The debate around greatness in sports is neverending. Everyone has their own opinion. Somewhere along the way we decide what makes a player great in our head, and often we attach a name with that idea. Is it Brady in football? Or do you see him as a product of a legendary coach? Is Ali the greatest boxer of all time? Or is he just the greatest in his class or era?
There is no way to determine this for sure, especially when it comes to comparing athletes across generations. The games evolve, the science around fitness evolves, and the attention that we pay athletes has gone from huddling around a radio to hear a blow by blow of the fight, to watching the game on your HDTV, watching highlights on your phone, checking your fantasy team lineup, and seeing who your favorite players follow on instagram to determine if they’re about to go ring chasing.
However, that doesn’t stop us from asking. Who is the greatest of all time? Who is the G.O.A.T?
For me, the only sport I care about the answer in is basketball. My first true love and the game I’ve been playing since as far back as I can remember. I have a picture of myself from when I was 3 where I was dribbling a soccer ball like it was a basketball. I know who I’ve always accepted as the G.O.A.T, Michael Jordan. 6 for 6 in the Finals. Dominated his era. Dominated to the point that he left in the middle of his domination, played another sport, then came back and dominated some more before getting bored with it again. That’s the story I told in my head anyway.
But now we are 17 years into the reign of Lebron James and I’ve seen every moment of his career. I’ve seen the struggles early on, and him getting to the Finals before he was supposed to. I’ve seen him at his lowest in 2011. I watched him at his highest in the 2012 playoff run. I’ve seen him go back home to Cleveland and redeem himself. And now I’ve seen him bring another title to Los Angeles. Perhaps I’ve seen too much of Lebron and not enough Michael.
I was only old enough to see Michael at the tail end of his career. The second 3 peat, specifically the last two Finals vs. the Jazz were my earliest NBA Finals memories and I was pulling against Jordan both times. A futile endeavor.
In my old age I’ve come to want to appreciate Lebron more. I often say that he and Wilt were the most physically gifted basketball players but that Kareem or Jordan were the greatest. And that brings us to the key point of this piece. What is “greatness?”
To me, greatness isn’t how talented a player is. It’s not, “who would win if these two players played 1-on-1?” Greatness is about your ability AND what you were able to do with that ability. What you were able to accomplish. Statistically, did you dominate the box score? Did you dominate your era? Did you stake your claim as the best when compared to your peers at the time? Did you win?
All of these things are important, especially when comparing players across eras. I hoped to design a methodology that gave us players from the 40’s and 50’s as well as active players. I wanted this to be educational for me, and for my audience.
I wanted to come up with a formula, and if you know me you know this is something I do. For years I worked at a formula for predicting the NCAA tournament and I got really good at predicting who would win, but would never get the upsets right. This is a bit easier. There are no real variables. The data is there and it’s not changing right now. Kareem will not have to play Shaq to prove me right later. Whatever the formula says is the end of it, but I had to decide what mattered and what didn’t.
Who was considered?
I could not look at every single player in NBA history. There have been well over 4000 so I had to come up with a way to determine who to consider. These are my rules for consideration.
- Started with: 6 All-NBA awards
- Later realized that 6 All-NBA 3rd team awards = 36 points in my formula, so I decided that if you have more than 36 points with less than 6 appearances you’re in. (This allowed guys who had short or injury riddled careers with high peaks to make the list)
- Added every single MVP
- Added every Finals MVP *Late Adjustment*
- Added every Finals Runner-up (the best player) from 1977-Present *Late Adjustment*
- Finally, an exception was made to include anyone with two DPOY awards since I assumed that would also mean two All-Defense 1st teams and that total adds up to 36 points.
In the end, only 136 players qualified.
The Points system
I wanted to come up with a cool acronym like PIPM or whatever but we’re just going to call this the GOAT factor. My goal was to create a system where 1000 points put you at GOAT status and somehow I managed to pull that off. I’m honestly truly amazed at how well it worked out.
