NBA GOAT Debate: How Do the Greats Stack Up by Height?

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    The NBA GOAT debate—currently raging between factions supporting Michael Jordan and LeBron James—may never be settled.

    There are plenty of reasons this disagreement feels destined to remain unresolved: the difficulty of cross-era comparisons, the inability of each side to understand the other’s age-based emotional attachment to its GOAT and, not to be forgotten, the fact that even players as relatively similar as Jordan and LeBron are still vastly different.

    Maybe the best way to address thorny questions of all-time greatness is to remove variables. This won’t solve the MJ-LeBron quandary, but splitting potential GOATs into divisions based on height can at least get us to a place where we’re comparing apples to apples.

    We’ll use heights as they appear on Basketball Reference’s player homepages, some of which may differ from those posted on other sites, just to keep things as uniform as possible. GOAT status will depend on career achievements, statistics and impact on winning. Longevity and peak performance will inform each decision, with the latter mattering more in close cases.

    Nobody’s ever going to settle the overall GOAT argument, but maybe honoring the greatest players at each height will give us a smidgen of elusive consensus. Alternatively, this might spark even more disagreement. Either way, it’ll be fun.

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    We may be living through a pace-and-space era in which skill and versatility matter more than size, but as long as the rim is 10 feet above the floor, height will always be an asset. And it’s always been an asset, a fact illustrated by the dearth of sub-6-foot players in the league’s history.

    Since 1946-47, just 82 players 5’11” or shorter have logged 50 career games.

    Isaiah Thomas is the best of them.

    The 5’9″ Thomas was picked 60th in the 2011 draft, a great indicator of the league’s tendency to look past skill and see only size. Though he doesn’t lead the under 6’0″ crew in total win shares (that’s Calvin Murphy), Thomas easily had the highest peak of any player in this category. He and Terrell Brandon are the only sub-6-footers to make at least two All-Star teams, and the 28.9 points per game Thomas posted in 2016-17 are the highest single-season scoring average in this class.

    A short prime hurts Thomas’ case. He came into the league at 22 and has spent the last three years trying to rediscover his form after a serious hip injury in 2017. He’s only 15th in minutes and fifth in total points in this category. But he’s tops in Player Efficiency Rating and second in box plus-minus. Combined with his All-NBA nod and fifth-place finish in MVP voting for the 2016-17 season, Thomas’ resume stands taller than the rest.

           

    Also Considered: Calvin Murphy, Muggsy Bogues

    Murphy’s 17,949 points are over 6,000 more than his closest competitor’s, but he was never the full-on offensive engine for a fringe contender like Thomas was with the Boston Celtics. Bogues is the leader in assists and steals, and may be the player who first comes to mind when thinking of undersized greats. But he lacked scoring punch and, at 5’3″, was an even more consistent target of opposing offenses than his taller (but still short) peers.

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    The mythic quality of Allen Iverson‘s career is tied directly to his lack of size. His reckless, uncompromising style wouldn’t have struck the same cultural chord if he’d been a strapping 6’5″. That he pushed his body to the limit, flinging it time and again into a tightly grouped, ill-intentioned grove of human oak trees and showing a committed disregard for his own safety, adds a note of overachieving heroism to his legend.

    He crossed up Michael Jordan, soared over larger opponents and darted all over the floor as if his personal settings had been upped to 1.5x speed while everyone else’s remained the same.

    Also, he was really, really productive.

    Iverson racked up 24,368 career points. Tim Hardaway sits in second place among 6’0″ players with just 15,373. That’s quite a gap—one wide enough to offset the predictable knocks on A.I.’s inefficiency.

    Though he never won a title, Iverson authored one of the most memorable playoff moments of the last 20 years when he stepped over Tyronn Lue in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals. His Philadelphia 76ers went on to lose four straight to the dominant Los Angeles Lakers, but the series’ most enduring moment belongs to Iverson, who also won MVP that season. 

    With 11 All-Star Games, seven All-NBA nods, four scoring titles and a cultural imprint few players of any height can claim, Iverson’s talent and influence made him seem 100 feet tall.

           

    Also Considered: Tim Hardaway, Kyle Lowry

    Hardaway made a remarkable five All-NBA teams and leads this class with 7,095 career assists, the 18th-highest total in league history. Lowry may feel like a hasty inclusion, considering he’s still active and not so far removed from his prime. But he’s got a ring, six All-Star nods and the second-most career win shares at this height.

