Gilbert Arenas’ Jordan Take Highlights the Unequal Reality of GOAT Debates

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Like them or not, GOAT (greatest of all time) debates are simply part of the sports landscape. Whether you’re watching a talking-head-based TV show or sitting in a sports bar, someone is inevitably going to argue that one player is better than another. Time constraints go out the window; it’s about finding the best of the best.
In the world of basketball, Michael Jordan is usually given the top spot in the power rankings. Some other names, like LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, can appear, but His Airness will usually get the nod. Gilbert Arenas, who briefly overlapped with the legend in Washington, D.C., doesn’t disagree with that majority.
During a recent appearance on Paul George’s Podcast P, Arenas trotted out a basketball media staple and explained that MJ was, in his estimation, the GOAT. While that’s not groundbreaking in isolation, the logic does reveal a challenging reality of those sorts of conversations: things are ultimately intangible and subjective.
Arenas Talks Jordan, Rings, and Overall Greatness
As noted above, there’s nothing exactly groundbreaking about a former NBA player praising Jordan’s greatness. Arenas, however, did bring a unique perspective to the table.
On Podcast P, a conversation about super teams led the former Wizards guard to say that the use of championship rings had changed over the years, and players felt a need to play within those rules.
“That’s the unfair part because that wasn’t created on greatness, right,” Arenas explained. “Rings wasn’t created to establish greatness then, right? They’re using it now to keep everybody away from greatness. That’s the bad part. How about this? Just put the two players in bottles and say you can’t be better than them, and then judge us regular. Versus saying, ‘Oh well, you didn’t do it this way. Ahh, you don’t got three MVPs and five…’ Like, come on y’all.”
After George spoke about Kevin Durant, who recently weighed in on his own place in the GOAT conversation, things returned to Arenas.
“It’s a fake door [viewing championships as a means to all-time greatness],” he said, speaking about viewing rings as a ticket to greatness. “Cause those guys ain’t in the door. They in a whole ‘nother door. Right? And that’s the problem. Oh, this is the GOAT door. Right? OK, I want some rings, and you realize, ‘Hey, Michael Jordan ain’t in here, y’all. He ain’t in this door, y’all. He somewhere else.'”
And since the specter of all-time greatness had been raised, things then drifted further toward trying to claim the GOAT title.
“As players, we’re factoring in our numbers, right, our rings, and saying, ‘No, we should be able, I have leading titles, I beat him in every stat. Why y’all not putting me in front of him?’ And the answer is: He was the NBA,” Arenas explained.
“Magic and Bird held it. Right? They held it. They made it exciting. You know, back when it started, it was tape delay…So, when Bird and Magic was, you know, battling, and when Jordan came in, what they seen was a whole different animal,” Arenas said.
“You’re seeing something that is different, moves different, talks different, approaches the game different. Swag phenomenal, right? This is the best thing we’ve seen.”
Arenas wasn’t done there. He referenced Jordan’s legendary 1987-88 campaign and said that was when the Bull ascended to greatness. And that came before he had any NBA titles.
“That’s when he became the best player ever,” Agent Zero said. “There was no ring. The rings is just what they get to use now. Six. It was just the way he did it. He carried what we have now. Solo mission. It’s hard to beat solo mission with stats. LeBron can win six rings right now. They not giving it to him.”
To be clear, there’s plenty to unpack there, but Arenas does make some interesting points about judging greatness. Rings matter—James, for example, sits behind Jordan in that all-important metric—until they don’t. Consider Kevin Durant’s rings with Golden State as an example of that. Or alternatively, ask why Bill Russell isn’t the GOAT despite his legendary winning ways.
Gilbert Arenas (R) drives the ball past Goran Dragic on December 19, 2009, in Phoenix, Arizona. Arenas discussed NBA greatness on Paul George’s podcast. Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Beyond that, there’s something to the former guard’s assertion that Jordan simply looked and felt different. While everyone can judge that for themselves, there is something to be said for coming first and making that impact. We’ve all watched an athlete, whether it’s His Airness or anyone else, and simply said, “Wow.”
That also bakes in a level of unfairness. MJ’s birth date was beyond his control after all, so why should he get credit for coming first? But, at the same time, it makes sense.
Again, we’ll use James as the example, but you could plug in any contemporary player. Beyond the statistical comparisons, there’s always something to live up to. Jordan didn’t lose in the NBA Finals. Jordan didn’t have to change teams to win. Jordan just had a certain je ne sais quoi about him that made him a real-life superhero. And if you can’t live up to those things, you simply won’t surpass him.
Ultimately, there’s a level of emotion involved, and the first time something happens is always going to be exciting. Just think, even when James was busting onto the scene as a high schooler, he was being positioned as the heir to Jordan’s throne rather than a unique star. And, like it or not, sequels rarely strike the same chord as the original.
That’s not to say that we should completely disregard GOAT debates or remove championship rings from all-time assessments. Doing so would be a bit naive; fans will always want to compare X to Y, whether that’s teams, players or anything else. Having a bit of perspective on the biases that frame our thoughts, however, is worthwhile.
The NBA (or the NFL, if we’re holding Tom Brady up as the GOAT, or any other professional sports league) is full of amazing athletes. There are incredible moments every night. Things are ultimately supposed to be entertaining.
It would be a shame to miss out on that because you’re bogged down in debates over greatness, especially when they’re not based on a uniform framework.

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