The 10 Best NBA Players Since 2000

In the new issue of Dime Magazine, we took a look at the best – and worst – the game has offered since the turn of the century. From the players to jerseys to sneakers to teams to even trends, you can relive the past 12 years by scooping up the new issue currently on newsstands nationwide. In those pages, you’ll find the following feature…

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It took LeBron James longer than expected, but this past June, he finally delivered. Now with a championship in hand, growing potential dynasties in Miami and Oklahoma City, and with a generation of stars getting older, it truly feels like we are entering a new age in the NBA. It is officially LeBron’s league. Everyone else must get in line. We waited years for this moment. Twice, LeBron’s Cleveland teams had the best record in the league, and twice they flamed out in the playoffs. In Miami, even with enough talent to overwhelm all but a few teams in the league, they lost in 2011 to a hungrier, deeper Dallas squad. James has probably been the best overall player in the league for two or three years, but it took a ring to wrestle that claim away from Kobe Bryant. Akron’s finest finally has.

Yet the new age is more than just crowning a new King. Footwear is different, moving from glamorous, high-end materials back towards performance. Tattoos are now a staple of the typical NBA player. The game itself is a stranger to those who grew up on the physicality of the 1980s and ’90s. Gone are the days of isolation basketball. Today, a basket-protecting center is a novelty rather than a necessity, and dictating positions on the court means very little. Never before were there so many small-ball lineups, complete with explosive 6-3 two guards and versatile 6-9 centers.

With LeBron earning his stripes after the 4-1 Miami victory in the 2012 NBA Finals, we felt this was the perfect time to take a pulse of the best league in the world. Basketball, perhaps more than any other sport, is about individual creativity. Who’s the best player? Who’s the best dunker? Who can handle the rock, dictate tempo, and move the crowd all at once?

Dime Magazine always celebrated the culture of the game, the lifestyle of the player, and what better way to cover that on the dawning of a new age than to take it back to where all arguments begin. In this special section, we will break down the greatest of the present, on and off the court, as well as what’s in store for the future.

The Next 10 Who Will Shape The Future Generation Of Basketball
The Top 10 Worst Basketball Trends Since 2000

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In this summer’s Olympics, Lithuania and their 36-year-old guard Sarunas Jasikevicius nearly slayed the mighty Americans during pool play. It was Jasikevicius’ fourth Olympic run, and the fifth time since 2000 he nearly beat Team USA. Donnie Nelson, the president of basketball operations in Dallas, is a former assistant coach for Jasikevicius’ national teams, and after seeing Saras lead Lithuania to a near upset, Nelson told ESPN, “He must be drinking from the same fountain as Jason Kidd.”

Kidd came a long way – from Ason, as Gary Payton called him because he didn’t have a J, to the best point guard in the world to now a 39-year-old backup point guard in New York. Back in the summer of 2001, when Kidd was swapped to New Jersey for Stephon Marbury, most of the basketball world didn’t see it as a Nets knockout punch. In two and a half seasons with New Jersey, Marbury averaged 23 points and 8.1 assists, making an All-Star team in the process. He was flamboyant, young, explosive, and his career 20-point, 8-assist averages put him in a class almost all his own. He also wasn’t cuckoo yet.

Kidd wasn’t any of that. But by the end of his first season with the Nets when he led the team to the Finals and nearly won a league MVP, Kidd reached a level of celebrity where even his young son (always present courtside) became a national commodity.

His effect on the Nets was inarguably ridiculous, and in the Eastern Conference Finals that season, he beat an upstart team from Boston led by Paul Pierce. Unlike Kidd, no one ever considered Pierce the best player at his position for any lengthy duration of time. But at one point in 2008, he did something even more memorable: He outplayed both LeBron James and Kobe Bryant during one playoff run and became a Finals MVP.

After all that happened, it’s remarkable Paul Pierce is still putting in 19/5/4 nights with the Celtics. Even after Boston basketball historian Bob Ryan gave the Truth the stamp of approval by calling him the best scorer in Celtic history; even after the former Kansas star twice brought the Celtics back from the dead – first in 2001 when Boston made the playoffs for the first time since Sherman Douglas was relevant, and then again in 2008 when he was a Finals MVP for the city’s first basketball championship since 1986 – even after 10 All-Star Games and 22,591 career points, Pierce is still the most consistently overlooked superstar of the last 20 years.

