Everybody knows that Bill Walton is something of an eccentric, so it is understandable that some of his opinions are written off as nothing more than the ramblings of an aging Deadhead who just happens to have a microphone in front of him. When Walton brought up the fact that Michael Jordan was not even among the top three of the greatest NBA players of all time, which you can see here, most immediately dismissed the opinion as ludicrous and completely unfounded. While the prevailing opinion seems to be that Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, there is a strong argument to be made against this fact.
Walton, who played at UCLA in the early 1970s and played in the NBA until the late 1980s, believes that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the best ever, and Walton is in the unique position of having played against both Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar during his career. And it is not like Walton was a slouch during his playing days, either. Walton was coached by the legendary John Wooden and earned National College Player of the Year honors on three separate occasions before winning the NBA MVP award in 1978. He was named as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and still possesses a sharp basketball acumen.
Walton’s opinion is certainly not a popular one, but it is also not completely indefensible. There is no doubt that Jordan is among the best ever, and his basketball legacy will remain highly respected for many years to come. There are, however, many reasons that Jordan should not be considered the best of all time, and what follows are 10 of the best reasons to consider someone other than Jordan as the G.O.A.T.
* All stats were taken from Basketball-Reference.com
10 The All-Time Scoring Title
Sure, there are better metrics now available for judging a player’s career, but the all-time scoring title is still important nonetheless. While Jordan famously won 10 scoring titles – seven of which were consecutive – he remains fourth on the all-time scoring list behind Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant. Jordan, of course, lost several prime years because of his first retirement and the sabbatical he took to play baseball. Abdul-Jabbar racked up 38,387 points over the course of his career and Jordan retired over 6,000 points behind him.
As for the advanced metrics, it should be mentioned that Jordan ranks at the top of PER, and while PER is certainly useful, it is far from a perfect measurement. After all, Neil Johnston ranks ninth all-time by PER. Who is Neil Johnston? He is in the Hall of Fame and was undoubtedly excellent during his brief career, but then again, when was the last time Neil Johnston’s name was mentioned in any conversation as a top-10 all-time player?
When discussing who is the greatest player of all-time, the number of championships won will inevitably be brought into the conversation. Jordan’s teams won six, and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were great on a historic level. If greatness is defined by championships, however, there is simply no argument as to who the best player of all-time should be: Bill Russell. The Boston Celtics center won 11 championships during his 13-year career to go with five MVP awards (the same number as Jordan) during a time when Wilt Chamberlain was also in the league. Russell is also the only player in league history to have a major award named after him, as the MVP of the NBA Finals receives the Bill Russell Finals MVP award.
LeBron James was highly criticized when he left Cleveland for Miami to go title-chasing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. While the criticism over the way LeBron handled “The Decision” was certainly warranted, the fact that he won his titles with the help of outstanding, all-star caliber talent should not detract from his legacy. After all, Jordan struggled to win during his first five years in the league, until the Bulls added two future Hall of Famers in Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson.
Pippen, who was named as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players, may be the best sidekick in the history of the league. And though Jackson's legacy might become tarnished by the ongoing Knicks debacle, he still remains one of the league's greatest coaches of all-time. Later in Jordan’s career, he would also benefit from the presence of Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr. Rodman may be the best rebounder in NBA history, while Kerr is certainly among the league’s greatest shooters ever. There were times when Jordan put the Bulls on his back, but it’s not like he was expected to do so every single night.
Jordan played a total of 15 NBA seasons, but he famously missed all of his age-30 season and most of his age-31 season to try his hand at baseball. He then retired following his age-34 season, only to return for a two-year swan song with the Washington Wizards for his age-38 and age-39 seasons. Jordan gets a lot of credit for the “what might have been” scenarios, as most will note all of this missed time and wonder what he may have been able to accomplish had he been on the floor during those seasons. Yes, it was a brilliant 15-year career, but it could have been even better had he not left the game on two different occasions during his career. After all, Abdul-Jabbar, the player Walton referenced as being better than Jordan, played 20 NBA seasons, remaining effective into his early 40s.
