Criteria: Top 50 NBA Players of the 21st Century

Well, here I am back again for the fifth straight year, ready to lead you down a several thousand word journalistic voyage that is related to the best professional sports league in the world … The National Basketball Association. This year I’m doing things slightly differently that you are used to if you have indeed checked out my work in the past. Rather than investigating the current landscape of the NBA, I’ve expanded my horizons and sprinkled some variety into this very long, tedious, and often-times frustrating process. This year I’ll be ranking the Top 50 NBA Players of the 2000’s. And instead of posting one player per day in the 50 days leading up to the NBA season, I’ll be posting two players per day in the final 25 days of the month of October.

Before I go ahead and show you the actual criteria I used to put the list together, allow me to clear something up: These rankings are based solely on a player’s production in seasons that concluded in the 21st Century. Everything that was done prior 1999-2000 season is irrelevant to me for the next 25 days. Tim Duncan’s 1999 championship … it never happened, he only has four titles. Jason Kidd’s first Mavericks tenure … non-existent. forget about those years. Shaq’s 1995 Finals appearance with the Magic … it doesn’t matter. Jordan’s six titles with the Bulls … nope, MJ is a Wizard in the world we’re operating in (and no, MJ wasn’t good enough in those two Wizards years to crack the Top 50; my apologies to all of the Jordan Worshipers reading along). I’m also not factoring in what could come in the next decade and beyond that. So while it would be a blast to attempt to forecast the careers of guys on the rise like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul George, Damian Lillard and many others, we can save that discussion for another time.

Anyway, you know what that subtle change to the timeline has meant for this guy? It’s meant that rather than a single years worth of games to re-watch and re-evaluate, I needed to cram seventeen seasons worth of games into my research process. Rather than reading one season’s worth of takes on the league, I needed to find and read nearly two decades of articles and columns and box scores. Instead of looking at the current state of a given player, I needed to evaluate a career as a whole, and comparing a guy who has played 14 good seasons to a guy who has played seven great seasons is very tricky. And when you legitimately give a shit about getting all of this correct, every single decision you make, every hot take you throw out there … it can drive you nuts.

One thing that I am going to ask you to remember as you follow along with this countdown: If we didn’t have differing opinions about sports it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to discuss it and debate it, so I don’t expect you to take everything I say as fact. All I’m doing is throwing some ideas out there while also trying to encompass as much of the past seventeen NBA seasons as I can. And if this countdown proves anything at all, it’s just that I’m a complete and total NBA nerd that has an irrational love for the league and the game of basketball in general. In a roundabout way, that makes me remarkably similar to a lot of you readers.

That’s enough foreplay, don’t you think? Let’s get to the criteria!


Status – What kind of role did he occupy on his teams? Was he the alpha dog? A second option? A role player? How well did he fill this respective role? Think of it like this: Breaking Bad was a nearly perfect TV show, and a big reason that’s the case is because every actor brilliantly performed their role, no matter how big or small it was. So I hold someone like Aaron Paul (who played Jesse Pinkman) in higher regard than I do someone like Matthew Fox (Jack from Lost) even though Fox was the main character on Lost. Paul was more valuable in his role than Fox was, so if I were ranking drama TV characters, Jesse Pinkman would be ahead of Jack Shephard.

NOTE: I included something similar to this anecdote in my criteria in the past, only my review of Fox as Jack Shephard was scathing. Between now and then I rewatched Lost, and I realized I was a little too harsh on the character. He was more interesting the second time around than I thought he was on first view. Maybe it’s because the first time I watched Lost I had no idea what was going on for the final two seasons.

Team Success – How successful were the teams that he played for? How often was his team a title contender? How much help did he have? How much of an individual impact did he have on the win/loss record of his team?

Big Moment Chops – Did he rise to the occasion in big games? Does he have a track record of coming through down the stretch in games? Was he considered clutch? Actually, let’s disregard that last question. For a period of time that lasted for so long that it now seems incomprehensible, the general consensus was that Carmelo Anthony was clutch and LeBron James was not. So whether or not a player was “considered” clutch is irrelevant. Allow me to try that again … was he actually clutch?

Longevity – Did he have an impact for a long period of time? What was he like before, during and after his prime? Did he stay relatively healthy throughout his career? This point in the criteria is closely related to …

Power at his Peak – At his absolute peak, where did he rank in the league? Where does that peak rank among the best peaks in the 2000’s? How long did that peak last? Does a significant peak make up for lack of longevity? I’ll answer those questions in the Derrick Rose and Yao Ming portions of the countdown.

Numbers and Accolades – What were the players’ averages in the major statistical categories? Did they win any individual awards? Did they make an All-NBA team, All-Defensive Team, or any teams that I made up on my own but seemed relevant during this process?

Talent – Forget about the amount of success he achieved during his career, because that’s heavily dependent on the situation a player is in … simply put, how skilled at the game of basketball was he?

Reputation – How do fans feel about his career? How well received was he when he was in the league? Did guys want to play with him? Did he do little things that made his team better or was he out for himself? Was he known as a hard worker and leader, or someone who didn’t give a crap?

How Does He Stand Out – Was he fun to watch? Was he ever must watch television for basketball junkies? Were there elements or aspects of his game that made him completely unique from anyone else in the league? Did he change the game of basketball or how we think about basketball in any way?


