Evaluating Greatness in Basketball

When you ask who the greatest basketball player of all time is, the vast majority of people will answer Michael Jordan. It’s the easy answer, and for now, it’s probably the right one. However, you might hear a few other names according to the ideology of the person you’re asking, in terms of assessing how ‘great’ a player is. There’s not a consensus on how to judge a player’s greatness, because there are so many factors to consider. Championships, stats, and style of play are all influential in determining who is great. That said, there are a couple distinct contingents of people that are defined  by their philosophies regarding basketball greatness:


1.) It’s All About Rings, Baby

This ideology is extremely popular, particularly amongst old school fans and former players. If the Greatest Of All Time is the player with the most rings, then Bill Russell is him, and it’s not even close. On the surface, this is a fair way to look at things. Winning a championship is the most significant part of professional basketball, so having NBA rings must indicate consistent excellence and effort on the court. Unfortunately, this argument falls apart if you try to apply the principle to anyone besides Russell. Is the worst player with a ring greater than the best player without one? Would you take Brian Scalabrine, who played zero minutes and zero seconds in the 2008 finals and won, over Charles Barkley, who carried the Phoenix Suns to the finals against a Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls team in 1993 and lost? And that’s just regarding the playoffs — there are players in the league today that have never had  postseason success, such as Chris Paul, one of the best point guards ever who has yet to reach the conference finals,  and DeMarcus Cousins, a multi-time All-Star for the Kings who has never appeared in a playoff game, who are without doubt better, more impressive, and ‘greater’ basketball players than some recent champions.


2.) It’s In the Numbers

This is tough to argue against, partially because it’s so obvious, and partially because there are so many layers to it. Kareem is the G.O.A.T because he’s scored the most points of any player in NBA history.  Wilt Chamberlain is the G.O.A.T because he averaged 50 points, 26 rebounds, and 48 minutes per game all in the same season.  Tyson Chandler is the G.O.A.T because he had a true shooting % of  70.8 in the 2011-2012 season. All of these are valid, except maybe that last one.  The point remains, though: basketball statistics have so much depth and can be used to describe so many aspects of a player’s game that they have to be taken into consideration when judging the greatness of a player. There is a virtual sea of metrics that can be used to evaluate players: Box Plus-Minus, Player Efficiency Rating, Value over Replacement Player, Win Shares, and Offensive and Defensive Rating, just to name a few.


This brings us back to Michael Jordan. He has the second most NBA championship victories in history with six, and he also has the stats to back it up. He led the league in scoring ten times, and averaged 37.1 points per game in the 1986-87 season. He finished his career with a Player Efficiency Rating of 27.9 (for reference, the league average is 15.) He won the MVP award five times, and appeared on the All-NBA first team ten times. What’s interesting is that, despite not being the ‘best’ in either the rings category or the numbers category, he’s regarded as the greatest to ever play. He’s able to draw recognition and admiration from people of both camps because his immense talent resulted in absurd numbers as well as championship success. LeBron James in another player in this vein. He has three championships and is very possibly on his way to a fourth, and has been to the NBA Finals for seven straight years, all the while putting up impressive numbers and accruing four MVP awards.  


There’s also something more intangible that adds to the greatness of these players. Some players have it, and some players don’t: The Clutch Gene. Games that go down to the wire are categorically more exciting than games that don’t, and the plays and events that occur in Crunch Time become automatically more impactful and memorable. The few players that are able to serially make their mark in these kinds of games often transcend normal basketball stardom and earn a place in the higher echelon of hooping greatness. Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, and LeBron James all have the ‘it’ factor when it comes to tight games. Reggie Miller isn’t most known for scoring eight points in nine seconds because of the accomplishment itself, but because he singlehandedly turned the tide of a game in which his team was down six with less than 20 seconds left to go.


So, taking this all into account, what makes a player great?  Championships, stats, or memorable moments in crunch time? The answer is evident when we consider who represents the highest tier of basketball players — people that very few will argue are some of the best ever: Jordan, Magic, Russell, Kareem, Wilt, LeBron, Bird, West, and Kobe, just to name a few. Bill Russell has the rings but not the stats (although 15 points and 22 rebounds per game are nothing to sneeze at), and Wilt Chamberlain has the stats but not the rings, but those we acknowledge as all-time greats in basketball tend to win, make games worth watching, and put up excellent numbers along the way. This may be an unsatisfying answer, but that reflects the subjective nature of determining greatness. But who knows, maybe someday there will be a player that will surpass 11 championships AND put up unprecedented stats AND make his name through clutch performances, effectively putting the debate to rest.  

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