Top NBA players of all time per player position

Top NBA players of all time per player position

The NBA has witnessed some of the best players to ever set foot on courts. Throughout those decades, there are those who simply stand out in their respective positions. So, who exactly are the best players for each position played?

There have been big, small, streaky, and athletically gifted athletes in the NBA. Judging the best players to ever play the game is as difficult as it is already with the thousands who dedicated their lives to it.

However, it’s a bit easier for fans and analysts alike to seek who is the best through sorting out each position in the history of the sport based on who played the best for their roles. These roles are paramount to the success of a team, and when working cohesively, makes some of the best experiences fans would love to see.

So, without further ado, here are the best players to ever set foot on an NBA court per position played throughout the history of the league.

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NBA positions explained

Positions are important when playing the game of basketball. However, in recent seasons, the game has become more positionless than ever where point guards become scorers and centres become perimeter players.

However, when speaking about the league’s best throughout its history, there was a time when positions mattered in the league which this list must account for. Hence, a thorough explanation as to how each position works and plays out in court is needed to give you an idea as to how players can work in tandem when facing different opponents.

Point Guard (Position 1)

The point guard is responsible for curating the offence of the game and becomes the secondary coach of the team. They are usually the player who handles the basketball from an inbound pass, and makes plays for his teammates to score the basketball more efficiently.

A point guard’s stats would see a higher number of assists than points and a low rebound output because they are usually the smallest players on the court. The reason for their small size is for them to have the speed necessary to move the ball around and score the basket– whether it be for himself or his teammates.

Point guards usually become main offensive firepowers for their teams due to a more offensive-minded league.

Throughout the history of the game, the best players are usually the PGs due to their fancy dribbling skills and incredible passing abilities.

Shooting Guard (Position 2)

The shooting guard is just about the same build as the point guard physically, but a little bit taller and lankier. Shooting guards or ‘2-guards’ are offensive-minded and usually spot up for a jump shot or three-pointer to help the team score more effectively.

Shooting guards can be pure shooters or scorers that help uplift the team to success. They can be incredibly efficient and are deal-breakers in an offence when the team is surrounded by great shooting guards.

In this era of the NBA, the 2-guard is the most prolific and most abundant position in the league because the average height of all players is close to what height is expected of a shooting guard, which is 6’5”.

Shooting guards are excellent scorers who can make a difference for a team. They can even be great role players who can play defence and shoot the threes, hence the term coined for these types of players exists called the ‘three-and-d’.

Small forward (Position 3)

Position 3, or the small forward, mainly resides in the perimeter. Small forwards are a mix of both the shooting guard and a power-forward which the latter will be explained more later.

They are above average in height and build, and are usually more mobile than you might think. They can shoot outside of the perimeter with great three point shots and can slash to the rim with ease due to their size.

However, their roles are more defensive since they are the bigger players in a team. They defend the wing, the part of the court outside the three point arc. They are incredible defensively when guarding the shooting guard and fellow small forwards who can be a nuisance in the defence sometimes.

The best small forwards are great scorers and elite defenders. They can also be in the category of a three-and-d since they can both shoot and defend the ball well, and with a larger body, they can do so more effectively.

Power forward (Position 4)

Power forwards have bodies that already resemble a centre, but still play a perimeter game. The only difference between a power forward and a small forward is the fact that the former are larger in size and have tertiary rebounding responsibilities to help aid the centre.

Power forwards are great mid-range shooters, but seldom have a three-point shot due to their heavy utility in the paint guarding the bigger players. Their size also calls for more presence inside since they can score with ease given the right post-up moves and footwork.

The great power forwards in the NBA have some kind of post-up move that makes great use of their size and strength when bullying the defenders inside the rim. The best part about power forwards now is that they too can shoot the three which spreads the floor even more.

Centre (Position 5)

Centres are the biggest players on a team, and they are usually the paint defenders and rebounders. They usually have an inside game unparalleled compared to the smaller players, but at the same time are regarded as the slowest players on the court.

However, centres too became so versatile that they started shooting threes. Like point guards, the NBA has been blessed with the most talented centres in the league who go as tall as 7 feet. These players are gifted with agile moves that make defenders question how a body like a centre can move that fast.

