Editorial: What We Get Wrong About The GOAT Debate

Pretty much every NBA fan and analyst has, does, or will engage in a debate regarding the greatest player to ever lace up. For some it is clear cut, and for some there is room for debate – but what is clear is that pretty much no one is on the same page.

Defining terms is the key to a discussion such as determining who the best player is. A huge part of the problem is that many people have different criteria for what even constitutes the greatest player. Some have a bias for strong scorers, others still think playmakers should stop the list of greatest players and so on.

Even trickier is comparing players across eras. I would go so far to posit that there is theoretically no fair way to do this, but if doing so, it is important to level the playing as much as is possible. And though there is no definitive set of criteria that can empirically define the greatest player of all-time, there are specific criteria that should without question be omitted.

And that is pretty much every award given to NBA players. MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, etc. Reason being, is that these awards are voted on and if you can think of even a single award that you think was awarded incorrectly, then you see my point.

To be sure, awards are in fact a good proxy to determine a player’s worth. A player is probably not going to win 4 MVPs if he is not great. However, much like the discussion for the GOAT, media members that vote on awards such as the MVP often cannot even agree on exactly what constitutes the Most Valuable Player in a given year.

In addition to awards that players have accrued, non-individual accomplishments should also be excluded from the discussion, you can call this “Robert Horry rule” if you will. Obviously, basketball is a team sport, and yes, clearly an individual player can have an outsized impact on the success of their team, but even highly impactful players require a good team around them and even some luck to enjoy sustained success on the basketball court.

If a player leads their team to a 67 win season and subsequently helps his team get to the Finals as both the best offensive and defensive player on their team, but ultimately fall short in the Finals after the second and third best players on his team fall to injuries, is it fair to hold his failure to win it all against him?

In a conversation that deals solely with career accomplishments sure, but again, that goes back to the importance of defining terms.

Lastly, would be including any stat, whether a basic counting stat or utilizing more advanced analytics, without applying proper context. For example, comparing one player’s True Shooting Percentage to another player’s adequately would involve considering the volume of shots each player took, how many were 3s vs 2s vs free throws and if they played in different eras, what was their True Shooting like compared to league average at the time?

It is insufficient to declare that player A is better than player B because they have accrued more championships and have a higher points per game average.  And it is important to specify what is meant by better or greater as impact and skill are not in fact the same, though obviously, your skill affects your potential impact on any given game. Some of this is already done intuitively today.

For example, while no one is diminishing Bill Russell’s accomplishments or greatness, we all understand that there are a lot of caveats to consider when weighing his 11 championships or Wilt’s outlandish counting stats. However, the modern NBA tends to all get lumped together despite some not so insignificant changes in the way the game is played each decade.

To compare players most effectively, especially for the purpose of determining the greatest, it is important to accomplish several things. As previously stated, first is defining terms.

What exactly are you including in your discussion? Scoring, efficiency, on/off numbers, rebounding, play making abilities, impact relative to peers, etc., are all decent measures to include, but it is more important to lay them out clearly.

Next, after specifying what criteria will be included for consideration in your calculation to determine who is the greatest, it is important to determine weight. Are all factors going to be considered equally and if not, it is crucial to quantify the weight each criterion will have specifically.

For example, if you plan to include both Offensive rating and offensive win shares in your analysis, but you have decided to place more value on offensive win shares, then in order to avoid potential bias, it would be productive to place a specific impact value on both stats whether dynamic or static to accurately reflect their respective worth on your formula.

Additionally, one can be even more judicious, rather than adding arbitrary values to each included stat, it can be more beneficial to determine a correlation between specific stats and impact on winning. For example, if hypothetically, the numbers indicate that NBA championship teams disproportionately have players with an elite TS% but almost never seems to have players with exceptionally high VORP numbers, then it would make sense to place a higher value on the True Shooting percentage stat over VORP.

Again, that was merely a hypothetical to demonstrate a more concrete and accurate way of framing these discussions surrounding the greatest players. This piece is not intended at all to answer that question and I may in fact choose to tackle that conversation in depth at another time.

It is inefficient to have a discussion comparing players without leveling the playing field and making the parameters clear. Nostalgia, the eye test, “you had to be there”, have their place in sports and fandom – but they tell us nothing about the contributions and the consistency of contributions, let alone the variety of impact that any given player had while on the court.

And while we may never truly be able to isolate a player’s true value on the court and determine their worth empirically, we can at least somewhat approximate their objective value by isolating and appropriately weighing data regarding different facets of their on-court contributions, defining relevant terms, and excluding data irrelevant to the discussion.

Hopefully, this article has provided you with some insight on how to adequately contextualize any discussion where an individual is making an argument for any given player has being the greatest of all time. Rather than bicker, you can factually make your case.

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