Why player rankings or the GOAT claims can't be properly evaluated.

By Mike Fink
May. 31, 2020

It is assumed that most if not all sports fans have watched ESPN's ten-part documentary The Last Dance. Being starved of sports allows us to appreciate the greatness of the thing we adored so much. The documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls has insinuated numerous debates about who the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T.) player was in the history NBA as well as which team was the greatest of all time. We have heard every argument for every side on the conversation of who is the G.O.A.T. and this conversation has not only taken place in basketball but in all sports with all types of rankings.

Besides for every argument being subjective, I must conclude that there are multiple reasons why these arguments can't take place. These arguments ultimately evolve into "my dad can beat up your dad" or in the case of eras "my grandfather can beat up your kids", ultimately resulting in stalemate arguments where persuasion isn't possible. I will go through some key things to consider in any argument of rankings or any argument of who the best is.

Time

This is probably the strongest reason for why any conversation isn't possible. Era and time is of course something that put players in era's that let them thrive or fail. Through time there are different rules, different training methods, different competition, different styles of play and many more variables that make different eras impossible to evaluate from one to another.

Many claim that Michael Jordan played in a rough and tough era were players would be flagrantly fouled and still be able to play through the toughness and pain, citing that LeBron James or Stephen Curry wouldn't be able to survive in the league. What these same people fail to realize is that both James and Curry are currently playing in an era where the 3-point is taken more often and more accurately, something that players of previous eras didn't do often. Players from the past would not be able to function in a league where the 3-pointer is so common without also shooting as many three's, the cliché is that 3's beat 2's and we have seen the inside shot (something Jordan excelled at) disappear as a result. Likewise in the NFL, pass interference used to not be prominent in the game, to be specific, cornerbacks would stand on the line of scrimmage and take out the receivers as soon as the play started. Since the rule changes in 1978, the receivers have been allowed to run routes without the fear of being hit or eliminated from the play thus boosting the passing game throughout the league. Every sport has gone through major rule changes and with the rule changes we see players that can thrive or fail and thus eras can't be compared (baseball might be the only sport that has stayed the same but even the Major Leagues has seen the strike zone change and minor tweaks in it's rules that also make eras incomparable).

Training methods have also changed through time and a popular claim for players of modern eras is that athletes don't de-evolve. It used to be that players would drink and smoke at halftime of games (See Len Dawson Super Bowl one photo for reference) but with better training and better technology, we have seen athletes that look bigger and stronger than ever before. Moreover, we have seen athletes devote themselves religiously to their respective games earlier in their lives and to longer hours (athletes are practicing their craft for 12 hours a day compared to it being the casual hobby). Through the evolution of training and players looking bigger and faster than ever before, anyone can claim that their era produced the greatest athletes.

Included in the argument for training is the argument for competition. I personally don't consider anyone from the NFL before the 1960's as valid for comparison on the mere fact that anyone who could have been playing football was playing baseball or was boxing or in the army (the same can be said about basketball). With the difference of eras comes this nostalgic feeling that there are more Hall of Famers and greater competition for that reason, it's interesting to note that there are 13 Hall of Famers from the 1960's Green Bay Packers (including Vince Lombardi) but only four (not including cameo appearances) from the 1980's 49ers. It's also incomparable to evaluate the competition when players more than ever are allowed to seek trades and contracts from other teams, while the rivalries may have been more intense back in the day they can be credited to the lack of turnover in teams.

Positions

Besides for baseball every position entails a different style of play and features that make comparing two players at two different positions incomparable (even in baseball, the clear difference between pitcher and fielder already makes declaring the best a difficult task). Michael Jordan and LeBron James played two different positions and many compare the two as if they are the same type of player. Jordan as a shooting guard had a significantly different approach to the overall game than James who is a forward. Moreover, I once heard someone say that they would take 5 players ahead of LeBron James, this person chose four big-men and Jordan clearly displaying that this person favored big-men more than guards and forwards.

In rankings we have to evaluate each position or type of position separately, regardless of the sport. The NFL has a running thing were they rank the top 100 players each year. The past year, Aaron Donald was the number one ranked player, his team went on to have a 9-7 record and while Donald is an incredible player, he is not as valuable as a great quarterback or an O-Lineman that can protect that quarterback. This of course is a difference between value and talent but in the same light, we can't say that one player is better in a rankings system when they paly a separate position.

