durant may appear to have a slight edge.
|NBA career||Points||All-Star||All-NBA||Titles||MVP||Finals MVP|
Stephen Curry (10 seasons)
Kevin Durant (12 seasons)
But this doesn't factor in Curry's outright assault on every 3-point record known to man, or the fact that he had one of the best NBA seasons we've ever seen in 2015-16, averaging 30.1 points while making 5.1 3s per game with utterly absurd 50.4/45.4/90.8 percentages. Durant was no slouch in his best season, averaging 32 points on 50.3/39.1/87.3 percentages en route to MVP honors in 2013-14. Overall for their careers, Durant and Curry are relatively even in advanced metrics (player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus-minus -- all from Basketball Reference).
Stephen Curry (10 seasons)
Kevin Durant (12 seasons)
When the numbers are this close, it ultimately becomes a subjective decision -- which player do you think has had the better career thus far? Working to Curry's advantage is the fact that he and the Warriors were able to win a title before Durant got there in 2014-15, while Durant was unable to win a championship with the Thunder, missing his best chance with a loss to Curry's Warriors in 2015-16.
By the same token, however, you could argue that Curry was unable to win a Finals MVP before Durant got to Golden State, and Durant won both Finals MVPs when he and Curry were on the court together. Similarly, you could point to how Curry failed to win a title with a team that put together an all-time best 73-9 regular season, and argue that he needed Durant to win those next two trophies.
There's no easy answer. In the end, the nod went to Curry because of his overall impact on the game and the way it's played. You've heard people talk about the "gravity" he possesses on the court ad nauseam, but it's true. Having Curry on your team makes everyone around him better offensively, and we can't necessarily say that about Durant with the same unwavering confidence. The best part of this debate, however, is that it's far from over. If Durant returns from his Achilles injury and leads the Brooklyn Nets to a title as their unquestioned best player, and if Curry and the Warriors never get back to the Finals, things could look a lot different when we do this list again in five years.
Leonard is a unique case since, unlike most of the league's best players, he joined a team that was already a championship contender to start his career. As a result, he was role player largely focused on defense for his first three seasons before a breakout Finals MVP performance while winning the 2014 title. After a public fallout with the Spurs, Leonard's historical stock took a massive leap last season as he led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title, winning another Finals MVP in the process. Leonard is arguably the best player in the game right now given his two-way ability and playoff acumen, but he may not ever ascend to the top 15 since he's the poster boy for the modern "load management" era. If Leonard is able to win a third Finals MVP with a third different team, however, it would be hard to keep him out.
Likely on his way to his second MVP award at age 25, Giannis is one of the leaders in the clubhouse to join the top 15 when all's said and done. Just entering his prime, Antetokounmpo's numbers are already both prolific and efficient and his durability has been off the charts. The real question for Antetokounmpo will be team success -- can he lead the Bucks, or another team, to the NBA title as its best player? Milwaukee could end up winning the title this season, if and when it resumes, which would make this a moot point. But if Giannis goes his whole career without a championship, even all-time great numbers might not be enough to get him onto the list.
The ideal big in an NBA landscape where bigs are steadily being devalued, Davis' skill on both sides of the ball has him on the fast track to a top-15 spot when his career his finished, perhaps sooner. His scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking numbers should stack up to the all-time greats if he stays healthy, but, like most of the younger players on this list, it's going to come down to winning. Even if he gets a title, maybe two, with LeBron James, questions will still linger as to whether he can be the best player on a championship team. Some felt he could have done more with the Pelicans roster he eventually decided to leave, so he'll have to prove that he can lead the Lakers, or another team, to the promised land in a post-LeBron NBA world.
Harden is one of the most prolific and efficient scorers in NBA history, but he's fighting a couple of stigmas. One is the idea that he underperforms in the playoffs, which could easily be cured if he ends up winning a championship as the best player on the team. The other, however, is harder to shake. People just don't like Harden's isolation-heavy style of offense, holding the ball and sizing up the defense for the majority of the shot clock before launching a step-back 3, firing a cross-court pass or driving to the rim in search of a basket or a foul. Basically, a lot of people hate the way he plays. A title would go a long way toward solving both issues in people's minds, but there's a chance that he won't be remembered fondly, fairly or unfairly, and that could keep him out of the top 15.
Yes, it's early. But what we've seen in Doncic's first two seasons gives us every reason to believe he'll one day join the NBA's all-time greats, with the obvious condition of relatively good health. Only Robertson and Russell Westbrook have put up seasons of at least 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists per game -- Luka is currently doing it as a 21-year-old. This trajectory suggests that Doncic's stats will be elite by the end of his career. In terms of titles, Doncic is on an emerging young team in Dallas with a bona fide running mate in Kristaps Porzingis. Given his overseas accomplishments -- winning a EuroLeague title and EuroLeague Final Four MVP at the age of 19 -- it's not a stretch to say that Doncic could win at least one title and at least one MVP over the next several seasons, which would give him a real shot at making the top 15.