The Five: Re-opening the G.O.A.T. Discussion

KarlCorrespondent ISeptember 8, 2009

8 Feb 1997:  The 50 Greatest Players in NBA History pose before the All-Star game. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr  /Allsport

There are five players in NBA history who have a legitimate claim on the title of greatest of all time (G.O.A.T.), though for many fans it’s sacrilege to suggest that it could be anyone other than Michael Jordan (I can hear them screaming right now, and I expect their inflammatory comments on this thread). 

These folks remind me of people who glare at you with a hint of intended violence as they assert that America is the greatest country on earth (I don’t say that it isn’t), but who have never been to another country, and don’t care in the least if the U.S. is not No. 1 in the world in any of the criteria in which the greatest country might reasonably be expected to be the leader. 

(The U.S. is not No. 1 in per capita income, life expectancy, education, [low] infant mortality rate, or self-reported happiness.  We are, however, No. 1 among industrialized nations in self-satisfaction, putting people in jail, and military spending.) 

A case can be made for America as the greatest (as for Michael as G.O.A.T.), but “greatest” is a comparative attribute—you need data about the contenders.  If not, you’re talking about a religious belief, not an informed judgment. 

What I want to do here is not to make a definitive claim about whom I consider the G.O.A.T., but just to open up a discussion that for too many seems to be closed.

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THE FIVE, in alphabetical order: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Bill Russell. 

Each of these players ranks highest in at least one of the criteria that need to be considered: greatest body of work over the course of a long career, most dominating in peak years, greatest winner, greatest modern champion, and greatest champion. 

Ultimately, the claim to THE greatest depends on the relative weights assigned to the criteria.

But before I go into all that, I’ll quickly run through some of the other names that people are likely to say should also be considered. 

Kobe Bryant: He is the second greatest two-guard in NBA history, and in my book he hovers somewhere around 10th all-time.  He is not, however, even in the top five in any of the key categories. 

Bryant’s case gives me an opportunity, however, to reflect on why I think it is that people value Jordan and Bryant so much to the exclusion of other worthy candidates. 

People love two-guards.  Ironically, the two-guard position on average is probably the least impact position in the NBA.  Except for the rare exceptions, it is basically an individual matchup, score, and defend position. 

The two-guard does not run the offense like the point guard, and he does not rebound and defend the paint like a big man.  For that reason, a two-guard like Jordan or Bryant who rises to the highest level seems all the more impressive to fans. 

Furthermore, people like to imagine themselves making moves from the wing much more than they like to imagine themselves setting picks and boxing out down low with all the other big bodies. 

The two is a more elegant position.  Still, unless Kobe wins a couple more championships, he doesn’t belong in a discussion of the very highest stratosphere of NBA greatness.

Oscar Robertson: Yes, the Big O was an amazing stat machine.  By my formula, he is second all-time in overall statistical production.  But O was not a great winner. 

I’m not just talking about the fact that he could not get his Cincinnati Royals past the Russell and Chamberlain teams in the 60's (in spite of the fact that he had the great Jerry Lucas as a teammate). 

I’m talking about the fact that Robertson’s teams, for his career, managed just a .590 winning percentage, and .535 in post-seasons.  For comparison, none of THE FIVE falls below .625 for regular seasons (and that’s Jordan, folks), or below .550 post-seasons (Chamberlain). 

Robertson may be the greatest example of big numbers that don’t produce big wins in NBA history.

Jerry West: The icon, yes, but forget it.  He’s not even close in any of the key categories.

Shaq: Again, he’s not in the top five in any key category, so how could he be No. 1 overall?

George Mikan: Technically, no one was more dominating than Mikan, ever.  He played essentially six seasons (not counting an aborted comeback attempt a couple of years later), and carried the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships. 

His percentage of his team’s production in the championship years was 34.1 percent (for comparison, Wilt’s was 29.7, Michael’s 25.3).  BUT, six seasons do not constitute a full career, nor qualify Mikan for G.O.A.T. in my book. 

Furthermore, though I don’t buy the time machine question in the case of Chamberlain and Russell (would they fare as well in today’s game?—Chamberlain would absolutely punish today’s centers, and Russell fought Chamberlain tooth-and-nail), it’s a legitimate consideration in Mikan’s case. 

At 6’10”, he certainly couldn’t dominate today at center, and we’ll never know if with modern training methods he could have stepped up his speed, strength, and agility to compete with today’s power forwards, but certainly as he was he’d have been outmatched.

OK, let’s move on to the real contenders.

Greatest body of work over the course of a whole career: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

This one’s not even close.  Kareem basically had two full careers, the 70's and the 80's.  In the 70's, he was by far the most dominating player in the game, and in fact was the third most dominating player (in peak years) ever (after Mikan and Chamberlain). 

In Kareem’s “second career” of the 80s, he dropped to probably the fifth or sixth best player in the league and the second best on his team, but he helped the Lakers win five championships. 

Kareem scored more points than anyone ever, but more importantly he totaled far more “win-shares” than anyone ever (win-shares measure a player’s contribution to his team’s success—it’s the player’s percentage of his team’s statistical production, multiplied times wins): 264.73 win-shares for Kareem to a distant 226.15 by Chamberlain. 

Michael ended up with 194.01 win-shares for his career.  Kareem is the Hank Aaron of NBA history.  Aaron became the all-time home run leader without ever hitting more than 47 home runs in a single season, but just by being really, really good for a really long time. 

We need to respect durability and sustained excellence.  In the NBA, there has never been another player with Kareem’s height who had that kind of agility and grace, wiry strength, shooting accuracy (the incredible sky hook!), skillful passing, and very high level of intelligence, competing to the age of 41.  Amazing.

