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).

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Mike Kurylo

Mike Kurylo is the founder and editor of His book on the 2012 Knicks, "We’ll Always Have Linsanity," is on sale now. Follow him on twitter (@KnickerBlogger).

35 thoughts to “GOTME (Part I): The Introduction”

  1. The center should be interesting with Shaq, Hakeem, David Robinson, Ewing and maybe even Moses Malone, as I assume Kareem’s pre-1980 will not “count.”

  2. This is more of a side bar but your column remind me that:

    “[F]ormer LSU head basketball coach Dale Brown charted every college game [Pete] Maravich played, taking into consideration all shots he took. Brown calculated that at the NCAA rule of a three-point line at 19-foot (5.8 m), 9-inches from the rim, Maravich would have averaged thirteen 3-point scores per game, lifting the player’s career average to 57 points per game.”

  3. I would say the addition of the three point line was a pretty significant break from the past. And I think the boomers demographic reaching maturity was also probably an important milestone.

  4. PG: Magic
    SG: Jordan
    SF: Bird/LeBron
    PF: Malone/Duncan
    C: Shaq/Olajuwon

    Any glaring omissions there?

  5. That Maravich story is a bit suspect, as he averaged 16.7 made FGs per game in total in college. Even if it was 10 a game, though, pretty ridiculous.

  6. @ DS

    The funny thing about making estimates based on the “if there was a three point line” therory is that you have to ask how do you adjust for the possibility that defenses may have played a player differently if the 3 point shot was available? Perhaps defenses would have been less likely to give Maravich those long 2s if the impact of him hitting them was 3 points rather than 2. Perhaps defenses pick up Maravich earlier or double him more often. Perhaps that action would serve to reduce his points per game. We don’t really know. Splitting hairs I know.

  7. @ 4 as far as retired players go if you exclude Kareem that would be the consensus. Whether Bird holds up is interesting. Also I don’t knwo anything about anything on it but I am curious how a high shooting pct, low usage PG w/ a ton of steals like Mo Cheeks does against the high usage low FG% high TO PGs like Isiah?

  8. @ 6 & 7: The obvious takeaway is that the man averaged 44 ppg in college, was an outside shooter, who didn’t even get awarded 3 points for his many outside shots (imagine Ray Allen, Reggie, or Pierce getting 2 points for outside shots). I think we can safely say Pistol wouldn’t have actually gotten 57 ppg. Sorting through all the endless hypotheticals — Marivich attempting more threes, defenses stepping out to guard him (which could also have made it easier for him to beat his man off the dribble), better/worse shot selection — it’s still easy to imagine that he could have stepped his 44 ppg up to say, 50.

  9. “which makes it harder to compare today’s athletes to their ancestors”

    This is just one way of looking at it but, I think if you transported today’s best player ESPECIALLY those with size and agility AKA Kevin Garnett (circa 2003), Dirk, LeBron to 1967 they would be more dominant than if West, Chamberlain, and Russell were born in 1982 and had the benefits of today’s training, nutrition and coaching.

    OBV. I’m being 100%, purely speculative.

  10. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the stats of some of the great players when I was a boy (I’m 51).

    One thing that is striking is that a lot of them scored, rebounded etc… so well PER GAME because they played so many minutes. When you adjust everything back to PER 36. For some reason many of the elite players played close to 48 minutes every night. Perhaps “some” of the greatest players were just as great as they are today, but the league has much greater depth now.

    The second thing I noticed was that may of the best shooters back them weren’t nearly as good as they are now based on FG%. Of course this gets a little tricky because we have 3 pointers now and can adjust FG% into eFG% to account for them. Yet I’m sure some of those players did occasionally take very long 2 pointers.

    I tend to think the league is deeper, taller, and more althetic now than it was. I think the guys that were espcially gifted in those ways back then would do just fine today. However, I think a lot of the smaller less althetic Cs and PFs without sufficient skills and shooting range would have a really tough time today because they would have to be SFs.

  11. “When you adjust everything back to PER 36. ”


    This should have read….. “When you adjust……the stats are actually a lot closer to tday’s standards.

  12. I’m going to dip before 1980 a little

    PG Magic. (Stockton is a fairly lose second)

    SG: Jordan (End of conversation)

    SF: LeBron/Bird (Bird’s overall career and performances under champiosnhip fire probably still give him a slight edge, but the Lebron of today is better)

    PF: Duncan/Sir Charles (yes Sir Charles was freaky good)

    C: I’d take either Shaq or Jabbar and wouldn’t mind Robinson than much either (IMHO Robinson is underated)

  13. Mike is ther going to be any way to factor in defense b/c if you do I think Shaq has a lot of ground v. the other 90s centers Hakeem, Robinson and Ewing. Its an exagerration but by how much to think Shaq is an inverted Dikembe.

