Golden Era: Ranking the best ballers of the 2000s and 2010s

The 2000s have been a special time for basketball. The game has evolved through offensive revolutions and rule changes, dynasties have risen and fallen and some of the best players to ever grace the court have captivated the attention of the sports world. These two decades hold a special place in my heart, as I grew up watching, following and emulating many of these top players. I still have the jerseys of Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett hanging in my closet, and talking about 2000s greats is always one of my favorite topics when talking to fellow basketball fans.

To honor the best ballers of this epic era, I have compiled a subjective list of the top 20 players of the 2000s. Players were judged specifically on their contributions in this era. These considerations include championship relevance, trailblazing styles, statistical dominance, and a balance between sustained success and peak performance. Here we go!

 

Honorable Mentions: Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid, Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Yao Ming, Klay Thompson

 

  1. Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic

Accomplishments: 2x First Team, 3x Second Team, 7x All Star, 2x Scoring Title

When healthy, “T-Mac” was one of the best scorers in the league. McGrady starred on playoff contenders in Toronto, Orlando, and Houston during his prime, though he never fully reached his potential due to injury. Still, his career longevity and scoring prowess warrant him the first spot on this list.

  1. Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics

Accomplishments: 1x Finals Champion, 1x Finals MVP, 10x All Star, 1x NBA Second Team

Pierce needed former MVP Kevin Garnett and 3-point legend Ray Allen to come to Boston to elevate his team to a true Finals contender, but the team some consider to be the first “super team” had one clear alpha- Pierce. The 2008 NBA Finals MVP had a well-rounded game and never backed down from a fight, especially elevating his performance in big moments.

  1. Jason Kidd, New Jersey Nets

Accomplishments: 1x Finals Champion, 5x First Team, 5x Assist Title, 4x DEF First Team

Jason Kidd is often overlooked in terms of 2000s players, but his impact on the point guard position can’t be understated. Kidd was the epitome of a floor general during his years in Phoenix, New Jersey, and Dallas with unrivaled court IQ, pinpoint passing and definite scoring ability.

  1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Accomplishments: 3x First Team, 6x All Star, 3x Block Title, 1x All Star Game MVP

This is where this list returns to the modern game and to players whose best days may even lay ahead. Davis has one of the most complete skill sets of any big man in NBA history with astounding offensive development during his initial pro years. The downside to Davis is a limited resume and only a second round playoff appearance to show for all of his years in dismal New Orleans.

  1. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Accomplishments: 1x Finals Champion, 1x Finals MVP, 2x DPOY, 2x First Team

This San Diego State product didn’t come into the NBA with the hype of a player like Davis, but he emerged in the playoffs as the best player on a championship Spurs team at only 22 years old and was named Finals MVP. He has only blossomed since, developing a strong offensive game to match his top-notch defensive abilities.

  1. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets

Accomplishments: 4x First Team, 7x DEF First Team, 4x Assist Title, 6x Steal Title, 9x All Star

Between his tenures on the New Orleans Hornets and Los Angeles Clippers, Chris Paul has established himself as a playmaker and floor general. Like Davis, the knack on Paul is his lack of postseason success, and injuries have also hampered his time in the league. But between his explosive athleticism early in his career and his ability to orchestrate top offenses like Lob City, Paul has earned his place on the pantheon of NBA greats.

  1. Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves

Accomplishments: 1x MVP, 1x DPOY, 1x Finals Champion, 4x First Team, 4x Rebound Title

In his prime, KG was so good that he even made Minnesota into a Finals contending team. The 2004 MVP was one of the toughest and most fearsome big men in the NBA. Once Garnett joined up with superstars in Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, he earned a coveted championship ring and solidified himself as one of the best big men ever.

  1. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

Accomplishments: 3x DPOY, 1x Finals Appearance, 5x First Team, 5x Rebound Title, 2x Block Title

The man known as Superman accomplished a lot in his years in Orlando, bringing the team to an NBA championship, winning an unprecedented three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards, and establishing himself as the premier big man in the late 2000s to early 2010s (oh, and a memorable Slam Dunk title on top of that, too). Leaving the Orlando marked a huge drop in production for Howard, but in his glory days he was a legendary player and worthy of the Superman moniker.

  1. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns

Accomplishments: 2x MVP, 3x First Team, 5x Assist Title, 8x All Star

Many of the point guards on this list revolutionized the game in some way, and Nash fits the profile exactly. Nash led the high-paced Phoenix Suns to historic offensive performances in the mid-2000s, combining fancy ball-handling, highlight-reel passing and reliable scoring. The fact that his Phoenix teams never reached the NBA Finals is the one of the greatest travesties of the 2000s.

  1. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

Accomplishments: 3x Finals Champion, 1x Finals MVP, 13x All Star, 2x First Team

Speaking of offensive dynamos, D-Wade staked a claim to being one of the best shooting guards ever as well as one of the most beloved players during his time in the league. The electrifying Wade was at his finest in the postseason, compiling a postseason for the ages in his third season that culminated in a Finals MVP award. One of the best playmakers in the league, Wade also made one of the most significant decisions in the modern era by relegating the reigns of the team to LeBron James when Miami’s Big Three formed, leading to four more Finals appearances.

