Our good buddy Reef sent a private response to the Chronological Snobbery article we posted earlier this week. Although he admits that it's impossible to make a definitive cross-generational argument, Reef still thinks the overall quality of basketball is significantly better now, and that "the stars of today would embarrass the stars of old."

We don't normally make friends with crazy people. But since the signs of his burgeoning insanity didn't appear until after he paid us off befriended us, we're kind of stuck. So instead of just mocking him with a penis joke, we'll answer each of his arguments for the Present versus the Past.
Wilt averaged 50 points per game over an entire season, had the 100 point game, as a score-first center, lead the league in assists per game, and one time had a double triple double (20+ pts, rebounds, and assists in a game). None of those stats seem remotely realistic in today's league.
Well, no, you probably won't see numbers like that ever again. But that's mostly because the game itself was played vastly differently during Wilt's era. Most teams played an up-tempo, run-and-gun style that would make even the current-day Phoenix Suns feel a little ashamed of themselves. That's why many of the statistics of that era are somewhat skewed...higher scores, more rebounds, lower shooting percentages. The typical NBA game was characterized by relentless waves of fast breaks punctuated by guys shooting as soon as the ball was passed to them.

Eventually, the game slowed down (relatively speaking), and the statistics settled into the levels we now deem "normal." Of course, they sunk to a putrid low in the late 90s early 2000s, which is why David Stern and the Rules Committee have been tweaking the rules to boost scoring. And you see what's happened? Teams (especially the Phoenix Suns) scoring more points, individual players (especially Kobe) having their best scoring seasons.
Chamberlain was clearly more statistically dominant individually than anyone who's played since I was born (and I've heard people say that Russell was supposed to be even more dominant but they didn't keep his stats properly or something like that, 10 blocks per game is the made up stat I've heard thrown around)...
Russell, for the record, was dominant only on the defensive end. He averaged a mere 15 PPG for his career, and most of those came off of fast breaks and put backs. But did he really average 10 blocks per game, or close to it? I tend to think so, at least for a handful of seasons. Remember, Bill Russell was the pioneer of NBA defense. He was the first player to turn the blocked shot into a weapon. And it isn't that other players weren't able to go up and block shots before he came along. Most coaches of that era instructed their players to never leave their feet when an opponent shot the ball. Jumping up after a shot was considered a defensive mistake. Credit Russell for ignoring his college coach and going after balls anyway. He was a revolutionary.

While Russel was obviously a terrific athlete, and he clearly had an uncanny sense of timing, it's probable that many of his blocks came from the simple fact that NBA players of that era were simply unused to playing against that kind of defense. Eventually, coaches and players would develop strategies to denude shot blockers of their effectiveness (such as the movement away from the two-handed set shot in favor of the jump shot). So it's doubtful Russell would be able to do that today. But he'd still be wickedly effective, probably similar to Ben Wallace.

...but I've always wondered what would happen if you threw Garnett back there in his place? What about Iverson instead of Cousey? How bout Lebron? I mean, people think that today's players are bigger, faster, stronger for a good reason, did I mention Lebron yet? Watching the old classic games it doesn't seem like anyone back then would have had a chance covering the athletic monsters of today, Garnett, Amare, Wade, etc, ect...
Don't forget that there were some incredible athletes back then, too. Russell, who is Garnett's size, had a phenomenal vertical leap. As did Oscar Robertson. Wilt had a standing high jump of over 40 inches and could dunk from the freethrow line. Name one NBA center, or even a forward, in today's game who could do that. There you go...there isn't one.

As for Iverson, well, frankly, I'm not sure how effective he would have been in the 60s. They called the game tight back then, and referees were particularly hard on travelling and palming the ball. And, as we know, Iverson makes a living off of those moves (and the refs conveniently turn a blind eye). Another thing to consider is that the game was a lot rougher back then. Players were viscious, and most teams employed at least a few thugs who would go in a rough up opposing players. In his rookie season, Wilt got several of his teeth knocked in and the resulting infection almost killed him! And he was the biggest, strongest guy in the league. Imagine what would have happend to a guy like Iverson? He would have been killed. And I mean that literally.