Some of that is his fault. His game is fit for excelling on the world’s biggest stages, but it doesn’t attract admiration amongst young fans (Pierce has never been voted to start in an All-Star Game). He complained and bitched his way out of the U.S.A. National Team’s conscience while being cited as a major cause for Team USA’s embarrassing sixth place finish in the 2002 World Championships. He nearly blew a 2007 Playoff series against Indiana because of a technical foul and ejection, and then walked off the court waving his jersey Petey Pablo-style before entering the postgame press conferences with bandages all over his face to fake an injury. It was pathetic.

But he also has as many big playoff moments over the past decade as anyone, and in Boston’s 2008 title run, he became the best player in the world for three months in the spring. That must count for something.

While Kidd was one of the best all-around guards of this generation and is a new-age Magic Johnson, he is also just a career 40 percent shooter from the field, and was never the best player on a championship team. Nowadays, Kidd is the shell of the player who once took the NBA by storm 11 years ago in New Jersey. Pierce? He quietly survived and excelled in Boston, and he’s still the go-to player on Miami’s toughest competition in the Eastern Conference.

If you had asked us seven or eight years ago if Allen Iverson would win a ring before he finished playing, we would’ve answered affirmatively. He seemed destined to win something. No one played harder and no one gave as big of a shit. Sure, sometimes he had a funny way of showing it: partying at a pace even Charlie Sheen could appreciate, gambling on defense and taking horrible shots for years, never sharing the wealth with a number of early co-stars (Jerry Stackhouse, Tim Thomas, Larry Hughes, Keith Van Horn), and of course, the whole “Practice” rant.

Larry Brown eventually became sick of him. Denver eventually traded him for someone more “conventional” (Chauncey Billups). Detroit never really wanted him. And then Memphis cut the lines of communication after only three games. Iverson wore out his welcome wherever he went, but honestly, name a star that was easy to handle? You can count them on one hand.

Beginning in 2000, Iverson still went to the playoffs seven times, made 11 All-Star teams and six All-NBA teams, twice on the first team, and he seemed more indestructible than anyone since Jack Bauer. He led the NBA in scoring three times after the turn of the century, and for all of the jokes about how little he gave up the rock, Georgetown’s finest still finished his career with an average of 6.2 dimes a night playing with talented offensive juggernauts like Eric Snow, Matt Harpring and Kenny Thomas.

Yet for all the numbers he put up, that won’t be what people remember about Iverson. They’ll always poke fun at his flaws, yes, but hopefully 20 years from now people will respect him for what he was: the toughest SOB to ever play.

No commercial ever told the story of an athlete better than a 2006 Reebok ad depicting Iverson as a sort of hospital billboard patient. There was his 2000 shoulder dislocation, a spinal contusion the following year, elbow bursitis after that, and among others, the left hand he fractured in 1998. As the injuries were stacked one on top of another across the screen, the clip ended with Iverson’s eyes opening as he uttered, “Time to go to work…” It isn’t his most famous commercial, and the sneakers (the Answer IX Pump) it was promoting were garbage. But it spoke to the Answer’s inner spirit. Nothing would stop him from playing every game like his life depended on it, and he did that for well over a decade. With Allen Iverson’s heart, even Vince Carter would be diving on the floor and playing through broken bones.

During the absolute apex of his career, the MVP season in 2001 when he led a rag-tag Philly team that was starting Tyrone Hill and Jumaine Jones into the NBA Finals, you couldn’t go anywhere without talking about the Answer. He was the most charismatic player in the game. In the Finals, he became the most famous David of all time going up against the literal Goliath – Shaq and Kobe. Iverson resonated with every fan, and even the oldest and cruddiest could understand and respect, “I play every game like it’s my last.”

That playoff run was like one long Hoopmixtape, except it wasn’t made up of summer league dunks and worthless crossovers in some random gym in the middle of nowhere. Iverson did it on the grandest stage, twice dropping 50 in one series against Toronto before playing through an injury against Milwaukee in the conference finals. In the first game of the NBA Finals, he put together one of the greatest individual performances ever (also known as the night he killed Tyronn Lue‘s career).

Because of the way his career finished, and because 80 percent of NBA media covering him during his career were white, middle-aged men who probably grew up watching “All In The Family” and listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash, many folks around the sport won’t truly appreciate Iverson. Luckily, he resonated with a young generation ready for change.

