LeBron James declared himself the greatest of all time, and all the predictable outrage followed.
He said WHAT?! How presumptuous! How impudent! How gauche!
It wasn’t just that James—in a self-produced documentary airing on ESPN—suggested he’d earned this lofty title by winning the 2016 championship, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers past the mighty Golden State Warriors. No, it was whom he proclaimed he’d surpassed.
James never mentioned Michael Jordan. He didn’t need to. It was understood. The furious, interminable debate over the NBA‘s so-called GOAT has long been framed as a two-man affair: LeBron vs. MJ. The King vs. His Airness. And James long ago made it clear exactly whom he was competing against for this mythical honor.
“My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing,” he once told Sports Illustrated, adding, “The ghost played in Chicago.”
But maybe it’s the framework itself that merits outrage. The modern debate merrily skips past the NBA’s greatest champion (Bill Russell), its all-time scoring leader (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and its most dominant force (Wilt Chamberlain).
Which raises a pesky, ever-pertinent question.
“Why does the GOAT always have to be a guard?” Shaquille O’Neal wonders. “A lot of people can’t answer that question.”
The answer is, of course, no mystery to Shaq, who learned the fickle nature of NBA popularity during his two decades as a bulldozing, rim-bending, backboard-smashing, defense-crushing center. Fans in every city gasped in awe at this powerful 7-foot behemoth. But their adoration belonged to his shorter, showier peers: Penny Hardaway. Tracy McGrady. Allen Iverson. Kobe Bryant.
In the NBA, guards dance and skip and soar, electrifying crowds with gravity-defying flights to the rim. They dazzle with crossover dribbles and step-back jumpers and 30-foot swishes. They titillate the senses. And the giants? They stand in an imaginary box and wait for the ball. They bang and grind and grunt and eventually dunk.
As Chamberlain once famously proclaimed, “No one loves Goliath.”
“There’s bias,” Abdul-Jabbar says, chuckling. “We deal with it all the time.”
Such is the Big Man’s Burden, endured by titans of every era, from Wilt to Shaq, Moses Malone to Hakeem Olajuwon. To be sure, the GOAT debate is influenced by other factors: recency bias, generational favoritism, social media groupthink. But there’s no escaping this one simple, aesthetic truth: The little guys are just more fun to watch.
That’s been indisputable for most of the NBA’s 73-year existence.
It is no longer immutable fact.
It’s not that modern guards are any less scintillating. It’s just that the bigs have joined the fun.
Joel Embiid mesmerizes his defender with a crossover/step-back combo. Anthony Davis simultaneously drops two men with a slick behind-the-back dribble. Nikola Jokic flings passes that would make Magic Johnson blush. Karl-Anthony Towns leads a one-man fast break—and sinks more three-pointers per night than Jimmy Butler.
The modern 7-footer is unbound from old conventions. Freed from the dogma that constrained his positional ancestors. Empowered to explore the full range of his abilities. He is evolving before our eyes. And very much enjoying his freedom.
“I like stuff that are attractive,” says Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers star. “I like stuff that 7-footers are not supposed to do. That’s why I always push myself to be better, be a complete basketball player. Being able to bring the ball up, or shoot the ball, or create for your teammate, create for yourself, be the best scorer in the league.”
The NBA’s embrace of pace-and-space offenses, volume three-point shooting and small-ball laid the groundwork for this big-man revolution, which, in turn, has helped fuel the game’s evolution. The center position, declared virtually extinct countless times in the last 10 years, is instead undergoing a renaissance.
And fans love it. A year ago at this time, Embiid’s jersey sales ranked sixth among all players—ahead of recent MVPs Russell Westbrook and James Harden, as well as flashy guards Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard. At fifth on the list was 7’3″ New York Knicks center Kristaps Porzingis, dubbed the Unicorn for his guard-like ball-handling and three-point shooting.
Suddenly, everyone adores Goliath—as long as he has Steph Curry range and Jamal Crawford handles. Which raises an interesting question: Might this generation of basketball giants be viewed more warmly than the one that came before it?
