Many people like to try to compare each era and theorize how a player from the past would do today and vice versa. It’s a fun exercise with no real way of proving the speculation. I do however think you can provide some compelling evidence. One of the best ways and perhaps the only way is to explore superstars careers that overlap. We can see how a player performed spanning multiple eras and then compare them to other players who also played in that era and would eventually play into other eras provided they were still playing at a high level. We can look at those snapshots in time and I think discern some information out of their performances and then how other superstars they played with performed years later.
Let me first say I respect the founders of the game from the earlier generation, and every generation has moved the sport forward. Like with any industry, things evolve and build on what was done well. We don’t for instance travel around in Model T’s any more or treat cancer like they did in the 1950s. Basketball in the same way has built on the skills and styles developed over generations now. You don’t see players with the same level of step back and moving three pointers years ago for example. The skill level and what is possible has been developed. The rules have also changed a lot over the years in what a player is allowed to do dribbling the ball.
While we can respect how previous generations laid the foundation and groundwork others built off of, I think we can be honest about the level of play. If you dropped an average player like Terry Rozier in his present form in 1958 my original opinion going in was that I think he’d probably be considered one of the all time greats. That’s just seemed like the reality as teams would look at him like an alien with 3 heads as he shot 25 foot stepbacks in an era where most players couldn’t even shoot .500% even around the basket. Thinking about it more though he would be subject to the dribbling rules these other players had at the time. Even if he had the skills that were alien he would be boxed in on how he used them in each era. He wouldn’t have a chance to display them in the same way.
He’d still be more skilled and advanced though as the league average was 38% on FG’s that year, and even greats like Bill Russell couldn’t even shoot 45% for his career. It’s just a different skill level players have built today in year-round basketball like AAU since childhood. Most players are taught at a much younger age proper mechanics, and there is certainly an evolved knowledge built on previous generations of what has worked. That’s not to say that some of the stars of yesteryear could not compete today. I do think some of them absolutely could, but they wouldn’t dominate even if they were raised in this era in my opinion.
The reason I felt this way is simple math and just how many millions more players play the game today. At any given point, around 22% of the NBA is foreign players and after the Dream Team in 1992 basketball’s growth really expanded worldwide. There is simply a player pool of 10’s of millions more players to draw the best from than there were 25 years ago, much less 50 or 75. Even the US is more than twice as large as it was in 1950. It’s almost 100 million people more than in 1990 alone. The sport is more popular now as well and there are simply millions of people that will at some point try the game especially if they show any level of athletic ability or have size. In previous eras, you may not have had a Giannis, Jokic, Doncic pick up a basketball in their countries or if they did have even left their county to come to the NBA.
Today there are few players that actually slip through the cracks and if you have any size which is easy to identify you are identified and steered into basketball. There are now worldwide academies even set up by the NBA to look for players at a young age and grow the game. It’s so much more competitive with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line potentially. Even some of the best players in the world that did pick up the game decades ago didn’t make it over to the NBA. Oscar Schmidt comes to mind, as does losing the prime years of the elder Sabonis. The money was on a more competitive level back then and other leagues could keep some of those guys. JJ Reddick got heat earlier this summer for calling the players of the 1950’s plumbers and firemen, but there is probably some truth in the money wasn’t the same lure. There were for sure guys that went into other professions in earlier eras where they could make more money or that supplemented their salaries.
We also need to acknowledge the biggest elephant in the room, that African Americans had limited opportunities to play the game in the 1950s and 1960s both in college and the NBA. While there was no official quota the end results seem to be the same as there was no NBA team that had more than 4 black players until 1963. That certainly is a component of how this era is viewed, when many of the best weren’t even allowed to be part of the era. There is also the ABA aspect that hindered the NBA and diluted some of the best talent as well from 1967 to 1976. Any league that could field 16 future hall of famers and peel off talent like they did had to have a detrimental effect. I think we can kind of see that in some of the stats of the NBA stars that arrived in the early 1970’s.
I do think there is some argument about how fewer teams helped mitigate the quality of play back then. If you put the best 120 players today on 8 or 9 teams like they had until 1966 that certainly would be a different level of competition they face night in and night out. I still think the overall numbers are overwhelming in comparison though to the player pool of today and how much more talent is available to fit on 30 teams. The NBA has been near the 30 teams/ top 400 players in the world model basically since 1989 when they got to 27 teams. I think one could argue the expansion of 7 teams from 1988-1995 diluted the NBA of that era in the same way only having 8 teams bolstered it in the early years. I’m sure that’s sacrilege to say as many hold that era in the 1990’s as the golden age but there has to be some truth in that weakening effect IMO by comparison of today. The NBA was at 22 teams by 1976 after the ABA folded. I think is pretty comparable in the number of teams to today, the game also from an aesthetic standpoint started to resemble the game today more whereas some of the videos from the ’50s and early ’60s doesn’t even look like the same game the way they were allowed to dribble.
