Top 15 NBA players of all time: Discussing Kevin Garnett, Kevin Durant, other greats left off the list

On Tuesday, CBS Sports published its list of the top 15 players in NBA history, along with commentary from their writers. You surely have no qualms with the players selected or the order in which they are ranked, as this kind of list typically doesn’t upset anybody whatsoever. 

You might, however, feel that there are certain players who didn’t make the list but deserve to be part of the conversation. And those are the guys James Herbert and Sam Quinn are here to discuss, starting with an intense man who recently proved he has a second career as an actor if he wants it.

James Herbert: I wasn’t exactly shocked that Kevin Garnett didn’t make the cut, given that conventional wisdom seems to have positioned him as the third banana behind Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant in this year’s Hall of Fame class. 

But I don’t agree with it. 

Garnett spent his prime years in Minnesota with the worst supporting cast of any superstar on this list. In 2004, the one time he had a couple of above-average starters with him, the Wolves made the conference finals and one of them got injured, leaving Garnett to battle the Shaq/Kobe/Payton/Malone Lakers with Darrick Martin, Trenton Hassell and Michael Olowokandi in the starting lineup. Then-coach Flip Saunders made Garnett play point guard, and they somehow stole a win that way.

In Boston, Garnett set the tone for a revolutionary defensive team. And I do mean revolutionary: the Celtics’ flood-the-strong-side scheme, masterminded by then-assistant coach Tom Thibodeau directly led to the more sophisticated, unpredictable offensive systems we see today. 

Garnett deservedly won Defensive Player of the Year in his first season away from Minnesota, and he sacrificed his touches to finally get a ring. Before all that, though, as well as locking up star wings, harassing traditional post players and creating chaos at the top of Minnesota’s zone defense, he was an all-time great on offense.

From 1998-99 to 2007-08, Garnett averaged 22.4 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.4 steals, with a 27.1 percent usage rate and a 54.7 percent true shooting percentage, per Basketball-Reference. Minnesota finished eighth in offensive rating in 1999-00, fourth in 2001-02, fifth in 2002-03, fifth in 2003-04 and sixth in 2004-05, incredible feats considering Garnett had to do so much heavy lifting.  

At a time when nobody had even put the words “positionless” and “basketball” next to each other, Garnett made plays from all over the court rather than operating exclusively on the block. This was a 7-foot-1 guy with the quickness and perimeter skills of a guard. He was the fulcrum of the Wolves’ offense, but approached each possession as a playmaker, not a pure scorer.

Maybe if Garnett’s passing ability was as famous as his maniacal attitude, he would be universally acknowledged as closer to Hakeem than, say, Dirk Nowitzki. Maybe we collectively overrate isolation scoring and underrate help defense. I’d rank him higher than Bryant, and I think Duncan vs. Garnett is a difficult call.

Sam Quinn: I’ll vigorously co-sign practically everything you said about KG, and I’ll add this: Duncan was certainly “greater” than Garnett in that he accomplished significantly more during his career … but are we 100 percent sure that he was the better player? I’d say they were roughly even as defenders, albeit with different skill sets. Duncan was the superior scorer, but Garnett had more range, was a better passer and could handle the ball far more deftly. Disconnecting Duncan from San Antonio’s five championships would be impossible given his place as Gregg Popovich’s culture-setter (and if you don’t think that’s important, just look at what happened after he retired), but I’d advise readers to ask themselves this: If Garnett at his peak could win 58 games with decrepit versions of Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell as his two best teammates, what could he have achieved with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili? 

It’s unfair to consider this in an all-time ranking, but I think it bears mentioning how well Garnett would fit into the modern game. All of those mid-range shots would have become 3s. His teams would have switched vigorously with him at center. More creative coaching would have allowed him a more consistent ballhandling role. Imagine if 2016 Draymond Green were a 25-point scorer. That, in essence, is what Garnett would be today. He came along a bit too early and landed on the worst possible team, but if we played both of their careers out 100 times, I imagine Garnett’s would have been better than Duncan’s in at least 30 or 40 simulations. 

I do think this is an interesting way to frame the conversation, though, because this era is littered with circumstantially elevated players. I’ll turn now to Kobe Bryant, who, stylistically speaking, was extremely similar to a player who missed the cut here: Kevin Durant. Yet when you line the numbers up, there is little question that Durant was better. 

Bryant age 21-30: 28.2 ppg, 45.7/34.2/84.4 shooting, 5.9 rpg, 5.2 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.6 bpgDurant age 21-30: 28 ppg, 50.4/38.4/88.5 shooting, 7.4 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.2 bpg

Considering the outsize importance of scoring in both of their games, Durant’s overwhelming advantage in efficiency is critical. The advanced stats similarly favor Durant by a significant margin. He racked up 8.2 more win shares in that time span despite playing 53 fewer games. He holds an advantage of 6.6 percentage points in effective field goal percentage and 6.7 percentage points in true shooting percentage. Overall value stats like PER and VORP favor Durant and as well. Even his defensive numbers are better across the board. There is practically no statistical argument for Bryant being better at basketball than Durant. 

Yet on my ballot, I ultimately gave Kobe the very, very slight nod over Durant for the No. 15 slot. I’ve grown to regret that choice. It had nothing to do with Bryant’s five championships — put Durant on prime Shaq’s team and, I assure you, he’s finishing with more than five rings — and everything to do with his historic longevity. But based purely on how good they were at basketball, Durant over Kobe is a slam dunk, right?

Herbert: I don’t think you need to regret your Bryant over Durant pick. We might have put Bryant a bit too high as a group, but I think the 10-15 range is about right. Longevity should count for something, and while he clearly loses the efficiency game because he took way tougher shots than Durant, he has the edge when it comes to passing and feel. 