It is fair to rank players within the same position but as mentioned above, time has affected every position in every sport. Take the Tight End position as an example, in the 60's and 70's the passing game had little impact on the game compared to today's form of the game, Tight Ends have transitioned from primary blockers to primary passing targets.

Teammates/Coaches

This has always been a thorn I have had with rankings. Anyone who watches a great team in any sport knows that great players need a great supporting cast for their greatness to be recognized.

In the Jordan-LeBron debates, many people who take Jordan either neglect to mention Jordan's all-star supporting cast or also declare the supporting cast to be the greatest of all time as well. Moreover, any good quarterback needs a great offensive line and great defense and so on and if the best at any sport has these elements one has to ask if this takes away from their greatness? the same problem has to be applied with players that played in a system with one of the greatest of all time, can those players also be the greatest at their positions (think of Scottie Pippen, good but played alongside on of the greatest)? While some stats might be independent of the surrounding cast (home runs in baseball, goals in hockey) and could help with a greatness debate, what the independent stats fail to recognize is that not every point is created equal, meaning that a touchdown in a playoff game matters more than a touchdown in a "meaningless" game.

The same supporting cast problem can be applied to coaches. Many people who see Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player also think of Phil Jackson as the greatest coach of all time, similarly those that think Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback think Bill Belichick is the greatest coach. If the greatest player had the greatest coach, than how does that not hinder their case for being the greatest, after all, they had the best coach to help take off the workload that other players would have to undertake.

Supporting cast has to be considered especially when one brings the argument of championships. Teams win championships, not players. When comparing teams it can be fair to compare the number of championships won but we once again end up with the theoretical situation that if they played each other the recent team would win (as mentioned earlier, athletes don't de-evolve).

Longevity/short-term greatness

This category isn't discussed often but plays a major role in rankings. I commonly think of a question I was once asked "would you rather a Jamaal Charles or a Frank Gore?" on one hand we see one athlete that was unstoppable for a few years while the other has consistently been a top player but was never had a peak of dominance.

The common argument I hear for some players is that they would lose championships or would have more losing seasons or bad seasons since they had a longer career. With that in mind, it wouldn't be logical to say that the same player is better because they chose to shorten their careers or instead of losing in the championship they lost in the early round of the playoffs. This is also taken to affect when players start to lose a few steps at the end of their career. People point to the bad years and say that those players aren't the best for that reason, with a long career, there's a likely chance that there will be bad years at the end, it's inevitable.

Through the longevity argument, I constantly think about Vince Lombardi. It's easy to forget the Lombardi only coached the Green Bay Packers for seven seasons and won five championships. While many consider Lombardi to be the greatest coach of all time and rightfully so, they don't answer the theoretical that happened to Bill Belichick, if Vince Lombardi kept coaching would he still be as great. Bill Belichick won three Super Bowls in four years and then had a ten-year dry spell before he won another three. If Bill Belichick didn't coach from 2004 to 2014 and his resume had 6 championships in 9 years would he suddenly be a better coach than he is currently? Likewise, Lombardi is 5-1 in championship games while Belichick is 6-3. If Belichick instead of losing three times in the Super Bowl, lost in the AFC championship games each of those times to go 6-0, would we consider Belichick a greater coach than he is currently? the same theory can be applied to the LeBron-Jordan debate, the Montana-Brady debate and many more.

People tend to favor or use longevity against a player to enhance their argument, depending on with side helps. The problem is that these people are only looking for excuses to crown the player they personally support as the Greatest of All Time.

With these points, it's fair to say that these kinds of debates result in useless and dead-end arguments. Through time and other variables, it's safe to say that we can't determine which players are the greatest and can't have the debate to begin with. Sports are great and lead to great conversations but instead of debates that lead to dead-ends we should sit back and enjoy the greatness, something we should appreciate more since we currently don't have sports to watch and enjoy in our country.

On a side note, I think that Jordan is better than LeBron and Brady is better than Montana and Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of any sport (I fell into the trap that everyone else did, oops).