NBA Opinion – We Shouldn’t Be Trusted With Opinions

  • By Alex Bab
  • February 14, 2023
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Alex Bab

If you’re reading this, scroll up. Keep going all the way to the top of the page.

You’re going to see our company’s logo in the top left. Underneath it, you’ll see our motto: “Where Fan’s Opinions Matter.”

As a writer for this site, as well as it’s chief editor, I need to promote that motto. And for years, I’ve done just that, without hesitation. Anything to the contrary would be hypocritical. I wasn’t involved in journalism before I did this – I was first and foremost, a fan. An opinionated one at that. My own opinion as a fan has put me in the position to make a statement not everyone is going to like, but here it is:

The opinions of NBA fans have become the most pointless corner of all sports fandom.

We’ve reached a place where we can’t discuss any player, any accomplishment, anyone’s legacy…without the majority of the conversation being about tearing players down or cherry picking what facts support our argument and leaving out context that contradicts our points. We no longer celebrate basketball, we just critique it and fire off our “hot takes” to get a reaction rather than enjoying what we’re seeing.

Kevin Durant summed it up best two years ago:

Durant may be polarizing (you’ll find more intense opinions of him than every current NBA player save one, who we will get to shortly), but he’s 100% correct here. Yes there are some who are still interested in rational, logical debate regarding NBA topics, but they’re becoming a rare breed. Instead, most comment sections are full of people entering the discussion with this energy:

My use of tweets and memes may be a thinly veiled attempt to disassociate from the strong old man “get off my lawn” energy I’m giving off here, but I promise I have a point. Let’s start with what triggered this tirade.

LeBron James Breaks The Scoring Record

The two biggest stories to dominate the NBA the past week were the flurry of transactions at the trade deadline and LeBron James passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all time scoring record on February 7th. Abdul-Jabbar’s record of 38,387 career points scored stood for an astonishing 38 years.

LeBron James breaking it is a remarkable feat, any way you slice it. But go to any comment section about it and you’ll see so many attempts to discredit it.

There are the unprovable claims that Abdul-Jabbar played in a tougher era. This is a favorite go-to of people who try to discredit James or other modern stars, usually in comparison to Michael Jordan. From the outset the argument has already determined it’s futility. Every NBA era is competitive – by definition it’s the most competitive level of basketball on the planet. But definitively proving one era was “tougher” than another is impossible. It’s the argument of those who have no better argument, so they present a hypothetical that can neither be proven nor disproven.

Another tactic used by the detractors is to claim James had an unfair advantage over Abdul-Jabbar, coming into the league straight out of High School as opposed to spending three seasons playing at the college level. Prior to the 1971 Supreme Court Case Haywood v. National Basketball Association, basketball players could not enter the NBA directly from High School, and Abdul-Jabbar graduated High School in 1966. James got a three year head start, which those with an anti-James agenda will be quick to point out.

While true, it is also completely irrelevant.

The 38,387 points Abdul-Jabbar scored were his final tally at the time of his retirement. He retired at age 42. James is currently 38 years old. So despite the three year head start, he outpaced Abdul-Jabbar.

But the most relevant thing to a scoring total isn’t the amount of years or games played. It’s the amount of shots taken. At the time of this writing, James currently has 27,829 career field goal attempts. Abdul-Jabbar had 28,307 attempts. James took the lead while taking 478 less shots than Abdul-Jabbar ever did.

Which leads to my favorite grasping at straws argument to downplay James’ accomplishment. The three point shot.

I’ve seen many posts attempting to dismiss James out of hand by claiming “Well Kareem did it without the three pointer.” First, that is factually incorrect. The three point shot was added to the NBA in 1979. Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989, meaning he had a full decade where he had the opportunity to shoot them. In ten years, he attempted only 18, successfully sinking only one.

At the time of this writing, James has attempted 6,494 three pointers, making 2,237 of them, for a 34% career average.

So how much did the three pointer help James close the gap? Not as much as many would have you assume.

Let’s pretend the three pointer didn’t exist. That doesn’t mean we take away all of his threes – that’s a nonsensical argument. Instead, we take all of those threes and make them worth two points. So we take away the extra point for each three made – 2,237 – and deduct that from James’ current point total (38,390):

38,390 – 2,237 = 36,153 career points.

