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The Fraught Futility of Comparing Basketball Eras

Younger basketball fans are “done with the 90s”. Collectively as a viewing public we should be done with comparing eras and appreciating the evolving nature of basketball

“We’re done with the 90s”. If you spend any time on the basketball and sports section of TikTok, there is a good chance that you have seen some think pieces and long-winded opinion rants about the athletic inferiority of the NBA in the 1990s (or simply “the Jordan era”) when compared to today’s more athletic and skilled game. The root of this, like many basketball debate topics on the internet, is fueled by the comparison between LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

Younger fans have taken to YouTube and have watched full games of the NBA Playoffs when Jordan was at his apex and winning titles. The conclusions have been that the era’s reputation for tough defense from teams such as the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and New York Knicks was overblown. That the concepts employed by teams were simplistic when compared to what we see in today’s game. The final thesis of many of these fans was that Michael Jordan’s era was far inferior to LeBron James’ era, meaning that James was the better player. But the flaw in this thought exercise is that timelines in basketball evolution are so different from generation to generation and it becomes disingenuous to both parties involved to constantly crave comparing them.

The Good Old Days

A friend of mine recently made a post about the mid-2000s era of the NBA. He remarked how great basketball was then, that the game was much more entertaining than it is today. I found the comment odd, because that period saw the league in a weird transition where Kobe Bryant was discovering himself after Shaquille O’Neal left and LeBron James was still figuring out what sort of player he was going to be in the NBA. It saw the emergence of the Tim Duncan Spurs, which could be characterized as one of the more boring dynasties in NBA history. But then I realized that this friend of mine was a teenager during that time. So obviously he looked back on that era with the fondness of a childhood friend that you lost touch with.

In the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, there is a reference to a feeling that is dubbed “Graduation Goggles”. It is described as a feeling of nostalgia and of remembering the good times when you are ending a relationship with someone. So, a person that grows up watching a certain era of basketball will often remember the great moments but conveniently forget the low points, making them ultimately unfit to have a good faith discussion about other time periods in the history of basketball. A Philadelphia 76ers fan might remember a night in 2002 when Allen Iverson scored an impressive 46 points against the Golden State Warriors. What they might forget is that the 76ers at the time barely had a winning record and Iverson shot a woeful 38% from the field in that game. But they remember the achievement, and this is what usually sticks with us.

Fans that watched Michael Jordan dominate the 1990s will often mention that his undefeated record in the NBA Finals and scoring prowess is what made him so great. That was because teams were physical in the paint, it made the era that much harder to score and to win. The irony of this is that a massive uptick in scoring has only happened during the last six seasons where NBA teams have averaged over 110 points per game. For 13 of his 19 years as a professional, LeBron James has played in a league where teams have averaged less than 105 points per game. Michael Jordan only had that in 6 of his 15 years as pro in the NBA. So scoring wasn’t the huge disparity that we may think it is, because we choose to remember Jordan being pushed to the floor by Bill Laimbeer instead of him hitting shots over Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas.

Conversely, the ten best field goal percentage seasons in NBA history all happened in between the years of 1979 and 1990 and the third best three point shooting percentage ever was in 1996 (albeit with a slightly shortened three point line). The suggestion that no one could shoot in the 90s is a bit of a misnomer, much in the way that suggesting that there is no defense played today is also mostly incorrect. When comparing Jordan to James directly, the reality is that they had to overcome different trends in the overall NBA game to achieve greatness.

In Jordan’s time, his challenge was to be able to withstand the abuse of larger power forwards when he entered the lane, to be strong enough to be able to finish at the rim. For LeBron, he saw the league shift from a slashing league where spacing and shooting was paramount, and he adapted his game accordingly. Both players were successful at making the needed changes. The demeaning of either era (lack of elite perimeter guard play in the 90s or the disappearance of big body centers in today’s game) shows a disregard for the evolution of basketball and how much the game has adapted with the times.

Embracing the Period

Every era of NBA basketball has a player or a team that defines it. Usually, that player or team also dictates the evolution of the NBA during that time. In the 1960s, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics dominated the league. Russell, when he entered the league was instantly one of the most dynamic players with incredible athleticism that translated to tremendous rebounding and shot blocking ability. Russell’s length also allowed him to create fast break opportunities. That era of Celtics basketball featured teams that regularly averaged a pace rating of over 130 (number of possessions per 48 minutes, which is an indicator of how fast the game is being played). That number would be far and away the fastest team in the league today.

