This draft has been sitting on my desktop for over a year now. Life gets busy and I usually have at least 10 article ideas that I want to write about every quarter related to technology and venture capital but only get to one of them, so blog posts like this one get pushed aside.
I decided to write this blog post not just because I love Michael Jordan as a player, but I simply love the game. I’ve loved watching and playing basketball since my youth. During my high school and college years I watched countless hours on TNT and other channels. I plastered my college dorm rooms with posters of various NBA stars and played every basketball video game that was made. And of course I still love the game, especially the NBA.
I believe most fans don’t lose perspective as they get older. Their knowledge and catalog of players gets wider and deeper. So I believe there is a misconception among younger fans that older fans who watched 80s and 90s NBA only love past players. Instead, there is just a greater appreciation of the game that continues.
When Jordan came along, even older fans appreciated that he was simply better than Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Elgin Baylor and other NBA greats before him. There are players I like in today’s game who are better than players I watched in the 80s and 90s and vice versa. I assume that today’s younger fans will be able to appreciate players in the 2030s as much as today’s NBA players. Their depth and knowledge will simply grow, which is why I respect the opinions of people like Hubie Brown, who coached in the NBA since 1972 and played as a professional in the decade before. People with that deep knowledge are able to compare and contrast the greats from the 1960s to 1980s to 2000s and today.
Before I discuss my criteria, I want to start off by stating that I’m not a championship rings person. I don’t believe the number of rings is a major factor of all-time greatness since basketball is such a team sport. I believe Charles Barkley and Karl Malone were in the top 5 of greatest power forwards in NBA history, but neither won an NBA championship. The same with John Stockton, considered one of the top 3 point guards in NBA history by many, and who leads the NBA in all-time assists and steals. All three of them and several others produced in the post-season, so their greatness wasn’t diminished in my eyes. I believe the greatest players shine in the most crucial games.
So then the question becomes: Who do you want on your team to win that one game? Or that one series? Sports and basketball is about winning, and in professional sports the importance of winning is exponentially magnified.
As my primary criteria, I believe a basketball player’s greatness is judged by their greatness compared with their peers and history, statistics and performance analytics, peak performance, first-person witness on the court, performance on the biggest stages, and leadership. The following discussions points do not neatly fit into these listed categories and there will be some overlapping subject matter, but at the end of this post I believe you’ll understand how it all comes together.
1. NUMBERS DON’T LIE
Jordan’s sustained excellence by reputation and numbers is very difficult to argue against:
- 10 scoring titles (Wilt Chamberlain has 7; George Gervin, Allen Iverson, and Kevin Durant have 4 each; Kobe Bryant had 2; and LeBron James has 1) along with the highest points average in NBA history.
- 5 League MVPs and 6 NBA Finals
- 3 times steals leader (tied for most ever) and 3rd all-time steals leaders
- NBA Defensive Player of the Year and 9-time All-Defensive Team
- Only guard in NBA history to have 200 steals and 100 blocks in a season, and only one of 3 players (the others are Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen). 200 steals is a benchmark number for steals in a season and 100 blocks is also a benchmark number.
Some NBA players have said that the only time they thought one player was both the best offensive and defensive player on the floor was when they played against either Jordan or Hakeem. A reflection of this is that they are the only two players in NBA history to have over 20 points per game, 200 steals and 100 blocks in a season.
One incredible aspect of Jordan’s career was that he and the NBA’s culture weren’t focused nearly as much on the analytics and advanced metrics as today’s NBA and its players.
The Beginning of NBA Analytics
The “Moneyball” culture was started by the Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in 2002, and it spread across Major League Baseball and over to other sports, such as the NBA.
PER (player efficiency rating) was originated by John Hollinger, while he was at ESPN in 2007. It measures a player’s per-minute performance, while adjusting for pace. PER takes into account accomplishments, such as field goals, free throws, 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals, as well negative results, such as missed shots, turnovers, and personal fouls.
Jordan has the highest PER in NBA history with 27.91, and had the highest PER in 7 seasons. Kobe never led in this category, while LeBron led PER for 6 straight seasons.
