It’s time to stop comparing eras in the NBA.
After the Dallas Mavericks’ thrilling 119-115 double-overtime victory over the Los Angeles Lakers Thursday night, Luka Doncic was asked by a reporter where he would rank LeBron James in the history of the game. Luka’s response:
"“I’m not doing the ranking stuff. I just enjoy great basketball players and that’s it. I mean, he’s an amazing player, an exceptional player, but I’m not doing the ranking stuff.”"
Why wouldn’t Luka just answer the question?
Well, first of all, if he does answer it, his response will become a major point of discussion for every sports media outlet.
I doubt Luka, or any player in the league for that matter, wants to be headlining First Take, or any sports program of your choosing, with their opinion on the all-time NBA player list as opposed to their team’s performance on the court. Nobody wants to be a distraction for their team. Well, maybe not nobody. Looking at you Kyrie Irving.
Second of all, and more importantly, it’s impossible to rank or compare players of different eras.
Over this past summer, Draymond Green gave voice to this matter with the following tweet:
The tweet was the first in Green’s rant as to why the 2017 Golden State Warriors would demolish any version of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. The irony is obvious – Green states it’s “dumb” to compare eras and then goes on to compare eras with his next tweet.
Green’s message may have held more weight if he didn’t do exactly what he said not to do shortly after, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that his original message is correct: It is dumb to compare teams and players of different NBA eras.
It’s impossible to compare players and teams from different eras in the NBA
Ranking and comparing players is something that has always been and will always be a part of fandom in basketball, and any sport for that matter. It’s important to remember though the discussion is purely hypothetical and comes down to individual preference. For instance, one fan might value Michael Jordan’s six championship rings over LeBron James’ four, but another fan may value LeBron’s longevity over Jordan’s.
Additionally, the game has changed exponentially since the first official NBA season back in 1949-50.
It’s impossible to juxtapose any player from today to players of the 90s, just like it’s impossible to juxtapose players from the 90s to players of the 60s and 70s.
One way in which the game has changed is in the sheer amount of three-pointers hoisted up in today’s game. For instance, there have been 122 times when a player has hit 200 or more three-pointers in a single season in NBA history. One hundred and thirteen of those 122 instances all occurred since the turn of the century. The nine that didn’t all happened in the 90s.
Reggie Miller, one of the greatest shooters to ever play the game and who currently sits fourth all-time in three-point field goals made, drained his most threes in a season in 1996-97 with 229 three-pointers. Last season, Evan Fournier sank 241 three-pointers.
Larry Bird, another one of the greatest shooters that has ever stepped foot on a basketball court, knocked down his most threes in a season in 1987-88, with 98 three-pointers. Brook Lopez sank 102 threes in the 2016-17 season, and that’s not even the most threes he’s ever made in a single season. Furthermore, this season there are 24 players who have already eclipsed that number from Bird and we’re only halfway through the season!
Suffice to say, the game has evolved with a heightened focus on the three ball. No longer is the game played from the inside-out.
Another way the game has changed over the many years is how it is talked about in the media.
As previously mentioned, player and team comparison of different eras in any sport are commonplace among fans and sports media outlets. It’s part of the fun of fandom and those conversations certainly have a place in sports.
It’s more the domination these topics have in today’s media that is the problem. For instance, a few seasons ago the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2019-20 NBA championship. Instead of the conversation being about how incredible the accomplishment was for the Lakers in an unprecedented season that saw the entire league move to Florida and play in a “bubble” due to the global pandemic, it was centered around what the title means to LeBron’s legacy and how this title compares to others given the circumstance.
It’s understandable these conversations come up, but to be the main points of discussion across the entire sports media landscape is the issue.
Instead of debating first, second and third, we should appreciate greatness when it comes along because it’s not always guaranteed to come back.
These discussions about legacy and who’s the greatest to ever do it may be fun, but podcasts like The Old Man and the Three led by former NBA sharpshooter JJ Reddick, Point Forward with Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner, and All the Smoke featuring Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson have all taken off for a reason.
Instead of debating meaningless things, these shows hosted by former NBA players, focus on the behind-the-scenes world of the NBA as well as the actual action taking place on the court. The game would be in a better place if we had more analysis like Reddick, Iguodala, and Barnes and less of the Skip Bayless’ and Stephen A Smith’s of the world.
Circling back to the specific LeBron question Luka was asked a few days ago. As LeBron’s basketball career approaches its inevitable end, debates centered on where he ranks amongst the game’s greatest will become more and more popular. It’s the inevitability of fandom.
Before we all do that though, can we first try to appreciate the greatest that LeBron James has left. His career isn’t over just yet. He has given so much to the game we all love. It’s important we all show him that love back.
As Luka put it so elegantly: “He’s an amazing player, an exceptional player.”