The case for Steve Nash as one of the best players of this generation really has only two negatives. One was his defense. It was never any good, and in Phoenix when he played in a system that could’ve made D.J. Mbenga look like an in-his-prime Derrick Coleman, players worked Nash over every night.

Then, there’s the one glaring omission on his resume: he’s won no championships, and in fact, has played in 118 playoff games without ever making the Finals, easily the most of anyone in history (You could also count his repeated hair styling failures as a negative, but with so many players being followers rather than trendsetters, we’ll quietly stick this under his Pros category.). But honestly, you can’t really fault him.

No one cared more for his teammates. No one played through more pain. Once he figured out how to cope with his back problems, he became an iron man who never missed more than eight games in a season and repeatedly played more minutes than he should’ve. He also dealt with a run of bad luck.

After one season catching Nash’s laser passes, Amar’e Stoudemire looked like he would revamp the power forward position. Then, he had microfracture surgery during the following summer, placing a permanent lid on his once unlimited potential. In the 2005 Playoffs, Phoenix was steamrolling everyone until Joe Johnson broke the left orbital bone in his face on a dunk. Without him, they fell behind San Antonio and never recovered. In the 2007 Playoffs, with the Suns primed to finally beat San Antonio in a second round series that probably determined the title, Robert Horry side-checked Nash into the scorer’s table, initiating a near brawl that saw Amar’e and Boris Diaw both suspended. Then in two of the next three seasons, the Suns fell victim to a pair of ridiculously lucky shots: a tying three-pointer by Tim Duncan in 2008 and Ron Artest catching and laying in a Kobe airball in the 2010 Western Conference Finals.

If anyone deserves a title, it’s Nash, which is why no one had a problem with Nash chasing a ring this summer by linking up with Kobe, Pau Gasol and now Dwight Howard in Los Angeles.

But if we need to blame anyone for Nash’s empty trophy case, blame Robert Sarver. After buying the Suns in 2004, Sarver methodically subtracted from the Suns’ talent base every season until eventually what made the team so much fun to watch – extraordinarily talented offensive players doing what they did best (score) and completely dismissing the rest of the game – was traded in so they could attempt to win with over-the-hill conventional players like Shaq and Grant Hill.

Intent on never paying the luxury tax even though his team could sniff a title, Sarver gave away multiple first-round picks that turned into Luol Deng, Rudy Fernandez and Rajon Rondo. He traded Kurt Thomas for nothing while filling the bench with reserves like Steven Hunter, Eddie House, Marcus Banks and Brian Skinner. He gave Quentin Richardson $42 million, and then wouldn’t pay Joe Johnson. Sarver was a train wreck from the start, and it felt like someone mistakenly gave him the keys to a car he didn’t know how to drive.

Can we really fault Nash for that? He did all he could: won back-to-backs MVPs while making eight All-Star Games since 2002 and three All-NBA First Teams, and lead the NBA in assists five times while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor in all but one season during eight years in the desert (unbelievable when you think about it).

Nash is also one of the few players who legitimately ushered in a new style of play. His positive effect on the NBA turning away from the physical, royal rumbles of the 1990s might be what we remember him for, and that alone is enough to get him on this list. Throw in that he was really, really good, and it’s obvious he deserves to be here.

Kobe Bryant had the MJ comparisons since he was a beanpole, shaved-head 17-year-old rookie. But if there’s anyone in the league who reminds us of Chicago’s finest, it’s Dwyane Wade. From his twisting reverse finishes at the rim to the way he inspires loyalty amongst teammates and reverence from everyone else, Wade figured out how to channel his destructive individual powers within the context of the team. Bryant never really did. Then there was Wade’s performance in the 2006 NBA Finals, which was perhaps the greatest individual Finals performance in NBA history. At 34.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game with a series PER of 33.8 (the highest in history since the merger), it was as close to “Next Jordan” as you could possibly get.

If only Wade could’ve kept up the pace he set in that 4-2 championship win over the Mavs, as well as his epic 2008-2009 season when he averaged 30.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists and a combined 3.5 blocks and steals a night. If his game was less DMX and more Common, less reckless finishes and more composed jumpers, and if Kobe didn’t come first, we might be talking about D-Wade as the best guard since the greatest guard retired.

