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Commentary: Has LeBron James cemented his legacy as the GOAT of professional basketball?

Onel Jeanbaptiste/THE REVIEW

Staff Reporter

On Feb. 7, LeBron James made NBA history. In a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, with 10.9 seconds left in the third quarter James hit a mid-range step-back jumper to reach 38,388 career points, passing the previous record set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a mark held from 1984 to his final game in 1989.

James scored 38 points on .650 field goal percentage during the match-up, but despite this excellent performance, his Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 133-130, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who recorded 30 points and eight assists and continues to impress during his first All-Star season. 

Abdul-Jabbar was in attendance for the game, and was shown repeatedly on the broadcast. When James successfully broke the record, the game was put on pause to appreciate the history that had just been made. A brief ceremony was held that saw Abdul-Jabbar gift a basketball to James to “pass the torch” to the NBA’s new all-time leading scorer. 

James surpassing this record, which was once thought to be unbreakable, has re-sparked the debate of who is the greatest of all time (GOAT) in professional basketball. The two players that are the most commonly debated candidates are Michael Jordan and James. However, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Abdul-Jabar are also names that get thrown around in the mix. 

The first GOAT candidate is Bill Russell. Russell played in the NBA for 13 seasons and won a stunning 11 championships during his career. Russell’s 11 championships is the record for the most championships won by a single player and this record likely will not be broken any time soon as no team has come anywhere close to being as dominant as Russell’s Boston Celtics during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Russell only lost two playoff series during his career for a playoff record of 27-2. 

Russell also won five Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards during his career, which ties Michael Jordan for second most of all time. Russell is often seen as a pioneer to the game of basketball. Russell and his star point-guard teammate Bob Cousy created an offense that the sport had never seen before, such as their use of the fast-break which has since become a staple in offenses today. 

On the defensive side, Russell revolutionized the way defense is played in basketball. Russell perfected the art of blocking shots — shot blocking was not a recorded stat at the time and this new defensive weapon left offenses scrambling. 

It is impossible to talk about the legacy of Russell without mentioning his fight for civil rights within the sport of basketball. When Russell entered the league in 1956 there were only 15 Black players because the NBA limited the number of Black players each team was allowed to have. By the time Russell retired in 1969, the number of Black players in the league had increased substantially. With his absurd number of accolades and the way he changed the sport forever, Russell is a very respectable candidate for the GOAT debate.

Another player sometimes touted as the GOAT is one of Russell’s biggest rivals, Wilt Chamberlain. While Chamberlain did not win nearly as many championships as Russell, garnering two during his 16-year career, his personal stats and accolades almost seem made up. Chamberlain is a 13-time All Star, seven-time scoring champ, four-time MVP and is one of only two NBA players to win MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season (the other being Wes Unseld in 1969). Chamberlain also led the league in rebounds per game for 11 seasons, consistently averaging over 20 per game. He is currently the NBA’s all-time leading rebounder with 27,837 boards. 

In the 1961-1962 season, Chamberlain averaged an insane 50.4 points per game. Chamberlain holds the record for most games with 50 or more points scored at 118, while Michael Jordan is second in this category with 31. He also averaged 45.8 minutes played per game for his career, which almost seems unimaginable compared to today’s era where some stars sit out games for load management. 

Perhaps his most famous stat is his 100-point game in 1962, which set the single game scoring record that still stands 61 years later. If individual stats were the only factor in the GOAT debate, then Chamberlain would undeniably hold the crown. However, his lack of championships compared to other candidates and the perceived lower level of competition during his era puts him lower on the totem pole for many. Regardless, Chamberlain was a real life cheat-code and certainly has a spot in the GOAT debate.

The aforementioned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is another player that many believe could be the GOAT. One of Abdul-Jabbar’s biggest claims to GOAT status is his impressive longevity. Abdul-Jabbar played in the NBA for 20 seasons and maintained the ability to be an effective scorer throughout, averaging 24.6 points per game for his career. Abdul-Jabbar was an All-Star for 19 of those 20 seasons and has more MVP awards than any other player at six. He also garnered six championships during his career, one with the Milwaukee Bucks and five with the Los Angeles Lakers. Abdul-Jabbar was one of the key pieces of the famous “Showtime” Lakers during the ‘80s. He broke the all-time scoring record on April 5, 1984, after scoring his 31,420th point which broke the previous record set by Wilt Chamberlain. Abdul-Jabbar’s record stood for 38 years before James took the crown. Despite his scoring record being eclipsed, Abdul-Jabbar’s longevity and consistent high level of play certainly puts him in the conversation for GOAT status.

Despite the accomplishments of Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar, for years the title of “greatest of all time” has been almost unanimously given to Michael Jordan. Jordan has become synonymous with the term “GOAT” and the Jordan brand could quite possibly be more recognizable than the NBA itself. 

Jordan played in the NBA for 15 seasons over 19 years, as he had two retirements during his career, once from 1993 to 1995 and again from 1999 to 2001. Jordan’s final retirement came in 2003 after a two-season stint with the Washington Wizards. During his 15-season career, Jordan garnered six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, which famously came from two “three-peats” where he won the championship in three consecutive seasons. Jordan was a 14-time All-Star, five-time MVP and 10-time scoring champion. With his incredible athleticism and ability to perform in high-pressure situations, Jordan and his Chicago Bulls dominated the NBA. 

Even in his later years with the Wizards, Jordan was a dominant force, averaging over 20 points per game in his two seasons as a player for Washington and playing in all 82 games in the 2002-2003 season at the age of 40. Much of the GOAT debate is a popularity contest, and Jordan’s marketability and fast-paced style of play helped popularize the sport, therefore it is pretty obvious why most view Michael Jordan as the GOAT.

However the last two decades have seen a new challenger to the throne. Now in the 20th year of his career, James has won four NBA championships, four MVP awards and is a 19-time All-Star. James is currently averaging 29.5 points per game at the age of 38 and has not averaged below 25 since his rookie season. 

While James has fewer championships than Jordan, James has typically had a lesser supporting cast and has still managed to make the NBA Finals 10 times in his career. James’ 3-1 Finals comeback against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in 2016 may be the most impressive feat in NBA history. James and Jordan are relatively evenly matched when it comes to statistics, but Jordan won more personal accolades during his career. But with James becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer many believe he has now surpassed Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time.

Comparing eras in the NBA is exceptionally difficult as there are so many different factors to account for. The GOAT debate will go on forever as there is no true way to determine which of the five men discussed here is the greatest. LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar each dominated their respective eras. Fans will typically go with whoever they grew up watching as their GOAT. Who knows, maybe in 20 years Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Victor Wembanyama will be in the debate as well.