View Full Version : How do you judge who is 'the best'?

Prime Time
11-01-2018, 10:16 AM
Been thinking about this a lot lately, especially for people in team sports. But what do you think is the best way to go about judging who is the best?


The case: Obviously if sport is about winning, and winning championships in particular, this gives you a hard line to measure against. Whoever achieves the most titles is the best, however they get there. That's the best way to cut through the bullshit.

The drawback: I mean, this one ignores a lot. It ignores the qualities of team mates, and of opposition. It ignores the idea that someone else could have done even better with the same set-up and advantages. Italyís first European Championship win came not only at home, an obvious advantage in football, but after theyíd only reached the final after a COIN TOSS (which fast-forwarded the introduction of penalty shootouts) Ė are we really saying that they are better than those other great teams at the time because of the flip of a coin and home advantage?


The Case: Actually a far better measure of individual contribution. Someone might win a bunch of superbowl wins at QB, but if theyíve got the best running back in the game, are they really better than the guy on the losing team who has a journeyman running back and has to take far more of the snaps? You can argue that statistics tell you a much better story of who is doing what.

The drawback: Itís really easy to pad stats when things are going well, and arguably one goal or yard gained in vital circumstances is worth a hatful when the game is as good as dead. Everything counts equally in statistics, and itís easy to inflate them. Also, for team sports, if youíve got a situation where thereís a great player but the game plan isnít working or his team mates arenít up to that level, then the stats will tell a story rather different to an athleteís actual talent.

Watching them play

The case: There surely canít be a better way of judging something than someone knowledgeable about the sport looking at something and assessing it based on what theyíve seen. That way you know who actually does those miraculous things that take your breath away, and who the really impressive people truly are. You donít get bogged down in numbers, and you donít get misled by the strengths of team mates or tactics. Talent is always, first and foremost, on display.

The drawback: individual assessment has nothing to be measured against. And everyone thinks they are knowledgeable about the sport they follow, but letís be fair, a lot of those people are idiots who only think they know stuff. They wouldnít survive ten minutes if they were actually given a job in the game. It could be argued that all youíve really got if you follow this line too much is opinions and the idea of there even being a Ďgreatestí is ridiculous in the first place.

So yeah, the way I see it each of these has an obvious bonus, and a clear and equally obvious problem. So Iím wondering, what do you guys think of when you start trying to work out who is the greatest. Real world examples appreciated.

11-01-2018, 11:15 AM
I would say there is an element of all three.

If you want to use championships, then Robert Horry is close to the top of the list in the NBA with 7 rings. And Bill Russell is the best with 9. Russell is a top 5 player of all time, but not the best, and Horry is no where near the list. Same for Yogi Berra in MLB, he has 10 rings and an all time great, but no where near the best player.

Stats can lie. Emmet Smith is the all time rushing leader in the NFL, but if you watched him play vs Barry Sanders or Walter Payton, there is no comparison. I have said this for nearly 25 years, switch teams with Sanders with Smith, and Sanders plays behind that Cowboys Offensive Line, and Sanders has every rushing record possible and Smith would be a better than average to good running back, but not a Hall of Famer.

You do have to use the eyeball test along with everything else. Say what you will about Barry Bonds, but he was the most feared hitter in the MLB ever. Teams chose to walk him with the bases loaded a few times rather than have him hit. You have to check his stats to truly appreciate how great his 2002 (yes 2002 not 2001) season was. .370 avg, 46 HRs, 31, doubles, 198 walks, .582 OBP, 1.381 OPS, 110 RBI, and only 47 strike outs. This means that when he was actually pitched to, he hit the ball. Bonds was amazing regardless of the PED stuff. But is he the best ever?

However, the best way I think you can determine who the best is, is to truly look to see who dominated his sport more than anyone else. Before who I divulge who the best player in any sport of all time is, let's look at the 4 other major sports.

