Comparing players from different eras
There's this idea that you can't compare players from different eras.
It's easy to see why:
- Basketball has changed. Secondly, it’s officiated differently and rules change. The 2020 version of basketball - 3 point centric, contact free - bears little resemblance to the physical 1980's game where the mid range jumper was considered a devastating weapon, instead of something to be avoided. And less resemblance again to the pre 3 point line era.
- The NBA itself changes. When the Boston Celtics won championship after championship in the 1960’s, there were 9 teams in the league and no salary cap. Today there’s 30 teams and a soft cap.
- Professionalism and analytics. On both a team and an individual level. Analytics has taken over- teams have dedicated practice facilities with markings on the courts indicating preferred spots for taking three pointers. Players are better prepared- Lebron allegedly spends $1.5million a year looking after his body- diet, trainers, equipment. Sports science.
- Human adaptation and change. Players are bigger, faster and stronger. This would mostly result from the previous point- better sports science. Better diet etc. But it’s worth mentioning because this result of that sports science is particularly important.
- Knowledge development. Consider that basketball was invented in 1891. That’s only 1 and a half lifetimes. Knowledge develops. Not just team strategies and systems, but even simple skill development, like: What’s the most effective way to shoot a three pointer? The best shooting action? The best drills to help you learn? Kids today can learn off Curry and emulate him. Who was Reggie Miller learning from? He wasn’t learning off anyone that could shoot threes, because the three pointer didn’t exist when Miller was a kid. There is an entire science of skill development showing how humans adapt and learn better ways of developing new skills.
Putting all of this together, it might be senseless comparing say, Bill Russell and Anthony Davis.
If you had a time machine and you could implant 2020 Lebron James into a 1975 basketball game, he would destroy them.
But everybody knows all this stuff. Or should. When someone says "Lebron is better than Larry Bird" they are already taking all of that into account.
So when we compare players from different eras, what are we actually discussing?
- How dominant they were in their own era, against their peers. The achievements that made them the greatest basketball players in history at that point in time, in their own sporting primes.
- How they contributed to their team’s success and what made them valuable on the court.
- Their clutch ability to come up big in the big moments.
- Intangibles: Personality, leadership. Their influence on their teammates and opponents.
- How they influenced the world around them and contributed to the game of basketball’s continued adaptation. Eg: Curry, Harden and their 3 point shooting.