If Michael Jordan Played In Today's NBA, He'd... Enjoy the Benefits of Modernity
comparing athletes across eras makes zero sense
All of media has a Twitter capture problem. On the list of priorities for most professional journalists and writers, “avoid being made fun of on Twitter” comes in at number one, well ahead of “be good at being a journalist or writer.” But in my experience this is particularly true of NBA media. NBA Twitter is…. Well, it’s a whole thing. And NBA Twitter has a certain set of commandments that very few dare to test. They include
The quality of NBA players has never been higher.
The quality of NBA play has never been better.
Analytics is the one noble path to understanding the league and in any conflict the person who flogs analytics most passionately must be correct.
The legends of yesteryear were all scrubs and their reputations are the product of pure nostalgia.
Any vestigial values about “the right way to play” or similar are to be ridiculed.
Former players necessarily know less about basketball than any rando brandishing a stat, unless a former player is brandishing a stat.
Sometimes the NBA Twitter orthodoxy is correct, and sometimes it’s not. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss has painstakingly demonstrated, the angry insistence that the league has never been better has proven no defense against suddenly collapsing ratings. And, as Strauss has pointed out, this is happening when the biggest names in the game (Lebron, KD, Steph) are still playing but nearing the end of their careers; the next generation of players like Ja Morant are incredibly talented, but none of them has popped as a household name the way Adam Silver would like. (You can complain about players like Morant being stuck in small markets if you want, but the biggest names in the NFL play in Green Bay, Kansas City, Buffalo, and Tampa Bay, so.) The trouble is that being a booster for today’s NBA means waving away these ratings problems and insisting, like a cult member, that “the league has never been better.” I remember a time when sports journalists were expected to be something other than boosters for the sports they covered, but who wants to deal with all the Twitter blowback?
Some while back, JJ Redick took a pointless shot at Bob Cousy, arguing that he was playing against scrubs and that he’d never make it in high-level basketball today. But Redick has no idea how good Cousy would be in today’s NBA because Cousy wasn’t playing under anything like modern conditions. In the NBA of the 1950s, Cousy was probably wearing leather shoes and jerseys made out of asbestos when he played. He was probably smoking three packs a day and the team doctor was probably using leeches to ward off consumption. The ball was probably made out of bull scrotum. The “shot clock” was probably some guy named Earl who counted out 24 Mississippis. In the offseason Cousy probably had to haul sheetrock to make ends meet. For breakfast, Cousy probably had scrambled pterodactyl eggs and raptor bacon.
Meanwhile modern NBA players are getting stem cell injections and using cryotherapy and getting in-game reports from a machine learning algorithm to help them refine their shooting stroke. The conditions are so different that this kind of pointless shade-throwing has no intellectual value. There’s just no way to make an intelligent comparison. (Also, JJ got fucking murdered by Jerry West.) Yes, if you dropped Bob Cousy from 1955 into a modern NBA game, he’d get run off the court. But if you drop Lebron from today into a game 70 years from now, he’ll get run off the court. That’s because human progress exists. It’s not even worth saying. Here’s the actually interesting question: if you took 8-year-old Bob Cousy in a time machine and dropped him into the 21st century, as he grew up what kind of player would he develop into given modern advantages? And the only honest answer we have to that question is “we don’t know.”
Here are some things that have developed immensely, even in the past decade, that have a direct impact on athletic performance:
Conditioning (aerobics, strength, flexibility)
Mechanics (as in shooting mechanics and similar)
Training techniques (as in how best to practice)
Video analysis and computer modeling
“Supplements,” legal and otherwise
Rest, amount scheduled and quality of
In-game coaching, strategy, and tactics
All of that stuff matters! Teams are investing massively in these areas, and they’re doing so for a reason. And Michael Jordan, whose NBA career started in 1984, was operating in the Stone Ages compared to today, to say nothing of Bob Cousy. When Jordan started playing, NBA teams flew in commercial jets… and people could smoke on the planes! That’s how long ago Jordan started in the NBA. Today’s athletes enjoy a bevy of advantages that were simply unheard of in previous eras. This is part of why I find longevity so overrated in athletic performance; it’s so technology-dependent. Lebron James will probably break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record next year. But when Kareem started playing people still had to worry about polio. Polio! Lebron will probably live to have his consciousness uploaded to the cloud. So how valuable is the comparison, really? Kobe might very well have saved his career with those sketchy German stem cell treatments. Or it might not have helped. We’ll never know. There’s too many confounds.
