A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Pippen’s Blasphemy and Cowardice of Critics

with 13 comments

Chicago Bulls Scottie Pippen 1995

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Scottie Pippen said:

Michael Jordan is probably the greatest scorer to ever play in the game. But I may go as far as to say LeBron James may be the greatest player ever to play the game, because he’s so potent offensively that not only can he score at will, but he keeps everybody involved.

…and the locusts take the sky

The world exploded. Some talked about Jordan’s championships ignoring the matter that Pippen’s statement obviously wasn’t saying that the 26 year old LeBron had already accomplished more than anyone else ever, some tried to talk about Jordan being a more “complete player” without actually saying what LeBron was missing, some talked about Pippen as a bitter old fool. The only thing everyone agreed on was that you couldn’t possibly say LeBron might be better than Jordan.

(Well, except Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who once again made one of his patented “He’s right, but no wonder why no one likes him” statements bringing up Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.)

I find the whole thing amusing. I should say up front that I don’t give one whit about Pippen’s opinion in player comparisons general. Nothing personal, I’d say the same about pretty much any player. While I love hearing what these guys have to say about the game in general, such comparisons are complicated enough that no matter how fantastic your basketball knowledge, you can’t have a complete opinion without spending a ton of time analyzing the situation with every tool at your disposal. The number of star athletes, or even coaches, willing to do this is vanishingly small, and then you really do need to think about whether the speaker has an agenda.

Even a broken clock…

However Scottie’s being downright reasonable here in a world full of people too afraid to be reasonable.

When critics talk about young players, they are simply afraid to put them up there with the legends, and they hide their fear behind a mask of historical knowledge. Thus anyone who dares question the existing hierarchy of canonical NBA players is dismissed as “young”. Of course, when you put that kind of stigma onto the act of questioning, most of the people who do espouse beliefs going against the canon literally are too ignorant to even known the canon, or know what a canon is for that matter.

What everyone needs to be honest enough to admit is that they really can’t tell with great precision where exactly LeBron stacks up against the great ones. LeBron’s stats are really dang close in impressive-ness to Jordan’s, and his defense has now reached the point that it’s actually been more impressive than his offense at times in these playoffs. What makes people unwilling to pick LeBron really is this:


It’s just the rings. How can you pick LeBron and risk knowing that if he ne’er wins a title people might not even see him being a Top 10 guy? How can you put yourself out there as someone who might prove that they can’t tell the difference between the GOAT and a guy isn’t even on the top tier of contenders?

Picture them in their underwear

People need to remember and take heart with a historical fact and the reasonable takeaway from that fact.

The fact: While Jordan is perceived as the ultimate winner now (among those not knowledgeable enough about Russell), and all his idiosyncrasies tied into a narrative of winning, back before the titles, he was considered selfish to the point that he was keeping his team from achieving the results that team basketball savants like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had. (Interestingly, like most things a more balanced view point would be most wise. Jordan really did at times hurt his team with unwillingness to adapt his game. Don’t believe me, consider his time in Washington.)

The takeaway: If people back then couldn’t properly tell if Jordan was the GOAT or a guy too selfish to win championships, then the reality is that no one really has that great of a grasp on exactly where the greats stack up next to each other until after all is said and done. It’s okay if you feel like a fool folks, just remember we’re al fools.

Oh, and the correllary: If people couldn’t tell exactly who was best based on watching them, then beware of vehemence even when all is said and done.

Written by Matt Johnson

June 2, 2011 at 6:28 pm

13 Responses

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  1. This was a very weak write up. Lebron may potentially be better than michael. So could kobe, grant hill, tracy mcgrady, and so on… I do agree that comparisons are very hard considerng position, coaching, assignment, etc… My opinion is wait till the players are at least almost finished before we compare to the so called number one best player. We take a series and compare to an entire career. Lebron, kobe, etc… Don’t compare to jordans career. Whenever a player is doing great we shoot them straight to the top. Just last year kobe was the greatest. Let’s compare lebron to kobe, even magic or bird first beffore we put him up aginst number one.


