The G.O.A.T Debate


Joel Kellar, Sports Editor

For decades NBA fans have always argued the question of who is the Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.). The answer to this question seems easy at first glance, but once you think about it, it becomes a great debate.

The thing that makes the NBA G.O.A.T. debate so intriguing is that of the 4 major sports around the world this is the only one that is mostly positionless. We all know that there is different positions in the game of basketball, but the difference between positions is minimal. Whereas in Football, Baseball, or Soccer different positions usually do different stuff so it is hard to compare. In the NBA all positions shoot, pass, dribble, rebound, and play defense. This allows us to compare positions statistically pretty easily. We do have to take into account the players position though sometimes. An example is when comparing a center and a guard the center is going to have more rebounds most likely, but a center averaging 8 rebounds is worse than a guard averaging 8 rebounds. This is because guards aren’t expected to grab as many rebounds as centers. This is for a number of reasons; Height, placing on the floor, etc.

Of all the players to ever play the game of basketball I believe that you can make the case for only three players to be named the G.O.A.T. Obviously Michael Jordan and Lebron James are in that debate and we’ll get into that later, but while looking for a third player I struggled.There have been many many great players to play the game and there are countless arguments to be made, like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell played in an era where the talent was not nearly as good as it is now or even twenty years ago. Kobe Bryant was amazing as a player, but the main reason against him are that he doesn’t have the stats and three of his five rings he had a ton of help from one of the most dominate players of the 2000s, Shaquille O’Neal. Magic Johnson is another great player but isn’t really a thought in my head for being the G.O.A.T. because he just doesn’t have the accolades that my top three players have.

For me the top three consists of Michael Jordan, Lebron James, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. These three in my opinion have distanced themselves from the pack and are the clear top three of all time. The only question is in what order.

The case for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is most well known for being the top scorer of all time. He had arguably the most unguardable shot of all time with his skyhook. The next thing to look at is stats. Abdul-Jabbar averaged 24.6 ppg and averaged over 30 points per game 4 times. He had a career 56% FG% and shot 72% from the free throw line. He averaged 11.2 rpg and 4 bpg for his career.

Kareem was the 1979 Rookie of the Year, a 6 time MVP, 10 time All NBA First Team, a 6 time NBA champ, 2 time Finals MVP, and a 19x All Star. A big case for Kareem is his longevity. 19 of his 20 seasons he was an All Star. He only played under 60 game two seasons and played over 80 games eleven seasons. In a generation where load management is a big thing playing 80 out of 82 games is something that is rarely done. Kareem also wasn’t facing the poor talent that Wilt faced either. He went up against true greats; Julius Erving, Elvin Hayes, George Gervin, Walt Frazier, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Larry “Legend” Bird, and of course Michael Jordan.

It isn’t all good for Kareem though, while he was a center he still didn’t accumulate many assists only averaging 1.2 apg. While he was good on defense in the post he never got too many steals, only averaging 0.9 spg. Normally this would be fine for a center because they aren’t supposed to excel in these categories but right now we are talking about the Greatest Of All Time and the Greatest Of All Time should excel at all areas of the game. He also played with fellow top 10, arguably top 5 player of all time Magic Johnson. This is important because many people say he didn’t carry a team to a championship and he was able to score a lot because he played with one of the most dynamic point guards of all time. In all 6 of his championships he won with at least one other legend. In Milwaukee he had Oscar Robinson and in Los Angeles he had Magic. In the years he played without these two on his team the furthest he made it to was the Western Conference Finals in the 1976-77 season where they got swept by the Portland Trailblazers.

His impact of the game wasn’t nearly as much as some of the other top 5 players. This wasn’t nessacarily his fault, but it doesn’t help his case. In the early 70s the NBA wasn’t anywhere near where it is now or even in the 80s. The NBA made it’s first big jump however when Kareem team up with Magic and had one of the biggest rivalries ever with Larry Bird’s Celtics. He did help secure the NBA as part of the 3 most popular sports in America, but his impact on the game wasn’t as impactful as others.

The case for LeBron James

LeBron James. One of the most hyped prospects to enter the NBA. He was supposed to be the G.O.A.T. since the day the media found out about him. LeBron has been the face of the NBA for as long as I can remember.

LeBron has averaged 27.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, and 7.4 apg. He has a career 56% FG% and a 73% FT%. LeBron also has pretty strong defense with 1.6 spg and has the ability to lockdown any offense of player at any time.

He has so far made it to 10 finals appearances including the 2020 NBA Finals. He has four rings already and has the chance for more. Along with the three rings LeBron is a 4 time MVP, the 2003-04 Rookie Of The Year, 6 time All Defensive, 13 time First Team All NBA, and 16 time All Star. He has only been in the league for 16 years so this is very impressive. LeBron has played 80 or more games three times and 70 or less four times. He has only suffered one major injury that has forced him to miss extended time and that was 2019.

He faced a lot of stiff competition; Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, and Jason Kidd. He also faced the Warriors dynasty multiple times in the Finals including beating the 73-9 Warriors.

LeBron does have arguments against him. He has gone 4-6 in the finals. Some people say that he had to face the tough Warriors, but when he had a super team he would’ve only gotten one ring if it weren’t for Ray Allen hitting the corner 3 against the Spurs in game 6 of the 2013 finals. He had the Big Three with the Heat and he lead them to a loss against the Dallas Mavericks with Dirk Nowitzki and their second leading scorer Jason Terry. Talk about a big time choke. On no planet should the LeBron, Wade, and Bosh lead Heat ever be beaten by the 2011 Mavericks. LeBron couldn’t get it done having one other star on his team. In Miami and Cleveland he needed a third star, and this year on the Lakers he has his best matching teammate ever in Anthony Davis and he still needed six games to take down the injured Heat who were without All Star Bam Adebayo for 2.5 games and Goran Dragic who only played one and a half games with his only full game being played nowhere near 100% in game six.