But when you really think about it, you're taking today's greatest players and saying that no one would be able to stop then in the 60s. Well, uhm, yeah...no one can stop them now. So I'm not sure what that proves. Great players would most likely be great at any time, regardless of the era. A better question would be this: how would the role-players do? Since the basic premise of your argument is that all players today are better than the players of yesterday, tell me this: would Manu Ginobli be better than Larry Bird? Would Joe Johnson school Magic?
Kobe's 81 is much fresher in our memories than Wilt's 100, which isn't in any of our memories, but Kobe took 46 shots (many from outside) while Wilt averaged 40 shots a game over a whole season.
Comparing the number of shots Kobe attempted in one game versus what Wilt averaged during his 50-points-per-game season isn't really fair. Instead, let's look at their shots per game for similar scoring seasons. Last year, Kobe took 2,173 shots on his way to averaging 35.4 PPG. That averages out to 27 SPG. In 1963-64, Wilt averaged 36.9 PPG. It took him 2298 shot to do it, which is roughly 28 SPG. So, statistically speaking, it took them roughly the same number of shots to achieve a similar scoring average (of course, Wilt shot better from the field, while Kobe shot better from the line and got extra points from three-pointers). All this really says is: to score a lot of points, you have to take a lot of shots. But I will say this: Wilt's 100 -point game was less of an anomoly than Kobe's 81-point game; after all, Wilt had four other games where he scored more than 70 points.

And regardless of whatever comparisons can be made between the two performances, Kobe did what he did against modern defense, granted it was the Raptors, but still, and Wilt did what he did as a 7-footer when the average height of a center in the league was 6'6" of so.
Modern defense?? Look, it's no coincidence that Kobe had his 81-point game and highest scoring average in the very same season that the NBA adopted rules that were specifically designed to benefit perimeter players. The top ten scorers in the league were: Kobe, Allen Iverson, Lebron James, Gilbert Arenas, Dwayne Wade, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Michael Redd, and Ray Allen. You'll notice that list it made up almost entirely of big guards and small forwards who can shoot and penetrate. Even the lone "big man" -- Nowitzki -- plays more like a shooting guard. Once the league adopted a "hands off" defensive policy, these guys all had career scoring years.

As for centers in the 60s...I went over to
databaseBasketball and checked the height of every NBA center who played during the 1961-62 season (when Wilt averaged his legendary 50 PPG). There wasn't a single center under 6'8". Furthermore, the majority of centers were either 6'9" or 6'10", and there were a handful of guys who were 6'11", and even a couple 7-footers. The New York Knicks had two 6'10" centers: Phil Jordan and Darrall Imhoff. Why is that significant? Because Wilt scored his 100 points against the Knicks. So rather than enjoying a 6-inch height advantage, he "towered" a mere two inches over his defenders. And I think we can all agree that two inches isn't enough of a descrepancy to discount a 100-point explosion.

Besides which, have you ever watched any Wilt games? I have. And while we don't have the 100 point game on film, I've seen enough footage on ESPN Classic to know that Wilt was never, ever, ever played straight up. He always had two or three men on him at all times. The league really didn't enforce illegal defense back then, so opposing guards and forwards sagged waaaaay off them men to keep Wilt covered. And despite the fact that Wilt had to slog through a slew of defenders to even touch the ball, well, that makes his accomplishment pretty damn impressive.


Wilt defense
Wilt drew a crowd every time he touched the ball.

You'll notice there are not one, but two players in that picture pretty close to Wilt's height. The whole "all centers in the 60s where short" is an urban legend.

