Michael Jordan recently celebrated his 50th birthday in February of this year. The week of his birthday featured networks rolling out the stat lines and the highlight reels and other players’ memories of the life and game of Michael Jordan. But with all those good memories came another thing. That other thing is the plague which permeates every sports media outlet that insists on comparing the best players of each generation to each other.
Some media personnel just focus on the highlights, but others try to be edgy and keep on poking at the comparisons. And it must be noted that while it is in no way Jordan’s fault that these comparisons are drawn, he in the very least fosters an environment in which they can continue. Jordan recently had these comments goaded out of him regarding the Lebron versus Kobe debate: “Five beats one every time I look at it. And not that (Lebron) won’t get five. He may get more than that, but five is bigger than one.” And that comment just poured gasoline all over the fire.
Let me make one thing clear. I don’t blame Michael for being asked a question. I believe he is using some very flawed logic. For example, if championships are the sole barometer of the greatness of a player, then Bill Russel is the greatest of all time. Not only that, but Robert Horry is better than Jordan, Lebron, and Kobe. So is Jim Loscutoff, who averaged 6.2 points per game on his career. I think we can all see the lunacy of that logic.
There is also some lunacy in the logic that fervent media gladhanders use when they automatically take it as given that Jordan is the best player in the history of the NBA. Don’t take this the wrong way. I don’t hate Jordan. I like him better than a lot of the players in today’s NBA. I hate this idea that he is the unquestioned best. Because he’s not.
We trek into very murky waters when trying to compare players across different eras, and let me explain why that is. Statistics do not and never will tell the full story, because the quality of players around a superstar changes from one given era to another. Wilt Chamberlain has the most ridiculous and outstanding statistics that the NBA has ever seen. Was he the greatest player, or even center, of all time? The answer is no, probably not. He was a giant playing in an era when the average player was much shorter than it is today. Wilt Chamberlain was able to overpower opposing teams using his height alone, and he needed very little beyond that to dominate the game.
The concept is called athletic progression. If you try to compare players when their primes are more than 10 or so years apart, you have to account for it. Now, the difference isn’t as great as the case with Chamberlain, but consider Michael Jordan. At the time he played, Michael Jordan was the absolute epitome of athleticism. No one on the floor was even close to him in that aspect. Now take his level of athleticism and compare it to that of today’s players. He is still above average, but there are a lot more players near that level, and a good few that exceed it. Another byproduct to athletic progression is there are more skilled guys out there than there used to be. Yeah, Jordan played in an era with Barkley and Stockton and Ewing, but those guys had at most one or two other good guys on the roster, and then it was a steep falloff. Teams nowadays are deeper than they’ve ever been. It was easier for players like Jordan to avoid the defensive stars on the opposing team, and work matchup advantages to gash them for big offensive numbers.
When you make comparisons, you have to account for the environment in which the player played, and most if not all major media outlets fail to do so. But the biggest injustice in making comparisons is we unfairly force a current player into a mold that he might not necessarily fit. Lebron James is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. He is bigger, stronger, and faster than Jordan or Kobe. He has developed into a top defender and he has been a great distributor for a while now. Appreciate Lebron for what he is: the best basketball player to ever set foot on this planet. He isn’t the next Jordan or the next Magic. He is the first Lebron. Watch him and appreciate him for what he is because if you keep spending time trying to fit him into a puzzle that he doesn’t belong to, you’re just going to miss the show.