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.
Chris Paul (G) - 12x All-Star, 5x First Team, Rookie of the Year
Arguably one of the greatest point guards of all time, Chris Paul has defined the 2010s as one of the most efficient court generals in the game. He is a maestro on the court in the way that he can control any given game and pick apart a defense. The fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft out of Wake Forest entered the league standing just 6 feet tall. His passing and overall playmaking separates him from his peers, with him currently sitting at number three on the all-time assists leaderboard. In our analysis, he ranked first in both steals and assist to turnover ratio, scoring 100 in each, while also near the top in other categories like assists (96) and win shares (89). After making the finals last year, Paul led the Suns to the best record in the league this year and in franchise history with 64 wins before falling to the Dallas Mavericks in the second round. Not only is he a leader on the court, but also off the court as he served as the President of The Players Association.
James Harden (G) - MVP, 10x All-Star, 6x First Team, Sixth Man of the Year
The third overall pick of the 2009 draft began his career as a sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Harden sought an expanded role and became the centerpiece of the Houston Rockets iso-heavy and three-point heavy offense. His almost unmatched ability to draw fouls as a guard cannot go unmentioned and it often contributes to his exceptionally high scoring and efficiency. In our own statistical analysis, he is first in win shares (100), second in points (89), and near the top in true shooting percentage (89). In his 2017-2018 MVP season, he averaged 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 assists per game; in addition, the following season he managed to exceed that with a mind-blowing 36.1 points per game (which ranks seventh all-time). Harden is also seeking his first NBA championship after demanding trades from both the Rockets and Brooklyn Nets. He has come tantalizingly close with very talented teams and co-stars like Russel Westbrook, Kevin Durant (twice), Chris Paul, Joel Embiid but fell in the second round this year. After a tough 2022 season for Harden, many question his declining athleticism but he still has one of the skill sets to be a top guard in the league.
LeBron James (F) - 4x MVP, 4x Champion, 4x Finals MVP, 18x All-Star, 13x First Team, Rookie of the Year
LeBron marked the beginning of 2010’s with “The Decision” as he “took his talents to South Beach” joining the Miami Heat and forming a Big 3 along with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. In his four seasons in Miami, they made all four finals winning two. LeBron would return to Cleveland where he would then reach another four consecutive finals (all against the Warriors) finally bringing a championship back to his hometown. LeBron would then deliver another championship to a legendary franchise in the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 Bubble. While he failed to make the playoffs this year for only the fourth time in his career, his record of 184 career playoff victories will likely never be broken and continue to rise. LeBron surpassed Karl Malone this season to become the second all-time regular season leading scorer as he now only trails Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by over 1,000 points. It is likely LeBron will pass his fellow Laker next season as he only needs about 65 games averaging 20 points to do so. He is still putting up gaudy numbers (averaged his career high 30.3 last year) and has expressed a desire to play with his son, Bronny, who won’t be draft eligible until 2024. As one of the most versatile players in the league, James has spent most of his career playing as a small forward or power forward. Recently with the Lakers he has been deployed as a primary ball handler as well as a small-ball five. In our analysis, he ranked first in win shares, assists, and points and second in true shooting percentage (95) behind only Kevin Durant. Off the court, James is a jack of all trades as he runs a charitable organization (I PROMISE), is a producer (SpringHill Company), actor (Space Jam 2), and business owner (Blaze Pizza).
