The NBA 2018 Finals has concluded with a Golden State Warriors repeat victory, this time with a sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The talk is of a Warriors’ dynasty now that they have captured 3 out of the last 4 NBA titles.
However, there is conversation once again about whether or not LeBron James magnificent playoff performances this year have qualified him to be declared the greatest player ever. Those who affirm this cite the fact that James broke several records in 2018 including one that had belonged to Michael Jordan. Jordan has been widely considered the greatest player ever until recent years as LeBron’s career has blossomed into recognized greatness.
Is there an answer to this question? I think there is, but it is not the answer either side in this sports debate will like.
My ‘Qualifications’ and ‘Expertise’
Those who follow TIL Journal regularly may wonder just why I feel somewhat qualified to comment upon this subject. It is, after all, not regular fare on this blog.
My passion for basketball spans half a century. I was introduced to the game by my best friend and instantly embraced and immersed myself it. I watched it constantly on TV and played and practiced incessantly for years. Unfortunately, my diminutive stature and slowness of feet could not be overcome by a great jump shot.
However, I continued to play at lower levels such as basketball leagues and have continued to passionately study the game I love, since aged knees said it was time to quit pounding up and down the court.
In One Sense, The “Greatest Player” Is Irrelevant in Basketball
In most other team sports I choose favorite teams based on city or region. Not so with basketball. I have been a fan and follower of many different NBA teams from Los Angeles to Boston to Chicago to San Antonio and now Golden State.
Why have I changed favorites like that? Because I believed those teams in the professional ranks best manifest basketball as a team sport. Those teams that exhibit excellence in play as a team together both on offense and defense are those I love to watch.
Basketball is a team sport by design. In that sense, trying to single-out the greatest individual player is foolish and irrelevant. One is better off trying to find the “greatest team” in NBA history. Yet, not even that can be done with certainty.
The Definitive Answer Is Unknowable
In reality, the definitive answer is simply unknowable. As with a comparison of great teams, the game itself is not the same as was played when the NBA began. Here is one example.
LeBron James joined an exclusive club in the first game of the 2018 NBA Finals. He became number 5 on the list of players who have scored more than 50 points in a Finals game. The list has the following players in the top 5:
- Elgin Baylor of the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Boston Celtics in 1962 scored 61 points.
- Rick Barry of the San Francisco Warriors vs. Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 scored 55 points.
- Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls vs. the Phoenix Suns in 1993 also scored 55 points.
- Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Boston Celtics in 1969 scored 53 points.
- LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors in 2018 scored 51 points.
Three of the top four on this list accomplished the feat during the 1960s. The NBA did not introduce the 3-point line until the 1979-80 season. The record scoring of those players in the 60s was accomplished without any 3-point field goals. It also means that the top scorer, Elgin Baylor, still holds the record after 56 years without having made one 3-point field goal!
Moreover, it means that though Michael Jordan is tied with Rick Barry for second with 55 points. Jordan got his points with the considerable aid of the 3-point field goal.
What About NBA Championships?
Perhaps a better measure of excellence is the number of NBA titles captured by an individual. It would at least represent a measure of how well the star player worked with his team.
In this case, the list features a few other players.
- Bill Russell has 11 championships to boast, all with the Boston Celtics from 1956-1969.
- Russell’s teammate, Sam Jones is in second place with 10 rings.
- Four other Celtics players, Tom Heinsohn, K. C. Jones, Satch Sanders and John Havlicek, won eight championships each.
- Two other Celtics, Jim Loscutoff, and Frank Ramsey are tied in fourth with 7 rings.
- In fifth place are four players, Bob Cousy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, with six championships each.
The team list is dominated by players from the Boston Celtics during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. It is noteworthy that the players in fifth place played in the 1980s and 1990s, with the exception of Bob Cousy who played with, you guessed it, the Boston Celtics of the 50s and 60s.
What About Defensive Play?
Each player on the court must play both offense and defense during a game. Thus, the greatest player must also be evaluated by how well he prevented his opponents from scoring.
Defensive play has its own set of statistics which are summed up by the frequency of steals and blocked shots attributed to the player. In this case, the records are listed for Finals series of 4,5,6, and 7 games duration.
The record for blocked shots in a 7-game Finals series is 30, held by Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks in 1994. Second place belongs to Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets with 27 in the same series of 1994.
The record for steals in a 7-game Finals is held by Isaiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons with 20 steals in 1988. The rest of the names on this list include two players also among the record holders in playoff scoring, Rick Barry, and Michael Jordan.
So, Who Is the Greatest Player?
It appears impossible to find an absolute choice for who the greatest player ever might be. Any choice, even if agreed to by most experts, is an educated guess at best. The choice could be rendered slightly less subjective with some additional data. If there are any players whose career statistics place them in the top five defensively and offensively, we could be closer to a solid answer.
At present, there is only one player who is in the top five in at least one offensive and one defensive category all-time. He is third in all-time steals, and fourth in all-time scoring. That man is Michael Jordan. The same Jordan who holds the fifth largest amount of NBA championships and the third highest points ever scored in a Finals game.
The Case for LeBron Is Weak
Those who tout LeBron James as the greatest ever can point to another playoff record he set in 2018. He surpassed Michael Jordan as the all-time scoring leader in playoff history. However, this number should be taken with a large grain of salt for the following reason.
James and Jordan both played in the playoffs 13 times. However, James has taken many more playoff games to reach his point total than did Jordan. James has played in 239 playoff games. Michael Jordan played in only 179 playoff games, 60 fewer than James.
The discrepancy is due to the fact that the opening rounds of the playoffs were limited to best-of-five game series when Jordan played. All playoff series are best-of-seven today.
Therefore, though still an educated guess, Michael Jordan should still be considered the greatest basketball player ever. In my opinion, of course.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 1Corinthians 9:24 [ESV]
Sources: The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Crossway Bibles, 2001
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