Rob Huckins is the host of the Trails to Peaks Radio podcast and creator of the website Chasing Jade Trails to Peaks. In this story, he takes a long-form look at the troubles in determining the greatest of all time, or “G.O.A.T.”, in any platform, and the different arguments for the main stars of the basketball debate: Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
Editor’s Note: LeBron James won his fourth NBA Finals five months after this story was initially written, and his NBA Finals record now stands at 4-6.
Consider this. You want to decide, once and for all, who the greatest basketball player of all time is. This isn’t art or some creative exercise, right?
We have data and metrics which can show us, definitively, who fits this title. Let’s take it further; we have all of the statistical data from the entire history of professional basketball. This should be a fairly straightforward exercise. But it isn’t. Not by a mile.
Who we decide is the greatest player of all time says a lot more about us as fans and cultural observers than it does about the players or even the game. This piece is more about why we even ask this question more than it is about who I think is the greatest of all time.
The term “Greatest of All Time” is not new. Since we’ve had modern entertainment, sports mostly, this term has existed. In recent years, the phrase got pruned a bit more to the Internet-trendy acronym “G.O.A.T.”, a somewhat clumsy term which still makes me think more of a farm animal than some incredibly revered athlete or entertainer. But cultural mass is a tough thing to counter so we will use this term as it stands.
“Who is the G.O.A.T.?” Critics and commentators ask. Most have an answer, regardless of the area (music, sports, literature, acting, you name it) and use all kinds of supposedly objective data to back it up. But if looking at these arguments truthfully, they are largely subjective. If someone is an artist, forget it. Toss any objectivity out the window. Art itself is a subjective, interpretive entity. Because of this, any critic or reasonably sophisticated patron of the arts has the authority to make his or her own determination.
Let’s look at acting for a moment. Many will call Al Pacino the G.O.A.T. of acting because they liked The Godfather. And for a later generation, Scarface. Fine. What about Tom Hanks? Certainly more prolific over his career than most anyone, but some people will always bring up Bosom Buddies (look it up sometime; Hanks in a situation comedy mostly in drag).
Forget the men. Meryl Streep? As good a choice by any measure. What about someone not white? We could do so much worse than Denzel Washington. But these four choices already reflect a bias toward a large, historically relevant body of work by someone who has actually seen many of these people’s films.
Ask this question to someone under 30 and I am pretty sure not one would name any of these actors. Moreover, my quick list doesn’t necessarily reflect skill (although nobody will argue these people named lack this in any way, even if they don’t particularly like them).
Perhaps “the greatest” is so subjective the person has yet to come along in the first place. Which is probably more true than we care to admit in our present world. We tend to think all things will remain permanent as we witness them, a trend which has only become more prevalent with internet culture and our tendency to move along from one thing to the next with alarming efficiency and speed.
Think about the Academy Awards each year. At some point, there is a montage or compilation of some kind which celebrates those who have died or someone getting some type of Lifetime Achievement Award (always a dubious honor for the recipient since the implication is that their time is nearly up and well, we have to give them something because they’re so good, yet we’ve ignored them for decades). Most of the audience doesn’t know who in the hell these people are in all likelihood (no matter how earnest their interest or feigned knowledge).
They are from another time, and the only evidence of their work is some grainy, black-and-white film that most people under 40 wouldn’t bother watching. We are reaching a point where anyone who actually experienced their work is deceased. This is a game-changer because it defies the logical premise many subscribe to which says “if we can see it, it will always exist and everyone will know,” as if this film will preserve them for all time. Not true.
People see what they want when they want and although we can mostly see whatever we want these days at whatever time we want, we tend to just watch what’s current and what we hear about and maybe will like. Sure, we can see all kinds of silent films online, great footage depicting incredibly visionary art from a bygone era. But we don’t watch them. Will this happen someday to our current batch of films and shows? Probably, at least in some form.
It’s hubris to think a century or two from now, cultural historians will ponder the artistic merit of The Wire, because nobody at that time will have ever seen it. More importantly, The Wire wasn’t the only great show on television during the time of its run. Not even close. One show will be used to represent our current time period regarding this medium. The Wire was great, but so were many others, and we don’t know what standards those in the future will use. Or, maybe some fluke factor will cause someone to do a deep dive to something related to The Wire, which will in turn bring attention to the show itself and the study, and subsequent evidence of its merit will mount.
