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A Herd of GOATs
Who's the best player in NBA history? There's several right answers.
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I don’t subscribe to Take Culture, I find it grossly unbecoming, and I think it has indelibly worsened sports media and especially NBA media. When Shaquille O’Neal, a childhood hero of mine (and I had the posters plural to prove it) uses a postgame interview to disparage Donovan Mitchell, aged 24, for being allegedly incapable to achieve a legacy like O’Neal’s (Shaq’s first NBA championship? 28 years old), there’s a serious problem with how we treat NBA players in the middle of their career.
Put it plain: There’s something deeply stupid about having this whole “legacy” argument at all, especially for players in the middle of their careers, and especially leaving it up to old guys who played basketball in a completely different set of rules and social expectations and/or non-athletic dorks with a trained vocal register.
Not naming names or anything.
I don’t like #hot #takes. I don’t like contrarianism. I think paying attention to keyboard warriors makes watching basketball less fun.
And I think LeBron James has done enough to be considered the best men’s basketball player of all time.
“But you just said” — yes, I just said. I also think there is a top echelon of men’s professional basketball players of all time, LeBron being one of them, and if you want to tell me that one of others is the GOAT, I may disagree, but I’ll understand, because there are certain advantages each of them have against everyone else, while having certain deficiencies. Depending on what you as a fan find most important, any of them are a sensible choice for the NBA’s GOAT, if you even want to choose one at all.
I don’t have Steph, Giannis, Durant, Kawhi or Harden on this list. But there’s room for them in the discussion in due time, if they earn their way in. It would be cool and good for the sport if they did! Anyway, here’s the list in alphabetical order.
ALL IN FAVOR: All-time career scoring leader, career minutes leader, and would almost certainly be the career block leader to this day if they were counted during his first four seasons in the NBA. 19-time All-Star, six-time MVP, six-time champion, and 11-time all-defensive team. Insanely durable; averaged 78 games per season in a 20-year career. Had the most iconic, unblockable shot of all time.
ALL OPPOSED: Wilt could block it, though. Finesse-heavy skill set and stoic demeanor on the court could lend the appearance of not trying his hardest. Cold to the public and press, and never developed the devoted fanbase that other top superstars enjoyed, despite his dominant play. “Only” a two-time Finals MVP, which, some of these guys have a few more. Some of those All-Star selections were a little perfunctory near the end of his career, weren’t they?
ALL IN FAVOR: Easily the most potent scorer in NBA history (obvious joke goes here), even had a 50-ppg season. Holds 72 NBA records, including scoring 100 points in a single game, and the career rebounding mark. Never fouled out of a game. Even once led the NBA in assists. Good enough to play pro ball under a pseudonym as a high schooler. So dominant the NBA had to change several rules to keep the game fair. Quite plausibly the most athletic player to ever put on an NBA jersey, even to this day.
ALL OPPOSED: Two (2) NBA championships, and lots of playoff losses, especially to another couple guys on this list. Gained a reputation, fair or not, for not elevating his teammates’ performance. An often-wretched free throw shooter, especially in the playoffs, with several seasons under 40% at the line. Hampered by a lack of footage of most of his greatest exploits, which make them seem unreliably mythic compared to modern superstars.
ALL IN FAVOR: Four rings and counting, and has four Finals MVP trophies to show for it (and it should be five). The most prolific playoff performer in NBA history — nobody’s won more playoff series or scored more playoff points, and he has the second-most playoff assists. Four-time MVP. Nine Finals appearances in the last 10 seasons, a streak only broken by injury shutdown. The only player in NBA history with 9,000 career rebounds and 9,000 career assists. Redefined player empowerment, both on and off the court.
ALL OPPOSED: Career still a work in progress. Six Finals losses (and counting?), for whatever it’s worth, and that’s more than anyone not named Jerry West or Elgin Baylor. Made a lot of folks really angry with that whole Taking My Talents To South Beach thing, and made it worse by never formally acknowledging the Miami fanbase after he went back to Cleveland. Maybe a little too powerful as a de facto GM, with a long list of fired coaches and traded players in his wake.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely — except when it comes to the absolute power of sharing this post with your entire address book. No, this button doesn’t do that for you, but you should want to do it anyway.
