Settling the GOAT Debate in the NBA

According to Google’s dictionary the goat is: “a hardy domesticated ruminant animal that has backward curving horns and (in the male) a beard. It is kept for its milk and meat and is noted for its lively and frisky behavior”. To NBA fans however, the GOAT has a much less cut and dried definition. Some fans allow their preference for a certain era of basketball to cloud their judgement. Others place more emphasis on championships and team success, than just individual skill. Personally, I believe there are ONLY two ways to determine who is the greatest NBA player of all-time. Option 1: focus 100% on individual skill level and versatility, while placing minimal emphasis on team accomplishments. Option 2: try to find a happy medium of consistent team success and individual dominance, this is obviously a more traditional approach. Today we will examine several players, who I believe satisfy requirements for either Option 1 or Option 2.

Option 1: Individual Brilliance

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Kobe Bryant:

My favorite player of all-time spent 20 seasons in the purple & gold, displaying arguably the highest individual skill level the NBA has ever seen. This unique display of individual brilliance is why I included Kobe in Option 1, despite Kobe being a five time champion. The accolades and team accomplishments speak for themselves, but I think Kobe’s individual brilliance is what should be celebrated the most. Throughout the majority of his career, Kobe was a dangerous scorer at all three levels (three point line, mid-range, and at the rim). As Father Time begin to diminish his athleticism, Kobe developed a post-game that was Jordan-esque, and superior to 99% of the big men in the NBA. Kobe also displayed a mastery of the mid-range game, and vastly underrated ball handling ability during his career. Despite an unwarranted reputation of being a ball hog, Kobe actually has the most assists in the 30,000 point club, a testament to his basketball IQ and passing skills. Those doubting Kobe’s basketball IQ need to look no further than Spike Lee’s documentary Kobe Doin Work, to understand how shrewd of a basketball player Kobe was. Many NBA players are skilled but what truly made Kobe great was his relentless approach to his craft, that allowed him to sustain a level of greatness that NBA may never see again.

Oscar Robertson:

During an era that was the antithesis to modern positionless basketball, the Big O was truly a unique and versatile talent. Oscar Robertson carried both the Cincinnati Royals and later the Milwaukee Bucks throughout the course of his sensational career, a career in which he nearly averaged a triple double, while leading the NBA in assists six times. In sports timing often plays a large role in championship appearances and this is something Oscar Robertson learned the hard way. Unfortunately Robertson’s illustrious career had to co-exist with the Celtics and the Lakers of the 1970s, who were virtually locks to make the NBA finals each year. Nonetheless, Robertson won his first and only ring in a 1971 four-game sweep of the Baltimore Bullets. A lack of post-season accomplishment is the reason why I choose to recognize Oscar Robertson for only his individual brilliance. However; it should be made clear Oscar Robertson was undoubtedly one of the greatest guards the NBA has ever seen, and inspired other players for years to come.

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Kevin Durant:

Ignoring an unpopular 2016 team switch and the use of burner twitter accounts, denying KD’s individual talent is a flat out crime. A seven footer with legitimate guard skills, Kevin Durant has been a matchup nightmare from the second he stepped on an NBA court. The youngest scoring champ in NBA history combines an effortless jumper with slick and crafty dribble moves. An evolving post game has recently made him even more difficult to defend. When engaged and motivated, Kevin Durant is also a much more than capable rebounder and defender. After just winning his first championship, it is hard to say much regarding the team success KD is responsible for. KD did lead an upstart OKC Thunder to the finals in 2012, but they were dispatched by the Miami Heat without much of a fight. It is also difficult to ignore KD’s 10-31 shooting performance in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, at home in a closeout game 6 against the Warriors. KD will have many chances to rectify his playoff inconsistencies in the near future, and how he responds will ultimately define his legacy. On the other hand Durant’s once in a lifetime skillset making him deserving of GOAT consideration, to some extent.

Honorable Mention: Allen Iverson, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Kevin Garnett.

Option 2: The Traditional Approach

LeBron James:

One the court LeBron blends God-given athleticism with the highest basketball IQ the game has ever seen. It should be noted LeBron is also on pace to finish top 5 in NBA history, in both points and assists. The best tall passer since Magic Johnson averaged a triple-double in last season’s NBA finals, a year removed from pulling off the greatest comeback in sports history, while leading BOTH teams in all major statistical categories. The past two seasons silenced any doubts of where LeBron belongs when discussing all-time great NBA players, but what LeBron accomplished early on in his career should not be ignored. At just 22 years old James brought a Cavs roster that included Eric Snow and Larry Hughes to the NBA finals. Albeit Cleveland was quickly swept by the San Antonio Spurs, carrying a team to the finals when you are the age of senior in college is quite the accomplishment. Unfortunately for LBJ it will be nearly impossible for him to capture that elusive fourth championship if the Golden State Warriors stick together. Showing minimal signs of slowing down, it will intriguing to see how the four time regular season MVP puts a cap on a legendary career.

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Kareem Abdul Jabar:

From his collegiate days at UCLA to his NBA career few in the game of basketball have accomplished more than Kareem Abdul Jabar (formerly known as Lew Alcindor). The 19 time all-star won six NBA championships and three championships as an undergrad at UCLA under John Wooden. Kareem also won rookie of the year during and is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Kareem dominated the game with a combination of fluidity and grace that was and still is extremely rare for a seven footer. Despite making nearly everyone’s short list, Kareem does not get enough honest consideration when discussing the best player in NBA history. Perhaps it was because Kareem’s  social activism and a reserved personality made him less popular among many fans. Whatever the case is, it would be an egregious mistake to ignore one of the greatest players and greatest humanitarians the game of basketball has ever seen.

Michael Jordan:

His Airness may or may not struggle to beat a prime Lavar Ball one on one. In a 5v5 setting however, MJ’s resume is in a league of its own. When running the point for Doug Collins in the late 1980s Michael Jordan put on a ruthless display of excellence, that can only be compared to Russell Westbrook’s MVP season. Scottie Pippen’s arrival coupled with Phil Jackson at head coach eventually pushed Jordan over the top, and into championship pastures. Michael Jordan always took care of business in the finals, never letting a series go seven games. During the Chicago Bulls two separate reigns over the NBA, Jordan took home finals MVP all six times.  It is my personal opinion that the Bulls success in the 90s is as much a part of Jordan’s excellence, as it was external factors. For example, both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had both retired by the start of the 1991-1992 season, when Jordan only had 1 ring. The Bad Boy Pistons had also fallen apart and although the Knicks of the 90s provided stiff competition, the Chicago Bulls were a near lock to represent in the east in the NBA finals. During the Bull’s last two championships, the core of the Utah Jazz (John Stockton and Karl Malone) were well past their primes. Despite taking Chicago six games, the Seattle Supersonics were too green to pose a legitimate threat.  It should also be noted that when Jordan left the Bulls to play baseball, the Chicago Bulls still advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, and guard BJ Armstrong was voted an all-star. I am not refuting Michael Jordan’s greatness as this would be an insult to the game of basketball. The purpose of this article was to provide a different perspective on how to identify the greatest NBA player of all-time. Being that this is such a subjective debate, finding a consensus answer is near impossible. The ambiguity of this question will provide many in-depth and entertaining debates amongst sports fans for years to come.

Honorable Mention: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwayne Wade.

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