Yet Wade was always overlooked, and he finished that ’09 season with a disrespectful seven first-place MVP votes. LeBron received 109. Um… what? That was perhaps the single greatest individual season we’ve seen from a scoring guard since you know who. Kobe Bryant had a few great runs during his wilderness years in-between championships. But he passed only when he had to. Tracy McGrady had one season in 2002-03 that was absurd, and is really the only year that compares. During 2009, Wade was undeniably the best player in basketball.

It’s also a crime that Wade has only made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team three times. He’s the only guard in NBA history with a career average of one block a game.

With career averages of 25.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 6.2 assists per night on nearly 49 percent shooting, the man who put Marquette basketball on the map isn’t only one of the best players in the world, he is one of the most efficient. Wade almost never takes bailout shots. For his career, he’s averaged less than two triple attempts a game, and before LeBron James showed up on South Beach, he trusted his teammates enough to average at least 6.5 assists in six straight seasons.

Was Wade always consistently great? No. Will he live on in the NBA like Kobe Bryant has, shuffling body parts for new ones each offseason like some modern-day cousin of Darth Vader? We highly doubt it, especially after his postseason run this spring when he alternated between “best all-around player in the world” status to “Oh my God, D-Wade has lost his legs” status.

But when he was at his best, Wade could defend as well as anyone, accepted all challenges, and was an offensive force of nature, a 6-4 cannon ball that could get to the rim and finish whenever he wanted to.

It took Kevin Garnett about 10 minutes into a workout to convince Kevin McHale he’d become one of the greatest players of his generation. As for the rest of us? We didn’t quite comprehend what we had until 13 years later. In Minnesota, Garnett was always an All-Star. He’s made 14 All-Star teams, with 12 of them coming since 2000, while becoming the only play in NBA history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in six straight seasons. Garnett was the Fun Police, Da Kid, the only 7-1 forward (screw what his player info says… the man is over seven feet tall) any of us ever saw who could score in the paint against anyone, and then lock up the league’s best perimeter scorers.

Back in 2002 before Tracy McGrady’s back gave out, he was arguably the best scorer in the world, and yet after being shut down by Garnett in one early regular season game, he was quoted by The Los Angeles Times saying, “That’s the best I’ve ever been defended. Ever.” Can you name another power forward who could do that? How about one who was more fun to watch? Sure, Duncan was better. But he wasn’t nearly as much fun.

KG always had fun during his first few years in the league, and his early playoff appearances with Stephon Marbury and the Wolves felt like parties. We were all reveling in the moment. Eventually, he grew frustrated and stepped up his game until he became the best player in the world in 2004. Minnesota finally got out of the first round… and then promptly fell apart. For the next three years, they never tasted the playoffs. Garnett continued to lead the league in rebounds and kept throwing up 20-point games, yet spent a chunk of his prime in the lottery.

Then, he just got mad, was mercifully traded to Boston, and finally evolved from Da Kid to the angry, agitated defensive juggernaut he was meant to be all along.

The Celtics not only won the title in 2008, they also had one of the best defenses of the modern game. It’s fitting Garnett was the anchor. He truly was, and still is to a degree, that good at stopping people, and his effect on his teammates is legendary.

The minute he put on the white and green, lukewarm defenders like Paul Pierce and Ray Allen finally committed to stopping people. Rajon Rondo eventually became the best defensive point guard in the business, playing a backcourt-version of what Garnett was doing since the late 1990s. Even Kendrick Perkins, a limited player to say the least, was suddenly being called the best post defender in basketball while playing opposite Garnett. Once he was traded to Oklahoma City, the dude was exposed. Repeatedly.

Early in his career, we wanted Garnett to take over games like Duncan or Shaq. But that was never his style. Now that he’s 36 years old, you can make the case Garnett is the greatest second banana ever.

Ten years ago, you would’ve laughed at us over this ranking. Dirk was a skinny, gangly, awkward-looking German with an awful haircut that played the four spot as a 20-foot jump shooter. During the season, he created a sneer to convince people he wasn’t soft. During the offseason, he retreated home to get lessons from German’s Yoda of basketball, and together they went through weird, one-legged training sessions that would make Zorro blush. We didn’t quite understand him. He was different. Eccentric. And so were the Dallas teams he played for, the ones always in contention, and yet never quite good enough to win it all.