MLB - you could easily debate Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Aaron, Bonds, Griffey Jr., Rose etc for who the best of all time is without a clear winner
NFL - you could debate, Montana, Brady, Rice, Smith, Sanders and more
NBA - you could easily debate between Jordan and LeBron and Kobe to an extent
Soccer - Pele is considered the best, but you could debate, Maradona, Ronaldo, and Messi

But the single greatest player in any sport is clearly Wayne Gretzky. When he retired (til now) he owns 61 NHL records. But the biggest stat is his points. Gretzky holds the record for the most points - goals plus assists, but that is not the true show of his greatness. He holds the record for the most goals scored with 894 (93 more than #2), but if he NEVER scored a goal in his career, he would still be the all time points leader with 1963 assists (42 more than #2 on the Points scored list). That right there proves how great he was. Gretzky had a part in 2857 goals scored.

11-01-2018, 12:19 PM
A combination of the three certainly plays a factor. If we are choosing to go with "best ever to play a sport" I'll add two more categories to the list. Position and Feeling.

Take for example a debate on the best soccer player to ever play the game. If you drew up a list of ten players, I'd argue there would be at least 7 attack-minded players, and probably not one goal keeper. Attacking players, in pretty much any sport, will usually garner more attention and therefore get these types of accolades. Not to say that defensive players are any less important, but generally defensive players ensure your team doesn't lose. Attacking players ensure you win. That has an effect on people's mindsets. People will value a player that purposely wins a game, more so than a player that prevents the opponent from winning. Not saying it's fair necessarily, but it's true.

Now, if you were saying who is the best defensive centre back, then of course that point is moot, but you get what I mean when you look at a sport as a whole.

Feeling is inextricably linked to "watching them play" to some extent. But I'd differentiate it but saying that this focuses more on the mental side of the game, basically what you don't see with your own eyes, but you feel it. Of the five categories, it's certainly the hardest to pin point. A player that turns the tide of a game based more on their attitude, their galvanising of a team, saying the right thing at the right time...

Which of the categories is most important is difficult to pin down, but I'll give it a shot:

1. Watching them play
2. Championships
3. Feeling
4. Position
5. Stats

I find most stats are misleading (though in the case of Gretzky there seems to be no argument, other than he'd probably come near the top in every other category...)

11-01-2018, 01:06 PM
I judge by a weird combination of everything, and then I separate best and greatest. To me there is a huge difference of best and greatest that no one talks about, and they try to use the two interchangeably. I don't see it that way. I'll give the biggest debate as an example.

Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James. I don't care what you think, LeBron is the better player. LeBron is bigger, faster, stronger, has better stats, a more skilled overall game, better "basketball" decisions. But then you have Jordan, who basically willed his way to beating you. It's like Kobe vs. LeBron. In the two games they played per year, LeBron would dominate Kobe in stats, and general wins. But had LeBron and Kobe faced off in a 7 game series, there is no doubt in my mind Kobe would find a way to will his team, and himself, to beating LeBron and his team. Same with Jordan, I don't even think a Jordan vs. LeBron series even goes 7 games, none of Jordan's series did after he figured out how to win. Jordan is the greatest player of all time for this reason, he found a way to win.

Now you have Bill Russell, who'll never be confused as the best player. But of his era, he was the greatest. He willed the Celtics to beat the 1969 Lakers with all the stars on the Lakers. The Celtics were aging and falling apart. The Lakers finally had Wilt to counter Russell. Russell rallied his team to eventually perform above themselves and beat the Lakers one more time, even though the Lakers had the better team. The year after Russell retired, the Celtics had a losing record and missed the playoffs after years of winning titles. Russell's leadership was the key to the Celtics winning 11 titles in 13 years. But at the same time, Russell's offense was not the reason they won, though his defense was very key, Russell was able to get the most out of his teammate, which is measured in a different way. So there are arguments to be made all around on this as well.