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    We’ve got a pair of genuine all-timers vying for the distinction of 6’1″ GOAT as John Stockton and Chris Paul, two of the truest point guards to ever suit up, are the only serious contenders.

    Paul owns the higher career PER and box plus-minus, but Stockton’s 207.7 win shares are well clear of CP3’s 179.5. That’s the first indicator of where Stockton’s real advantage lies: longevity.

    Stockton finished his final season in 2002-03 at age 41 with averages of 10.8 points and 7.7 assists. He played all 82 games that year, closing his career with five straight seasons without a missed game. The absurdity of Stockton playing all 82 games in a season 16 times cannot be overstated. A.C. Green gets mentioned as the NBA’s all-time iron man, but Stockton holds the record for most seasons with perfect attendance.

    No one in history has more total assists or steals than Stockton, and it’s unlikely his No. 1 spots in either category will fall in the near future. Paul is the closest active player in both areas, and he’s over 6,000 assists and 1,000 steals behind.

    Though he’s best known for pinpoint pocket passes in the pick-and-roll, Stockton was also an uncommonly efficient scorer. Despite ending his career over a decade before the three-point revolution took hold, he still tops Paul in true shooting percentage and is one of just 11 players in league history to attempt at least 10,000 shots and post a true shooting percentage above that magical 60.0 percent mark. 

    A blue-collar approach and below-the-rim work might create the impression that Stockton was boring. False. He racked up highlights that included one of the greatest full-court passes in history and hit his share of game-winners in exceptionally high-stakes moments. 

           

    Also Considered: Chris Paul, Isiah Thomas

    Paul can close the statistical gap on Stockton if he puts together another few years as good as 2019-20, and he’s got edges in some persuasive catch-all metrics. Thomas has a pair of rings, which neither Stockton nor Paul can claim, but there’s really no statistical case for him finishing ahead of either 6’1″ competitor.

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    Jerry West finished among the top five in MVP voting eight times and reached nine NBA Finals, finally breaking through to win his only ring in 1972. He remains the only player to win Finals MVP for the losing team, which he achieved by averaging 38.0 points and logging a triple-double in Game 7 of a losing effort against the Boston Celtics in 1969.

    An All-Star in each of his 14 seasons and an All-Defensive team member five times, West also holds the rare distinction of leading the league in scoring (1969-70) and assists (1971-72) in separate seasons. That’s about as complete as resumes get.

    That West’s incredible playing career renders his status as one of the great executives of all time and inspiration for the NBA’s logo mere afterthoughts says everything about his impact on the game. And while it may be unfair to active 6’2″ players with a shot at the Hall of Fame, West is currently one of just four guys his height to earn that ultimate honor. He has more career win shares than the other three 6’2″ inductees combined (Hal Greer, Andy Phillip and Alfred McGuire).

           

    Also Considered: Tony Parker, Damian Lillard

    Parker has four rings and the second-most win shares among 6’2″ players, but he was never the best player on his team and his six All-Star Games are less than half of West’s total. Lillard is likely to finish his career as the clear No. 2 here, but he’s only seven years in and trails West by over 14,000 minutes and 10,000 points.

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    Chances are, Stephen Curry has another handful of superstar seasons ahead of him. But he could quit now and still be the easy pick here.

    Steve Nash matches his pair of MVPs, and Russell Westbrook‘s stockpile of counting stats deserves some attention. But Curry’s fundamental alteration of a sport gives him an obvious advantage. He started the three-point revolution on his own, firing from distances and with frequency never seen before.

    Curry is the league’s only unanimous MVP (2015-16), a six-time All-NBA team member (three first-teams), a six-time All-Star and a three-time champ who owns the highest true shooting percentage ever recorded in a 30.0-points-per-game season. That 2015-16 campaign is on the very short list of the greatest individual offensive years in NBA history, representing the pinnacle of volume-efficiency combination.

    Not that the list of Curry’s achievements needs to be longer to justify his position here, but it’s also worth noting he’s led the league in steals twice, ranks as the most accurate free-throw shooter of all time and will almost certainly finish his career with more made triples than anyone in history.

    Shooting is the core skill in a game where causing a ball to pass through a rim is the only way to score points. Curry is better at it than anyone who’s ever played—at any height.

           

    Also Considered: Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook

    Nash shares several of the qualities that make Curry great, not the least of which being zero-maintenance leadership and elite shooting accuracy. It also can’t be ignored that Nash was the constant on offenses that ranked first in scoring efficiency every year from 2001-02 to 2009-10. He simply lacks the scoring volume and postseason success. Westbrook’s numbers are monstrous, but there’s long been a credible argument that he does as much harm as good on the court because of his ball-dominance and poor defense.

