This “GOAT” Business Has Gone Too Far

The debate constantly rages — on social networking platforms and elsewhere — as to whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all-time, with some "minor party" votes going to Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell (the latter due to the 11 NBA championships Russell won).

The problem with this debate is that it is intrinsically flawed — because it uses static rather than dynamic analysis.

Let's deal with — and eliminate — Russell first: In all but two of the seasons in which Russell won his 11 championships, the NBA had just nine teams — meaning that all the Celtics, for whom Russell played, had to do is beat out eight other teams to win the championship (the NBA expanded to 12 teams in 1967-68, when Russell won his 10th ring, and to 14 in 1968-69, when he won his 11th).

By contrast, when Jordan won his six titles, he had 26 other teams to beat out for the first three and 28 for the last three. So he had a much rougher row to hoe than Russell had — and what's more, he "three-peated" not once, but twice (yes, Russell "eight-peated" — but, as noted above, his Celtics had only one third as many teams to beat out).

And while Wilt Chamberlain holds the all-time record for most points per game in a season (50.4), and even scored 100 points in a game (both in 1961-62), his paltry two rings (and he also played in a league that had far fewer teams than today's) clearly rank him behind Jordan — and James, who has four.

As for Bryant, his support for GOATship is purely sentimental, given the tragic circumstances of his death — even though he was on five NBA championship teams and also started in all 82 regular-season games four times, which most of those who think that he is the GOAT probably don't even know about.

Of course it is not only in basketball where Looking For Mr. GOATbar prevails.

In an episode of Law & Order (which might actually be the GOAT when it comes to crime dramas — 456 episodes and it's still going strong!), Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin bickered back and forth about who baseball's best hitter of all-time is/was. At first, the debate was simply between whether Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron was better — but when Orbach persisted in asserting that Ruth was the GOAT, Martin, who is African-American, let Orbach have it with the piercing line that Ruth never faced the best pitchers of his time (which he didn't, because black players, including such pitchers as Satchel Paige, were relegated to the Negro Leagues when Ruth played).

But politics aside, baseball has evolved: In 1968, the two major leagues combined to hit .236 — the lowest such average ever recorded. Over the last decade, that average has been in the .250s every year. Therefore, stats compiled in 1968 are not directly comparable to stats compiled over the last decade — most notably Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA in 1968, and Denny McLain's 31-6 record in that same year, when there were 339 shutouts in both leagues combined, and Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title at .301, the lowest average for a league batting champion in major league history.

Football offers an even more blatant example: In 1977 — the last year before the Mel Blount rule, aka the "chuck rule," was implemented, NFL teams as a whole actually rushed for more yards than they passed for (143.9 yards rushing per game to 141.9 yards passing per game). In all recent years, however, a 2-1 ratio, give or take, has prevailed in favor of passing yards (in 2020 the respective averages were 118.9 yards rushing per game and 240.2 yards passing per game). In 1977, Buffalo led the league with 180.7 yards passing per game; in 2020, New England averaged 180.6 yards passing per game — and finished 30th! And the NFL as a whole rushed for a truly pathetic 106.5 yards per game in 1999.

Thus the phenomenon known as "grade inflation" in the educational system applies even more emphatically when comparing quarterbacks who played as recently as the early and mid-1970s with quarterbacks playing in today's NFL — and applies in reverse to running backs (although the lengthening of the regular-season schedule from 14 games to 16 games in 1978, and to 17 games starting this season, has somewhat tempered the "grade deflation" at that position).

So when someone asks you who you think is the GOAT in any sport, go all Rhett Butler on them and say, "Frankly, dear, I don't give a damn."

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