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Could older NBA players excel in today's game?
March 20, 2010 3:52 PM   Subscribe

Is there any reason to think NBA superstars of generations past could compete in today's NBA? Is it even fair to compare players of different generations?

Is it fair to compare players from different generations? I have an argument that there are reliable ways to compare players across generations - and that the older stars would still be stars in today's game. My buddy thinks there's no way players like West, Robertson, or Chamberlain could be any better than average today. Who's right (or at least more right)?


It all started with this fascinating article.

The author uses a stat called a WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) to compare the careers of a few NBA players. One casual conclusion he comes to in the article is that Clyde Drexler was a better player than Kobe Bryant is. While I absolutely agree with this claim, many took umbrage with it. So the author posted a follow up to the argument, directly comparing - statistically - the careers of Drexler and Kobe, and still coming to the definitive conclusion that Drexler is better.

Well, I brought this up with a bud of mine and he went off! "Not only is there is no way to compare players of different generations, but there is no way the superstars of older generations would be anything more than mediocre role players in today's league!"

He argues that the larger pool of talent and competition is the reason why they couldn’t compete. I argue that if you took Oscar Robertson and raised him in today’s game (from youth rec leagues to the NBA) that his game would be as elevated as it was in his era and that he’d still be a superstar.

But the crux of his argument is this notion that because the talent pool is global and much more pervasive, that it is universally raising the level of talent in ways that a smaller pool of players a few decades ago couldn't have. I call BS on that argument, but as a CPA and business owner he is not backing down.

I think there is a statistically viable and analysis-based way to take a player from an older generation of the game and compare him to a player in today’s game. Am I wrong here? Is it irrational to think that older NBA stars – if given the chance to train and compete in today’s basketball climate – would be just as dominate?
posted by Detuned Radio to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
There are a hundred parts to your question, so forgive the length here....

For a number of reasons, baseball lends itself particularly well to statistical analysis, so baseball analysts are generations ahead of basketball analysts on this one. I suggest looking to how they've handled these debates.

As with basketball, baseball has evolved as a sport in a number of ways. The color-line was broken midway through the 20th century, and advanced training regiments have led to players being physically superior in a number of ways. There have been numerous rule changes, and technological advances have shifted players' focus from some skills to others. Statistics have gone down and up in a pretty cyclical way (offensive eras followed by defensive eras followed by offensives eras and on and on). There a number of intuitive and anecdotal arguments when comparing players from different eras, but until you quantify this stuff with statistics it's all kind of silly and pointless.

A while back baseball settled upon something called OPS as its uber-stat (or "theory of everything stat"). We're several generations beyond OPS now, but that's for another discussion. The big thing is, after OPS came about, people started using a stat called OPS+, which was a player's OPS compared to the league average of his era. In other words, OPS+ allowed one to compare players from eras when stats were inflated to players from eras when stats were deflated. Now, this isn't a perfect system (it involves a lot of assumptions that can be debated), but everyone basically agreed to abide by it as a quick-and-dirty way to compare, say Babe Ruth with Barry Bonds.

Now, if WP48 is the best all-around stat for basketball right now (it seems to have some really obvious flaws, but hey...that may just be where basketball analysis is at the moment), then one can simply create WP48+ to compare a player from one era to a player from another. How do you compare Kobe to the Glide? Find out how much better Kobe is compared to the rest of the league, and compare that to how much better Drexler (or Robertson) was to the rest of his league.

Now, this would work for most of your question. The only variable you're changing is the "era" (or, "the rest of the league"). The player is staying completely the same. But then you throw in a twist. You bring up the What If of Oscar Robertson being's raised in a more modern world. Now you're adding an infinite amount of new variables, and basically ensuring no answer to your question. Or at least no testable answer. You're back to the world of fuzzy, intuitive arguments with no way to measure anything, because we don't know how well Robertson would've taken to modern training methods or youth development. We don't know if he would've hated playing with Europeans, or argued with female refs. You will not "solve" this problem. You will only debate it.
posted by aswego at 4:13 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


What If of Oscar Robertson being's raised in a more modern world.

