Was Michael Jordan the Greatest Basketball Player of All Time? Part I: The Candidates

September 12, 2009

Yesterday Michael Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame to toasts and references of him as the "greatest of all time." Notably absent from many of those compliments were words such as "maybe" or "arguably," as somehow it has now become presumed that number 23 is the best.

Unquestionably, Jordan does belong in the discussion for the "G.O.A.T." He was the best player during the 90's, and the greatest 2 guard in history, hands down. His 6 NBA rings, 5 MVP's, 2 gold medals, 6 Finals MVP's, 14 All-Star selections, and Defensive Player of the Year honors, certainly make a strong case.

So, while it is true that Jordan's name should be part of the debate, the real question is, why is there no debate on the subject at all?

In other words, why is it assumed, almost without question, that Jordan was the greatest basketball player in history?

Perhaps it is a case of something being said so much that it eventually becomes fact. Maybe it's the truth. Or it could be simple laziness on the part of the media to conduct a sincere investigation into the matter.

Well, TheDailySportsHerald is ready, willing, and able to take up the task. In making our evaluation, we will factor in not only statistics, championships, and the usual "merit badges" of accomplishment, but also will place an added emphasis on the individual player's game. Here is our view:


Today's NBA Greats

Young NBA fans might want to bring Kobe Bryant and LeBron James into the debate, but quite frankly, their inclusion would be absurd.

At this stage of his career, LeBron cannot even be considered the greatest 3 of all time, let alone the greatest player regardless of position. His skills and low post game are still a work in progress, and his performance in crunch time has been suspect.

As for Kobe, he is a cut below Jordan in nearly every category, save for outside shooting range.

In his prime, Jordan grades out better athletically, as Kobe has already had two knee operations. Jordan also was a more relentless and consistent defender, and was much more of an attack-the-rim player at age 30 than today's Kobe. Moreover, Jordan never struggled in any series to the degree that Kobe did in his Finals against Detroit and Boston.

Ultimately, Jordan's shot selection, decision-making, and ability to impose his will on the game was superior to that of Kobe, and thus, an obvious separation exists between the two.

Both Kobe and LeBron must be omitted from the discussion.

The "Back In The Day" Legends: Bill Russell & Wilt Chamberlain

Russell has 11 NBA rings, 2 NCAA titles, and a gold medal, and thus, he is clearly the greatest winner in the sport. Moreover, many of his championships came at Chamberlain's expense, possibly giving him the edge in the Wilt-Russell debate.

Russell was perhaps basketball's greatest defender and shot-blocker. In addition, he also was an outstanding rebounder. Those talents made him the anchor for the Celtic dynasty, as he garnered 5 MVP's along the way for his efforts.

However, despite his defensive talents, Russell was not a spectacular offensive force, as he averaged only 15 points per game throughout his career.

This limitation is reflected in the fact that for many of his MVP seasons, he only made Second Team All-NBA. In other words, voters found Russell to be highly "valuable" to his team, but did not necessarily find him to be one of the top 5 outstanding players in the league.

Moreover, Russell, unlike Chamberlain, had the luxury of being consistently surrounded by talented stars such as Bob Cousy and John Havlicek. Because of that quality assistance, the "greatest winner" argument becomes diminished somewhat.

In fact, rings alone can be an overhyped barometer of a player's ability, as much depends on the luck of one's roster composition and coaching. After all, Mike Smrek and Brian Scalabrine have NBA rings, while Patrick Ewing - a college champion - and Charles Barkley do not.

Therefore, Russell's limited overall individual game must eliminate him from the discussion.

As for Chamberlain, no player in the history of the sport can match his individual statistics, Jordan included. Each of Wilt's numerical accomplishments are so extraordinary that they almost seem as if they were extracted from some superhero's comic book:

100 points in a single game. 55 rebounds in one game. A season average of 50.4 points per game. Leading the league in assists - as a center. Never once fouling out of a game. Breaking the 4,000 point barrier for a single season. Averaging 27.2 rebounds per game in a single season. And most incredible, averaging 48.5 minutes per game in a single season.

Wilt was a physical specimen like no other. Incredibly strong, yet blessed with great leaping ability, Chamberlain dominated his competition despite facing consistent double teams and hard fouls. Moreover, he won 4 MVP's, 2 NBA rings, and forced rule changes upon the game in order for the sport to be more competitive.

Chamberlain certainly qualifies.

The 80's Saviors: Magic Johnson & Larry Bird

Because Magic did so many things better than Jordan, there is a strong inclination to include him in the discussion.

For instance, Magic was the greatest passer in the history of the game. Although John Stockton might have had more cumulative assists, no player in history had the creativity and unbelievable court vision of Magic.

In addition, Magic redefined an entire position, as the sport had never seen a 6'9" true point guard before. That versatility allowed him to become the first rookie to earn Finals MVP honors while playing all 5 positions.

Jordan, on the other hand, did not break the mold at his position, as 6'6" off guards were a common sight in the NBA. Instead, Jordan played the position better than anyone - an entirely different concept.

Magic was probably also the game's smartest player, as he was always 2 steps ahead of everyone mentally, even as a 20-year old rookie. During any given game, it was routine to see Magic's pinpoint bullet passes bouncing off his teammates' chests, as they could not comprehend themselves that they were open.

