GOTME (Part III): Shooting Guard

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
Jordan 31.7 31.1 27.9 7 11
Kobe 28 25.9 23.6 0 10
Wade 30.4 27.5 25.5 0 4
Drexler 24.1 23.2 21.1 0 4

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%).

GOTME (Part I): The Introduction

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).