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What Tom Brady's GOAT case says about Michael Jordan, LeBron James and the NBA's discourse

Ben Rohrbach
·5-min read

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady’s seventh Super Bowl victory on Sunday cemented his legacy as the greatest quarterback ever and the most accomplished player in NFL history. It also ignited a conversation about who is the Greatest of All Time across all team sports — the so-called GOAT of GOATs.

We could argue this until a 53-year-old Brady wins his 11th title, but I would rather consider how the conversation around his brilliance could help us settle a more nuanced GOAT discussion in the NBA.

Brady’s seventh ring gives him one more than Michael Jordan, which has been the impetus for much of the all-sports GOAT discourse over the past two weeks. Brady now has more championships than any team in the NFL. It is a remarkable statistic that boils his GOAT case down to the simplest of terms, but it cannot be the sole explanation, or else we all would have held up Charles Haley as the NFL’s previous gold standard.

Brady has the supporting statistical résumé. He ranks first or second all-time in passing completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. He owns a better passer rating than any current Hall of Famer. He is a three-time regular-season MVP and five-time Super Bowl MVP. By any measure, he is one of the greats, and rings — as many as Joe Montana, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers combined — settle any debate.

The same cannot be said of the NBA’s GOAT discussion. Jordan is widely considered the best to ever do it on a basketball court, but neither the statistical nor the championship case is so clear-cut. Instead, we have to make individual cases against his three chief competitors, and even then the eye test is a deciding factor.

Brady is now objectively the NFL GOAT. Jordan is subjectively the NBA GOAT, so we will never settle the argument until somebody — perhaps LeBron James — makes opposition seem as silly as Brady just did.

From Bill Russell to LeBron James, the NBA's GOAT debate is just different. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
From Bill Russell to LeBron James, the NBA's GOAT debate is just different. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Bill Russell won 11 championships in 12 Finals appearances over 13 seasons for the Boston Celtics. He is a five-time MVP, the game’s second-leading rebounder and arguably the best defensive player in NBA history. By any measure, he is one of the greats, so shouldn’t his rings — one more than Jordan and James combined — settle the debate? Only, fewer people every year can provide an eye test that spans Russell and James, and defense is enough of an abstract concept that we can too easily dismiss his GOAT claim.

There were between eight and 14 teams when Russell was playing. That is his biggest knock, but it has never made much sense to me. If all the world’s talent were condensed to eight teams right now, would that make it easier or harder to win so often? Wilt Chamberlain — a four-time MVP and the NBA’s leading scorer and rebounder at the time of his retirement — is also among the greatest players ever, and he won two titles in the same era. That would be like, well, Brady winning seven Super Bowls to Peyton Manning’s two, right?

Except, most basketball folks do not even consider Russell the greatest center of all time. That moniker is more widely bestowed on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the six-time MVP and six-time champion whose scoring record has stood for 37 years and counting. Nobody has more MVPs, and he has as many rings as Jordan.

Yet, we hold Jordan’s six rings to a higher regard, because he was Finals MVP each time. Abdul-Jabbar was the best player in the championship series twice in 10 appearances. But if Finals MVPs are a tipping point, shouldn’t Russell — for whom the award is named — be given greater consideration than Jordan?

It comes back to the eye test. Sure, Russell was a 6-foot-10 world-class track athlete, and the 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar developed the game’s most unstoppable shot, but Jordan looks how we think a basketball player should look, a 6-foot-6 high flyer with the ability to score at every level and defend multiple positions. His 10 scoring titles are three more than anyone else, and they came from a more skilled guard position.

Only, we do not make that same argument when it comes to James. He will finish higher than Jordan in almost every statistical category. He has demonstrated the ability to play every position on both ends of the floor. But he does not have six Finals MVPs and six rings in six trips to the title series. He has four Finals MVPs and four rings in 10 trips, and there is a large swath of people who would still consider Jordan’s six-for-six the standard, even if James were to finish six-for-12, as ridiculous as that argument is on its face.

We tend to bend the argument for Jordan as the NBA GOAT to whichever best suits his case. It is some combination of skill, statistics, championships and the sense we got watching him that we were witnessing the greatest of all time. The same rings true for Brady, but the amount of cushion he has put between him and the field is somehow greater than Jordan in that there is no argument to bend one way or another now.

Only when someone does the same in the NBA will the sport’s GOAT debate be settled, and Russell’s seemingly untouchable record makes that damn near impossible. That James could catch Jordan with six rings and eclipse Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record and still not be as clearly the game’s greatest as Brady is in the NFL should tell us all we ever need to know: There will never be an end to the NBA’s GOAT discussion.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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