Shaq crossed over Jordan once. Drilled a deep jumper over him too. It’s all there on YouTube. Granted, this was horseplay before the 1996 All-Star Game. But the fact remains: O’Neal had skills he rarely got the chance to show off or cultivate.
“Growing up, I wanted to be Magic,” says O’Neal, lounging in the Inside the NBA viewing room on a recent Thursday night.
Every day, he’d take on his best friend, Mitch Ryals—“White guy. He looked like Bird.”—in a series of one-on-one games, making his best Magic moves. In high school, O’Neal said, he played with smaller guards who were stymied by opponents’ full-court presses. So his coach deployed him as a mammoth point-center to get the ball upcourt. He practiced all the guard drills too.
“So I always had the ability to dribble, but it got suppressed a lot,” he says.
From his earliest days, O’Neal heard the same message from coaches: “Get your ass down low. And stay down low.”
“And the only moves we worked on was jump hooks, sky hooks and drop steps,” he says. “No pick-and-pop, and no pick-and-roll, flare to the wing, none of that. None of that.”
These were the rules, once upon a time. If you were the tallest kid in the gym, you planted yourself near the basket and stayed there.
And why not? From the dawn of the NBA, giants had ruled the game by dominating the paint. Centers claimed 22 of the first 28 MVP awards—15 by the big-man trinity of Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar.
Sports-talk radio didn’t exist back then, but any early debates over the greatest of all time would surely have fixated on those three. And any tall kid growing up in the 1980s, as O’Neal did, would have been cast in their image.
At LSU, O’Neal yearned to keep developing his floor skills. “Dale Brown didn’t play that,” O’Neal says, referring to the former head coach. “Get the rebound, no dribbles, kick it to the guards.”
In the NBA, O’Neal found moments to indulge his inner point guard—leading the occasional Lakers fast break, flashing his passing skills, crossing up his man on the perimeter now and then.
He would have loved to do more, even shoot the occasional face-up J. Then again…
“Phil [Jackson] and Pat [Riley] probably would have took me out of the game,” O’Neal says.
KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/Associated Press/Associated Press
By the time he retired in 2011, O’Neal had attempted 19,457 field goals, nearly all of them within 10 feet of the rim. His 22 attempts from the arc were mostly end-of-clock heaves. He converted exactly one—a bank shot to beat the first-quarter buzzer in a 1996 game against Milwaukee.
O’Neal knows he wasn’t a shooter. He admires Embiid’s hybrid game and appreciates the creative freedom he’s been granted. But the 7-footer he truly envies is a different kind of unicorn altogether.
“Giannis,” O’Neal says, referring to Bucks point-forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. “I could definitely put it [on the floor], go around somebody and just take it to the hole. So I’m very, very envious of someone like Giannis. I used to do that once every five or six games. You remember. Take it down and make a nice pass. He does it every play. I would have loved to do that.”
Playing in this era might have afforded O’Neal the chance to expand his game, to dribble and pass and do all the fun guard things that delight fans.
“But I wouldn’t have changed my game,” says O’Neal, who powered his way to four championships and induction in the Hall of Fame.
Doing it his way—backing down and bulldozing his fellow giants—worked pretty well, after all.
As a teenager growing up in Manhattan in the 1960s, Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) got his first glimpse of Russell at Madison Square Garden. “Watch what he’s doing on defense,” his high school coach advised. “Do that and you’ll go far.”
He chuckles at the memory.
You always think that you could take that game as far as possible. Reality does come in there. I never got a chance to test that.
— Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
“I watched Wilt,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “No fadeaway jumpers for me. I had to shoot close to the basket, give myself a chance to get offensive rebounds.”
The dexterous young Alcindor could dribble and shoot, but he unleashed those skills only in his solo forays on the playground. “Just me and my ball in Manhattan, in the schoolyard,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “You always think that you could take that game as far as possible. Reality does come in there. I never got a chance to test that.”
He heeded his coaches. Emulated Russell on defense. Practiced his post moves and footwork.
“The way I did it, I took a whole lot of high-percentage shots,” he says. “That worked for me.”
Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989, at age 42, having scored 38,387 points—a record that still stands. Exactly three of those points came from beyond the arc (introduced in his 11th season). He also finished with six championships and six MVPs.
