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Jordan best ever in NBA? Let the debate begin anew

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McClatchy-Tribune
September 10, 2009
— Michael Jordan entering the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday is like the period at the end of this sentence. It and he has to be there to be proper and complete.

Jordan rightfully will take his place among the game's elite, which lends proximity to the unsolvable debate of the best basketball player of all-time.


Jordan's bust will join those of other heavyweights such as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson which, with apologies to Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and George Mikan, isn't a bad all-time starting five, by the way in the Springfield, Mass., building.


But the debate Jordan or Chamberlain; maybe Russell or Robertson? can take place anywhere, any time. And likely will into eternity.


"For my money, Michael is the best of all-time," said former Bulls assistant Johnny Bach, who may be a bit biased. "How could he not be?


"I saw Oscar Robertson and Russell play. I coached against Wilt (in college). The idolatry Michael experienced would send anybody else off spinning. But he continued to produce."


Of course, all these heavyweights did.


Chamberlain averaged 30.1 points per game, an all-time high 22.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists over 14 NBA seasons. He won two NBA championships, one NBA Finals most valuable player award, four regular-season MVP awards and entered the Hall of Fame in 1978.


Russell is the NBA's second all-time leading rebounder at 22.5 per game over his 13 seasons. His scoring, of course, doesn't rival the other greats at just 15.1 ppg. But he revolutionized the game defensively and led the Celtics' dynasty to 11 NBA titles, winning five regular-season MVP awards along the way to his 1975 Hall induction.


Robertson played 14 seasons with perhaps the most balanced career averages of 25.7 points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1980 with one NBA championship and one regular-season MVP award on his resume.


Baylor, Hall of Fame class of 1977, posted career averages of 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists over 14 seasons. But his case could be hurt by never winning an NBA title.


"Jordan is unquestionably my No. 1 guy, and I don't even think it's something you can debate anymore," said Sam Smith of Bulls.com.


Smith covered the NBA for over 25 years for the Tribune and grew up in New York as a huge NBA fan. As former president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, he long has been a historian of the game and saw Jordan play far more than any other media member.


"Nobody has done anything remotely equal to what Jordan did," Smith said. "If you look at the greatest winner, that's Russell. But he played with six or seven Hall of Famers. Jordan played with what is likely to be one other (Scottie Pippen) and certainly no one even remotely close to even consistent All-Star consideration.


"Wilt is the most dominant scorer of all-time, but he only won two titles and one was when he became a facilitator more than a scorer. Two of the greatest all-around players are Oscar and Jerry West. But Oscar never won until he played with Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar.) And West didn't win until he played with Wilt."


The scoring numbers for Jordan and Chamberlain are remarkably similar.


Jordan played 1,072 career regular-season games, scored 32,292 points for 30.1 ppg. Chamberlain played 27 fewer games and scored 31,419 points, averaging the same 30.1 ppg.


Of course, Chamberlain holds the single-game scoring record with 100 points. Jordan's largest output came at Cleveland on March 28, 1990, when he scored 69 in an overtime victory.


But Jordan has those six titles.


"Wilt was more physically dominant," Smith said. "But Michael is the only guard who has really won without playing with a dominant center. You could make a case for Kobe (Bryant's) last title, but Pau Gasol is very skilled.


"Plus, Michael's combination of individual brilliance and mental intensity was unique. Every time there was a challenge, he met it."


Indeed, Smith recalled Jordan dropping 35 points on Clyde Drexler in the first half of Game 1 against the Trail Blazers in 1992 after critics said Drexler should have won that season's MVP. Or Jordan setting the all-time NBA Finals scoring record against Phoenix in 1993 after Charles Barkley won that regular-season MVP. And Jordan hitting the game-winner to beat Utah in Game 1 of the 1997 Finals after Karl Malone won that season's MVP.


"I asked him one time why he'd so openly challenge people," Bach said. "He said, 'Johnny, it's just part of me. I can't help it.' Without being a braggart, he'd assert his dominance over people by finding ways to motivate himself."


Somebody should tell Jordan this weekend that Chamberlain or Russell was better. That would get him going.



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