Thursday night, Lebron James continued to play at a legendary level by posting his record-tying eighth 40-point game in these Playoffs with his masterful 51-point-8-rebound-8-assist Game 1 in this year’s NBA Finals. Facebook and Twitter feeds have been flooded with the never-ending debate of whether Lebron has overtaken Michael Jordan as the GOAT, the greatest player of all-time. Lebron supporters use this Playoff run and Lebron’s recent record-breaking 12th First-Team All-NBA honor as mounting evidence that Lebron has already accomplished more than MJ and deserves to be recognized as the GOAT. MJ supporters continue to dig in their heels and cling to the argument that MJ was six-for-six in the Finals and made his teammates better, while Lebron continues to feast on inferior competition in an inferior conference and has been unable to win as many championships despite having more help than MJ had. We are looking at this GOAT debate all wrong.
I get that these debates fuel the news cycle and give NBA fans something to debate over the water cooler, but we act like this debate is a zero-sum game and to win the GOAT debate we must tear down the accomplishments of “the other guy.” It doesn’t have to be this way!
You see, there is a science of basketball. These are the stats, the awards, and the formulas that we use in our minds to measure the greatness of a player. Each of us attaches certain weight to what we view as the most important factors. Some put heavy weight in a player’s number of championships. In the minds of those people, Bill Russell’s 11 championships will never be bested and so Russell is king. Somehow, many of those same people who value championships over all else view MJ’s 6-for-6 Finals record and his six Finals MVPs as the determining factor in every debate. If championships are all that matter, why is Bill Russell not considered the GOAT? By this criteria, is Robert Horry a greater player than Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley or even Larry Bird and Magic Johnson simply because he won more championships? Of course not. So, while in the GOAT debate we look at other factors like stats, All-Star Games and All-NBA Teams, All-Defensive Teams, and Playoff record. We consider who had more help, shooting percentages, advanced statistics, and efficiency. However we rate these various factors, there is no settling these GOAT debates through the “science of basketball.” If science can’t answer the question, then this is more of a question of art.
Unlike the science of basketball, the art of basketball, like all art, is subjective. If we were to ask two master painters to paint the perfect painting, would they look the same? Would all observers agree which one was better? When determining the greatest rock-and-roll band of all-time is there consensus? While I’ve heard arguments that the Rolling Stones rank as the greatest rock band ever, I don’t enjoy the vast majority of the Stones’ music. Some refer to Bono in hushed and reverent tones, and while I would never say that U2 is mediocre, I don’t consider them extraordinary. Still, I respect Bono as an artist and recognize U2 as a legendary band even though they are not a personal favorite. The art of basketball is the same way.
Just like in painting and music, basketball has certain “masters.” These “masters” in my mind should all be included in the GOAT discussion. The Masters include (in alphabetical order):
Masters have one trait in common: When they are doing “their thing” (and they have to consistently be able to do “their thing” over an extended period of time) there is something magical about it. That’s it. That’s the only criteria. Not everyone is going to care for that master’s particular style, but there is an admiration or respect that you cannot deny. Kobe Bryant, for example, is my Bono. I respect his work ethic and recognize his pain threshold as one of the most impressive I have ever seen, but I just didn’t care much for Kobe Bryant. Like U2, I see Kobe as overrated, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a master. Larry Bird is country music. I love Bird the same way I love country music, but to the kid that loves Hip-Hop, country music could sound like fingernails on a chalkboard, which is how some Lakers fans still feel about Larry Bird’s style of play. It may surprise some that Pistol Pete is on my list, but I consider him the Vincent Van Gogh of the NBA. He was misunderstood and wasn’t really appreciated during his lifetime. He was ahead of his time and his body broke down too soon, but many players today have incorporated things into their game that “The Pistol” was doing 50 years ago. He was Steph Curry before Steph Curry, a volume outside shooter that shot with supreme confidence despite taking shots and making risky passes that traditional basketball experts would call “ill-advised” or “unnecessary.”
