The G.O.A.T. Debate
“Every Disney movie is some kid’s first Disney movie.” One of my old marketing professors used to say that to support his idea that as things get older and grow over time, someone new still encounters them for the first time, every day. But he also brought it up to highlight that early adopters, those people who’ve been around since “before it was cool”, need to understand why things change and why there’s value in those changes.
Basketball changes, too. We need to stop calling Michael Jordan the greatest of all time.
I get it. I was there. I was eight years old in the middle of the second three-peat. I saw all the Game 7’s. I had the greatest jersey of all time: the red-on-black Bulls away game jersey. I’ve been wearing his shoes for 27 of my 28 years on Earth. Jordan was a force of nature, on a level that few players – few people have ever been. I think that’s what captured people most. He did have amazing numbers, but Michael Jordan’s style and competitive edge is what still sticks with us today. That’s all well and good, except for the part where you can’t argue for or against that. Swag can’t be measured. But numbers can, and there are certainly players who can go toe-to-toe with MJ in that field.
Mr. Abdul-Jabbar might be better than Michael Jordan. They played different positions and had different styles, but the numbers are there. First of all, they’re tied when it comes to rings (but I’ll get to why that’s a stupid argument anyway later). Second, Kareem had comparable stats to MJ, despite having a 25%-longer career. He averaged about 6 fewer points than Jordan per game, but almost doubled Jordan’s rebounds and tripled his blocks. Yeah, Kareem was 7’2’’ so the rebounds are to be expected, but to have the points and rebounds consistent for such a long career is indeed rare. He didn’t have Jordan’s cultural impact, but he certainly had his dominance on the court. We might be talking about him as the GOAT more often if he had cooler shoes.
Wilt Chamberlain, the guy with the 100-point game according to the legends, was ridiculous. He averaged the same PPG as Michael (30.1) and yeah, he has more rebounds and blocks because tall. But really, there’s only one thing that bears mentioning when it comes to considering him the best ever: the man averaged 50 for a season. That’s more than half the points scored in a typical NBA game for a team. He averaged that for a season. And, if I’m not mistaken, he did this before there was a three-point shot. There are players who have averaged more points than MJ. There are some who averaged better assists, steals, rebounds, FG%, and playoff records, too. But averaging 50 for a season, with no three’s… No one will ever replicate that.
Oh, and then he average 44 points per game the following year.
The MJ vs. Kobe argument is probably the one that matters most. This is about as Ryu vs. Ken as it gets. Kobe Bryant is the player who continued what Michael Jordan created. He had (I’m still trying to get used to speaking of Kobe’s career in the past tense) the ferocity, the passion, the killer instinct, the edge, and the skill. We’ve seen the YouTube videos of how eerily similar their footwork was, but it goes beyond just their identical play styles, and into the numbers.
For their career totals, MJ and the Mamba are almost neck and neck. Kobe slightly beats him in points; MJ has the edge in steals. Kobe’s ahead in assists, MJ is winning in blocks. But none of these stat lines are dramatically in one player’s favor. If you’re just arguing for numbers, though, MJ has to be considered the better of the two. Although, their career totals are super close, Kobe played five more years than Jordan. If he could do in 15 seasons what Kobe did in 20, that efficiency sort of settles the numbers argument. But the hearts and minds argument, though…
See, Jordan played in the late 80’s and 90’s. He was a once-in-an-era player and his arrival made other players clear the field. No team was ready for a talent like him, and they were toppled over in his wake. This forced the NBA to adapt and evolve. After Jordan, athletic shooting guards came out of the woodwork, and people learned how to beat teams that relied on such a mega-star player. This change in the environment of the NBA is why I make the argument that Kobe might have been better than Jordan because of external factors, because of the climate.
Kobe is a post-Jordan Jordan. He didn’t sneak up on the league and blow their minds like Jordan did. Everyone knew how to deal with Kobe’s athleticism, skill, and ruthlessness because they’d just spent a decade learning about it the hard way from MJ. And it didn’t matter. Kobe played during the rise of the household internet and into the smartphone age. Analytics came up. Video games were able to simulate his moves. Literal scientists were putting their knowledge into basketball to help players win. Didn’t matter.
Imagine if you lived in an adobe mud hut. It’s not the nicest place, but it’s clean. You have some nice furniture in there. It’s solid. It stays warm in the winter, cool in the summer. Then a hurricane comes through, levels your hut, and you realize there’s no possible way some little hut is going to ever survive in a world where this can happen. So you study up on hurricanes. You learn when the next one is coming, and you build a new, fancier hut. You build Adobe Mud Hut 2.0. You’re camped out waiting on that next hurricane. It comes. Levels your hut again. Didn’t matter.
That’s Kobe. Greatness has to be measured by the odds and circumstances surrounding it. I’m making the argument that Kobe played in a better NBA than Jordan did and still achieved almost the same results. Also, that 60-point retirement game.
I know. Fighting words. In hindsight, I should have probably spaced out the Kobe argument and the LeBron argument. Let me take this moment to say that you can comment on this and other EWC posts on our Patreon page!
LeBron James is a controversial entry here. He represents a lot of what’s great and what’s terrible about today’s NBA. I’ll save my rants about his flopping and whining for another time. This is about numbers.
King James is still a current player, and he’s still in his prime. 14 years in, he’s already statistically one of the best to ever play the game of basketball. What’s crazy is this: if he continues this pace for one more year, by the end of the 2017-2018 season, he’ll be ahead of Jordan in totals for points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. If (but more likely, when) that happens, I think the numbers argument will be over. They will have both hit the 15-year mark on their NBA careers and LeBron will have outperformed him. He’ll have played basketball better than the man we all call the GOAT. Things like “intangibles” or “cultural impact” or “how we feel” won’t carry weight any more.
LeBron is also one of the best arguments against the idea of validating a player based on championships. First, he’s taken two of the five worst playoff teams in NBA history to the NBA Finals. Second, he has (definitely) the best and (arguably) the second-best performance in an NBA Finals series ever. Third, his ’15-16’ Cavs team beat the Golden State Warriors, the only team to ever beat Jordan’s 1996 Bulls’ win record, 4-3 in the Finals. That’s an NBA Finals resume without peer. I think being the best player in the most important part of the NBA season matters more for a “who was the greatest” argument than having won the most games. LeBron might not be the only top 10 player who has the numbers to compete with Jordan’s legacy, but he’s still playing. He’s actually statistically likely to surpass MJ. I don’t think complaining about foul calls diminishes that.
I’m aware there was a lot of blasphemy in this post. I’ll be sure to watch my back. But I’m curious what you guys think. Swing on over to our Patreon page and throw down some fighting words. Prove me wrong.