When you are allowed to turn your wrist over like this and really gives you an advantage in controlling it and how you are able to get to the basket or to shots. I’m sure it’s not like the players of the 50s and 60s didn’t think of doing this or try, they just weren’t allowed to get away with it. From my research, it was really more into the early ’80s when players were allowed to use crossovers. This would have been a great detriment to nonbigs. I also think more modern basketball shoes likely helped with some lateral movement as well vs what the guards of the early era’s were wearing.
With some of the basics out of the way, let’s start looking at the player overlap. I would have liked to start the exercise with the first NBA superstar George Mikan, but his career didn’t overlap with Wilt Chamberlin to give us a baseline of the first two great NBA big men. We can draw some information I believe from the other stars of the era like Paul Arizin and Bob Cousy though. Cousy’s first year was 1950-51 one year after the birth of the league. By his 2nd year, he was averaging 21.7ppg and 6.7apg with a 21.5 PER. By his last season in 1963, he was still a good player averaging 13.2ppg, 6.8apg with a 16.6 PER at the age of 34 for the Champion Boston Celtics. PER BTW is adjusted to the league average so it gives us some idea of players under the norms and rules of the league that season.
That would have been more impressive if the racial makeup of the league at the time wasn’t only marginally unchanged. No team had more than 4 black players and it was seemingly still a relatively similar league overall to what he entered in the early ’50s being mostly white. Although there certainly was a difference in some of the biggest stars in the league now were the black players like Wilt Chamberlin, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, and Oscar Robertson. Jerry West was also in the NBA as well his first season in 1960-61. It’s still pretty impressive to me that Cousy was a legit solid player at 34 years old amongst some of these legitimate all-timers who would play into the 1970s.
In this era, the sport was also improving rapidly as well as more people got exposure to basketball and started to play it or even see it as a viable potential profession. Some of the regression of players in this era we will see is likely from the accent of the sport in popularity as well in the 1960s and just an improving talent base to draw from I believe. I think we can see evidence of that in many players’ statistics. For example, look at Wilt’s, Elgin Baylor, Walt Bellamy, and others’ numbers in the early 1960s compared to after the mid 60’s even at ages they shouldn’t have regressed as they did. That not even just the inflated pace of the early 60s, but per possession, there was also a drop. That is even as the ABA pulled off some of the talents as well and expansion diluted the talent some as well in1967-68. Their numbers dropped pretty much as soon as more black players were allowed in the mid-1960s.
This is probably the hardest era to think through because there are many factors at play that do not exist by 1976. That’s kind of the line of demarcation that marks modern basketball to me. It’s clear the overall talent in the game I believe started to pick up around the mid-1960s when the league went from roughly 25% black in 1960-61 to 50% black by 1965-66 and over 70% by the 1976 merger where it has remained about 75 to 80 percent the last 40 years or so. What we do know without a doubt is Wilt was the first mega star. He is the first player I think you could argue likely would have competed at a high level in any era given his size and athletic ability, so he’s really the first thread I think we start with.
Wilt and Kareem’s Overlap
The first really good example to draw from I believe is Wilt and Kareem’s career overlapping. Wilt unfortunately only played 12 games in Kareem’s first season and while he did average 27ppg and 18rpg and nearly a 25 PER in those 12 games, those stats feel a little noisy. The reason is he wasn’t as good the previous year or the following year. In those two full seasons sandwiching that one, his numbers were a more consistent 20ppg, 18-20rpg, and 20-22 PER seasons. I think that’s more the reality, so let’s look at the 1970-71 season. It was also the first year Kareem dominated the league, having one of his best seasons’s ever winning the MVP and leading the league in scoring. Wilt was still a big-time force leading the league in rebounding. BTW as a side note, keep in mind the rebounding in earlier eras was highly inflated because of pace and poor shooting. At its peak, it was around 72 rebounds a game available compared to about 44 today.
|Kareem Abdul Jabar||23||31.7||16||3.3||29||0.609|
While Wilt wasn’t what he was by this point, it’s still pretty clear he was a star in this version of the NBA, and the NBA had already evolved a lot from the one he had entered.
Wilt and Kareem actually were able to go head to head in the playoffs although most of the games weren’t close with Milwaukee winning in 5. Chamberlin did average 22ppg 18.8rpg, 2.0apg vs Kareem’s 25ppg, 17.2rpg, 4.2apg. It’s a 5 game sample with perhaps a lot of it being garbage time as most of the games were blowouts. ClearlyWilt could still play and played some good defense on Kareem limiting him to 48% shooting from his nearly 58% season average. This is the best example of two players overlapping.
