Who’s the NBA’s greatest of all-time?

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Photo courtesy of the New York Times

With the question of LeBron James’ retirement somewhat imminent, the debate for the greatest basketball player of all time has commenced once again. Other contestants in this unsettled debate include Michael Jordan, the Championship-winning juggernaut who played the majority of his career for the Chicago Bulls in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the late Kobe Bryant, who plagued enemy teams with his “Mamba Mentality.” Before settling on who the “GOAT” is, we must bring to light the qualifications for this title.

It is argued that basketball is the least team-sport-like of the major team sports. A single player can contribute greatly to a team’s win column. In basketball, there are only five players on the court on each team, as opposed to the nine players on the baseball field or  11 on the football field. Fewer players puts more of an onus on the individual players to produce a win for their team. Thus, there is more pressure on a single player to win a championship than in other sports. 

In baseball, there exists the omnibus statistic WAR (Wins Above Replacement) that measures a player’s total worth. The stat revolves around the idea that if one were to replace a certain player, then the WAR of that player measures his total contribution to the team’s wins. 

Consider Mike Trout, the MLB’s best player. The Los Angeles Angels’ center fielder has accumulated one of the highest career WARs of any player to ever play the game, yet he has only made the playoffs once. If you contrast the best all-around players in football or baseball those in basketball, you can see the disconnect. 

With four championship rings on his hand, James is currently the best player in the NBA.At the moment he stands third in all time, scoring, in 17 seasons in the game. Jordan, who played 15 seasons, pulled off the impressive feat of winning six rings in an eight-year span. Jordan never lost the finals, while James has lost six times. Bryant won the finals five times, losing only twice; he played 20 seasons, all for the Lakers. 

If we are to decide  who the best NBA player is, it ought not be based just on the records he breaks or where he ranks statistically, but how impactful he was to his team’s overall wins and playoff successes. 

It will be difficult to get closure on this debate, but in time, James will retire and we can then more clearly see who the alpha player is. There is also the possibility that a rising star such as Luka Dončić may enter the fray of the debate. In the words of the owl of the Tootsie Roll Pop commercial, “the world may never know.”

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