Jordan on the other hand did not acquire such an understanding of the game until his late 20's, when Phil Jackson became his head coach.

Magic's intelligence helped make him one of the game's few sincerely unselfish superstars, as he was more willing to sacrifice for the good of the team than Jordan.

For years, Magic gave up touches and shots, deferring to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and even Norm Nixon. It was not until the 1986-1987 season that Magic finally took over as his team's featured player, and only then because his coach, Pat Riley, insisted on it.

Furthermore, Magic might have been the most exciting player in history, as he was the maestro behind the Showtime fast break, and the only man in the sport who made passing more exciting than buckets. Because of his coast-to-coast no-look passes and signature charisma, Magic was able to revitalize the NBA's image away from perceptions of drug use.

In contrast, Jordan was a mere finisher, who happened to play in the half-court, walk-it-up triangle offense. Although he might have had more mass appeal thanks to the corporate Nike marketing machine, it did not necessarily make him more exciting.

But beyond these advantages, Magic also shared many of Jordan's qualities, as he too was ultra competitive, the all-time best at his position, a clutch performer, a winner at all levels, and a multi-year MVP and Finals MVP.

Moreover, Magic's career numbers were cut short in 1991 following his premature retirement. At the time, Magic had made 9 Finals appearances in 12 years, and presumably could have added even more had he been able to continue.

This fact cannot be underestimated.

But for the intolerant views some NBA players had towards HIV, Magic could have competed for titles for another three years, especially given that he still had a halfway decent nucleus around him and remained one of the top two or three players in the game.

Imagine if some redneck with a bat had taken out Jackie Robinson's knee and cut his career short. We would have never known the true depth of his legacy on the diamond.

The bigotry that artificially shortened Magic's career lends somewhat of a "what if" feel to his legacy. The only reason why more people don't recognize this effect on his career is because he accomplished so much so early that the notion that Magic might have had unfinished business is almost brushed aside.

Still, two factors go against Magic's inclusion in the debate.

First, Magic lacked the footspeed to be a lockdown on-ball defender. Although Magic racked up steals early in his career, that was primarily due to his strong understanding of team defensive concepts and his ability to shoot the passing lanes. Jordan therefore has a clear edge over Magic in terms of defensive talent.

Second, Magic admitted Jordan was better in his autobiography My Life. Perhaps it was just a case of a gentlemen once again being humble towards his friend, but nevertheless, Magic stated that during their Dream Team practices he thought Jordan had an edge over himself.

Similar to Magic, Bird grades out better than Jordan in several areas, but ultimately must be placed a cut below His Airness due to Jordan's superior athleticism.

Bird was a far better outside shooter than Jordan, and much like Magic, had a more advanced understanding of the game at an earlier age. And while Bird's excellent passing, sound defense, rings, MVP's, and clutch play all might point to his inclusion in the debate, his so-so athleticism and injury history both work against him.

At a certain point, it's almost akin to splitting hairs. In Magic's case, we are talking about the second greatest guard in history and perhaps the fourth greatest player overall.

In Game 3 of their 1991 Finals clash for instance, Magic routinely abused Jordan in the post possession after possession, with Jordan showing no ability to stop Magic one-on-one. Hence, the difference between the two is razor thin.

So, while both Bird and Magic must be included in any discussion of NBA First Team honors, for reasons stated above and to narrow our list somewhat, they must be eliminated from the G.O.A.T. conversation.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Wilt Chamberlain might have had the more eye-popping statistics, but no player has a greater overall resume than The Captain. His list of accomplishments are indeed prolific:

3 NCAA Championships. 3-time NCAA Tournament MOP. 6 NBA rings. A record 6 NBA MVP's. History's all-time leading scorer at 38,387 points. 19 All-Star appearances. All-Defensive First Team 5 times. All-Defensive Second Team 6 times. The athlete who caused the NCAA to outlaw slam dunks in order to limit his dominance. And the owner of the game's most indefensible weapon, the Skyhook.

But what truly makes Kareem so interesting is the longevity of his 20-season career.

With a player like Russell we can only project and speculate how he would have fared against a Dwight Howard today. But with Kareem, a far more educated guess can be made, as he himself is a bridge between the older and the newer generations of big men.

In other words, The Captain competed successfully against Chamberlain, Willis Reed, and the other ol' timers, but he also routinely dropped 40-plus point games at age 39 on a young Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon.

That's the same Olajuwon who would go on to dominate David Robinson and a young Shaquille O'Neal in postseason competition.

Hence, Kareem is really only one link away from Shaq - a current top 5 center in today's league. Because he competed very well against the same players who competed well against Shaq, the connection is not so tenuous. As such, one can readily imagine that Kareem's skyhook, grace, and fluidity would have made him an MVP candidate in any era, including Jordan's 1990's.

Kareem absolutely qualifies.

Other Legends

The NBA has a litany of other legends who would be included in any discussion related to determining the best player at a particular position. Such names would include Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Oscar "The Big O" Robertson, and Julius "Dr. J" Erving, among others.

However, most of these names finish a close second or third at their respective positions, and thus, must be excluded. They are best suited for first, second, and third all-time team debates, rather than any discussion concerning the best overall player.

The Final Nominees:Wilt, The Captain, and Jordan.

The final verdict on basketball's greatest player will be presented in Part II of this article.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com

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