Back to basketball. This process becomes a bit easier when analyzing athletes and not actors, correct? One would think so, but all of our data and objective evidence doesn’t stop people from making choices different from other people.
Sure, there are some common lists, but who’s to say these lists aren’t being simply co-opted because nobody wants to appear wrong or out of touch? We have more statistical data than ever before in human history, and can’t seem to come to much more conclusive a choice than a bunch of guys at a bar thirty or forty years ago.
Today, the question always comes back to Michael Jordan vs. Lebron James.
Forget that scores of great players have toiled on courts for decades prior and currently; this is the choice. At least it is now. It’s commonly held that each generation tends to think of its own greatest player as THE G.O.A.T. Based on my anecdotal research, I would largely agree.
There are fans all over the country over the age of 60 who will swear up and down the G.O.A.T. is Oscar Robertson. Who? Some may ask. “The Big O” dominated his era from the guard position, something we take for granted today with all of the “small” players running around taking over games with regularity.
This simply wasn’t the case in the 1960s and 70s, when Robertson was in his very early career (1960–63) and averaged double digits in rebounds, assists and points every season, earning him the nickname “Triple Double.” Robertson regularly led the league in assists, and averaged nearly 26 points per game for his career. He appeared in 12 All-Star Games, and finally won a title with then-Lew Alcindor with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971. And, this was with the great Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain (not to mention Jerry “The Logo” West) still playing.
Admittedly, this was an era where the number of teams was small and there were great players everywhere you looked. But, the Boston Celtics mostly dominated the era, with two or three teams breaking through here and there to win a title.
I mention Robertson not because I actually think he is the G.O.A.T., but because his mere mention by some fans of a certain age (looking at you, Boomers) casts a certain subjectivity to this entire question, one which has taken on greater importance in recent years than at any other time in history. Once again, this says a lot more about us than the people we argue about.
Today, the NBA is a guard’s league (even so-called big men play like guards), so having great guards who dominate games isn’t an anomaly. This affects how people see who is great and who isn’t, especially when reviewing history.
Aside from Robertson, I casually mentioned three players who should be on any true fan’s short list of greatest players of all time. They dominated the game in every sense of the word during their respective era. One of them won more titles than anyone in history. Another was the single most dominating physical force the league had ever seen (and remains the only player to score 100 points in a single game), while the remaining player mentioned has become known simply as “The Logo” for his shadowy profile becoming the emblem of the NBA (not to mention its greatest general manager).
The next generation saw Alcindor-turned-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an evolutionary big man who took the game over with two different teams (the Bucks and Lakers), winning multiple awards and six championships over a career that lasted until his forties.
Nobody has replicated his high level of play for such a long period of time since. His career remains unprecedented. But Kareem today is largely left out of the GOAT conversation, a truly astounding concept for anyone who saw him play during his collegiate days at UCLA, and the pros.
Miami Heat generalissimo Pat Riley called Abdul-Jabbar’s famous skyhook “the greatest offensive weapon in all of sports,” and the futility of attempting to stop this shot changed how teams played him for years (incidentally, college basketball banned the dunk because of Alcindor when he was at UCLA). Abdul-Jabbar arguably has made the greatest literal impact on the game of anyone who’s ever played.
Since there are so many elite players starting from the 1980s and 90s, I will simply refer you to the 1992 United States Olympic men’s basketball team, a collection of future Hall of Famers (and a good college guy from Duke) that stomped all comers in earning the sport’s gold medal.
One of the team’s players was Jordan, a player who was already great by that point, but not considered the GOAT. In fact, his greatness at that time was largely limited to that particular time period (he was in his eighth season and 29 years old and was coming off back-to-back NBA titles).
In addition, he was on a team with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, players who had won collectively eight of the previous 13 championships and been in the Finals for many of the others in that span. But Bird’s back was shot by then and he would retire that summer, while Johnson would attempt two more ill-fated comebacks before heading off to, well, keep being Magic Johnson.
While there is very little which hasn’t been written about Jordan, it is worth taking a look back at his time as an NBA player and his impact on the game itself.
