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Opinion

The absurdity of NBA GOAT debates Part 3: What if?

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Roar Rookie
19th November, 2020
5

One of the great basketball “what ifs” is how we’d view the Kevin Garnett vs Tim Duncan debate if they swapped the franchises that drafted them.

Would Duncan have won a championship in Minnesota without Gregg Popovich and multiple Hall of Fame teammates? Would the Spurs still have won five rings with Garnett as their centrepiece? It’s incredibly difficult to identify just how much of a team’s successes (or failures) is determined by an individual player, yet fans often use team achievements or lack thereof to judge a player’s career (such as how we consider Robert Horry’s career vs Charles Barkley’s).

The LeBron James vs Michael Jordan debate has similarities to the Garnett vs Duncan debate. You are comparing one player who had the fortune of being drafted to a team with a Hall of Fame coach (Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich) and a Hall of Fame general manager (Jerry Krause and RC Buford) that drafted/recruited elite teammates (Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, Horace Grant and Toni Kukoc for Jordan. David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Bruce Bowen for Duncan) against another player who was drafted by a basketcase of a franchise but overachieved with subpar teammates before leaving for championship glory elsewhere.

Considering “what ifs” is necessary if we want to intelligently evaluate a player’s career and separate individual success from team success, but it’s difficult to analyse things that never happened. Danny Ainge is arguably the best GM in the NBA, but in 2015 he almost traded four first-round picks (two of which turned into Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum) to Charlotte in order to draft Justice Winslow.

It was only by dumb luck that the Hornets decided they wanted Frank Kaminsky more than four first-round picks, and Ainge was able to move on and build the Celtics into the championship contender we see today. Should we consider Ainge in a different light given his near-miss? At the very least we have to conclude that not everything he touches turns to gold.

What if Duncan and MJ were drafted to dud franchises?

Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls

(Image: Flickr/Jason H Smith CC-BY-2.0)

I personally don’t think Duncan or MJ would have been able to elevate the Timberwolves or the Cavaliers to a championship if they had the supporting casts that KG and James had – Jerry Krause was partly right when he said that organisations win championships.

With that being said, I also don’t think LeBron and Garnett would have had the same level of success that MJ and Duncan did if they had been drafted by competent franchises. MJ would still have a compelling case for the GOAT even if he and Lebron exchanged championship accolades, so I presume MJ fans default to the rings argument because that requires less effort than engaging in proper debate with millennials on the internet.

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