And that’s it! I hope this criteria will clear up any confusion moving forward. If it doesn’t, then oh well. More than anything else, I hope you have as much fun reading along with the countdown as I had writing it!

UPDATED: Top 50 NBA Players Countdown Criteria

Well folks, I hope you’ve all been preparing yourselves to do quite a bit of reading over the next two-ish months. I’m about to drop an entire season’s worth of NBA-related words, stories, memories, knowledge, factoids, tidbits, nuggets, questions, answers, riddles and opinions on you, as we, together, embark on my fourth annual Top 50 NBA Players.

Yes, you are indeed in this with me, and you guys actually have the easy job. I do all the research: re-watching of games and highlights, re-reading of past columns, articles, box scores and hot takes, agonizing over the list AND several thousands words-worth of writing. You guys read. That’s it. We, as humans, learn to do this shortly after we get a firm grasp on how to use a toilet, so I’m not asking too much from you here. If you want to share these columns and pass them along to your friends, it’s obviously greatly appreciated. If you want to leave nasty comments questioning my perceived biases, knowledge of the game, my manhood or anything else really, go for it! I have thick skin, so don’t worry about me. At least it means you cared enough to read what I had to write.

Then again before you go off on any tirades in the comment section, please remember:

A: I’ve never claimed to be an expert (at least not in writing, or to anyone who would think “Wow, he’s an arrogant jackass” if they heard me say it) … I’m simply an NBA fan who cares way too much about the league for his own good.

B: Everyone has an opinion, and that’s all this list is… my opinion. Remember, if there weren’t differing opinions about sports it wouldn’t be nearly as fun to discuss it. I’m not trying to tell you my opinion is better than yours. I’m just expressing my opinion while also trying to encompass as much of the previous NBA season as I can. If this countdown proves anything it’s just that I’m a complete and total NBA nerd. I have an irrational love for the NBA and the game of basketball in general. In a roundabout way, that makes me very similar to a lot of you readers.

C: Just so there isn’t any confusion to how I came to my rankings, I will gladly show you the exact criteria I used during this process. I know it is my opinion, but still it wouldn’t be fair to you if you didn’t know what logic went into my decisions for the upcoming list. Think of it like the Declaration of Independence. That written document legitimized the beliefs of our Founding Fathers that the 13 colonies should be an independent nation of their own, completely separate from Great Britain. I wasn’t there, but when King George III received the Declaration, I imagine his reaction was something like, “I don’t like this, but I absolutely feel where these Patriots are coming from. I appreciate that they explained this to me in a written format. I’m thirsty, I want some tea… Someone get me some tea damn it!!!” Again, I wasn’t there so I wouldn’t swear to this. Anyway, think of this as my Declaration of Independence, that way you don’t think I am disrespectfully forcing my rankings upon you. Feel free to enjoy some tea while reading my criteria.

1: Last Year and This Year

-The first thing to remember is that these rankings are based both on how good the player was last season and how productive I expect him to be this coming season. Every player is judged based on both. I’m not concerned with how good Dwight Howard was in 2010 or how good Andrew Wiggins might be in 2020. It’s a two season sample size that I’m looking at, and because one of those seasons is yet to be played, I have to put on my clairvoyant cap when ranking these players. No wonder it turns out to be so damn difficult.

2: Individual Statistics/Accolades

-What were the players’ averages in the major (and thanks to, not so major) statistical categories? (NOTE: Any career best or Playoff career best notices in resumes are for players with who have played 5 NBA seasons or have 3 postseason appearances). Did they win any individual awards? Did they make an All-NBA team, All-Defensive Team, or any teams that I made up on my own but are relevant and probably should be actual end of year accolades?

3: Status

-What is the players’ role on the team? How significant is that role? How well do they fit their role? A good non-NBA example: Imagine I was ranking the all-time best TV characters, and assume that I was using the same sort of criteria to rank them as I am here with NBA players. You know, like show success, command of the screen, best scenes, best story arc, etc. Someone like Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad would rank really, really high on that list even though he wasn’t the main character or even the best character on his own show. In fact, he’d rank ahead of quite a few lead characters from other great shows because he was so damn good in his role. Jack Shephard from Lost is a good example. He was probably the most important character on his own show, but he wasn’t the best character. Other complimentary characters from other TV shows easily top him. My point is this: A great role player who consistently delivers and means more to their team than most people believe could very easily be ranked ahead of a good lead player who shoulders a larger burden on a nightly basis than said role player.

4: Team Success

-How much of an impact does the player have on the win/loss record of his team? Did he make significant contributions outside of statistics that led to team success? Is he an empty stats guy, or a good stats/bad team guy?

5: Late Game Chops

-How good are they when the game is on the line? Do they play better in big games or tend to disappear? Do they have the eye of the tiger or look more like a deer in the headlights?

6: Reputation

-How good of a teammate is the player in question? Do guys enjoy playing with him or is he not too popular with his peers? Does he do little things that make his team better or is he just out for himself? Is he known as a hard worker and leader, or someone who, for the most part, doesn’t give a crap?

7: How Does He Stand Out

-Does he have any memorable games or moments? Is there something unique about his game? Do you absolutely have to watch him play when his team is playing on National TV? Do you gravitate towards his teams games on NBA League Pass? Would you pay money to see him play in person? Does he have some sort of ‘It Factor’?

8: Talent

-It’s a fairly simple concept: how good is he at the game of basketball?

Let the 50 day countdown begin!