By David Arkow, Sreetej Digumarthi, Matthew Doctoroff, Jacob Gilligan, Mykalyster Homberg, Misha Nair, Alex Petty, Rohan Rajeev, Rebecca Solomon, Jesse Troyer, Mazal Zebak
In honor of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary, they released their 75th Anniversary Team with their selections for the best players of all-time. This sparked many interesting debates about the merits of those that were on or those that were left off the list. While HSAC is not 75 years old (founded in 2006), this inspired us to examine the best basketball players of all-time. As the NBA media is about to reveal their First, Second, and Third Team selections for this season, we at HSAC will declare our own. But not for the past year – the past 40. We set out to create an NBA All-Decade team for each decade since the 1980s using a statistical approach and quantifiable metrics to back up our picks.
With the availability of many statistics, we tried to create a “catch-all” metric showing how good each player was. Using z-scores, we compared where each player ranks in different widely available and “important” statistics separating by decade. Z-scores show how far a player’s individual stat is from the average of the group and adjust for variation in the data. For example, consider two point guards, one who averaged 25 points per game in the 1980s and the other who averaged 30 points per game in the 2010s. Both were leading scorers in their time, so if you were to compare the 80s point guard with the modern one, his scoring would seem less impressive. This is a hypothetical situation, but the z-score allows us to compare across decades since it adjusts for certain eras being skewed towards certain statistics. As the NBA has changed over time (much higher scoring environment today), using z-scores allows us to compare within and across decades who were the best players. We implemented a similar approach looking at the best NFL quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers of all-time.
We selected our teams similar to All-NBA and All-Star team selections with two backcourt players (guards) and three frontcourt players (forwards and centers). For the backcourt, we computed a standardized z-score and then rescaled them from 0-100 for seven statistics (per game): 1) points, 2) assists, 3) rebounds, 4) steals, 5) win shares (an advanced metric that measures how much a player contributes to winning, 6) assist/turnover ratio, 7) true shooting percentage (shooting efficiency metric taking into account field goals, three-pointers, and free-throws). The previous stats are the same used for frontcourt players except substituting blocks for steals. From these seven standardized scores on a scale of 0-100, we computed a weighted average putting more stock in the “primary stats” (points, assists, win shares, true shooting) than the secondary stats. We then ranked the players in each decade based on their weighted average scores to select a First, Second, and Third All-NBA team for each decade from 1980-2020.
While we took a holistic approach to selecting our teams, there are other methods that would result in a different list. The seven statistics we chose are widely understood, recognized, and available metrics. Today, there are more advanced ones and some that rely on tracking data such as RAPM, DARKO, RAPTOR WAR, and more. Additionally, we did have a weighted criteria but one might choose different weights believing steals should be worth more. Facing a similar problem as modern day analytics, it is hard to quantify a player’s defensive value and our statistical criteria focuses more on offensive than defensive production. Because we are using concrete statistical criteria, there will inevitably be players that rise higher on the list than expected due to putting up gaudy numbers in one area. This is not a “be-all and end-all” list for the best basketball players of all-time but using a holistic and objective criteria to analyze and recognize the accomplishments of the best basketball players of all-time. We hope you enjoy reading through our teams and enjoy constructing your own based on our analysis.
Jason Kidd (G) - 1x Champion, 10x All-Star, 5x First Team, Rookie of the Year
As the second all-time leader in assists (12,091), Kidd is one of the greatest floor generals in history. Similar to his standing on the assists list, Kidd was drafted second overall in 1994 out of Cal Berkeley to the Dallas Mavericks. Ranking 12th in career games played, Kidd spent his 19 year career split almost evenly between three franchises (and a one year stint for the Knicks) in Dallas, Phoenix and New Jersey. Kidd is a jack of all trades as he scored above a 60 in all of our metrics with his highest in assists (100), steals (91), and points (78). Impressively, Kidd was hired as a head coach by the Brooklyn Nets in his first year after retiring. Kidd coached the Bucks for four seasons before winning a championship with the Lakers as an assistant. Although criticized in the early stages of his coaching career, Kidd has found success and drawn praise for leading the Dallas Mavericks to the Western conference finals this past season.