That right there is the key. NBA players of the 50s smoked cigarettes in the locker room at halftime, literally. In the off-season they either took other jobs or laid around the house.

Kobe Bryant lifts weights and practices his game almost every single day of his life. There's that, and the level of competition players face: serious, pro-style games from middle school on, if they're good enough. And they get serious coaching early on, too, when players of older generations were probably on the playground or shooting around in the backyard.

So, a player from an earlier era dropped into today's game would probably appear out-of-shape, slow, lacking in intensity and preparation, and slow to learn systems and schemes.

However, if that same player was *born later,* there's no reason to think he couldn't hold his own. (Unless he was just too short. The height of players, especially guards, has gone way way up on average. And there's no training to increase your height.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:36 PM on March 20, 2010


Then there's the "Euro" factor. Players like Tony Parker play actual paid, professional basketball from their early teens. This is the real reason so many Euros appear so "fundamentally sound.*"

Because NCAA basketball makes so much money, the US is still mired in this serfdom system where players waste prime years playing at a college. The college game is often romanticized, but the reality is that limited practice time and academic obligations slow young players' development. As soon as the US moves to a more "Euro" system, (for example young players with potential going straight to the D-league at 16 or so) young players in the NBA will play at an even higher level.



*The rest is just made-up racial bullshit against black American players

posted by drjimmy11 at 4:45 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


It discusses baseball rather than basketball, but a book you'll want to read on this is Stephen Jay Gould's Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, which examines (among other things) the disappearance of .400 hitting and what it means about the mean excellence of major league play over the years. It's a fascinating read.
posted by cirripede at 4:55 PM on March 20, 2010


I'd say your friend has no clue how great an athlete Wilt Chamberlain was:

Wilt is not a one-sport man, either. At Overbrook High School in Philly, he high jumped 6 feet, 6 inches, ran the 440 in 49.0 seconds and the 880 in 1:58.3, put the shot 53 feet, 4 inches, broad jumped 22 feet. Bill Easton, Jayhawks track boss, predicts Wilt will reach 7 feet in the high jump if he concentrates on it.

"He easily has greater possibilities than any player we ever had here," says Allen, who is in his 39th season at Kansas. "He has coordination, can run and can jump. He can do everything.

"A fan simply can't realize the effect of such an overpowering man. He just paralyzes smaller players.


He was literally too good to be great. He made the game itself look a little silly.
posted by jamjam at 5:03 PM on March 20, 2010


Bill Simmons' recent "Book of Basketball" explored this issue. Simmons did conclude that many of yesteryear's stars wouldn't be able to compete at an elite level today.
posted by reenum at 5:05 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Have you watched the clips of Pistol Pete Maravich on YouTube? Because, holy crap. There's a reason why his scoring record in the NCAA still holds.
posted by plinth at 5:49 PM on March 20, 2010


Whether or not stars from 4-5 generations back could compete today I won't discuss, but I'd like to make two points.

The problem of whether players could compete out of their eras might cut both ways. Basketball (and all of the other sports) was a lot rougher back then. Defense was really physical. So, today's finesse players would have a much harder time playing basketball the way it was played 30 years ago. To give you some vivid examples : I doubt that Gretzky would have scored nearly as often back in the earlier days of hockey. He wouldn't have had rules in place to protect him. Barry Bonds would have been a lot less successful without the body armor that MLB let him use (pitchers would have been able to scare him with inside fastballs and he wouldn't have been able to crowd the plate which is a big advantage for batters). Would Barry Sanders been nearly as electrifying is he'd had to play defense too? Would Kobe be able to handle people literally clothes-lining him every time he drove into the lane? Could today's players compete back then. Of course, but you grab Pau Gasol and put him in the game in the early eighties Karreem would take his head off with a flying elbow as he sky-hooked over the Spaniard all night long.

