Michael Jordan and LeBron James always headline the GOAT debates, but for Seattle SuperSonics legend Shawn Kemp, Celtics icon Bill Russell is the greatest basketball player of all time. During an appearance on the All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson. Kemp highlighted Russell's influence as an all-around big man.

“People get at me when I say this, man, but Bill, Bill Russell. The best to play the game is not going to be the leading scorer. The best to play the game is going to be one in the middle doing a lot of different things,” Kemp emphasized.

Bill Russell's modest scoring average of 15.1 points per game over his 13-year NBA career with a peak season average of 18.9 points per game often leads people to focus on his exceptional rim protection and rebounding skills as the keys to his greatness. His remarkable 22.5 rebounds per game were instrumental in guiding the Boston Celtics to 11 championships.

Kemp elaborated on why he holds Russell in such high regard, citing the extensive achievements and impact Russell had throughout his career.

Kemp appreciating Bill Russell's all-around game

“Because he’s got to be able to help people out, keep the ball in play. Bill Russell was the first one blocking shots keeping the ball in play. You know we were blocking shots throwing that s—t 17 rows in the stands. He was actually blocking shots. They were getting layups off of it man,” said the former SuperSonics star.

Despite both being 6-foot-10, Kemp acknowledges the contrasting styles between him and Russell with Kemp excelling as an offensive highlight reel while Russell was famous for his elite fundamentals.

“So absolutely, man, as I look through the years of basketball, I think Wilt Chamberlain was a beast, but s—t, Bill Russell was wearing his a– out. So let’s keep it real. If you’re talking about the all-around best player in the game, you see how many championships they won, how long they did it, he’s got to be up there,” Shawn Kemp continued.

Knowing his role with the Celtics

Unlike modern big men who average 18 to 20 field-goal attempts per game, Russell took just over 13 shots per game, highlighting his role on the Celtics in the late '50s and '60s, which was to facilitate scoring chances for teammates such as Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and John Havlicek, rather than scoring himself.

This point is further emphasized when compared to Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 22.5 field-goal attempts per game and revolutionized scoring.

The league didn't officially track blocks during Russell's era, but if they had, he would likely be among the all-time leaders. Unofficial estimates suggest Russell averaged nearly eight blocks per game.

Russell's offensive abilities were clear during his time at the University of San Francisco, where he averaged 20.7 points per game with a 51.6 percent shooting percentage, attempting 15.3 field goals per game.

However, when he joined the Celtics, who already had high scorers like Cousy and Sharman, he adopted a different role to help the team win championships. As a result, Russell became a selective shooter.

Despite this, he often ranked among the NBA’s top five in field-goal percentage early in his career, achieving a 47.5 percent mark in the 1958-59 season, the second-best in the league.

Kemp discussing other potential GOAT candidates

Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal (32) in action against Seattle Supersonics center Shawn Kemp (40) at the Orlando Arena. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Shawn Kemp further discussed potential candidates for the GOAT debate, dismissing LeBron James as a contender for the greatest player of all time.

“I think LeBron is right up there … I don't think LeBron should be compared to Michael Jordan either; I think he should be compared to Magic Johnson. Whoever started that sh*t up got it totally wrong. LeBron is not no damn Michael Jordan. Kobe is more like Michael Jordan, and LeBron is like Magic Johnson,” he said.

Kemp's comparison of LeBron James to Magic Johnson emphasizes LeBron's scoring abilities as a progression of Magic's playstyle, especially considering LeBron's capacity to function as a point guard despite his forward-like build.

In contrast, Kemp sees Kobe Bryant as a successor to Michael Jordan's game, evident in his championship victories under Phil Jackson's coaching style.