ALL IN FAVOR: Widely regarded as the best point guard of all time. Five-time champ in 13 seasons, four-time assist leader, three-time MVP, three-time Finals MVP. All-time playoff assist leader by nearly 500 over LeBron. Redefined the point guard position as a super-athletic dynamo who could play and guard all five positions on the court. Embodied “Showtime” as a basketball style and a mindset. Strong case to make as the best transition player in NBA history.
ALL OPPOSED: Couldn’t really dribble left-handed. Could not shoot from deep until a decade into his career. And okay — you obviously can’t tell someone (especially in 1991) that they shouldn’t have gotten HIV, but Magic was 32 and he got HIV. He’s fine now and that rules, but his early-mid 30s were stolen from his playing career and his legacy. And now there’s a young man in San Francisco who’s got his eye on that “Best PG Ever” mantle.
ALL IN FAVOR: The first singular mega-star of the NBA. Unmistakeable blend of showmanship and competitive fire. Best career points-per-game average in NBA history. “Air Jordan” redefined the multi-billion dollar shoe economy. Perfect 6-0 record in NBA Finals, over a span of seven seasons played. Elite scorer and an elite defender (third-most career steals ever). The poetic finality of The Shot. Decades later, still one of the most recognizable and influential personas in all of sports.
ALL OPPOSED: Only the fifth-best career scorer in the NBA, and barely in the top 100 in games played (even Shaq’s prodigious posterior spent more minutes on the court). 4 1/2 seasons in two early retirements before embarking on his final stint in the league. Never made a deep playoff run without Scottie Pippen, and the Bulls barely fell off during his first retirement. Didn’t endear himself to anyone in Washington. The gambling stuff. The bullying masqueraded as “competitiveness.” The weird jeans. The ego trip that was The Last Dance.
Did someone say ego trip? Subscribe to this completely free newsletter if you don’t do so already, you unwashed savages! Respectfully.
ALL IN FAVOR: 11 rings, like, come on. Five-time MVP. Second-most career rebounds in NBA history. Helped revolutionize the sport’s approach to defense, rebounding and verticality. The ultimate teammate and competitor, and plausibly the best defending big man ever. A winner at all levels of the sport (high school, college, Olympic and pro), including two Finals wins as player-coach. Won the Finals so often, they named the MVP trophy after him.
ALL OPPOSED: “Only” played 13 seasons. Not a particularly gifted scorer, especially compared to the others in this list. Most of the Finals wins came in seasons that only required two series victories. All but one of his 11 Finals wins were before they awarded Finals MVP awards, which isn’t his fault, but that last year they gave it to Jerry West in a losing effort.
So what makes someone the best basketball player of all time? Longevity? Dominance? Complete skills? Showmanship? Competitiveness? Rings?
I’m not here to settle anyone’s argument for them, because sports wouldn’t be fun to spectate that way. Again, I don’t think there’s one objective answer; just ways that people’s preferences arrange these things and ways that people perceive the more nebulous concepts in each of the players, especially the ones they were too young or far away to see live. If we all agreed, we’d have nothing to talk about.
To me, I’ll take Bron’s resume over the rest, and not just because I wrote the most words in that one. He’s got some of the best dunks, best buzzer beaters, best passes and best blocks of all time. He assumed a mantle of expectations unlike any prospect ever, straight out of high school, and surpassed them all. He’s still playing near his peak, in Year 18, as he approaches the fabled 50,000-minute mark. He’s been a near-annual fixture in the NBA Finals, in an era of cyclical team-building where that’s not supposed to be possible anymore. And he’s kept one of the squeakiest-clean reputations in the NBA, even in an era where everyone’s recording everything.
Those are the things that matter most to me, but who the hell am I? I’m just a guy who used to have a Twitter account.
Who’s your personal best NBA player of all time? Do you know who Cardi B’s favorite NBA player of all time? Mehmet OKURRRRRR!
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Thanks for joining me today. We’ll always end on a kind word.
Well, it’s March again. The last one… wasn’t… great. This one feels a little different, though; our Uncertainties have turned from how bad things will get, to if things will get better, to when things will get better. And we’re getting there, slowly and unsteadily, but it’s happening. Of course, “better” doesn’t mean “perfect” here; the latter doesn’t exist, other than in fleeting moments. But “better” means something too, something tangible and real, and something much closer to permanent. Keep hanging on, we’re getting there. If I can do it, I know you can too.