Bill Russell

LeBron or MJ best of all time, or are they forgetting someone else?

LeBron or MJ best of all time, or are they forgetting someone else?

ESPN released a list of the NBA’s 74 greatest players and, of course, the big argument is at the top, where Michael Jordan is ranked No. 1 and LeBron James is No. 2.

I will say first, I would rank Jordan ahead of James but I wonder if ESPN would have, too, if it didn’t happen to be airing Jordan’s “Last Dance” documentary right now.

I’m not even totally sold on either of them being No. 1.

There is a real lack of understanding about how important talented centers were in the history of the game. For decades, if you didn’t have a great center, it was almost impossible to win a championship.

I watched teams take the floor against squads led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain and it was a hopeless situation. You could not stop them. There was nothing you could do.

Chamberlain was an athlete unlike anyone playing today -- a 7-2 LeBron James. When I hear people talk about Shaquille O'Neal being the best combination of speed and power in the game, I just laugh. Wilt would have dominated him. He was an all-around athlete (high jumper, 440 runner and world-class volleyball player) the likes of which few NBA players have ever been. And for all the points he scored, he once led the league in assists.

And even though Bill Russell won all those championships, he wasn’t the player Wilt was. I believe most people who rank him higher than Chamberlain did not see them play. Russell was a defensive genius and a leader, but did not have Wilt’s offensive skill. It wasn’t even close.

But Russell played for the Celtics, a great franchise with a great coach, surrounded by Hall of Fame teammates. That matters.

Abdul-Jabbar caused the colleges to outlaw the dunk just so they had a chance against him. But they couldn’t ban his skyhook, so there was still little chance of stopping him.

The problems with ranking the all-time best players in the history of any sport are many, And that’s why it can be so controversial.

A lot of the people doing those rankings didn’t even see many of the players on their list actually play, Or they rank players based on how many titles they won -- which was very often beyond the control of an individual player who landed on a hopeless franchise with no leadership... and no free agency to bail himself out of those situations.

Then, of course, there is the problem of comparing different eras. The three-point line had an enormous impact on the way the game is played, once coaches were able to commit to using it to its full potential (which took way too long).

And then there are the people unwilling to give players from the past a chance to be able to develop in modern systems that allow more and better weight training, nutritional guidance and salaries high enough players didn’t have to worry about an off-season job selling insurance.

In today’s game, Jordan obviously would have shot more three-point field goals. Wilt and Russell were both quick enough to get out on the floor and defend pick-and-rolls.

And players from previous eras such as Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Geoff Petrie, Walt Frazier, Elvin Hayes and Elgin Baylor would have all starred in this era.

So make up whatever list you want -- but please pay respect to history and perhaps rank only the players you’ve actually seen and discard whatever myths you’ve heard about the others or the eras they played in.

Because you really don’t know.

Russell Wilson is a terrific quarterback -- but he's going to need some help

Russell Wilson is a terrific quarterback -- but he's going to need some help

Watching Russell Wilson almost single-handedly carry the Seattle Seahawks over the Green Bay Packers  -- but fail -- at Lambeau Field Sunday brought to mind all that talk about the greatness of players in all sports, not just football.

Wilson is terrific. But he needs help.

So many people today want to simplify their evaluations by making their case built on the number of championships a player has won. And that's just wrong.

Wilson is a very, very good quarterback -- one of the best in the NFL. But watching him try to win a game behind a porous offensive line, with no running backs and an inconsistent defense shows how difficult it is for a quarterback to win without help. I saw the same thing with John Elway in Denver. He was an incredible athlete with a big arm -- but until he got a full team and quality coach, he didn't win a ring.

I apply the same argument to basketball players, even though there are fewer players in the game and the value of each player is thus magnified. Still, it takes more than one player to win championships,

But a whole lot of NBA "experts" want to base their greatest-player arguments on the number of rings a player has won. They seem unaware of how long it took Michael Jordan to win a title before the right pieces were around him. It's so circumstantial in the NBA, because of where certain players land on their first team. The draft very often sends the best college players to the worst pro teams, where they can often languish for years with a franchise that not only has no talent, but doesn't really know how to acquire it.

And oh yes, when people talk about "winning rings" they usually have a limited knowledge of history. They usually skip over Bill Russell's 11 championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics. It doesn't fit the "Jordan vs. LeBron" narrative, you see. And they don't mention Robert Horry's seven rings because, really, who is ever going to menton him as one of the greats? Some of the knuckleheads who believe rings are a measure of a player's greatness even want Horry in the Hall of Fame -- which is pure nonsense.

There are all kinds of metrics to judge players and I think they probably all have some merit. But I have watched everyone's idea of the "greatest quarterback of all time," Tom Brady, for years now and still haven't been able to convince myself that he's better at the position than Elway. Great players help, but they don't do it by themselves. Elway was more athletic, had a better arm and was ahead of his time as a runner. But he'll never get his due because his early teams were good enough -- thanks to him -- to win a lot of games but not go all the way.

Championships are the goal for every team and every individual player. But they are a measure of a team, not an individual.