Kevin Durant (F) - 1x MVP, 2x Champion, 2x Finals MVP, 12x All Star, 6x First Team, Rookie of the Year
Known as the Slim Reaper because of his slender physique but lethal skills, Kevin Durant is arguably one of the best players in the NBA. Drafted second by the Seattle Supersonics in 2007 out of Texas, Durant won Rookie of the Year in his first season and won MVP in 2014 averaging 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. After failing to win a championship in OKC with Russel Westbrook and James Harden, he was highly criticized for leaving the Thunder to sign with the Golden State Warriors in free agency. He would win two championships in three years with their own Big 3 in himself, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson. Durant tragically tore his achilles in game five of the 2019 Finals which sidelined him for a whole season as the Warriors fell to the Toronto Raptors. In our analysis, Durant ranked first in true shooting percentage (100), second in win shares (83.75) (behind Lebron James), and third in points (80.65). As a testament to his incredible shooting, Durant is one of nine players to be a part of the 50–40–90 club. Off the court, Durant has a Youtube channel called Boardroom and a podcast called the ETCs. Durant has a knack for joining Big 3s as he later did in Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving and James Harden. After falling in a thrilling game 7 overtime against last year’s champion Bucks by a shoe size, the Nets were swept out of the first round by the Celtics this year.
Anthony Davis (C) - 1x Champion, 8x All-Star, 4× All-NBA First Team
After winning the National Championship with the Kentucky Wildcats, Anthony Davis was drafted first overall in 2012. The 6’10” Power Forward/Center is known for his dominance on the court, his 7’6” wingspan, and his trademarked unibrow which gave him the nickname, “The Brow”. Davis played his first season as a Hornet before becoming a Pelican after New Orleans changed their name. Unhappy with the team’s direction, Davis forced his way out in a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers where he would win a championship in the 2020 bubble. Since his dominant debut with the Lakers, Davis has been plagued by injuries, only playing 36 and 40 games in the last two seasons. 2017 was arguably the peak of Davis’s career in which he won All-Star Game MVP and scored over 2,000 points, as the first player in Pelicans history to do so. According to our analysis, Davis ranked first in blocks (100) and third in true shooting percentage (83.63) (behind Durant and James).
Russel Westbrook (G) - MVP, 9x All-Star, 2x First Team
For almost the entire 2010s decade, Russell Westbrook played as part of the Thunder Big 3 and as the lone star before being traded to the Houston Rockets in 2019. The 6’3’’ point guard was just the second player (Oscar Robertson) in history to average a triple-double during a full season, first in his MVP 2016-2017 season and three times more. His volume scoring, playmaking ability, and athleticism to jump and grab rebounds has allowed him to be recognized as an all-around player that could do almost anything on the offensive end. Westbrook’s 194 career triple doubles rank first all-time and are unlikely to be broken.This is reflected in our own analytics, as he ranks first in points, and top five in both rebounds (90) and assists (90). The common criticism on Westbrook has been that he stuffs the stat sheet and is not an efficient player evidenced by his true shooting score of 35. Westbrook has relied on athleticism throughout his career and as it has declined, his effectiveness has waned. He recently struggled to find a role with the Lakers this past year posting his lowest point totals since his sophomore season. Nevertheless, Westbrook’s athleticism and statistical feats should not be overlooked in the age of analytics.
