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NBA GOAT debate: Big questions on Michael Jordan and the greatest players ever

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Adande: 'The Last Dance' will show how intense MJ was (2:07)

J.A. Adande says "The Last Dance," a documentary that chronicles Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls' dynasty, will show how intense Jordan was as a teammate and competitor. (2:07)

Who is Michael Jordan's real competition for the greatest NBA player of all time?

MJ's last championship run with the Chicago Bulls is captured in "The Last Dance," a 10-part documentary series debuting on ESPN on Sunday (9 p.m. ET). That sixth and final title helped Jordan earn a strong claim for GOAT status, with the Hall of Famer finishing No. 1 in ESPN's all-time NBArank in 2016.

But do legends such as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have a stronger case than Jordan? What about LeBron James? And what qualities make one player the GOAT?

Heading into the series premiere, our NBA experts answer the biggest questions about the best basketball players ever.

MORE: Remembering the greatness of Michael Jordan and the Bulls dynasty


1. How many NBA players should realistically be included for greatest of all time consideration?

Bobby Marks: I've got 10 on my list for discussion: Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James. If you ask me the same question in 10 years, that list might also include one current and one former Golden State Warrior: Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.

Jackie MacMullan: For the purposes of this discussion, I have 11 players who need no introduction: Jordan, Russell, LeBron, Magic, Wilt, Oscar, Kareem, Shaq, Bird, Kobe and Jerry West.

Marc Spears: This conversation should definitely be a short one. The only former players I have are Magic, MJ, Wilt and Kareem, though I do go back-and-forth about Bird, Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Duncan, Kobe and Shaq. What keeps Russell off that list for me is that he was not a dominant force on the offensive end. The only current player who gets GOAT consideration is LeBron, but I do believe Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo have potential to join that discussion.

Kevin Arnovitz: Poring over the list of greats, I can assemble a case for only five players -- Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, James, Jordan and Russell. This is a particularly difficult debate because digging into comprehensive statistics and footage from NBA history is damn near impossible. How many of even today's most rabid NBA fans under the age of 60 can say that they've watched more than a glimpse of Russell? How many of even the most advanced analysts can say that they have a real pulse on how to quantify Chamberlain's career based on the numbers available from his era?

Kevin Pelton: I think four players have a legitimate case depending how you define what it means to be greatest: Jordan, James, Chamberlain and Russell. This seems unfair to Abdul-Jabbar, who plausibly had the best career of anyone before Jordan and LeBron, but of this group, he doesn't seem to dominate any single criteria except longevity.


2. What traits and accomplishments do you value most in determining the NBA's greatest player of all time?

Arnovitz: The GOAT should achieve sustained individual dominance over the long span of his career, coupled with team success. He should be among the very, very best for a very, very long time. He should also leave an indelible imprint on the game -- how we imagine basketball as an ideal, how we think of stardom, how those who come later adopt or appropriate his game.

MacMullan: There are great all-time players who have never won a championship, but everyone on my list has snagged at least one. West would have won multiple rings had he not annually run into the Russell/Bob Cousy/Sam Jones Celtics buzz saw. Game winners in clutch playoff situations also carry weight with me.

Spears: Winning multiple championships is certainly important to being a GOAT. So is leadership and the ability to make others better. You should not only succeed at multiple positions, but also on both ends of the floor. Handling defeat with grace is important. Having big moments in the biggest of games stands out. Enjoying the game and having a star personality is important too.

Pelton: To me, the question goes like this: If we put all players' careers in a draft, considering injuries and retirements, who would give the team you drafted the most championships? This means considering individual performance only to the extent that it drives championships, but also considering how the championships a player actually won are dependent on situation, teammates, coaching and good or bad fortune. I find it also appropriately balances the choice between peak value and longevity.

Marks: The same three characteristics that should be used when determining the MVP: wins, longevity and the impact that player had on his team.

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2:03

Will LeBron ever catch MJ as a global brand?

Stephen A. Smith isn't ruling out the possibility of LeBron James catching up to Michael Jordan as a global brand.

