Measuring the Greatest NBA Players Of All-Time

Truth is, there are so many variables and metrics to consider where a player ranks all-time, that one can, perhaps reasonably so, label the entire exercise as futile. Rather than accept defeat however, there are comprehensive ways to look at players and their on-court effectiveness.

 

Whether on cable sports programs, the playground, or barbershops, there has always been and will likely continue to be much discussion regarding the greatest NBA players of all time. And while there tends to be some agreement on who the truly great players, the narrower the list, and the more specific the conversation is around ranking, the more dissent exists.

A large part of disagreement from these conversations obviously stems from bias. Whether generational bias, bias towards specific metrics, or raw simplistic measures such as total championships accrued, there seems to be a natural human tendency to assign our pre-determined favorite as the player and cherry-pick data that supports this conclusion.

Truth is, there are so many variables and metrics to consider where a player ranks all-time, that one can, perhaps reasonably so, label the entire exercise as futile. Rather than accept defeat however, there are comprehensive ways to look at players and their on-court effectiveness.

For the purposes of this piece, traditional “counting stats”, were totally disregarded. Points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, etc. – while they do serve a purpose and can be informative, require too much context to be truly useful in an all-time ranking of NBA players. As an example, if the average pace in the NBA is much higher in one era versus another era, much of those traditional counting stats will be relatively inflated as a result. This is not to diminish the accomplishments of players in any given era, but rather just speaks to the needed context that would need to be provided when merely ranking the highest scoring players of all time.

No single statistic is all-encompassing, and to be clear, some context is always needed. But to get a clearer picture of the greatest NBA players of all time (this does not include the ABA era), all-time rankings from 15 different advanced statistics were used. These included:

Offensive Rating 
Defensive Rating 
PER 
Win Shares 
Win Shares per 48 
Offensive Win Shares 
Defensive Win Shares 
Box Plus/Minus 
True Shooting percentage 
Effective field goal percentage 
Total Rebound percentage 
Value Over Replacement Player 
Assist percentage 
Steal percentage 
Block percentage

 

To formulate what I will be calling the “GOAT score”, two factors were taken into consideration, how many of the above listed stats were a player ranked in the top 10, and their average rank in those categories. The former was divided by the latter, which generates a player’s GOAT score. For example, if player A ranks 4th all time in Win Shares, 8th all time in True Shooting percentage and 10th all time in Value over replacement player, they have a frequency of 3 in the advanced stats listed, and an average rank of 7.33, they therefore would have a GOAT score of .40.

 

Number of top 10 appearances   in pre-selected advanced stats

Average rank in pre-selected advanced stats

GOAT score

LeBron James

6

2.33

2.58

Michael Jordan

6

2.5

2.4

Chris Paul

8

5.75

1.39

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

4

3

1.3

John Stockton

6

5.16

1.16

Magic Johnson

4

4

1

Tim Duncan

5

5.2

.96

Wilt Chamberlain

4

4.25

.94

Karl Malone

5

5.6

.89

Kawhi Leonard

4

5.75

.69

 

As seen in the table above, LeBron James leads all players in GOAT score with an insane 2.58, followed closely by Michael Jordan‘s 2.4. Also noteworthy, is that those two are quite easily ahead of everyone else.
An interesting trend is that the top ten GOAT scores required a minimum of 4 top ten appearances and an average rank in those stats that was  6th or higher.
A personal surprise on this list was Chris Paul’s 8 top ten appearances in advanced stats, and even a decent average score to go with it.  Another personal surprise is the complete absence of Kobe Bryant, who does not own a single top ten spot in any on the listed stats.
What is obviously not a surprise, or should not be for those who follow the Association, is that LeBron and Jordan sit a top the GOAT score rankings. Their significant gap is telling, as no other player has a score that even reaches 1.5. Some may take LeBron’s spot ahead of MJ as pure sacrilege, therefore it is important to remember this is an entirely statistical based ranking, and though there was no pre-existing agenda, the GOAT score ranking further supports growing sentiment that LeBron already may be better than Michael Jordan.
Of course, a few disclaimers accompany this piece. Obviously, there is a strong bias towards retired players, evidenced by the presence of 7 retired players of the 10. For this reason, there is obviously some malleability as the active players on this list can potentially move up or down. Active players not yet on this list can also certainly find their way on this list. Additionally of course, the entire  debate of greatness, can be defined several different ways, reducing some of the objectivity of the term itself. The purpose of this exercise was to narrowly define greatness as sustained statistical achievement in several categories of advanced statistics.
The GOAT score was devised to be an objective all-time ranking of players with the only subjective criteria being the pre-selected stats chosen to calculate the GOAT score. The advanced stats chosen to calculate the GOAT score will naturally reward longevity, sustained excellence and obviously the additional criteria of number of appearances in top 10 stats reward players with good all-around skill-sets.

 

*Statistics were taken from Basketball Reference. Article was written on March 3, 2020.
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