Monday, May 14, 2007
From center to guard: a brief history of the G.O.A.T.
When discussing the NBA, there was a time when an argument about the best center in the league was a de facto argument about the greatest player of all-time.
We might now look back on a debate between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as a question of the best player of the era, or even the best center of all-time. But at the time, they were the contenders for G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time), Wilt for his unparalleled statistical dominance, Russell for the fact that he almost always won a championship.
There were no guards of the era in serious contention. Jerry West is one of the greatest guards of all-time, but he never won an MVP or a scoring title. You must respect the versatility of Oscar Robertson, but it would be hard to argue that he was better in the 1960s than Wilt or Russell.
In the 1970s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came along to dominate the league. He legitimately deserved consideration with Wilt and Russell as G.O.A.T., a completely dominating force.
Through 1979, you could not raise a good argument for anybody as the G.O.A.T. other than Wilt, Russell, or Kareem.
And then came Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
It wasn't just that Magic Johnson was the most versatile point guard ever (he was). And it wasn't just that Larry Bird was the most versatile forward ever (he was). It was that Magic's and Bird's versatility came with championships. Magic dominated the game of basketball in ways no point guard had ever done, and Larry Bird dominated the game of basketball in ways no forward had ever done. Suddenly, there were non-centers who could be considered for G.O.A.T.
And then came Michael Jordan. Jordan tied Wilt's record with seven consecutive scoring titles (and went on to win three more after his first retirement), so he was clearly dominant enough to be considered with those great centers. He was versatile and ferocious. He was a shooting guard that eventually won six championships without a dominant post game for support (though for his last three titles, he had Dennis Rodman, the best rebounder ever, to support him).
After Jordan (and even during his career), it seemed that everybody was always looking for the next Jordan. That meant everybody was looking for a dominant and versatile shooting guard. And since basketball fans seemed to unanimously agree that Jordan was the G.O.A.T., that meant looking for Jordan's successor as a shooting guard meant looking for Jordan's successor as the G.O.A.T.
This meant that Hakeem Olajuwon, who in the mid-90s played basketball about as well as it could be played, isn't in debates about the G.O.A.T. This means that Shaquille O'Neal, who was as dominant as a player could be, was rarely considered the G.O.A.T. (although Elliot Kalb called Shaq the best in his book).
Now when we look to today's players for the G.O.A.T., we look almost exclusively at shooting guards. Kobe Bryant is brought up. It is assumed that LeBron James will eventually be G.O.A.T. In the discussion of G.O.A.T., it's shooting guards that dominate the conversation, and post players are rarely mentioned. This means that even though everybody calls Tim Duncan the greatest power forward of all-time, nobody is calling Tim Duncan the greatest player of all-time.
I would suggest that we remember that the G.O.A.T. does not need to play the same position as Michael Jordan, and that we remember the ways that a dominating post player can control a game.