For some reason, the GOAT debate has had so much more emphasis these days more than ever. In this respect, the three usual suspects — in no particular order — are Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. It is without question that all three players have had a tremendous impact on the sport, and that their respective careers are as decorated as they come. Some folks might likely want to throw in a few more names on this list, but very few will argue that these three aforementioned superstars have got to be in the conversation when discussing basketball’s greatest of all time.
In light of this rather unending debate, we too have come up with our own list. However, what makes ours different is the fact that the players we have on here are guys who could have at least had the chance to be considered as a potential goat, had it not been for a series of unfortunate events. Without further adieu, we present our Top 5 players who had the chance to be the GOAT NBA player, but never did.
We start things off with one of, if not the most tragic narratives in the history of the NBA. Len Bias, a highly-touted first-team All-American who had a tremendous four-year career in Maryland, was perhaps the most renowned victim of the cocaine epidemic that plagued not only the league, but pretty much the entire nation back in the 1980’s.
In his senior year, Bias averaged 23.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 0.8 steals per ballgame, which led to his selection as the second overall pick by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft. Many saw him as the heir apparent to Larry Bird.
Two days after the draft, however, disaster struck. Bias died due to a cocaine overdose after reportedly celebrating his achievement with some friends and teammates. It all ended for the 6-foot-9 forward even before his career even had a chance to take off.
In 2002, Yao Ming made history by being the first ever Asian-born player to get drafted first overall. The 7-foot-6 giant was an instant hit, and not only did he dominate the league with his combination of size and finesse, but he also pretty much opened the door for the NBA to penetrate the one billion strong Chinese market.
After just three seasons in the league, Yao’s body would already begin to show signs of wear and tear. While he continued to develop as a legitimate superstar — he averaged 25.0 points (on 51.6 percent shooting), 9.4 rebounds, 2.o assists, and 2.0 blocks in the 2006-07 season — it was becoming more and more apparent that injuries would ultimately hinder his success.
After eight injury-plagued seasons, the Houston Rockets star would be forced to shut it down for good. Yao retired at just 30 years of age, and up until this day, we cannot help but wonder how far he could have gone had he avoided injury.
Speaking of injuries, one of the biggest what if narratives of the NBA belongs to former Rookie of the Year winner Grant Hill. Being the third overall pick of the 1994 draft, the 6-foot-8 wing was once seen as the next Michael Jordan. In his prime, Hill averaged 25.8 points (on 48.9 percent shooting), 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.6 blocks.
In an era when it was common practice for players to play through serious injuries, Hill was perhaps a victim of his own desire to be great. It was later discovered that he played through a broken ankle for a big chunk of the season, and this would ultimately lead to the eventual degradation of his ankle. According to reports, Hill also came back without being fully healed, which further caused long-term problems for his injured ankle.
Another player whose career was stolen by injury was Anfernee Hardaway. Much like Hill, Penny showed a ton of potential early on in his career. He was even compared to a young Magic Johnson, with his innate ability to create for himself and for his teammates.
Hardaway was also playing alongside another young star in Shaquille O’Neal before the latter left the Orlando Magic to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996. These two formed quite a dynamic duo, and at that time, they were considered as the future of the NBA.
Unfortunately for Hardaway, the beginning of the end came to soon for him. He suffered a career-changing knee injury in the 1997-98 season — in just his fifth year in the league — which would mark the start of Penny’s decline as a player. He was never the same since, and despite being able to play on until he retired at the ripe age of 36, it is without question that Hardaway’s best years came before he sustained that unfortunate knee injury.
We can actually go on and on with this list, considering all the players that never got the chance to reach their potential for one reason or another. It’s quite depressing, but such are the breaks of the game. Innate skill and work ethic still remain to be the two most important factors to one’s ultimate success, but good fortune definitely plays a huge role in the same. Unfortunately, this just wasn’t in the cards in the case of the four players we listed above.