That would still rank James third all time, only behind Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. It would still put him 2,510 points ahead of the fourth person on the all time scoring list, the late Kobe Bryant. James is currently in his 20th NBA season and retirement still seems several years away. He is currently averaging 30.2 points per game. Let’s give Father Time the benefit of the doubt and assume there’s some depreciation in James’s prolific scoring and pretend he drops down to 25 points per game from here on out (this also factors in us turning any future three pointers into two pointers).

Without threes, James is 2,234 points behind Abdul-Jabbar. So if we do the math assuming a 25ppg average:

2,234 ÷ 25 = 89.36 games.

Without three pointers, James would presumably still break the record before the end of the 2023-24 regular season.

If you’ve stuck with me through all this math:

You may be wondering what my ultimate point here is. Look, give me any argument you want about why James’s accomplishment isn’t as impressive as it actually is and I can find the proof to discredit it. The point is so can anyone. This information did not take me very long to look up and put together. If you are reading this, that means you have internet access and therefore the same information is as available to you as it is to me.

I’m not trying to convince anyone of James’ greatness nor am I trying to diminish Abdul-Jabbar’s. I’m just trying to illustrate how the way we often choose to debate these topics doesn’t stand up very well to scrutiny or just some basic statistical analysis. It’s easy to say something like James got a head-start, but if we just slow down and think for a second, it’s obvious that while the head start was technically real, it doesn’t change the fact that James still broke the record in less time, on less shots. Yes, the three pointer helped him, but barring something unforeseen, he still would have broken the record without it.

The reality is nobody wants to be bothered with trivial things like facts or context when getting their NBA takes off anymore. They just want to push whatever agenda they have for a particular player or a particular era. But facts are not debatable and they don’t go away, no matter how much you ignore them.

You want to know the funny part? I don’t even really like LeBron James. Never have. Despite his tremendous ability and staggering resume, I just never was a huge fan of the guy. To paraphrase Jeffrey Lebowski: that’s just like…my opinion, man. But I’m not going to let my opinion matter more than the facts.

See how that works?

So why did this all happen? I blame farm animals.

So Many GOATS, So Little Time

In my personal opinion, this need to tear down one player to uplift another really stems from our obsession with who the Greatest Of All Time is. Nowhere is this debate more prevalent and futile than in the NBA. Football and baseball are too nuanced, with every position being responsible for very different things. Hockey is closest, outside of the goalie, but Wayne Gretzky has held a firm grasp on the title with no serious threat to the throne thus far.

But in basketball, every position functionally does the same things. Rebound, play defense, pass, score. How much you do one of those over the other may fluctuate by position but it’s much easier to debate across position than trying to definitively prove Tom Brady was a better football player than Jerry Rice or Lawrence Taylor.

For the NBA, you can’t bring up James or Michael Jordan (or god forbid both) without winding up going down a rabbit hole of people discussing who they think the GOAT is. It’s tiresome. The arguments are much the same as the ones outlined above regarding the scoring title. Everyone already has their mind made up and nobody is interested in discussion. LeBron James is amazing. Michael Jordan was amazing. So was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and before him there was Bill Russell. But modern NBA discourse doesn’t have room to appreciate these four greats (and many others) simultaneously. We’ve resorted to tribalism where you have to plant your flag in a camp and deride anyone who isn’t of your tribe.

Log into twitter right now, find an NBA thread about LeBron James and just comment that you think he’s the GOAT. You will immediately get people claiming Jordan, a smaller contingent claiming Abdul-Jabbar and then some other outliers here and there. Ask a Jordanite why he’s better than James and they’ll pull out the old reliable “He won six rings and LeBron only has four!” If you point out that by their own metric, Jordan is tied with Abdul-Jabbar, you may get some pushback.

But if you really want to break their argument, remind them that Bill Russell has eleven. 

As soon as you bring that up, they’ll go back through their flow-chart of counterpoints, find that they’ve trapped themselves in their own logic and then try to discredit Russell’s rings by claiming it was an easier era.

It’s predictable, it’s lazy and it’s ultimately become boring.

You want to make the GOAT argument about rings? Russell wins in a landslide, no matter what era he played in. You want it to be about stats? James is the all-time scoring leader while also being fourth all time in assists while also cracking the top 50 in rebounds despite being ostensibly a perimeter player. How about regular season MVPs? Abdul-Jabbar holds the lead there with six, one ahead of Jordan and Russell and two ahead of James and Wilt Chamberlain.