6 What About Oscar Robertson?
Jordan gets a lot of credit for revolutionizing the game, but it is not as if he is the first to have done this. Bill Russell was one of the first great defensive big men (before Russell, offense came first for centers and anything they could offer defensively was merely a bonus) and Oscar Robertson radically changed the point guard position. There’s an argument to be made for Robertson as the greatest player ever, as he put up one of the most amazing statistical seasons in the history of the game when he averaged 30.8 PPG, 12.5 RPG, and 11.4 APG over the course of the 1962-63 season. He would flirt with averaging a triple-double three more times during his career, making Robertson one of the greatest all-around players to play the game.
5 The Highlight Reel
Jordan’s career just happened to coincide with the rising popularity of the NBA and Jordan’s prime occurred as NBA basketball began to enjoy widespread popularity across the globe. Jordan’s superior athleticism was a joy to behold, and it made for some of the most amazing plays that anyone has ever seen. The fact that there is high-quality film of every play Jordan ever made has preserved his legacy in perpetuity, and the manner in which Jordan played the game makes for a truly exciting highlight reel. Jordan benefits tremendously from this, as the abilities of some of the game’s greatest players do not necessarily shine through on highlight footage in the same way as Jordan's.
4 Bird and Magic
Jordan dominated the 90s, but it was Larry Bird and Magic Johnson who were the dominant forces in the NBA when Jordan made his debut in 1984. It wasn’t until the early 90s that Jordan would start winning, and that just so happens to coincide with the time that Bird and Magic were leaving the league. There’s an argument to be made that Jordan was not even close to the best player in the league until the latter part of his career, as Bird and Magic were far better throughout the entirety of the 1980s. In fact, Jordan’s Bulls could not get past Bird’s Celtics in the 1986 or 1987 playoffs, as Boston swept Chicago in consecutive playoff series. In the 1988 and 1989 playoffs, it was Isaiah Thomas’ Pistons that kept the Bulls from getting out of the Eastern Conference, and Chicago only managed three victories in two playoff series against Detroit.
3 Marketing Hype
Nike and Gatorade have both played a major role in cementing Jordan’s legacy, as the companies have spent untold advertising dollars on making the Jordan brand incredibly successful. The advertising campaigns were ubiquitous then and remain memorable today, as Gatorade even revived its famous “Be Like Mike” commercial during the most recent Super Bowl. Nike’s “It's Gotta Be the Shoes” commercials that featured Spike Lee also played a role in Jordan’s larger-than-life media presence, and this has undoubtedly helped sway people into believing that Jordan was the NBA’s greatest player.
2 The 1993-94 Season
Without Michael Jordan, the Bulls surely couldn’t remain competitive, could they? A team that relies heavily on the game’s greatest player certainly would face its fair share of difficulties if that player just up and left during the prime of his career, right? Well, in the case of the Bulls, the answer is a somewhat surprising "no." Jordan departed for the Birmingham Barons, leaving the Bulls without the best player in the game for all of the 1993-94 season. With Scottie Pippen taking over the reigns as the team’s go-to player, the Bulls did not struggle at all. In fact, they were just about as good as they were the previous season with Jordan. In 1992-93, the Bulls were 57-25 and when Jordan left basketball for baseball the following season, the Bulls went 55-27. They did not repeat as NBA champs, but the team was still very much in the mix despite being without Jordan.
1 Jordan Struggled Without Pippen and Jackson
Before Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen arrived, there was simply no doubt that Michael Jordan could score the basketball at will. Jordan averaged 37.1 points per game during the season before Pippen joined the Bulls, but while there was no questioning his scoring prowess, there were definitely questions about his ability to win. The Bulls had been summarily dismissed by Eastern Conference powerhouses in the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons in the playoffs, but the arrival of Jackson and Pippen forever changed Jordan’s fortunes in the playoffs.
The triangle offense helped Chicago thrive, and under Jackson’s leadership Jordan was able to win his six NBA championships and four of his five NBA MVP awards. Pippen took a lot of the pressure off of Jordan and lessened the team's reliance on its star player. Without the help of Jackson and Pippen, Jordan may have been remembered as nothing more than one of the game’s greatest scorers. If the fact that LeBron couldn’t win without help in Miami is used as an argument against his greatness, it should be applied in a similar manner to Jordan’s career.