(First part)

Every off-season, ESPN releases a ranking of the NBA’s active players. This is more for entertainment than anything else. It will spark debates and feedback, as well as violent reactions from players and fans.

On the NBA’s 74th anniversary, it decided to countdown the top 74 players of all time. It has already finished the countdown, spawning other similar countdowns, and probably the most contentious point is the placement of Kobe Bryant.

At the risk of being branded as insensitive due to his untimely death (which was the rudest birthday awakening for me since ‘87) this January, I think it’s better to just put it out there.

It would be easy to find ESPN’s Top 10, but I would list my own. Since we all have the luxury of time without games, why not make your own list as well?

1. Michael Jordan

Since we’ve had two GOAT columns already, we have cited that Jordan has the best mix of individual accolades, team success and leadership roles. Kareem was not the best player on at least two of his last championships, and LeBron has his 3-6 Finals record.

2. LeBron James

One reason for the LeBron/Jordan debate is that these two players’ peaks were considered their own personal eras. From 1990 to 1998, it was the Jordan era, after the Magic/Bird era. In that time, it was undisputed that Jordan ruled the NBA.

James has his own era, but it is subjective on when it began. Jordan was already low-key the best player on the planet maybe in 1988, but we could not call it his era yet. LeBron’s 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers proved he was already the best, as he dragged one of the worst rosters to the Finals at 22 years old. Not even MJ did that — the Bulls had to wait their turn.

Perhaps we can assign the start of the LeBron era during the Heatles time, and his reign as the NBA’s best continues, for now.

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

All-time leading scorer. Comparable individual and team accolades to Jordan. But his era was short-lived and he was not a transcendent star. Should that be part of the criteria? Probably not.

The main traits attributed to Jabbar was his longevity and a game that blended the best from the ‘70s to the ‘80s. It could be argued that if we had as much TV coverage and social media back then, we’d be talking about his GOAT argument.

4. Bill Russell

I’m reaching toward players I haven’t seen in my lifetime, so based on statistics, history and found footage, I’d lean toward Russell simply because winning 11 of 13 seasons is simply unheard of.

Sure, there were only eight to 12 teams back then, but there are some sectors calling the current era as “watered down,” giving the impression that it’s actually easier today. We’ll just have to take Russell as the ultimate winner.

Sure, half the players on his teams are Hall of Famers, but there were few teams; their opponents were reasonably stacked, too.

Sure, Wilt Chamberlain had better individual stats, but Russell wasn’t that far behind on the numbers. He was a worthy rival to the Stilt, and senior sages would say he had the higher Basketball IQ.

5. Magic Johnson

It was a tough call to place him above Wilt because of the monster’s individual performances, but Magic is too much of a winner to pass on. He made the NBA Finals in nine out of 12 seasons (excluding the 1995-96 brief return).

He also won the NBA Finals MVP as a rookie, and I’m very impressed that he was still able to bring the Lakers to the 1991 Finals. That year, he led the NBA playoffs in total minutes played, 3 points and free throws made, defensive rebounds and assists. He was still at the top of his game when he retired due to HIV. He had less MVPs than Wilt (3 vs 4), but much better team success.

The rest of the top five next column, and we’ll see who would rival Kobe Bryant in the pantheon.