But starting during the 2000-2001 season, the Mavs started a run of 12 consecutive playoff appearances behind Nowitzki. Outside of Tim Duncan, who’s probably just a robot anyways, no one else in the NBA has done that. Not Kobe. Not Shaq. Not LeBron. Not even Dirk’s biggest nemesis, Kevin Garnett. Garnett went a full three years in his prime without sniffing the second season. In his prime. Yet even so close as five years ago, predicting Nowitzki would become the fifth-best player of the past dozen years would’ve incited laughter.

In the 2006 NBA Finals, Dallas wiped Miami off the floor in the series’ first two games, and then built a 13-point lead midway through the final period in Game 3. But they collapsed over the final five minutes. Nowitzki responded with ugly 2-for-14 shooting in a blowout loss two nights later. Then, he missed a potential game-winner in a heartbreaking Game 5 loss.

In the final game of the series, Nowitzki dropped 29 points and 15 rebounds, and helped Dallas race out to a 14-point edge. Still, they slowly faded, and Dirk put the finishing touches on his tombstone with only two points in the fourth quarter.

The following spring, he let Stephen Jackson, Matt Barnes, Baron Davis and the No. 8-seeded Warriors punk him in front of a national TV audience during the first round of the playoffs, leading to the most awkward MVP presentation ever. Dirk accepted the regular season crown even as every media member in the room was pinning him with the worst label you can have as a warm-blooded athlete: a soft choke artist.

Yet somewhere in the last few years, we recognized Nowitzki for what he is: true greatness. He had failures, but overcame them. He had regrets, but shut them out. He had critics, but shut them up. After he delivered in 2011, winning a championship and a Finals MVP, all of the stats began to overwhelm us. He’s a career 25.9-point, 10.3-rebound a night guy in the playoffs. He’s going to pass 25,000 career points sometime next season. He’s a career 48/38/88 percentage shooter. He’s made every All-Star Game since 2002, and made at least the All-NBA Third Team every season since 2001. Finally, throughout 14 years in the NBA, Nowitzki has never missed more than nine games in a single season.

Okay, we’ll admit Kevin Garnett was probably better in his prime. He was the most versatile power forward we’ve ever seen, a nightmare on offense because he could routinely hit standstill jump shots while also being money from the post. On defense, there was no one like him. He was a better defender than Batman, and probably still is.

But over the course of the last 11 years since he made his first All-NBA team in 2001, Nowitzki never fell off, and is still one NBA history’s most lethal crunch-time scorers. At the end of a close game, the Big German has no weaknesses, and perhaps more than anything else, a great player is defined by coming through in those moments.

Wasn’t it weird watching LeBron mature before our eyes this spring? Twice Miami fell behind in series they should’ve won easily, and both times LeBron pulled majestic performances out of his ass. In Game 4 against Indiana during the second round, with a growing Pacer team about to go up 3-1, James delivered a Mike Tyson-esque knockout punch: 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine dimes. In Game 6 in Boston during the following round, he scored 45 points and missed only seven shots, turning a rabid New England crowd into glassy-eyed spectators before it was all over.

Even against Lithuania during the Americans first test of the Olympics, with the team trailing in the fourth quarter, it was LeBron who stepped up to score nine points in the final minutes, including a back-to-back sequence where he hit a pull-up three and then dunked off a turnover to seal it. Then, in the fourth quarter of the Gold Medal game against Spain, he was the one who put it away. In fact, throughout much of the Olympic tournament, LeBron was far and away the best player on the planet – it actually didn’t even seem close – the one-time debates about LeBron vs. Kobe all but a forgotten memory.

Contrary to what haters will tell you, James wasn’t always Asafa Powell in crunch time. Early on in Cleveland, LeBron repeatedly saved the Cavs with clutch performances and big shots (the Eastern Final Game 5 triple-double in 2009 against Orlando…the 48-point masterpiece in Game 5 in Detroit in 2007…the 2006 Washington series when he made two game-winners). But somewhere along the way, he lost his confidence. Closing a tight game became a mental hiccup for him, the Achilles’ heel of the best player in the world.

He obviously had lost his mojo. Between getting crucified for The Decision, and then spending an entire season as the bad guy before getting picked apart like a bad outfit choice at The Oscars in the 2011 Finals, it was a logical result. He started believing his critics, started trying to prove people wrong, and turned away from his destiny, which was the Generation X’s Magic Johnson.