Leaders in Player Efficiency Ratings in NBA History:
1. Michael Jordan 27.91
2. LeBron James 27.52
3. Anthony Davis 27.50
4. Shaquille O’Neal 26.43
5. David Robinson 26.18
6. Wilt Chamberlain 26.13
7. Bob Pettit 25.34
8. Kevin Durant 25.20
9. Chris Paul 25.10
10. James Harden 24.75
PER really doesn’t take into account a players defensive capabilities, so a shutdown defender like Bruce Bowen posted single digit PERs. Jordan, Dennis Rodman, and Kobe were shutdown defenders. Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Magic Johnson were not. Many NBA players who played against LeBron have publicly stated numerous times that he isn’t a shutdown defender. An example was Jason Terry’s offensive display against LeBron during the 2011 NBA Finals, and his memorable quips of him yelling, “You can’t guard me!” at LeBron.
The difference between Jordan and others was that players feared his defense. There wasn’t the same level of fear with other greats such as Kobe — players did respect his defensive prowess, but it was simply not on the same level.
Another statistic that analyzes a player’s greatness is win shares. It’s a player statistic that tries to divide up credit for a team’s success among the individual players, and win shares per 48 minutes is considered the more accurate assessment for an individual player’s contribution.
All-Time Win Shares per 48 Minutes in NBA History (Top 10):
1. Michael Jordan .2505
2. David Robinson .2502
3. Wilt Chamberlain .2480
4. Chris Paul .2438
5. Neil Johnston .2413
6. LeBron James .2345
7. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar .2284
8. James Harden .2258
9. Magic Johnson .2249
10. Kawhi Leonard .2195
Offensive win shares are a pretty solid metric for evaluating the offensive play of a single player). Jordan led in this statistic from the 1986–87 to 1995–96 NBA seasons and in 1996–97. Karl Malone led this statistic in 1997–98.
To provide a measure of a player’s performance in a given game, John Hollinger also created something called Gamescore. This analytics tool only covers the past 40 years, and is derived by the following:
(Points x 1.0) + (FGM x 0.4) + (FGA x -0.7) + ((FTA-FTM) x -0.4) + (OREB x 0.7) + (DREB x 0.3) + (STL x 1.0) + (AST x 0.7) + (BLK x 0.7) + (PF x -0.4) + (TO x -1.0).
Under Gamescore, Jordan has 19 out of the top 100 performing games in NBA history. He is followed by James Harden 10, Kobe 5, LeBron 3, Shaq 3, and Anthony Davis has 3.
The Top Five Gamescore Players/Games in NBA History:
1. Michael Jordan 64.60 Game: March 2, 1990
2. Kobe Bryant 63.50 Game: Jan 22, 2006
3. Karl Malone 60.20 Game: Jan 27, 1990
4. James Harden 56.60 Game: Jan 30, 2018
5. Michael Jordan 54.70 Game: April 3rd, 1988
As I mentioned before, today’s era of NBA players are data-heads or wannabe data-heads, and so many sports analysts are the spiritual children of Billy Beane. Yet even within today’s data-driven culture, Jordan’s numbers stand as the best ever. While not the best in every single category, he remains the dominating presence.
NBA Analytics Today
The data geeks at FiveThirtyEight created RAPTOR, a “new metric for the modern NBA” in 2019. They explained how they wanted to create a statistic that “better reflects how modern NBA teams actually evaluate players. NBA teams highly value floor spacing, defense and shot creation, and they place relatively little value on traditional big-man skills.”
This is essentially a plus/minus system that measures the number of points a player contributes to the team’s offense and defense per 100 possessions. So it is not surprising that players from the 80s and 90s, such as Stockton, were highly valued along with Magic and Bird. Stockton is a distant number 40 under PER, which was another statistic providing a comprehensive viewpoint on an NBA player’s impact. But under RAPTOR, he is number 3.
Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry are highly valued under RAPTOR, while under PER neither is in the top 10. The only players in the top 10 under both PER and RAPTOR are Jordan, Chris Paul, LeBron, David Robinson, and Harden. But what’s surprising and at the same time not surprising: under a metric built for today’s NBA, Michael Jordan still comes out on top.
