The G.O.A.T. Equation; How to Evaluate the Greats?
Winning at the highest level is one of the most common factors brought up when discussing the ‘greatest of all time’ in a sport. In theory, there’s no replacement for winning right?
Greatness in sports can be quantified in a whole lot of different ways. Winning is just one part of the G.O.A.T equation. Athletes can be evaluated as the greatest to ever play based on a handful of traits, accolades, and statistics that make them who they are.
For starters, individual success is a big indicator of greatness. Bill Russell won 11 NBA Championships as a player in the late 50s and 60s. That feat may never be matched again by a player (but this has been matched by player-coach Phil Jackson).
Being recognized as the best of a particular category in a sport is a huge accomplishment, even if it’s for one season. The Most Valuable Player award is generally awarded to the best player during a particular season. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the award a record six times throughout his career. Russell and Michael Jordan won it five times.
Consistent success throughout a career is also commonly associated with many of the greats to play a sport. Abdul-Jabbar won two NBA Finals MVPs 14 years apart! Tim Duncan won five NBA titles from the late 90s all the way into the mid 2010s. Jordan is the only NBA player to achieve two three-peat championships, all while also going six-for-six in NBA finals he participated in.
There are also the ‘rule-changers’ who influence the rules of a sport to change in order to negate an overwhelming advantage. Abdul-Jabbar infamously influenced the NCAA to implement a no-dunking rule in an effort to try and neutralize his dominance of the college basketball world. Charles Barkley’s bruising brand of back-to-the-basket basketball influenced the NBA’s implementation of the three-second back to the basket rule.
Aside from rule-changers, there are also a select amount of players that changed the way the game was played. The success these players achieved paved the way for new styles of play.
Jordan proved that a championship dynasty didn’t need to feature a star big man, opening the game up for other wings to dominate the early 2000s and onwards. Stephen Curry showed us that three points is infinitely greater than two, ushering in a new era of pace, space, and three-point wizardry league-wide.
Above all, to even be considered in the G.O.A.T conversation, the player needs to be a ‘floor raiser.’ A floor raiser is a player who raises the bar for team success, just by being on the roster.
Some would consider LeBron James to be the all-time best floor raiser, as he was, and still is capable of carrying some of the worst rosters to heights that seemed unimaginable. Allen Iverson was the same type of floor raiser during his lone MVP season.
Duncan is another player that pushed the envelope in terms of team success. Since being drafted, the San Antonio Spurs never missed the playoffs. He was the ultimate teammate, regarded highly by everyone that he played with.
To sum up the G.O.A.T equation, it seems that to be in the conversation, a player needs to be first and foremost: a winner. Titles say a lot, and the best of the best have multiple rings. Being the best player in the league is also a clear indicator of a G.O.A.T type player, having been the best in the league at some-point in their career.
Finally, the G.O.A.T has to have some sort of influence, either in how the game is officiated, or in how the game is played, all while sustaining a level of consistency.
Who’s the G.O.A.T then?
Based on the G.O.A.T equation, and based on many basketball pundits, Michael Jordan is considered the G.O.A.T of professional basketball.
Jordan ticks off most (debatable) if not all of the boxes in the equation. He was a consistent force in the league since his rookie year. Despite struggling in the NBA playoffs early on, he battled against some of the all-time greats before he reached his peak. Those battles are what arguably made his drive to surpass them even greater.
The Last Dance docuseries (despite some considering it biased, and rightfully so) showed why Jordan should be considered the greatest to ever play. He defeated all his rivals in the 90s, and achieved all that could be accomplished within the 94-feet of hardwood.
It seems pretty safe to say Jordan is the G.O.A.T of basketball right?
Well a lot of people under the age of 22 would say otherwise. For the generation that grew up after Jordan’s prime dominance ended, there are a couple players they would consider the G.O.A.T. over MJ.
The names I’ve heard the most (being a 21-year old basketball junkie myself) are Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. They are without question the most popular NBA players since Jordan, and also some of the most successful. They achieved similar success to Jordan throughout their NBA careers.