In most cases, centres are the strongest and tallest players in their respective teams, and the pick-and-roll (a strategy used to make the big man open for a wide dunk or layup) is their bread and butter when the point guard is an elite passer whose inside passing game is great.

Centres have the hardest time in defending, and at times, scoring since they are the most focused player on the court. But, with how versatile and positionless the league has become, there have been so many players with similar sizes and heights who play in different positions which make a 7-footer who can shoot and dribble much scarier.

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NBA best players in each position

There are factors to consider who is the best NBA player of all time 2021. There have been a lot that people would allude to, but this list will touch upon the absolute best players in their respective positions who have done the following:

  • Have accolades that only very few possess

  • Passes the eye-test where their dominance is felt just by watching the game

  • Have been to many games wherein their skill set is so valuable that the teams they played for won because of them

Here are the best players in the history of the game per player position:

Point guard: Earvin Magic Johnson

Ask any NBA player and fan today, and they will tell you that Magic Johnson is the undisputed greatest point guard of all time. Ever since he set foot in an NBA court and wore the purple and gold jersey, he was great on the get-go that led his team to the finals and won it just during his first year during the 1979-80 season.

No star player on this list has even achieved that kind of feat since, and Magic did it with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar injured. His first finals MVP was also captured during his first year in the league, and he is the only player to ever win the Rookie of the Year award while winning a championship and an NBA Finals MVP.

Just like the NBA most valuable player 2021, Magic Johnson won 3 MVPs when he was playing for the Lakers and secured 3 more Finals MVPs. He is only among a few players with three or more MVPs in the history of the game, and alongside him are LeBron James with 4, Michael Jordan with 5, and Abdul-Jabbar with 6.

Magic’s unique skill set has paved the way for the Showtime Lakers who have the best pace during their entire stint in the Pat Riley dynasty. Johnson had incredible teammates as well who can catch the ball at an elite level that made for an exciting fast break where the outcome usually ends with a dunk or a splendid layup.

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Magic’s signature move will forever be his passing which had many variations. The behind-the-back, bullet, and over-the-head passes were some of his unique assists that inspired many point guards after his time to do the same. Similar players of his passing prowess like Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, and even LeBron adhere to Magic as their inspiration to move the ball at a very high level.

Magic is a 6’9” point guard which is unprecedented at that time. The average height for a point guard before is 6’3”, and Jerry West, another contender for the best point guard of all time is listed at 6’2”.

His gifted size and height made the opposing defence think about how he can be defended. As great as Magic is, he is never known for his offensive prowess as much as his passing game and defence against smaller point guards.

His famous game came from the 1987 Finals where the Lakers were the visiting team in Game 4 and Magic secured the game winning skyhook who his contemporary, Abdul-Jabbar, is best known for.

Magic to this day is still regarded as one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball. That says a lot considering that there have been elite superstar point guards ever since he left the league.

Shooting guard: Chicago Bulls - Michael Jordan

When debating whether who’s the best player of all time is, most people will say Michael Jordan, and for good reason. He is the only player to go undefeated in the Finals and winning not one, but two three-peats during his stint with the Chicago Bulls.

To make matters even more impressive is the fact that in the 1995-96 regular season, Jordan and the Bulls went 72-10. It made them the 2nd best team in NBA history (only next to the Golden State Warriors’ 2016 season winning 73-9).

Unlike the Warriors, the Bulls secured a championship to make Jordan’s season one of the most perfect career stories any player can only dream about. Aside from Jordan’s 5 season MVPs and 6 Finals MVPs, and multiple championships, he has an incredible offensive skill set unmatched throughout the course of history.

For starters, Jordan is an incredible mid-range jump shooter who is an automatic once the ball leaves his hands to shoot for a mid-ranger. Secondly, he is incredibly athletic for his size and was seen multiple times hanging in the air when going up for a dunk or layup.

Jordan is also one of the few players in the history of the NBA who Nike took so much benefit from selling his signature shoe, the Air Jordans. It came from his prowess of hanging in the air for a long time when jumping and trying to score the basket.

