10. Allen Iverson
“The Answer” might well have roosted near the top of this list if he had somehow managed to be a team player and a disciplined leader. Those qualities, however, were not in his portfolio. What he did have were quickness and fearlessness in abundance. He could break down virtually any defense and find an open shot when none seemed possible. As a defender he gathered steals in amazing bunches, although his size sometimes left him being exploited by taller opponents. His weakness was justifiably viewed as his attitude toward playing the team game, yet Iverson could also amaze with his passing displays. In the end, he remained a mystery, infinitely talented yet unable to compromise on so many of the team issues central to the game.
9. Paul Pierce
Pierce might have been overlooked on this list if his stupendous performance in the 2008 league championship series hadn’t revealed his remarkable abilities. He literally ran the Lakers’ defense into the ground and exposed Los Angeles during that series. It was the kind of performance that made observers stop and think about Pierce’s great effort on undermanned Boston teams throughout the decade. He had been forced to carry undermanned teams on his back, and when his chance came in the NBA Finals, Pierce took his place among the best. And the Lakers nor any other team in the league could do anything to stop him.
8. Steve Nash
He’s not blessed with the greatest athleticism, but he is athletic enough. Rather, it is his brilliant and rare court vision and passing ability that have allowed Nash to reign as a two-time Most Valuable Player in the NBA. He found the high gear of his game with the up-tempo Phoenix Suns, a team that pushed the pace at the expense of defense. If not for defensive questions, Nash might surely rate higher on this list, because he has the ability to turn mediocre teams into very good ones. He is simply one of the best open court players in the history of the game.
7. Dirk Nowitzki
Nowitzki is the big man with the perimeter skills of a guard and the rebounding abilities of a dedicated role player. He has become one of the toughest matchups in the NBA today and the primary reason that the Dallas Mavericks have remained in contention for the duration of the decade. Not only has he been consistently good, but he has continued to get better over the course of his career in Dallas. Versatility is one of his key functions as well, as he can play multiple frontcourt positions in a league where athleticism and specialty make that a true accomplishment. His passing isn’t bad either.
6. Dwyane Wade
Wade’s ability to get to the rim and his quickness and crossover dribble immediately branded him a star as soon as he entered the NBA. Naturally, he’s a powerful combo guard, able to play some at the point although he thrives at the wing. His natural leadership abilities and defensive competence help complete the package. He literally drove the Miami Heat to the 2006 title with the help of Shaquille O’Neal and an array of role players. His outside shot has made steady progress over his years as a pro. Much of his future is also yet to be decided as he attempts to find stronger supporting players to fit his leadership and drive.
5. Kevin Garnett
Garnett labored for years in frustration with the Minnesota Timberwolves (where he was named league Most Valuable Player) before his 2007 trade to the Boston Celtics. But it was in Boston where Garnett realized his championship possibilities. His size and strength and durability helped define him as a power forward, but nothing framed his persona more than his legendary intensity. His competitiveness drove the teams he played on and established his place as one of the game’s all-time greats. His characteristic weapon was the face-up jumper from the top of the key, but really Garnett could score from any spot of his choosing. And his defense intimidated even the best opponents.
4. LeBron James
James is the unproven upstart who has seen his teams thrive during the regular season only to fail in the playoffs. Clearly he has lacked the supporting players that other greats of the decade have employed to win their titles. But none of the other greats have survived the childhood difficulties that James faced as the single son of a drug- and alcohol-addicted mother. In some ways, James is a blend of Bryant and O’Neal – a physical specimen with the athleticism of a Michael Jordan. His best days seemingly lie ahead, depending on what supporting cast he can find.
3. Kobe Bryant
No player over the decade matched Bryant’s determination, effort and dedication. He was the supremely disciplined star in command of every phase of the game not just because of his talent but because of his labor to perfect every element. His talent thrilled crowds like no big man ever could. Bryant has long been viewed as the “second coming” of Michael Jordan, but one thing that the high-scoring, high-flying Bryant established over the course of winning four NBA titles during the decade – he is his own man. That, in itself, meant that he frustrated Phil Jackson and Tex Winter as Bryant matured into the game’s top player late in the decade.
2. Shaquille O’Neal
The Shaq fans see today is a mere shadow of his former self. In 2000, his size and strength terrorized the league. The undisciplined O’Neal finally found a coach he respected in Phil Jackson, and that brought the best focus of his career. O’Neal became more disciplined that year, although he still disliked setting screens or defending the pick and roll. The Lakers’ new triangle offense put O’Neal in position to do what he did best – score at point blank range. His longstanding feud with teammate Kobe Bryant began to wane and Jackson made sure Shaq got the ball. He led the league in scoring at 29.7 points. Shaquille O’Neal was at the height of his powers in the 2001 NBA Finals, where he averaged 33 points and almost 16 rebounds over five games. But there’s also the sense that his habits and bull-headedness meant that he wasted much of his immense talent.
1. Tim Duncan
Shaquille O’Neal teasingly nicknamed Tim Duncan “The Big Fundamental.” That brought more publicity than the naturally reserved Duncan cared for. However, the name was true. Strong and smart, Duncan presented a skill set and an intelligence that no big man in the NBA could match. His presence on the block demanded fast double-teams, but he also struck terror in opponents with his face-up bank shots. His consistency proved to be the perfect centerpiece for building a championship team. He was the one player admired by all the retired Legends from the NBA’s past. They loved how he played the game with the highest skill and kept his mouth shut. And true lovers of the game treasure his ability to pass the basketball.