Stephen Curry (G) - 2x MVP, 4x Champion, 1x Finals MVP, 8x All-Star, 4x First Team
Widely known as the greatest shooter in NBA history, the core piece of the Golden State Warriors dynasty remains one of the most magnetic players, consistently providing fans with electrifying play and mouth-dropping highlights, along with unprecedented volume shooting and efficiency. The 6’2’’ Davidson point guard was not highly regarded when he entered the league, drafted seventh in 2009, but has since been credited with revolutionizing the game with his unmatched three point shooting. He currently holds the record for career three pointers made, three pointers made in a regular season, three pointers made in a single playoffs, and three pointers made in a finals game, just to name a few. He also has the highest free throw percentage in history at 90.7% with his signature mouthguard hanging out. His magnum opus is his 2015-16 season, during which he averaged 30.1 points, 6.7 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game, and led the NBA in steals per game. This was the only season in NBA history where a player shot above 50-40-90 at over 30 points per game. Leading the Warriors to an NBA record 73-9 season, Curry earned his second consecutive MVP, the first and only unanimous MVP in NBA history. Curry’s average of 31 points per game with a 63% true shooting percentage against the Celtics unanimously earned him the 2022 Finals MVP. With more motion tracking data made available, However, motion tracking data has revealed a lot of Curry’s impact goes beyond the box score, utilizing off-ball movement and his own gravity to open up the court for his teammates and create a unique style of playmaking that relies on ball movement, player movement, spacing, and unselfishness. Off the court, Curry owns a production company, has his own successful shoe brand part of Under Armour, runs a popular YouTube channel with over 1.5 million subscribers, and often partners with many brands. After missing the last two playoffs after a run of five straight to the Finals, the Warriors and their King restored their dynasty and opened as the 2023 favorites.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (F) - 2x MVP, 1x Champion, 1x Finals MVP, 6× NBA All-Star, 4× First Team, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player
The Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the most physically gifted and skilled players in the league. Drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013, he guided them to their second championship last year in franchise history since fellow Bucks big-man icon Kareem did in 1971. Giannis was born to Nigerian immigrants in Greece, and prior to entering the league, Giannis played in Athens. Giannis’ ability to get across the entire court with only a couple dribbles and make it to the rim from the three point line, makes him nearly unstoppable. According to our analysis, Giannis was in the top five for points (71) and one of the leaders for true shooting percentage (66.37). The only reason he is on the second team and not the first is because his career didn’t start to take off until the later half of the decade after he won the Most Improved Player in 2017. Giannis has four brothers all of whom play basketball, and his older brother Thanasis is his teammate on the Bucks. Giannis has been vocal about the struggles he and his family went through while they living in Athens, and his family has founded the AntetokounBros Academy which seeks to help kids in Greece get involved with sports particularly basketball and serves as a community center. In ten years from now, it’s pretty likely Antetokounmpo will be on the 2020’s first team and will only continue to ascend on the all-time great’s list.
Dwight Howard (C) - 1x Champion, 8× All-Star, 5× First Team, 3× Defensive Player of the Year, Slam Dunk Contest Champion
At 6’10” and 265 pounds, Howard entered the draft straight out of high school and was drafted with the first overall pick in 2004 by the Orlando Magic. Howard was an essential leader for the Magic for eight years before he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012 where he had 14 straight double doubles. Howard is an exceptional rebounder and defender winning three Defensive Player of the Year awards and leading the league in rebounds five times. According to our analysis, Howard ranked second in rebounds (83.18) (behind Andre Drummond), and is one of the leaders in assist to turnover ratio (69.88), blocks (68.18), and points (67.74) when looking at the latter half of his career during the 2010s. Howard won his first NBA championship in 2020 with the Los Angeles Lakers whom he has played for in three separate stints. He has now journeyed around the league playing for seven different teams in each of the past seven seasons still providing value.
Karl-Anthony Towns (C) - 3× All-Star, Rookie of the Year, Three-Point Contest champion
Karl-Anthony Towns joins the list of the currently 27 (league-leading) players out of Kentucky. Selected first in 2015 by the Minnesota Timberwolves, he joined John Wall and Anthony Davis as the third first round draftee in UK history. In just his second year on the team, KAT competed for numerous records: third youngest player with 45 points and 15 rebounds in a game, second youngest player to have 100 double doubles, and is the only player in one season to have at least 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 100 3-pointers. Towns won the 3-pt contest this year as the first center in history despite being the lowest betting favorite. According to our analysis, Towns is tied with DeAndre Jordan for third in rebounds (81) and is one of the leaders in true shooting percentage (78) and points (61). The common knock on Towns was the lack of success for the Timberwolves as they had only made the playoffs once before this season. That likely wasn’t all on KAT as he didn’t have a strong supporting cast. Now with a young core of Anthony Edwards (former No. 1 pick) and D’Angelo Russel (former No. 2 pick), the T-Wolves might be a mainstay in the Western conference playoffs and he has a very exciting career ahead of him.