Remember when Nas came out in the mid-’90s and dropped Illmatic? It was bananas, probably the best hip-hop album of all time and one of those records that reeked of perfection. But it didn’t sell, and when you’re in the business of entertaining, you better sell. So Queensbridge’s finest switched it up, got cute on It Was Written and I Am, and then just completely fell off on Nastradamus. His tools needed sharpening. He had to return to the basics, get his confidence back. He needed a gut check, somebody to tell him, “Dude, you’re too good to be rapping about fake Mafioso characters, and smutting out someone else’s daughter.” Soon after, Jay-Z dissed him, got him fired up, he came back with Stillmatic and all was right in the world.

That’s essentially what happened to LeBron over this past year, and now with a championship under his belt, as well as a big middle finger to throw at all the haters who said Miami is D-Wade’s team (That’s impossible when you look at LeBron’s postseason numbers: 42.7 minutes, 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists a game on 50 percent shooting), it’s scary to think about what No. 6 will do over the next few seasons. Even at just 27 years old, James already has eight All-Star Games (with two game MVPs) under his belt. He’s won three NBA MVPs and one Finals MVP, made the first team for both All-NBA and All-Defensive in each of the past four seasons, has an insane 26 Eastern Conference Player of the Month awards, and has career averages just south of 28/7/7. Not bad.

Ten years from now, let’s hope we remember the good in O’Neal’s career rather than how he repeatedly showed up injured or out of shape in camp, memorably saying at one point that he got hurt on company time so he would “heal on company time.” His final few ring-chasing years were awfully forgettable for a number of reasons, and he’s been so bad on TNT’s “Inside The NBA” that we’re worried the future generation is going to have trouble recalling how physically dominant he was during his peak.

The Diesel might be only No. 3 on this list, but if we’re talking who had the highest peak, it’s no contest. When he was at his absolute best – which would have to be from 1999 to 2002 – no one was better. No one. Defensively, he was like a brick wall that could move at alarming speed and cut off potential layups. And on the other end? It was basically a joke. He could’ve missed every free throw he ever took – he was just a career 53 percent shooter from the stripe – and yet he still would’ve been the most dominating player any of us ever saw. Ask the 2000 Indiana Pacers. They made the Finals, and yet were exploited so often by Shaq, they reverted to smacking him across the face, arms and chest every time he got within five feet of the rim. Because coach Larry Bird ran out of options in Game 2 of those NBA Finals, they fouled the big fella and sent him to the line 39 times. Thirty-nine! O’Neal still had 40 points and 24 rebounds.

At his apex, when he was hungry and listening to Phil Jackson, he put together an MVP season that included a career-high 29.7 points, along with 13.6 rebounds and three blocks a night. Nowadays, if Dwight Howard put up those numbers for a week, we’d probably start engraving his Hall of Fame plaque. Shaq was just a different breed, and because he was so normal as an older player in Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston, it’s easy to forget how often he cooked and served other all-time great centers like David Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo.

As Tyrion Lannister, the scheming, womanizing dwarf from HBO’s popular TV series Game of Thrones, always tells us, take what can be used against you, and “wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” That’s what O’Neal did with his free throws. He joked about them. He told everyone he’d make them when it counted. He acknowledged he couldn’t always shoot them. Even God wasn’t perfect.

That fun-loving and outgoing personality is what drew a lot of fans to Shaq during his early years, and it’s what makes him such an entertaining TV personality. But in the end, it probably hurt his basketball career. Because he didn’t always take it seriously, he was beat out by the two men in front of him on this list – two guys who took everything seriously.

Since the 1999-2000 season, Duncan has scored 19,743 points, rebounded 10,985 missed shots, made 12 All-Star Games, won two NBA MVPs, an All-Star Game MVP, two NBA Finals MVPs and three championships. His grocery list of achievements is longer than Eddy Curry‘s Stop-n-Shop list. He’s a model of consistency, and was the driving force during an unbelievable seven-year run where San Antonio made at least the Western Conference Semifinals in every season. Need another reason to call Duncan one of the greatest leaders in team sports history? Stephen Jackson was a viable contributor on their 2003 championship team, a young gunner whose Cowboy-esque mentality gave the team a little swagger. When Jackson left the confines of the Riverwalk, he started shooting up strip clubs, following teammates into stands to fight fans, tattooing all sorts of weird stuff on himself, and eventually, getting run out of two or three different places. He’s back with the Spurs again, and guess what? They’re calling him one of the best teammates they’ve ever had. Gregg Popovich should get some of the credit. But Duncan is the man in that locker room, and the players respect him so much he rarely has to say a word.

