As part of the celebration of the NBA’s 75th season, the league unveiled its list of the greatest players in its history over a three-day span in opening week — a list that ended up having one extra name due to a tie in voting. Every player who made the league’s 50th anniversary team in 1996 was also included on this list, along with 26 new names ranging from Bob McAdoo (who debuted in 1972 and was considered one of the biggest snubs from the 50 greatest list) to Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning Finals MVP who is still only 26 years old.
With the list of names now complete, we asked our experts to break it down by picking the biggest surprises and snubs, projecting into the future for the next version of this list for the NBA’s 100th anniversary celebration 25 years from now, and — the biggest challenge of them all — narrowing down the list of 76 to an all-time starting five.
1. Which player were you most surprised to see included on the 75th anniversary team?
Kirk Goldsberry: Dominique Wilkins, not because he’s not deserving, but because he was left off the top 50 list which came out toward the end of his career. The Human Highlight Film was my favorite player as a kid and I’m thrilled to see him here, but it’s surprising considering he wasn’t on that original list. I can still see him doing windmill dunks in those beautiful old Hawks jerseys.
Jorge Sedano: I say this with the utmost respect, but it’s Damian Lillard. He’s must-watch television and arguably my favorite player to watch right now. However, he doesn’t have the accolades you can find on the résumés of most other players on the list, such as, but not limited to: MVP, scoring champion, individual record holder, Finals appearance or Finals MVP. There are a few snubs that I would consider putting ahead of Dame.
Ramona Shelburne: Wilkins and Bob McAdoo were the two big snubs from the 50th anniversary team who were added to the 75th anniversary team. I’m really glad both were added and those snubs were rectified. There were so many good candidates to add that it’s hard to go back and make up for previous mistakes.
Marc Spears: Respectfully, Bill Walton. There have been other great players whose potential careers were affected by injury like Grant Hill, Derrick Rose, Ralph Sampson, Yao Ming et al. Walton’s inclusion on the list, however, wasn’t affected by what he missed due to injury.
Brian Windhorst: Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis. Part of it is their résumés aren’t complete and the voters are probably projecting a little. These players were competing against their peers, not the greats from the 1950s, as the league kept the top 50 named in 1996. As a result, there is no one who doesn’t belong. That said, considering the other choices I’d guess this vote was pretty tight with these two.
2. Which player left off the list was the biggest snub?
Sedano: This is a tough one. You could go with any of these players and I wouldn’t argue with you: Dwight Howard, Tracy McGrady, Manu Ginobili or Kyrie Irving. It came down to a toss-up between McGrady and Howard for me, and I’ll go with Howard by the slimmest margin. I’m old enough to remember when we were all debating if Howard or LeBron James was the best player in the league. Very few players have been good enough to be in that conversation. The first 10 years of Howard’s career can be compared to the first decade of almost any of the greats at his position. Plus, he has been able to transition to being an important role player on a championship team late in his career.
Shelburne: Pau Gasol. Overall I think the committee did a great job, and when things were close between several players, winning top individual awards seems to have carried the day. Gasol was never an MVP or even in the running for that type of award, but he did win two NBA titles with the Lakers and made four All-NBA teams, not to mention what he did internationally for Spain. He’s also top 40 all-time in blocks (21st), rebounds (28th) and points (39th), so there was a strong statistical case for him as well.
Spears: Even with everything that’s been going on this season, Kyrie Irving not being on the list surprised me. Other names that stand out include Paul George, Klay Thompson, Tony Parker, Alonzo Mourning and Ben Wallace.
Windhorst: Manu Ginobili is a very hard one to leave off. It has to be quite disappointing to him and his fans that he didn’t make it. His international career isn’t considered for this purpose, I realize, but still, Ginobili was an integral part of four NBA title teams. Tracy McGrady is a first-ballot Hall of Famer so I have to assume he was close too.