“Jordan is also the modern leader in RAPTOR plus/minus, in addition to having the best mix of career and peak value… His reputation as the GOAT was not merely a media creation or the product of ring-counting — it has withstood the tests of both time and science.” - Neil Paine, Senior Writer for FiveThirtyEight
2. PERFORMANCE ON THE BIGGEST STAGES
More than any other NBA great, Jordan excelled when it mattered most.
Jordan holds the highest points average during the playoffs in NBA history at 33.4 points per game, with his highest for a single series being 43.7 points per game.
The four players with the next-highest points per game during the playoffs are:
Allen Iverson 29.1
Jerry West 28.7
Kevin Durant 29.1
LeBron James 28.9
Jordan has led the league in scoring 10 times during the regular season, and led in scoring during the playoffs 10 times. The great Wilt Chamberlain led the league in scoring 7 times, but during the playoffs he only led once in scoring. Kareem led in playoff scoring 5 out of his 18 seasons. Kobe has led 3 out of his 15 years, and LeBron led in playoff scoring 3 out of his 13 years.
Digging a bit deeper, Kareem’s playoff performances saw a significant decline in the 1971–1972 season when his shooting percentage went from 57.4% to 43.7%; in 1972–1973 it went from 55.4% to 42.8%; and in 1980–1981 it went from 57.4% to 46.2%. Jordan saw one significant decrease in his shooting percentage during the 1986–1987 season, when he shot 48.2% but during the playoffs it decreased to 41.7% — but otherwise his points and shooting percentage stayed the same or increased during the playoffs.
Jordan has the most 50 point playoff games with eight. 55 points or greater was done by Charles Barkley, Wilt, Elgin Baylor, Allen Iverson, and Rick Barry once. Jordan scored 55 points or more five times.
Apart from scoring, Jordan was versatile when it was needed. During the 1991 NBA Finals, he averaged 31 points, 11.4 assists, and 6.6 rebounds. He was only one of five players to average over 10 assists in an NBA Finals series, and one of only three players to average over 11 assists. The other two were Magic and Cousy. Jordan’s assists average was more than LeBron or Kobe ever averaged in an NBA Finals.
Jordan simply did what needed to get done and had the skill to do it. Kobe never had Jordan’s level of versatility as a passer.
When Jordan was called to play point guard during the 1988–89 NBA season, he averaged a triple double during his first 11 games and obtained a triple double in 10 out of 11 games (34 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds). For the month, over the course of 24 games, he averaged 30.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 10.7 assists, and 2.4 steals per game.
If Jordan had continued to play point guard, would it be a stretch to assume he could have averaged a triple double for a few seasons? Not at all. And if he’d been a player in today’s NBA — growing up as a stathead and being far more conscious about his numbers than when he actually played — a triple double for at least one NBA season would have been a given.
“Everybody has to watch him with the ball. The other guys are free to roam, and their shooting percentages are going to soar. I think he handles the ball better than Magic, and just makes everybody else better.”
– Clyde Drexler, commenting during the time when Jordan played point guard
Jordan is the only player to score at least 20 points in every NBA Finals game he ever played in, and he has the most points per game in an NBA Finals series with 41 points.
Last, when the game was on the line, who would you want taking the last shot? There are many ways to slice this analysis, but the clear majority show that Jordan is the greatest closer of all time.
Additionally, Jordan has made 9 buzzer beaters, which is the most in NBA history, and 25 game-winning shots. Kobe has 8 buzzer beaters and 26 game-winning shots in his career. LeBron has 7 buzzer beaters and 18 game winners.
Jordan was excellence and consistency personified throughout his career. No one before or since has come close to his playoff dominance.
3. IMPORTANCE OF FIRST-PERSON WITNESSES
When writing about history or assessing facts, it is important to take into account eye-witnesses and expert witnesses. Ignoring witnesses allows for so-called “scholars” to come up with stupid Holocaust-denial conspiracies, how our landing on the moon was faked, and other crazy theories.
In sports, these key witnesses are the people who played and coached against these players. Why them? Because casual fans don’t really understand the details of the game. But if you play basketball, or more importantly played at the collegiate level or higher, then you understand the nuances of the game to the point where you respect such witnesses.
