The debate over who "the greatest player ever" has gained currency as Kobe Bryant has led the Lakers back into the Finals. The most-cited argument for Bryant to be mentioned for that status is his leading a non-Shaquille O'Neal team into the Finals and that validating him as being on the same level as Jordan. It seems to have a lot to do with the number of Championships they have each competed for. Of course, that points to an interesting bit of hypocrisy in the argument. If Championships won is the yardstick then Bryant should not even be mentioned. Neither should Michael Jordan, for that matter. The 11 Championships of Bill Russell pretty much end that conversation once and for all.
And aside from the number of Championships, consider the totals of their other statistics. Russell was never a great shooter, checking in at just a 44% clip and his 15.1 points per game hardly devastates anyone. It is a nice number but not exactly Hall of Fame. But his 22.5 rebounds per contest boggles the mind. Every night Russell was out there controlling the boards, blocking shots, and performing defensively at unheard of levels. He did his job and let other Celtics do the scoring which led to Championship after Championship after Championship. They would laugh to hear about how impressive a mere "3-peat" is in comparison to their 9-peat.
But it isn't just about Championships. Nobody in their right mind would ever say Robert Horry was, over the course of his career, a better player than Bryant, Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jerry West, George Gervin, or a host of others...but he has more rings than any of them. Clearly there needs to be some relation between individual production and rating as a player to go with the Championships.
In the regard of individual production there is no debate possible. One player stands head and shoulders above any other player in NBA history. He averaged 30.1 points per game. He added 22.89 rebounds per game. He shared the ball as evidenced by his 4.4 assists per game average and shot a healthy 54% from the field. I am speaking of course of Wilt Chamberlain. His great downfall was scoring only 2 Championships.
Compare him to Jordans' line: 30.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg., 5.2 apg. and .497% field goal percentage.
Chamberlain scored about equally, out rebounded him by nearly a 3.5-1 margin and had nearly as many assists, all while shooting better.
Or to Bryant:25 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.6 apg, .453% from the field.
The disparities only grow larger.
Of course, there is more to the game than just numbers. And these totals admittedly do not discuss blocks or steals...in no small part because those numbers were not kept for Chamberlain and Russell. Even there, Russell and Chamberlain stand head and shoulders above Jordan and Bryant. Russell was widely acknowledged to be the difference between Chamberlain being the most dominant regular season player in history but winning relatively few championships and perhaps having a dozen banners of his own.
On the other side of the coin, some people criticize the achievements of Jordan, Bryant, and other more recent athletes for competing in a league watered down by expansion. The merit of that argument seems to be somewhat counteracted by the expansion of the game world wide. The NBA draws from every continent for their players instead of just the United States as they did for so long. The larger pool of players now available is certainly worthy of stocking a few more teams. Indeed, I have even heard the counter-argument that Chamberlain and his cohorts benefited from facing inferior competition. Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, all the players concerned faced the best competition available in their era. And dominated. They were so dominant that Chamberlain once forced a widening of the lane to lower his influence on the game.
Chamberlain could do whatever he wanted on the basketball floor. When he felt like winning the scoring title, he did. When he felt like winning the rebounding title, he did. One year he even won the assist title! With the possible exception of Oscar Robertson, no other player in history has had the ability to dominate whatever statistical category he wanted to like Chamberlain did. And for how many players has the league changed the floor dimensions?
There has long been a rap on Chamberlain for not being a winner. By those standards it is tough to be a winner when you are the best PLAYER on the floor but not on the best TEAM on the floor. Chamberlain had the misfortune to repeatedly run into the greatest TEAM of his generation.
The same held true for Jordan early in his career. When he dropped 63 on the Celtics in the Garden even Bird was amazed by his talent...but Boston won that series. Jordan was far and away the best player on the floor but Boston had the better team. Later Jordan had a much better team around him but still lost to the Pistons...who had yet a better team. There were no two players on the Pistons that could match Jordan's talent...not Joe Dumars, not Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson, not even Isaiah Thomas...but the Pistons were, plain and simple, the better TEAM. Did that mean Jordan was not a great player or not a great winner? Two three-peats seem to put the lie to that question.
Of course, part of being on the best team is sublimating personal statistics to the needs of the team. It is possible...even probable...that Jordan, for example, could have averaged far more than 30 points had he wished to. However, that would not have been the best thing for the Bulls as a whole.
That was always one of the knocks on Chamberlain, that he would not sublimate his personal needs to the good of the team. In '67-68 he decided to show that was not accurate and that year he led the league in assists. Was it an accurate assessment?
Hard to say from a distance. To be honest, most of us debating "the greatest player of all time" have never seen him play consistently, we have never seen the Big O play...so we go to the easy answer.
"Jordan is the greatest player of all time."
"Bryant is the greatest player of all time."
I call shenanigans. By what measure is either of those players even in the conversation? Statistically they fall short of Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and even, arguably, based on his rebounding, Bill Russell. In championships they fall short of Russell.
And by claiming too much we create a backlash. Why not simply recognize what is. In Jordan we certainly had the greatest player OF OUR GENERATION. In Bryant we have one who may or may not eclipse him and, in turn, may or may not be eclipsed by LeBron James who is rapidly building a very impressive portfolio.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out I am not a Kobe Bryant fan. I find his Denver peccadillo reprehensible and his off-season antics little better. Furthermore, he is a Laker, the team that has forever stood between my home team and success. Every shot he misses brings a smile to my face, every loss he absorbs is one more happy moment for me.
And with that said, when I watch him play the game, I still recognize that I am, hate him or hate him more, watching greatness. He has abilities I cannot even match on the X-box. He is able to make moves on the basketball floor that very few other players can conceive of, much less execute. He does play the game the right way. He works on defense, he passes to his teammates, he scores seemingly at will.
I would say the same thing about LeBron James with the caveat that he has not done it as long, nor as consistently. Well, there is that and then the other undeniable difference...he seems to have better character off-court.
The conclusion, to me, is simple. Let's cut back the hyperbole. It is certainly a valid debate whether Bryant is the best player in the NBA today and whether he or Jordan currently holds the title of best player of the 21st century, but best of All Time? There are a half dozen championships and a whole lot of statistics between either of them and the greats whose games we no longer have the opportunity to see.
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