In the early 1990s, Jordan was an all-time great player, but not considered the G.O.A.T. He won another title in 1993 and then abruptly retired. Case closed. He was really great, legendary even, but one of a small handful of great players. But, he then came back two years later and won three more titles in dramatic, almost ruthless fashion, suddenly changing the conversation. We knew he was already great, but was he now the GOAT?
His final shot as a Chicago Bull was a picture-perfect jump shot to win the deciding game and series against the Utah Jazz, his sixth title (and sixth NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award) in six tries. Jordan had completed perhaps the most amazing and improbable comeback and career run in the league’s history. Like Abdul-Jabbar, but in a different way, Jordan’s career is simply unprecedented.
By the turn of the 21st century, many began routinely calling Jordan the G.O.A.T. But why? Because he won? Russell won 11 titles in 13 years. Based on that metric, it was a no-contest, even with Jordan’s six rings. But critics (correctly) cited the smaller, less competitive league and players, the shorter season and Russell’s non-scoring dominance as reasons why Jordan was the superior player. But, it was more than that. He is not only possibly the league’s G.O.A.T., but its most prolific player from 1985–98.
Even when he retired to go play baseball, he was the most popular player in the league. Inexplicable. It could be reasonably argued that his retirement (or sabbatical as it were) enabled him to gain this second act, the run that truly put him alone in the celestial arrangement of the NBA’s hierarchy. Add to this his enormous global and financial value to the NBA brand and the game itself, and Jordan’s place in history is secure and incredibly revolutionary.
He began the trend of wresting control from the owners to the players, even if it took baby steps. We mostly live in Jordan’s NBA, even today. But if he stayed retired in 1993, there would be no G.O.A.T. discussion, save for some rabid Air Jordan collectors in Chicago or North Carolina. But, because he came back and did so in such winning, dominating fashion, he entered a realm reserved for a very, very small group of players in league history. And, in the end, maybe just him.
But, other factors play into Jordan’s status as the G.O.A.T. His career paralleled timely external factors, which no doubt helped boost his place in the eyes of fans, and even his peers. He had his own shoe line from Nike, something which was considered incredibly cool and rebellious at the time. The red, black, white and blue colors earned him fines for every game he played because it violated league uniform regulations, which Nike gladly paid realizing this was the best advertisement it could possibly get.
He won a college championship at North Carolina, hitting the game-winning shot from the corner against Georgetown. He played on the then-best ever men’s Olympic basketball team in 1984, winning gold in Los Angeles. He was drafted third by Chicago, a large market in the league and a team loaded with young players and a young, intense coach.
He broke his foot his second year, forcing him to sit most of the season until mounting a raging playoff performance against the eventual champion Celtics, scoring 49 and 63 points in the first two games, respectively.
Although his team took a few seasons to become a champion, Jordan was off and running, putting up huge numbers and an electrifying highlight reel while his profile gained even greater momentum through Nike’s marketing machine and his many other growing endorsements. He was in essence the league’s first global superstar.
It helped that Jordan was charming and articulate, while remaining politically neutral (something which would seem out of place in today’s more socially-conscious league). Controversy finally struck in the early 1990s amid gambling allegations, and his father was murdered in the summer of 1993, a tragic and shocking event about which Jordan said very little publicly for the remainder of his career.
Then he retired, played minor league baseball and then came back, dominating the league once again, albeit a bit older and craftier but nonetheless as deadly as ever, adjusting his game to reveal perhaps one of the most devastating post games of all time.
Jordan was that rare professional athlete who actually seemed bigger than his hype. He has a laundry list of epic games and performances on the court, the kind of heroics which made him more comparable to a great heavyweight fighter than basketball player, a singular juggernaut of explosive individual talent in a decidedly team game.
By the time he hit that final game-winning Finals jump shot in Utah, his legend was all but secured, the shot merely coronating the crown placed on his head signifying him as the G.O.A.T.
Cut to the 2000s. The league was doing well, but Jordan was gone (well, kind of — he came back with the Washington Wizards, compiling a curious, injury-riddled, sometimes really great two-year run before leaving the team in an acrimonious breakup). It was up to a strange, un-Jordan-like collection of players to become the new versions of stars those fans steeped in the 1980s and 90s would latch onto for the next decade or more.
