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Let's Embrace The "Mount Rushmore" Debate

Approaching the "Greatest of All Time" discussion as a Mt. Rushmore is a better approach than trying to single out an individual.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Howard Moskowitz is one of the most famous figures in food science. A psychotherapist from Harvard, he was the subject of a Malcolm Gladwell Ted Talk in 2006. In his speech, Gladwell told the story of how Moskowitz was hired by Pepsi to determine the proper sweetness required to create the perfect diet drink. When he brought in thousands of people to taste test different levels of sweetness, his data was all over the place, apparently meaning that people didn't prefer any one sugar level.

After much thought and wrestling over whether the collection was accurate, let alone indicative of anything, he realized something: There is no such thing as the perfect Pepsi. Instead, there are only perfect "Pepsis." Plural, not singular.

What this revelation meant was that there is no one perfect version of diet soda. Rather, there are a variety of sodas that appeal to an audience. He used this knowledge to help Vlasic Pickles create the zesty pickle instead of "perfecting" the original, and Prego make "extra chunky" spaghetti sauce instead of perfecting what it already had.

In the end, Moskowitz determined perfection isn't packaged in a single unit. Alternatively, there are different versions and collections of perfection for each consumer product. This understanding changed the way consumer goods are created, and why cereal or milk went from being a small part of grocery stores to aisles full of options.

This week, NBA stars collide on New Orleans for All-Star weekend. Storylines abound for the Portland Trail Blazers, including Damian Lillard becoming the first player to participate in every event of the weekend, Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge serving as the first Blazers duo to play in an All-Star Game in two decades, and Aldridge getting a chance to show off his talent with the nation's eyes on him.

There are two other stories nationally, though, that seem to have generated the most momentum during this All-Star Weekend. The first is one that was started even before the season: Will Kevin Durant overtake LeBron James as the best player in the NBA? With Durant going on a tear since Russell Westbrook's December knee injury -- and James' Miami team seemingly coasting through the regular season thus far -- it's starting to become a real debate, at least for this season. So far, as Blazers fans surely know, Durant has a pretty good résumé for the MVP at this point of 2014.

In addition to the James-Durant debate, the second storyline with momentum is James talking about his NBA "Mt. Rushmore." This week, James chose Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson as the four players worthy of having their faces chiseled onto a hypothetical NBA mountaintop representing the greatest of all time. James also mentioned that, when it's all said and done, his face would replace one of those four (though James sidestepped which one it would be).

From boxing and baseball to football and soccer, sports will always have a constant conversation about who is the "greatest of all time" or even just the "best" at something. Ali or Marciano? Ruth or Mays? Montana or Manning? James or Durant? Framing the question as just "A or B" seems flimsy. Can you really just put a few people in that conversation with only one winner? Well, when awards are given or lists are made, you're often forced to: there's rarely such thing as a co-MVP, and even "1A and 1B" has an underlying ranking attached to it.

Who James mentioned as his Mt. Rushmore is certainly debatable. Durant, when asked the same question, replaced Robertson with Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- hardly what Bill Simmons would coin a "basketball tragedy."

Yet in the midst of MVP and Mt. Rushmore talk, what Moskowitz learned about tomato sauce and soda -- and in turn the entire food industry -- may have some bearing on this age-old question: Though you may disagree with who is on it, and it certainly isn't as scientific as sweetness of soda or zestiness of pickles, the "Mt. Rushmore" approach to the "greatest of all time" discussion is the best.

There are so many factors that go into making this type of argument, including era, opponent, rules and culture. It's ultimately a matter of taste. If you polled all past and present NBA players you could probably get a more holistic view of what players think about the best, but even then there might be some ensuing debate.

That goes for All-Star Weekend as well. Across Blazer's Edge this season, the argument has been made that Aldridge, while probably below Durant and James, deserves to at least be in the conversation of those in the top four or five. Will he win the MVP? Unequivocally, the answer is "No." But should he be on the Mt. Rushmore? Does his elite mid-range game and the attention he draws on offense deserve recognition? There's certainly an argument that could be made, just as Paul George can make one with his two-way game or Chris Paul can make one with his ability to distribute and take over at the end of a game.

The NBA does have some sort of categorization associated with postseason awards, including best defensive player or best rookie. However, there's still a ranking system involved; it never gets away from the discussion about just the "best."

Using this approach, it's arguable that making an All-Star team is a preferred method of ranking players; outside of the distinction of starter vs. bench player, the label "All-Star" carries equal weight regardless of position or perceived value. Ultimately, Aldridge carries the same "2014 All-Star" distinction as Dwight Howard or Kevin Love will, just as the face of Abraham Lincoln is as important to Mt. Rushmore as George Washington's.

It's for these reasons that, even if you disagree with the All-Star selections, they comes closer to showing who the best in the league are. It's also why looking at the All-NBA distinction, even if it's tiered, is a much better barometer on who the best players are (plural, not singular) rather than the MVP, because it cuts through the logistics of what makes an MVP and appreciates the best for who they are.

Debate is one of the inherent beauties of sports, and selecting the best is always the most controversial topic. However, like Moskowitz learned, it isn't about who is individually the best. Rather, the eternal discussion on quality should include a collection of players. That's why, even if the argument continues and the MVP framework leads to an inherently flawed way of thinking, approaching these discussions during All-Star week as a Mt. Rushmore trumps a "best of all time" distinction.