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The Greatest NBA player of All Time? It Depends...

I'll publicly admit that I watch NBA basketball. I'm an old white guy, so it's unusual for someone in my demographic to pay the NBA so much attention. I'll enjoy some regular-season action, but playoff basketball is another story as the intensity ramps up and players play with incredible urgency. Losing a series means your season is over. However, during broadcasts, it's inevitable that announcers and analysts will bring up the topic of the greatest all-time NBA basketball player. My first response to this question is, "It all depends." This means it depends on the era, what rules were used, the coaching style, the team's needs, and what a team most values.


I only include three all-time greats for this exercise: LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. These NBA greats did different things for their team, each playing in their era. Kareem played in the late 60s, 70s, and early 80s, Michael played essentially in the 80s and 90s, and LeBron has played for most of the 21st century. Each of these three supported their teams in various ways while being great. Therefore, how can you pick the greatest? I say it's a "lesson in futility," so let me explain.


The greatest

Every NBA basketball fan has their own opinion. Many fans may gravitate toward someone they grew up watching as a youth. For example, if you're under 40, you may select LeBron James. He's in his 21st season and still performing at a high level. Perhaps LeBron supporters have not seen Michael Jordan or Kareem Abdul Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor) play regularly. If you're over 65 and from Wisconsin, you may choose Kareem, who played for the Milwaukee Bucks for six years and brought that town their first NBA title. Those between 40 and 65 might choose Michael Jordan, who played for the Chicago Bulls during the 80s and 90s. If you're from Chicago, it's without question a casual or diehard Bulls fan would choose Michael. Different generations focus on their generational players, so as time passes, you may have your favorites or someone who excelled while you were in your formative years. Do you need a prolific scorer or an all-around player? Does size matter because someone 7'2" and a dominant center may qualify?

The greatest

Kareem's your man if you're an NBA general manager looking for a dominant center who shoots at a high percentage and is effective at blocking shots. If you're looking for someone who has longevity, played 20 seasons, won 6 NBA titles and 6 MVPs, and scored over 38,000 points, Kareem Abdul Jabbar would be an easy pick. Basketball historians will remember Kareem's signature shot, the sky hook that many said was unstoppable. Basketball historians would also realize this iconic center was a winner before even entering the NBA, where he won three NCAA basketball championships (1967, 1968, 1969). He could have been more dominant as a Laker, but with Magic Johnson coming on board, Kareem adjusted his game for one reason -- to win. With his resume, he'd undoubtedly be on Basketball's Mount Rushmore of all-time greats. 


If you're a GM looking for an NBA player who could get you a basket or two in crunch time, that would be Michael Jordan. If you want a player who will do almost anything to win and play strong defense and offense, Mr. Jordan is your man. Some NBA players are scorers but not good shooters -- Michael was both of these and, remarkably, he shot almost 50% from the field in his career. His career was shorter than Kareem's, but it was just as successful. Playing for the Chicago Bulls for 13 years, he won six championships and five MVPs. He shot about 33% from the 3-point line in his career; because the 3-point play was instituted in 1979, it was much less common to take so many of these shots during Jordan's career. Because of his deadly shooting ability, he may have averaged close to 40% in today's NBA. During the prime of his career, he took two years off to try playing major league baseball, so among the number two positions, he's undoubtedly on the Basketball's Mount Rushmore of NBA greats. 


The greatest

If you're a GM looking for an NBA player who passes well, scores between 25 and 30 points a game, and is quite good at rebounding, I would choose LeBron James. During his 21-year career, he's averaging 7.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, and 27.1 points per game. Those are remarkable stats for a player who played 12 or so seasons, but to average these amounts for a 21-year career is simply incredible. He won four MVP awards and four Finals MVP Awards and was named an All-Star a record 20 times. Today, he's playing against some opponents who weren't born when LeBron broke into the NBA at 18. Some basketball analysts have complained that LeBron sometimes takes his defensive assignment with less urgency; however, earlier in his career, he was on the All-Defensive Team six times and was twice the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award (so perhaps he focused more on defense during the first half of his career). Unlike Jordan, LeBron is not a great shooter but an effective scorer. He sometimes gives up a shot to make a good pass, ensuring his teammates are involved. Oh, I forgot to mention that he's scored over 40,000 points in his career and is the only player to accomplish this in the NBA's history. I'd add LeBron to Kareem and Michael on Basketball's Mount Rushmore with these accomplishments. 


The point behind this article is to show that choosing the greatest all-time NBA basketball player is a silly exercise (maybe this approach could also apply to the greatest NFL player). Therefore, I would not choose Kareem over Michael or Michael over LeBron -- It depends on what your team needs or wants. Some may require a great scorer, while others may search for an all-around player to improve their teammates' play. Even though the center position is less relevant today, a GM may still look for someone dominant in the middle who impacts the game in many ways. This argument about the greatest NBA players should stop. Enjoy what you're watching today, and maybe don't get nostalgic about your favorite player 30 or 40 years ago. Again, these three greats played in different eras, with different rules, philosophies, and tactics. For the sake of basketball humanity, let's stop arguing about the all-time great. One argument we shouldn't have is these three players are on the Mt. Rushmore of all-time greats, so let's leave it at that.


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