In the 70s, we saw the proliferation of elite centers such as Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, and others. As a result, the game slowed down and was half-court style where offense was run primarily in the post. The 80s and 90s saw the rise of elite scoring wing and backcourt players like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, and Isiah Thomas. To combat these players, teams employed a physical strategy to slow them down when they attacked the basket. The result was a prioritization of strength over finesse.

In the 2000s we saw the emergence of great slashers and finishers such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, and Vince Carter. These players were not elite shooters but had tremendous athleticism that enabled them to get by defenses. As a reaction, that era saw a prioritization of more athletic frontcourt players to contend with these acrobatic players. Finally, today’s game is one that is based on shooting and spacing. This has meant that players that cannot shoot are considered very expendable. The players may not be as physical as before, but they are much more skilled, which is what the era has demanded.

The folly of comparing eras is that in many ways, we are engaging in an exercise of comparing different sports. What worked 30 years ago does not work today, and what works today will likely not work 20 years from now. Quite often, fans suggest that if a certain player was planted into a different era that they would have dominated because of a certain trait like ball handling or shooting that wasn’t as common in a previous generation.

What this does not account for is that a modern player will be missing some other trait that would have put them at a disadvantage in an earlier era. Conversely, a player from an earlier era would struggle to adapt to today’s game, despite what many older players have suggested in interviews on various podcasts. And yet, despite these differences in the evolution of the game we continue to make comparisons between great players repeatedly, in a search to validate our respective generations.

The Need to Be Right

Sports debate shows have been able to do something incredibly impressive with the sports consuming public over the years. They have been able to rehash the same old Michael Jordan vs LeBron James debate for years and still cause arguments among fans. At this point in the life cycle of that topic, people have their line in the sand drawn. No accomplishments from LeBron will change a Jordan fan's mind, and no highlight reel of Jordan will convince a LeBron fan that Jordan was better.

The unfortunate aspect of these debates is that they devalue what both players have excelled at. I grew up watching Michael Jordan and have seen the entire career of LeBron James unfold. For all the comparisons that people make about the two, they are fundamentally two different types of basketball players. Jordan was a relentless scorer of the basketball who started as a great inside player who later developed a lethal mid range jump shot. He had precise ball handling ability and the capability to get to his spot at will. LeBron is more of a Swiss Army knife. He can score at will with his tremendous physical gifts but is also one of the most skilled passers that we have ever seen. He is also an excellent rebounder who has a tremendous basketball IQ.

Both players are great, two of the best players to ever play basketball. But the incessant need to constantly compare them takes away from their greatness and what makes them so special. When we focus on their eras specifically, Jordan spearheaded a dynasty that won title after title in a rejuvenated NBA in the wake of the Celtics and Lakers rivalry. LeBron, similarly, was entering a league that was trying to replace a legend (Michael Jordan, ironically) and in the process became the most consistently dominant player that we have ever seen. You cannot tell the history of basketball without both players. So why do we insist on continuing to have these debates and draw these comparisons?

Quite simply, it goes back to graduation goggles. We want to believe that what we grew up with was better than what is available today. Many people in their 30s and 40s will let you know without much provocation that the movies they watched, games they played, and experiences they had when they were younger were far superior to those that future generations experienced. It is mostly nostalgia of a simpler time that we crave and many times we live vicariously through the memory of our favorite athletes and celebrities, brandishing the timeless phrase “you just had to be there”.

Our sports culture is one that is obsessed with ranking things. Everyone has a top five or ten in just about every category that you can think of. We want our favorite player to be the best to ever do it. But do we eventually cross a threshold and enter the realm of disrespect? LeBron James does not exist without Michael Jordan, much as Michael Jordan does not exist without the path that was paved by Julius Erving. The game of basketball is always evolving and adapting to the next thing. We as human beings often do not evolve in the same way. So, it is only natural that people will say that the 90s era of basketball is supreme while others will say that they are done with the 90s. The reality is that every decade, every era, is a part of the grand painting of basketball and we would do better to appreciate each aspect of this piece of art to fully grasp the beauty of the whole picture.

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