  14. PG – Stockton/Magic
    SG – Jordan
    SF – Bird/LeBron
    PF – Malone/Duncan
    C – Shaq/Olajuwon

    Defender – Dennis Rodman

  15. Here’s the question I have :

    Mike, when you say “greatest” do you mean at any one individual point in their careers (i.e. over 2-3 seasons) or cumulatively over a course of a career?

    For example, using baseball (b/c I can’t think of comparable basketball players at this instant), Dwight Gooden’s ’84-’85 stretch was one of the most dominant in baseball history. But over the course of his career, Tom Glavine won many more games and was cumulatively more “valuable” than Doc, though no one would suggest that Glavine at his best was anywhere as near as good as Doc at his best.

    So which is it? Peak performance or Career stats?

  16. Kobe is the cumulative candidate, he’s got a shot to pass Kareem for most points ever.

  17. Good question, Robert… if it’s players at their peak I’d say something like:
    PG: Magic circa ’89/Paul ’08
    SG: Jordan ’91/Jordan ’87
    SF: LeBron ’10/Bird ’88
    PF: Garnett ’04/Duncan ’99
    C: Shaq ’00/ Olajuwan ’94

  18. @16 I wonder about that often-not the Doc/Glavine part, but the cumlative part. You have the rare guys like Jordan and Stockton who played at a very high level for many years. Then you have the guys Like Kobe and KG who play at a high level for very many years. Then you got LBJ who could combine Jordan’s utput with KG’s length of service. So who is the “amazing for three years then nothing” group. Bernard King? I dont know.

  19. This is easy.

    PG – Magic
    SG – Jordan
    SF – Bird (Lebron by time he retires if not sooner)
    PF – Duncan
    C – Shaq

    Only debate really is Lebron or Bird at SF. Thing is Bird was just as much a PF as a SF same way Lebron could be listed at any position except for C.

  20. Remember when Duncan nearly had a quadruple-double against the East Conference champions… in the Finals? Yeah, my vote goes to ’03 Duncan. Or perhaps better, ’02 Duncan. Total animal, and a boring one, at that.

  21. Why are Eddie “couldn’t hit the side of a” House and Al “by myself” Harrington finishing out this game instead of Toney and Walker. The second they came in, Gallo stopped producing. He could have easily passed his personal best in scoring tonight. Damn.

  22. Unbelievable finish. Credit where credit is due. Chandler is one guy never playing out the string.

    And live by the three, die by the three. The last two games are a good example of “high variance”: If the Knicks shot 39 percent on 3s in each of the last two games (7/18 and 5/13 instead of 0/18 and 9/13), they would have beat Jersey and lost to the Hawks by 11.

  23. Would’ve bet the house that Crawford was gonna hit the last shot and cook the Knicks, but I’m glad to see it turn out this way. This was about as close as a team can come to losing without losing. Almost like it’s some kind of dare.

    Glass half full:
    Everyone who played had an assist, Gallo looked awake, and TD got to show us his unready but sometimes valuable game. I’ll take it.

  24. Everytime Al touches the ball, I count how many open teammates he looks over before he throws up a fade-away J or makes an out-of-control drive.

  25. Maybe I read that wrong: I mean I think he looks at no one before chucking. I’m sure we agree on this.

  26. “Unbelievable finish. Credit where credit is due. Chandler is one guy never playing out the string.”

    Yeah. David Lee should buy Chandler an expensive bottle of wine for that block. Lee was neither helping on Crawford nor guarding Smith on the baseline. If Chandler hadn’t blocked that shot, we’d all be doggin’ Lee’s D, saying he wasn’t worth $10-$12 million, and that Bosh or Amar’e would be a better fit in NY. Chandler saved the win AND Lee a lot of grief.

    And the finish was unbelievable. I’ve never seen a game end and not know who had won. Fun.

  27. Think Mitch Lawrence will write a piece saying that the Knicks one-point win against a top NBA team will pull free agents to Mike D’Antoni?

    Oh wait, hyperbole only seems to go against the Knicks. My bad.

  28. For the center position, you can’t leave out Abdul-Jabbar.
    he played nearly everyone from chamberlain to akeem.

    38000 points on 56% fg%

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