As basketball fans around the world focus their attention on Sunday's NBA All-Star Game, one player stands above the rest. LeBron James is clearly the league's best player. He has won the MVP award three of the last four years and led the league in most advanced metrics over the same period of time. He can run, pass, shoot, rebound and defend as well or better than any of his peers. An important question lingers: is LeBron the Greatest of All Time, or GOAT?
A decade ago, Elliot Kalb authored a book titled Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball? that explored that question. Kalb asserted that Shaquille O'Neal was the best basketball player ever. A decade later, Shaq is not even mentioned in the discussion of the NBA's GOAT. Bill Simmons ranks Shaq 12th, below peers Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant. How could Kalb, a behind-the-camera legend in sportscasting, be so wrong?
Kalb ranked Shaq number one in part because the big man had just won three straight NBA Finals MVP awards, a feat matched only by Michael Jordan. Shaq, who had played 11 seasons at that moment, had dominated the league for half a decade and seemed poised to reign for years to come, but his steep decline started immediately. Compared to Shaq, LeBron, in his 10th season, seems even more dominant. Like Shaq, he appears to be the strongest player in the NBA, and, unlike Shaq, he has incredible touch and body control.
With so many players, All-Stars and even Hall-of-Famers, how do we possibly begin to define the GOAT of this sport? One option is turning to the numbers. Even so, there are so many stats collected from the court. The field of statistics searches for meaning in datasets, even when they are quite large. The question now becomes: can we find the right statistics to clarify an answer to our question? It is unlikely that one stat will unquestionably crown the GOAT. Stats often sketch an outline of reality. We often need several, particularly in sports, to see consistency and better understand the underlying phenomenon. Can we use statistics to recognize and enjoy the GOAT in real time or will we always overrate the best active player? Just this week, LeBron became the first NBA player ever to score at least 30 points and shoot over 60 percent from the field in six straight games, another sign of his greatness. This record alone doesn't answer the question of LeBron's status among the greatest. In Sunday's game, can we sit back and enjoy watching the GOAT or, even with this current dominance, is LeBron enacting the next scene in his own version of Shaq's cautionary tale? Let's dig deeper.
Among the stats, some which may come to mind quickly for you, let's look at perhaps the most amazing of all about LeBron: he has been in the NBA for 10 years, and his shooting percentage has improved from the prior season in every year but one. Check out this progression: .417, .472, .480, .476, .484, .489, .503, .510, .531, .547. During his rookie season, LeBron shot .290 from 3-point range, this year, his 3-point FG % is .403. That is a 39 percent improvement. He is now truly one of the best shooters in the league. He has worked hard to make it look this easy.
Any historical argument about the NBA's GOAT will quickly narrow to four players: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Michael Jordan. Wilt, Kareem, and Michael entered the NBA essentially fully formed, especially as shooters.
A fascinating aspect to this discussion is that most people focus on career numbers. How does your data look when you retire? How many points? How many titles? How many MVPs? Using that approach will not allow us to witness the GOAT in real-time.
Why not reorient the discussion around peak value and measure a player's dominance of his era along with the strength of that era?
In those terms, LeBron has few peers in the history of the NBA. LeBron has led the league in Win Shares -- perhaps the best advanced metric -- four times. Only Michael Jordan [nine times], Kareem Abdul-Jabbar [nine times], and Wilt Chamberlain [eight times] have done it more often. Amazingly, each member of this elite led for the fourth time during the season when they turned 27 years old. LeBron is just reaching his peak and likely has another decade when he will perform at or very close to his current levels.
An argument can be made that the NBA has never been better. The best international players spend their whole careers in the NBA now: e.g. Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli. Those players didn't exist in the NBA during the eras of Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar and just started to make their mark during Jordan's time.
Watch the GOAT this Sunday night, and you will see moments when LeBron appears to be a man among boys even when facing the best competition his era has to offer.