Picking the greatest basketball player of all time is easy, because the greatest basketball player of all time is Michael Jordan. It’s easier in basketball than in other team sports, because the positions aren’t wildly dissimilar as they are in football and hockey, and you don’t have the scepter of the whole “while we’re at it, Babe Ruth was an All-Star-level pitcher, too”-argument hanging over the discussion as you do in baseball.
For basketball? It’s Jordan. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell put up phenomenal stats in a different era that featured mismatched athletic and skill sets, heightened pace, and 40 percent field goal percentages. On the other side of that historical curve sits LeBron James, who is on pace to exceed Jordan’s accomplishments and supplant him as the best basketball player ever.
Perhaps mindful of this, and also bored while talking about basketball in August, FOX Sports decided to ask James for his top three in a recent interview. Watch:
Jordan is a no-brainer. Julius Erving? A big surprise – it almost feels like James was using muscle memory in uttering “Dr. J.” after Jordan’s name. Bird? Possibly a surprise, especially ahead of players like Chamberlain, Russell, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar … or even, shock horror, Tim Duncan.
The Erving mention is a bit of a reach. Dr. J. was a groundbreaker in several significant ways both on court and off, and he did put up some ridiculous numbers in the ABA. Still, as much as we respect the ABA and its top players, those numbers came against iffier defenses and at a heightened pace. His NBA numbers (22 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists per game) are nothing to sneeze at, but not quite what we’d expect from Number Two.
Bird? I don’t know if I’d take him for Number Three. Still, at some point when ranking players, it’s hard to really be bothered with such wildly different talents, eras, and contexts.
Even though basketball’s positions aren’t as disparate as NFL positions, comparing a scene-shifting point guard like Magic Johnson to a interior dominator like Bill Russell is a fool’s errand (though most of us in the media are often asked to perform such errands), even if Magic and Russell literally stand the same height.
And though basketball is a team sport driven by individuals, constructing an all-time starting five (to me, at least) is the most compelling barroom basketball argument. Especially because such a team wouldn’t necessarily use the best five players in basketball history (substituting players in like, perhaps, Bill Walton and Scottie Pippen to keep the ball moving). Trying to make a pointed argument over why Larry Bird is “better” than Magic or Bob Pettit or Kareem or Russell or Karl Malone is just silly at this point.
And then count the days until LeBron elbows his way into that top three.