LeBron James won his fourth NBA Championship this week along with his fourth Finals MVP when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat, becoming the first player to ever win Finals MVP for three different franchises. This adds another layer to the seemingly never-ending debate over who is the greatest basketball player of all time.
While I believe there are a few players that have a claim to this fictitious title, the debate for a while now has come down to two names: LeBron James and Michael Jordan. Some talking heads like Nick Wright have been claiming James as the GOAT for a few years, while others like Skip Bayless are insistent that James will never ever pass the great Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
I don’t take either of these guys seriously, mostly because I believe they only hold these hard-and-fast opinions for the purposes of TV ratings. Because the truth is this debate doesn’t have a correct answer. There is no magic equation that we can plug numbers in to give us an absolute answer to this lofty question.
It’s a question based on stats, accomplishments and most of all, opinions. It’s a completely subjective argument because it requires hypothetical questions that can never be answered. It would be cool if we could have all the greats from different eras come together and play a one-on-one tournament for the GOAT title, but that obviously can’t happen.
So all we have to work with is the legacy that each player leaves behind, and there is no legacy greater than being the best player of an era. That is why I truly don’t believe there is a single NBA GOAT, but rather many GOATs throughout the history of the sport.
Bill Russell was the first player to truly dominate his era. He took the league by storm, winning 11 NBA titles and five MVPs with the Boston Celtics over his 13-year career. While he had some amazing Hall-of-Fame teammates, it was Russell who was the lone player on the court for all 11 championships, a record that will never be broken.
From there, it became the Kareem Abdul-Jabar era. He won an NBA-record six league MVPs in a 10-year span from 1971 to 1980 and was the clear-cut best player in the world during that time. While his greatness remained throughout the 80s with the Lakers, he took a back seat to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who battled heavily throughout the decade and became the faces of the league. Both ended up winning three MVPs and making 12 All-Star teams, though Magic had the advantage in championships 5-3.
After that, it was all MJ in the 90s. Jordan won six titles in eight years with the Chicago Bulls, and the only two years he didn’t win were the two seasons he took off to pursue a baseball career. Jordan owned the NBA unlike any player before or after him, and it extended beyond what he did on the court. If you haven’t watched “The Last Dance” yet, I recommend doing so.
After Jordan’s second retirement (the one before he played his forgettable seasons with the Washington Wizards), Kobe Bryant took the steps to become the next best player in the league, a feat which he accomplished sometime in the early 2000s and held onto until about 2012. Since then, it has been all LeBron.
I think it’s not only impossible, but also unfair to compare these greats of different eras. One exception is if the careers overlapped significantly like Kobe and LeBron. I don’t think anybody would argue against LeBron being an overall better basketball player than Kobe. But trying to compare Kareem to Jordan or LeBron to Russell or Kobe to Magic doesn’t make sense, especially when most of them played different positions.
Was the NBA much easier to dominate in Russell’s era when there were only eight or nine teams in the league? Absolutely. Should that take away from his legacy? Absolutely not. A player can’t control what era he plays in, only what he does in that era. And each player I named was the best player in the league for at least a portion of his career.
So who’s the greatest NBA player of all time? Everybody has their own opinion. Maybe it’s LeBron. Maybe it’s MJ. Maybe it’s even Kareem (who I don’t feel gets talked about enough in this conversation).
My take: It doesn’t matter. They’re all Hall of Famers (or will be). They all have an amazing legacy, and most importantly, you can’t talk about the history of the NBA without mentioning their names.
So while analysts like Wright and Bayless will have you believe you need to take sides in this debate for a title that doesn’t even exist, I’m here to encourage you to instead take a step back and appreciate the constant greatness we’ve seen throughout the history of basketball.