The Problem with the Perception of Greatness in the NBA


I love the one-on-one nature the NBA takes on. It’s the only major sport where the two best players on both teams can meet up over and over again. As fun as quarterbacking and pitching duels are, those guys don’t really play against each other (well pitchers hit in baseball, but you get the point).

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In basketball, the titans of the game meet up. Again. And again. And then a couple dozen more times, every game. Great players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James face off on both offense and defense, meaning that a player has the unique opportunity to dominate his matchup for literally their entire time in the game.

One fun aspect of the NBA’s inherent focus on individual matchups is the conversation about the Greatest of All-Time (shortened to GOAT), and greatness in general. Many NBA scholars have attempted to rank the NBA’s present and past players by their individual greatness, and despite their being five positions (that are becoming slowly outdated) it’s fairly possible to establish a sort-of definitive list in a way the other sports can’t really do.

Jan 31, 2015; Memphis, TN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) attempts a shot defended by Memphis Grizzlies forward Jeff Green (32) at FedExForum. Memphis defeated Oklahoma City 85-74. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is beautiful that way. Arguments over who exactly is the greatest player will of course never end, and that’s a good thing. Questions with definitive answers aren’t interesting for long–questions open to debate and discussion are interesting for as long as there’re people to discuss and debate them.

But there’s one big problem with the people discussing and debating greatness in NBA basketball–they typecast their greats. Ever since the most-common answer for the NBA GOAT–Michael Jordan, of course–came along, we’ve all been comparing each and every rising star to Jordan.

And that’s both dumb and logical, in seperate ways. It’s logical because everybody loved watching Michael Jordan play basketball. He might be the greatest, and he was certainly one of the most entertaining and flashy players ever to suit up in the Association.

He also won six NBA titles through two different three-peats and dominated the NBA in a way few have ever come close to doing. This is all undeniably true about Jordan. But just because he won his games with his deadly scoring and carried his teams doesn’t make him necessarily greater than a player who instead strives to make all of his teammates better and doesn’t need to run the show.

LeBron James is, right now, not greater than Jordan (in my opinion). He’s up there, but he’s not contending for the top spot yet. LeBron’s pure domination of the modern NBA is evidenced by the fact that he’s even close, considering he’s just 30 years old.

Jun 16, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) shoots against Golden State Warriors forward

Harrison Barnes

(40) and guard

Stephen Curry

(30) during the third quarter of game six of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

I have no problem with the general consensus being that Jordan (and even Kobe Bryant) are greater players than LeBron. Greatest and best are two separate terms, and greatness has a lot to do with winning championships and your long-term career accomplishments.

Both Jordan and Kobe have more rings than LeBron, and they both put more years into dominating the NBA during their respective eras. Of course LeBron isn’t there yet, he hasn’t had the time.

I do have a big problem with other reasons people find to knock LeBron (and others) off out of the GOAT conversation. The so-called “clutch factor” that LeBron supposedly lacks, or his rumored lack of scoring as compared to the other two.

The only problems with those reasons is that they’re just wrong, and also pretty stupid. Just because LeBron’s strengths are more nuanced and varied than simply scoring does not mean he’s an inferior player. I would argue the opposite–his ability to contribute in multiple ways means he can fit into literally any team by doing whatever will help the team the most.

He’s like an NBA utility knife, but instead of corkscrews and nail files he has passing, rebounding, defense and yes, scoring. LeBron is so great that he can literally adjust his game during the NBA Finals based on his own analysis of his teammates strengths and weaknesses.

An example of this: on the stacked Miami Heat teams that LeBron won two titles with, he averaged 16.3 attempted field goals per 36 minutes. In the 2015 NBA Finals when his injury-decimated Cleveland Cavaliers had no other scoring option, LeBron averaged 23.2 field goal attempts per 36.

Hilariously enough, that adaptation to his teammates by LeBron is often used as a knock on him, as though he should’ve either passed more to teammates who couldn’t score in Cleveland, pass less to offensively-gifted star teammates in Miami, or both.

It’s like making the intelligent decision is a bad move, and missing a double-covered three-point attempt is some romanticized, glorious act. Well, in the age of analytics and more so just logic, those things are untrue. Unfortunately, things like being a good teammate and most statistics aside from points per game and championships are underrated when it comes to the GOAT conversation. I’d like to change that.  

Dec 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) shoots the ball over Oklahoma City Thunder guard Andre Roberson (21) at Staples Center. The Thunder won 104-103. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Using the Kobe/Jordan over LeBron analysis as an example really shows how overrated scoring, rings and dramatic moments are as a barometer of greatness in the NBA. Let’s list the advantages LeBron has so far in his career over both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant:

LeBron has a better true shooting percentage, better three-point percentage, better two-point percentage, more assists per 100 possessions, more rebounds per 100 possessions and gives up the least points among the three per 100 possessions.

He’s tied with Jordan in blocks per 100 possessions and scores just 3.5 points less than MJ–and 0.9 more points than Kobe–per 100 possessions. So much for not being a scorer, then.

So with LeBron having a clear advantage in several categories–defense, scoring efficiency, rebounding and passing–that means all the two legendary shooting guards clearly have over him at this stage is longevity, dramatic moments and rings.

I’m not saying LeBron James is the greatest ever because stats are only one part of the conversation, but to ignore his greatness is stupid. And people do it every day.

The toxic aspect of that one-on-one nature of basketball I love so much is that people sometimes become enveloped in those singular matchups and forget that each great player was surrounded by four teammates on the floor at any given time, and their successes and failures are as indicative of greatness as the player in general.

After all, where’s the big difference in carrying a struggling team and elevating struggling players to a higher level to move forward? Both seem to achieve the same goal–one just uses the resources at hand, while the other spurns them.

Apr 19, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) shoots the ball against Los Angeles Clippers forward Glen Davis (0) during the second quarter in game one of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The effect a certain player has on their surroundings is far too often ignored when it comes to evaluating greatness–why are players like Tim Duncan and LeBron James so often viewed as lesser than Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, if they simply achieved their shared goal–winning basketball games–through different means?

I humbly posit they they shouldn’t be, and that things like making an entire team play better and more cohesively and the statistics that don’t make highlight reels as often (when’s the last time you watched four minutes of technically excellent rebounding, or passing, or on-ball defense, or anything besides scoring and occasionally blocking?) should be valued just as much as dynamic scoring and leading your team to victory from the front.

After all, the various things I just mentioned are merely a means to an end. Championships are the obvious answer, but that’s a little flawed too–situations are ever-changing in the NBA, including both teammate quality and the depth of talent in both conferences at any given point.

No, the end that all players are ultimately striving towards is greatness itself. That’s why the true greats fight just as hard in Game 7 as they do opening night–there’s no championship trophy for your average regular season game, but greatness is on the line every single night.

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