With the start of the NBA season a few days away, it’s time we close the book on our offseason series ranking the 100 greatest players of the 21st century.
The final five players in our ranking include the best shooting big man ever, a once-in-a-lifetime forward with the size of a traditional center, the second-greatest shooting guard of all time, the best power forward ever and the only player with a case to challenge Michael Jordan as the greatest ever.
Not a shabby group of players there.
To catch up on the rest of our rankings prior to the conclusion, you can check out any of these pieces to see how some of your favorite players stack up: 100 through 81, 80 through 61, 60 through 41, 40 through 31, 30 through 21, 20 through 11 and 10 through six.
And without further ado, it’s time to wrap this series up.
5. DIRK NOWITZKI
21st century stats: 21.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.4 apg, 47.2 FG% in 19 seasons
21st century accolades: One NBA title, one-time Finals MVP, one-time MVP, 14-time All-Star, four-time 1st Team All-NBA, five-time 2nd Team All-NBA, three-time 3rd Team All-NBA, three-point shootout champion, one World Cup bronze medal, one Eurobasket silver medal, FIBA World Championship MVP
A revolutionary player and future Hall-of-Famer, Dirk Nowitzki helped usher in a new era of basketball by proving that the big man can, and should, shoot three-pointers.
These days, it’s common to see just about every team’s center space the floor, either one way or another, but back in Nowitzki’s heyday, the sight was much rarer, with most bigs sticking to the prehistoric model of being just post-up threats on offense, for the most part. Nowitzki was even labeled as soft for not playing nearer to the basket, a knock that sounds absolutely ridiculous in hindsight all these years later.
In his prime, Nowitzki was nearly impossible to stop with a single defender, especially if they were traditional big men. Stick a plodding is 7-footer on him, and he’d face them up and either knock down a jumper or dribble right by them for easy finishes; put a smaller-but-more-mobile wing on him and he had an impossible-to-contest fadeaway jumper that seemingly always went in.
Nowitzki was finally and emphatically able to put the finishing touches on his legacy in the 2010-11 season when he led the Dallas Mavericks to an unexpected championship run, defeating the favored Miami Heat in six games in that year’s Finals.
To this day, the big German ranks 11th in league history in three-pointers made with 1,982 (he’s in first by a long shot if we look at only players at least 7-feet tall), and 16th in all-time free-throw accuracy at 87.9 percent.
Nowitzki’s numbers and accolades, as listed above, are obviously absurdly impressive, but more than anything, he’ll be remembered for being ahead of his time when it came to spacing the floor from a frontcourt position.
He deserves recognition for being one of the primary reasons we see such a high-scoring, entertaining version of basketball today.
4. KEVIN DURANT
Stats: 27.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.1 bpg, 49.3 FG% in 12 seasons
Accolades: Two NBA titles, two-time Finals MVP, one-time MVP, 10-time All-Star, six-time 1st Team All-NBA, three-time 2nd Team All-NBA, Rookie of the Year, 1st Team All-Rookie, four-time scoring champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, one-time World Cup gold medalist
His public perception may have taken a big dip over recent seasons, but there’s zero doubt Kevin Durant is already an all-time great, and will continue to add to his amazing career whenever it is he returns from the torn Achilles he suffered in the 2019 Finals.
Durant made the controversial decision to join the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2016, and changed the landscape of basketball not just in the short term, but in a historical manner too. Because of the creation of that super team, the No. 1 player on our list missed out on at least one title, and potentially more, since a team including Durant and Stephen Curry, along with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, proved to be nearly unstoppable before ill-timed injuries caught up to them.
Apart from being a member of one of the most dominant teams ever, Durant will be remembered for his insane blend of physical attributes and unique skill. Not only is he nearly 7-feet tall, but he plays like someone 12 inches shorter than him. He’s quick with absurd change-of-direction, can handle the rock extremely well for a man of his size and has been one of the league’s best off-the-dribble shooters for the entirety of his prime.
Durant is one-of-a-kind, and it’ll be exciting to see how he’s able to continue adding to his legacy once he gets back.
3. KOBE BRYANT
21st century stats: 27.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.5 spg, 44.7 FG% in 16 seasons
21st century accolades: Four NBA titles, two-time Finals MVP, one-time MVP, 16-time All-Star, 11-time 1st Team All-NBA, 2nd Team All-NBA, 3rd Team All-NBA, nine-time 1st Team All-Defense, three-time 2nd Team All-Defense, two-time scoring champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist
Probably our most controversial selection, Kobe Bryant finished just third in our rankings behind two other all-time greats.