Furthermore, to the specific comparison which started the debate Clyde and Kobe actually played in the league together for two years, 96-97 and 97-98. So they were definitely contemporaries. The only significant changes to the game since the 90's has been a gradual trend toward encouraging offense. So, if Clyde could generate superior offensive numbers in a game in which the only difference was that it was harder for Clyde to score than it is for Kobe, I think that definitively makes Clyde a better player. (Don't let him tell you the game wasn't international back then either, Rony Seikaly, Detlef Shrempf, Hakeem Olajuwan, and Luc Longley are just a few international players from back then).
posted by oddman at 7:01 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Find out how much better Kobe is compared to the rest of the league, and compare that to how much better Drexler (or Robertson) was to the rest of his league.


I would argue that this is a good idea, but the direction the normalization takes should be different. It seems to me that the skill of a single player should not be normalized by the skills of the other players in his era per se, unless your goal is to evaluate how much better a player is than their immediate peers. If you're trying to compare across generations, it makes more sense to weight the stats of players whose peers are more skilled higher than players whose peers were less talented. If everyone is improving in skill, then it becomes much harder to stand out, and standing out itself becomes far more impressive.

So, using the baseball stat we could certainly argue that Drexler was much better than his peers than Kobe is. This would be a general normalized statistic. However, if you want to compare the players' ability this is not the way to do it. You want to properly weight Kobe's stats by the general stat level of his peers, and you'd probably find that his talent and stats are more impressive.

An interesting extra analysis would be to weight the players' stats by those of the respective stars of their era. This might drop out some of the noise injected by including the genreal players and could be worthwhile.
posted by scrutiny at 7:28 PM on March 20, 2010


If a 25 year old Wilt Chamberlain was alive today he would kick ass. Maybe not Kobe Bryant's or Lebron James's ass. There is little doubt he would be at minimum the third best guy in the NBA.

He might be the best. He might slam Lebron's stuff right back down his throat. After he retired from the NBA he was one of the top beach volleyball players in SoCal at age 45 competing against 25 year olds. He was a once in a lifetime athlete, like Kobe, like Lebron. Maybe better; who is to judge?


Babe Ruth gets dissed because he was fat; he does not look like we expect a superstar to look like. Preposterous. The man was the best pitcher in the league before he converted to outfield because his bat was needed every day. Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player ever, and chance is very large (P~=.999) nobody will ever dethrone him. Some future guy would need to pitch at Roger Clemens' level one day in four and bat at Barry Bonds' level the other three days for ten years. It is almost inconceivable anybody will ever surpass Babe.
posted by bukvich at 8:29 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Babe Ruth gets dissed because he was fat; he does not look like we expect a superstar to look like. Preposterous. The man was the best pitcher in the league before he converted to outfield because his bat was needed every day. Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player ever, and chance is very large (P~=.999) nobody will ever dethrone him. Some future guy would need to pitch at Roger Clemens' level one day in four and bat at Barry Bonds' level the other three days for ten years. It is almost inconceivable anybody will ever surpass Babe.

People "dis" Ruth for a lot of reasons (moral failings, among them), but nobody serious knocks him as a ballplayer. He probably is the best player ever, and he probably won't be dethroned for a long time. He was probably not, at any point, the best pitcher in the league. He had some nice moments (he once held the longest scoreless inning streak, which has since by held by an assortment of pitchers, ranging from really impressive to above-average). He had four seasons (1915-1918) where he was better than league average, and one (1916) where he might have been in the discussion for best in the league, except Walter Johnson (the Babe Ruth of pitchers) still existed. In 1919 he was league average, and he basically didn't pitch after that. And he wasn't pitching one day, and murdering the ball the other three days. In 1915 he was pitching one day and sitting three days. By 1918 he was up to pitching one day, playing outfield another, and sitting two days. He did not stop pitching because his bat was needed. He stopped pitching because he was no longer a viable pitcher.

Now, getting four solid pitching seasons from a guy who was busy redefining the sport offensively was certainly a nice bonus for Boston. But there's no need to gild the lily by just making shit up. He's already Babe fucking Ruth.
posted by aswego at 8:54 PM on March 20, 2010


So, using the baseball stat we could certainly argue that Drexler was much better than his peers than Kobe is. This would be a general normalized statistic. However, if you want to compare the players' ability this is not the way to do it. You want to properly weight Kobe's stats by the general stat level of his peers, and you'd probably find that his talent and stats are more impressive.