By any of those metrics, Jordan is not the GOAT. He only holds the (somewhat convincing) argument of having the most Finals MVPs with six trophies in six Finals Appearances. This conveniently leaves out that Russell would certainly have taken home more than six in his 11 championship runs except the award hadn’t been invented yet. But they did name the award after him, so that has to count for something, right?

The other downside of using the Finals MVP argument in Jordan’s favor is that it attempts to prove Jordan’s greatness based on a total of 35 Finals games played. Those games account for 3.26% of Jordan’s total career.

The argument seems less convincing now, doesn’t it?

The other option to use to prove Jordan is the greatest is advanced metrics. You can find stats there that support his case, but it gets murky. He holds the highest career player efficiency rating (PER), but only leads James by a margin of 0.6. He ranks fourth in career win shares, but Abdul-Jabbar tops that list, with James in second.

When we look at career win shares average per 48, Jordan tops the list there, but Abdul-Jabbar and James aren’t far behind, at seventh and eighth, respectively. This is the toughest conundrum of the Jordan/James debate: Jordan has the better average, but James has the longevity factor.

Is Jordan’s stratospheric peak more impressive than James’ age defying longevity? There’s no clear answer, it’s all personal preference.

You can go through other advanced metrics and find more of the same. A case can be made for James or Jordan or Abdul-Jabbar depending on which statistic you choose to prioritize and which you value less. But ultimately, the reality is there is no slam-dunk definitive metric that proves Michael Jordan is the best player of all time.

And yet I believe he is.

Why? I don’t really know. Probably because I was born in 1987, Jordan’s run of dominance coincided with the years I fell in love with basketball and my mind was basically made up by the time I reached High School. For my personal experience, he is the standard of greatness. James will always have the negative connotation to me of appearing on an NBA stage later than Jordan did. Abdul-Jabbar and Russell were before Jordan, but I didn’t see them, I just learned about them later on. Jordan got there first.

There are objective numbers, there is the context around those numbers, and the context around each of our own individual experiences in regards to a player. All of these things shape who we think the best is. In fact, the context often shapes our opinions more rigidly than the cold, emotionless numbers.

And this may seem strange coming from a guy who made you follow him down an increasingly nerdish math rabbit-hole, but I’m totally okay with that.

There is no such thing as a GOAT. There are (in my opinion), four reasonable options: Jordan, James, Abdul-Jabbar, Russell. Some may argue Wilt Chamberlain or Kobe Bryant or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird and while I don’t personally think any of those four have a real case based on quantifiable metrics, it’s totally okay if you think that.

Because who you believe is the GOAT is a matter of personal preference. But I argue we should avoid the term entirely and replace it with Greatest of Their Home Eras. I’m going to stretch the acronym as far as I can here: rather than GOATs, we should have GOTHEs.

In a bit of literary serendipity, GOTHE would be pronounced the same as the last name of the 18th-19th century German Author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Goethe wrote against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and Romanticism periods of literature. These two opposing viewpoints (one placing logical reason on a pedestal, the other fervent passion), were something Goethe tried to split the middle of. He argued that passion was a positive, as long as it was still navigated by reason.

Somewhere along the way in our NBA discussions, we’ve lost sight of the second part of that.

Here’s the reasonable part we don’t like to think about: ultimately, the problem with not even being willing to entertain the notion that James may have surpassed Jordan or Abdul-Jabbar, is that it somewhat closes off our ability to enjoy future players. If we have our minds made up that Jordan is the greatest ever and will not even listen to the arguments in James’ favor, then why do we still bother watching? If Jordan was the peak and no one can ever surpass it, then what’s the point? We’re done.

We still want to be passionate about the game but our inherent human nature towards tribalism has gotten the better of us. We’ve forgotten that there’s no logical reason that we can’t exalt LeBron James and Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell and whoever else we want. And that’s sad, because in the history of the NBA, there’s so much greatness to be appreciated. But for some reason we shun some in favor of others. We limit what we allow ourselves to enjoy because we think being a Jordan fan or a James fan is some kind of mutually exclusive personality trait.

We really can have it all, if we just stopped making everything an argument.

As the Chief Editor of The 3 Point Conversion, I’m here to tell you that your opinion most definitely matters. As an exasperated NBA fan, I’m here to tell you that your right to an opinion doesn’t automatically make it factually valid.

And if you don’t agree with that? Just move on with your day. After all, it’s just one man’s opinion.

 

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