Here is the points system and some of my logic.
- MVP: 100 points
- Finals MVP: 50 points (not awarded until 1969) Used the info at this link for the years prior: http://analyticsgame.com/nba/projected-finals-mvps-from-1947-to-1968.html
- Finals Runner-Up MVP from 1984-Present: 25 points (Playoffs went from 8 teams to 16 this year. Loser still won an 8 team tournament) *Late Addition*
- Finals Runner-Up MVP from 1977-1983: 12.5 points (First few years after the merger, MVP winners for both leagues pre-merger received a full MVP share from 1967-1976). *Late Addition*
- 1st Team All NBA/ABA: 20 points (5 1st Team = 1 MVP)
- 2nd Team All NBA/ABA: 10 points (10 2nd Team = 1 MVP)
- 3rd Team All NBA: 6.67 points (15 3rd Team’s = 1 MVP)
- Defensive Player of the Year: 15 points (not awarded until 1983) Used Defensive win shares to fill in the gaps. Companion piece to follow with the full list.
- 1st Team All Defense: 3 points (not awarded until 1969, 1973 in the ABA and only one team)
- 2nd Team All Defense: 1.5 points (Same logic as All-NBA-MVP was used for the defensive awards) Used Defensive win shares for All Defense before 1969. I tried to use top 3 bigs and 2 guards most years, a few years where I accepted a SF as a guard since the guards were so low.
Much like MVP and Defensive Player of the Year reward a player for rising above the rest, I wanted to award players who led the 3 statistical categories that were tracked since 1950 with a little bonus. Again, I wanted to make sure that guys were rewarded for dominating their era. I’m not interested in deciding if George Mikan would beat Shaq 1-on-1.
- Scoring champ: 5 points
- Rebound Champ: 1.5 points *Rebounds not tracked until 1950-1951. Asterisk for the 40’s guys if they end up close to another. 6 total points missed out on.
- Assist Champ: 1.5 points. (Initially weighted 1 point, after the change, 1 top 50 player moved up a spot)
This part of it gets a bit tricky but I hope I explained it in a way that makes sense. I wanted to award those who ended up at the top of the league in the 3 categories that have counted for the past 70 years and I wanted to make sure first that performance outweighed longevity but that longevity was definitely rewarded. Hence Playoffs being worth more than regular season, and PPG being worth more than Total points.
- Playoffs PPG*: Top 50 were rewarded 50 points down to 1 point, then that was multiplied by 2. (The number 1 guy recieved 100 points for this. The number two guy would get 98, number 3, 96 and so on.)
- Career PPG*: Top 30, same concept as above (number 1, 60 points. Number 2, 58).
- Career total points in the playoffs: Top 25 (inverse points, number 1 received 25 points, number two, 24 and so on.)
- Career Total points: Top 15, same concept as above.
- Career RPG: Top 15, divided by 3. Number one received 5 points, number 4 received 4, number 7 received 3, and so on.
- Career APG: Top 15 same concept as rebounds. (Initially divided by 5 and change was part of what made that one top 50 player move up.)
*Before you @ Me*
- My goal is to be able to revisit and tweak this in the future, especially after getting some feedback.
- RINGS don’t mean a thing. I did not want to get caught up in counting rings. I wanted to award individual performance, not team results.
- There are going to be some guys who we’ve always been told were top 50 that didn’t make the cut. Supporting casts behind a great player were not rewarded heavily in this formula. I think I’m ok with that.
- Bias is inevitable right? Well, I did my best to avoid being biased about what to include and how to weight things. I made sure I decided what was important to me before I started doing any calculations. My bias would have me moving guys around based on the results but I truly do love how it came out.
- This will be updated every year as there are plenty of active guys who will be changing this list as soon as next year based on where they landed and likely new guys who qualify.
- ENJOY. This is meant to be fun and spark conversation. If you have suggestions holler at me. I’m all ears.