Basketball analysts, enthusiasts, pundits, and historians debate this issue ad nauseam, and every expert has an indisputable fact that proves their point: Jordan never lost in the Finals. Russell has 11 rings. Kareem played for 20 years. Yada, yada, yada, and so on.
I say we should stop talking about the GOAT and start talking about the GOTE (Greatest Of Their Era) instead. Why? Because I believe it is impossible to compare players from different eras, and I have three very good reasons why:
1 – Rule changes
Sometimes a rule change is so profound it creates a “before and after” effect which makes it impractical to compare anything that happened before it to anything that happened after it.
Pistol Pete Maravich was a great shooter who played ten NBA seasons and was extremely accurate from long range. As a matter of fact, he shot .667 for his career from downtown. But guess what? He only attempted 15 three-pointers his entire career because the three-pointer wasn’t introduced to the NBA until his final season (1979-80). And even though three-pointers were legal, teams just didn’t shoot many in those days. So it is ridiculous to compare Maravich, who went 10 for 15 his entire career to Stephen Curry, who averaged almost 12 threes per game in 2018-19.
2 – New positions
Fifty years ago there was no such thing as a stretch 5. Centers were expected to play defense, rebound, and score inside. Can you imagine Bill Russell at the top of the key initiating the Celtics’ offense? Can you picture him knocking down triples á la Nikola Jokic? No. Jokic plays a position that did not exist when Russell played. If given the opportunity, perhaps Russell could have been a stretch five, but because he never had the chance, it is unreasonable to compare him to Jokic.
3 – Increased star power
In today’s game, big stars wield influence like never before. LeBron James not only gets to choose which team he plays for, he also gets to select his teammates. He can recruit players whose skill set complements his own, which can pad his stats, increase his chances to win titles, and enhance his legacy. So does it make sense to compare LeBron to Oscar Robertson, who was forced to play with whomever his general managers acquired? Absolutely not.
I believe it is only fair to compare players who played at the same time, with the same rules, and in the same environment. For those who would pit Jordan versus LeBron, consider this: Jordan played his final game in April of 2003, and LeBron was drafted two months later. They never played against one another, so I believe they should never be compared. It is much easier to opine about Bill Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain because Russell and Chamberlain went toe-to-toe.
These GOAT debates are useless because we keep trying to compare players from different eras. So can we please stop?