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The G.O.A.T. debate is a long-standing discussion in basketball circles, but when you consider the game for what it is, there's only one choice.

The Basketball G.O.A.T. Debate, Solved Once and For All

The G.O.A.T. debate is a long-standing discussion in basketball circles, but when you consider the game for what it is, there’s only one choice.

Editor’s Note: Originally submitted in 2014 as an academic research assignment for Herzog College in Jerusalem, Israel, we thought Zev’s argument for the G.O.A.T. was so strong, we had to share it with the world. Five years later, his points all stand.

It’s the last weekend of June, and representatives from all of the 32 NBA teams have gathered together in Madison Square Garden, located in the Mecca of the basketball world: New York City, New York.

The NBA has decided it’s time to put to rest once and for all one of the greatest arguments of all time; if you had to pick one player, throughout the history of the NBA, to be the cornerstone of your franchise, who would it be? This is what we want to find out during the weekend. Each team is to assign one representative for their team, and that person could be anyone. The Charlotte Hornets have given me the right to be their representative.

For months, the NBA has debated how to truly answer this question. Perhaps through an all-time draft, or possibly through a tournament in which the 16 greatest players of all time play head-to-head in a winner takes all format. However, both of the systems were rejected, for how, and who, will decide which team gets the number one pick in the draft? Or, who will pick the 16 players, and how will the matchups be arranged? Therefore, the NBA has declined these systems.

The G.O.A.T. Criteria

So, the NBA has decided to let the team representatives decide who the greatest of all time is. How? With the same method that is used to select the NBA’s regular season MVP award. Each representative selects the top five players of all time, then ranks them from one to five. Every first-place vote is worth 10 points, each second-place nod is worth seven points, a third-place vote is good for five points, fourth-place votes count for three points, and every fifth-place vote equates to one point. The player with the most total points wins.

There are so many potential G.O.A.T. players in NBA history – Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson as just the tip of the iceberg – so, picking that player to be the cornerstone of your franchise isn’t as easy as it seems. When it’s all said and done, the two players with the most votes are probably going to be Michael Jordan and Bill Russell.

There are a lot of different aspects a general manager takes in consideration when making such a fateful decision. For example, is the player coachable? What makes this specific player special when being compared to others? Can I count on the player when the game is on the line to make the right play, offensively and defensively? How many championships does the player have? Every general manager has their own list, but these are some of the basic guidelines that every coach probably pays attention too. According to these guidelines who would you take between the top two vote getters: Jordan or Russell? I would pick Russell.


What does being a coachable player mean?

“A coachable player is one that is willing to take constructive criticism in any form and learn from it,” wrote coach Brian Schofield in a 2013 essay for “Coachable players want to improve and understand that when they are being coached it is for their own good and for the good of the team.”

This is a great definition of what a coachable player is.

The most obvious way we can tell if a player is coachable or not is during a game, if the player listens to what the coach tells him or not. But the real test for a coachable player is in practice. Not all players take practice seriously, and as a result don’t give it their all and don’t reach their full potential. Furthermore, if the star player doesn’t take practice seriously, than he sets a bad example for his teammates. Jordan and Russell took practice very seriously, and as a result became great players and great competitors.

When Jordan first entered the NBA, his coach challenged him a lot at practice. Jordan didn’t fuss when is coach challenged him. On the contrary, Jordan embraced these challenges, and would turn them into “training tools,” as Jordan calls them, and use them to his advantages to become a better player and competitor.

Russell addressed the value of practice directly in his 2001 book, “Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership From the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Winner.”

“I hated practice,” he wrote. “I never minimized, however, the importance of repetition in getting ready for a season … Success is a result of consistent practice of winning skills and actions. There is nothing miraculous about the process. There is no luck involved. Amateurs hope, professionals work.”

Russell never liked practice, but he understands that to become a great competitor, one must be willing to put in the hard work. Once a person grasps this concept, then they’ll have no problem to put in the extra work – run one more lap, put in another push-up, take another 10 shots – and success will follow. It’s safe to say that Jordan and Russell are coachable players.