By now, it wasn’t just a game — the NBA was a global entertainment brand which just lost its best player and symbol, all while undergoing a labor lockout at the same time. Despite these challenges, the league mostly succeeded. Fans got a three-year Lakers title run with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant followed by the arrival of the dependable San Antonio Spurs (five titles total), and one-year runs by the Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat.
It was an interesting time, one which gave fans some of the game’s best all-time players, including Lebron James.
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Coming out of high school in 2003, James was perhaps the most scrutinized player the public had ever seen, watched since junior high as an up-and-coming AAU phenom and Sports Illustrated cover boy (“The Chosen One” was the literal title used for that issue’s cover story).
Involved in a now-famous draft class (along with 1984 and 1996 I don’t think there’s been a better NBA draft year than 2003), James withstood perhaps the most targeted campaign of scrutiny ever seen by an incoming player, one partially deserved considering the hoopla that surrounded his early entry into a league that already had a slew of great players.
He wasn’t like Jordan. But he could score like him. After a few games, we realized he wasn’t really like anyone else in the league, maybe ever. He was the same size as Magic, but much stronger and with incredible athletic ability. He could score seemingly at will, but appeared more comfortable passing to a teammate for a potential game-winning shot (which earned him odd criticism for avoiding the task himself, which somehow lessened his greatness for some).
He’s made tremendous money off the court, and played in the Olympics three times. He won two titles with the Heat after his controversial “Decision” in 2010 to leave Cleveland, his hometown team and the franchise that drafted him.
Then, he came back to Cleveland four years later, leading the team to four straight Finals appearances and a singularly-defining championship over the 73-win Golden State Warriors. It was a storybook saga, one which put James above his peers and into a similar G.O.A.T. conversation that a handful of players have experienced in league history.
James had earned three titles, loads of awards and records and comparisons with MJ himself by 2018, when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent. There, James became the third all-time leading scorer in NBA history as Jordan fell to fifth all time.
Despite all of the great players to come and go over the last few decades, the G.O.A.T. debate has seemingly come down to James vs. Jordan, and it makes sense in many ways.
They are both masters and symbols of their respective eras. Statistically, James has begun to chip away at the Jordan shield, quietly snatching records and passing his elder in a myriad of areas, both important and some others less critical.
It mainly breaks down to this: Jordan remains the historically superior scorer (for career average anyway) and defensive player (although it’s interesting to note that one of the most greatness-defining moments in James’ career is a late-game block in the deciding play of the 2016 Finals), while James edges out Jordan in points, assists, rebounds and overall career longevity.
As expected, MJ supporters point to Jordan’s 6–0 record in the Finals as Exhibit A of his G.O.A.T. status, an impressive if not entirely representative record. For many, the argument ends here, an arguably curious choice of where to split the two, since winning is not solely the chore of a single player in any team sport.
And if we are going to simply compare rings then, Jordan is the G.O.A.T. But once again, Jordan is not the most prolific possessor of rings in history: remember Russell’s 11?
James remains 3-6 in Finals appearances (Editor’s Note: James is now 4-6 in Finals appearances), a pedestrian number when compared to Jordan’s championship perfection. But how much does it matter? Basketball is a team sport, and Jordan played with teammates far more heralded than James ever has (save for Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh during the Heat years).
In addition, James now is ahead of Jordan in every significant playoff category for career totals (points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and games played), and if he plays out his contract in good health with the Lakers, he will surely best Jordan in most every single regular season category (except perhaps steals), as well. And, James may even win another title with Los Angeles, too.
What then? The G.O.A.T. landscape becomes more muddled at this point, regardless of what supporters of either player might say.
Jordan chose to leave the game for two(ish) years during his prime, something many use as a measure of his greatness rather than seeing it as a negative. “Look at this guy — he leaves for two years in his prime and still comes back and wins three in a row!”
James never left, and will likely play for two full decades before thinking of retiring. What then? He will not only be ahead in statistical categories of prime importance, but will have played possibly longer than any other player in history. That is unprecedented.
Not even Kareem did that, nor were Bryant’s 20 seasons all at full prime strength. Yes, I know Bryant got 60 points in his last game, but let’s be clear — he took fifty shots that night. Still a great night, but it doesn’t make up for the previous three years of injuries and poor team play.