Kyle Lowry (G) - 1x Champion, 6x All-Star
Drafted 24th out of Villanova, Lowry spent the first seven years of his career in the Southwest division between Memphis and Houston before settling in Toronto as arguably the best Raptor of all-time (according to win shares). He guided the Raptors to their first and only championship in 2019. The 6 foot point guard has an intense and smart playing style, combining toughness with leadership and basketball IQ to consistently set the tone for his team. Lowry is known for always playing his hardest and sacrificing his body as he takes some of the most charges by guards in the league. In a sign and trade, Lowry joined the Miami Heat this season and guided them to the No. 1 seed in the East and a Conference Finals appearance.
John Wall (G) - 5x All-Star, Slam Dunk Contest Champion
The third first overall pick out of Kentucky to crack our 2010s list, John Wall was one of the quickest players in the league, driving to the basket with speed and agility, simultaneously being a scoring and passing threat. These aspects of his game made it hard for defenders to successfully guard him. Wall ranked near the top of our rankings in assists (96), points (87), and steals (77) . Unfortunately, he has been riddled with injuries which have sidelined him for a large chunk of his career. In the past five seasons, he has only played 113 games (sat out for two), under 30% of the available games. Wall is currently on the rebuilding Rockets but will look to be moved to a contender this offseason likely in a buyout.
Demarcus Cousins (C) - 4x All-Star
Demarcus “Boogie” Cousins was drafted No. 5 overall to the Sacramento Kings in 2010, a year that saw five Kentucky Wildcats selected in the first round (John Wall - No. 1, Patrick Patterson, No. 14, Eric Bledsoe - No. 18, Daniel Orton - No. 29). Cousins played seven seasons in Sacramento where he was dominant on both sides of the court. He played in his first NBA All-Star Game in 2015, replacing injured Kobe Bryant, and went on to be an All-Star for the next three years. According to our analysis, Cousins ranked second in points (93.55) (behind Lebron James) and was one of the leaders in steals (75), rebounds (73), and true shooting percentage (71). After leaving the Kings, Cousins has journeyed around the league playing for the Pelicans, Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, Bucks, and now Nuggets.
Blake Griffin (F) - 6× All-Star, Rookie of the Year,Slam Dunk Contest champion
Drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers with the first pick in 2009 out of Oklahoma, Griffin missed his entire rookie year due to a knee injury he suffered during the last pre-season game. Following the injury, in his first season he averaged 22.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 3.8 assists and set the record for most double doubles by a Clippers player (27) in a year. Because of this, he was voted by coaches as a reserve for the All-Star game which had not happened to a rookie since Tim Duncan. Griffin and the Lob City Clippers were arguably the first group of Clippers to bring them out of the Lakers shadow in LA. Similar to other big men on the second and third teams, in the later half of his decade Griffin has carved out a role as a role player for a contender (Brooklyn Nets). Off the court, Griffin has been very involved in stand-up comedy hosting the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, Canada and starting his own show Comedy by Blake.
Rudy Gobert (C) - 3× All-Star, 3× Defensive Player of the Year
At 7’1”, Rudy Gobert is one of the scariest centers in the league to go up against. Another late first round steal selected at No. 27, he has arguably been the best defender of the past five years with his ability to protect the rim. There are stark differences between the Utah defense when Gobert is on vs. off the floor. He scored the most dunks of any player in one season in 2019 (306) while also leading the league in effective field goal percentage (66.9%), true shooting percentage (68.2%), and screen assists (482). Since the 2010s, Gobert has been a 3x All-Star and has signed the highest contract in history for a center. The only knock on the Frenchman is that Utah has not made a deep run in the playoffs, never making it to the Western Conference Finals despite being a consistently good regular season team.
Damian Lillard (G), Ben Simmons (G), Nikola Jokic (C), DeAndre Jordan (C), Andre Drummond (C)