As Kobe Bryant plays his 15th season, he also enters into his quest for a second non-consecutive three-peat, a feat only Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen have accomplished. Perhaps serving to motivate him, besides the 3 all-stars in Miami, are the words of a fellow all-star and Hall of Fame NBA player Michael Jordan.
By now we’ve all heard Jordan say it, whether you agreed or kind of took a double take. Speaking about Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan recently said, “If you’re talking about guards, I would say he [Kobe] has got to be in the top 10.”
Jordan chose his words very carefully and precisely when he ranked Kobe Bryant in the top 10 guards of all-time. MJ’s trick of the tongue is that he grouped together point and shooting guards. Including shooting and point guards together, Jordan lets himself off the hook because anyone’s top-10 is extremely subjective, or biased. It’s like grouping centers and power forwards together. Since point and shooting guards often serve a very different purpose on a basketball team—except for combo guards—, ranking these players together seems almost impossible to do objectively. Some players are obviously top 10, but how one ranks point and shooting guards together comes down to what you value most: the awards, the championships, the points, the rebounds, the assists, the defense, or the longevity, and so on. But, this is a really tough question.
Who are the top 10 NBA guards of all-time?
Jordan is the greatest scoring guard of all-time, standing 3rd all-time in scoring behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (C) and Karl Malone (PF). Of course, the second best scoring guard (all-time points) is Oscar (11th), and the third is Kobe Bryant (14th).
That’s right, on the surface it seems impressive that Bryant is already the 3rd best scoring guard of all-time, in terms of total points, not ppg. Then again at sober second glance you realize that Kobe has already played 14 seasons and 1030 NBA games. Michael Jordan in his entire career only played 1072 games in the NBA. That means by the end of this season (barring injury) Kobe Bryant will have played more NBA games than Michael Jordan in his entire NBA career, yet MJ is way ahead of Kobe in total points scored and points per game. In fact, it’s not all that close.
Before entering into this, you have to bring your own list of criteria. My “biggest factor” is there to help me when I have to make tough choices and decide between great players.
Main Factors: all-time rank, playoff production, awards, titles, and longevity
My Biggest Factor: most un-stoppable during their era
So without further ado here is my Top 10 NBA Guards of All-time:
|6 NBA Titles||30.1 ppg|
|14 time All-star||5.6 apg|
|5 MVP’s||6.2 rpg|
|6 Finals MVP’s||2.3 spg|
|15 seasons||49.7% FG|
|Most Points in a Game||69 (1990)|
|Highest PPG||37.1 ppg|
|3rd in points||1st in ppg|
|1st playoff points||2nd in steals|
What needs to be said about choosing Jordan 1st? He is the guard with the most total points, the highest points per game, and the most playoff points in NBA history. During his playing days in Chicago, he grew, after six years, to be an unstoppable player, grabbing 8 consecutive scoring titles and 6 NBA championships in 8 years—including his 1 ½ year sabbatical with baseball. Not only that, but Jordan was one of the games best closers.
|5 NBA Titles||19.5 ppg|
|12 time All-star||11.2 apg|
|3 MVP’s||7.2 rpg|
|3 Finals MVP’s||1.9 spg|
|12 seasons||52% FG|
|Most Assists in a Game||24 assists (1989 and 1990)|
|Highest APG||13.1 apg|
|4th in assists||1st in assists per game|
|3rd in playoff steals||1st in playoff assists|
After spending a few years in Los Angeles prior to the drafting of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finally again tasted Finals’ glory thanks to Magic. When Johnson joined the Lakers in 1979, he immediately took over as starting point guard. Magic, Kareem, Norm Nixon, Jamal Wilkes, and Michael Cooper helped lead the Lakers to the championship against the Philadelphia 76ers. With the lead in a 3-2 series headed into a game 6 in Philadelphia, the Lakers lost Kareem to injury when Magic stepped in at center to lead the Lakers to the NBA championship. That was probably Magic’s most prolific effort as an NBA player, and it earned him his first of three NBA Finals MVP’s.
Game 6 1980 NBA Championships
Magic Johnson’s (Rookie) box score:
|42 points||15 rebounds||7 assists|
|3 steals||1 block||14/14 FT’s|
There is nothing to explain with these first two picks although one could even make the argument for Bryant to be 2nd, Magic 3rd.
|5 NBA Titles||25.3 ppg|
|12 time All-star||4.7 apg|
|1 MVP||5.3 rpg|
|2 Finals MVP||1.5 spg|
|14 seasons||45.5% FG|
|Most Points in a Game||81 (2006); 2nd all time|
|Highest PPG||35.4 ppg|
|15th in points (12th NBA only)||10th in ppg|
|4th in playoff points||8th in playoff steals|
Kobe is the 3rd best scoring guard in NBA history, already, and he looks to overtake Oscar at 11th before this season is over. Kobe may be as high as 6th in all-time scoring by the end of the season. In his career, Bryant has evolved from a player who relied on his physical superiority and athletic ability to dominate into a player who uses anticipation, jumpers, and his mind to dominate his opponents. Bryant has developed into a skilled artist on the offensive end of the floor. Also interesting has been his evolution from #2 to #1. During his career, Bryant has changed his game depending on what was needed of him, going from a number two guy with Shaquille O’Neal to a number one guy after Shaq was sent to Miami. Then, there are Bryant’s playoff numbers, which are among the best of all-time. Bryant is 2nd in playoff scoring for a guard behind Michael Jordan. In addition to being an incredible playoff scorer, Bryant has also distributed the ball well. Bryant is also 11th in playoff assists.
