The NBA has seen its fair share of great players over the years. From Bill Russell to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Earvin “Magic” Johnson to Michael Jordan, and every marquee performer in between. The pantheon of professional basketball has grown increasingly oxymoronic, as it is no more exclusive now than it is wide-ranging. Then again, we do live in a competitive world–a very competitive world–and therein lies the source of this timeless, yet controversial question: Who is the NBA’s GOAT–greatest player of all time?

Needless to say, this query will never shed its ambiguity, at least not entirely, nor will it ever be answered with honest objectivity and reason. Stubborn fanaticism often precludes that from coming about. So does the fact that many so-called enthusiasts don’t actually possess much knowledge of professional basketball, its lineage or its broad history at all.

Nevertheless, the debate can still be heard in local barbershops and speakeasies, wherein the delicate hums from hair clippers and the hogwash from the winos at the bar are occasionally overwhelmed by the thunderous sound of rousing discord between one diehard fan or another.

Indeed, flared emotion is the one inevitability of any sports debate. It’s because the child inside all of us is genuinely enamored of the men and women who can fly, run and jump like super heroes, and thus, we refuse to let our all-time favorites be undervalued, no matter what era they served in.

Fans of professional basketball are particularly passionate about their hardwood heroes. That’s not to say New York Jets’ fans are less staunchly devoted to Broadway Joe than Lakers’ fans are to Magic, or that seasoned Yankees fans aren’t equally as charmed with Joe DiMaggio or Babe Ruth. It’s simply means the pool of NBA hall-of-famers lacks considerable depth in comparison to that of its American counterparts.

This shouldn’t surprise those of you who know your sports history, though: the NBA was born more than two decades after the National football League’s (NFL) inaugural game in 1920, and more than seven decades after Major League Baseball (MLB) was established in 1869. (This means the NBA has seen far fewer players come and go than the other two leagues.) Moreover, unlike most other team-oriented sports, a hoops game can be dominated by one player at any given moment, on any given night, thereby giving him/her ample opportunity to gain exclusive favor by the viewing public.

As a result, the basketball community generally surrounds the GOAT debate around six highly distinct, intergenerational candidates. These include, but aren’t limited to the aforementioned Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Larry Bird, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, and of course, Jordan, the most celebrated name on this list.

However, assuming these men are, indeed, the best performers of their respected eras, which, in turn, denotes a generational transition from one all-time greatest talent to the next, then who among the NBA’s current generation of players has the potential to drink from basketball’s Holy Grail next?

[Note: After Russell’s term as the NBA’s elite big man ran its course in ’69, the torch was passed to West and Robertson (early ’70s). They were eventually succeeded by Abdul-Jabbar (late ’70s), and his crown was later split in two by Johnson and Bird (’80s). That Jordan guy soared into NBA history’s top spot next.]

Of course, a rather solid case can be made for reigning all-star MVP and 13-year veteran, Kobe Bryant of the two-time defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers. Some even argue in favor of his equally accomplished contemporaries, Shaquille O’Neal and/or Tim Duncan, who combined share in eight NBA titles and 31 seasons in the league.

But what will come of the association when these fading stars finally disappear? More importantly, might their departure from professional competition erase further consideration for the GOAT debate?

I imagine it will. Not because the athletes of tomorrow won’t be physically capable of outstripping their predecessors. They will be. The theory of evolution says so. What has eluded many post-millennium competitors, however, is the appreciation and application of fundamental basketball, key ingredients to the realization of greatness, or so I’m told.

Sure, we’ve all come to laud Dwyane Wade for his acrobatic approach to scoring, Derrick Rose for his dizzying quickness off the dribble and LeBron James for his ability to leap halfway across the universe in a single bound; but are these examples of true fundamental play? Or, are they merely testaments to superior athleticism and anatomic advantage?

I’ll let you chew on that for a moment…. Have you finished swallowing the truth? Or should I also point out that Wades’ career average from deep is an atrocious 29 percent, that Rose, a point guard and this year’s leading MVP candidate, has only managed a paltry six assists per game throughout his tenure as a professional, and that James’ futility in the clutch will perpetually serve as the bane of his playoff existence.

Pardon me if I’m mistaken, but aren’t these men often touted by the viewing public as great individual performers? Should they be? In fact, might we in our haste to find the next generational talent, be guilty of treating the word as though it doesn’t have tremendous implications?

That is, unless greatness no longer means what it once did. That it no longer signifies a transition from common ground to the highest plateau. Is this what fans of the old way should assume?

If so, I’m not surprised. Recent history has proven that today’s audience prefers flash over substance–the oohs and ahhs of basketball rather than the game itself.

Again, excuse me if I am incorrect, but it appears conclusive that prideful defense is a thing of the distant past; that blatant slackness characterizes the league’s present condition; and that a clear, universal indifference to the execution of fundamental play will plague the professional ranks well into the future.

Furthermore, James’ nationally televised “decision” to abandon Cleveland’s sinking ship last summer, in addition to the subsequent domino effect that prompted key moves out of Denver, Utah, Phoenix and Toronto (among other small market franchises this season), only proves that loyalty, respect and appreciation between players, their owners and the fans, come second to the Almighty Dollar, as also indicated by the current NFL lockout and pending NBA lockout.

Oh what a difference 30 years make! Bird and Johnson breathed new life into the league during their rookie seasons in ’79 by elevating its once abysmal viewership to soaring heights with their momentous play. But at present, when the value of a max contract is triple what is was in yesteryear, rumors of next season’s demise–pending the results of a collective bargaining agreement–continue to spread in pandemic fashion.

I’m confused. Is this the mark of a league evolved? Was LeBron’s decision to join Miami a move that a true GOAT candidate would consciously make? In yesteryear, a franchise player would die trying to bring his city a title. Jordan spent the greater part of his youth toiling in Chicago for a championship ring, six of which he eventually acquired, as did half the members of 1992’s Dream Team for their respective clubs, only to never win a ring in the process.

But that’s OK. Losing is OK, as is winning: it’s the journey to both that truly matters. This is why the mark of a great player isn’t necessarily rooted in wins and losses or statistical failure or success. Rather, it’s earned with determined effort, a commitment to the game and enduring professionalism, as exemplified by the likes of Dream Team members Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing and even Charles Barkley, all of whom retired from basketball as bona fide legends of their time, despite failing to ever hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Now, don’t get me wrong… Success does have its advantages. Again, Magic and Larry (winners of multiple honors) dominated the hearts and minds of countless NBA fans throughout the ’80s. West solidified his place above the giants of his era with numerous clutch performances; Robertson’s regular season exploits have yet to be challenged by any other player; and Russell’s 11 earned championships in 13 seasons qualifies him as the greatest winner in recorded sports history.

These men are the pillars of the debate as it concerns the NBA’s all-time greatest showman. Might they be replaced someday? Probably not. But I suppose only time will tell.