What bothers me about this stuff is that sports analytics has pretensions to being a science, but its practitioners so often fail at one of the most basic elements of statistics: controlling for sufficient variables. You, presentist NBA fan, think that Oscar Robinson must have sucked, actually? OK buddy, do you know what players could get away with in terms of physical play and fouls back then? Oscar Robertson probably got kicked in the dick every single play. How do you account for that when comparing him to Lebron James? (That’s the right historical comp for Lebron, by the way, not Magic Johnson or Jordan but Oscar Robertson.) People bring this up with the hand-checking rules that got instituted after Jordan retired, which helped stop the stifling, unwatchable Pat Riley Heat/Jeff van Gundy Knicks style of play from the early 2000s. Some say Jordan would have thrived even more under modern rules; some say it wouldn’t have mattered. The truth is all we know for sure is that there are so many variables at play that we should have some epistemic humility here.
Now you’ll notice that the caption of the image above violates my own rules here. Well, let me be clear: I don’t want a world where nobody debates Lebron vs. Jordan. Or Wilt vs. all. (Chamberlain is the most unjustly disrespected athlete of all time. I once saw a stathead adjust Chamberlain’s legendary 1961 season for the pace of the modern game, and he “only” averaged 38 points, 14 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks a game. If Joel Embiid put together that line next season we’d call it the greatest season ever.) Of course you can have fun debates across eras. But a) discounting the achievements of past generations because they weren’t lucky enough to enjoy modern technological progress is dumb, and b) if you’re claiming to write from a scientific perspective, failing to account for the vast differences in advantages across eras means you’re just blowing smoke.
I moved to the US from Australia more than twenty years ago and one thing that stood out even then, before analytics swallowed fandom, was the faith that American sports fans had that statistics could settle any argument.
It was common to hear questions like the ones discussed here posed in all sincerity: Jordan vs Kobe, Ali vs Tyson, late aughts Patriots vs the Steel Curtain era Steelers - who ya got? It beats the weather as a topic of conversation I guess, but not by much.
Watching American friends go back and forth, citing statistics chapter and verse, I was touched by their belief that they ultimately would be able to puzzle it all out before the pitcher ran dry. I was also struck by something with which I was unfamiliar: sports banter as a forum for competition in itself; the idea that you could prove yourself to be the 'best' sports fan by having the most correct facts at your fingertips in service of the most correct opinions. This, of course, is the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry of punditry, fantasy sports and gambling; it's also a little alienating.
By contrast, in Australia, two men at a bar will also eventually seek refuge from awkward silence in the discussion of sport (I'm code-switching here between America's 'sports' and Australia's 'sport' because this is as close as I come to being bilingual). But the conversation takes place on entirely different terms.
"Wasn't Sterlo awesome?" one of them might say, referring to Peter Sterling, legendary half-back of the Parramatta Eels Rugby League team during the 80s.
"Yeah, he was," the other would reply, with admirable brevity.
"Or how about Mick Cronin?" the first bloke (going all out here on the Australianisms) might say, to keep the flickering flame of conversation alive.
"Yeah, he was awesome too."
And then they could just sit there, smiling, watching the highlight reels in their own mind and enjoying their beer in silence. Until one of them eventually breaks the reverie by saying, "Des Hasler was pretty fucken' awesome as well," referring to Sterling's rival at the hated Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles.
"Shit yeah," comes the reply. And once again an agreeable silence settles over them.
It's a totally different form of sports appreciation, like slipping into a warm bath. Try it sometime.
Thinking Basketball recently posted a video cataloguing how the rules have changed in the NBA over the decades, which might even be a larger factor than technological progress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IPXSqOhykg
Highly recommend watching - what appears to be offensive basketball ineptitude in the 1960's really just reflects the much stricter dribbling and offensive foul rules.