The Many Problems With Debating NBA Eras – My Take

So, ESPN’s The Last Dance has obviously been a saving grace for sports fans during this quarantine. The documentary has given us all something sports-related to look forward to and discuss every week, as sports leagues across the country are shut down. The discussions that have stemmed from The Last Dance though, have not been nearly as enjoyable as the doc itself.

As major sports networks are scrambling, on a daily basis, to find topics to talk about, The Last Dance has given them a chance to frequently revisit one of their all-time favorite subjects: Old-School NBA vs. Current Day NBA. Any basketball fan who has watched more than five minutes of ESPN, TNT, NBATV, or Fox Sports knows there are few things older NBA players and journalists love to do more than complain about the game today. Honestly, I think the only thing older generations like more than shitting on millennials, is shitting on millennials while talking about the NBA.

If you’re scrolled through Twitter or watched ESPN during the quarantine, then you’ve seen that older generations are just having a field day discussing how the NBA used to be tougher, and most great current-day players wouldn’t do as well if they played back in the day. It’s easy to ignore these debates when the world is normal, but when we’re all locked down and there are no sports on TV then it becomes a little more difficult to not get irritated by them. Because truthfully, these debates have always been frustrating to me for a variety of reasons. And since there are no real sports to care about right now, I figured I should explore some of those reasons in this very blog.

Perhaps my biggest problem with these debates, is the fact that the parameters of what constitutes an “era” are never clearly defined. This leads those who are biased toward the older generations to group every great player who was drafted between like 1979 and 1999 and compare them just to the players in their prime at this very moment, and then talk about how there used to be so many more great players. Obviously, the numbers are not going to match when you compare 20+ years of elite players to just the best of the best competing in this current season.

If we’re going to keep having these pointless debates, then we should at least figure out what the definition of an era is. Otherwise, we get things like Mark Jackson including Jordan and Kobe as part of the same generation, while discussing how players today aren’t willing to do whatever it takes to win the same way older players were. Michael Jordan took his final shot as a Chicago Bull during Kobe’s second season in the league, there is just no way you can consider them to be a part of the same era.

I’ve always found it best to break things up into decades, which is why I think it is still somewhat strange that we group together Jordan, Bird, and Magic as often as we do. Obviously, their careers overlapped for several years but if we’re talking about which decade they belong to in terms of their peaks, then clearly Bird and Magic go with the ’80s and Jordan goes with the ’90s. I have no problem if people want to group together the ’80s and ’90s as one “generation” or “era” though, but if you do that then you can’t just compare those players to the ones from the 2010s, you have to include the players who dominated the league from 2000-2009 as well. Furthermore, players should be placed into a decade or era based on when the peak years of their career were, not when they were drafted. For instance, players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady, and Steve Nash should be included with the ’00s and ’10s players—rather than the ’80s and ’90s players—even though they were drafted in the ’90s. I just find it to be ridiculously unfair when people group together every great player from Magic to Kobe, and then compare them to just the 10 or so best players playing today.

One thing we’ve been hearing a lot about as The Last Dance airs, is how much more physical the game used to be. Although I think the significance of this—in terms of comparing eras—can be overstated at times, this is still a fair point for older generations to bring up. The game is certainly officiated differently today, which has made it far less physical than it used to be. Older generations frequently enjoy bringing this up in order to strengthen their argument that today’s great players wouldn’t be able to compete back in the day. One thing they conveniently leave out though, is that while the game itself may be less physical today, current day players are much more physically impressive than older generations were.

If you watched the Bad Boy Pistons episode of The Last Dance, then you heard Michael Jordan basically admit that he really only started seriously lifting weights six or seven years into the league, because he felt he needed to get stronger to beat the Pistons. Think about that for a second, that means the most dominant and competitive player the NBA has ever seen wasn’t really focused on lifting weights during high school, college, or the first half of his professional career. Nowadays, kids have access to incredibly advanced strength and conditioning programs as early as high school. Therefore, it is kind of bullshit to make the argument that today’s players wouldn’t be able to handle the physicality of old-school NBA games. Seriously, Bill Laimbeer was considered to be one of the toughest—if not the toughest—player in the NBA for much of the ’80s. Look at that man’s body and tell me what would happen if he tried to commit a hard foul on prime LeBron, Shaq, or Giannis as they were running full speed at him for a dunk. The results wouldn’t be the same as his hits on pre-weight-lifting Jordan, I promise you.

One problem in particular always seems to arise when people have these “which era was better?” debates for long enough, which is the fact that they just don’t make any fucking sense logistically. We all know this obviously, but the logistical problems tend to become more and more apparent as you begin to delve deeper into the debate. The 2010s Warriors vs. 1990s Bulls debate is a great example of this.

The reason that debate will always be unfair and impossible to definitively answer—even if we had a time machine to send the Warriors back to 1996 with—is because the Warriors are able to look back but the Bulls are not able to look forward. What I mean by this is, we know how the game used to be played and how it has evolved over time. But obviously, the 1996 Bulls don’t have that information. If the 2017 Warriors just magically appeared in ’96, there is no doubt in my mind that they would beat the Bulls. I’m not saying that based on the talent of the two teams, even though I do think the 2017 Warriors are the greatest team of all time, I’m saying that because the Bulls wouldn’t have any clue what the fuck was going on.

Think about it, Steph and Klay would start pulling up from 30 feet out and the guy that the Bulls thought was just a really skinny center (Durant) would start taking guys off the dribble and hitting threes. The Bulls would be so confused, and they would have no idea how to defend the Warriors. That’s not a criticism of the Bulls either, they dominated in an era when teams took like 10 three pointers a game, they aren’t supposed to know how to defend a team that takes 25 to 30.

People who believe the Bulls would win this hypothetical game try to fix this debate by saying things like “Well, if we’re taking the Warriors and bringing them back to the ’90s that means they would have to play the way a ’90s team would, so the Bulls would dominate.” This isn’t fair either though, because that is a completely different debate. Essentially, these people don’t want to debate the 2017 Warriors vs. the 1996 Bulls, they want to imagine an alternate reality where Steph, Klay, Draymond, Durant and the rest of that Warriors team was born in like 1965, and grew up playing basketball the way Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and those guys did. This is a completely different debate though, because that would make those Warriors players and that Warriors team completely different from the team that they were in 2017. Basically, I’m trying to highlight the fact that there is absolutely no point in having these debates because they make zero sense.

At the end of the day, great players are great players and it’s stupid to suggest that the top players today wouldn’t be elite back in the ’80s or ’90s. I’m not saying that the best players from today would just absolutely dominate basketball back then—even if I do think there is some legitimacy to the idea that athletes get bigger, stronger, faster, and (potentially) better over time—but saying that they wouldn’t have a chance against previous generations is idiotic. Speaking of how athletes evolve over time, I enjoy the fact that older players and journalists know not to bring up anything before the ’80s when having these debates. Although, I can’t wait for the day when someone makes the argument that today’s players wouldn’t even dominate back in the ’50s and ’60s, when half the league could still only dribble with one hand.

As annoying as these debates are, I’ll admit they can be fun from time to time. My only wish is for people to use a little more facts, and a little less hyperbole, when making their arguments.






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