This particular debate points to one of the thornier parts of ranking players historically: How do you weigh a player’s peak against his entire body of work? This list is not “the best seasons of all-time,” nor is it “the best careers of all-time.” In Durant’s case, there is a compelling argument to be made for his inclusion either way, but I don’t think it has to come at Bryant’s expense. 

More generally, if we lean toward longevity, we have done a real disservice to the likes of Moses Malone and Karl Malone here. And if we lean toward peak production, then we need to consider guys with injury-shortened primes (i.e. Bill Walton, Tracy McGrady) and even current players (i.e. Kawhi Leonard, James Harden) more seriously. 

Are you outraged on behalf of any of these guys? How about recent retirees like Dirk, Dwyane Wade and Steve Nash? I personally felt bad leaving out David Robinson — his stats are bonkers. 

Quinn: Bonkers is an understatement. Back in that era, IBM released an alternative MVP award based solely on statistics. Robinson won it five times. Michael Jordan only did twice. He has one of the cleanest arguments to get into the top 15 of those who didn’t, and while that’s something worth noting, I just can’t get past his postseason history. He undeniably got worse in the playoffs, and the beatdown Olajuwon laid on him in 1995 should never be forgotten. 

I do find Nash to be undervalued from a historical perspective, but I can’t tell by how much. Part of me thinks that if Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw hadn’t been suspended in 2007, he’d have a championship to his name and would be right in the thick of things, but, in the interest of the Stephen Curry-Kevin Durant debate that will no doubt rage on for years, I find myself wondering if Nash’s playoff shortcomings were somewhat appropriate. Small guards tend to struggle to score late in playoff games, and Bryant likely had more value than Nash in the high-leverage moments that ultimately lead to championships. Nash hit the artificial ceiling his body type creates, as did Chris Paul and the tragically underrated John Stockton. Curry did not, and neither did Isiah Thomas. 

Thomas will surely draw “snub” calls based on his stellar postseason resume. His regular-season numbers, however, tell a different and less impressive story. Leonard might have a top-10 peak, but he’s had only four All-Star-caliber seasons, and while I’m not going to use the dreaded A-word, I will acknowledge that not all championships and Finals MVPs are created equal. Leonard winning his first on only 16 points per game and his second without Durant in a Golden State uniform isn’t exactly on par with the Finals MVP performances of the players on this list. 

When you reach the top 15, any the standard is just ridiculously high. Beyond Garnett, the only player that we mistakenly left off of our list, to me, is Moses Malone. He stole three MVPs during Kareem’s peak and had one of the greatest playoff runs in NBA history. Are there gaps in his resume? Is his absence simply due to poor timing? 

Herbert: I can’t let you diminish Leonard’s 2019 playoff run, one of the best in NBA history, just because Durant was hurt in the Finals! But I’m not ready to put him in the top 15 yet, either, especially if I can’t find room for Robinson, Wade, Nowitzki, etc.

Anyway, Moses: Maybe we messed this one up. I could say that he didn’t make it because he wasn’t much of a passer, didn’t anchor an elite defense outside of his first couple of years in Philadelphia and derived so much of his value from offensive rebounding rather than one-on-one creation. But I could also say that he missed out because most people just aren’t familiar enough with him. Malone attention when he was playing and essentially disappeared in retirement. He also suffers from having dominated with power at a time when Magic, Bird and Dr. J were providing much prettier highlights.

By the numbers, it is easy to say that Malone is the most underrated star in league history. Much like when talking about All-Star selections, though, we shouldn’t be allowed to call anybody a snub without picking the player we’d like him to replace. I’m not comfortable saying Moses was definitively better than Jerry West or Julius Erving, and Curry’s peak is so high that I don’t like the idea of removing him, either.

If you’re giving Kobe the boot so Durant can get in, who are you kicking off for Moses? (Full disclosure: On my personal list, I “snubbed” Erving and included Garnett.)

Quinn: Erving didn’t make my list. In fact, he wasn’t all that close. Garnett and Durant were the last two cuts for me, with a sizable drop-off afterward. This one was fairly simple for me. Erving and Moses played on the same team, and Moses was better. In their championship season in Philadelphia, he led the NBA in PER and win shares, and then he averaged 26 points and nearly 16 rebounds in the postseason. The ABA wasn’t exactly a joke, but I’m not prepared to say the competition he faced there was NBA-quality, and he never matched Malone’s production in the NBA. 

Erving was an innovator, a critical part of basketball history, but it’s not a slight to suggest he’s closer to the 20th best player in history than the 15th. For what it’s worth, Malone came in ahead of West and Bryant on my list, but I would consider those three part of the same tier. 

What I think we’re saying, James, is that neither of us views No. 15 as the line of demarcation here. I would argue that it comes after No. 17, with Jordan, James, Kareem, Russell, Wilt, Shaq, Bird, Magic, Duncan, Hakeem, Curry, Oscar, West, Moses, Bryant, Durant and Garnett as the top historical tier. I would have no objection to placing Erving and Robinson in that group as well, though I likely wouldn’t, and Leonard stands as the next player in line to potentially join it. That places the true drop-off somewhere around 20, where we start to consider players like Dirk Nowitzki, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. Does that seem reasonable to you?

Herbert: It seems reasonable, sure, but I’m not sure exactly where I’d put that line of demarcation (and I’d put LeBron and MJ in a tier of their own). The truth is that this exercise is fundamentally messy, and if I actually tried to put together something resembling Bill Simmons’ Hall of Fame Pyramid, I’d descend into madness. 

I will end this with two thoughts: 

1. You’re underrating both Erving and the talent level of the late-period ABA! 2. Justice for Garnett! 

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