    June 4, 2011 at 6:30 pm

  2. I agree with Joe completely, this is one of the weaker articles I’ve read on here. I don’t prop Lebron up to Jordan. So many fans get caught up in the moment and call the last good play they’ve seen the best of all time, the last great player potentially the best of all time… wait and get some perspective. Why should somebody be propped up RIGHT NOW when EVERYONE agrees that he hasn’t accomplished what he needs to in order to be considered one of the greatest? In this case it’s just common sense. There’s more to being named one of the best ever than a peak season, or two peak seasons, or three peak seasons, or more.

    Chances are the reason people are getting all bent out of shape is because of the attention-grabbing headlines that make everything sound much more dramatic than the actual words spoken. Reason #2 STILL isn’t “cowardice”, it’s the fact that people simply don’t like him. Take the NFL- the NFL has a very rich history, but nobody hesitates to put Favre (before controversy anyway), Manning, and Brady up there with any quarterback who has ever played the game. Lebron will get the same treatment when he’s earned it and the emotions of the time have dissipated. Cowardice isn’t involved much, if at all.

    Reactionary hyperbole is much more of a problem than taking your time and judging a player when his career is over… like overreacting to Lebron shutting down an already very inefficient Derrick Rose. He’s a great wing defender, but he’s already had more trouble with Shawn Marion.

    As far as Lebron vs. Jordan, just a prediction… but after he teamed up with Wade his raw numbers are going to be low enough that average people who don’t delve into advanced stats aren’t going to say he’s better than Jordan (even stats like PER have gone down simply because he has less of a load and better teammates). All of his numbers are down, he’s going to average maybe 25 while Jordan only average under 30 ppg in the playoffs once… your average fan cares about stuff like that.


    June 4, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    • Oh hey, so you like my other stuff better? Sweet, my favorite kind of critic. Much better than “Your best article yet, and it still sucks!”

      Some of what you’ve said Raven already address. As for other stuff:

      -Nah, the cowardice is real. This isn’t a LeBron thing, I’m just using the LeBron example because it’s timely. People use the “but he hasn’t won a ring” thing all the time as if players will all of a sudden become different players if they happen to get better teammates.

      Of course simple-mindedness is part of the problem too, so I will admit that I haven’t painted the complete picture here.

      -Reactionary hyperbole. Ah, you make a good point. Still, I think it’s healthy for everyone to try to make peak to peak comparisons while a new player is still active. Not because you should have an opinion set before he retires, but because being able to evaluate players decently without relying on 15 years of data is a pretty valuable thing.

      -LeBron vs Jordan. You’re absolutely right about people. I don’t know if I’ll agree with them though. ’08-09 will probably be his year of greatest impact, but he’s developing into a more complete player by having to work with other stars. That ability, plus the great peak, plus possible huge longevity. The more I think about, the more I see him passing Jordan career-wise as a real possibility.

      I do think though that if that comes to pass, we’ll start seeing more emphasis on judging players based on peak. If the general fan thinks Jordan remains the peak GOAT, that combined with it being a given that he won’t be surpassed in icon-ness, help encourage people to change the topic in order to be able to argue for the more popular guy.

      Matt Johnson

      June 4, 2011 at 11:57 pm

      • Whenever anyone is compared to Jordan, it always seems to become a popularity contest. MJ is by far the most popular American athlete and maybe 2nd only to Pele in terms of world popularity. Correct me if I’m wrong but. . . I’m confident that MJ and the Bulls (please remember everyone that championships are a TEAM accomplishment) could not get past the “Bad Boy” Pistons until the NBA created the Flagrant Foul rule to protect Jordan from hard fouls when driving to the rim. That rule literally chanced the game for MJ,the 90s Pistons, and future stars like Iverson and Wade. Is Lebron better tha MJ? Maybe. Maybe not. But if you think the debate is ridiculous, then you only know MJ from replays of espn highlights or lack objectivity. I personally think Lebron only needs to develop a midrange or offensive post game to be better than MJ.

