Culture of Hoops

GOAT Week: The Greatest Basketball Player

Screen capture courtesy of the NBA/YouTube.

Screen capture courtesy of the NBA/YouTube.

Hardwood and Hollywood’s G.O.A.T. Week is a series of posts on various categories to be published in two-week period. Yes, there were so many categories, we had to do two weeks, not one! Here’s the schedule: August 7th – Basketball PlayerFootball Player; August 8th – Drama Film, Ending to a Film; August 9th – Sports Announcer, Sports Cult Hero; August 10th – Baseball Player, Movie Athlete; August 11th – Ending to a TV Series, HBO TV Series; August 14th – Movie Actor, Movie Actress; August 15th – TV Series, Album; August 16th – Comedy Film, Film Franchise; August 17th – TV Actor, TV Actress; August 18th – Musician, One Hit Wonder 

Sonny Giuliano – LeBron James 

Here’s the great thing about Hardwood & Hollywood’s GOAT Week(s), and opinions about sports and pop culture in general … I don’t expect everybody to agree with what I say. I suspect that over the course of the next two weeks I’ll offer plenty of opinions that are agreed upon by a large portion of our readership, but it’s really no sweat off my back if not one single person agrees with my takes, because there really isn’t any way to prove me wrong (or right).

I’ve argued the GOAT candidacy of LeBron James many times in the past, so at this point I’d be nothing but a hypocrite if I said anyone else. My case for LeBron James as the NBA’s GOAT is rooted in a trio of statements. The first statement is declarative and opinionated, and this will be the most important statement. The second statement is a philosophical question, so it’s actually not really a statement, but the fact I’m asking the question in this context makes it a statement. The third statement is speculative but fact based, and that’s the second most important statement. Alright, let’s go.

Statement #1: Ever since I almost simultaneously discovered NBA League Pass and YouTube about ten years ago, I’ve made it my life’s mission to watch as much basketball, past and present, as I could. During the regular season I watch NBA League Pass on a nightly basis, and I’ve watched probably three quarters of the full NBA games on YouTube that feature greats of the past like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, etc. not only for my own personal enjoyment, but also so I could partake in these sort of barroom debates about basketball that existed before I was alive. After God knows how many hours of watching basketball, my conclusion is that LeBron James is the most impressive, well-rounded and “best” basketball I’ve ever seen. The emboldened text right there is Statement #1. I wrote a lot of words before I got to the point, so I felt the need to clarify.

Statement #2: Remember, this one is a philosophical question: Why do NBA fans seemingly have a difficult time comprehending that even if LeBron James never wins another NBA Title, his legacy will not be damaged by more Finals losses? This mindset just baffles me. Every time I hear someone say something along the lines of “Well, LeBron lost again in the Finals. That’s a big knock on his legacy,” I can’t help but wonder if they are stupid enough to then follow that up with, “He’d be better off losing in Round 1,” as if bowing out before the NBA Finals is the preferred option of anybody within the NBA.

If this is your mode of thinking and you have been reading along, I sincerely hope you don’t get offended when I say that your opinion is the kind of opinion that I don’t in nearly any walk of life. You’re operating on a very basic (and sad, and misinformed, and Skip Bayless-esque) level, and as Kendrick Lamar told us, there are levels to this.

Statement #3: There is a very real chance that LeBron James will boast the most extraordinary statistical resume of any player in NBA history when he retires. Allow me a moment to become a stat nerd.

As of right now, these are the notable statistical categories where LeBron James currently ranks in the Top 25 in NBA history:

Regular Season: Player Efficiency Rating (2nd all-time), Points Per Game (5th), Points (7th), Minutes Per Game (7th), Assists (12th), Free Throws Made (12th), Steals (20th), Minutes (25th), Assists Per Game (25th)

There is a very good chance LeBron James could end up in the Top 10 All-Time in Points, Assists, Steals, Minutes, PER, and Free Throws Made … Nobody Else has done this, or come particularly close. 

As of right now, these are the notable statistical categories where LeBron James currently ranks in the Top 5 in NBA Playoff history:

Playoffs: Points (1st), Free Throws Made (1st), Steals (2nd), Three-Pointers (2nd), Player Efficiency Rating (3rd), Assists (3rd), Points Per Game (5th), Rebounds (7th)

No Player in NBA history is in the Top 7 in all eight of these categories. Nope, not even MJ. 

Mike Cortez – LeBron James

Michael Jordan’s ghost has been omnipresent since he retired (the second time). Since then every star’s implicit mission has been to catch MJ. During his return to Cleveland LeBron James finally chased down the unchaseable. When he fulfilled the mission of being Cleveland’s savior–bestowed upon him as a 16 year old mind you– in 2016 the weight of that title carried more weight than anyone MJ won. To live up to that ludicrous of a legend is one of the greatest sports accomplishments.

(Before you get up in arms about MJ having six rings, just know if you want to play the rings game Bill Russell or some washed Celtic would be considered the GOAT.)