11-01-2018, 01:27 PM
^^ That's a much better explanation of feeling than I could give!

I agree with you to some extent with the greatest vs the best debate, however perhaps it's harder for me to understand as the two tend to go hand in hand when it comes to my main sport, Soccer. Perhaps due to the extra players involved in a game, or the low scoring compared to a basketball game, but it's fairly rare to treat a game as one player vs another. There's too many other players involved. The only one that could potentially come to mind is Messi vs Ronaldo, but even then it's a stretch.

Messi for me is the best player to play the game, but he's also the greatest to play the game. As Jordan did with the Bulls, Messi galvanises his Barcelona team and has done so on the biggest stage of them all multiple times, whether that be in Champions League games, El Clasicos or on the few occasions Barcelona make a torrid start to a game. Sure, he's surrounded by very good players, but there is a consensus that he elevates them even further when most needed.

11-01-2018, 02:06 PM
I don't compare eras really because the sports evolve and change to such a degree that it's unfair to players that come before... Wayne Gretzky for example, in today's Hockey would not put up the same numbers. Michael Jordan probably wouldn't either because while he had an unmatched competitive spirit, and he was tremedous athlete in his time, There's 100s of players now that are better athletes due to better understanding conditioning.

So with that said, I go by best players of an era, I match those stats against their peers and winning does help. Patrick Ewing was an excellent center, he would be thought of more highly if he won. Dan Marino is considered one of the best pure Quarterbacks of all time, ahead of his time really.. .yet he never won so I think you have to separate Winners and greatness as a player.

I also think longevity can play a part if you're still great, longer than others. Brady is the perfect example of this. He's 41 and probably playing close to his peak level still, maybe even exceeding that. Of course the counter is, the game has never before catered to the QB like it does now, its never been 'easier' yet Brady is still considered one of the best today while some first round picks can't get out of their own way... Guys who are better athletes.

11-05-2018, 12:54 PM
Stats is good only really in sports where stats can become the be all and end all - and really those things are only possible in single player sports. Something like snooker, for example, you'll probably find the discussion of the greatest of all time will always come down to O'Sullivan vs Hendry (with maybe Steve Davis somewhere in the conversation) because they've won the most, got the most century breaks, got the most 147s etc.

It becomes harder to consider that when you look at individuals within a team game. Like, sure, Messi is great, but could he be as good if playing with (say) Lee Cattermole instead of Sergio Busquets? Also, for football, it becomes incredibly hard to judge people on stats when you go back through the team. Judging goalkeepers on purely the number of saves they make, for example, is a bad stat - if you did that Lukasz Fabianski is amongst the best keepers in Europe right now as he has been in and around the top of that stat for the past five season in the Premier League. But is he really? I don't know, I just find it too difficult to accept that individual statistics are the be all and end all of judging players in a team sport.

I mean, if I were to come here and tell you that Gabriel Batistuta was the best player of all time, you'd probably laugh. But to me he is, because he's one of the players that made me love watching football, when the Premier League shifted to being on pay TV and Football Italia became Sunday afternoon viewing, Gazzetta on a Saturday morning, and I loved watching Batistuta strut his stuff for Fiorentina. And hey, I might not be able to back that up with stats, but I think he had an ability that makes him better than almost any other player I've seen kick a ball.

It's kind of fascinating in a way, though, trying to work these things out. I think it's why these are the kind of debates I love, because one man could say that Modric is the best midfielder ever but another could say it was Scott Parker. Both views are (probably) equally valid, but they've been operating at different ends of the spectrum in different leagues.

Prime Time
11-15-2018, 05:12 PM
Good discussion, this.

The one I really resist is the most titles makes you the best. I just find that there are times when I've seen someone with better skill sets win less because of the situation that they find themselves in.

I don't mind comparing across era, although you do have to be careful, but I don't think comparing across sport is especially productive unless there is a clear link between them, like certain codes of football or linked disciplines in athletics, etc.