Basketball’s ongoing NBA GOAT debate

By: Toby Martin-Khols

Ask any casual basketball fan, diehard NBA fan, or network analyst, who is the Greatest of All-Time (GOAT) and you will probably only hear two names surface. 

The first would be Michael Jordan, also known as MJ, who played 15 professional seasons and won 6 championships with the Chicago Bulls in the 80s and 90s. 

The second would be LeBron James, who is currently playing in his 19th professional season for the Los Angeles Lakers. He formerly played for the Miami Heat for 2 seasons and the Cleveland Cavaliers for 11 seasons.

These two players are the consensus debate on who is the GOAT in NBA history. We can use some stats to try and determine who is better, or who will end up being better. Many analysts say the numbers and stats don’t lie. Which I think is partly true, but always know that statistics can pretty much be used to prove any points, even very very bad ones. 

In the professional sports world, playoff success, or lack thereof, can make a huge difference in their respective legacies. For NFL fans, let’s use Calvin Johnson as an example. He was a HOF WR for the Detroit Lions but only played in two playoff games over a very short 9-year career. He is most likely a consensus top 10 or 15 receiver, but if he had any sort of playoff success he most certainly would have climbed spots.

The stats presented in this article can show who is the better player, but whoever is the greatest player factors in accolades as well.

The question facing everybody today is how far LeBron must go to become the majority GOAT. If he stopped his career when Jordan did and only played 15 seasons, MJ would certainly still be the pick among experts. 

The thing that is tricky about this debate is that LeBron is still playing. Not just playing, but playing at a truly elite level, and at such an older age past his prime. He still has time to further cement his legacy as the GOAT.

Image taken from: JxmyHighroller

First, if you know little about basketball, here are some basic stat comparisons. Looking at this graphic, you would think LeBron obviously trumps MJ in almost every aspect of the game. This actually represents LeBron’s impressive longevity. These statistics don’t prove LeBron is a better shooter or defender than MJ, just that he has had sustained success. But is he still the better player?

Next, let’s look at career averages. Has your mind changed at all? Still, at a glance, LeBron seems to have more advantages than MJ.

Image taken from: JxmyHighroller

Let’s take a look at some advanced metrics. 

Image taken from: JxmyHighroller

Without knowing anything about these wacky abbreviated stats but knowing they are more in-depth than the basic stats, who do you think is a better player now? If we are talking about who is a better player, these metrics tell you the story, taking all the accolades, playoff successes, influence on the game, and opinions out of the conversation. I will break down what all these categories mean.

PER stands for Player Efficiency Rating. It was developed by ESPN columnist John Hollinger. John says, “The PER sums up all a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance.” 

WS/48 stands for win share per 48 minutes and was invented by Justin Kubatko. He says, “A win share is worth one-third of a team win. If a team wins 60 games, there are 180 ‘Win Shares’ to distribute among the players.”

OBPM stands for Offensive Box +/- and DBPM stands for Defensive Box +/-. The plus/minus statistic is a measure of the point differential when players are in and out of a game. It is calculated by taking the difference in the score when the player enters the game and subtracting it from the score when the player exits the game.

VORP stands for Value over Replacement Player. According to ‘Basketball Reference’s’ glossary, VORP is a box score estimate of the points per 100 TEAM possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level player, translated to an average team, and prorated to an 82-game season.

TS% stands for Total Shooting percentage, which is pretty self-explanatory. The percentage of all their made shots. 

The advanced numbers are close. LeBron is reaching a point in his career where the majority of people and experts could consider him the new GOAT. 

Now, just raw, crazy, and eye-popping numbers are one thing, but what gets you exposure and reputation is accolades. The numbers compliment the accolades, not the other way around. 

Image taken from: JxmyHighroller

Keep in mind MJ played 4 fewer seasons than LeBron, as of 2022. LeBron leads in All-NBA selections but that can also be argued as just a factor of his longevity. 

Eventually, LeBron may very well reach a point where his sheer numbers, consistency, and longevity past his prime, will vault him over the top among experts for the NBA GOAT title. The question is: when does the longevity of LeBron’s brilliance simply outmatch the slightly greater (opinion, based on the stats provided), but much shorter brilliance (career) of MJ?

Note: All statistics in the article can be found on https://www.basketball-reference.com/

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