        Jason Powell Hundley

        June 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm

  3. Joe, if you’ve read much of Matt’s work, you’d know that he’s about as far from a knee-jerk analyst as is possible to get.

    I’d also direct you to his penultimate paragraph “the reality is that no one really has that great of a grasp on exactly where the greats stack up next to each other until after all is said and done.”

    What he’s warning about (in part) is not to reflexively REJECT such comparisons mid cycle (as it were) based on “everyone believes” communal wisdom.


    June 4, 2011 at 9:14 pm

  4. A lot of it comes back to the same things you’ll see ElGee and Gongxi arguing on RealGM: what does “best player” mean? If it means “player that plays the best”, then you can compare anyone (LeBron included) with anyone (Jordan included) and make your case based on what they do as individuals on the court. If to you “best player” means “player that accomplished the most” and you include team championships in your accomplishment list then no, you wouldn’t compare a relatively young player to anyone with multiple rings.

    Personally, for me it’s more about the former than the latter. And I see absolutely nothing wrong with comparing LeBron favorably to Jordan. Any cross-era comparison can only be taken so far, but…let me put it another way, LeBron is a good enough player that his level of play can hold its own with anyone that’s ever did it. I don’t think we have to wait on him to have rings before we can discuss his level of individual play…those two things are not equivalent.


    June 5, 2011 at 2:07 pm

  5. I think the difference between a superstar and a great player is the ability to deliever in clutch moments such as a campionship. Karl Malone was a great player but never seem to be able to deliever. Jordan did this time and time again, which makes him one of the greatest. LeBron hasn’t proven this yet so I don’t consider him a superstar yet- but a very impressive player indeed.


    June 6, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    • Elgee put a nice post up at backpicks, noting that Karl Malone put up some heroic numbers in defeat (arguably better than Jordan’s in the same games). “Able to deliver” is a really team-based accolade. Wade and Nowitzki in the current finals series have been playing magnificently. Whether or not they “deliver” is something that’s only decided post-game, if not post series, regardless of their play over the course of the game.

      To quote directly “Everyone remembers the last six minutes of the game significantly better than the loping middle act.”


      June 7, 2011 at 4:29 pm

  6. jabbar was simply stating the obvious if you want to judge a player based on stats, hands down the greatest player of all time is wilt chamberlain, if you want to judge a player based on championships won hands down its bill russell.

    john crom

    June 7, 2011 at 7:33 am

    • Well, first off, I did say he was right. Which actually isn’t entirely true, it’s pretty easy to make a case for Jordan just based on combining the Wilt argument with the Russell argument, which frankly, everyone should have at least that much nuance in their personal reasoning. However, he’s right that there’s a tendency to simply assume that the basketball world began with Jordan.

      Still, just weeks after whining about getting a statue, Kareem comes in again with a thinly veiled statement of self-aggrandizement. He just has all the wrong instincts about how to go about making people like you.

      Matt Johnson

      June 8, 2011 at 9:47 pm

  7. LeBron certainly has the potential to be the greatest all around player of all time, (which is what Scottie Pippen meant not that he WAS) he’s got a size advantage making him a better rebounder and is probably already a better passer. But do not forget that Jordan was also a very good to great passer (once averaging 8 assist per game and 5.3 for his career). MJ was all defensive NBA 1st team 9 consecutive full seasons winning defensive player of the year one season (only 5 non big men have ever won the award), was a more EFFICIENT scorer (something that is understated Jordan being a 50% FG shooter as a GUARD and 84% FT shooter). Jordan blocked just as many shots as Lebron despite being 2-3 inches shorter and has a MUCH higher steal rate. Another understated thing about Jordan is that he played all 82 games 8 times, something LeBron has yet to do so MJ was FAR FAR FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR from being just a great scorer.

    With all that said, I can throw out the stats, go with the “gut feel” test and remember watching the Bulls in the finals and just KNOWING the Bulls were going to win because Michael Jordan was going to do SOMETHING in the 4th quarter. I don’t get the same feeling with LeBron as much as I enjoy watching him.

    Brent Best

    June 9, 2011 at 5:19 am

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