He also has had some troubles with ball safety. He averaged 3.5 turnovers per game and some seasons especially when he got older he was closer to 4 turnovers per game. He is on pace to absolutely shatter the turnover record as he is only 100 away from the current leader Karl Malone.

His stats compared to every Small Forward to play the game is impressive but nothing extraordinary. He is second in ppg, 1st in apg, 12th in rpg, 9th in sag, 17th in bpg, 17th in FG%, and 107th in FT%. If he is truly the G.O.A.T. shouldn’t these be higher. This shows a lot because the small forward is a very versatile position where they’re placed everywhere on the court so it is a stat friendly position. This is why you can’t just compare stats between a Forward and a Guard. Their roles are completely different and these rankings show that LeBron is Elite in a few categories but only great in the rest, except for FT% where he is no where close to the top.

LeBron’s impact on the game of basketball has definitely been huge. Nearly everyone in America knows who LeBron James is even if they have never even watched a game of basketball. LeBron has some of the most popular shoe lines in the past decade and has invested a ton of his time outside of basketball into helping his community. This is a big thing, because again we are talking about the G.O.A.T., the  G.O.A.T. has to be a good person off the court. LeBron has won two gold medals in the Summer Olympics and was part of the “Redeem Team”. This helped make basketball more popular around the world. However his impact on the game is not as big as an impact as Magic, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, arguably Kobe, and Steph Curry. He has definitely impacted the game in a very positive way and has only brought more and more fans to the NBA.

The case for Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan. Jordan was one of the biggest icons in the entire world in the 90s. There was barely anyone who wanted to “be like Mike”. Ever since he three peated his second time every single NBA player has chased his greatness.

Jordan averaged 30.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.3 apg, and 2.3 spg. He averaged a 49.7% FG% and 83.5% from the charity stripe.

When compared with every other shooting guard in NBA history Jordan ranks 1st in ppg, 4th in apg, 3rd in rpg, 3rd in spg, 3rd in bpg, 9th in FG%, and 34th in FT%. These numbers are all elite except for the FT%. His ranking compared to other SG is better than LeBron’s stats compared to other SF.

Jordan was a six time champion and went 6-0 in the Finals. He won six Finals MVPs and five MVPs. He was the 1984-85 Rookie of the Year, a 14 time All Star, 10 time All NBA First Team, nine time All Defensive First Team, 1987 Defensive Player of the Year, and 10 time scoring champ.

He played over 80 games in 11 out of 13 seasons and played the entire season six times. This is truly remarkable as not many players are able to keep playing at the highest level for the full 82 games.

The arguments used against Jordan are plentiful, but a few are very opinion based. Some say that Jordan played in an easier era than LeBron. This is false to an extent. Humans have all ways evolved and innovated technologies and inventions. Clearly as we get smarter about staying healthy and the analytics of the game these players will improve and be more talented than past players. It’s just common sense. This doesn’t mean that those players are better than past players though. The players now have more knowledge about what shots are the most efficient and have new offenses a defenses to counter that style of play. Currently basketball is all about the perimeter. The odds are if you play better at the perimeter than the other team, your team will win the game. This forces teams to space the floor and try and find the open three, but they then leave the middle wide open. This and the rule changes the NBA made that made it more difficult to play physical defense has made it more easier for players that rely on driving like LeBron, Giannis, Jimmy Butler, and Russell Westbrook. Back when Jordan played the game was won by the inside game. Defenses were allowed to play physical defense in which if the same foul calls were called as they are today many of the great big man in the 90s would’ve fouled out in the first half.

Jordan also never won without Scottie Pippen. This is one of the most commonly used arguments against Jordan because he never made it to the finals without Pippen, and when Pippen didn’t have Jordan he almost won MVP and led the team to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, when the Bulls broke apart after they finished their second three peat, Pippen never really reached superstar status without Jordan.

Jordan has longevity, but not nearly as much as LeBron. If he never took the two seasons off in the middle of their incredible runs there may not even be a debate. People now are able to wonder if Jordan just needed a break. He has claimed that he felt like he accomplished what he needed too and wanted to try to complete another one of his childhood dreams, which was to play professional baseball. He wasn’t very successful and as we all know came back and won three more rings.

One thing that can go without argument is Jordan’s impact on the game. He was the most popular player of all time. He was not just an idol but a culture. Nearly everyone wanted to be like Mike. To the public he was perfect in every aspect of life for the most part, aside from some conspiracies that he was a gambling addict. He was the leader of the Dream Team that entertained the entire world during the 1992 Summer Olympics. He was one of the biggest celebrities in not only America, but in many countries too. His endorsement deal with Nike truly turned him into an icon. He was the first athlete to be a brand, not just have one. He changed the game on many levels and officially placed basketball into one of the top three sports in America and he skyrocketed the popularity of basketball around the world. Jordans impact on the game cannot be compared to any other player of all time.

The Verdict

For me the G.O.A.T. is Michael Jordan without a doubt, but LeBron is going to end up being really close. If LeBron gets two more rings and Finals MVPs then it would be time to revisit this debate, but until then it’s Jordan without a doubt. Players like Kareem and Magic should be included in these more though, because there are a lot of really strong arguments that the G.O.A.T. actually isn’t LeBron or Jordan. I do think however that the debate should still be mostly center around Jordan and LeBron.