Halftime Sports

Recency Bias and Its Footing in the NBA GOAT Debate

October 24, 2020

Who is the greatest of all time (GOAT)? Who are the best to ever do it? Who had an impact on the game like no other? In all sports, these are questions that most fans have a sure answer for. Their answers often differ from one another, which can spark great debate, outrage, or even bonding. Many are ready to die on their hill, while others are willing to hear out other opinions and maybe even alter their own. The opinions that are had and the debates that ensue over the greatest of all time discussion in sports help to make fandom liberating, but at the same time contested. It’s great.

Nevertheless, there is no major sports league that seems to place as much importance on the debate over who is the greatest than the NBA. I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t see an NBA GOAT-related post on social media, and it has become an extensive debate among fans. From those who believe Michael Jordan is high-and-above the greatest basketball player to live to those who believe it’s LeBron James, everybody seems to have a different opinion on ranking all-time NBA greats, and this leads to all-out internet brawls or even in-person heated disputes. A vast majority of these arguments consist of stubborn-minded individuals who will not accept any other answer besides their own, while many others are able to see others’ perspectives whilst having their own ideas.

I do have my own opinion in the matter, yes, but that’s not what I would like to focus on. I have noticed an issue that has become more and more prevalent in NBA GOAT discussions that I feel needs to be addressed: recency bias. Recency bias is a term defined as a cognitive bias that favors recent events over historic ones. We are all humans, and we are not above psychological prejudices. However, with all of the attention on who the greatest players in NBA history are, there is a need for fans to be able to look beyond their own era, a theme that seems to be occurring less and less by the day.

Ask any relatively young person or even NBA player who their top-5 or even top-10 players are and you will find that a vast majority will include a considerable amount of players that have played in the league over the past twenty years. People see what is in front of them, and it is much harder to side with a player from an era you didn’t live through than one you did. NBA fans are able to experience a player from their era’s greatness first-hand and may just not appreciate those who came before and helped to pave the way. 

A great example of recency bias is Quinn Cook’s top five of all time. The 27-year-old Lakers guard’s list, in order, consists of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Shaquille O’Neal. Another great example is Mavericks 25-year-old big man Kristaps Porzingis giving his all-time starting five, which consisted of Kyrie Irving at point guard, Kobe Bryant at shooting guard, Kevin Durant at small forward, Dirk Nowitzki at power forward, and Shaquille O’Neal at center. These are all undoubtedly great players, but these lists are missing about 30-40 years of NBA history and greatness in the process. Those are just a few examples of this matter, but I bet everyone reading this has seen it many times in other forms as well.

You could attribute it to favoritism, yes, but I believe that the greater problem is the lack of knowledge of the past. People aren’t willing to go back, research, and acknowledge previous greatness, which leaves all-time greats, such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and many others, left in the dust. I’d like to put some recent players who get a lot of credit next to players from the past who don’t.

First I’d like to look at Kobe Bryant and Larry Bird. It is a very common theme for modern day fans to put Kobe much higher up than Larry in all-time rankings, but just how accurate is this? Both players are Hall of Famers; Kobe played 20 seasons, while Bird played in 13. Kobe was an 18-time All-Star, 5-time NBA Champ, 2-time Finals MVP, 1-time MVP, 12-time All-Defensive team, and 15-time All-NBA selection. Larry was a 12-time All-Star, 3-time NBA Champ, 2-time Finals MVP, 3-time MVP, 3-time All-Defensive team, 10-time all-NBA selection, and won Rookie of the Year. Looking at career averages for both players:

 When looking at more advanced career statistics:

Seems to be two players who are definitely on the same level, with Larry actually looking like the better player overall.

Now let’s look at Shaquille O’Neal compared to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Two dominant Hall of Fame big men of different eras, Shaq played 19 seasons, while Kareem played 20, so both had careers of great longevity. Shaq was a 15 time All-Star, 4 time NBA champ, 3 time Finals MVP, 1-time MVP, 3-time All-Defensive team, and 14-time All-NBA selection, while also winning Rookie of the Year. Kareem was a 19-time All-Star, 6-time NBA champ, 2-time Finals MVP, 6-time MVP, 11-time All-Defensive team, 15-time All-NBA selection, and won Rookie of the Year. Kareem is also second in NBA history in games played, first in field goals, third in rebounds, third in blocks, and first in points. Looking at career averages: 

And looking at advanced career statistics: 

For Kareem’s first four seasons, where he averaged 31.4 ppg and 15.8 rpg, blocks per game as well as certain advanced stats such as box plus/minus weren’t even recorded yet, so this summary still doesn’t even give the full picture on Kareem’s greatness. But once again as with Larry and Kobe, it seems that the player who is getting most of the praise, Shaq, isn’t actually on Kareem’s tier, who seems to be the greater player.

This all boils down to NBA fans needing to respect the past in their discourse on the greatest to play the game. Those who are putting players such as Allen Iverson and Stephen Curry in their top fives are missing out on the greats who came before, and recency bias is clouding many’s judgement when it comes to these debates. Even with the ever-popular LeBron vs. MJ dispute, many of the arguments on both sides are narrative-based and don’t actually talk about stats, but, as we are in the era of LeBron, there are many who have a hard time seeing anyone else as the greatest but him. I do not believe that there is one true answer for who the greatest NBA players of all-time are, although I do think there is just one GOAT. But if you aren’t going to give a thorough look at the history of the NBA, then why bother with a list in the first place?


Alex Brady
Alex is a sports junkie who loves basketball and his hometown Bulls, and was a former Halftime Sports Editor.

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