Like we were campaigning for office, the heated debates we get swept up in concerning the greatest NBA players of all time have become as much a part of our lives as the game themselves.
That’s only been amplified with the career of LeBron James cresting at its highest point, as well as Kevin Durant earning the recognition of challenging for MVP. As long as those two continue to play at a Hall of Fame-bound level, they’ll be the subject of abject criticism and have their careers picked apart.
What’s more upsetting than knowing those two still have the potential to reach levels few players have before is that the age they’re in is heavily publicized with social media, leading to the knee-jerk reactions we encounter every morning.
Worst of all, they’ll have their careers compared to those who either played at a different time or approached the game with a different mindset and strategy. Ranking players that play the same position or share a similar interest at a specific aspect of the game is worthy of debate.
The Mt. Rushmore arguments have spurred the media cycle lately following a construction by LeBron, where he was scrutinized for not including player A or player B. For some reason, top fives and tens weren’t good enough anymore, so we had to shorten it to four.
Although constructing an actual Mt. Rushmore of NBA players would be a must-see endeavor, it’s not worth the trouble of attempting to weed out four players because there will always be dissenters. There will never be an agreement into constructing a top five or ten because we do not possess similar ideas of what greatness is.
As we delve into how we define what makes a player great, we also uncover why the arguments themselves are pointless.
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-Different perceptions of greatness
Start with the bare bones of this argument before diving in by defining what exactly defines greatness.
Immediately we reach an impasse, because greatness in a league such as the NBA is arbitrary and relies on personal opinion, rather than facts. Do you evalute greatness by the number of titles a player has won? By their indivudal numbers? By how well-rounded they were? By how well they performed on both ends of the court? Or is it just a hodgepodge of all these factors, all complementing each other to form this quintessential superman?
If you base more of it on championships, you’re inclined to give the nod to the likes of a Bill Russell or a John Havlicek, who have combined for 19 championships. But it’s unfair to the likes of Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, both of whom have also won an elite number of titles, but didn’t have the benefit of playing in a league where less than ten teams existed for a time.
Plus, judging a player off his championships isn’t fair to those who weren’t given the benefit of playing with a roster of winners from the start. While Russell was surrounded by greatness for just about his entire career, Wilt Chamberlain could never get over the hump because his San Francisco Warriors had a roster that paled in comparison to Bill’s Boston Celtics.
The same applies to LeBron James. Do we fault him for not having more titles simply because he was drafted by a Cleveland team whose front office was too inept to surround him with a title-caliber roster? As a result, he supposedly trails Michael or Magic or whoever is ranked ahead of him when it comes to greatness because he wasn’t gifted with a Scottie Pippen or a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar early in his career.
What about if we judge a player by their individual accomplishments? That’s where the Wilt Chamberlains and Elgin Baylors and Michael Jordans make their case with their absurd and robust statlines. Then again, Chamberlain never won a title when he was putting up 50 points per game, nor was Jordan when he was averaging nearly 40 a game. Does it take away from their greatness that they never won a title or even came close during this time? It shouldn’t, but it certainly has to factor in these conversations concerning the greatest, right?
That’s the thing about basketball. It’s team-oriented. No one player, no matter how great–and it’s been proven over and over again–can do it all on their own. Wilt needed Hal Greer; Michael needed Scottie Pippen and LeBron needed Dwyane Wade. They all required assistance, so the only thing that should factor into a GOAT debate when bringing up the rosters a certain player was surrounded by is how well they utilized their resources.
Do you see the rabbit hole we’ve crawled into, though? We can go on for days about how a player should be able to do this on offense and that on defense or how a perimeter player should shoot this well here and that well there, but it’s too much to obsess over, especially since nobody will ever be right because this is a debate strictly based on perceptions of greatness.
Since we’re on the topic of deconstructing players…