Special Power

Every potential G.O.A.T. has a “special talent” that separates him for other players, and as a result is remembered for that talent. Russell is known for being the greatest teammate of all time. He was willing to do whatever it took, as an individual, to help his team get the victory.

“For me to guarantee victory, I had to give to my teammates,” Russell also wrote in the book. “My goal was to keep them doing their best so I could be at mine.”

Russell’s main goal was for his team to win, and in order for his team to win, he was willing to do whatever it took. That doesn’t necessarily mean score a bunch of points but rather do all the little things that the stat sheet doesn’t show. Except for being the NBA’s MVP five times throughout his career, Russell has been named by Sports Illustrated as the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Team Player.

Jordan too wanted his team to win. However, for him to secure victory, Jordan had to take his team on his shoulders and had to score as many points as possible. Not by chance, Jordan is considered as the G.O.A.T. one-on-one player. It didn’t matter who guarded him, or when and where he was playing: practice or pick-up. Jordan scored all the time. He was unstoppable. Jordan, too, was named the NBA’s MVP five times. To this day, Jordan holds numerous scoring records. He’s the all-time points per game leader with a 30.12 average, and he holds the record for most points in a playoff game at 63 points.

When debating who has a better special power, it really depends on what type of team you’re trying to create. If you’re looking to build a team around one player that all your plays on offensive goes through that one guy, then you take Jordan, no doubt about it. Then again, if you’re looking to build a team, in the sense of the word, Russell is your guy.

Mr. Clutch

Another important component that defines a possible G.O.A.T. candidate is how he reacts when the game is on the line: does he choke, or does he deliver. For example, can I trust him to finish the final bucket to win or tie the game, or can I depend on him to make a big play on defense to secure the win?

How is a coach to know if his player is clutch or not? This decision doesn’t happen overnight, rather it’s a process a coach goes through with his players. First off, the coach has to trust his players to execute the play that he has drawn up, on offense or defense, even if he doesn’t agree with the play. The coach has to know that he has a well-coached player. Second, the coach has to know his players strengthens’ in order to put his players in the right position to win.

For instance, who’s going to take the final shot of the game? Jordan, as mentioned above, believed that in order for his team to win, he had to have the ball in his hands for that final shot. By many, Jordan is considered to be one of, if not the G.O.A.T. clutch player. Russell, however, believed that in order for his team to win, he had to give to his teammates and let them shine as well. As a result, Russell didn’t have to be that guy to score, for he had Sam Jones, a clutch player in his own right. Therefore, Russell didn’t have to be that guy, and he didn’t mind at all. For all he cared about was getting the team the victory.


The final, and probably the most important factor, is how many championships that player won throughout his career. Everybody knows that Jordan went to the NBA Finals six times and won six championships, twice three times in a row, during an eight-year span. Something a lot of people don’t know, or don’t remember, is that during Russell’s 13 years in the NBA, his team made the NBA Finals 12 times and won 11. At one point, Russell won nine championships as player, eight of them in a row, and the final two as a player/coach without any assistant coaches. As a result of this great achievement, HBO dubbed Russell “The Greatest Winner of the Twentieth Century.”

The G.O.A.T. Is…

Despite the fact that Jordan is a perfect six-for-six in the NBA finals and Russell is “only” 11-for-12, Russell is still the G.O.A.T. The bottom line is basketball is a team sport, and unlike golf, it’s not head-to-head competition. Therefore, the best team player is the greatest of player of all time. It’s that simple. In order to make things clear, let’s see what Phil Jackson, Jordan’s coach, has to say.

Jackson was asked in an interview in 2013 if where to start a team from scratch, who would he pick first?

“In my estimation, the guy that has to be there would be Bill Russell,” Jackson said. “He has won 11 championships as a player. That’s really the idea of what excellence is, when you win championships.”

This certainly has been a very interesting weekend in New York. There has been a lot of great heated discussion between the GMs about the G.O.A.T. At the end of the day, that player is Bill Russell. Jordan’s scoring is quite special, but may be broken one day. Russell’s 11 championships in 13 years, however, is something that will never be broken, making him the G.O.A.T. winner and player.

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