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.