3. As of right now, who is your GOAT and why?

MacMullan: Michael Jordan remains the greatest player of all time in my mind. His six championships were won in two different phases of his career with rotating supporting casts. MJ was a dominant offensive player who hit countless iconic game winners, but he was equally frightening on the defensive end. And he was a killer -- the most ruthless competition the game has ever seen.

Spears: Magic Johnson, due to his ability to play four positions at an elite level, his ability to make everyone better, his leadership, his five championships and his shots in big games. Magic was the main reason the NBA grew into a giant before the Jordan explosion. Michael Jordan was the best scorer. Perhaps Bill Russell was the best defender. But overall, Magic was the best.

Pelton: By the definition I laid out in the previous question, it's LeBron, who has added another MVP-caliber season since I wrote about the Jordan-LeBron debate in the spring of 2018. Because he entered the NBA directly out of high school and never stepped away in his prime like Jordan, James gave his teams more great seasons. That is reflected by his record 12 All-NBA first team selections, as compared to 10 for Jordan, with one more surely in store whenever this unprecedented season concludes.

Arnovitz: Jordan. No matter which metric you prefer -- hard quant, traditional numbers, eye test, team dominance, stylistic influence, cultural impact -- Jordan rates at or near the top.

Marks: Jordan. I grew up a Knicks fan, and it felt like Jordan was superman each time he stepped on the court during those Bulls-Knicks playoff series. In 1998, I had an up-front seat to the first-round playoff series between the Bulls and Nets, and it felt automatic every time the ball left Jordan's hands.


4. Fact or fiction: A canceled 2019-20 NBA season would significantly affect the NBA GOAT debate.

Spears: A cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic might affect LeBron James' final legacy, because it could take away a potential championship that would add to his cause, but the LA Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and other teams would beg to differ on that argument. Either way, James already is in the GOAT discussion without question.

Arnovitz: Fiction. The modern NBA extends back for more than 70 seasons. Five weeks of basketball and, possibly, a postseason being canceled would be a blip in the historical sweep of the league and any conversation about its most distinguished players.

MacMullan: Fiction. It doesn't significantly alter the GOAT debate, but I'm sure fans of LeBron would feel cheated -- and they should. There's every reason to believe he had a chance to win his fourth ring, which would have inched him closer to Jordan's mother lode. But ring totals shouldn't be the only criteria -- if so, Russell would be everybody's choice.

Pelton: Given I've already picked LeBron as the GOAT, not really for me. I do think for the rest of the world, James' leading a third different team to a title would be an important validation of his career. From that standpoint, it would matter, and possibly significantly so.

Marks: Fiction. What LeBron has accomplished in his career is exceptional. But while James was on track to contend for his fourth championship this spring with the Lakers, nobody will top what Jordan accomplished in the '80s and '90s.


5. Fact or fiction: A current NBA player under age 30 has a chance to enter the GOAT debate before the end of his career.

Arnovitz: Fact. Only two NBA players in history won a pair of MVP awards by the age of 25 -- Kareem and LeBron. Antetokounmpo likely will be the third. Whatever holes exist in his game or résumé at the present moment, there's ample time for Antetokounmpo to crack the code and situate himself squarely in that conversation.

MacMullan: Fact. Who knows what the future brings? Before his Achilles injury, I would have argued the versatile Kevin Durant had a chance at establishing himself as the best. Now, we'll see. Can we accurately forecast Zion Williamson or Luka Doncic so early in their careers? They both look like generational players to me, but can either evolve into the GOAT? Only time will tell.

Spears: Giannis has the ability to get into that conversation as he continues to grow as a player. The only thing he is lacking as a player is a 3-point shot, which will continue to grow.

Marks: Fiction. Giannis likely will win another MVP, but he doesn't have the full body of work, especially in the playoffs, to enter the conversation. The closest player under 30 is Kawhi Leonard, who has two championships and plays at an All-NBA level on both ends. It's hard for me to put Leonard in the GOAT debate, though, without knowing how his body will hold up for the rest of his career. Don't forget that Jordan played all 82 games nine times in his career. The most Leonard has played in a season is 74.

Pelton: It's certainly plausible for Antetokounmpo. And while he's got a lot more work to go, I think it's in the realm of possibility for Doncic, who was putting together one of the best age-20 seasons ever.