Athleticism may be worthless without skill and heart, but skill is just as meaningless without athleticism. Bird and Magic accomplished what they did because of a) incredible talent b) great teams around them c) other innate characteristics like heart, desire, and leadership.
One of the most consistent arguments against Bird and Magic is that they were on great teams, and that made them look better. And it's true...to a point. But look at it realistically. Kareem was already past his prime before Magic even joined the Lakers. Bird took a 29 win team and turned it into a 61 win team before Parish and McHale arrived on the scene. And it's not like McHale was an immediate All-Star. When the Celtics won the title in 1981, McHale played 20 minutes a game and averaged 10 points and 4 rebounds during the regular season, and those numbers fell to 10 minutes, 8 points, and 3 rebounds during the playoffs (and, in truth, McHale didn't really peak until 1985). That team mostly relied on guys like M.L. Carr, Cedric Maxwell, Chris Ford, and Rick Robey. Not exactly Hall of Fame talent. Yet if you go back and watch Game 7 of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals against the 76ers (with uber-athletic Dr. J, Caldwell Jones, Bobby Jones, and Darryl Dawkins), all of those players got more minutes than McHale (who was a rookie) and Parish (who was in foul trouble).

And Magic? He kept the Lakers on top even when their youth and athleticism started to fade. In 1989, when Kareem was an empty husk of his former self, the Lakers still won 57 games and swept the first three rounds of the playoffs...before getting swept by the Pistons in the Finals (and this happened only after Magic and James Worthy both pulled hamstrings in Game 1). Kareem retired in 1990 and was replaced by Vlade Divac, and the Lakers went on to win 63 games (although they didn't make it to the finals). The Lakers made it back to the Finals in 1991 by defeating a more talented Portland Trailblazer team in the Western Conference Finals. You should go back and watch that series. Magic made guys like Sam Perkins, A.C. Green and even Terry Teagle look really good. And even though the Bulls beat them 4-1 in the Finals, all but one game was close, and the Lakers had lost James Worthy to an ankle injury.

I could give you more examples, and I will if you want, but Bird and Magic made those teams. Yes, they had talent around them, but so did other teams. Those guys were all-timers, not just then, but in any era.
Although both are decent size, neither one seems to have the overall speed, hops, and athleticism of today's stars.
No, they don't. But then, they didn't have the overall speed, hops, and athleticism of yesterday's stars either. I mean, let's look at some of your examples. You named Iverson. Well, he's not particularly athletic (he rarely dunks). He has phenomenal speed, yes. But is he any faster than, say, Isiah Thomas was in the 80s? Absolutely not. Kevin Garnett is a monster, sure, but is he any more athletic than, say, Hakeem Olajuwon (then "Akeem") was? No way. And Hakeem had thirty pounds of muscle on the twig-like Garnett. And let me ask you this, would you take Iverson in his prime over Isiah in his prime? Or Garnett over Hakeem?

And let's look at some of the other stars from the Bird/Magic era: Dr. J, James Worthy, Dominque Wilkins, Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, and Dennis Rodman. Not to mention guys like Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing, who began their careers in the mid-80s. Bird and Magic didn't only play against these guys, they dominated them. And, frankly, I just don't believe that today's players are that much faster and stronger than the guys I just mentioned.
Whether it be due to more advanced conditioning techniques, steroids, or wider talent pool due to population increase and international popularity. I don't think that either Magic or Bird would be stars in the NBA today if you went back to '86 in a time machine and brought them back here as they were, replaced the booty shorts with the more masculine variety, and put them on a basketball court.
This is just wrong. And besides...I really don't think that today's players are that much more athletic than players from the 80s. Let's just look at the 2006 All-Star team. Allen Iverson is fast, but not that athletic. Is Vince Carter really any more athletic than, say, Dominique Wilkins? Compare Ben Wallace to Robert Parish. Or Chris Bosh to Moses Malone. Chauncy Billups, Gilbert Arenas, and Richard Hamilton...are these guys leaping over tall buildings in a single bound. What about Steve Nash? Tony Parker is quick, sure, but he's not springing over anybody. Tim Duncan is Mr. Fundamental, but is he a leaper? He really isn't physically imposing either. Yao Ming? Come on. Is Pau Gasol physicall superior to Tom Chambers? Michael Jordan was in All-Star in 1986. As was Patrick Ewing. Really compare the 2006 All-Star team to the 1986 All-Star team. I think you'll be surprised.
Stronger and faster don't always = better (that's why Luke Ridnour got the call up for team USA) but if you're not big and strong you get flattened (that's why I’m not in the NBA).
I've named guys on the 2006 All-Star team that aren't hulking bruisers. Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Allen Iverson, Chauncy Billups, Gilbert Arenas. They're all tough in their own rights, but big and strong?
To me Wilt seems like a mediocre, mechanical 7-footer in today's league at best, and every NBA team has 2 or 3 of those sitting at the end of their bench. I think one-on-one: Dwight would overpower him, Duncan would embarrass him with finesse, Dirk would run circles around him, and Shaq...well we can all picture that one. And think about it; Wilt was way, way, WAY, whoop-assly better than anyone else in the league at that time, whereas Duncan and Garnett are better than other big men but not nearly that much better.
That sound you just heard was poor Wilt rolling over in his grave. I have to ask this, and I'm being serious, have you ever watched Wilt play? He was hardly mechanical. He didn't bull his way to the hoop like Shaq does. He didn't shy away from contact the way Duncan does. Did you know that Shaq was an All-American cross country runner in high school? No way would Nowitzki run circles around him. And, frankly, today's Shaq can't overpower 6'9" Ben Wallace, and Erick Dampier outplayed Shaq through most of the 2006 NBA Finals...do you really think he'd abuse Wilt?

