NBA 75: The 10 Most Influential Players in NBA History

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Listing our best NBA players of all time was much easier than that.

Because it’s a cinch to show love or completely shade the best players in the game based on metrics and rank them in a consistent/authoritative way like we did when we gave up the 30 greatest players in NBA history.

Debating who deserves GOAT status between Michael Jordan or LeBron James, for example, was light work and far less complicated than trying to figure out something so subjective – and some might say arbitrary, even obtuse – by stating LeBron James a more influential player than, say, Steph Curry.

Have you ever thought about how to measure their influence? Definitely assess the impact of their careers while considering their brilliance on the basketball court coupled with their uniqueness that captivated audiences, captured the imagination, and fused pop and basketball culture? Or how did they change the trajectory of the game? It was a much more difficult task than we had anticipated.

Ask Dwyane Wade.

“It’s like asking someone how they like their peanut butter and jelly,” Wade, future Hall of Famer and TNT NBA analyst, told Complex Sports. “You might like it anyway. Jelly, jelly. Peanut butter, peanut butter. Or peanut butter and jelly. They had special careers that are unique.

LeBron is arguably the GOAT on the court, but he’s also become a pop culture icon and has undoubtedly left his mark on basketball culture. But to the same degree as Curry? Considering Steph is credited with helping the Association evolve into a league that shoots exponentially more 3 points per game now than a decade ago? Wade would like to know how you can weigh someone’s influence while they’re still playing.

“We always watch both guys play and continue to create his legacy. LeBron had 20 years to create his legacy, and Steph didn’t,” said Wade, James’ former Miami and Cleveland teammate. “I think both did something unique and special and put them on Mount Rushmore for what they were able to accomplish in this game, this rich NBA history. We’ve never seen LeBron and we never saw Steph.

That’s right, Dwyane. But before we reveal our very subjective results, which admittedly skew more modern, allow us to explain how we ranked the legends.

First, we made a list of about 20 guys, then we narrowed it down to the 10 we really felt were the most influential. Legends like Dirk Nowitzki, Dr. J, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Bill Russell narrowly missed the final cut. Next, our voting panel was asked to rank players from one to 10 based on their influence in four categories.

Transcendence: How well has one player captured the imagination of basketball fans? All are/were extremely talented, and each brought a unique skill set and dominated in their own way. But how exalted was/is their game compared to the other candidates?

Innovation: What impact has the player had on changing the trajectory of the game of basketball? Best example: Curry’s 3-point shooting prowess completely changed the strategy of today’s game. But was he more influential than Wilt Chamberlain who forced the league to rewrite the rules?

Impact on culture: What was the player’s influence in terms of fashion, pop culture, sneakers, and what was/is his pervasive celebrity? The best example here is MJ, who is the grandfather of sneaker culture, and also made the original (and more tolerable) space jamlaunched all kinds of products in his heyday and remains one of the most popular athletes in the world despite not having played for 20 years.

Heritage: Voters were asked to take a 30,000-foot view of each player’s career and weigh the impact of their time in the NBA against others. Recency bias will certainly play a role, given that the careers of Jordan, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett have all come to an end over the past two decades, while Curry and James still cement theirs.

After tallying the results, here are Complex Sports’ 10 most influential players in NBA history.

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