“The greatest player who ever lived,” then-Lakers coach Pat Riley said after Abdul-Jabbar’s final game, a loss to the Detroit Pistons in the Finals.
Jordan was just 26 at the time, with one MVP and no rings. It would be another two years before he won his first championship, and several more before anyone declared him the greatest of all time.
But Abdul-Jabbar’s GOAT status had already been challenged—by a sleek-shooting, slick-passing small forward in Boston. In 1988, Sports Illustrated labeled Larry Bird “the greatest basketball player in the history of humankind”—a position backed by no less an authority than Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach.
By the time Jordan retired for a second time in 1998—having won six titles in eight years and become the NBA’s first global rock star—there was no longer much of a debate. It wasn’t just the stats and rings. It was the way he got them. No one had ever electrified a crowd the way Jordan did.
“I think that Jordan was so definitively agreed on as the best, that it kind of killed the other candidates,” says Bill Simmons, editor of The Ringer and author of the The Book of Basketball, which was devoted in part to ranking all of the game’s greats.
In the 10 years since he wrote the book, Simmons’ view on the debate has evolved. Though he personally considers Jordan the GOAT, he concedes that it’s nearly impossible to compare players across the decades, given rules and stylistic changes to the game. It makes more sense to separate the discussion into 15-year or 20-year eras—Russell to Abdul-Jabbar to Jordan to James—each man the GOAT of his time.
“I think the centers are weirdly underrated now,” Simmons says. “Kareem is still the most automatic two points we ever had.”
Basketball’s once most-essential truism—that the best shots were those closest the basket—has been tested by the influence of analytics and the proliferation of the three-pointer. Abdul-Jabbar’s view hasn’t changed. But he appreciates the diverse skill sets of today’s bigs, singling out Davis in particular for praise.
“Because defensively, he does all the things that I did,” he says, “and offensively, he can go out to the three-point line or fire free-throw line jumpers when it counts. … I think he really has just adjusted and takes full advantage of both his size and what’s potentially available to him in the game. Embiid plays the game the same way.
“Every player wants to play like that,” he adds. “But it’s just when I played, there were very strict ideas about what you should be doing. And it didn’t involve me out there shooting long-distance shots.
With the entire NBA now drunk on three-point shooting, no scoring records are safe. It may be just a matter of time before James or Curry or Kevin Durant or James Harden comes for Abdul-Jabbar’s hallowed mark, exploiting a weapon he never wielded.
“It’s probably inevitable,” Abdul-Jabbar says, though the thought doesn’t seem to bother him. “I think there’s a lot more to the appreciation of sports than just a person’s statistics.”
But the modern center can have it all—the stats, the offensive freedom and the adulation.
The way Embiid recalls it, his basketball infatuation began at age 15, while watching the 2009 Finals between the Lakers and Magic.
But it wasn’t Dwight Howard, Orlando’s spring-loaded, power-dunking center, who caught Embiid’s eye. Nor Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ graceful 7-footer, who combined inside power moves with a smooth mid-range jumper.
“The first player I fell in love with,” Embiid says, “was Kobe.”
When Embiid picked up the game himself, he studied Olajuwon’s Dream Shake and Dirk Nowitzki‘s fadeaway. But Bryant was his inspiration.
“I just liked the way he moves,” Embiid says. “I can see myself in him. I loved the way he plays the game, athletic and dunk, will post you up, will put it on the floor, [make] tough shots and everything like that. That’s what was appealing to me.”
Like his 7-foot forerunners, Embiid had to bottle up those guard impulses, at least through high school and his one year at Kansas.
His coaches’ directives were predictable: “Run the floor, block shots.”
But when he arrived in Philadelphia, as the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft—and the presumptive savior of a rebuilding team—Embiid’s vision began to expand. And because of injuries that cost him two seasons, he had plenty of time to study and develop his skills.
“Knowing that I was gonna be ‘the guy,'” he says. “And then to be ‘the guy,’ I knew that I had to work really hard” to dominate as both a defender and scorer.