Considering the names he’s behind, though, that’s not so bad.
Bryant is considered by just about everyone to be the second-greatest shooting guard of all time, and if you look at his list of statistics and accolades from this century, it’s easy to see why. To this day, the Los Angeles Lakers legend ranks third all-time in scoring with 33,643 points.
Bryant wasn’t just a pure scorer either; his playmaking prowess has always been underrated, as his 4.7 career assist average and 24.2 percent career assist rate would attest to. What’s more, Bryant was a lockdown defender when he was into it for much of his prime, and though a few of his All-Defensive Team appearances came more because of his name than anything else, especially later in his career, that doesn’t change the fact that when he was dialed in, he was an absolute nuisance on the less glamorous side of the floor.
Perhaps the most important part of Bryant’s career came in the late 2000s, when he able to lead his own Lakers teams to two titles, thus ending talk that Shaquille O’Neal carried the 2-guard to all the team success he found in his career.
Those two late-career championships and the subsequent Finals MVP trophies firmly established Bryant in a class of his own as one of the best shooting guards, and players, the NBA has ever seen.
2. TIM DUNCAN
21st century stats: 18.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2.1 bpg, 50.4 FG% in 16 seasons
21st century accolades: Four NBA titles, three-time Finals MVP, two-time MVP, 13-time All-Star, seven-time 1st Team All-NBA, three-time 2nd Team All-NBA, two-time 3rd Team All-NBA, six-time 1st Team All-Defense, six-time 2nd Team All-Defense
Widely considered the greatest power forward ever, even despite the fact he spent a lot of the latter stages of his career at center, Tim Duncan was a two-way monster during his prime, which legitimately stretched over a decade long.
Duncan could do it all from his spot at the 4: He could shoot when facing up, including using an angled bank shot that seemed to always go in, he could post up and score with either hand around the basket, he could create for teammates at elite rates for a big man and, most impressively, he was a beast defensively, even though he (somehow) never took home a Defensive Player of the Year award.
Duncan’s quiet dominance was so impressive that even if he didn’t drive in ratings or develop a fan base similar to the other players at the top of this list, he didn’t care. He was still a five-time champion (four-time this century), and that’s what mattered most to him.
The Wake Forest legend and current San Antonio Spurs assistant coach ranks 14th all-time in points, sixth in rebounds and fifth in blocks.
1. LEBRON JAMES
Stats: 27.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.2 apg, 1.6 spg, 50.4 FG% in 16 seasons
Accolades: Three NBA titles, three-time Finals MVP, four-time MVP, 15-time All-Star, 12-time 1st Team All-NBA, two-time 2nd Team All-NBA, 3rd Team All-NBA, five-time 1st Team All-Defense, 2nd Team All-Defense, Rookie of the Year, one-time scoring champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist
Most basketball fans fall into one of two camps: those who think Jordan is the greatest player of all time, or, the ones who think that honor belongs to one LeBron James.
And honestly, whichever side you fall onto in that debate, it’s hard to say you’re wrong.
James has been able to put together one of the most impressive careers ever, and the scariest part is that the tail end of his prime apparently has no end in sight.
A four-time league MVP, the 6-foot-8 ball-handler from Akron is truly unique, a freak athlete with otherworldly size and strength, elite ball-handling and vision as a playmaker, a decent enough outside shooter to force opponents to respect him, impossible to stop in the open floor and clutch with games on the line.
There are so many crazy LeBron moments to pick from, but his most impressive might have been in the 2016 Finals, with the Cleveland Cavaliers down 3-1 in the series against the heavily favored Warriors, James put up back-to-back 41-point outings in Games 5 and 6 (shooting a ridiculous 56.1 percent from the floor in the process) and followed that up on the road in Game 7 with a 27-11-11 triple-double that came with two steals and three blocks, one of which will go down as one of the most unforgettable and important ever:
Now, all that remains to be seen how many more, if any, championships James is able to amass before his time as an NBA player is over.
But don’t worry: It should be years before that grand finale finally comes, so we’ll get to enjoy plenty more LeBron moments over the seasons to come.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.