Consistency is also a key factor in being a master. It’s the difference between Jerry Stackhouse and Michael Jordan. Stackhouse scored in bunches for a season or two and Jordan did it throughout a career. It’s the difference between The Beatles and Right Said Fred. For example, John Stockton is George Strait. Nothing flashy, but consistently high performance year after year after year makes him a master. Karl Malone is Garth Brooks, flashier than George Strait and winner of a few of the bigger awards, but doing it consistently for as long as King George. John and Karl could also be compared to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. They are each amazing in their own right, but when you put them together, they are even better.
Once a player reaches the status of “Master,” there is nothing left but preference. Michael Jordan looked amazing when he played basketball. The grace, creativity, hang-time, and explosion were beautiful to watch. I don’t think another player had as many iconic moment has MJ. He had a flare for the dramatic and always seemed to come up with a memorable play at just the right time. MJ is kind of like another MJ, Michael Jackson. When the King of Pop was at his peak, nobody was better. World-wide tours, number one hits, award winning music videos, sold out arenas, iconic moments, and entertainer of the year awards were all common for Jackson during his peak, but that peak was cut relatively short. That sounds like Jordan, unbelievable peak that just didn’t last long enough.
Lebron James is the most complete player I have ever seen. He does so many things at an elite level. He scores more than almost anyone ever has and yet he is a point guard. He controls the game on both sides of the floor. A comparison for Lebron might be Elton John. Amazingly talented, versatile, and consistent, but he just doesn’t do it for some people. The science of music tells me that Elton John had a top 40 hit every year for 40 straight years. He has also won 7 Grammys, which is amazing, but it’s not as many as Stevie Wonder’s 25! That type of consistency at such a high level with some championships (but not as many as the other guy) sounds familiar.
Have you ever walked into a Def Leopard concert only to find a group of Grateful Dead roadies wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts and screaming about how much better the Dead were compared to the band on-stage? Have you ever walked into a museum to see a group of contemporary art fans tearing down the sculpture exhibit because it wasn’t “as good” as the contemporary art they love so much? If we truly appreciate the art of basketball, we will be able to see it for its quality and excellence, even if it is not our preference. Do you think that the Dead Heads in the Def Leopard concert will really change the minds of the Def Leopard fans by berating them? Can you imagine, a Def Leopard fan responding to the heckling with, “Man, you guys are right. Why did we come to this lame concert. I have made a terrible mistake. The Grateful Dead is better.” That would never happen. In music, sometimes you can’t explain why you like a particular band or sound. You just like it and no matter how aggressively or loudly someone tells you that Stevie Wonder has 25 Grammys, that will not change the fact that you might like Queen better. Yet, when debating sports on social media, for some reason we believe that disrespectful name calling and tearing down “the other guy” will somehow sway others to see it our way.
I spent the better part of Tim Duncan’s 19 year-career hating on him because I felt a need to defend Karl Malone’s status as the greatest Power Forward in history by tearing down and minimizing Tim Duncan’s accomplishments. It’s sad and it’s no way to live. I didn’t enjoy one of the truly great careers because I was too busy playing mama bear to Karl Malone, as if he needed my protection somehow. It was almost like I thought that Malone couldn’t be great if Tim Duncan was also great. Sure Duncan is Pink Floyd to me and I couldn’t fully understand what people liked about him, but I can no longer deny that Duncan was a master, a slightly boring master, but a master none the less.
Do we do the same thing in our lives outside of basketball? Do we miss the beauty in our lives because we are too focused on tearing down what “the other guy” is doing or comparing what we have to what the neighbors have? This is a principle that applies to all aspects of our lives. If we are too closed-minded to see the good in an athlete and what they have to offer because they are wearing the wrong uniform, we are shorting ourselves of witnessing greatness. That same close-mindedness is likely going to mean that we are going to miss out on sweet experiences and new friendships. Look at the game with new eyes and you will be able to appreciate the art of basketball. You’ll appreciate Lebron and MJ and realize that it’s okay to love them both without tearing one down to elevate the other. Similarly, look at life with an eye in search of the art and beauty in our lives and we will see beauty and blessings all around us. We will see art. And life will seem just a little bit better.