|1 NBA Title||25.7 ppg|
|12 time All-star||9.5 apg|
|1 MVP||7.5 rpg|
|0 Finals MVP’s||1.1 spg|
|10 seasons||48.5% FG|
|Most Points in a Game||56 (1964)|
|Highest PPG||31.4 ppg|
|11th in points||8th in ppg|
|5th in assists||4th in apg|
Robertson’s 1971 title was one he won with “The Captain” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doing much of the heavy lifting although the “Big O” contributed greatly with 18.3 ppg, 8.9 apg, and 5 rpg. In just Jabbar’s second season, his 31.7 ppg, 16.0 rpg, and probably 3 or more bpg—blocks were not kept as a statistic until a few seasons later—led his Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title. Being that this is Robertson’s only title and Kobe has 5—three with Shaquille O’Neal and two without—my instinct says Kobe deserves the nod over the “Big O” despite Robertson’s amazing all-around numbers. Winning it all, for me, takes precedence here.
|1 NBA Title||27.0 ppg|
|14-time All-Star||6.7 apg|
|0 MVP’s||5.8 rpg|
|1 Finals MVP||2.6 spg|
|14 Seasons||47.4% FG|
|Most Points in a Game||63 (1962)|
|Highest PPG||31.2 ppg|
|19th in points||5th in ppg|
|10th in playoff assists||7th in playoff points|
The Logo. Mr. Clutch. West was a freak scorer who was nearly unstoppable. As perfect as Jerry West’s jumper was, his Los Angeles Lakers never defeated the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, losing 9 times. Finally, in the 1969 Finals, West achieved a first, though it was not the championship he had pined for. He became the first player to ever win an NBA Finals MVP Award in a losing effort. Then, after the retirement of Elgin Baylor, the Gail Goodrich-Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West trio won that elusive title in 1972.
|0 NBA Titles||13.1 ppg|
|10 time All-Star||10.5 apg|
|0 MVP’s||38.4% 3′s|
|0 Finals MVP’s||2.2 spg|
|19 Seasons||51.5% FG|
|Most Assists in a Game||28 (1991)|
|Highest APG||14.5 apg|
|1st in assists||2nd in apg|
|2nd in playoff assists||1st in steals|
If you think about health, excellence, consistency, and longevity in the NBA, only some players come to mind—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, and John Stockton—to name a few. Stockton ran the Utah Jazz and their pick and roll offense with power forward Karl Malone as well as anyone ever has. Although his team never won an NBA title, the Jazz made back-to-back (’97 & ’98) appearances in the Finals only to be eliminated by Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
|0 NBA Titles||25.1 ppg|
|12 time All-Star||2.6 apg|
|0 MVP’s||3.6 rpg|
|0 Finals MVP’s||1.4 spg|
|14 Seasons||50.4% FG|
|Most Points in a Game||63 (1978)|
|Highest PPG||33.1 ppg|
|13th in points||11th in ppg|
|8th in playoff ppg||37th in playoff points|
Even though Gervin never won an NBA title, he was one of the most unstoppable scoring guards of all-time. His scoring exploits earned him 4 scoring titles, which made him the first guard ever to win 3 in a row.
|2 NBA Titles||19.2 ppg|
|12 time All-Star||9.3 apg|
|0 MVP’s||2.1 rpg|
|1 Finals MVP||1.9 spg|
|13 Seasons||45.2% FG|
|Most Assists in a Game||25 (1985)|
|Highest APG||13.9 apg|
|6th in assists||5th in apg|
|9th in playoff assists||5th in playoff spg|
With the help of a physical team and a great coach in the late Chuck Daly, Isaih Thomas won back-to-back NBA titles, a rare feat in the NBA. Thomas was the leader of the “Bad Boys” as they came to be known who made 3 straight NBA Finals, beating Magic’s Lakers and Drexler’s Trailblazers. Thomas was undersized, but that didn’t stop him from using his dazzling ball-handling skills to dodge opponents. Not only could Thomas set up his teammates, but Thomas was the Pistons’ #1 option in crunch time.