Embiid drew inspiration from Durant, a virtual 7-footer who plays the perimeter and has become one of the greatest scorers of all time, albeit as a small forward.
“I always admired guys like KD, like guys that are so tall and being able to create their own shot and post up, shoot the three, put it on the floor, do everything on the basketball court,” Embiid says. “That’s what I always aspired myself to be, and I feel like I’m right there. And I still got a lot of potential.”
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
That’s a scary thought. Still just 24, and in his third season, Embiid is averaging 27.2 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and two blocks per game, placing him firmly in the MVP discussion.
He’s also already one of the league’s most popular players, thanks to his diverse game and outsize personality. In this year’s All-Star balloting, Embiid garnered 2.78 million votes—more than Westbrook (2.5 million) and more than twice as many as flashy Blazers guard Damian Lillard (1 million).
Davis, Jokic and DeMarcus Cousins (arguably the trailblazer for this new generation) all showed strongly in fan balloting—a profound rebuttal to the once-popular notion that the center position is dead.
It was just six seasons ago that NBA officials—in deference to this so-called positionless era—removed “center” from the ballot entirely. Fans now vote for three frontcourt players, pitting the centers against their flashier rivals at forward. And they’re thriving anyway. (“But nobody’s playing, like, a center full time,” O’Neal notes pointedly.)
The big-man evolution was in its infancy when Embiid arrived. But the old-school aversion to a 7-footer dancing around the perimeter and flinging threes had long ago begun to fade, thanks largely to Nowitzki.
It was Nowitzki who knocked down the initial barriers, as the first 7-footer to regularly shoot (and make) the three, starting his rookie year in 1998-99. He took 3.7 shots per game from the arc the next season (his first full campaign)—then the most ever by a player his size, per Basketball Reference.
I don’t like shooting threes. I just do it because, you know, spacing.
— Joel Embiid
Embiid has averaged at least three shots per game from the arc in each of his first three seasons. He’s at 3.9 this campaign—and ranks sixth among 7-footers. No one flinches or objects, except occasionally Embiid.
“I don’t like shooting threes,” he says. “I just do it because, you know, spacing. I gotta space the floor and make sure that my man never helps off of me. So if I can use the gravity that I have on the basketball court [and help] my teammate get to the basket, I’m gonna do that. And if I’m wide-open at the three-point line, then I have to shoot.”
It’s not that Embiid hates the three. He just prefers to be in the post.
“I’m unstoppable inside,” he says. “So I’m like, ‘Why should I ever spend time on the three-point line?'”
So while the giants of yesteryear fight twinges of envy over the freedom given to the modern center, the modern center gazes back with his own mix of nostalgia and jealousy. Yes, Embiid would have loved to play in the 1990s.
“Oh, the old way would have been amazing,” Embiid says. “Amazing.”
The Sixers are crushing the Indiana Pacers on a recent Thursday evening, as Embiid builds a near triple-double: 22 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists. But from Charles Barkley’s seat—a massive gray lounger in TNT’s viewing room, adjacent to the Inside the NBA set—there’s still something wrong with this picture.
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
“How many three-point shooters do you fear for a big guy? None,” Barkley says. “Let’s look at this game right here: If you ask the Pacers, do we want Joel Embiid on the block, we can’t guard him, and we get all these guys wide-open threes—or do we want him out here shooting threes? I guarantee you, [Pacers coach] Nate McMillan would say, ‘Oh, I’ll take my chance with him shooting threes.'”
To his point, Embiid finishes the night 2-of-7 from beyond the arc.
“Just because they’re shooting threes, they’re not making enough threes to impact the game,” Barkley says. “They do less on the inside. They get less easy baskets, they get less free throws, because they’re not getting anybody in foul trouble.”
So the big-man revolution, it seems, is not universally celebrated. But it is unlikely to end anytime soon.
High school 7-footers are now emulating their modern-day role models—Embiid, Davis and Towns—and refusing confinement to the imaginary box near the baseline. Today, everyone wants to be skilled, positionless.
