Alexander: What makes a G.O.A.T., anyway – and why should we care so much?

The tweet went up shortly after LeBron James’ historic, record-setting fallaway Tuesday night, from Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray, with the requisite goat and basketball emojis:

“LeBron James Is The GREATEST OF ALL TIME!!! Debate OVER!!!!!”

LeBron James Is The GREATEST OF ALL TIME!!! Debate OVER!!!!!

— Dejounte Murray (@DejounteMurray) February 8, 2023

And yes, that tweet started the debate all over again. The Michael Jordan stans weighed in, of course, and there was lobbying in that thread alone for Kobe Bryant, deposed record-holder Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Steph Curry, and even Manu Ginobili for crying out loud.

Yeah, we know. Recency bias. Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and all of those other greats from the eras before the ubiquity of televised highlights? No chance they could ever contend for G.O.A.T. status, at least on Twitter.

If the object of the game, winning, was indeed the most important thing, the process would be easy.

LeBron has won four NBA championship rings. Kobe and Magic won five each. Kareem won six, the same as Jordan. And while Jordan was 6 for 6 in NBA Finals, as his fans are quick to point out, Bill Russell was 11 for 12 in Finals and 27-2 in all playoff series before he retired in 1969, and his teams didn’t lose a series from 1959 into 1967.

End of discussion?

(And you can’t imagine how agonizing it is to rehash that for someone who grew up watching Russell’s Celtics beat the Lakers nearly every spring. But facts are facts.)

Really, though, is the G.O.A.T. debate even worth having?

This is a league with a proud and vibrant history, and enough immortals have won NBA uniforms over more than three-quarters of a century that when the league picked its 75th anniversary team last season, the debates over who got snubbed were spirited.

George Mikan, Paul Arizin and Dolph Schayes, the pioneers from the league’s beginnings, deserve at least a mention, don’t they? So does Baylor, a dominant 6-foot-5 forward before his knees betrayed him who, as Lakers TV analyst Stu Lantz memorably put it a few years ago, “was hang-timin’ before hang-timin’ was hang time.” And Robertson, who darned near invented the triple-double.

Shouldn’t there be a G.O.T.T. category, as in greatest of their times, to recognize those who impacted and helped change the game well before highlight video clips?

Or is that too complicated for the social media environment?

Late Tuesday night, James was asked in the interview room his thoughts about the G.O.A.T. debate, and where he’d put himself.

“I think it’s great barbershop talk,” he said. “It’s gonna happen, forever and ever.

“If I was the GM, or whatever the case may be of a franchise that was starting up and I had the No. 1 pick, I’d take me. I mean, that’s just me, because I believe in myself. I know what I bring to the table: A guy that’s been able to transform his game over the course of 20 years to be able to play any position in this league and settle into any position. I can play one through five. I’ve led the league in assists. I’ve been able to do whatever this game has wanted me to do and also just transformed my game as well.

“That don’t take away from nobody else. So many great players (have) played this game and (have) long legacies in this game. This NBA is a beautiful thing, and there’s been some beautiful players that played. But I can’t take nobody over me.”

Well, what else did you expect him to say?

“Barbershop talk” is probably as good a description as any. The one advantage of debates like these is that they do stoke interest in the league and the sport, and bringing the elders back into the conversation reminds us, if temporarily, of those who built the league into the mammoth entertainment complex it has become. Admit it, you’d probably forgotten about Kareem and his impact until LeBron became a serious threat to his record.

By the way, the grace with which Kareem celebrated LeBron’s achievement Tuesday night was in itself a beautiful thing. As Kareem explained in a Substack post on Wednesday morning, “It’s as if I won a billion dollars in a lottery and 39 years later someone won two billion dollars. How would I feel? Grateful that I won and happy that the next person also won. His winning in no way affects my winning.”

And, he added:

“Whenever a sports record is broken – including mine – it’s a time for celebration. It means someone has pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible to a whole new level. And when one person climbs higher than the last person, we all feel like we are capable of being more.”

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So, again, why do we spend so much time arguing about whether the current guy is better than the retired guy or guys? Why not simply recognize that the game has advanced, as have sports medicine and methods of keeping players healthy and on the floor?

Players are better and more versatile now than they were in previous generations; imagine, for example, the classic post players of previous eras trying to keep up with Nikola Jokic. But that doesn’t mean the elders’ dominance in their era and under their conditions should be discounted, any more than it means today’s load management techniques and more convenient travel (charters instead of commercial flights) should be held against today’s stars.

And if you’re still determined to argue that MJ, or Kobe or Magic or Kareem or whoever, was better than LeBron … well, have at it. But just know that you’ll probably be wasting your breath (or bandwidth) on those who believe differently.

Better to call them simply two of the Greatest of All Time, plural. Make it G.O.A.T.s.

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