Part of today’s culture seems to be to respect experts less and less. Because information and google are at your fingertips, people believe the gap between their own knowledge and expert knowledge is much smaller than it really is. Some people google their symptoms two hours before a doctor’s appointment and based on that believe they know as much as their doctor on what is wrong with them. But of course there are limitations to this easy knowledge, while the reality is that the depth of experts’ knowledge (and their gap with it) is far greater.
There are enough players from the NBA who played against Kareem, Magic, Bird, Dr. J, and Jordan to compare their levels of greatness. And there are enough expert witnesses who played against Kobe, Tim Duncan, LeBron, and Jordan to compare their levels of greatness.
Then there are silly assumptions by less informed fans that today’s NBA is so much more athletic or harder to score in than it used to be. But when you examine the careers of players such as Jamal Crawford. Crawford played 19 years in the NBA and still averaged 18.6 points per game when he was 33 years old in 2013–14 season, which was only a couple points off his career peak of 20.6 points during the 2007–08 season. Kevin Garnett is another player who played 20 NBA seasons between 1995 and 2016 and still averaged 14.8 points during the 2012–13 season. There are enough players whose careers span these eras to provide more than adequate information that can be used to compare players and how the game has played over time.
From Phil Jackson, who also coached Kobe, to Hubie Brown to Jerry West (“The Logo”) have all stated that Jordan is the greatest player that they have ever seen play the game of basketball.
Bobby Knight, who coached Jordan during the 1984 Olympics, declared that Jordan was the best athlete and best player he has ever seen play basketball. And this was before Jordan even entered the NBA. I assume Knight’s assessment was a combination of Jordan’s intensity during practice and the fact that he led a team of college players against eight teams of NBA All-Stars and won EVERY SINGLE GAME.
Jordan faced Magic and Bird in their prime along with many other greats. Imagine in today’s social media environment, if a college player led a team of college all-stars and defeated teams of NBA All-Stars not once or twice, but eight times. Instagram would have a meltdown of epic proportions.
Players such as Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce, Shaq, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Kevin Garnett, JR Rider, Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest), Quentin Richardson, Darius Miles, Baron Davis, Vince Carter, John Salley, Russell Westbrook, Eddie House (who played with LeBron), Grant Hill, Hakeem, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose, Kawhi Leonard, Chauncey Billups, Ray Allen (LeBron’s former teammate who played against Jordan, Kobe and LeBron), Kevin Durant, and so many others have called Jordan the greatest of all-time (GOAT).
In 2020, 73% of current NBA players voted Jordan as all-time best player:
Even many players who played against Kobe and LeBron — or who played against Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron — would pick Kobe over LeBron while still selecting Jordan as the greatest of all-time. Some of these players are Shaq, Metta World Peace, Stephen Jackson, Kawhi Leonard, Gilbert Arenas, James Harden, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Dirk, Kevin Durant, Tony Allen, Kenyon Martin, and Jim Jackson.
While the opinions of NBA players are an important aspect of my assessment, I also have to take into consideration the statistics and performance numbers. That’s why in my “NBA greatest” list, I have LeBron slightly over Kobe:
1. Michael Jordan
As an aside, I believe Kareem isn’t in the mindshare of the wider fan audience because he was hated by much of the media and even fans. He was abrasive and not friendly (I have friends who were fans whom he brushed off), which resulted in the amount and type of (negative) media coverage he received during his career and afterwards. But I choose to ignore those factors and believe his skills and performance deserve a high place in NBA history.
I have Shaq at number four because I’m a believer in peak performance more than longevity (further explained in the addendum). Shaq was an unstoppable force over a 3 year period and had 10 great years. He led the NBA in field goal percentage 10 times and scoring twice.
