The Last Dance, a ten-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, was a breath of fresh air for the sports world. Fans young and old were able to watch such a fantastic star lead a dynasty to six titles. Jordan cemented himself as one of the best to ever play the game of basketball, but is Jordan one of the best, or is he the best?
As human beings, we love order. Lists and rankings just reflect our needs to establish a best and worst. This is why power rankings are so popular. In most sports, there is a constant debate about who the best athlete of all time is, and basketball is typically the most heated debate. Is there truly a definitive best, second best, etc? In fact, no there isn’t, and the notion of establishing a top-five or even top-ten list is absurd.
First, have you watched every single era? For example, were you watching during the 1960s and through to 2020? Many sports fans my age loving arguing for LeBron James or Michael Jordan, yet they were born in 1998. They never even saw all of those series live. There’s a major difference between watching a player’s career and watching a five-minute video compilation of highlights. Unless you were alive and followed the sport, how can you possibly give an informed decision on players you never watched? You can’t possibly give an opinion without that knowledge. Some will argue that you can use stats, but even stats are misleading.
You can’t compare player’s stats across eras. Some players never even had a 3-point line during their years in the NBA. Imagine Steph Curry without a 3-point shot. He would look like a below-average athlete. Now, imagine Steph Curry just after the 3-point line is added. He would look like a wizard and would average an insane amount of points until teams caught on. There are so many variables. In the past, centers were the bullies on the court and dominated scoring. Now, it’s definitely a guard-driven league. Stats are fantastic, but a player in 1970 can’t have his stats compared someone in 2020. Also, let’s examine the pace of play.
In the past, both offense and defense was so vital. Players in the 1980s had to fight and battle for every rebound and basket, and the “spirit of competition” led to some big brawls and aggression. Defense was just as valuable as offense, and players were determined to keep scores low. This style of basketball was physical and intense. Today, basketball isn’t about stopping the other team; rather, it’s about scoring more. Why play intense defense if you can just outscore the other team at the end? Look at how much scoring has increased over recent years. Fans love fastbreaks, long 3-pointers, and fast-paced action. Fans don’t want to see intense defense; they want high scores. If you switched a player in the 1980s and with someone from 2020, both would have to drastically re-invent their style, and I don’t think either would be even close to the same athlete. Also, team dynamics are huge in assessing a player.
Some players – like Tim Duncan and Michael Jordan – had hall-of-fame coaches during their careers. Others struggled with mediocre coaches. Some stars had plenty of help on their team. Others had to carry the load by themselves. Is it MJ’s fault that he had Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen? No, but some fans will knock him down a few notches because “x” player didn’t have the same advantages. Sadly, you can’t analyze sports in a vacuum. You can’t strip all the variables aside when assessing a career. You have to judge it at face value. Most importantly, the biggest form of error in assessing a player’s career is you.
We are all different shapes and sizes, and we all support different teams. Is Michael Jordan a better athlete than LeBron James, or does he get some bonus points for being on your favorite team? Do you knock Kobe Bryant down a few notches because you are a huge Jalen Rose fan? Also, every person finds something different to be the most important factor. Which of these factors are most important to you: teamwork, scoring, defense, passing, etc? How important each factor is will influence your list. If you grew up as a guard playing out on the playground, chances are that you will focus on guards, and centers may not catch your attention, until they miss a rebound. In fact, there are plenty of things you can’t do if you’re attempting to make a list.
You can’t analyze and categorize players that you never watched. You can’t become a prisoner of box scores and stat sheets. You can’t compare players across decades. You can’t try to strip the variables away from players. You can’t let your personal biases influence your decisions. That’s a lot of cant’s, but this list shows just some of the plethora of things that would need to be avoided.
It’s impossible to organize NBA players from best to worst. There are simply so many factors that need to be considered when even beginning this task, and it’s impossible to truly create a “level playing field.” If you want to create a “best of ‘x’ decade” team, you would have a potential chance, but to compile one list encompassing 40+ years is impossible. It’s not feasible, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s degrading to some of the best stars to ever play the sport. Instead, let’s honor the excellence of the athletes and the accolades earned by the players instead of trying to force them into a list.