Michael Jordan or LeBron James?
What the GOAT Debate can Teach Us
By Victor Monnin
Michael Jordan or LeBron James? Who is the greatest player of all time, the GOAT? I find myself addicted to the dispute over this apparently impossible question. Of course, as philosophical questions often do, the GOAT question, raises other questions: What is greatness? And how can we identify it?
The G in GOAT
To address the GOAT question, we should first try to be clear on what we mean by “greatest.” Unfortunately, in the heat of debates about the GOAT, this fundamental question is generally avoided. Questioning the question just looks like a bad strategic move to make in a rhetorical battle as it might sound like a surrender. But philosophically this can be a winning move.
Approaching a problem philosophically is essentially spoiling the fun (or extinguishing the fire) by proposing a different set of rules for the pursuit of the conversation. Socrates mastered the art of changing such rules. When his Athenian friends asked for his opinion on a matter they disagreed on, Socrates always started his exchange with them by making sure the conversation would be carried on as a collaborative effort to find the truth rather than as a fight to determine who was right.
Let’s follow Socrates and his friends’ example. When commentators debate the greatness of Michael and LeBron they each try to come up with objective ways of measuring greatness which would set apart their champion. One states that Michael won six titles, another says that LeBron had more consecutives trips to the NBA Finals. One remarks that Michael never lost in the Finals, another answers that LeBron never retired amid his career as a basketball player. One says that Michael is a better point per game scorer, another indicates the many statistical records that LeBron broke and is expected to break. The search for objective criteria for greatness, whether it is championship rings, individual accomplishment trophies or stat lines, goes on and on. None of these facts seems to close the deal.
The debate over stat lines, trophies, and number of seasons played morphs the conversation into an impossible mathematical equation that each side tries to solve to its benefit. After all, who can demonstrate that six for six at the NBA Finals is worth more than a streak of eight Finals appearances? Who can demonstrate that playing for seventeen plus seasons straight is more impressive than stepping back on the court after having retired? Countable items such as trophies, points and assists, help us narrow down the list of great players in the history of basketball, but they fail to provide us with an unquestionable scale of greatness we could use to rank the players.
Without a quantifiable scale, debaters appeal to nebulous criteria. To make Michael the GOAT, some commentators refer to his “killer instinct.” According to this notion, Michael always had the ability to change the game’s dynamic. He was the maestro who could dictate the tempo of any game, especially through his exceptional scoring skills. In response, LeBron’s advocates point to his “basketball IQ” – his ability to read the game and alter it to his advantage by making the right play at the right time. These qualities, Michael’s killer instinct and LeBron’s basketball IQ, are actually similar. They both try to show that what set these two players apart is the power to determine the course of the game.
When is OAT in GOAT?
The question “what is G in GOAT?” leads us to another question: when is OAT in GOAT?
The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) argued that Great Men, such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon, guided the course of the World’s history through their exploits. The problem is that Hegel’s understanding of greatness is contingent on his specific understanding of history. Hegel’s problem highlights for us that in order to agree on what we call “great” and find a way to name the GOAT, we have to consider the historicity of the game of basketball and its possible narratives.
Hasn’t the game evolved through time? Hasn’t professional basketball and the NBA changed? “Of all time” is a problematic notion because it is hard to grasp the commonalities between the different times it designates.
The deceptive nature of time is at the core of the Michael versus LeBron debate. Michael partisans point to the fact that the game was more physical in the 80s and 90s. Michael’s accomplishments need to be considered in their challenging context to be fully appreciated. But how can we name a player the greatest of all time while referring to the specificity of the era he played in?
Michael partisans believe he played when the game of basketball was at its highest competitive peak. LeBron’s might counter that calling Michael the GOAT is just a nostalgic generational effect. Of course, it cuts both ways. LeBron’s advocates usually take time out of their arguments to praise the talents of his contemporaries such as Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Kawhi Leonard. Why? Well, because they want to demonstrate that LeBron is being successful against extraordinary opponents as well. In other words, they try to argue for the greatness of the era LeBron is playing in.
Ultimately, we are running in circles. In looking for a way to determine which player is the GOAT, we find ourselves arguing for which era in the history of basketball is the GOAT. Determining greatness involves embracing a narrative about the evolution of the game. This is why the GOAT question sparks such passionate rhetorical battles. While arguing whether Michael or LeBron is the greatest, we are actually addressing the evolution of the game and making value statements about its quality throughout history. In answering the GOAT question, we are defending a certain version of basketball played at a specific time in history.
Bigger than Michael and LeBron, bigger than basketball
The nature of the game of basketball is what is at stake in these debates. What is the best version of basketball? How should basketball be played? What direction should the game take in order to bring the best out of its players?
The game is constantly in flux. A generation ago, players were still betting on the mid-range shot. Now, the three-pointer, even in transition, is seen as a better option. Players develop their skills in surprising ways, and rules and strategies constantly try to adapt to these innovations. What does the future of basketball hold in store? What should it be like? Obviously, opinions vary.
Our philosophical analysis leads us to understand that if greatness is not quantifiably measurable it has to be critically discussed by addressing the kind of historical narrative it relies on and promotes. History is not an exact science, but it is a rigorous discipline that can give us a critical look at how the past is playing its part in the present and shaping the future. Greatness has to be debated and should not be considered obvious for the same reason that our versions of history need to be constantly reinterpreted and questioned in the light of present challenges.
The GOAT debate offers us a valuable lesson, bigger than the game of basketball. It teaches us that the definition of greatness is never set in stone.
Victor Monnin is a PhD candidate in Epistemology and History of Science at the University of Strasbourg, France. This blog wouldn’t have been written without his wife pointing out to him the inherent ambiguity of greatness.