Who is the Greatest?

Who is the Greatest?In just over a month, the NBA Finals will be over and one team will be immortalized in the annals of NBA history, while the 29 other teams look to improve their shot at claiming next year’s title. The playoffs give rise to legends and add to legacies, making now the perfect time to examine a batch of players whose basketball careers exemplify success on the professional level and speculate on the seemingly age-old controversial topic: who is the greatest NBA player of all time?

Larry Bird, Boston Celtics
The 12-time All-Star was best known for his clutch, pinpoint shooting and defensive plays. The two-time NBA Finals MVP also won three regular season MVP awards, all in a row.

While Bird is best remembered for his clutch playmaking and cerebral aptitude, people often forget to acknowledge how complete his game was beyond his shooting. His scoring ability has been well-documented (24.3 points per game), but his 10.0 rebounds per game and 6.3 assists per game are great evidence of his multi-faceted game.

Though Bird had trouble defending more agile players man-to-man, he played proactive defense and created turnovers, which broke his opponents’ offensive momentum. Less athleticism than other NBA greats did not make him any less effective of a ball thief. Bird is 25th all-time in steals per game (1.73).

The three-time NBA champion was arguably the most intelligent basketball player to ever grace the professional hardwood. Bird’s intelligence made up for his physical shortcomings and helped the Celtics effectively strategize against their opponents’ offensive attack. He was a true coach on the court.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
The “Black Mamba” boasts clutch play reminiscent to Michael “His Airness” Jordan himself. Bryant’s career averages of 25.5 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game, 4.7 assists per game, and 1.5 steals per game give evidence to his “do-it-all” nature. Never having a true point guard to share the floor with (until Steve Nash anyhow), Bryant developed an opportunist mentality in his offensive playing style. He created scoring opportunities in tough situations with his fadeaway jumpers, turnaround jumpers and decent perimeter shooting. Bryant, who has not missed an All-Star game since 1999, has more assists than any other five players who have scored more than 30,000 points, yet he has been called a selfish player.

Bryant’s great defense placed him on the NBA’s All-Defensive First and Second Team a total of 12 times. His clutch abilities are noticed by NBA GMs, who have voted for Bryant as the guy they would prefer to take the last shot for 10 years straight.

His five titles and plentiful late-game heroics are enough for his case as the greatest to be made. The biggest problem Bryant faces is that he lives in Jordan’s shadow. As much as Kobe has accomplished, Jordan has accomplished more. Bryant spent the first three of his five championships playing second fiddle to Shaquille O’Neal, while Jordan won all six of his championships as his team’s unquestioned leader.

Perhaps two more championships can remove Bryant from Jordan’s shadow, but at 34 years old, his time is running out.

LeBron James, Miami Heat
“King James” also draws comparisons to Jordan because of his versatility. The three-time MVP boasts a 6-foot, 8-inch, 250-pound frame, allowing him to attack the basket and finish with aggressiveness that few can replicate. Another byproduct of James’ height is his rebounding ability. As of March 11, 2013, no other small forward in the NBA has more rebounds per game this season than James (8.1).

James leads all active small forwards in assists per game, and his 6.91 career assists per game are good enough for being tenth among all active players. Plus, James’ post game and jump shot—his former weaknesses—have dramatically improved since donning a Heat uniform.

James’ prevailing weakness is a lack of clutch performances. Reluctant to shoot in high-pressure situations, he seems more comfortable passing the ball. The current NBA-champ LeBron James could very well be considered the greatest NBA player when his career is finished, but for now he still needs to prove himself as an epic late game hero in order to stake his claim as the greatest of all time.

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Unlike James, “Air Jordan’s” primary strength was his confidence in crunch time (most notably his efforts in the game dubbed “The Shot”) and amazing performances under adversity (witnessed in “The Flu Game”). Jordan’s offensive game screamed of versatility. Driving to the basket with LeBron’s aggression, shooting fadeaway jumpers like Kobe, or hitting long range threes like Bird, were all second nature to Jordan. MJ’s defensive prowess could not be ignored as the first player to win both an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Award in his career. Shot-blocking is an overlooked skill of Jordan’s, as many do not realize that Jordan has more blocks than any other guard to ever play the game (893). Amazingly enough, Jordan’s thievery was more on-point than his shot-swatting. Jordan is third all time in total steals (2,514). What else would one expect from the first player to ever get 100 blocks and 200 hundred steals in a season?

Jordan’s legend revolves around his championships, but his overall legacy reveals a dependable leader who was skilled in all facets of the game. The accomplishments MJ achieved and the memorable moments he created compel fans to make him the near-unanimous choice for the greatest ever.

Bill Russell, Boston Celtics

The greatest champion in basketball history won 11 championships in just 13 seasons with Boston, two of which came as a dual player/coach. Russell was also the first of only four people to win an NCAA championship and an NBA championship in back-to-back seasons, and the first black head coach in any major U.S. professional sport. William F. “Bill” Russell was a true pioneer for sports in general, not just basketball. Russell, the greatest defensive center of all time, made a career by sticking on his opponents like a guard dog and blocking shots like he was programmed to do so. The sheer frequency of his authoritative shot swats had never been witnessed in basketball before his time. Placement on the inaugural NBA All-Defensive First Team in his final season (1969) finally acknowledged his game-changing defensive.

Russell’s rebounding was a complimentary asset to his defensive style. The first player to average more than 20 rebounds per game in a single season replicated that feat nine more times throughout his career. His 51-rebound performance currently stands as the second highest single-game rebound total behind Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain’s 55. Naturally, put-backs and beautiful outlet passes were a staple of his offensive post-game, being the physical rebounder he was. Russell’s outlet passes were especially amazing, beaming the ball mid-air to his legendary teammate point-guard Bob Cousy for quick, fast-break points.

With as many MVP awards as Jordan (5) and 12 All-Star game appearances, equal to Bird, a case can certainly be made for Russell as the greatest.

The jury is still out
Larry Bird is the NBA’s greatest on-court strategist of all time. Kobe Bryant is the NBA’s greatest opportunist of all time. LeBron James is the NBA’s greatest raw athlete of all time. Michael Jordan is the NBA’s greatest clutch-performer of all time. Bill Russell is the NBA’s greatest champion of all time.

But who is the greatest of them of all? At this time Jordan is still considered the frontrunner, and for good reason. But Kobe and Lebron still have unfinished business in the NBA. As such, the jury is still out in the eyes of many.
No matter who you think is the greatest player ever, enjoy this year’s NBA postseason as it brings many more moments for the highlight reels and record books!

Email Jonathan at [email protected].

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