The 50 Greatest Players in National Basketball Association History (also referred to as NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team or NBA's Top 50) were chosen in 1996 to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the National Basketball Association (NBA). These fifty players were selected through a vote by a panel of media members, former players and coaches, and current and former general managers. In addition, the top ten head coaches and top ten single-season teams in NBA history were selected by media members as part of the celebration. The fifty players had to have played at least a portion of their careers in the NBA and were selected irrespective of position played.
The list was announced by NBA commissioner David Stern on October 29, 1996, at the hotel Grand Hyatt New York, the former site of the Commodore Hotel, where the original NBA charter was signed on June 6, 1946. The announcement marked the beginning of a season-long celebration of the league's anniversary. Forty-seven of the fifty players were later assembled in Cleveland, during the halftime ceremony of the 1997 All-Star Game. Three players were absent: Pete Maravich, who had died in 1988, at forty; Shaquille O'Neal, who was recovering from a knee injury; and Jerry West, who was scheduled to have surgery for an ear infection and could not fly. At the time of the announcement, eleven players were active; all have subsequently retired. O'Neal was the last to be active in the NBA, retiring at the end of the 2010–11 season.
The list was compiled through unranked voting completed by fifty selected panelists. Sixteen of the panelists were former players voting in their roles as players, thirteen were members of the print and broadcast news media, and twenty-one were team representatives: contemporary and former general managers, head coaches, and executives. Of the last group, thirteen were former NBA players. Players were prohibited from voting for themselves. Only three voting veterans (Bill Bradley, Johnny Kerr, and Bob Lanier) were not selected to the team.
Eleven players (Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Parish, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and John Stockton) were active in the 1996–97 season, during which the team was announced. O'Neal was the last to be active in the NBA, retiring at the end of the 2010–11 season. All of the selected players have been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Lenny Wilkens was the only member of the players list to have been selected as a member of the coaches list. At the time of the list, only Pete Maravich was deceased. Since then, Wilt Chamberlain, Dave DeBusschere, Paul Arizin, George Mikan, Bill Sharman, Moses Malone, Dolph Schayes and Nate Thurmond have all died.
Note: Statistics are correct through the end of the 2010–11 season, the last in which any player on the 50 Greatest list was active.
Alongside the selection of the 50 greatest players, was the selection of the Top 10 Coaches in NBA History. The list was compiled based upon unranked selection undertaken exclusively by members of the print and broadcast media who regularly cover the NBA. All 10 coaches named were alive at the time of the list's announcement, and four of them—Phil Jackson, Don Nelson, Pat Riley, and Lenny Wilkens—were then active. Four have since died: Red Holzman in 1998, Red Auerbach in 2006, Chuck Daly in 2009, and Jack Ramsay in 2014. Jackson was the last of the ten to coach in the NBA; he announced his retirement after the 2010–11 season. Nelson was the only member to have never won a championship as a coach, even though he won five as a player. Wilkens was the only member of the coaches list to have been selected as a member of the players list. Nine of the ten coaches are also members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (only Bill Fitch is not).
Also included in the NBA's 50th-anniversary celebration was the selection of the Top 10 Teams in NBA History. The list was compiled based upon unranked selection undertaken exclusively by members of the print and broadcast media who regularly cover the NBA. Teams were chosen from among all single-season individual teams. Each team won the NBA championship, and they combined to average 66 wins per season. The 1995–96 Chicago Bulls had the best single-season record in NBA history with 72 wins.
Six out of the thirty NBA franchises (twenty-nine franchises at the time of announcement) had a team named to the list; the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers had two teams selected.
Six players were on the roster of two teams on the list—Wilt Chamberlain with the 1966–67 Sixers and 1971–72 Lakers; James Edwards, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley with the 1988–89 Pistons and 1995–96 Bulls; and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Bulls in both 1991–92 and 1995–96. Three other individuals both played for and coached honored teams, all of whom completed this "double" with a single franchise—K. C. Jones with the Celtics as a player in 1964–65 and coach in 1985–86, Billy Cunningham with the Sixers as a player in 1966–67 and coach in 1982–83, and Pat Riley with the Lakers as a player in 1971–72 and coach in 1986–87. Phil Jackson, head coach of the Bulls from 1989 to 1998, was the only man to coach two teams that made the list. Although Jackson was under contract to the Knicks as a player in their 1969–70 championship season, he did not play that season as he was recovering from spinal fusion surgery.
Players whose names are italicized were inducted after the announcement of the ten best teams. The Hall of Famers listed for each individual team are solely those inducted as players, and do not include those inducted in other roles.