Enough Already: Why Debate over the NBA's Greatest Player Is Pointless

Paul Augustin, Jr.Senior Analyst IJune 1, 2009

BARCELONA, ESP - JULY 26: (L-R) Larry Bird, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone of the USA Olympic Basketball Team (The Dream Team) walk on the court during a game against The Republic of Angola Olympic Team on July 26,1992 in Barcelona, Spain. The USA won 116-48. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

I have noticed that there have been A LOT of articles lately debating on who is the greatest NBA player of all time. 

I have drawn two conclusions from these articles (and proceeding comments):

1. Some of these debates are absolutely pointless and ridiculous. 

LeBron is getting trashed left and right. Just a few days ago, he surpassed Kobe as the best player on the planet. It's not his fault that his teammates stunk it up.

When you can score or assist on 31 straight points, that's impressive. When you have to, that's sad.

On a side note, did Jeff Van Gundy really say that Kobe is the greatest Laker of all time? I didn't hear it live, but I heard about it on the radio.

That's an example of someone getting completely caught up in the moment and just blabbering incoherently. 

Kobe is great (and I don't throw that word around loosely), but I think it may be a little early throw "greatest Laker ever" around.

I always thought these debates were best done in the offseason.

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2. Many of you are too immature to involve yourself in a debate between grown-ups.

I guess that's because some of you aren't grown-ups. 

I have seen disagreements begin with, "You need to get your head examined," so many times that if I see it again, I may bang my skull against the wall, and then I'll have to, you know...get my head examined.

It's okay if someone disagrees with you. You don't have to hurl a personal insult whenever someone does. You lose all credibility when you do.

If you think that Bill Russell is the greatest player of all time because he has 11 rings, and someone else thinks that Kareem is the greatest because he has six MVPs and is the all-time leading scorer, then that's fine.

It's not like they said Nate Washington is better than Chris Paul, or the Eastern Conference is better than the Western Conference or that Phil Jackson will be a better coach than Red Auerbach if he wins his tenth ring (whoa, hold up on that last one).

Don't base your argument solely on statistics—they can be misleading. 

Allen Iverson is a great talent and is fifth all time in career scoring average, but I doubt that many NBA historians would consider Iverson to be better than other guards such as Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, and John Havlicek. 

West and Robertson rank in the top 10 (sixth and ninth, respectively), but Havlicek doesn't even rank in the top 30. 

You have to consider the fact West, Robertson, and Havlicek all played without the three-point arc.

To compare Iverson to those three would be to compare rotten apples to oranges.

Even if you remain in the same era, it is difficult to compare two great players if they played different positions.

I am going to give you two anonymous players, along with their career accomplishments. You decide for yourself which player is better and then I will reveal the players' identities.

Player A

  • 13th all-time in career scoring average
  • 15-time All-Star
  • Four-time NBA champion
  • Has made 58 percent of his career shots
  • Two-time scoring champion
  • Olympic gold medalist
  • Has more career rebounds per game than Abdul-Jabbar, Olajuwon, and Garnett
  • Averages 2.3 blocks per game
  • Made one three-pointer in his career.
  • Member of NBA's 50th Anniversary team

Player B

  • 11-time All-Star
  • Three-time NBA champion
  • Two-time scoring champion
  • Olympic gold medalist
  • 10th all-time in career scoring average
  • Averages 1.5 steals per game
  • Has made over 1,200 threes in his career

Keep in mind that Player A is six years older than Player B and has played four more seasons than Player B. This allows him to accumulate more All-Star appearances and NBA titles, but his age has also contributed to a recent dip in his career averages.

Had Player A retired after his fourth NBA title, he would be a 14-time All-Star, but would jump to eighth in terms of all-time career scoring average.

As you may have guessed, Player A is Shaquille O'Neal and Player B is Kobe Bryant.

It's hard to compare centers to guards because they have different roles on the court.  Shaq pulls down rebounds and blocks shots, while Kobe steals and deals.

Shaq is perhaps the most immovable force to lace up size 22 shoes. Kobe is an excellent scorer and is a clutch three-point shooter.

It is silly to argue over which player needed the other more to win three rings. The facts are neither won until Phil Jackson came along.

Shaq has won without Kobe, but not without a very good guard to shoulder some of the load. Even if Kobe's Lakers defeat the Magic in the NBA Finals, he still wouldn't have won a ring without having an ultra-talented supporting cast.

By the way, there's no shame in that. Even Bill Russell had Sam Jones and John Havlicek to do the bulk of the scoring.

Michael Jordan always had Scottie Pippen, and he had Dennis Rodman for the second three-peat.

Now let's compare players across different eras who played similar positions. Again, I am going to give you two anonymous players along with their career accomplishments. You decide for yourself which player is better, and then I will reveal the players' identities.

Both players were guards.

Player A

  • Basketball Hall of Fame
  • Six time NBA champion
  • 13 time All-star
  • 10 time NBA Frst Team
  • Led the NBA in a major statistical category eight consecutive times.
  • NBA's 50th Anniversary team

Player B

  • Basketball Hall of Fame
  • Six time NBA champion
  • 14 time All-Star
  • 10 time NBA first team
  • Led the NBA in a major statistical category 10 times (non-consecutive).
  • NBA's 50th Anniversary team

Based on the six championships, you probably guessed that one of these players is Michael Jordan. Yes, he is Player B. Jordan was a 10-time scoring champion.