Chris Paul (G) - 12x All-Star, 4x First Team, Rookie of the Year
For a position that is known for being very cerebral, Paul might be the most methodical point guard of all-time in the way that he dissects defenses. The fourth overall pick out of Wake Forest led the Demon Deacons to a No. 1 national ranking for the first time in program history. Starting his career with the New Orleans Hornets, Paul has spent the later half jumping around title contenders from the Lob City Clippers, to the Rockets, to now the Suns. He is the ultimate selfless player and would rather elevate the performance of his teammates than stuff the stat sheet (sometimes to a fault). He rarely turns the ball over evidenced by his nearly 4:1 career assist to turnover ratio ranking first all-time. He also posts high marks in our scoring for win shares (91), steals (100), and blocks (100). The only knock on Paul throughout his career has been his size standing at 6’0’’ and 175 pounds, yet he has stood the test of time now 37 years old and being voted to an All-NBA (Third) team this past season and leading the Phoenix Suns to a NBA best 64 wins. A championship has eluded CP3 having only made it once last season falling to Giannis’s Milwaukee Bucks in six games.
LeBron James (F) - 4x MVP, 4x Champion,, 4x Finals MVP, 18x All-Star, 13x First Team, Rookie of the Year
Coming out of St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio as perhaps the most hyped prospect of all time, LeBron James took the league by storm with his remarkable athleticism, awe-inspiring skills, and unparalleled basketball IQ. The first overall pick in 2003, Lebron exceeded even the highest expectations during his first seven years in the league. He led the league among front court players with 27.8 points and 7 assists per game while being a dominant defensive force as well. He led in our rankings with perfect scores in points, assists, and true shooting. This was just the beginning of an incredible career, during which he would go on to lead three different franchises (Heat, Cavaliers, and Lakers) to championships while solidifying himself as a frontrunner for the title of basketball’s GOAT. 18 years later, LeBron is still a force to be reckoned with on the court and continues to be a perennial MVP candidate.
Tim Duncan (C) - 2x MVP, 5x Champion, 3x Finals MVP, 15x All-Star, 10x First Team, Rookie of the Year
Tim Duncan spent all of his 19-year career with the San Antonio Spurs, winning five titles and being the centerpiece of a team that made a record 22 consecutive playoffs. The ever-consistent Duncan was a dominant force throughout his career after being drafted first overall out of Wake Forest in 1997. During the 2000s, Duncan was dominant offensively, averaging 20.9 points per game while also ranking second in blocks (2.3), third in rebounds (11.5), and ranking in second in win shares among front court players. Now retired, Duncan is an assistant coach for the same franchise he spent his career with in San Antonio.
Kevin Garnett (F) - 1x MVP, 1x Champion, 15x All-Star, 4x First Team, 1x Defensive Player of the Year
KG made a name for himself through his athleticism and high-intensity play as dominating player on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Drafted fifth overall out of high school by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Garnett led them to their first ever playoff appearance making it eight years despite only advancing out of the first round once. Garnett was then traded to the Boston Celtics and formed a star-studded team with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo, that won the championship in 2008 against rival Lakers. Garnett is known as one of the fiercest competitors in history with his intense stare-downs and trash-talking. He averaged 20.8 points per game throughout the decade, while also finishing third in win shares, second in rebounds, and is regarded as the greatest player in Timberwolves history to whom he returned in a brief two year stint at the end of his career. In his retirement, KG has been an analyst on Inside the NBA as well as a consultant for multiple NBA teams. He also played himself in the 2019 film Uncut Gems.