Returning to Jordan: Among the NBA players and coaches discussing how he was the greatest player, a large subset stated that Jordan would have averaged over 40 points per game in today’s NBA. That subset includes NBA coaches who have coached across both eras, such as Larry Brown, Jeff Van Gundy, Phil Jackson, Hubie Brown, and others, and players like Shaq, Alonzo Mourning, Ray Allen (explains more in detail here), Dennis Rodman, Jalen Rose, John Wall, and many more. A lot of their reasoning has to do with the rule change around hand-checking. Hubie Brown (who coached the Kentucky Colonels to the ABA champion in 1975 and was NBA Coach of the Year in 1978 and 2004) explains more of the practical side on why hand-checking is more difficult to play through.
In addition to hand-checking, Jordan was double- and triple-teamed most of the time in an era of hard fouls. But no hand-checking is one of the primary reasons that Jordan would average over 40 points a game in today’s game. There are dozens of players you can analyze to show that this rule change helped players that go to the hole. A good example is Allen Iverson, who during his decline averaged 26.4 points per game (2003–04). But when no-hand checking came into the game, in two years he swung up 6.6 points to 33 points pergame at age 30 during the 2005–06 NBA season.
Kobe went from 24 to 27.6 points in 2004 to 35.4 and 31.6 (the only two times he led the NBA in scoring). In the two years after hand-checking was removed, Kobe saw an 11.4 point increase. Even an aging Reggie Miller at 39 saw his scoring go up from 10 to 14.8 during the rule change. However, players like Peja Stojaković didn’t increase their scoring, since he is a spot up shooter and not a player that goes to the hole.
Jordan averaged 33.3% in three-point shooting over his career. Kobe averaged 32.9%, LeBron 34.3%, Kevin Durant is at 38.1%, and Bird’s average was 37.8%. With Jordan’s obsessive practice mentality, it’s safe to assume he would have increased his percentage to at least the upper 30s if not greater. This would also increase his scoring output.
Since Jordan’s highest‑scoring year was 37.1 points per game, you can assume he would at least be at the lower end of Iverson’s upswing after the rule-change, increasing to at least 6 more points and 43 points per game. I believe Jordan would have easily averaged 40 points per game for a handful of years in today’s NBA.
4. DEFENSE WINS GAMES
Jordan was known as not just a shut-down defender, but one who also struck fear on the defensive end.
As noted earlier, Jordan is the only guard to record 200 steals and 100 blocks in a season. He was NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1987–88, 9-time All-Defensive Team, and 3-time leader in steals.
Kareem was 11-time All-Defensive Team and 4-time block leader. Kobe was 12-time All-Defensive Team, but never recognized as Defensive Player of the Year. LeBron was 6-time All-Defensive Team, but also never achieved Defensive Player of the Year. Magic and Kevin Durant were never selected on the All-Defensive Team.
Kobe and LeBron never had had a 200‑steal season or 100 blocks in a season. Magic had one 200‑steal season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has had four 100‑block seasons so far, with 151 blocks being his highest, and Kevin Garnett (6'11" 240 lbs) has had eleven 100-block seasons during his 23-year NBA career (1995–2016), with 178 blocks being his highest mark.
Jordan had 131 blocks as his highest, which is the record for NBA guards. Kobe’s higest number of blocks was 67, and LeBron’s was 93.
Gary Payton and Chris Paul had over 200 steals twice, and Jordan hit that mark 6 times. Patrick Beverley, Russel Westbrook, and many others never hit this benchmark.
Yet steals is just one reflection of defensive prowess, since it is more about anticipation and hand quickness than about foot quickness and on-the-ball defensive skills. Stephen Curry and James Harden have been in the top three of total steals during an NBA season, but neither are good on-the-ball defenders.
Magic, Bird, and LeBron are some of the players who were not known for strong on-the-ball defensive skills. LeBron is athletic and known for his run-down blocks, and people cite his versatility — but that doesn’t mean he would be the optimal defender in each of these positions. I believe LeBron has one of the highest basketball IQs and knows his limitations, which is why he doesn’t take the toughest defensive assignments (discussed here by Gary and Stephen A. Smith).
Jordan however always wanted the toughest defensive assignments and relished playing on both ends of the floor.
5. LEADERSHIP MATTERS
The benefit of being lazy and not completing this piece for more than a year is that “The Last Dance” documentary came out and we got to see Jordan’s leadership style upfront.