The problem is they can't effectively compare the entire league from one era to another. The multitude of variables cannot be controlled for. You cannot have the entire 1991 NBA play the entire 2009 NBA and see who wins. The only thing you can do is compare a player like Clyde'91 to NBA1991 and see how that shapes up to the comparison of Kobe'09 to NBA2009.

A statistically viable and analysis-based way to compare players of different eras was asked for. This is how the people who devote their lives to advanced sports statistics and analysis compare players from different eras. They do not spend their days shaving off one point for the addition of the three-point arc, and adding two more because of weight training, and subtracting half a point because of European players, and adding a few more because of TV timeouts, and taking off a couple because today's players aren't on coke, etc. They realize that the What If game is futile and cannot be competently analyzed.
posted by aswego at 9:09 PM on March 20, 2010


Bill Simmons' recent "Book of Basketball" explored this issue. Simmons did conclude that many of yesteryear's stars wouldn't be able to compete at an elite level today.

Seconding this. It's a great book, by the way.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:10 PM on March 20, 2010


So I think I've come to terms with never winning the argument. All I want to do now is come out ahead in the debate. Not out of pride, but because it validates the careers of so many great players.

Given that you're not simply selecting a random kid from a pool of hundreds and saying, "you, my child, will be an NBA superstar,' but that you're taking a proven basketball legend like Robertson, Wilt, West, or Bird (someone who has proven their basketball mettle) and giving them a chance to be raised and succeed in today's game - doesn't that make it much more likely that a star of yesteryear would be a star today than not?

Are there any analysts or stat-junkies out there that you know of (the kind aswego was referring to) that could help simplify and support one side or the other of this debate? It seems like the kind of question that should have been thoroughly addressed elsewhere by people who know loads more than I do. But maybe not. Maybe I am that person. Or maybe you are.
posted by Detuned Radio at 10:51 PM on March 20, 2010


doesn't that make it much more likely that a star of yesteryear would be a star today than not?

More likely, yes. Guaranteed, no.

Here's another thing -- the pool today is bigger.

When Oscar Robertson was playing (just using him as an example), the penetration of basketball in the U.S. and Europe was significantly lower than it is today. Oscar was a star competing in what was then a second (third?) tier sport. Millions of kids that could have been basketball stars played baseball or football, or, in Europe, soccer.

In contrast to many other boys who preferred to play baseball, he was drawn to basketball because it was "a poor kids' game." Because his family could not afford a basketball, he learned how to shoot by tossing tennis balls and rags bound with rubber bands into a peach basket behind his family's home.

Those kids today in similar circumstances, growing up in the same projects, don't lack access to cheap rubber basketballs and blacktop courts. Moreover, they are being fed a steady diet of basketball media (e.g. the NBA finals were not even regularly televised until the late 1970s -- Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, the deciding game, was even shown on tape delay).

So, if you took Baby Big O, put him in a time machine, sent him to the year 1984, and raised him in LeBron James' house as an adopted brother of the same age, he'd be very, very good, and possibly a star. But I would say it's far from a sure thing.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:20 AM on March 21, 2010


One other interesting variable would be the effect of officiating of one era on a player from another era. Would, for instance, some of the superstars from today's game be able to be as successful in an earlier era where they actually called traveling? Conversely, how much more effective would a player from an earlier era be with today's much looser officiating?

This, of course, is completely in the realm of conjecture, but it is, in my mind, an interesting variable to consider.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:52 AM on March 21, 2010


Just to add another parallel to baseball, people always talk about how expansion has watered down the talent. There's about twice as many teams now as there was in 1950 (30 vs 16). But the US population has doubled since then also, and there's a significant increase not just in black American players, but international players as well. I'd have to think this applies similarly to the NBA and NHL (and the NFL, except for the international part).

It kinda makes me wonder, rather than comparing the elite of past and present eras, how the worst players on a roster would compare. Even the cynical Charles Barkley once said how the 12th man on an NBA team still has to be pretty good.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:15 PM on March 21, 2010


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