Court vision: how might our understanding of NBA greatness change over time?

Greatness is a funny thing. To some degree it is a quality rooted in results and empirical evidence; but for those types of measuring sticks to mean anything, they need to be backed up by a set of corresponding values. Robert Horry’s career statistics suggest that he was no more than an average rotation player, but clutch playoff shooting is currently valued highly enough that he is considered to have achieved a certain level of greatness. There’s no indication that this will change anytime soon. Yet how sure of that can we really be?

In his most recent book, But What If We’re Wrong, longtime critic Chuck Klosterman both examines and attempts to predict instances in which humans have collectively been operating under assumptions that were later proven to be false (or just simply irrelevant to future generations). These assumptions encompass a wide spectrum of subjects, but the common thread running through all of his analyses is that there is a decently high likelihood we are wrong about everything. Gravity? We were wrong until Newton came around so maybe we’ll be wrong again. Literature? Nobody gave a shit about Moby Dick until well after it was published so maybe we’re not that great at immediately identifying classics. Sports? We’re moving towards a society where people seem to want to eliminate unnecessary pain and level the proverbial playing field so maybe we’ll just end up getting rid of team sports altogether.

Despite the (staggering) implications of that last proposition, let’s set our sights to the notion of greatness in the NBA and take a look of where it might be heading. As things stand, it seems to be universally acknowledged that the rung at the top of the league’s ‘all-time greatness ladder’ belongs to one man and one man only. Michael Jordan is so firmly entrenched on it that one could confidently expect him to stay there until the NBA dissolves or humans go extinct (whichever happens first).

When I use the words “universally acknowledged,” I don’t mean to imply that everyone on the planet thinks MJ is the GOAT (even though most properly informed people do). There are plenty of fans who are of the opinion that someone like Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar represents the pinnacle of NBA basketball. They might even be right. But as far as society is concerned, they can’t be. In the collective consciousness that determines who the greatest basketball player of all time is, Jordan has already passed the point of no return. His claim to the throne is so pervasive that someone who knows next to nothing about professional basketball could be asked who its best player ever is and answer, without hesitation, that it is Michael Jordan.

To borrow an example from Klosterman, Jordan has reached a level of magnitude that is not unlike Shakespeare’s. Even though Shakespeare’s contemporaries (Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe) were writing plays that approached his in terms of quality, they have been effectively erased from the average person’s pool of knowledge in 2016. We latched onto Shakespeare as the poster child of Elizabethan drama, so the way in which he stacked up against his peers is ultimately negligible: “Shakespeare is better than Marlowe and Jonson because Shakespeare is more like Shakespeare, which is how we delineate greatness within playwriting.”

That argument can also be seen as reasoning for why Kobe Bryant modeled his game almost entirely off of Jordan’s. MJ’s legacy was already treated with such reverence that, in his quest to be the best to ever play, Kobe tried to directly out-Jordan Jordan—and made a decent enough attempt of it. If history is any indication though, the significance of Kobe’s applaudable impersonation will fade over time while the weight of Jordan’s perceived greatness will only grow. Fair or not, that’s just how these things work.

There is, however, one scenario in which this wouldn’t be the case: the scenario where we push Jordan off his pedestal.

This could happen in two possible ways. The first option is that someone simply comes along and blows Jordan out of the water beyond a reasonable doubt. To do this, he would have to put up at least comparable—and in several cases, better—numbers in all of Jordan’s key categories: six titles (all with clear alpha dog status), five MVPs (plus years where he was blatantly robbed because of voter fatigue and ignorance), 10 scoring titles and nine defensive first teams, etc.

As much as many people would love for this to happen, it is exceedingly unlikely. A historically unique set of circumstances allowed for Jordan to realize his individual greatness while also setting the benchmark for modern team success. How many superstar athletes get to spend over a decade with one of his sport’s greatest coaches (Phil Jackson) and an overqualified second option (Scottie Pippen) who’s totally on board with being perpetually slotted into that role?

Ironically enough, Kobe landed in the perfect situation to emulate that blueprint, but he decided to push Shaq out of town prematurely rather than (likely) win tons of titles as a temporary second banana and eventual alpha dog. LeBron James has been compared to Jordan since his high school days, but he’s had far less enviable team situations than MJ and faces steep odds at this point to catch up to him in the championships department. Nobody had really considered Steph Curry as a potential Jordan usurper until last spring, but given the way the last 17 months have transpired, he certainly has an outside shot (see what I did there?) at it.