Harsh but Effective
Some people have described it as an “asshole style” of leadership, but I don’t fully agree, since slices and sound bites have been latched onto by the media and talking heads on sports shows. For example, for many years the primary example was how “Jordan punched Steve Kerr in the face!” — but the “The Last Dance” revealed that actually Kerr swung first. And this level of tension and intensity wasn’t limited to Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, as Reggie Miller and other players have described. Many teams seeking greatness had arguments, fights, and throw-downs.
Jordan pushed his teammates hard, but more importantly he led by example.
And the other side is how people also talked about his good-natured personality, manners, and respectfulness off the court. Beyond his harsh methods, he also built relationships with players whom he pushed. Scott Burrell, his teammate during their last championship run, still maintains a friendship and does yearly golf outings with Jordan. When Metta World Peace broke Jordan’s ribs during a game, Jordan called him to say it was all good with him.
Jordan also seeks to learn from others and knows how to build relationships. One great story is described by Duke’s Coach K how Jordan came up to him and asked him for help during the 1992 Olympics.
Of course there are various types of effective leadership, but Jordan stands out at the top with players such as Magic and Bird. Magic had a more friendly but intense approach.
Bird was known to be just as intense as Jordan, but with a sense of wit and humor along side of his strong approach. For one game, to show the incredible extent of his basketball prowess to his opponents and teammates, Bird decided to play an entire game with his opposite hand (left-hand) and proceeded to record a triple-double (47 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists). Amazing.
“If you put all of us in a room — Magic, Jordan, myself, and Bird, Bird would probably be the guy who walked out of the room at the end of the day.” — Isaiah Thomas
Kobe grew into his leadership style (7:30 at Bill Simmon’s podcast has a great discussion here), but there was criticism of some of his mishaps. Similarly, LeBron has holes in his leadership ability, such as when he pouted and should have rallied the team after JR Smith’s critical mistake during Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Additionally, when LeBron throws people under the bus with his passive-aggressive approach, that is not the best way to create team chemistry. It may be one reason why some players decided to leave (such as Kyrie Irving) or don’t want to play with him (such as Kevin Durant).
What next-level leaders do: During a period of crisis or adversity, you ignore what has happened and move forward, especially when time is limited.
In It to Win It
Regardless of leadership styles, in professional sports it’s about winning. If it were simply about playing the game, I personally would want to play with Magic or LeBron, but if it were about winning it would be about Jordan.
Many sports analogies refer to war and battles — so who do you want to lead you into war? Do you want the general who failed in the previous battles and hope that he’s learning and will be a great story in the end for you and your fellow soldiers? Or do you want the tough general who already has had an untarnished record? I’ll take the general who has a great record, because even though I may not be able to relate to him, I will be able to trust in his decisions, his resolve, and his abilities.
Whether or not you like or agree with Jordan’s leadership approach, it is difficult to argue his effectiveness. I remember listening to one of his post-game interviews when he explained what he told his teammates who thought many of the calls were going against them that night. He told them, “Don’t focus on what you can’t control, but focus on what you can control.”
To win in the NBA Finals, he needed to average over 11 assists? Done. When he needed to score more than 40 points a game over 6 games in the NBA Finals? Done. Deal with triple teams throughout the playoffs? Done. Take the last shot? Done.
Michael Jordan did whatever was needed as an individual and a leader to win. He also had the extremely rare versatility of being able to do it all — that’s why he is the greatest to ever lace up a pair of basketball shoes.
Addendum: The Other Reasons
PEAK PERFORMANCE OVER LONGEVITY
Some people are impressed with longevity more than peak performance, but I personally do not believe durability of a player along with a long career warrants an entrance to greatness. Whether you played 5 years or 15 years, how you played during that time and whether you were setting the bar for the rest of your league are really the critical factors of how great an athlete was.
