There isn’t much to talk about in Knick-land these days, save for Toney Douglas. D’Antoni is finally giving him extra minutes, and the rookie is responding. One thing I like about him is his defense. When I sat with him during the preseason on press day he brought up the subject of defense and was reflective about it. Subconsciously I walked away liking him, and couldn’t figure out why. But looking back, it’s because he’s the only player that day who talked about that facet of his game. He’s still raw, and he needs to work on his passing, but I like his effort on D and his shooting is coming around. His TS% is 59.4%, and I don’t expect it to remain that high especially with only taking 1.9 free throws per 36, so we’ll have to check back on that when the season ends.
The Greatest Small Forward of the Modern Era: LeBron James
|Player||Best PER||Avg 5 Best PER||Career PER||#1 PER||# of top 10 PER|
|Erving||22.5 (28.7)||24.5 (26.8)||22.4 (23.9)||1 (5)||5 (10)|
Here’s an interesting question: if LeBron James had to hang them up tomorrow would he be the best SF of the modern era? Consider that he led the league in PER the last 3 seasons, has been in the top 10 every year but his first, and he’s only 25 years old. Looking at what LeBron James has done up until this season, you could make the argument that he is better than Larry Bird. Larry Legend led the league in PER only twice and was in the top 10 PER 7 times, and LeBron has pretty much already equaled that. One critique of PER is that it doesn’t account for individual defense, an area where James has an advantage over Bird.
You could argue that Bird won more championships, but look at the supporting cast. Larry Legend played along 3 Hall of Famers for the early 80s in Nate Archibald, Robert Parrish, and Kevin McHale (although Archibald was past his prime) and had much stronger teammates than LeBron. This year will be James’ best team, and he only has one Hall of Fame caliber player, Shaq, who is well past his peak.
My intention of stating these facts is not to prove that James is absolutely better now than Bird was over his entire career. Instead I think there’s an argument for either side. And with that in consideration, you have to give the edge to James because he’s got a lot of basketball ahead of him.
Barring a injury-plagued future, LeBron is on track for a spectacular career. Even if James does suffer such a fate, he’ll still be the modern era’s best small forward. I took two career arcs and applied them to LeBron’s current production rate. In the chart below of PER by age the red triangles are Michael Jordan, the blue squares are Grant Hill, and the brown circles are LeBron James. The yellow triangles are LeBron’s projected career using Jordan’s arc and the orange squares are James’ career with Hill’s arc, both adjusted for LeBron’s production.
By either projection, he’s got about 5 more seasons with a PER over 25, even accounting for a Hill-esque tragic arc. So by a conservative estimate, James will still have a lot of highly productive seasons. And although it’s possible that LeBron suffers from a worse fate than Grant Hill, it’s reasonable to think that missing multiple season is a pessimistic view. It’s more likely that he proceeds on a normal career path.
And should James continue on a standard progression, he could rival Jordan for the GOTME captaincy. As I outlined in Part III, James will need a lot of luck to match Jordan’s string of championships. However LeBron will have one avenue where he could fall short on championships and still surpass Jordan. If James plays to his late 30’s or even early 40s, he could be close enough to Jordan in peak and surpass him longevity. If you’re questioning LeBron James’ place here at thie time, consider that he could end up as the three point era’s most productive player.
Reserves: Larry Bird, Dr. J, and ???
There have been a lot of good small forwards in the league since the 1980 season, but none come close to Bird and Erving. Although the pair are icons of different styles and eras, their numbers were amazingly similar. They are nearly identical in career PER (23.6 to 23.5), PTS/36 (23.9 to 22.8), and TS% (56.4 to 55.8). Bird has an edge in rebounds, assists, and turnovers, while Erving was better in blocks and steals. Of course this includes Dr. J.’s pre-1980 and ABA numbers. Two reasonable people could argue all day which player was better. I think a more fruitful debate would surround the fourth best SF.
There are 4 guys that are in the conversation: Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, and Scottie Pippen. Compared to LeBron, Bird, and Erving these guys are clearly riding in coach. So how to assess them? McGrady led the league in PER in 2003, and totaled four times in the top 3. However his TS% is the lowest of the bunch (52.0%), and he averaged nearly 17 missed games a year due to injuries (which doesn’t include this season where’s he’s sat out 30+). Secondly McGrady’s playoff record is just abysmal. Carter is next on the list by career PER, but only cracked the top 10 twice. Here’s an indictment against Air Canada/Jersey/Orlando: he’s on only 2 All-NBA teams, and was never a first teamer.
