In today’s talking head, 24-hour sports news cycle there are some assumptions that have become common knowledge. Most notably, the Greatest Basketball Player of All-Time is Michael Jordan and LeBron James is chasing him. For James to catch Jordan what must he do? How far ahead is Jordan from the rest of the all-time field?
I’m even going to take that a step further. Can we claim Michael Jordan is the Greatest of All Time?
How do we quantify greatness in a basketball player is where we will start. Individually the most important stats are Career Points, Points per Game (PPG), Rebounds, Rebounds per Game (RPG), Blocks, Blocks per Game (BPG), Assists, Assists per Game (APG) and MVP awards. As a team NBA Finals appearances and NBA Championships impact an individual’s legacy.
In researching the GOAT, I narrowed it down to 9 individuals that have claimed (or at least I have heard claimed) to the highest accolade. There career totals and averages were organized and their ranking against all-time basketball players is recorded. By Championships they are ranked in relation to each other.
The players that have been included for consideration are as follows (in no particular order)
- Lebron James
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Michael Jordan
- Wilt Chamberlain
- Magic Johnson
- Oscar Robertson
- Bill Russell
- Shaquille O’Neal
- Kobe Bryant
Let’s begin with Michael Jordan since he is the assumed greatest by those who have the largest microphones.
When we compare him with the other members of this list his stance of greatest of all time seems much weaker than common knowledge would have you believe. His career totals only lead the NBA in one category, Points per Game. In Points, he is 4th behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant. Career Points and Points per Game are the only individual honors he even cracks the all-time top ten. His 5 MVP’s ties him for 2nd All-Time. Bill Russell also had 5 yet Kareem Abdul-Jabbar earned the most with 6.
As for team accolades his 6 Final Appearances looks woeful next to Bill Russell (12) or Jabbar (10). His 6 championship wins is pretty good, it’s not Russell’s 11, but ties with Jabbar and is better than most.
Looking at Jordan’s case from an empirical perspective it is obvious he doesn’t run away from the field. Actually, objectively he doesn’t measure up to a lot of other greats. His 6 for 6 in NBA Finals is impressive until compared with Russell’s 11 of 12.
If it’s not Jordan, then who is LeBron James chasing?
Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Jabbar’s case from the statistical evidence looks to be the strongest. He is 1st in Points, 1st in MVPs, 3rd in Blocks, 3rd in Rebounds and 8th in RPG. He makes 5 different individual statistical records. He has the second most Finals Appearances and has 6 Championships with 2 separate franchises.
Being the leader in the most important individual stat, points, is the most impressive because it also highlights his longevity. When it comes to team accolades his 6 of 10 in NBA Finals with both the Lakers and the Bucks looks much better than Jordan’s.
Jabbar beats Jordan in every statistical or objective determinate as the better basketball player.
Who could challenge Jabbar?
Chamberlain, like Russell, is such a hard one to determine since so many of the stats we site here were not recorded in Chamberlain and Russell’s time. Yet, even so, Chamberlain’s impact on the game of basketball can still be seen in the record books. He leads all of basketball with Rebounds and RPG and is second to Jordan in PPG. Blocks were not recorded when he played, but with the Rebounding leader, it is hard to imagine his blocking record would not have cracked the Top 10. Yet we cannot credit someone for something we do not know. He is 5th in the all-time points list and 4th on the MVP list.
Chamberlain’s biggest knock has he only won 2 NBA Titles in his 6 appearances. Chamberlain was engaged in the greatest rivalry of basketball and his rival may have been inferior to him in individual stats but clearly outpaced him in team accolades.
That rival was Bill Russell.
Russell only makes 3 All-Time Top 10 individual lists, Rebounds, RPG and MVPs. He is 2nd in all of them. He does not crack the top 10 in points and like Chamberlain, Blocks were not yet recorded when he retired. But being 2nd in those three important categories is impressive, seeing that he follows Chamberlain in the Rebounding categories and only Jabbar in the MVPs.
It’s Russell’s team accolades that are hard to fathom. He went to 12 NBA Finals in his 13-year career and won 11 of them. Seriously, that stat alone may be enough to crown him the greatest of all time.
