The "Greatest" Theory of Relativity
As the Cleveland Cavaliers stand one win away from a potential 8th consecutive Finals appearance for LeBron James, many are debating whether LeBron James is, or is not, the Greatest [basketball player] Of All Time… that is, the “GOAT”. But, before I weigh in on this debate, let me ask how we can be sure that LeBron is, in fact, better than anyone? Bear with me on this as I stumble through this thought experiment…
Let’s start with an aside on the nature of comparisons, and a seemingly easy example… Imagine 30 people are in a room, and you’re asked to identify who is the tallest. Pretty easy, right? But what if the room is a large banquet hall, the people are spread throughout the hall, and and each is approximately 6 feet tall? Not so easy now, right? OK, then let’s gather all of the approximate 6-footers, stand them shoulder-to-shoulder against one wall, and give you a laser level to compare tops of heads… this will allow you to determine who is the tallest 6-footer, right? Oh wait… what if some were standing upright, while some were slouching slightly. Does the comparison still hold?
A much easier comparison would be if we add a 31st person to the room, a Kindergarten student who stands around 3 feet tall. If we then stand these 31 people shoulder-to-shoulder, or even spread them around the large banquet hall, it would be pretty obvious which of the 31 is definitely not the tallest.
Which brings us back to comparing every person who has ever played basketball, and trying to determine who among them is the greatest. Unlike height, which is (or rather should be) a purely objective metric, “basketball playing excellence” is, despite statistics of various sorts, a relatively subjective measure.
Should we bestow the “GOAT” title to Michael Jordan, as many people like to do, because his 6-0 record in the NBA Finals is better than LeBron James’s 3-5 record? Well, if we use Finals’ records as a metric, then Bill Russell, with his 11-1 record, should probably hold the title… or if undefeated Finals record is what matters most, then Bill Russell’s teammates John Havlicek, K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders each were 8-0 in Finals, so one of them is the GOAT, right? Or would they be tied? And if we can’t break the tie, then let's go to the next on the list: Robert Horry, with his 7-0 Finals record for 3 different teams. Or even Scottie Pippen, who was Jordan’s teammate for that 6-0 record — perhaps Pippen's really the GOAT, and Jordan was his excellent side-kick?
But since we’re determining the Greatest Player of all time, it seems team accomplishments, such as winning championships, shouldn’t be the metric, but rather individual accomplishments should be, so let’s turn to those statistics… Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has the most points, Wilt Chamberlain has the most rebounds, John Stockton has the most assists — and if we want to use all-around per-game stats over a career, that could give us someone like Oscar Robertson. Moreover, since basketball is a 2-way game, we need to consider defense, which is even more difficult to measure objectively.
And if we want to just determine who was, at any time, the best basketball player at any time, then the obvious choice would have to be Wilt Chamberlain, whose 100 point, 25 rebound game on March 2, 1962 was the most dominant game, by far, that any player has ever had. Is it Wilt’s fault he only won 2 titles? Maybe if he’d had teammates like Havlicek or Pippen, he’d have rung up several more titles.
Realizing that we lack a single objective metric (such as height) by which we can determine relative basketball greatness, let me suggest a single subjective metric. Here it is:
If there were one winner-take-all basketball game, and every single person is history were lined up against the wall, who would you pick first for your team?
If that were the measure, I would take LeBron James.
But even if you wouldn’t take LeBron James first, I know something for certain — if you were given a choice of either LeBron James or me, you would pick LeBron James.
I’m neither surprised or offended that you would pick LeBron over me. To use the banquet hall metaphor, if LeBron is 6-feet tall (he’s actually 6’8”), then I am a 3-foot Kindergartener — and while it may be unclear if LeBron is the tallest 6-footer in a room of approximately 6-foot tall people, he’s definitely taller than the 3-foot tall kid.
To generalize, I propose a theory, let’s call it a “Theory of Relativity” (not sure if that name is taken yet), stated thus: Where objective measures do not exist, it is difficult to compare small differences, but it is easy to compare large differences. Applied to this example - we can not state with certainty that LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time, however we can state with 100% certainty that LeBron James is a greater basketball player than I am.