“No kid wants to be called a center anymore,” Jim Carr, who coaches University School in Florida, told the Washington Post recently. Carr’s star player, Vernon Carey Jr., is a 6’10” center with guard skills who ranks as one of the top prospects in the class of 2019 and has committed to Duke.
This isn’t a blip. It’s the new reality.
It’s also the natural progression, given the state of the NBA game. The league has been ruled of late by sweet-shooting guards (Curry, Harden) and do-everything small forwards (Durant, James). The last 7-footer to win MVP was Nowitzki in 2007. The last old-school big to win the award was Duncan in 2003. The last center to win it was O’Neal in 2000. And the last time the MVP went to a center in consecutive years was 1994 (Olajuwon) and 1995 (David Robinson).
As with many species, the NBA big simply faced a Darwinian moment: adapt or die.
While no one is suggesting Davis or Embiid or Jokic is on a trajectory to become the GOAT, given the game’s rapid evolution, would it be so surprising if—assuming they collected the requisite stats, rings and awards—they crashed the debate 10 years from now?
“It’s a different era,” says Embiid. “But you gotta be in a system where you’re kind of allowed to just be yourself. There is not a lot of guys that are able to do that. But I’m sure in the future, there’s gonna be a lot of big men that are gonna be able to be so versatile.”
All these years later, the numbers remain staggering.
Russell won 11 championships in 13 years and picked up five MVPs along the way.
Abdul-Jabbar: six championships, six MVPs and more points than anyone ever.
Chamberlain: two championships, four MVPs, seven scoring titles and some of the greatest statistical monuments in history. The 100-point game. The 50.4-point average in 1961-62. The career averages of 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds.
John Swart/Associated Press/Associated Press
And yet the GOAT debate fixates on two men.
“I think people are more taken and more captured by wings and the all-around brilliance of Jordan and LeBron,” says Steve Kerr, who played with the former and has coached against the latter.
“There’s something appealing about the guy on the perimeter, who’s smaller, going in there amongst the trees,” says Grant Hill, a former high-flying wing himself. “No offense to Shaq—you’d rather watch Kobe do his thing than Shaq.”
“I think it’s unfair that Kareem and Wilt and Bill get left out,” Barkley says.
And yet each of them ultimately named Jordan as the GOAT, without much prompting.
“Michael was so dominant, was so much better than everybody during his whole run, that some of the other guys who would otherwise be in the conversation—Bird, Magic, Karl Malone, whoever—those guys, none of them came close to Michael, in my mind,” Kerr says. “So no, the answer for me would be no, there shouldn’t be more people in the conversation.”
Of course, none of them played against Chamberlain or Russell, nor did they see much of Abdul-Jabbar’s prime. The generational bias is real. Today’s coaches and commentators lean Jordan. Players and younger fans lean James.
To which O’Neal raises an indignant objection. “I find it quite disrespectful that they don’t bring Kobe’s name up,” he says of his onetime teammate and rival. “That kind of pisses me off how they just skip over him and say, ‘LeBron.’ I don’t understand that. Because I was there with him, and he was a bad motherfucker, too.”
Are you asking me, at the end of their career, could [today’s more versatile big men] be touted as the GOAT? Unless they’ve got hellacious numbers, I don’t see them ever in that category.
— Shaquille O’Neal
Inevitably, someone else will come along and demand a place in the debate. Maybe it will be a freakishly tall, supremely skilled evolutionary marvel who defies positional labels and traditional norms.
Maybe the next wave of 7-footers will be appreciated in a way their plodding predecessors rarely were.
“Are you asking me, at the end of their career, could they be touted as the GOAT?” O’Neal says. “Is that what you’re asking me? Unless they’ve got hellacious numbers, I don’t see them ever in that category.”
No, O’Neal says, the greatest of all time is MJ and will be for the foreseeable future. Even the bigs, it seems, cannot escape the big-man bias.
Well, except one.
“To me, the GOAT has always been Wilt Chamberlain,” Embiid says, eagerly ticking off Wilt’s records and declaring he’d still be a terror today—never mind the revolution, the fancy shooting and the positionless fascination.
No, Embiid says, “He would have been dominant in this era.”
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His work has been honored by APSE each of the last two years.
Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.