Goldsberry: I’m biased, but for me it’s Ginobili, a four-time NBA champion and one of the greatest international players of all time. His signature move — the Eurostep — has changed the league forever. It’s become a central move for virtually every attacking player in pro hoops. When Ginobili arrived in the NBA, officials had no idea how to officiate the move and often wrongly called him for traveling violations. He walked so James Harden and dozens of other contemporary superstars could run. Leaving him off of this list is a mistake. He was a huge part of the Spurs dynasty and he literally changed the sport.
3. The mix of players was: too heavy on older players, too heavy on more recent players or just right?
Shelburne: The committee was definitely grading on a harsh curve for current players, which I’m fine with. I understand why current players like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic weren’t added to the team this time around. They’re still young and have another decade to prove their all-time greatness. But Jokic did just win the MVP last season and already has a body of work that would justify such an honor.
Spears: Full disclosure, I was one of the voters. Thought it was fair.
Windhorst: I don’t know. There isn’t a right answer to me. Players who were in their primes in the late 1990s and early 2000s were kind of penalized by the timing of all this as McGrady and Vince Carter show. Winning an MVP award sure helped your cause, as it should.
Goldsberry: Just right. They kept the original top 50 which was the right thing to do to keep history going, but the addition of Wilkins and a bunch of modern players feels like the right balance.
Sedano: I felt it was just right. You have to pay homage to the players who laid the foundation for the league. Every generation has its own set of pioneers and they should all be recognized as such.
4. Who is one active player who didn’t make the list this time who you think is a lock for NBA100 in 25 years?
Windhorst: Doncic. In 1996, the voters put Shaq on the list, controversially, because they were convinced of what his place in the game would be. It’s hard not to project Luka being honored over All-Star Weekend in Cleveland in 2047.
Goldsberry: Nikola Jokic. Only two NBA MVP winners were excluded, Jokic and Derrick Rose. I love both players, but Jokic is just getting warmed up, he’s redefining the center position in the modern game, and he’s destined to be a major influence on big men for decades.
Sedano: I’ll go with Ja Morant. I’m in love with his game and his energy. He’s made a small market like Memphis matter and what he did last season in the play-in game was off the charts. Then he followed it up with a Game 1 upset of the Jazz. The sky is the limit for him and if I were buying stock in a young player and a young team, it would be Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies.
Shelburne: Luka Doncic. He has already finished in the top six in MVP voting twice in his first three seasons. In 2020, he was the second-youngest player ever to finish top five in MVP voting. In other words, it’s just a matter of time before he wins one, and he clearly has the potential to win multiple MVPs if the Dallas Mavericks can build a winner around him.
5. Using only the players on the list, give us your all-time starting five.
Shelburne: I keep trying to put Kevin Durant or Larry Bird in this starting five, but I think I’ll roll with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul Jabbar. I like the mix of scoring and defensive ability with this group, and think Magic and LeBron will be unselfish enough to sort out who gets the most shots.
Windhorst: PG: Magic Johnson. SG: Michael Jordan. SF: LeBron James. PF: Tim Duncan. C: Wilt Chamberlain.
Goldsberry: PG: Magic Johnson. SG: Michael Jordan. SF: LeBron James. PF: Tim Duncan. C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. For me, these five guys define historical excellence at their positions. I could argue with anyone that each of them is the greatest player ever at their position. In addition, these guys all won multiple titles as the best players on their teams.
Spears: PG: Magic Johnson. SG: Michael Jordan. SF: LeBron James. PF: Tim Duncan. C: Hakeem Olajuwon.
Sedano: C: Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Don’t tell me a man that skilled couldn’t adapt to any era. “The Cap” is my captain. PF: LeBron James. Arguably the greatest player of all time. There wasn’t a more destructive force in basketball in recent memory than James playing the 4 in Miami. He’s a cheat code at that position. SF: Kobe Bryant. He’s the closest player we have ever had to Michael Jordan. His intensity is legendary. Any team could use the Mamba Mentality. SG: Michael Jordan. He’s the GOAT. PG: Magic Johnson. I believe he’s the best passer and arguably teammate in NBA history. He’s been a winner at every level. No better floor general.