|6 NBA Titles||18.4 ppg|
|13 time All-Star||7.5 apg|
|1 MVP||5.2 rpg|
|0 Finals MVP’s||80.3% FT’s|
|14 Seasons||37.5% FG’s|
|Most Assists in a Game||21 (year)|
|Highest APG||9.5 apg|
|14th in assists||17th in apg|
|12th in playoff Assists||9th in playoff apg|
Despite his 6 titles, Cousy ends up down at #9 because, like Oscar Robertson, the leader of the championship effort was not the little guard, but the big center. For Oscar, it was Kareem. For Cousy, it was Bill Russell. Before Russell joined the Celtics, Cousy had been there several seasons. The C’s had been knocked out of the first and second rounds of the playoffs repeatedly. It was not until the Celtics somehow pulled off getting Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, and K.C. Jones (3 future Hall of Famers) in the same off-season, that their great dynasty really began. Cousy does not have the Big O’s numbers, nor was he the team’s undisputed leader. When Cousy did win the MVP in 1957, he was assisted mightily by Russell who averaged about 15 points, 19 rebounds, and probably over 3 blocks per game (no records for blocks were kept until 1973-1974). Also, Cousy led the league 8 times in APG, 2nd only to Stockton.
|0 NBA Titles||26.7 ppg|
|11 time All-Star||6.2 apg|
|1 MVP||3.7 rpg|
|0 Finals MVP’s||2.2 spg|
|14 Seasons||42.5% FG|
|Most Points in a Game||60 (2005)|
|Highest PPG||33.0 ppg|
|22nd in points||6th in ppg|
|2nd in playoff ppg||13th in steals|
A.I. became only the 2nd guard, other than “The Iceman” and Jordan to earn 4 scoring titles. Even though picking Iverson over Havlicek and Drexler was not easy, A.I.’s higher ppg hints at a greater degree of dominance during his era. Despite the lack of an NBA title, Iverson gets the nod here.
These players could easily make a top 10 NBA guards of all-time list. And as much as I like Allen Iverson, I could have flipped a coin with the tenth spot to help me choose between Havlicek, A.I., Clyde Drexler, Pete Maravich and Nate Archibald. I even considered Gary Payton and Jason Kidd. One of my general baselines for the top ten was, at least a championship, but that theory went out the window with John Stockton.
Most of these players I decided between at the 10th spot have not won a championship, and some of those who did, Drexler and Payton, did so as part of last-ditch effort to win one. Drexler joined the NBA champion Houston Rockets to help them repeat in 1995. And Payton was a back-up point guard on the 2006 Miami Heat title team. So, those particular accomplishments were not enough to outweigh legends like Allen Iverson—2nd in playoff points per game and John Stockton—1st in regular season assists.
Honestly, “Clyde the Glide” Drexler was hard not to choose at the 10th spot. His resume is complete: Hall of Fame, 1 title, 10-time all-star, 20.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, and 5.6 apg. His numbers are stellar. But, it seemed like a safe choice.
Clyde “The Glide” Drexler
|1 NBA Title||20.4 ppg|
|10 time All-Star||5.6 apg|
|0 MVP’s||6.1 rpg|
|0 Finals MVP’s||2.0 spg|
|14 Seasons||47.2% FG|
|Highest PPG||27.2 ppg|
|28th in points|
John Havlicek “Hondo”
|8 NBA Titles||20.8 ppg|
|13 time All-star||4.8 apg|
|0 MVP’s||6.3 rpg|
|1 Finals MVP||1.2 spg|
|16 Seasons||43.9% FG|
|Highest PPG||28.9 ppg|
|14th in points||10th in playoff points|
|28th in assists||18th playoff assists|
Now, Havlicek is a different animal. As far as championships, Havlicek destroys A.I. 8-0. But, Iverson’s all-time numbers give him a slight edge over Hondo. I put A.I. over Hondo for two reasons (1) Iverson was more unstoppable as an individual, and (2) For all 8 titles, Hondo had major help. In A.I.’s successful years in Philadelphia, including his run to the 2000 NBA Finals, he had very little help from anyone other than an aging Dikembe Mutombo. Hondo played with Cousy, Russell, Bill Sharman, Heinsohn, Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White (all Hall of Famers), and many other great teammates.
Forwards and Guards
So many players are guard/forwards or forward/centers, but there were some players left off the list because I consider them more forwards than guards. If we counted him as a guard, it would have been hard to leave Erving, 5th all-time leading scorer, off of any top 10 list.
- Julius “Dr. J” Erving
- Billy Cunningham
Here are all the players it was tough to leave off this top 10:
- Sam Jones
- Lenny Wilkins
- Bill Sharman
- Walt Frazier
- Jason Kidd
- Gary Payton “The Glove”
- Steve Nash
- Joe Dumars
- Dave Bing
- “Pistol” Pete Maravich
- Earl “The Pearl” Monroe
- Mark Aguirre
- Sidney Moncrief
- “The Squid”
- Dwayne Wade "Flash"
- Reggie Miller
- Nate “Tiny” Archibald
- Mark Jackson
- Dennis Johnson “D.J.”
- G/F Chris Mullin
- G/F Dave DeBusschere
- G/F Hal Greer
Overall, these lists are subjective. When comparing players of different eras, it is never clear-cut. Choosing a top 10 is opinion-based, no matter how much proof and evidence you try to use. These are mine, so what are your top 10 NBA guards of all-time? Where’s Kobe on your list?
R.S. De France is a College and University instructor of English Composition living in Los Angeles. He has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing. De France has played, coached, and officiated competitive high school basketball in California for many years. Recently, De France, his wife, and another colleague started an internationally read magazine at Shwibly.com.