Above all else, his killer mentality to win and dominate every game makes him the best to ever play because he will never back down from anybody. When you see Jordan playing, you knew that he was giving it his 100% every time he sets foot inside the NBA courts.

Small forward: LeBron James

Aside from Jordan, LeBron James is regarded as one of the top two players to ever hold the basketball in the NBA. Standing at an outstanding 6’8” and weighing almost 260 lbs., LeBron is an athletic freak who can do almost anything on the court at an elite level.

When it comes to scoring, LeBron quietly averages for his career 27 points a game while also assisting the basketball to his teammates at a high level. While James has a more physical presence when playing, he too can shoot from the outside, mid range and draw the foul to go to the free-throw line.

He is the most complete player the league has ever seen, and he has secured championship for three teams he played for which no other player has achieved in their whole careers. The biggest knock on James’ career is his 6 Finals losses to only 4 wins.

Additionally, James was demonised after deciding to go to Miami Heat in 2010 to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that ultimately formed a superteam that everybody stigmatised.

LeBron at 37-years old is still playing at a very high level which gives him one of the most illustrious careers out of all the NBA greats.

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Power forward: Tim Duncan

The power forward position is one of the harder roles to judge in terms of the best player. However, out of all the 4-position players, Tim Duncan reigns supreme simply for his fundamental moves that aren’t flashy but effective at best.

Duncan was lucky to play for the Spurs, an organisation that specialises in quality offence ever since Gregg Popovich set foot in the scene. Coach Pop is one of the greatest coaches of all time. He helped Duncan and the Spurs become a dynasty after winning 5 championships and going to the playoffs every single year since the turn of the millennium.

Duncan may seem to be lax and even timid at times, but once he gets to the paint, he finesses defenders and lays the ball in so many different ways. He is best known for his masterful post-up moves that see the ball getting banked and shot every time he is within 5 feet from the basket.

Often dubbed as ‘Timmy D’, his all-star teammates of Tony Parker, David Robinson, and Manu Ginobili helped uplift his career winning 5 championships that will forever go down as one of his greatest accomplishments.

While he may not be too flashy in the highlight reels, Tim Duncan won 2 regular season MVPs and 3 Finals MVP trophies during his career. Happily retired, Duncan is found in the Spurs’ coaching staff helping young Spurs athletes get the most out of their skillset like he once did during his stint in San Antonio and the NBA.

Centre: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Mostly famous for his time with the Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was actually drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks and had an all-star teammate and later became a Laker, Oscar Roberston. Both players won the championship for the Bucks in 1971, and continued to win 5 more with Magic and the Lakers.

Kareem’s famous skyhook propelled him to be an all-time great. With his size and defensive prowess, it’s easy to see why he became the all-time leading scorer. Kareem is also the player with the most MVPs that pushed his name to Mt. Rushmore of basketball.

Jabbar is also an incredible runner who runs the fast-break that made the Showtime Lakers who they were in the 80s. Nobody can stop the duo of Magic and Kareem, and whenever they set foot on an NBA court, teams fear them.

The Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers rivalry became a decade trend where they constantly met in the Finals and won the majority of the years during their heavy competition.

There won’t be another player in the history of the game like Kareem, and he is still the leading scorer in the history of the game by a long shot.

What makes a great NBA player?

It’s easy to find a good NBA player. Most present NBA players today can be regarded as good. However, only a few can really be named as great with players like LeBron, Jordan, or Kareem.

A great player is simply one who is consistent all-throughout their career with their efficiency and effectiveness on the court. Above all else, their mindset to compete at an elite level and go down swinging when about to lose is what pushes a good player to be great.

Accepting the challenge of being the best takes so much pressure for a player, and the best in the world to ever do it embraces this challenge no matter the consequences. The greatest players have their own imperfections but they always find a way to make the game much more appealing to fans and better for their teammates who play alongside them on an NBA court.

You might be asking yourself: When are the NBA play-offs, who is in and how can I watch? With the 2021-22 NBA season in play, the playoffs will begin by April next year and you can watch them go against each other on any sports channel or via live streaming.

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Words: Vonn Consul

Image: PA


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4 Aug 2023

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