Wilt was very conscious of his relative size versus his opponents. As his career progressed, he became a weight lifter and got progressively bigger and stronger. To avoid criticism, he tried to avoid dunking and making power moves to the basket, instead taking mostly fade-aways, bank shots (ala Tim Duncan), and finger rolls, just to prove his game was about finesse rather than brute force. He was also an extremely gifted passer. And his athletic prowess simply cannot be understated. He was tall, he was strong, he could jump through the roof, and he could sprint. But few people know this. They just makes assumption about his game without having watched him play, or researching what he could actually do.
There's the argument that back-in-the day players were discouraged from showboating and therefore only seemed less athletic, but when you watch the classic games the dribbling seems much less smooth, the passing less crisp, and the shooting form less developed. I can't imagine the old point guards even getting to half-court against today's defence the way they used to dribble. These things can't just be explained by tolerance for show boating or psychological tendency towards recency or whatever. The fundamentals back then just look way worse.
I don't think it matters all that much what a player does -- be it shooting or dribbling -- as long as it's effective. Look at guys like Jamaal Wilkes and Bob McAdoo. They had the ugliest jump shots ever, but they both scored a lot of points while shooting well over 50 percent. They didn't care what their shots looked like as long as they went in. Players today, they're obviously concerned with looking cool. But there are very few big men who have the touch that Wilkes and McAdoo did. As for today's defense, well, guys aren't allowed to bump and handcheck anymore, so I doubt it would be much of a problem. And also, frankly, as someone who has guys like Cousy, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, et al. on tape, I can tell you that those guys were smooth.

I don't think that believing today's ballers would make the ballers of yesterday their biatches is a mutually exclusive notion to having an appreciation for the history of basketball, yet for some reason the debater that takes the side of the modern athlete always seems like he's the douchy guy with no appreciation for the classics, or the less refined basketball enthusiast, or something.
I don't think you're a douche. I do, however, think you're overstating the athletic prowess of today's stars without much actual knowledge of the relative athleticism of yesterday's stars. I mean, Lebron, Garnett, and Shaq aside, how many of today's players are so ridiculously athletic that they're leaps and bounds over the guys I've mentioned? I was fortunate to grow up watching basketball in the 80s, and I have over a hundred DVDs filled with games (thanks ESPN Classic) featuring guys like Bird, Magic, Dr. J, Kareem, Wilt, Dominique, Clyde, and countless others. Being able to juxtapose these players directly helps me say, with a fair level of certainty, that the gulf separating the physical abilities of the generations is not nearly as wide as people assume. Hence the post about Chronological Snobbery.

