Greetings, everyone! I’d like to extend a warm welcome to all of you – you basketball fans with the courage to seek basketball analysis in the deepest, darkest corner of the basement of the internet. It warms my heart to see you all here. Really. I’m honored that you all came. All three of you! It’s wonderful to have you.
You deserve congratulations! Through your bravery, traveling to the deepest, darkest corner of the basement of the internet, you have found the resolution of the LeBron v. MJ debate. There are plenty of basketball websites out there – from people who have actual credentials to be commenting about basketball. But, only this website contains the resolution to the most important basketball argument of our era. I thought I resolved it a few years ago, but my resolution seems not to have taken hold among hoop heads. (Perhaps it would help if I had more than three readers.) So, I’m back, first to put this issue to bed once and for all, and then to move onto other important topics related to hoops.
You ready? Good. Here goes…
LeBron is playing basketball at a higher level than any human has ever played it. Perhaps cartoon characters have played it better (I guess we’ll find out when SpaceJam 2 gets released), and there’s likely a video game character out there who has played it better. But, if we’re talking about humans, the way LeBron played these last few seasons represents the pinnacle that any human has ever reached over an extended period of time. His combination of skill, athleticism, and intellect is unparalleled.
Plus, by all accounts, LeBron’s a great guy. He seems like a great family man, and what he’s doing as a businessman and philanthropist off the court is remarkable. Off the court, he is achieving much more than MJ ever did. If I had the chance to become friends with LeBron or MJ, I’d choose LeBron eight days a week.
There’s a but…
And it’s a big but…
A big ol’ but…
No, not THAT KIND of big butt, you pervert!
C’mon, get your head out of the gutter!
The but is this… our discussion about who’s the GOAT is not about which player reached the highest level of performance. That’s because the game is constantly evolving, and the level of performance is constantly elevating. The best player in the game right now would beat the best player in the game from 20 years ago, who would beat the best player in the game from 20 years before that. The tenth-best player in the game now would beat the tenth-best player in the game from 20 years ago, who would beat the tenth-best player in the game from 20 years before that. That’s also true of the twentieth-best player now. Etc. Point is, the group of guys playing now are better than any group of guys that’s ever played before.
LeBron’s the best player in the game now, and that’s got to count for plenty. But, if that meant he was the GOAT, it would mean that the GOAT is continuously changing every couple of years. Each time a new player ascends to be the best in the game for a few years at a time, it would mean that he’s become the GOAT.
That’s not how GOAT works. GOAT isn’t like the heavyweight championship, held by one person until he gets too old to retain it, and then passed to the best person of the next generation.
The question about who’s the GOAT is generally a question about who has built up the best résumé over the course of his career. That’s why phenomenal players who performed at an exceedingly high level for a short window of time (i.e., Grant Hill) are never considered. It’s also why phenomenal players who may be the best in the game at a given moment are never considered unless they have won a championship (think Anthony Davis).
The question about who’s the GOAT considers measurable achievements: championships, MVPs, scoring titles, All-NBA selections, etc. Folks can debate the relative importance of those achievements, so it’s something other than an exercise in counting rings. But, fundamentally, it’s a comparison of achievements considered in the context of the player’s era – not a comparison of on-court performance at the players’ peak.
It’s also, implicitly, a conversation about how the best players performed in their role as stewards of the game. Did they elevate it from a down period, like Bird and Magic? Did they take it to another level, like Jordan? Break down barriers and set honorable precedent, like Russell?
Because the GOAT conversation is a conversation about how the best players performed in their role as stewards of the game, LeBron is out of the running for GOAT. No great player before him ever left his team as a free agent, having failed to win a championship, to join a stacked team. In other words, no great player before him ever sought out an easy path to the validation that a championship ring provides.
Until LeBron quit on the quest with the Cavs to join up with Wade and Bosh in Miami, it was always understood that the pursuit of GOATness was a difficult quest. Until LeBron quit on the quest with the Cavs to join up with Wade and Bosh in Miami, it was always understood that the pursuit of GOATness was nearly impossible for all but the greatest players, and even for many of the greats, was a quest made even more difficult by obstacles such as mediocre teammates and intimidating competition (see, for example: Nowitzki, Dirk; Barkley, Charles; Ewing, Patrick). Until LeBron quit on the quest with the Cavs to join up with Wade and Bosh in Miami, nobody in history had quit the quest to get a ring with a stacked team. It was always understood that being recognized amongst the greatest was an immense challenge, and that no competitor who might be part of such a conversation would do such a thing.
Then, LeBron quit on the quest with the Cavs to join up with Wade and Bosh in Miami. When he did, he set a precedent that has damaged the game tremendously, thereby removing himself from the conversation about who is the GOAT. Because of LeBron’s precedent, it seemed perfectly sensible for Kevin Durant – one of the most outstanding players of his generation – to leave a team that was up 3-1 in the conference finals, so he could win a championship with the team that came back from being down 3-1 in the conference finals to beat him in the conference finals. It was the greatest sin against the game of basketball since Isiah Thomas uttered the words “with this signing of Jerome James to a $30 million contract, the New York Knickerbockers are back on the path to greatness.” Durant committed the sin, but LeBron set the precedent.
So, as good as LeBron is, the conversation about whether he’s the GOAT is over. It ended years ago. It ended when he took his talents to South Beach.
If you’re a LeBron fan, I recognize that it might make you angry to read this. But, don’t get mad at me. I’m not the one who ended the conversation.
On to a new season of Hoopservations! I hope the three of you will stick around, there’s some good stuff in the pipeline.