Steve Nash (G) - 2x MVP, 8x All-Star, 3x First Team
While the second (Kidd) and third (Paul) all-time assist leaders made the 2000s First Team, Steve Nash, fourth all-time (10,335) checks in right behind them on the 2000s Second Team. In contrast to those two, he was the most unlikely to do so. Nash struggled to get recruited by a college university sending his highlight reels to over 30 of them and receiving no offers. Nash ended up playing for the Santa Clara Broncos and was drafted 15th overall in 1996. Nash is the greatest Canadian player ever and was likely the catalyst for the many successful players in today’s NBA out of the North (Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray, R.J. Barrett, etc). The similarities between Nash and Kidd are uncanny. Both played college in the Bay Area. Both played for the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. Both are now NBA coaches. Both coached for the Brooklyn Nets. In terms of our analysis, Nash was the better scorer ranking higher in points (84) and true shooting (97) while Kidd ranked higher in assists. Nevertheless, both are two of the most elite point guards of all-time and are recognized for their tactical understanding of the game and emotional understanding of players which is why they were hired as coaches.
Kobe Bryant (G) - 1x MVP, 5x Champion, 2x Finals MVP, 18x All-Star, 11x First Team
Kobe Bryant will forever be remembered as one of the greatest scorers, shooters, and ambassadors for the game of basketball. As one of the greatest steals in draft history, the 13th overall pick out of Lower Merion High School went on to become the fourth leading scorer of all-time averaging 25 ppg throughout his career. The Black Mamba was known for his work ethic showing up to the gym at 5 a.m. in high school to get extra work on his shot. Also known for his ability to take over at the end of games and his clutch gene, Bryant scored a career high 81 points in a game (2006) and 60 points a decade later in his career finale. Kobe was also notoriously tough, mentally (Mamba Mentality) and physically having come back from several injuries throughout his career most notably a torn achilles. Bryant’s best statistical production in our analysis came from rebounds (100), assists (81), points (81), and true shooting (75). In a city with stars abound, Bryant stands out as an LA icon. In addition to being a five-time champion, Bryant is also an Oscar winner for his short film Dear Basketball in 2017.
Shaquille O’Neal (C) - 1x MVP, 4x Champion, 3x Finals MVP, 15x All-Star, 8x First Team, Rookie of the Year
At 7’1”, 325 lbs, Shaquille O’Neal was a specimen that the NBA had never before seen with a player so big and athletic. The consensus first overall pick out of LSU, O’Neal was drafted by the Orlando Magic before joining the Lakers in 1996. O’Neal formed one of the greatest big man-guard duos in NBA history with Kobe Bryant. Following in the footsteps of their predecessors in Magic and Kareem, Shaq and Kobe won three consecutive championships.They had a tense relationship but harbored a deep respect for each other. Shaq would later have brief stints in Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland, and Boston before retiring in 2011. The only knock on Shaq was that he couldn’t hit free throws (52.7% career) leading to the term “Hack-A-Shaq'' today. Nevertheless, he still had a true shooting score of 71 as the majority of his shot profile was near the rim. Today, Shaq is a host on Inside the NBA, and has appeared in a variety of movies. Unlike his basketball career, his acting career isn’t as critically-acclaimed with films like Steel (Rotten Tomatoes - 12%), Grown Ups 2 (8%), and Kazam (5%).
Dwight Howard (C) - 1x Champion, 8x All-Star, 5x First Team, 3x Defensive Player Of The Year
Similar to his second-team running mate in Shaq, Howard was also selected first overall by the Orlando Magic before joining the Lakers (but in three separate stints). Also like Shaq, he led the Magic to a finals appearance in 2009. Howard was known for his incredible athleticism and strength with his iconic Superman dunk in the 2008 Dunk Competition. Throughout the 2000s, Howard led the league in rebounds with 12.7, while also averaging 17.5 points per game and 2.1 blocks. He would finally get his championship in his second stint with the Lakers in 2020 bubble. Howard returned to the Lakers this season, after playing with the 76ers last season.
