To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable, open-mindedness; chaotic, confused, vulnerability to inform yourself.
Think for yourself.
Timothy Leary/Tool- “Third Eye” (Live)
How do you determine a player’s greatness? Are team accomplishments like championships are the only thing that matters? Do you take stock in All-Star appearances or number of All-NBA teams made? Are you a stat head – using metrics that would make traditionalists scoff at your spreadsheets? Does it matters if you like the player as a person? For me, I like to use a little bit of everything. I take into account team and personal accolades, while relying on the eye test to put the inventive new statistics in their proper context to judge a player.
I ask this not to start another in a long string of STATZZ VS GAMEZZZZ debates, but to get to the root of how you think about what makes a player great.
Not to be deliberately controversial, but what if there comes a day where we don’t view Michael Jordan as the consensus greatest player of all-time? It’s not exactly a new topic, but it’s certainly an interesting one. If you’re like me, you probably had an interesting reaction to that idea, too. Jordan being the greatest ever is the majority opinion that has held up over the last fifteen years or so, and most seem unwilling to change it, or even considering changing it.
Once you let that seemingly blasphemous thought sink in for a moment and begin to consider the idea, you likely go down a very odd, surreal train of thought. Hopefully you start by asking yourself why you believe that Jordan is the GOAT (if you indeed believe that), and what factors are most important to you. A process like this is good to go through; it’s how our thinking moves forward, how we avoid falling into pitfalls like, “Because that’s how we’ve always done it!”
For some people, it will always, always, always come down to the “COUNT DA RINGZ!!1!” argument. We place a lot of stock in championships– some time around the point Jordan became considered the greater player of all time, rings became the standard by which all future greatest player candidates were judged. That standard was imputed on the careers of the Tim Duncans, Kobe Bryants and LeBron Jameses almost immediately.
Obviously, using titles as the be all, and end all for determining a player’s place in history has it’s own weaknesses. It can’t just be determinative. For instance, you would be foolish to argue that Adam Morrison or Darko Milicic had greater careers than the likes of John Stockton or Karl Malone, simply because the former have rings and the latter do not. Using it as a tiebreaker of sorts makes a little more sense, but might still ultimately fail as a benchmark.
Imagine how our perception of Kevin Durant might change if he never wins a championship. Hypothetically, does he end up getting viewed as a simply a great scoring forward more similar to George Gervin than, say, an all-time great like Larry Bird? Even if Durant ends up being an “Iceman” re-boot with more range, that’s far from an insult, but a championship or two may make memories our memories of KD even fonder. Championship-less as of this writing, most people would still say that Durant appears today to be more likely to end up closer to Bird than Gervin when all is said and done, but that may not be the consensus in 12-15 years if he winds up ringless.
It’s the same reason people can discuss Kobe with Magic Johnson now that they both have five titles: winning both changes and creates perception.
But what if, eventually, the sheer amount of information and statistics available begin to overwhelm that? We don’t know how statistics will continue to evolve down the road. While many of us have caught on to the still-ocurring statistical revolution, there are still some that are content with things like points and rebounds per game, rarely venturing into the realm of advanced statistics. The thing I love about stats is that they can backup what we saw on the court, or they can cause us to question a widely-held perception. We all have our go-to metrics now, but who’s to say a superior one doesn’t come along that renders even the more progressive ones of today obsolete, consequently changing our perception of a player?
Take LeBron as an example. Almost undoubtedly the best player of the first generation that has been introduced to and weaned on advanced statistics, he combines freakish athleticism, unbelievable talent, and unusual positional versatility to fill a box score in the most garish of ways, making him for a proverbial feast for eye test fiends and numbers junkies alike.
But imagine the arguments that would have ensued if LeBron had come along in the 80′s and 90′s, as we attempted to decide at that time who was the better player between him and Jordan and Magic and Bird, based almost solely on things like points, rebounds and assists per game. It’s likely that argument would carry on for hours, and ultimately end a couple friendships in the process. Consider the various metrics that have available to us just in the last decade or so: PER, rebounding rate, usage rate, Win Shares, Wins Produced…etc. Now think about how many more ways our standards for measuring players can expand and evolve in the next five to ten years, just as they have in the last decade.
The way we view players could even be impacted by something as simple as time. I barely missed out on the Bird-Magic years, so my knowledge of them is mostly from third party accounts, books and YouTube highlight reels. To many people my age, it’s preposterous to think that one day someone could be viewed to be greater than Jordan someday, but it’s already happening with some in the next generation.
For example, in my second year of coaching, one of my sixth grade players said that he felt LeBron was better than Jordan already. I laughed, and dismissed the thought, but looking back today, I can’t blame him for feeling that way. After all, he was born in the late-90′s and learned about Jordan the same way I did about Bird and Magic, but had probably been able to watch LeBron firsthand as far back as he could remember. Kids like him will one day grow up to tell their kids that LeBron, or Durant, or somebody not even in the league yet, was the greatest player they ever saw. Eventually, it might become enough to the consensus to shift in their direction.
These things happen, and there really isn’t much we can do about it. When that day comes, what will people use to determine the new GOAT? Will the generation that grew up on Jordan’s reliance on championships as a main barometer be passed on to the next, or will the newer-age folks prefer to weigh the context of the stats against the circumstances surrounding the number of titles a player won or didn’t win.
Look at Jordan one more time. Our definition of greatness, and what it takes to be considered the greatest, has changed since he had to overtake somebody else for that distinction in the court of public opinion. Was it the sixth title that separated him from Magic, Larry, or whomever was regarded as the previous GOAT? If he had put up those same numbers with the same accolades, but no titles, would we look at him the same? What if he was playing today? We would only use his championships as the standard, or would there be some sort of statistical benchmark as well? The definition of greatness changed several times before Jordan, making it likely that it changes again one day. Maybe that day isn’t today or tomorrow, but don’t be surprised when it comes. It’s exciting to wonder where our thought process will take us next, but the only way to reach that point is by keeping an open mind to new ideas rather than clinging desperately to old ones.