The way LeBron has dominated the league is something that you see once a in a lifetime if you’re lucky. He is the epitome of queen of the chessboard. He effects the game in every possible way–both on the court and off the court. No player gained as much power over his own destiny and imposed his own will on the court. If LeBron wanted to he could go to any team he wants and probably make the playoffs. If he wants to play any position he could do it at the highest level.

In addition to his requisite accolades–including three rings, three Finals MVPs, all-time playoff scoring leader, four MVPs and much more– he cleaned out the Eastern Conference. He has made seven straight Finals with no sign of slowing down. This has caused a mass exodus west where he could go next season and clean that conference out as well.

Dan Le Batard summarized LeBron’s legacy perfectly when mentioned that the NBA version of the Avengers, the Warriors, had to form in order to dethrone him. The scary thing is he has yet to show any signs of slowing down. He looks like he can play another ten seasons if he wanted. The more time he stays the more separation he gains from the field. Just remember to thank God that he let you live at the same time LeBron played basketball.

Image courtesy of Jason H. Smith/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Jason H. Smith/Flickr.

Tyler Birss – Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is the quickest and seemingly most commonly used go-to answer to the question of basketball GOAT. In a current sports world full of misinformation and horrid hot takes, this is one popular opinion that actually rings true for valid reasons. There’s the dominance (30-6-5 career numbers), the six titles, the clutch reliability, and the iconic status, for starters.

Being revered doesn’t necessarily make one the greatest of any sport, but it’s important to keep in mind why that aura exists around the player in the first place. Jordan ascended to god status in the basketball world since he completely owned his era, a time frame that featured the likes of Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and countless other legends who largely went ringless because of MJ’s existence. I strongly feel that MJ and LeBron James are the two greatest basketball players ever and a firm case can be made for either individual. I also don’t feel as if comparing the 6-0 Jordan Finals record to the 3-5 Finals record of James should be the deciding factor.

However, where Jordan has the edge is in the area of consistency in the biggest moments. James is also one of the most clutch basketball players ever, but he wasn’t of equal clutch status to Jordan. When it comes to two legends separated by little, I have to get picky. For James, his Cleveland Cavaliers being swept in the 2007 Finals by the San Antonio Spurs hurts him against Jordan. Yes, those Spurs were excellent and Cleveland never had a realistic chance of winning the series, but being swept in the Finals is a huge negative for any legend. You HAVE to at least snag one game out of sheer will alone. There’s also the disappearing act James had in the 2011 Finals showdown when his Miami Heat squad took on the Dallas Mavericks. For all James has gained back in his Finals dominance following that failure, it’s a memorable letdown that can’t be forgotten in the GOAT debate.

Again, I know how picky this sounds, and I fully acknowledge the playoff greatness and overall excellence of James, but his shortcomings stand out when compared to a player who was more consistent when it mattered most. Jordan never had a ghostly showing in the Finals. It’s Jordan, James, then everybody else, but for the battle of the top spot, Jordan deserves to be placed ahead of James. MJ’s consistent dominance on the biggest stages is on a higher level than the mostly dominant but occasionally faltering performances from James.

Dennis Velasco – Michael Jordan

I like the case made by Tyler above and will supplement it a bit. I’m old enough to have seen both Michael Jordan and LeBron James in their primes. The argument that Jordan owned his area with all of its talented pool of players is an excellent point by Tyler. While LeBron can be dominating, he never displayed that palpable sheer will and determination through a television set or in front of your eyes like Jordan did. Everyone in the arena in the world watching knew that Jordan was going to take over a game and, the worst part (well not for those of us watching other than fans of the other team), so did his defenseless opponents.

Of course Jordan had clutch passes for title wins after reading/reacting to the defense, but you knew he wanted the rock and cram it in the defense’s face. I never got that feeling from LeBron. Of course, he would make the right passes too, but it felt logically smart. Not “keen as an assassin’s blade dipped in poison” smart like Jordan. Of course, maybe it’s preference, but the numbers also support Jordan’s case. His indomitable will and mentality are only an aside, but a significant one to consider if you consider the numbers being even, which I don’t.

Another thing to also consider, and this is just as important as the above point – Jordan pioneered cultures, plural. The sneaker game, beverage game, screen (movies and television) game, and the game game. The way everyone wants to shoot a trey now because of Steph Curry, back in the day, everyone wanted to dunk because of Jordan. Everyone wanted to wear long shorts because of Jordan. Heck, some people I knew started sticking their tongues out when they drove to the basket like Jordan. There’s no denying the visibility he brought to the NBA. Without Jordan, maybe there would be no LeBron in terms of off-the-court possibilities. It reminds me of a quote I heard a while back, and unfortunately, I can’t attribute it to anyone, but I certainly didn’t make it up. It goes something like this, “My records may be broken someday, but I’ll always be the first to do it.” Now, that’s a GOAT thing to say, isn’t it?



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