Defining Greatness in Basketball

Defining Greatness in Basketball

By Weber Morse

“(Insert any athlete ever to play a sport) is the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All-Time).” I bet if you watch sports, you’ve probably heard this many times. Whether it be “experts” or an average Joe, every avid sports fan swears a single player is the G.O.A.T.. When the phrase was birthed, only a few of the best athletes were discussed. Gradually, more and more great, but not GOAT-caliber athletes crept into the mix with early 2000s basketball star Allen Iverson or New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. However, the abbreviation once reserved for the best of the best can now be used for any athlete ever. In order to have a productive discussion about GOATs, we need to solve a problem: what is the meaning of greatness?

 Let’s take the phrase at face value. GOAT literally stands for “Greatest of All Time”. The most flawed piece of the GOAT debate is people not understanding the differences between being “great” and being the “best.” Greatness in sports is winning: winning games, MVPs, and perhaps most importantly, championships. A player’s hardware (career accomplishments) and legacy can measure greatness. Greatness is Bill Russell’s eleven championships. Greatness is Michael Jordan’s undefeated record in the NBA Finals or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s six career MVPs. However, the first step in defining a GOAT is understanding that it is not a position for the best or most skilled players ever. People commonly interchange the words greatest and best in the argument. These are two different arguments, as skill is often measured by counting stats and hypothetical scenarios, like one-on-one games. Best implies that the player is the most all-around and most skilled player. For example, Tracy McGrady, whose career was cut short by injury, was one of the most prolific offensive threats during his stretch with the Orlando Magic in the early 2000s. McGrady would never be considered an all-time great because he never won an MVP or a championship, or anything worth noting. He was a top 5 player in terms of skill, however. It is important to realize different eras cannot be compared, thus, eras must be disregarded for the sake of the argument. However, I will favor players who have played in the last 40 years, as the game had begun to take shape into what we now call “modern basketball”. With this clarification, a system can be created to help determine the true GOAT. The same system, with a couple of categorical tweaks can be used to find the best player of all time.

Let’s start with the best. For a final interpretation, I am regarding the best player ever as a mix between the following categories; ball-handling, shooting, defense, passing, finishing, athleticism, basketball IQ, and intangibles (intangibles meaning the power the player possesses to make his teammates better in a way that cannot be measured by traditional stats). Because of these categories, traditional centers who dominated the game, like Shaquille O’Neal will not be included because it is virtually impossible to argue that he, among other bigs, is the most skilled ever. I will be grading the players on a 1-10 scale for each and will use hours of research to help. Let’s take Bleacher Report’s top 3 players from each decade (big men excluded) to create a pool of players to choose from. 

 

1980s:

Magic Johnson

Arguably the star of the 80s, Johnson is the tallest point guard ever to play in the NBA. Johnson used his size, strength, and crafty game to dominate the game as he created a constant mismatch for the opposing team. 

 

Larry Bird

Bird is the only other player to approach, perhaps even equal, Johnson’s output in the 80s. Bird used top-notch shooting, hustle, and incredible passing to co-star as the face of the NBA with Johnson.

 

Isiah Thomas

Thomas was the leader of the “Bad-Boy Pistons” who used their rough style of play to wear down opponents. Thomas was one of the quickest players in the league with elite finishing, ball handling, and basketball IQ.

1990s:

Michael Jordan

Not much needs to be said about Jordan. Jordan revolutionized basketball and made it the popular game we know today. Jordan dominated night in and night out by being the biggest offensive threat the league had ever seen. He could shoot the mid-range shot at an unprecedented efficiency and could jump higher than every player on the court, making him dangerous in the paint as well. Jordan could inflict such offensive damage all while guarding the best guard on the opposing team.

 

Scottie Pippen

Pippen revolutionized the small forward position, eventually leading to the creation of the term “point-forward”. During his career, Pippen was the single-best perimeter defender in the league. His defense alone could have made him a top player of his time. Combine his defensive prowess with elite finishing ability and guard-like passing and Pippen rises on the “most skilled player ever” list. 

 

John Stockton

Stockton was a relatively undersized player, even for the point guard. Standing at just about six feet tall, Stockton combined great three-point shooting ability with elite on-ball defense and passing. He holds the record for most career steals and assists by any player ever. 

 

2000s:

Kobe Bryant

Bryant was the closest thing to Jordan the game had ever seen. Bryant had an exceptional ability to shoot and defend, however, Bryant is most known for “mamba mentality”. Bryant’s excessive will to learn and master every crevice of the game lead to him being regarded as one of the most clutch players of all time.

 

Allen Iverson

The greatest pound-for-pound player ever, Iverson stood at a generous six feet, weighing only 160 pounds. However, Iverson combined arguably the best ball-handling the game has ever seen with the ability to glide past defenders at the rim. During his career, watching Iverson play live was a spectacle any person, sports fan or not, would have been awed to witness.


Kevin Garnett

The only big on the list, Garnett was the first seven-footer to lock down the best big on opposing teams while being the biggest paint and perimeter threat on offense.

 

2010s:

LeBron James

Like Jordan, little needs to be said when it comes to James. “The King” has dominated the game for 17 years and shows little sign of stopping. He combines a 6’9, 250 pound frame with explosive athleticism, elite passing and finishing, and even a touch of shooting. The King has an IQ that sets him apart from all of his NBA peers.

 

Kevin Durant

A seven-footer, Durant is arguably the greatest scorer of all time, certainly of his generation. Durant possesses elite shooting with excellent finishing, above-average ball-handling, and above-average defense. 

 

Stephen Curry

Curry is the best shooter of all time, no question. His ability to pull up from anywhere on the court scares defenses. On off shooting nights, Curry can split defenses with top-notch dribble skills and finishing while passing well when he wants to.

 

Now, with the brief introductions to each player, below is a chart with ratings 1-10 with our selected categories.

1 = One of worst in league

5 = Average

10 = One of best in league

With this chart, the top 5 are as follows:

  1. LeBron James – 79
  2. Michael Jordan – 73
  3. TIE Magic Johnson/Kobe Bryant – 72
  4. TIE Magic Johnson/Kobe Bryant – 72
  5. Scottie Pippen – 71

I created these crude, yet simple rankings using research from Bleacher Report, Basketball Reference, and NBA.com to help me find the best player ever: LeBron James. No surprise there as LeBron possesses passing abilities similar to Magic, above average shooting (that is still improving in year 17), generational athleticism, unbelievable IQ, and above average defense. 

The problem is that this does not define who the G.O.A.T. is. And let’s be honest, that is what everyone wants to argue about. So let’s make a similar chart with categories as follows: MVPs, championships, All-Star selections, Finals MVPs, playoff win percentage, leadership, work ethic, and a personal ranking, 1-10, of the player’s legacy. 

 

Now, we can use bigs. I will be combining lists from ESPN, NBA.com, Sports Illustrated, and CBS Sports to compare the average top 10 players from each of these lists…


With our list, we can see Michael Jordan as the greatest ever, however, there are a couple talking points we must address

  1. Bill Russell played when Finals MVPs were not an award. Surely he would be atop the list if he had (however, he played more than 40 years ago, which wasn’t quite modern basketball…should it count?)
  2. LeBron James is still playing. By the time he retires, surely he’ll be over MJ too, cementing his place at the top of the list

In an article written to finally decide who the G.O.A.T. is, we are at a standstill. Do we allow Bill Russell to sneak to the top even though there were only 10 teams? Do we assume that LeBron will make it to at least three more All-Star games and win the title? Or do we let MJ have this one and leave it at that? That’s the beauty of sports: The what-ifs keep us interested.

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