Moreover, many critique James’ lack of some kind of “killer instinct” because of his mediocre (or losing if we’re being honest) Finals record. This is nonsense. No player wins three championships (Editor’s Note: Now four championships) as its team’s best player by being indecisive or mediocre.
He also won with two different teams, something reflective of today’s game where many of the greats will likely switch teams at some point in their careers — the opportunities gained with this move are simply too great to resist. In Jordan’s era, nobody really changed teams that much at all, at least not the very best players.
It’s truly a players’ league now, something Jordan and his peers would have loved. Jordan came as close as anyone in his era to being the franchise puppeteer, but still ended up leaving less on his own terms than on someone else’s.
And although many see it as a slightly overblown streak, Lebron took his teams to nine straight Finals appearances with three titles to show for it. (Editor’s Note: LeBron James led the Lakers to a championship in the latter half of 2020, improving his NBA Finals record to 4-10.)
This is an amazing string of resilience and endurance. For nine straight seasons, nobody could best his teams to get to the Finals, even though he played in two different cities during this time.
Sure, he lost six of them, but three of them were to a team we will likely see as the best ever eventually, the Golden State Warriors. Jordan had no team of this caliber facing his Bulls during his runs.
The Pistons essentially wore themselves down by 1991 and from there, it was a string of really good teams that couldn’t bring down the champs (Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, Seattle Supersonics, Utah Jazz).
In some ways, it’s impressive that Jordan’s teams beat such a diverse set of opponents, almost a way of leaving no doubt as to who was the best during that time. Nobody is going to suggest Jordan’s Bulls “ducked” someone during this time. In fact, one could easily argue the league was much stronger in the early 1990s, an era when Jordan earned three of his titles.
But, James didn’t shy away from any competition, defeating Golden State in dramatic fashion one year while registering two very dominant title runs with Miami in 2012 & 2013. He beat the Oklahoma City Thunder with Kevin Durant, James Harden & Russell Westbrook, and defeated the Spurs with all their key players.
While we shouldn’t exaggerate these wins, we definitely cannot ignore them, either. Conversely, James’ teams also lost in 2011 with a very talented Heat team, and registered a lackluster Finals loss to San Antonio in 2014.
Let’s compare Finals records of other greats in relative company.
Magic was 5–4. Bird was 3–2. Winning records, but not distinguishable from one another. Were Bird’s three better than Lebron’s? Maybe. But does it really matter?
Think about the players we don’t mention during this time. Tim Duncan won five titles with the Spurs, and played all of his career with one team, something which seems now quietly amazing. But we’ve already forgotten about him in many ways.
Kobe Bryant was incredibly dominant, and yet we don’t include him seriously in any G.O.A.T. conversations. Why? That’s another essay entirely. He was 5–2, but it should be noted his teams were terrible during many of the non-title years, and he won three titles with prime Shaquille O’Neal in the paint. I would put Kobe’s run from 2008–10 as his best team-oriented seasons ever.
What about Shaq? He was 4–1 in the Finals, and named MVP for three of them.
Hakeem Olajuwon? He won two in 1994 & 1995, albeit with Jordan playing baseball for one of them, but still.
And again, don’t sleep on Abdul-Jabarr: 6–3 in the Finals and the league’s all-time leading scorer.
Bill Russell as a winner? Case closed.
But let’s look at things a bit differently. Robert Horry, a fine position player and proven winner, but a role player nonetheless, won seven titles on three different teams: an incredible feat given that he won at least two on all three stops and had key moments and plays every time.
Horry made big time plays consistently on all three teams, but nobody will ever confuse his contributions with those other greats already mentioned here.
Same with John Salley, who won four titles; two with Detroit and one each with the Bulls and Lakers. Are we now going to say Salley and Horry are superior to James? Of course not. But we risk exaggerating various accomplishments by players from different eras by using varying metrics to measure greatness. These metrics change, and when that happens, our lists change, too. We also risk underrating players, too, from different eras.
Duncan is clearly underrated at this point in history and he’s barely retired. Bird became slightly overrated at one point (briefly), but now I would argue he is vastly underrated, perhaps even passed over by many of today’s fans.