Bryant has five NBA titles, and one MVP. James has three NBA titles and four MVPs. The popular argument against LeBron or Kobe being the G.O.A.T is that they didn’t go undefeated in the NBA Finals like Jordan.
End of conversation? No not really. LeBron’s playoff success in the early rounds of the NBA playoffs is a popular counter argument to Jordan’s six-for-six titles point.
There will always be a counter argument to someone’s claim to the title of greatest to ever play.
So why is there no consensus G.O.A.T?
I acknowledge why many basketball fans consider Michael Jordan the G.O.A.T. He has all the necessary accomplishments, traits, and statistics to supplement his claim to the moniker as the greatest.
Even so I never got to watch Jordan play live. Being born in the middle of his last campaign in Chicago, I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Jordan’s last season at his peak. That fact alone already makes me somewhat hesitant to call Michael Jordan the G.O.A.T.
My generation knows Jordan as a brand. His shoes will eventually outlast his basketball legacy 100 years from now. My generation either watched his Wizard days in Washington, or if they’re even younger, only know about Jordan’s basketball career due to his recent docuseries.
It’s definitely possible to watch his games with the power of the internet, but there’s a different feeling to watching games live, where the outcome has to be decided by the players in the game, in real time.
That’s why there are seniors in barbershops who claim that Elgin Baylor is the greatest to ever play basketball. They would reference his playoff scoring record, and dominance of the game in the 60s. Same goes for a handful of players that played during the early eras of the game.
People will always call players in the era they witnessed as the greatest. Regardless of era, people will always have a bias to the era they watched live. Hence why a lot of generation-Z basketball fans regard LeBron James or Kobe Bryant as the G.O.A.T.
This bias is also generally applied to the styles of basketball played during eras. A lot of people, mostly aged anywhere from 25-40 usually argue that the NBA basketball that was played during the late 80s to late 90s was by far the most difficult and physically taxing to play in.
That argument is usually supplemented by the sentiment that it was the most difficult for teams to win during this era due to the way the game was played, and subsequently the notion that players in the present day wouldn’t be able to win in the 90s era, and players in the 90s could win in any era, vice versa.
The game of basketball has evolved greatly since Dr. James Naismith set up his peach baskets in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Players in the 50s weren’t even allowed to have elaborate dribbling skills as the rules only allowed them to dribble vertically, limiting them from innovative moves that would come later like the killer crossover.
That caveat alone makes it difficult to compare players between eras. Bill Russell played in a league where there weren’t as many teams, making the path to an NBA title shorter. There is also a popular misconception that a lot of short guys played in the NBA during the early eras. Rather than being short, they were actually tall, but arguably not as skilled as a lot of players in the league today.
And that’s where the league is today. An emphasis on skill, three-point marksmanship, elaborate dribble combos, and hyper athleticism is the norm. The game now favours the offensive side of the ball, as evident in various rule changes throughout the last 10 years.
Medicine and technology have also evolved, allowing players to condition their bodies to play basketball at maximum effectiveness. And while the advancements have allowed players to play more basketball, players are also getting injured at an alarming, never seen before rate. Many transcendent talents had their careers cut short due to injury in the last two decades. It could just be the sign of the times, as children aiming to become basketball pros are playing the game constantly, if not too much in the AAU circuit.
Regardless of what era, or player you support as the greatest, one common thread holds us all together. Time. As time passes, the people who once sat in barbershops recalling the heroics of Jerry West or Elgin Baylor will eventually be gone.
The same goes for anyone. Whether you support Kareem, Jordan, LeBron, or Kobe as the G.O.A.T all of those arguments will eventually be lost to father time, who is undefeated.
Sports, technology, and medicine will continue to evolve. Who knows, maybe in the 2050s (if pro basketball is still being played) it will be the norm to have 30 year careers. There could be a four-point line, further bolstering the offensive statistics of players in the future.
That’s why the G.O.A.T conversation will never end. It will go on forever because the NBA has shown a willingness to evolve, to put out a more entertaining product for the fans. With that evolution, more players that will make their own claims to be the greatest of all time. And that’s okay.