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).