Reading Jacob’s FMFUF piece on the Denver Nuggets inspired me to begin writing an article that has been brewing in depths of my mind for some time now. In case you missed it (scroll up and read it) the main argument presented is that a photograph, rather than a statistic or record, is a more pure and meaningful metric of analyzing a terrific athletic performance. I agree wholeheartedly with this line of thinking and feel that the logic behind it suggests some other interesting findings. I want to take a look at how and why we compare athletes who played in different eras and highlight how ridiculous this process can be.
“LeBron is great but he’ll never touch Jordan”
“Verlander throws heat but Nolan Ryan was just unbelievable”
“Peterson can run but Walter Payton was simply immaculate”
Before I get into this any further I want to make it clear that I love statistics. They fascinate me. I loved the statistics course I took as an undergraduate, I believe Moneyball is 200 pages of utter brilliance, and as I begin my Masters program I look forward to examining the complicated field of biostatistics further. I don’t need to explain to you how or why statistics are important in sports. You already know. Stats are the basis for how we evaluate talent; which in turn creates the market for where an athlete’s salary should be set. Don’t believe me? Ask a minority-owner of the Brooklyn Nets what HE thinks.
The study of statistics is so valuable because it can provide unbiased quantitative analysis for essentially anything you can possibly imagine. It’s a disciplined, technical, and at times tedious process that yields data that can be argued is fail-proof.
So, with that given, why is it so damn hard to decipher the best athletes of all time? We have the stats, which we agree are the most credible way to evaluate an athlete, for every basketball player in the modern era leading me to believe that a simple internet search should tell me who the best player of all time is. But alas…
So here we are. Jordan or LeBron? The most objective and telling statistics for determining the best all around basketball player (I believe) are points scored, rebounds, and assists.
Michael Jordan’s Career Numbers:
30.1 PPG 6.2 RPG 5.3 APG
LeBron James’ Career Numbers:
27.6 PPG 7.2 RPG 6.9 APG
Right. So. Jordan was a better scorer but LeBron is a better overall player? Clearly we have an insufficient amount of data and more metrics are going to be needed to answer this in a more complete manner. Let’s take a look at the next 2 categorical statistics people point to when having this same argument.
Up first – how many rings a player has.
Michael Jordan: 6
LeBron James: 1*
Obviously this statistic is fixed for Jordan but has an asterisk next to James due to the fact that he’s still an active player.
As an extremely concrete and logical thinker this metric seems rather insignificant. The question at hand is who is the better NBA player of all time and this measurement is 100% indicative of the effort of an entire team and coaching staff. Statistics are such an effective tool specifically because they aim to limit as many external factors as possible, and using a statistic gathered from a team effort is inherently littered with external factors. Karl Malone and Sir Charles both had incredible individual careers without ever winning a championship. Dan Marino was one of the best quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen, and he ended his career without winning a Super Bowl. When you’re looking at a professional league, in which every participating team has a roster filled with the best talent in the world, it is simply outrageous to demand that one player must be apart of (and most people seem to demand, lead) a championship team.
Therefore the 6 rings to 1* says little about the individual play and more about how good the team was relative to its competition at the time. That’s not exactly hard-hitting evidence.
After the ring issue has been deliberated over ad nauseam it’s usually followed up with how many MVP awards Jordan and LeBron have. Once again, the numbers
Michael Jordan: 5 Regular Season MVP Awards
LeBron James: 3* Regular Season MVP Awards
I have excluded NBA Finals MVP Awards predominantly for the reasons listed above and also because they’re selected so hastily and emotionally. All-Star MVPs…psh, that and $7.00 gets you a small (tall) Starbucks coffee.
Winning the most valuable player award is an incredible feat worthy of much respect and praise. On the surface it seems like a totally viable measurement to use while comparing different players. However, consider what winning the most valuable player award in a given year really means:
If I’m voted MVP it means that a group of sports writers have decided that during the regular season of one specific year I had the most value to my team and in the league.
There are at least 2 vital aspects given in this definition that have an entropic nature rendering the comparisons moot:
(1) The group of writers, despite their best journalistic abilities, always have some sort of bias and the panel is not constant.
(2) The overall nature of the league is constantly changing, little by little, each year.
Therefore, it’s rationally impossible to compare the winner of the 1980 MVP and 2012 MVP. Imagine what a player with LeBron’s skill set would have managed to accomplish in the NBA in 1980? Conversely, would Kareem (1980 NBA MVP) have be as dominant with his skill set in 2012?
Alright. So what’s my point? I’m not suggesting we should halt these comparisons completely. I’m simply suggesting we alter the framework for which we have them in. Instead of imploring your friend at the bar to concede that MJ was the greatest of all time, and will never be topped, talk about where you were when you watched him drain that buzzer beater against Utah in 1997 finals. Talk about what you feel and experience when you witness LeBron or Kobe play the game. These feelings, these emotions, are the truest “measurements” we have in sports and are always looming at the heart of these “who’s the best of all time” debates.
No matter how much statistical data you gather and juxtapose, when it comes to comparing greatness in sports, the human mind will always trump numbers with an ultra-personal visceral reaction. And you know what? That’s what makes sports so wonderful.