The Boston Celtics were a playoff team when he was drafted but did not win the Title until he was on the team. The season after Russell retired, the Celtics did not have a .500 record. The Celtics have gone on to be a powerhouse in the NBA, but the Russell teams were just that, Russell’s teams. They could not win without him. And they won 11 with him.
We took a look at his Game 7 stats which are awe-inspiring here.
This is going to sound comical, but let’s see how Shaq measures up with Jabbar, Chamberlain, and Russell. Individually he has no Top 5s in stats, he makes the Top 10 in points (8th) and Blocks (8th). He only won the MVP once. His 4 championships are not impressive next to Jabbar or Russell. Even his 6 Finals appearances match Chamberlain but sits behind the other three.
The biggest argument for Shaq is his ability to win with multiple organizations, but Jabbar did that with much better individual and team results. So, it is comical to compare Shaq to the other three.
If not Shaq who else?
Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson
Robertson and Johnson as guards have different stats that matter.
Robertson was a phenomenal player, yet his career overlapped with Chamberlain and Russell. As already said, Russell kept winning allowing little room for either Robertson or Chamberlain to win on the team category. They also monopolized the MVP awards allowing Robertson only 1 in his illustrious career. I think it’s fair to say that Chamberlain, Russell, and Robertson form the toughest competition of the crew playing each other.
Robertson is the most versatile player on this list. In his second season in the league, he accomplished the amazing triple-double average. He averaged 30 PPG, 12.5 RPG, and 11.4 assists. A season like that did not earn him the MVP that year astounding enough it went to Bill Russell.
Robertson has the 6th most Assists All-Time and the 4th Assist average while also having the 10th most points per game. Having 3 top 10s is pretty impressive yet not enough to compete with Jabbar, Chamberlain or Russell. He was also contemporaries with Russell and Chamberlain and lost in MVPs to both of them and NBA Finals and Championships.
Magic Johnson played with the great Kareem, so his Finals Appearances and NBA Titles are pretty good, he was 5 of 9. He also won 3 MVP awards. He is the APG leader and 5th for All-Time Assists. But most contemporaries believed Jabbar to be the better player as they played on the same team, he certainly had more points and better stats by his position than Magic did. And though Johnson and Jabbar are the only teammates on the list that is more a detraction to Jabbar than an asset to Johnson.
Neither of the point guards could match the Centers in an All-Time List.
Really? If someone tries to make this point smack them. He’s only 3rd in points with only 1 MVP in his career. His 5 Championships do not look good when you compare him to the All-Time Greats.
I think we’ve spent enough time on that matter.
So what does Lebron need to do on his quest for All-Time Greatness? Well, his points are still on the rise and if he can pass Jabbar, of course, that will put him in the conversation. He is over 7,000 points behind Jabbar, so it’s not a walk in the park. His Points per Game is 5th all-time at 27.2, it seems hard to believe that average will increase as his career goes on, but perhaps he can.
It is his MVP’s that I find most intriguing. A quick look at MVPs finds such a flaw in putting too much stock in MVPs and James is an obvious example of the flaws here. Lebron hasn’t won an MVP since 2013. Since then Kevin Durant has won it, Steph Curry twice and Russell Westbrook, yet how many of them would we honestly say is the better player than James? Maybe Curry in 2015, maybe Westbrook last season, but those are maybes. This could just exhibit how hard it is to win the MVP (we could also remember Oscar Robertson) and the prestige that goes with winning multiples. James currently sits with 4, one behind Jordan and Russell and 2 back from Jabbar. If he could equal or pass Jabbar in the MVP trophies you’d have to start considering him more seriously.
In the NBA Finals appearances, 8 is a highly respectable number. Jabbar has 10 and Russell has 12. If he could go to 2 or 4 more Finals we could seriously consider him. The problem on the Finals debate is Russell’s 11 of 12 in 13 years is just so impressive. If it’s all about winning it all how do you compete with a guy like that?
Here was an objective look at the Greatest Basketball Player of All-Time. There are debates to be made about many of them, Jabbar, Chamberlin, and Russell obviously being the cream of this crop. Which order you put them in, where Jordan and Lebron fall behind them is up for rancorous debate. But before having the debate, make sure you know the facts that the stats have.