If you guessed that Player A is Bob Cousy, then congratulations. Cousy led the league in assists for eight straight seasons (CP3, you're only six away).

Look how similar the accolades are. 

To keep suspense, I purposely left out the MVP awards. I think most NBA fans older than age 12 know that Jordan won five such awards. Cousy, though, did win one.

Despite the similarities, the 30 year time difference makes this an unfair comparison.  Cousy, the Houdini of the Hardwood, was the first player who brought a lot of flash to the court. He was a slightly built 6'1" guard. 

The NBA was in its early years when Cousy played. There was no previously set benchmark for success when he came into the league.

Jordan, on the other hand, was a muscular 6'6" guard who understood the benefits of lifting weights and knew how to get into phenomenal shape (no, not performance enhancing drugs).

The league was nearly 40 years old when Jordan first donned a Bulls uniform. The records of other greats drove MJ to be better.

Your view of who is the best NBA player of all time is likely skewed by the year you were born and where you grew up.

I was born in 1983 and grew up in the deep South (It's amazing I can write a full sentence, isn't it?). There really weren't any local teams or players to latch on to when I was young, so I just watched whatever the national media allowed me to watch.

My guess is that many fans who grew up on the West Coast would pick Magic over Bird and vice versa for fans on the East Coast. They could probably regurgitate a top ten list of why one is better than the other, and they'd both be right.

My parents are in their 50s (sorry, dad). Many people in their generation would tell you that the Big O or Kareem was the greatest player ever.

Ask two men in their 60s or 70s, and they may argue between Wilt and Russell.

My brother is 12 and lives right outside New Orleans. He has been to a number of Hornets games. 

Guess who he just may think is the best player in the NBA?  If you said Hilton Armstrong, you need your head examined.

My son was born two weeks ago. He won't remember Kobe in his prime. He'll think Michael Jordan is just some terrible basketball executive.

It's likely that the player he will think is the best of all time is currently in fifth grade and being ranked by some scouting magazine (I wish I were kidding).

I never saw Russell, Chamberlain, Robertson, or West play. Kareem retired when I was six. All I know about these men are from stories, statistics, and brief highlights.

My era begins with Bird and Magic. Despite completely different styles of play, their accomplishments are almost indistinguishable.

Both players won multiple titles, three MVP awards, were 12-time All-Stars, were All-NBA First Team nine times, were named to the 1980 All-Rookie team (Bird was ROY), and were members of the 1992 Dream Team.

Magic may have more assists than Bird, but Bird could pass the ball equally well. It was Magic's position as a point guard that allowed him to have twice as many assists as Bird.

Both players had multiple teammates who were also members of the 50th Anniversary team.

They were rivals and were the best players of the 1980s. I believe that either one would have more MVPs and more NBA titles if the other didn't exist.

The 1990s were all about one man: Michael Jordan. By the time the 1990s rolled around, Bird's back went out, and Magic got infected.

Jordan's overall resume is better than both Magic's and Bird's. He won more titles, scored more points, and won more MVP awards. However, Jordan didn't have a rival with which to contend. 

The combination of John Stockton and Karl Malone came closest to knocking Jordan's Bulls off their throne. They faced the Bulls in the NBA Finals twice, but lost in six games each time.

Perhaps Jordan is the greatest player of all time. I won't get all fired up and go toe-to-toe with someone if that's their claim. However, I think he gets a little more hype than he deserves for three reasons:

1. Pure athleticism

MJ seems to be the most athletic player to ever play besides maybe LeBron James.  Maybe those older than me can make a case for Julius Erving, and I'm sure Hawks fans will tell me that Dominique Wilkins was more athletic than Jordan.

People are enamoured with elite athleticism. Just ask Al Davis.

2. TV

How many times have we seen Michael Jordan jump from the foul line to win a dunk contest?

How many times did he beat Cleveland with a tear-your-heart-out, last-second shot? I think I have seen that play 10,847 times.

One of these days he is going to miss that shot against my Jazz in 1998, and Stockton and Malone will finally get their title.

All of this exposure on TV leads to...

3. Marketing

This is the big one. No athlete, much less NBA player, has marketed himself the way Jordan has. You can't blame the man as he annually rakes in $40 million in endorsements. 

While Jerry West's silhouette is the official NBA logo, the "jumpman" might as well be the unofficial one. 

They could have made I wanna be like Mike the official jingle of the NBA instead of that tune John Tesh wrote for The NBA on NBC, and no one would have noticed. 

If you watched basketball on Sundays during the late '80s and '90s, you know what jingle I'm talking about.

Current NBA players are wearing his shoes 11 years after he was any good. 

Scores of kids that I have taught in middle school, who by the way were no older than five years old when he famously brushed aside Bryon Russell, think they are only cool if they are wearing Jordans.

If Magic or Bird had marketed themselves at the same rate that Jordan did, then maybe we are having a totally new discussion.

Who knows who is the best NBA player of all time?  I sure don't. 

What I do know is that most basketball fans already have in their mind who they think is the best player. You are not going to convince them otherwise no matter how much fact or fiction you throw at them.

I do know one other thing. I'll take that foursome you see in the picture along with any really good center against your best five players any day.

As long as we are going to debate, though, can we at least grow up?

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