They only point I will concede is the one point you didn't make. And this is this: players are more diversified today. It used to be, big men simply weren't allowed to handle the ball, or shoot from outside for that matter. Guards were supposed to initiate the offense, not dominate it. Each position developed specific skill sets, and rarely was there any crossover. In the 60s, no one would have conceived of a 7-footer handling the ball or shooting from 25 feet. Could they have learned to do it? I'm sure. But they didn't because they weren't supposed to. It really wasn't until the 80s -- when Bird showed that a big man could shoot the ball and Magic proved that a big man could run the point -- when coaches and GMs really began to understand that a player's skills didn't have to be defined by his position.

So today's players develop more all-around skill sets than did yesterday's players. Not because they're faster, or stronger, or more talented...but because the game has evolved.
10 Comments:
Blogger Chris said...
Amen. I can't believe that anyone would dare to call Wilt a plodding, mechanical center. Good Lord.

The one thing I will say is that today's players are generally bigger. Guys like LeBron can play shooting guard, when in an earlier era, a 6'8" 240 pound guy was a power forward.

But that's mainly a feature of improved training and nutrition. And Larry and Magic would still kill them.

Anonymous FuManchu said...
I used to be a believer that today's players are more athletic and better than the ones from the past. I came to this conclusion after watching a few old 50's or 60's games where players looked ridiculous. The type where you go to a pickup game and think to yourself why they even try to play ball. However, after reading much of your counterpoints, I guess I underestimated much of the talent back then.

The game definitely has evolved, but it is still more exciting to watch today. It's all about disrespecting your opponent now, which is cooler than respecting and shooting that bank fadeaway.

Anonymous Riley said...
I still hold onto a small bit of chrono-snobbery. In my mind, it's perfectly justifiable to think of the pre-jumpshot and pre-Bill Russell game of basketball as inferior. Once those two revolutions hit the game, it bacame modern basketball almost overnight. Maybe the average talent has increased, but the superstars since then have all been relatively equal.

Anonymous Pendejo Joe said...
When it comes to chronological snobbery, I always think of the dunk contest. I think that's where you can get insight into the incremental gains in athleticism. When you see someone pull off something you've never seen before. Like Vince's forearm in the rim or that dude who just did a 720 recently. But then again you always hear about those streetball legends who could make change on the top of the backboard, too.

Anonymous Dan Yoder said...
The game has evolved considerably, and in that sense I think many players from past eras would struggle to adapt. But that would be true in reverse as well, with modern players struggling with the old school game. Traveling and palming are good examples of that.

It's easy to forget with Wilt, he could run the floor. Pair him up with Steve Nash and forget about it. You can't do that with Shaq or Tim Duncan. On the other hand, put Wilt in a plodding half-court offense with a me-first point guard, and he'd be like Shaq.

Athleticism over the past 50 years has not changed significantly. In sports where there are objective measuring sticks (like track and field), there have been only small incremental improvements. Some records, like Beamon's long jump record, were set in the 60s and lasted a long, long time.

Athletes may be, on average, a little bigger, and that is an advantage, no question. But I don't think that really affects the best players of the era too much. Isiah was 6-1 and even back in the day was much smaller than almost everyone on the court. Just like, say, Tony Parker is today. Some of the role players from those days might not have made today's NBA, but that's about all you can realistically say.

I grew up watching basketball in the 80s. I can honestly say I have never seen anyone play better than Magic, Bird, Isiah, Jordan, Wilkens, etc. All this talk about LeBron being so big. He wasn't as big as Magic or Bird. Those guys were both better passers and had better jump shots. Magic could post up better. And I don't mean in his prime, I mean in his rookie season. He scored, what?, 43 points that year in the NBA Finals, with Kareem out of the game?

One last point - the game used to be played with more intelligence and respect for the game. It was a much more physical game, too. A lot of today's stars would struggle just on that basis alone. They'd be beat up and confused by the end of every game. That's why old school teams like the Spurs and Pistons, as much as everyone gripes about their style of play, are so important. The keep the LeBrons and Wades and Kobes honest.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I contend that AI is pretty athletic, he used to dunk all the time. Haven't you seen that clip where he climbed over the back of some big dude and threw down a nasty putback dunk and sat his nuts on the guy's neck? I don't know why he doesn't dunk anymore though. But the little dude can fly.