The second option is a far more likely scenario—albeit, one that probably wouldn’t actually occur for quite a while. It harkens back to the idea of values that was discussed about 1,000 words ago. A statistic or achievement is only as valuable as we make it out to be. Jordan is the superlative NBA player because we value the sum total of his production more than everyone else’s. Wilt Chamberlain averaged more points and Russell won more rings, but we rationalize those statistical deficiencies with the evolution of the game and the reality that a 30-team league dilutes the concentration of talent per team, making it significantly tougher to win even a single championship (statistically speaking)—not to mention that the size, skill, and athleticism of the average NBA player has increased significantly since the 1960s. There’s no way that anyone from that era could’ve anticipated all the changes the NBA would eventually experience, or the skills it would come to value more highly than the big man-centric game of the day.

So who’s to say it won’t happen again (or isn’t already happening)? And who’s to say Jordan’s legacy won’t fall victim to it?

The concept of paradigm shifts are brought up several times in Klosterman’s book. This phenomenon occurs when there is a fundamental change that alters our underlying assumption about something. Over the course of basketball history, that’s happened quite frequently—both on the court and in the offices that govern it: the invention of the shot clock, the NBA-ABA merger, the salary cap, the introduction of the three-point line, hand check rules, etc.

Klosterman notes that “[paradigm shifts] tend to be less dramatic than cultural memory suggests.” That seems to hold up in the NBA as well. Take the three-point shot for example. Despite being introduced in the late 1970s, it’s taken teams until this decade to really start maximizing its value in their team-building philosophies. And the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Smart teams like the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs have ridden the long ball to sustained renaissances. If Golden State caps off its 73-win season with a championship, it will have eclipsed one of MJ’s most iconic achievements, largely because the squad was constructed to be a three-point-shooting juggernaut.

This is significant because it speaks to how little we can truly be sure about when it comes to forecasting the future of the NBA. The idea of Curry taking over the league seemed ridiculous even four years ago. But here we are. And it all dates back to a paradigm shift that took place over 35 years in the past. Curry’s particular manifestation of greatness was inconceivable before that (this isn’t to suggest that his value is entirely dependent on his three-point stroke, but it obviously plays a big part in things).

In the larger picture, this tells us a couple of things. Firstly, it means that we have to accept that future basketball players may have the capacity to dominate in ways that currently seem mind-boggling. Secondly, it means that the game as a whole is subject (even likely) to shift in such a way that it eventually resembles something highly dissimilar to its current form, or that we just come to value different pre-existing aspects of the game from an entirely new perspective.

Let’s say, for example, that NBA box scores introduced something akin to the ‘hockey assist,’ a term that denotes the pass that leads to the assist. Even though it wouldn’t technically be anything that wasn’t taking place before, highlighting it through more conventional means would result in a greater degree of emphasis placed upon such a pass. If it were incorporated into fantasy basketball, it would add a whole new wrinkle to the way participants draft their teams. Perhaps it even leads to a league-wide hyper-passing revolution where ball movement occurs in totally novel and impressive ways. Passers could become so valuable that their role on the court is considered paramount to that of an elite scorer because they can make anyone a scorer (guys like Steve Nash obviously embody this but scoring has always been the primary vehicle for which talent is judged around the league).

Let’s extend this even further. Imagine that because of this trend, the NBA of 2116 has evolved to a point where isolation ball is completely dead and strategic unselfishness is far and away the most valuable skill a player can have—and not just point guards, this includes the whole lineup. In that bizarre universe, how would we look back on a guy like Michael Jordan? Obviously his accomplishments wouldn’t be overlooked. The ultimate prize would still be the championship, and any guy who was primarily responsible for six of those would have to be given his due. But beyond that, MJ would probably look like a historically overrated dude who might not succeed in the current era because he wouldn’t be wired the right way. So much time would have elapsed since the days where teams weren’t passing 43 times a possession that Jordan’s entire ethos of me-first basketball would seem like a joke.

So hypothetically, even if a 2116 league alpha dog only ever won four or five championships, wouldn’t it seem reasonable to slot him above Jordan historically for the same kinds of reasons that Russell is often rated below Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan? Plus, by that time, there will be no living humans left who actually saw Jordan play. Even if he takes on that Shakespeare level of noteworthiness while guys like Shaq, Magic, and Kobe are virtually unknown to non-hardcore NBA fans, he will still seem distant and obsolete. People will recognize his brilliance, but his game will translate into that futuristic society like Olde English translates into ours. Alternatively, maybe some NBA historian will study old footage of Nash and come to the conclusion that he was the DaVinci of the turn-of-the-century NBA, light years ahead of his time and far more noteworthy than Jordan based on how the world has changed.

Presently, the NBA has a momentous series on its hands. Regardless of how Cavs-Warriors II turns out, it’ll represent a massive gain in either LeBron or Curry’s quest to one day supplant Jordan in the minds of not only NBA enthusiasts, but the public at large. Yet even if neither of them—or some yet-to-be-determined player—pulls off that feat by shattering Jordan’s records, it doesn’t necessarily mean that his GOAT status is safe forever. If our rules and values are subject to change, then so are our strongly held collective opinions.


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