One example to examine are running backs in the NFL. Below are the current top ten rushing leaders in NFL history:
1 Emmitt Smith 18,355 yards
2 Walter Payton 16,726 yards
3 Frank Gore 15,347 yards
4 Barry Sanders 15,269 yards
5 Adrian Peterson 14,216 yards
6 Curtis Martin 14,101 yards
7 LaDainian Tomlinson 13,684 yards
8 Jerome Bettis 13,662 yards
9 Eric Dickerson 13,259 yards
10 Tony Dorsett 12,739 yards
Frank Gore is #3 on the rushing leader list with 15,347 yards, and Curtis Martin is #6 but I’m pretty certain people do not consider either of them a top ten running back of all-time. Especially since Frank Gore never led the NFL in any rushing category in a given year nor did he pass the eye test for most NFL fans or analysts. Both of them are blessed with longevity, but as I mentioned I do not believe this is a primary factor of greatness in professional sports.
NFL greats such as Earl Campbell, who led the NFL in rushing yards during his first three years, and Gale Sayers, who led the NFL in rushing twice, both had only five prime years, but a fair number of people consider them in their top ten list of all-time running backs. I would say ALL NFL players and analysts would confidently state that Gale Sayers’ 5 short years in the NFL made him a better running back of all-time ahead of Gore and Martin (Sayers 4,956 yards vs. Martin’s 14,101 yards vs. Gore’s 15,347).
A closer comparison would be Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. Some NFL analysts and fans (especially Cowboy fans) place Smith higher on their “greatest” list because he holds the all-time rushing yards title. Sanders chose to retire after 10 years in the NFL, but could have easier played for several years longer and obtained that title from Smith. I believe reasonable people wouldn’t discount his greatness compared to the longevity of Smith’s career because peak Sanders just made your eyes go crazy.
When you look at other sports, what top line stats do you look at? For baseball, you look at who led the league in average, HR, RBIs, WAR and others statistics. Numbers combined with other factors which I described in the body of this blog post define greatness, which is why Shaq is in my NBA top five greatest of all-time list. If I valued longevity, then Shaq would be pushed down to somewhere between #9 and #15 and players like LeBron James would be higher.
Karl Malone averaged 25 pts, 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists for his career over 19 seasons. He never led in any of those categories during a season, but became the #2 all-time leader in points and #7 all-time leader in rebounds. Malone is not in my top ten.
LeBron averaged 27.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists through his career so far over 17 seasons. He’s led in points per game once in his career and no other categories. He is the #3 leader in points, #49 in total rebounds, and #8 in assists. Are these spectacular numbers as career averages? No, but his body of work puts him at number five in my “greatest” list.
Magic averaged 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists for his career over 12 seasons. He led the NBA in assists four times and led in no other categories, and is #5 as the all-time assists leader. Magic is number three on my all-time list.
EMBODIMENT OF HANGTIME
Michael “Air” Jordan still has the highest recorded vertical leap at 48", which is tied with Darrell Griffith. His vertical leap combined with his aggressiveness and body control allowed him to be one of the greatest in-game dunkers in NBA history. He was also the NBA dunk champion in 1987 and 1988.
In my opinion, I believe he is the third greatest in-game dunker. At number two I have Vince Carter, and by a hair over Carter I have Shawn Kemp as my top in-game dunker in NBA history (look at his reverse dunk up the middle lane against the Knicks or when he dunks on Dikembe Mutombo (7’ 2”), Bison Dele (6’10”) and Laphonso Ellis (6’8”) at the same time!).
When I compare Jordan to other all-time greats like LeBron James, their is a noticeable gap in their dunking ability. I’ve went through more than fifty of LeBron’s highlight dunks and it basically breaks down to three primary dunks, which all look very similar. Also LeBron is primarily a one-foot jumper, which limits his versatility as a dunker. Jordan was a rarity in being able to jump well with a one-foot or a two-foot takeoff. I know this personally because my vertical in my younger years (now I’m fat) was 35", which is measured by one-step and a jump. My running, one-foot takeoff vertical was 31". Usually one or the other is stronger for most people.
More than dunking, Jordan truly was the embodiment of hangtime. His ability to control his body, especially on his descent is still unmatched. Jordan was graceful as much as he was forceful in the air. One of the best examples is his layup against the Nets when he made 3 in-air adjustments.
Just watching this and his other layups makes you realize how truly amazing and extraordinary his body control was.