Let’s recall that from 1984 to around 1986, there wasn’t a better player on the planet than Larry Bird. But that was a long time ago, and perspectives change. Now, Magic Johnson is seen by most as that era’s greatest player (Jordan played in the 1980s, but is mostly seen as a 90s player). Although, at the time, the Larry Bird or Magic Johnson debate was very serious and very divided.
Allen Iverson is both underrated and overrated, if that’s possible. His role as a truly revolutionary small guard (who played through numerous injuries) gets overlooked now because of Steph Curry, etc. But, he was also a very limited player in a team game, even though he was an all-time great scorer. Much is made of his 2001 Finals appearance with the Philadelphia 76ers, but there was little doubt in that series who would win. The Lakers won in five games fairly easily.
Is Iverson an all-time great? Absolutely. Would I take him over anyone mentioned here (other than Horry and Salley)? No way.
We tend to look at players’ greatness through our current prism and the factors we value as part of that metric. This changes. More than any other era previously, “ring counting” has become the ultimate measurement for greatness, to the point where players chase rings by moving to contending teams, in hopes that by winning a championship (even as a reserve or minor player), they will somehow elevate their status in the game.
Other than the truly upper-tier players already considered great, this is largely unfounded. My view of Nick Young is unchanged, even though he won a ring with the Golden State Warriors. I think it’s a great accomplishment, but his place in the game for me is no different. Same with J.R. Smith and his Cavaliers title in 2016.
Iverson never won a ring. Is he less great? I would argue no. Karl Malone never won a ring, and even tried ring chasing once with the Lakers, proving nobody is above this trend if the conditions are right.
Steve Nash won back-to-back league MVP awards, and was an incredible player during the early 2000s with three teams. But, he never won a ring. I also see Nash as currently underrated in league history for his dynamic play and innovative approach to the guard position.
Charles Barkley never won a ring. Neither did Patrick Ewing. Russell Westbrook may never win one, nor will many other great players in today’s game. The odds are just too great against them. Does that make them any less special? I don’t think so, but that’s not the currency at the moment. Rings are keys to the realm, and if you don’t have one, you’re out.
But here’s the point — what we think now may not matter as much down the road, when other generations are making these distinctions.
Right now, we are seeing a shift in the opinions of NBA fandom, one which breaks down along generational lines, where those who grew up in the 1980s and 90s (and largely control the media content considered mainstream) value rings as a main qualifier for greatness, no matter how they got them.
So Jordan is clearly the choice for G.O.A.T. by those in this age group, both fans and players alike. Plus, they saw him play, and were well steeped in his marketing presence and cultural imprint. Part of this is clearly because Jordan’s peers, if they couldn’t beat him, at least would like to say they matched up against the greatest ever. Who wouldn’t?
But, having James included in this G.O.A.T. conversation alters that reality, and people in this group do not want that. For Jordan to lose his place as the G.O.A.T. in effect alters the historical place of those he defeated.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl that year and went undefeated, the only team to ever do so in NFL history. Each year, they toast (supposedly) when the last undefeated team loses a game, preserving their record for another season.
The closest came in 2007 when the New England Patriots appeared to be bulldozing their way to the title while undefeated, before they were upended by the New York Giants in the championship game. Miami breathed a sigh of relief and raised their collective glasses.
But for what? Nobody would take their record away if the Patriots did it that year. It’s absurd in a way, but indicative of how things are measured these days. The old guys won when the Patriots lost that year. But there’s new old guys every generation, and they all see things differently.
Those who saw Jordan play remember him vividly and his peers remember him clearly. Certainly the documentary The Last Dance has brought him prominently back into our national consciousness during the COVID-19 era. But that’s not enough as years pass — or at least it’s not enough to be considered the lone great.
James has incredible highlights, too, and those around today still see him play at an insanely-high level. To the young players and fans today, 2003 seems like a long time ago and they view the early James years much like someone in their 50s rhapsodizes about Jordan’s 63-point game against the Celtics in 1986.
Here’s the thing — Jordan’s Bulls lost that game and were swept in the series. That game was a coming out party for MJ, but they still lost. That gets pushed aside today, even though at the time many saw Jordan as a me-first gunner who would never win a title because he was simply too selfish.