Blogger DBrooks said...
I grew up watching Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bill Russell, Walt Frazier, Elgin Baylor, and others play in their prime. While I think it is true that there are more good athletes in professional basketball today, the players I listed(and others like them)would be great players in today's game, just as they were in their day. Anyone who describes Wilt as "plodding" hasn't seen enough film of his playing. Particularly when he was younger, he was an incredible athlete whose running, jumping, and quickness were mind-boggling to see in person. As an example, I personally saw Wilt jump up and take a 50-cent piece off the TOP of the backboard from a standing jump. This was before an exhibition game in Charleston, WV circa 1967. Athletes like Wilt and the others above have an intangible "gift" for competition and their sport that transcends eras. One last thing, there are many, many starting centers in the NBA today who couldn't begin to hold the Wilt Chamberlain of the mid 60s to less than 50 points if he was so inclined.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
i don't think the players are more athletic but i do think that their are more athletic players you get it. Umm how do you think Artest would do in the 80's he's super physical and just a dirty player i think he would make Bird and Magic work for everything they got. Just me :)

Anonymous Anonymous said...
What an interesting thread! I grew up on Bball in the 60's. Frankly, I felt like players and the game improved every decade until the 90's. I thought Detroit added 48 minutes of HARD d, and my beloved Bulls put the whole package together. Since then, the stars seem more willing to throw their team under the bus to appear on ESPN. It's hard to look around the league and point out guys who could put much better stats if they didn't put their team first. Magic could have scored as much as he wanted, but that's not how he estimated the way to titles.
It is very hard to compare across time. I saw some of Wilt's big games, and you wouldn't believe how many of his points came from offensive goaltending (legal then). On the other hand, he was capable of passing and defending as capably as he scored. The players from that era will swear the Russell was the most dominant player ever; just way ahead of everyone else on the court mentally and had the talent to take advantage of it. They developed as much talent as they needed. Today's players have evolved over 40 years of the NBA raising the bar. But you'll never hear me acknowledge that if the greats from that era grew up playing today's game against today's athletes that they still wouldn't dominate as they did then.
There is a sport's IQ that is hard to define, but some few people just ALWAYS come up with the right play. MJ beat you worse mentally than he did physically. Magic caused open lanes before he utilized them for the great passes, but not any better than Guy Rogers. West and Baylor had their way with you. O averaged a triple double. Clyde could neutralize any guard in history.
And there were many players who competed very well with these greats. I remember one all-star game where the East put Chamberlain, Russell and Jerry Lucas on the front line at the same time, and Nate Thurmond outscored and outrebounded all three. Walton's Trailblazers had a decided disadvantage in Star power, but they dominated with great d and teamwork.
If the game were a series of one on one matchups, today's players do things that I'm not sure anyone then or now could stop, but there are a million things you can do against superior talent, and I don't see today's players schooled or disciplined in them (see our performance in Intl play). You can't teach tall, that's true; but league history is full of teams who lost with the best talent or won without it.
I guess when you're a 5'8" white guy with a basketball jones, you tend to denigrate physical advantages and look for the value of team play and look for warts on the naturally superior player who doesn't put team first. From that perspective, as I said earlier, I thought Wilt's 76ers were better than the Celtics before them, his Laker's better than either, Kareem's Bucks better still, the 80's Lakers and Celtics, better still, the Bad Boys beat them all, and the Beloved Bulls dominated. Since then, I haven't been convinced that the game's gotten better.

Blogger bloggerjul said...
the last paragraph pretty much summed it up...

all respects to the past generation of nba players...

the teams of today will ultimately beat the old teams of yesterday (with the same skill sets)

but hey... most of the teams today are in fact, the way they are because of the same past generations that paved the evolution of bball...

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