So it’s down to Pierce and Pippen. Pierce has the offensive edge with 2 points of PER (20.8 to 18.6), nearly 30 in TS% (56.4% to 53.6%), and 5 pts/36 (21.7 to 16.6). Pippen is the better passer (5.4 to 3.7 ast/36) and defender earning 10 All Defensive Team awards. Normally I’d take the numbers and go with Pierce, but there’s one interesting thing to note. In Jordan’s absence, Pippen took on the main load and increased both his scoring volume (20.5 pts/36) and his efficiency (55.5% TS%). The 1994 team won 55 games, which is more than Pierce’s teams ever won with him as the centerpiece. So I’m inclined to add Scottie instead, because perhaps playing alongside Jordan stunted his numbers (although enhanced his legacy). In either case his body of work is sufficient enough to give him the edge as the fourth SF.
The Greatest Shooting Guard of the Modern Era: Michael Jordan
|Player||Best PER||Avg 5 Best PER||Career PER||#1 PER||# of top 10 PER|
Recently I debunked the notion that Kobe is in the same league as Jordan, and truly no one in the modern era comes close to Jordan. If you had to name a captain to the GOTME team, Michael would be the guy. Future generations of great players are going to have a tough time measuring up to Jordan for one reason: luck.
Let’s assume that we go back in time to an identical alternate universe, grab a young Michael Jordan, and bring him to today’s NBA. Let’s also assume in the best interests of not confusing him with his twin we give him a Star Trek goatee, different hairdo (how about a faux-hawk?), and call him Tommy Sanders. It’s reasonable to believe that Sanders would dominate the league and put up Jordan-esque numbers. But what’s not given is if Tommy would end up with the same number of rings. Jordan didn’t win a championship until he teamed up with Pippen and Phil Jackson. What if Sanders was drafted by an incompetent organization like the Clippers or Timberwolves? It’s possible that this reincarnation would be at the mercy of a bad coach, a bad GM, and surrounded by bad players.
Even if Sanders does hitch on with a great team, what’s the likelihood that he hits nearly every big shot that he needs to? What’s the chance that the 21st century version of Karl Malone lets him strip the ball? That the ref doesn’t call an offensive foul on a final shot against Byron Russell Jr.? That a 6-10 player fails to make a 2 foot basket on 4 consecutive attempts? Not only is it improbable that Sanders misses a few of those big shots, but there’s also the probability that something else could foul up his perfect legacy. Perhaps Robert Horry Jr. decides to slam Sanders into a scorer’s table – causing him to lose a few teammates in a crucial playoff series. Perhaps one of Sanders’ teammates fails to hit a wide open game winning shot (like the ones Paxson and Kerr made).
And hence why it would be nearly impossible for another player to eclipse Jordan’s legend. Not only was Jordan dominant, but he was pretty lucky as well. Save for the steal by Nick Anderson, which was easily excused by his baseball vacation, he was as close to perfection as one can get to in sports. As the narrative goes, Jordan won a championship in his prime whenever he wished. For Tommy Sanders to be better than Jordan, he’d have to win more than 6 championships in his prime, without losing once in the Finals. It’s like Ed Vander Meer’s back to back no-hitters. It’s extremely unlike that someone will tie that record, but virtually impossible for someone to break it. Similarly someone may equal Jordan’s legacy of dominance, but it will be extremely difficult for someone to surpass. One missed shot, by him or a teammate, will put enough doubt into debaters minds that could give Jordan the edge.
Reserves: Kobe Bryant, Clyde Drexler, Dwayne Wade
From the numbers Wade has a good case to be number 2 on this list, except for one thing: his health. “The Flash” averages about 16 missed games per year. And although I’m big on peak over longevity, that’s too much lost productivity to overcome his per minute advantage. Drexler suffers from slightly lower usage, a poor three point percentage, and less free throw attempts. Some might note that I’ve excluded one former MVP winner. But Iverson had only 3 seasons out of 14 where he finished in the top 10 PER. Additionally it’s hard to ignore Iverson’s horribly inefficient shooting (TS% 51.8%).
The Greatest PG Of the Modern Era: Magic Johnson
|Player||Best PER||Avg 5 Best PER||Career PER||#1 PER||# of top 10 PER|
For those not old enough to remember Magic’s playing career, you can get an idea of how dominant he was by looking at his numbers. Johnson managed a jaw dropping TS% of 61.0, the 7th highest in the 3-point era. He contributed in multiple areas, averaging 11.0 assists, 7.1 rebounds, and 19.2 points per 36 minutes. Magic was a three time MVP and a three time Finals MVP. Johnson was so skilled that he came out of retirement as a 36 year old and still managed good production in a partial season (PER 21.1) despite being away from the game for 5 years and putting on a few dozen pounds.
Prior to his arrival the Lakers had been an average team, their last championship had been Wilt’s 1972 team. During Magic’s tenure the team averaged 59 wins per season, and he was critical to the team’s success. In his rookie season, Johnson stepped in at center for an injured Kareem in the Finals. He scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, and dished out 7 assists bringing home the Laker’s first title in 8 years. When Jordan retired the first time, the Bulls still won 55 games the year after. After Magic hung them up, the Lakers only managed 43 wins. While the Lakers of the 1980s were a deep team, without Magic Johnson they weren’t a title contender.