Unlike many other players on this list, through it all, he’s never changed. Seriously, watch a Spurs game from 2002. Does Duncan play any differently? Does he even look different? Most of the names around him have changed, going from players like Johnson, Nesterovic and Daniels to Splitter, Green and Leonard. But Duncan is still here. The bank shot that became his staple in the same vein as Kareem with his skyhook is still as deadly as ever, as is his turnaround in the post over the right shoulder.

Shaq was the NBA’s greatest athletic marvel. But Duncan matched him championship for championship. Chris Webber had the best hands and the most versatile set of gifts of any modern power forward. He finished his career with five All-Star Games while Duncan made appearances in 13. Many thought Kevin Garnett would challenge TD. But he never beat Duncan in the playoffs, and didn’t win a championship until he had other Hall of Famers to take the offensive pressure off him.

Everyone else had faults. Duncan had none, and is widely considered the best power forward of all time (even if he was actually a center for much of his career).

While The Big Swim’s production dipped slightly over the past two seasons, he’s still one of the most consistent players in the league at 36 years old, and the only big man of this generation with virtually no weaknesses.

No one went through more transformations in one career. No one logged more SportsCenter time, been the instigator of more Internet forum threads or managed to fight and beat Father Time more often. No one dealt with as much drama away from the floor – self-inflicted or not – as Kobe Bryant. He is a survivor, and you can make the case his 16-year career is more impressive than winning six championships or grabbing five NBA MVP awards (as you know who did).

When Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal put aside their petty differences and won championships, we Bryant figured was an uber-sidekick who was literally unafraid of the moment. When the Laker dynasty went up in smoke, and people accused Kobe of forcing O’Neal out, we figured he was a callous gunner who wanted to win, but only under his own terms. He wanted to be the hero, but not quite as much as he didn’t want anyone else to be the hero. When the Lakers swindled Pau Gasol from Memphis, and started winning rings again, we figured Kobe was the best player in the world, a calculating basketball assassin who knew exactly how to take out his enemies. Now that Bryant’s legs are beginning to fail him, and younger cats are pulling on his cape, some think we have Kobe figured out again: as a relic of a lost era, the final link between the modern age of basketball and the forgotten glory days of the ’80s and ’90s. We figure he’s a hardened warrior getting up from the canvas for one more round, one more bout with destiny. But if we learned anything about Kobe Bryant over the past 16 years, it’s that we should never count him out.

Bryant is moving into a new chapter in his career. Only the staunchest and most ridiculous Stans will still include him in the discussion for the best player in the league. The Mamba can be that at times, perhaps for a quarter or even a night. But over the course of an entire series, an entire playoff run, he can’t do it any longer. The stats don’t lie. The Lakers have bowed out meekly in the Western Conference Semifinals in two straight seasons. In 2011, Bryant had the worst playoff run of his career, averaging a quiet 22.8 points against a rag-tag group of defenders (DeShawn Stevenson, a calcifying Shawn Marion, Marco Belinelli and old buddy, Trevor Ariza) that he would’ve turned into four-course meals just a few years before.

Then this past spring, Oklahoma City suffocated the Lakers, and Bryant shot under 40 percent in the series’ first three games.

Yet none of that should take away from what he’s done. There are 29,484 reasons why he’s still far and away the most popular player overseas. Remember the 2008 Olympics in Beijing? One night, the Redeem Team all went to support the women’s National Team, filing into their seats before the game even began. Kobe? He came in after play began, and caused an uproar that would make President Obama proud. Overlooking that only Kobe would milk a moment like that, it was telling. LeBron didn’t get that love. Neither did Carmelo Anthony or Dwight Howard. In this summer’s 2012 Olympics, after the U.S.A. criminally assaulted Tunisia in a 110-63 massacre, an opposing player jogged over to Bryant after the game, handed over his sneaker and asked for an autograph.

Worldwide love like that comes easy when you have five NBA championships, 14 All-Star Games, 10 All-NBA First Teams and 9 All-Defensive First Teams. Kobe might not be Mike, but he’s pretty damn good.

How would you rate the best players of this century?

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