This was the prevailing argument outside of Chicago, hands down, until 1991 and his first title. Then he won two more. And then, by the time he won three more, the narrative had changed. Those questioning fans love him today. He has more titles than Magic or Bird (or anyone from that era) and has individual stats and highlight reels to go along with those. So by 2000 or so, there was no debate as to who was the G.O.A.T. And that’s been the narrative for the last two decades, until now.
Someday, James’ peers will run the show, both on and off the court. He will be their MJ, their Bird and Magic. Their Oscar Robertson or Jerry West. And then the argument for MJ will lose some of its overwhelming force, less an assumption than simply another choice if you wanted to argue that way.
Who argues for Bill Russell as the greatest of all time? Nobody in the media or any prominent fan base (other than older fans in Boston, maybe). He’s right there in most people’s short lists, but he’s not on top. He’s not even Boston’s top player across the board, depending on whom you talk to or read.
Here’s where the G.O.A.T. gets complicated. Because of these shifts in metrics and opinions (which reflect values of those taking measure) and our ability to proliferate these opinions and values through social media and other means, these arguments take on greater life than they would have generations ago. Nobody questioned the greatness of players year-to-year like we do now (probably more like month to month if we’re honest).
Every player has a cult-like base of fans who follow him because of emotional and technical reasons, ready to jump if anyone criticizes their guy. Perhaps the most rabid of these groups is the Kobe Camp, a particularly unapologetic, passionate, almost maniacal fan base devoted to all things Kobe Bryant. He won five rings, so that only emboldens their stance. But this group is in the minority, like every other group like them, and each of them has a voice online. And so it goes.
Kevin Durant was a great player before he won two titles (and two Finals MVPs), but he seems to feel the need now to defend himself MORE since winning than before. He has openly lamented that his expectation of winning titles was overblown, and that it hasn’t really changed much in the public perception of him, perhaps underscoring the futile task of trying to earn rings as a source of respect and status for greatness. This is absurd.
In Jordan’s time (and those before him), championships were important, but not the only measure of one’s greatness. People cared, certainly, but they understood many factors played into someone winning a title. Some of it was timing and flat-out luck. Does ownership keep the franchise moving in a championship direction? What do other teams do? Can everyone stay healthy? Who plays with whom? What about the motivation after a few years?
These things matter, and we seem to forget that in our modern world of winners and losers. James has won three (Editor’s Note: James has now won four). Jordan’s won six. But that’s not what may matter to future generations at all. And that’s where Jordan may lose his perch at the G.O.A.T. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or not. It will just be what is, much like it was when Jordan was building his own case for being the G.O.A.T.
Someday, there will be a single player denoting each era of the game of basketball, and Jordan will surely be remembered. But as the G.O.A.T.? I think that may fade by then, replaced by other players and their own legacies, remembered by those who saw them play.
Jordan is in his mid-50s. He isn’t the present. He is the past. If it wasn’t for his shoe line and ownership position in the league, his profile would be even less than it is now. This will only continue to fade, not increase. We are at peak Jordan right now for a variety of reasons.
Someday James will retire, too, and the cycle will continue. Maybe Durant will usurp them both. It could happen. What if he won a couple more with Golden State (titles #3 and #4) and then went off to New York and got another or two more? Once again, if rings are a measure of greatness, then the conversation changes once again.
I think barring injury, Durant is the only player capable of this challenge due to his relative young age compared to everyone else in the upper tier and his unique skill set and position on the floor. Curry is great, but he will never be more than what he is now (and that’s still really great). Lebron’s window is still open, but he’s on the back nine of his career (if he gets one more title with Los Angeles, his status as G.O.A.T. candidate may be all set with the younger set of fans).
But maybe there’s someone out there now who will rise up, a player we haven’t seen yet or is still in a formative time. Hard to see since Jordan in ’85 and James in ’03 were already seen as damn good, but possible. The game is also more mobile now, so the days of “one team, one career” seems quaint, and increasingly fading away for most younger, more opportunistic and savvy players.
Right now, it’s all about rings and to a lesser degree, James or Jordan. That’s the narrative. But this will change. And when it does, we may wonder why Jordan seems so underrated, and how anyone could be better than James. But, it will probably happen.
For now, enjoy the argument, but understand it’s a parlor game meant for entertainment purposes only.