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The NBA GOAT Debate Must Start by Setting the Ground Rules

Written by Leonard Armato for

As we approach Lebron James passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all time scoring leader, the question of who is the NBA’s Greatest of All Time (GOATGOAT-0.8%) intensifies. Usually, the debate is whether it is Lebron or Michael but very few times does Kareem’s name enter the field. However, with Lebron about to pass Kareem’s record there will be more focus on Kareem’s accomplishments, besides his scoring milestone. So perhaps this becomes more of a 3-way conversation.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – DECEMBER 15: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks against the Atlanta Hawks in the first half at State Farm Arena on December 15, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Debating the GOAT is always lots of fun but first we have to define the criteria for determining the GOAT. Is it just NBA performance that include MVPs, Championships, All Pro Selection, All Star appearances, points scored, rebounds and assists? Does it include influence on the game of basketball outside the NBA, such as high school and college basketball. And should it include impact on the business of sport or even social activism.

I would argue that each of these 3 have a legitimate claim on the title of GOAT depending on the criteria you use. For Michael, he won 6 championships and was 6-time MVP. He never lost in the Finals and was always Finals MVP. Michael was the ultimate “winner” and competitor, whose philosophy was “give no quarter and seek no quarter” from opponents or even teammates.

He also single handedly supercharged the NIKE brand with his “Air Jordan” moniker and besides NIKE became the ultimate pitchman for brands from Coke to Gatorade to McDonald’s to Fruit of the Loom.

Michael’s charisma was also largely responsible for making the NBA aspirational. He fit in perfectly with David Stern’s image of the NBA athlete: well spoken, dapper and remarkably gifted athletically. During Michael’s tenure the NBA sored so much in popularity so that David Stern once whispered to me: “how are we going to survive without him”. Somehow David and his successor, Adam Silver, found a way to do so. When Michael retired the NBA had roughly $2B in revenue where Adam Silver recently announced that the NBA’s 2022 revenue would surpass $10B.

(Original Caption) Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls gets set to dunk the ball during the slam dunk contest 2/8. Jordan won the contest.

Lebron came along in a era when high school athletes could go straight to the NBA and he did so with lots of fanfare. From the beginning it was clear he was a man among boys—big, extremely athletic and a virtually indestructible body. He developed an extraordinary feel for the game and has been the model of consistency… Perhaps he did not have Michael’s passion and tenacity for winning from the beginning, but Lebron developed more of that killer instinct over time and was able to display it in many key moments, winning 3 NBA Titles and 4 MVP awards and a record 18 All Star appearances. Lebron is about to break Kareem’s scoring record, a testament to long term consistency and at 38 years old playing some of the best basketball of his career. It has been reported that Lebron spends $1M per year maintaining his physical conditioning with the latest technologies and whatever he is doing is working. Off the court, Lebron has had quite an impact as well. His sports marketing deals are numerous, and he has built a highly successful entertainment company. Lebron has also led a movement to shift the balance of power in the NBA more if favor of the players and is known for his social and political activism. Some applaud him for his courageous stance on social justice issues while others believe he sometimes fires off social media posts that rush to judgment without full investigation and due consideration of the facts.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar #33, Center for the Los Angeles Lakers jumps to make a single handed lay up shot to the basket over #18 Hot Rod Williams, Center for the Cleveland Cavaliers during their NBA Pacific Division basketball game on 7th March 1987 at the The Forum arena in Inglewood, Los Angeles, California, United States. The Lakers won the game 122 – 118. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Allsport/Getty Images)

While Kareem is rarely mentioned in this GOAT conversation, his accomplishments are extraordinary and his impact on the game of basketball second to none. When Kareem was in high school, he was so dominant that the NCAA changed the rules of the game to prevent dunking the basketball because they felt he would dominate the game so much if allowed. Kareem adjusted to that rule change and developed his famous “sky hook”, the most unstoppable shot in NBA history. Moreover, when Kareem was playing no one was allowed to play in the NBA until their college class had graduated. So Kareem played 4 years at UCLA before entering the NBA. 2,325 plus about 750 as a Freshman, so roughly 3,000 points. With 4 more years in the NBA Kareem would have certainly extended his scoring record well beyond where it is now, likely over 40,000 points. He also may have even extended his number of 6 MVPs and 6 NBA Championships to go with his 15 All Star appearances. People may not recall, but Kareem preceded Lebron in social activism. He was photographed with Martin Luther King at age 17 and was front and center during many gatherings protesting racial injustice. He continues to be an accomplished author, social commentator and respected intellectual.

As the GOAT debate continues to simmer, my view is that it cannot be resolved in a truly objective manner. No one can agree on the criteria, context or what’s most important in settling this debate. Let’s just celebrate as Kareem says, “The Evolution of Excellence” and appreciate the one thing these amazing athletes share: that they are truly remarkable on and off the basketball court.

Published on January 18, 2023

Written by Leonard Armato