Fast forward to 1985-86 and Kareem’s last great season. The 3-point line had been introduced in 1980 although still underutilized but this feels more like a modern NBA at this point with the dunking and between-the-leg dribbling.
Kareem had just won the Finals MVP the previous season and would still average 23.4ppg on one of the best teams in the NBA at the age of 38. He was 1st team All NBA and 5th in the MVP voting even at this advanced age. Patrick Ewing was the Rookie of the Year this season and Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson would lead the Rockets over the Lakers in the playoffs and make it to the finals.
|Kareem Abdul Jabar||38||23.4||6.1||3.5||1.6||22.7||0.603|
The per possession stats aren’t really that massively different than they were at 23 years old in the early 70’s. Similar true shooting and the PER is still a high level 22.7 vs 29.0 impacts vs the league each of these years. That’s at age 38 even with a much better version of the NBA I would believe. Head to head in the playoffs that year Kareem averaged 27ppg, 6.8rpg, 3.3apg, 2.4bpg shooting .496% from the field. Hakeem was spectacular as well in those 5 games averaging 31ppg, 11.0rpg, 2.0apg, 4bpg 52% FG’s.
Now let’s fast forward to nearly the turn of the century. I choose 1999 simply because it’s really the first great years of Duncan and Garnett that lined up with Olajuwon and Ewing still being quality NBA players still at the age of 36. Shaq is also nearly at his peak at this point. Unfortunately, it’s the lockout-shortened seasons that were compressed and a little weird. If anything that would be a disadvantage to the older players I believe as many games as they played in a shorter time so might actually make it more impressive.
Duncan and Garnett get you pretty much to the modern NBA. Duncan was still a high-level player at 38 years old although Garnett had fallen off a couple of years prior.
Obviously, Giannis wasn’t anywhere close to what he would become, but Anthony Davis had already posted one of the best seasons in his career (as well as history per possession). A 38 year old Tim Duncan’s impact per possession was still very comparable to the 22-year-old version from the last century and this is the through-line connective tissue that brings us into the modern NBA. Duncan was in fact one of the best defensive centers in the NBA still at that point as well. He was actually 3rd team all NBA.
I think the case could be made for sure that Wilt Chamberlin wouldn’t have looked out of place at all in today’s game. He wouldn’t be scoring 50 certainly like he was in the early 60s vs that version of the NBA, but he unlike many of the guard and wing options of his era would have had a place for sure. His unique size and athletic ability is pretty much undeniable and most of the skills as more modern bigs are still relatively the same in value like rebounding and scoring close to the basket. Those are pretty cut and dry and transferable IMO if you have the physical attributes he did.
I’m far more skeptical of the nonbigs with the level of skill and athleticism there is today simply from the larger pool of players. Even some of the bigs like Bill Russell I would be highly skeptical of as well having much of a career as he didn’t really even stand out statistically in his own era or physically doesn’t seem to have the measurables to make up for the lack of skill in today’s NBA in my opinion. Let’s look at some non-big examples now.
The stats are pretty inflated in this version of the NBA given the high pace and high minutes, but I picked this year because Cousy and Arizin were still big players. They can take us back nearly to the very beginning as they entered the league and were significant players from 1950 the year after the NBA was formed.
I believe this can give us some reference with players that touch the very beginning pre shot clock and all. It also can help us understand a little more the caliber of player George Mikan possibly could have been as these three were the biggest stars.
Let’s take a look at the triumvirate of West, Robertson, and Baylor by 1970.
I picked this season because it’s the last year Elgin Baylor was great or even good and Oscar Robertson and Jerry West had been starring since 1960. It was also Kareem’s rookie season. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find non bigs to take us into the 1980s about the farthest we can get is the late 70s. It wasn’t the best era for non bigs and the ABA robbed us of some of the overlaps with guys like Dr. J and West.
Bob Cousy actually came out of retirement after 7 years and played 34 minutes this season at the age of 41. He was not good but he still was able to do a few positive things. He had 5 points 10 assists, 5 rebounds on 3 shots from the floor in what is essentially one game worth of 34 minutes. I think this indicates he could still do a few things even at that advanced age and in this version of the NBA. He wouldn’t have been out of place in his prime either I believe considering he actually could still register some positive stats at all. It’s an interesting glimpse.
Still, Elgin Baylor is probably our best connective tissue to the 1950s. He had averaged 24.9ppg, 15.0rpg, 4.1apg in 1958-59 as a 24-year-old. So at 35 he still had some surprisingly similar numbers. I think it’s very interesting even as the NBA was improving a lot from the 50s it was simultaneously being diluted some at this point by the ABA and expansion I think could be some of the explanation.