  1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Accomplishments: 1x MVP, 4x First Team, 2x Scoring Title, 7x All Star

Oklahoma City’s decision to jettison their Sixth Man of the Year in a trade was one of the poorest in NBA history, though the Houston Rockets have certainly reaped the rewards. Harden’s offensive arsenal and production are in a league of their own in the modern NBA, leading to comparisons between him and the great Kobe Bryant. A Finals championship could provide the validation needed to boost him to top-five status.

  1. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers

Accomplishments: 1x MVP, 11x All Star, 4x Scoring Title, 3x First Team, 1x Finals Appearance

Only LeBron and D-Wade challenge AI in cultural relevance on this list, as Iverson was one of the most popular players in both his prime and even today. Iverson’s crossover was legendary (even against Michael Jordan), and his playmaking ability boosted the 76ers to the NBA Finals in the early years of his career. His career showed that even the small guys could show up the titans of the NBA.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Accomplishments: 1x Most Improved Player, 3x All Star, 2x Second Team All Pro

This isn’t recency bias. Giannis has shown that he staked a claim to being the best player in the NBA today and there are few players on this list that pose more of a matchup nightmare than the “Greek Freak.” Antetokounmpo uses his length to dominate the post on both the offensive and defensive ends and his success in Milwaukee has provided the antidote to the superteam archetype of the modern NBA. His reign is only beginning.

  1. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Accomplishments: 1x MVP, 1x Finals Champion, 1x Finals MVP, 4x First Team, 14x All Star

Dirk proved that European basketball could translate overseas by putting together a career NBA fans won’t soon forget. From Dirk’s trademark leg-kick fadeaway to his rare size and shooting combination to his role leading the dominant 2000s Dallas Mavericks to his singlehanded upset of the Miami Heat “Big Three” in the NBA Finals (one of the most remarkable championship performances I’ve seen in any sport), Nowitzki left an indelible impact on the game of basketball.

  1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Accomplishments: 2x MVP, 3x Finals Champion, Most 3PT in a season, 5x 3PT leader

The college hype around Cinderella story Stephen Curry has been dwarfed in the pros, where Curry has fundamentally changed the way the game has been played. Curry’s success with long-range shooting has headed an offensive revolution, and he has a strong case for being the greatest shooter in NBA history. He was also the core of the Golden State Warriors dynasty and incorporated stifling defense and jaw-dropping dribbling moves into his game. His only deficiencies are ankle issues, his championship struggles, and his sidekick role to Kevin Durant the past few years.

  1. Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers

Accomplishments: 1x MVP, 4x Finals Champion, 3x Finals MVP, 8x First Team, 15x All Star

O’Neal did enough in the 1990s to justify a Hall of Fame selection, but his prime came in his years with the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat in the first half of the 2000s. O’Neal was the best or second-best player on four NBA champion teams and was nearly unguardable in the low post due to his unmatched physicality and size.

  1. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

Accomplishments: 2x MVP, 5x Finals Champion, 3x Finals MVP, 10x First Team, 8x DEF First Team

One of the more underspoken NBA players of his time, Duncan can let his resume do the talking. He was the undisputed leader and best player of a Spurs dynasty that won five NBA championships ranging from 1999 to 2014. In terms of on-court game, his offensive polish in the post and trademark bank shot were his specialties and helped him earn a whopping ten First Team All-Pro nods.

  1. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

Accomplishments: 1x MVP, 5x Finals Champion, 11x First Team, 9x DEF First Team

Offensively, Bryant was his generation’s answer to Michael Jordan. After playing second fiddle to Shaquille O’Neal in the Lakers’ three-peat in the early 2000s, Bryant proved he could do it on his own with two more championships later in the decade. Bryant was nearly unstoppable on offense with an unblockable fadeaway, and his 81-point performance against Toronto in 2006 is the second-highest point total ever. I have never rooted harder against a player than I did for Kobe, but I’ll give him his due.

  1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

Accomplishments: 1x MVP, 2x Finals Champion, 2x Finals MVP, 4x Scoring Title, 10x All Star

What can’t Kevin Durant do? He is one of the best shooters and scorers of all-time, combines length with the ability to shoot from anywhere past half-court, plays physical defense, and elevates his game in the sport’s biggest stages. If he can win an NBA Finals on a team that is truly his own, he could make a case for being a top-five player all-time and the best of his generation.

  1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Accomplishments: 4x MVP, 3x Finals Champion, 3x Finals MVP, 12x First Team

Eight straight Finals. It’s a mark that speaks to LeBron James’ unrivaled and consistent excellence, not only individually but in making those around him better and best positioning his team to succeed. The cerebral James is a second coach on the floor, but his physical prowess and well-rounded game also set him apart from his peers. James’s deliverance of a championship to Cleveland was one of the greatest sports moments of the decade and just one of the many hallmarks of an epic career.

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