Dirk Nowitzki (F) - 1x MVP, 1x Champion, 1x Finals MVP, 14x All-Star, 4x All-NBA First Team
Widely regarded as the greatest European player of all time, Dirk Nowitzki spent all 21 years (just one shy of Vince Carter’s record) of his storied career with the Dallas Mavericks. The German ranks fourth all-time in games played. Known for his iconic one-legged fadeaway, Nowitzki is the prototype for the modern day European skilled big-man (à la Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis). Before leading the franchise to its first championship in one of the most impressive Finals victories of all time, Dirk was a leader on the 2000s Mavs, averaging an impressive 24.4 points per game and 9 rebounds while racking up 141.3 win shares, good for by far the most by any position during the decade. Now retired, Nowitzki serves as a special advisor for the Mavericks.
Chauncey Billups (G) - 1x Champion, 1x Finals MVP, 5x All-Star
After being drafted third overall, Chauncey Billups spent his first six seasons in the league playing for five different teams before settling in as the primary point guard for the Detroit Pistons. He now has his No. 1 jersey retired in the rafters of the Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. Billups is the only player in NBA history with winning records against Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. Billups earned his nickname as “Mr. Big Shot” on beating the heavily favored Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. After serving as an assistant for the Los Angeles Clippers for just one year, Billups was hired as the Head Coach of the Portland Trailblazers.
Andre Miller (G)
Eleventh all-time in NBA career assists, Andre Miller was known for his creative and intelligent decision-making as floor general for all of the nine teams he played for in his career. Having not made an NBA All-Star game, he is the only player to do so with the impressive statline of 16,000 points, 8000 assists, and 1500 steals. In Miller’s career spanning nearly two decades, he only missed three games due to injury - a significant accomplishment in an NBA where load management is becoming increasingly normalized among superstars. While making the playoffs in 11 different seasons, he only advanced out of the first round once with the 2014 Washington Wizards. Miller didn’t dominate any of our statistical categories but had no scores that were below 50.
Pau Gasol (F) - 2x Champion, 6x All-Star, Rookie of the Year
Barcelona native Pau Gasol had a storied NBA career spanning 18 years, during which he played for five franchises and won two championships with the Lakers. He quickly became known as one of the best power forwards in the league and one of the greatest Europeans in NBA history, as he averaged 18 points per game and 9 boards, and earned an impressive 83.4 win shares. Gasol was selected third overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, who later traded Pau for the draft rights to his younger brother, Marc. Unfortunately, Pau was traded to the Lakers a year before Marc debuted. Marc played his last NBA season with the Lakers in 2021 where Pau played most of his career. The Gasols formed one of the most dynamic brotherly duos in the NBA..
Elton Brand (C) - 2x All-Star, Co-Rookie of the Year
First overall pick Elton Brand played on arguably one of the most dominant NCAA rosters at Duke. In the 1999 draft, four Duke players (Brand, Trajan Langdon, Corey Maggette, and William Avery) were selected in the Top 15. That Duke team, which also featured Shane Battier, made it all the way to the championship game before falling to UConn. Brand’s impressive athletic build for a player weighing 254 pounds and standing at 6’9’’ allowed him to overpower his opponents in the paint and be an effective shot-blocker. His best scoring season came with the Clippers during the 2005-06 season, when he averaged 24.7 ppg as he developed a consistent mid-range jumper. He is currently the General Manager of the 76ers (who feature a similar big-man talent in Joel Embiid), where he played from 2008 to 2012 and returned out of retirement in 2016, notably convinced by his former collegiate coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Paul Pierce (F) - 1x Champion, 1x Finals MVP, 10x All-Star
Paul Pierce, nicknamed “The Truth”, was the backbone of the Celtics throughout the 2000s. Pierce spent the first fifteen years of his career with the Celtics, bringing the city of Boston their 18th championship in 2008 (their first since 1986 and they haven’t won a title since). The “Big Three” of Pierce alongside Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett led Boston to 66 wins in their banner season, the largest margin of improvement in NBA history. A prolific scorer and consistent at the free-throw line, he ranks second on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list only to John Havlicek.
Deron Williams (G), Dwayne Wade (G), Tracy McGrady (F), Amar'e Stoudemire (F), Yao Ming (C)