Let’s look at some of the star guards and wings to last play with West, Baylor, and Robertson to help get us to the post-ABA merger 1976 season which realistically marks the more modern NBA.
Now none of these older players were stars by this point nor should they have been expected to be at that age, but it’s a good snapshot as how they compared to a couple of players that would eventually star into the 1980s who were around prime age at this point. It’s certainly not as clean as Wilt to Kareem, to Hakeem, and so on, but it’s the best we have to draw some comparison I believe, and connect the eras.
Dr. J was almost the same player he was at 34 as 26 in this snapshot which is kind of wild and unexpected honestly. I included Barkley even though he’s a big technically he is kind of a small simultaneously being 6-6 with some great ball handling and skill. He’s just another all-time great who was also pretty good at this time even on the same team as Erving. Jordan and Barkley as 21-year-old rookies are very young but we got to remember they were in college 3 years too. It’s not like today where players come out after 1 year.
I’m going to break my rules a little and include a smaller window from 1996-1999 as I don’t think the NBA was that different overall from 1996-1999. It allows a connection from Magic to many superstars of the 2000s. Most people don’t recall Magic playing after 4 years on away from basketball with HIV at 36 years old. I have included it because I do believe it’s informative how an all-time great like this could still compete in this era with so many great young players that would follow only a short time later.
This generation gets us pretty much all the way to the present day. Ray Allen and Kobe played vs Jordan when he was in Chicago. Pierce and Carter came in the year after but all would face him in their prime when he was a Wizard.
I might talk about Jordan’s stint in Washington in a later article but I will just say here quickly I think it’s underrated what he was able to still do at 38-40. To me, it doesn’t discredit his legacy like most will say or try to forget it even happened. I think it actually adds to it for me and is fun we got to see what he could do at that age.
People really forget how good Jordan was before he tore his meniscus. He tore it and then played 14 more games tanking his stats only averaging 14ppg in those games before shutting it down and getting surgery.
Before the injury, he was averaging
|Jordan with the Wizards pre injury.|
|25.6 ppg (on 42%fg)|
At the time of the injury, the wizards were 26-21 and had won 7 of the last 8 games, and trending in the right direction having only won 19 games the prior year. Clearly, he had an impact on winning when he was healthy and likely would have made the playoffs. All the other top wings were in their prime at this point and Jordan was still a high level player. The only really disappointing aspect is his scoring efficiency at this stage. The other parts of the game he was still very productive, his rebounding was actually better than 9 of his Chicago seasons and his assist were actually his 3rd highest rate in his career. His steal and block rates were still respectable too.
We nearly got the Lebron and Jordan encounter, as well as Jordan’s last game, was only 6 months prior to Lebron’s debut. That’s how close we were to get an iconic match up and an NBA photo at what could have been. Two players that even at 40 and 19 were capable of averaging 20ppg 5rpg, 5apg in virtually the exact same NBA only separated by months. By Lebron’s 2nd year he was already Lebron infact averaging 27.2ppg, 7.4rpg, 7.2apg with a 26 PER and a .557 True Shooting. That’s how close we were to actually see a relatively still high-level Jordan and basically seeing the real Lebron on a court.
Neither was great in 2003 but they were still fairly high-level NBA players in the grand scheme and it would have been a pretty evenly matched match up. Jordan was playing 79% of his minutes at SF by that point so we know he would have had a go at him.
In fact, there was a secret scrimmage against Jordan when Lebron was only 16 years old. Jordan would have been 37 here. This would have been a pretty real Jordan, and Lebron was already the best high school player in the country despite only being a sophomore. Ron Artest was there and said Lebron was already 225 and force.
The way Lebron, Curry, and Durant are still playing today at 34-37 will certainly take us into the next generation and beyond.
I got to say when I started this exercise I really believed the NBA of previous eras was an inferior league to that today. I still do, especially pre the mid-60s. That said I do believe the gaps are more narrow than I originally believed. I think this is pretty compelling evidence of just how well players continued to play in many cases 15 years later spanning multiple eras. There has to be some transitive property even if the NBA is gradually improving each season as I think it was. I think it does allow us to compare in some way the eras through statistical impact with so much overlap and high level players that were still playing at a high level 15 years later tied together. I do think some of these superstars even the noncenters would still have had a chance to make an impact in the NBA today more so than I would have originally thought pre research. I think the rules of the day and style they played under was a bigger deal than I originally gave credit, especially the dribbling components. I’m not sure how far that extends beyond superstars but there seems to be enough evidence there to support that the stars would have done ok all through history, even if logically with the overall millions more pool to draw on to me at least I wouldn’t have expected it before really digging in.