For those who are fortunate to witness Johnson play, it’s hard to believe he was so efficient given his flashy style. Magic featured no look passes, going behind his back, spin moves, and long bounce passes. Usually players of that sort suffer from falling in love with the spectacular move that they loose track of how inefficient these kinds of plays are. But not Johnson. He was seemingly omniscient in the half court and lethal in transition. Johnson always found a way to get the ball to the open man and was the engine that fueled the offense. Additionally Magic brought a million dollar smile and a joie de vivre to the game, which made him likable on a national level.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Magic’s career is how unlikely it was. A 6-8 point guard without three point range is unthinkable today. If you had to construct Magic from today’s players, you’d take Joe Johnson (minus the three point shot), give him Steve Nash’s passing and efficient scoring, add Ronnie Brewer’s steals, combine LeBron’s rebounding, and sprinkle a little of White Chocolate’s flash (from his Sacramento days). Just an unbelievable mix of attributes, and a truly unique athlete.
The Reserves: Nash, Stockton, Kidd, Payton
Young possibilities: Chris Paul
Stockton was almost as efficient with regards to scoring, was just as good a passer, and was a better defender. But he only averaged 3.1 reb/36 and 14.9 pts/36, and was never considered one of the best players in the league. Stockton’s longevity is a positive, but guys with a higher peak are more important to winning championships than those that stick around a few more seasons. Nash, a two time MVP, is 13th all time in TS%, but lags slightly behind the others in passing and much more so on defense. You could make a good case for Gary Payton as the #2 guy, especially when you consider how good of a defender he was. Both he and Kidd suffer from from inefficient scoring. Payton’s had only 4 years where his TS% was good (1995-1998) while Kidd only achieved this recently in Dallas. Meanwhile Chris Paul has gotten off to a great start, but I think we need a few more seasons from him to put his career into perspective.
With the ability to use tools no longer a unique human ability, perhaps what truly separates us from the animals is the ability record events and learn from history. While mice might remember their way back through the maze to the cheese, I don’t think Pliny the Squeeky is writing it down for future generations. One allure of sports is the ability to record events that transpired for study, analysis, and perhaps to gain a greater understanding of ourselves. One way this manifests itself is in the discussion of the greatest players of all time, which is both an educational and enjoyable exercise.
However basketball has changed heavily from it’s conception to today’s form, which makes it harder to compare today’s athletes to their ancestors. Watching games from a few decades ago shows a marked difference in styles. Studying NBA history brings up more questions than answers. Would modern training have made Wilt Chamberlain even more unstoppable? Could Jordan been as dominant dribbling only with his right hand? What kind of moves would Bob Cousy have if he had access to an AND-1 video? How would Clyde establish himself as a clothes artisan in today’s gaudy world? It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know the answers to questions of this sort.
Using statistics doesn’t particularly help this kind of debate. Today when a player gets 44 points or 24 rebounds in a single game it’s a uncommon and significant occurrence. Yet Wilt Chamberlain averaged more than 44 points and 24 rebounds per game in back to back seasons. And Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond, Jerry Lucas, and Bob Pettit all had seasons averaging 20 rebounds per game. Normalization might help, but there is no accounting for some of these dominant numbers.
But the NBA isn’t unique in this respect. Much like basketball, the first few decades of baseball was much different from today’s game, with different rules and much different statistical results. In baseball it’d be absurd to think that modern pitchers can match the numbers of Charley Radbourn (59W in 1884), or have modern hitters aim for Hugh Duffy (.440 in 1894). To account for such discrepancies in the rules, level of play, pool of athletes, etc. baseball fans delineate the modern era, which tends to separate baseball accomplishments of previous eras. Essentially it allows for realistic comparisons between players of different eras. So when Randy Johnson flirted with the strike out record in 2001, it was Nolan Ryan’s 383 Ks in 1973, not Matt Kilroy who racked up 513 Ks in 1886.
In baseball, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the game was similar enough to the modern era. The turn of the 20th century? The end of the dead ball era? Racial integration? The DH era? Each of these could be valid dates for comparison. However in basketball there seems to be a clearer line where the modern era began – the Three Point Era. By this time the league had merged (or absorbed) the ABA, the style of play is similar to today’s NBA, and the rules are very similar. It’s reasonable to think that an NBA player would put up similar numbers whether he started in 1980, 1990, 2000 or 2010.
By using the 1980 season as a delimiter for the NBA, it’s possible to have a discussion on the greatest players of the modern era. And since the statistics in the years since 1980 are comparable, we can incorporate statistical measures into the discussion. Over the next few days I’m going to select the best player of each position from this era, and call it KnickerBlogger’s Greatest Of The Modern Era (GOTME).