Determining the Best NBA Player of All-Time: Turning the Conversation Around

The Final Five

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had countless arguments with your friends about who the best players in the history of the NBA are. It’s a subject that is definitewly en vogue right now given Lebron James’ continued ascent toward the crown.

In most cases, this debate ends with the participants at odds woth one another. Some think James has already claimed the throne, while most hold to the belief that Michael Jordan still reins supreme. Sometimes other names enter the debate. Wilt Chamberlain. Bill Russell. Kobe Bryant. Magic Johnson. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s a short list and I don’t think I’ve missed any of the most common players that are included in the debate.

Recently, my friend and I got into this debate, and I asked him a question to re-frame our discussion.

But before I get to what that question was, let’s shorten the list of players in contention for the crown from seven to five.

From the list above, I’m going to take off Chamberlain and Russell. I know, I’m crazy, right? “But Russell has all those rings.” “Have you ever looked at Wilt Chamberlain’s numbers?”

Well, here’s my rationale: I’m taking them out because they both played in an era where they were so physically superior that their accomplishment are inflated. I won’t point to stats or physical dimensions to substantiate this claim. If we were debating the most dominant basketball players of all-time, I would put them both in the conversation.

But here, I think we are arguing over who the best players of all-time are while attempting, subjective though the process may be, to minimize the effects that the eras they played in have on the discussion. Put Chamberlain or Russell in today’s NBA and I don’t think either woudl dominate to nearly the level they once did. Of course, you are now bringing up the same argument about Jordan and Magic- would those guys dominate in today’s NBA like they once did, with larger, faster, more thletic players to compete with? First of all, I think they probably would. Second of all, I think you could put either of those players in any era and they would be either the best player(s) in the league (for example in the ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s) or near the top (even in today’s league). While Russell and Chamberlain were dominant in their era, I don’t think either would have been able to take that dominance into the next era, and I certainly don’t think they woudl be able to compete today.

So I’m taking them out, and that leaves us with the following (with a brief argument for each):

  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Lebron gets credit for playing and being dominant for such a long period of time. Kareem deserves the same credit. Kareem played TWENTY seasons and he was an All-Star in NINETEEN of those seasons. He was on the All-NBA First or Second team fifteen times. By the numbers, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t the greatest of all-time. He has more points than any player in history and is third all-time in both rebounds and blocked shots. Oh, and he has six NBA championships. It’s hard to identify a gap in his game, though you could ask to what degree his game would hold up in today’s game.

On paper, you might be able to argue that some other players should be included on this list, but I think most basketball fans would whittle the list to the same seven I did. And from there, given my rationale, you are left with five.

And here’s where I asked my friend the question that changed the conversation for us. At this point,we stopped debating about who should be at the top of the list, and instead started taking people off the bottom of the list.

It’s almost as difficult to do, I must admit. Where do you start? By discussing who has the greatest weaknesses? Do you argue Magic doesn’t play elite defense? Do you point to the fact Lebron has the fewest rings? Or maybe you point out that Kobe’s game was the most one-dimensional of the players on this list.

My friend and I just discussed who comes off the list first, and the conversation went like this:

Jordan definitely doesn’t come off the list. Lebron doesn’t either, especially when you consider he has penty of basketball left. My friend initally said he woudl take Kareem off the list, but then he asmitted that is a bit crazy when you consider his all-time ranks in several categories (outlined above). So those three are safe. That leaves Magic and Kobe.

Magic was the better all-around offensive player. He was more versatile. But Kobe was the better defender and scorer. both have the same number of rings, but who did it with less around him? Probably Kobe. Even in 1988, when Magic won his last championship, he had very good players around him. There were three All-Stars on that team. When Kobe won his last championship in 2010, he was the only All-Star on the team. And as clutch as Magic might have been, we both knew we would want Kobe with the ball with the game on the line.

We gave the nod to Kobe, and bid adios to Magic.

It probably goes without saying that we took Kobe off the list next. He didn’t have the stats or versatility to match up against Kareem. Lebron got the nod because of his versatility and what we expect is many fruitful years ahead. And Jordan gets the nod because, well everything Kobe is, Jordan is just a slightly better version of. Kobe is sort of “Jordan-Lite”.

And now things get really tough.

Neither of us really got to watch Kareem a ton, given our ages, but we did feel he benefitted greatly from those around him, in particular Magic and his ability to make his teammates better. Lebron, on the other hand, makes his teammates better. Jordan simply carried his teammates, though there is no doubt that the fact his teammates bowed to Jordan allowed him to achieve what he did. Then there’s the question of who we would want on our team with the game on the line. Kareem had to be an unbelievable scorer, and certainly his sky-hook may be the most unstoppable shot in basketball history, but we still had difficulty considering a center as our go-to guy with the game on the line; centers are simply too dependent on others getting the ball to them.

So that’s another Laker down, leaving us with Lebron and MJ. There are caveats galore here. What is Lebron goign to do in the future? What might Jordan have done in those four years he took off? What if Jordan played today? What if Lebron played in Jordan’s era?

There are some obvious arguments to be made. Lebron may be more versatile, although we also need to keep in mind that, as Scottie Pippen recently reminded us, Jordan wasn’t asked to be versatile; he was asked to score. Jordan is (point to any stats you want- I don’t care) the greater clutch player. With the game on the line, you want the ball in Jordan’s hands. Or at the free throw line (as Lebron reminded us the other night in an important game against the Sixers). Jordan, it would seem, was more competitive. After missing a key free throw the other night, Lebron shrugged. After the game, a loss, Lebron joked around with his opponents. We couldn’t imagine Jordan doing that. Then there is the matter of team achievements. It’s insane that Lebron has been to seven straight NBA Finals (yes, I know Rusesell went to ten in a row), but he has a 3–4 record in those appearances. That pales in comparison to the 6–0 record Jordan has. Jordan simply refused to lose. Consider also that Lebron also only won championships wioth two All-Stars around him, whereas Jordan sometimes only had one. Lebron also switched teams, and one could argue he did so in order to provide himself reasonable paths toward titles. MJ did not. Also, consider that Jordan took off the ‘93–94 season. The Bulls won the championship in the prior season and may well have won it the season that Jordan sat out. They didn’t win the year after he returned, but perhaps he was just knocking off the rust at that point, because they went onto win the next three championships. It’s not unreasonable to imagine Jordan going to eight straight Finals, and winning every one of them.

This debate really can’t be considered complete until Lebron’s career is over. At that point, he will likely have more impressive numbers than Michael in several statistical categories. But even then, that won’t put an end to the debate. There will always be the “What could have been?” question surrounding MJ. And that will still be the case even if Lebron goes on to win three more championships.

So that leaves us with one man standing- Michael Jordan. The greatest NBA player of all-time. Case closed.

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