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    Dwyane Wade‘s days as a legitimate superstar were done earlier than you think. His final All-NBA first-team season was 2009-10, and the last of his seven top-10 finishes in MVP voting was 2012-13. Even prior to the end of his relatively short prime, Wade was a constant on the injury report. He missed an average of 15 games per season.

    Despite all that, he still leads all 6’4″ players in total points, blocks and free throws made. That speaks to the heights he reached at his peak.

    From roughly 2004-05 to 2011-12, Wade was the league’s best shooting guard. That’ll arouse the ire of Kobe Bryant defenders, but Wade topped Bryant in VORP, box plus-minus and PER during that stretch. He was also the Finals MVP in 2006, which sets him apart from the other top considerations at this height, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd.

    At his best, Wade was an impossible cover. A slasher who could finish through contact like few others to ever play his position, his aggressive style was probably responsible for the injuries that eventually forced him into a supporting role behind LeBron James with the Miami Heat. There aren’t many players whose early branding centered on the ability to take physical punishment, but that angle fit Wade perfectly.

    Wade averaged over 25.0 points per game five times, is probably the greatest shot-blocking guard ever, and though he’s best known for getting buckets as a top option, his willingness to take on a secondary role puts him in the same team-first category you’d more readily associate with the point guards competing with him for this spot.

           

    Also Considered: Jason Kidd, Gary Payton

    Kidd leads all 6’4″ players in total assists, rebounds and steals. Like Payton, he was also among the best backcourt defenders to ever play. Often overlooked, though, was Kidd’s relative lack of offensive impact. Though he led the New Jersey Nets to consecutive Finals appearances, his offenses during six full seasons with that franchise ranked 17th, 20th, 25th, 27th, 24th and 18th in scoring efficiency. 

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    Cross-era comparisons are always tricky, but we have to make a big one to settle the issue of the 6’5″ GOAT.

    Oscar Robertson was the first player to average a triple-double (1961-62) and scored at least 30.0 points per game in six of his first seven seasons. He also led the league in assists per game seven times. Stack his per-game figures up against James Harden‘s, and Robertson looks like the clear winner: 25.7 points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds versus Harden’s 25.1, 6.3 and 5.3.

    Factor in pace and the wildly different playing environments of eras 50-plus years apart, and Robertson’s edge evaporates.

    Harden smokes him when viewing stats on a per-possession basis, and the per-minute figures paint Harden as the vastly superior scorer. Don’t assume Harden’s advantages in efficiency are all based on the three-point line either. His two-point field-goal percentage is 50.9 percent; Robertson is at 48.5 percent.

    Harden is on pace to win his third straight scoring title in 2019-20, owns six All-NBA nods (with a seventh coming) and, in addition to winning the 2017-18 MVP, has finished ninth or better (top-two four times) in seven straight votes.

    Robertson had nine top-five MVP finishes, but Harden could collect his fifth this year and has plenty more prime seasons in which to increase that total.

           

    Also Considered: Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek

    Robertson came into an NBA with just eight teams in 1960-61 and left in 1973-74 when there were 17. Consider that when evaluating his 11 All-NBA seasons and MVP finishes. He was a great player, but it’s just easier to earn honors like those when there are half (and often less than that) as many players vying for them. Robertson has the ring Harden lacks, but he won it in 1971 as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sidekick in Milwaukee.

    Baylor is the outlier here, a rugged forward who finished his career with averages of 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds. The same era-based caveats apply to his career, which spanned from 1958-1972, as Robertson’s.

    Havlicek has eight championships but never finished higher than fourth in MVP voting.

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    It should be a given that if you’re the qualifier-free GOAT, you’re also the GOAT at your specific height.

    So rather than belabor the point, we can just list Michael Jordan’s 10 scoring titles, six rings, five MVPs, 14 All-Star trips and Defensive Player of the Year Award (1987-88). If he’s not atop your ranking of the greatest to ever do it, he’s no lower than second. And if, for some reason, he ranks beneath that, seek help because you’ve clearly forgotten how numbers work.

    Having dispensed with that formality, we can devote the rest of the section to a pair of players who, despite all-time-great status, never had a chance to bump Jordan out of the lead in the 6’6″ division.

           

    Also Considered: Kobe Bryant, Charles Barkley

    Bryant basically did a Jordan impression throughout his career, appropriating everything