Most dominating in peak years:  OK, this one is not close either, and it’s not Jordan.  Michael fans, you have a great case for Michael as G.O.A.T., but you lose all credibility if you think that Michael was as dominating as Wilt. 

Chamberlain was a freak of nature—a 7’1”, 275-lb. behemoth who was once a track star.  He was stronger than anyone else in his day (and most anyone in ours), he could jump higher (one of his track events had been high jump), and he was even faster than 99 percent of his opponents (until late career knee injuries slowed him down). 

He was a scoring, rebounding, and shot blocking nightmare for other teams, and it’s a wonder (and the glory of the game) that the Celtics as a team found a way to get past him almost every time they faced him in the post-season (though not every time—don’t disregard Chamberlain’s championships in 1967 and 1972). 

That’s basketball—ultimately, it’s a team game, but Wilt very much deserves consideration as G.O.A.T. because he was by far the single most dominating INDIVIDUAL force in history.

Greatest winner:  Yes, I know Russell’s Celtics won 11 championships in 13 seasons, but Magic is the greatest winner in NBA history. 

Only K.C. Jones and Tommy Heinsohn won a higher percentage of regular season games, and they of course were role players, while Magic was the driving force of the Lakers’ success. 

His Lakers teams had an incredible .718 winning percentage over his whole career there (Russell’s Celtics: .705).  Magic is also the all-time leader in post-season win-shares at 32.37, ahead of Michael’s 31.46 (remember, fans, Michael had some lean years at first, while Magic had no lean years—he only knew winning). 

But these are numbers; consider their significance.  Magic is the greatest conductor (like the conductor of a symphony orchestra) of his teammates’ winning performances in the history of the game.  No one has ever made his teammates better, or more effective as a unit. 

But the comparison between Magic and a conductor of a symphony orchestra doesn’t quite hold unless we imagine a conductor who, at the really hard notes that his musicians can’t quite master, jumps down from his podium and grabs a violin, an oboe or clarinet, whatever is needed, and sees his orchestra through the tough parts himself. 

I’m thinking of the famous game six of the 1980 championship against the 76ers, in which the rookie Magic jumped center for the injured Kareem and had 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals. 

I’m thinking of the famous running “baby sky hook” over McHale and Parish, to beat the Celtics in game four of the 1987 finals.  No one could turn Kurt Rambis into a devastating finisher on the fast break like Magic, and no one, if Rambis fell down, could pick the ball up and finish the shot himself like Magic.

Greatest champion:  Be careful, Michael fans.  If you want to disregard everything else and roundly declare that the only thing that matters is championship rings, you’ll be putting Michael second to Bill Russell. 

And don’t tell me about Russell’s Hall of Fame teammates.  Russell put Bob Cousy and Sam Jones into the Hall of Fame, and Jordan played with great teammates (Pippen, the second greatest small forward in NBA history, is underrated by Jordan fans because it makes Jordan’s accomplishment look better). 

Bottom line: Russell’s contribution to those Celtics championships was 26.1 percent of statistical production; Michael’s was 25.3 percent.  So don’t tell me about Russell’s help. And Russell had to contend with Chamberlain—there is nothing comparable as an obstacle in Michael’s paths to his rings. 

I’ve watched footage of the Russell-Chamberlain matchups.  Incredible.  There’s no question that Chamberlain is the more dominating force.  But Russell had his eye on the prize, and he would work Chamberlain craftily. 

Sometimes he’d just concede the point.  But the next time he might, by sheer timing and surprise, block Wilt’s shot out of nowhere and start the Celtics’ fastbreak.  Russell was a 6’9” center, but he was really, really quick, he had long arms, jumped quickly, and used a tremendous savvy for the game. 

ELEVEN CHAMPIONSHIPS IN THIRTEEN SEASONS, folks; and that coming off of two NCAA championships when Russell played at San Francisco, of all places.  With an Olympic Gold Medal in the mix, as well.  If championships are the bottom line, Russell is your G.O.A.T.

Greatest modern champion:  OK, but let’s calm down just a little bit.  The one mitigating factor in Russell’s accomplishment, for me, is the fact that when Russell’s Celtics first started winning titles, there were just eight teams in the entire NBA. 

For most of the 60's, there were just nine teams.  The last two Celtics titles came when the league had grown to 12 and then 14 teams.  Michael and the Bulls won their six titles in the modern NBA, emerging out of competition against 26 to 28 other teams. 

I believe that it was Michael’s fierce drive to compete and win, unlike any other I’ve ever seen, that drove the Bulls to three-peat twice.  I don’t feel like I need to say a lot else about Michael, since there is no shortage of his worshippers at Bleacher Report

He had a great overall career, yes, but not the greatest (Kareem).  He was dominating, yes, but not the most dominating (Wilt).  He was a winner, but not the greatest winner, nor the best at maximizing his teammates’ games (Magic). 

He was not the greatest champion, but he was indeed the greatest modern champion.  Overall, maybe he was the greatest.

But if I had to pick the G.O.A.T., considering all the criteria I have named above and weighing them as more or less important, I’d say Kareem is the guy (at least today I would). 

Not only does he have the greatest overall body of work in a career, he was at one time as dominating as anyone ever except Mikan and Chamberlain; he was a great winner (.682 over a 20-year career), and he was a great champion (six rings, just like Michael, although five of them came in a secondary role). 

But my point here is not to pick the G.O.A.T., but to re-open the discussion.  No one is an idiot who argues for any of THE FIVE.  All of them have a legitimate claim to be called the greatest of all time, and it’s time we left some room for different opinions on the matter.  The end (of this article, but hopefully not of the discussion).

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