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…
This is by far the most irritating segment of an argument. I can’t be the only one whose blood begins to boil when I start hearing debaters cite the failures of some of the league’s greatest players.
“LeBron choked in 2011!”
“Michael Jordan had a 1-9 playoff record before Scottie Pippen joined him!”
“Well, Magic Johnson choked away the 1984 Finals!”
Although we like to believe the likes of Michael or Magic or LeBron are perfect, they’re far from it, which is why they have their share of choke jobs.
Illustrious NBA careers should be celebrated, not deconstructed, degraded and trivialized, otherwise you take all the fun out of the game. When you watch a game, are you really aching to see failure from a certain player in order to prove a point? I understand fandom, but constantly trivializing feats and plays and then comparing those feats and plays to others who have done it in the past only makes for a miserable viewing experience.
I’d much rather revel in the fact that Jordan won six rings in eight years or that Magic is an absolute wizard with the basketball and led his team to five title runs or that we still have a lot of time to watch LeBron play.
Plus, failure isn’t all that bad when you think about it. You want to know how a player can be recognized as one of the greatest? By how well they respond to the failures we constantly cite as a means to degrade them, when it was those failures that molded them into the players they became. LeBron after losing in 2011? Got a new post game and became a more efficient player. Michael after losing to Orlando in 1995? Came back the next season with a refined jumper and led his team to a 72-10 record. Magic after losing in ’84? Helped win a title the very next season, plus two more championships.
It’s the experience of losing and failing that make the greatest players strive even harder to win; that’s why they’re the greatest. They’re brought up in these conversations because they hated losing so much they became so well-rounded and so prolific, allowing little room to be exposed, inevitably leading to greater team and individual success.
So, the next time you want to bring up how this guy failed or that guy choked, remember that every single last NBA player has also done so many, many times beforehand, including the guy you’re trying to defend. And unless you have a fail per 48 minutes stat, it’s not a reliable topic to back up your claims of who’s the greatest and why because the guy he’s being compared to lost a few games over their decade-long career, too.
It’s at about this point where the greatest of all time arguments really begin to get a tad too complex and utterly pointless.
How do you compare two players who had completely different approaches to the game? How is it that you compare an extremely dominant post player who couldn’t shoot a lick like Shaquille O’Neal to a floor general, passing wizard like John Stockton? Or a score-first player like Kobe Bryant to a pass-first player like LeBron James?
You don’t. You don’t compare them because it’s impossible when they see the game of basketball with two completely different mindsets. Neither player is right or wrong at that aspect because they have achieved however much success utilizing the style that has made them an elite player.
You can’t fault a player for employing a style that has brought them individual and/or team success. You can certainly make arguments for the greatest post player or the greatest passer, sure, but to funnel the league’s greatest post players in with the greatest defenders and greatest rebounders is unfair.
Speaking of which, how is it that elite defenders never get the same credit elite scorers do? You hardly ever see the likes of Ben Wallace or Alonzo Mourning or Dikembe Mutombo ever talked about in circles as some of the league’s greatest players, yet they were shutdown defenders who wreaked havoc on the league’s greatest scorers.
You could certainly make a case for Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman as defenders who get recognition, but they were both propped up in a national light by their high-scoring teammate. Plus, the casual fan hardly knows anything about Scottie being a lockdown defender or Dennis being arguably the greatest rebounder the NBA has ever seen. It’s all Jordan, all the time.
Because the game they played wasn’t appealing to the eye of the casual viewer, they don’t earn the respect of a flashy player like Kobe or Michael, nor the recognition of being known as one of the greatest.
Magic and Larry, both not recognized as elite defenders, however, are showered with praise, deservedly, for their feats on the offensive end. But how is it that those two can receive so much recognition and be in arguments for the league’s greatest players when their defense paled in comparison to their offense?
It’s all about approach. Some players want to do it all; some want to score, some want to defend, some want to rebound, so on and so forth. What exactly constitutes them being the greatest, though? Jordan because he was able to do it all? LeBron because he can do it all, as well as defend all five positions? Magic because of his ability to lead an offense? There are too many factors at play to decide who’s the best when some of these players are nearly playing different sports with how different their approaches are compared to their peers.
It’s impossible to compare when there’s no decision made on how much merit you put into a player’s defensive effort or their work in the post or from the perimeter when discussing such an argument.
The conclusion of the 1965-66 season resulted in the Boston Celtics winning an unprecedented eighth consecutive title and ninth in the past ten years. They defeated the Cincinnati Royals 3-2 in the semifinals, the Philadelphia 76ers 4-1 in the divison finals, and finally the Los Angeles Lakers 4-3 in the first year the NBA implemented a playoff system that would have teams playing and defeating three opponents, rather than two, to win a championships.
Nine teams existed at this point in the NBA. Four of them had a winning record, and Boston’s NBA Finals opponent finished the season with a 45-35 record. Philadelphia held the overall best regular season record at 55-25, while the Celtics, led by Bill Russell, finished a game back at 54-26.
Fast forward over five decades in the future and the Miami Heat, led by LeBron James, are coming off their second consecutive championship following series wins over the Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs. It was one of the most difficult runs in postseason history as the Heat needed to win Game 7s in their series with the Pacers and Spurs.
By that point, there were 30 teams in the NBA, all composed of players with at least a decade of playing experience. They have all of the latest technology working for them, including videos to analyze plays and numbers to analyze what parts of the floor they thrive from, and have coaches and mentors dedicated to improving their games from as early as middle school.
Plus, as adamant as the fans of the ’80s and ’90s are that their era was the most difficult to play in, players of today have never been more athletic, conditioned or prepared for anything. The elbows may have been allowed to fly more frequently, but that doesn’t make the players stronger or more athletic than the guys we see on a nightly basis now.
Remember how I said individuals approach the game differently? The same applies to teams in different eras.
For example, the 1965-66 Boston Celtics ranked fifth out of nine teams in pace, recording 122 possessions per game. The Houston Rockets last year led the league in pace at only 96.1 possessions per. The game we see today is nothing like the game was then, as there is a far greater emphasis on efficiency and defense than there was in the ’60s.
It makes you wonder how a player like Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain would have thrived in today’s game. They’d still be great, sure, but would they be elite legends held in an untouchable regard when the game is slowed down and there are 21 other teams each filled with 15 of the world’s greatest players?
That, without the aid of a flux capacitor, is impossible to find out. It’s unfortunate, too, as we’re now left with a bunch of what ifs? and insane hypotheticals of how Michael Jordan would score 40 points per game or how LeBron James couldn’t handle physical basketball, even though he’s probably twice the size and can run twice as fast as any small forward in the ’80s.
It’s best just to keep players within their eras. The NBA has gradually developed into a precise game built around efficiency, with a greater focus and emphasis on three-point shooting and a more controlled pace. You can’t compare one player who played games where they averaged 130 possessions in a nine-team league with one who plays 90 possessions in a 30-team league because those players were bred to play different styles in a different league.
What do you think?
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