Measures of Greatness

*Note: This is the introduction of what I’m expecting to be a lengthy discussion of what determinants make certain player greater than others.

There is an argument that exists in all professional sports for disputing the greatness of various legends. As advanced technology and analytics make it easier to distinguish between individual players based on their on-court success, the conversation is made even more complicated as we must juggle tangible statistics, intangible on-court styles of play, and the historic record of personal/team achievement.

As they exist today, there are four primary measures that enter the conversation for determining whether player A was historically greater than player B. These measures are (1) compiled statistics, (2) personal accolades, (3) team success, and (4) historical influence. Advanced analytics have had a role in expanding simple statistics (e.g. points, rebounds, assists) into a more in-depth insight to players’ performance (e.g. player efficiency, usage rates, on-court plus/minus, etc.)

Since the game of basketball is played 5-on-5 instead of 1-on-1, the success of a given team plays into how individual players are perceived. Player A may have been a better individual player than player B, but team A may have gone further in the playoffs whereas team B missed the playoffs entirely. This team success creates a disparity in the number of games played, meaning that two players will have an uneven amount of opportunities to either prove their worth or value.

The fact that the best teams in the league will typically be at their best in the playoffs also means that the level of competition that two particular players face may also be uneven. While player A might feast on the inferior play of a weak division throughout the regular season then struggle in the playoffs, player B might improve his play steadily against moderate competition and plateau once he reaches the playoffs.

Understandably, the role of teams in basketball means that no player can be measured solely based on statistics and personal accolades. We have to approach player evaluation with a holistic approach–giving weight to whichever standard of measure is more appropriate for certain generations and eras. It is obviously impossible to judge Bill Russell based on his defensive ability alone in a decade that didn’t measure steals or blocks, and it’s unfair to judge Dominique Wilkins a lesser player because his team never reached the NBA Finals but played in an ultra-competitive Eastern Conference.

Statistics, by themselves, are a reliable measure of how well a player impacts the box score of a given game. This measure, however, fails to reward players for doing the little things in basketball like playing tough on-ball defense, making hustle plays, setting great screens, or helping their teammates with “hockey” assists. Notable players of this mold who don’t receive enough credit from statistics alone include Wes Unseld in the ‘70s and Bruce Bowen (regardless of personal like or dislike) in the ‘00s.

With the availability of advanced analytics, it is possible to ascribe a level of team success to an individual player’s presence on the court. Player efficiency gives a fair measure to how well a player makes use of his minutes on the floor, and plus/minus shows a team’s success (or failure) while a player is in the game. The downsides to these metrics is that they are only relevant for players in the modern era, and certain players may have inflated ratings due to playing limited minutes for a successful team.

Personal accolades should be viewed as honors for the sake of recognizing individual performance. The trouble that coincides with these accolades is the fact that the Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards are closely tied to team success. Only once (1976) has the MVP been given to a player whose team missed the playoffs. In recent years, arguments have been made that assert that the award should be reserved for the best player on the best team. Since there is no “Best Player on Earth” award, certain performances like Kobe Bryant’s 2006 season fall by the wayside; scoring title is viewed as less impressive than an MVP award because volume shooters, or “chuckers,” can invade the statistical rankings.

In the same vein, the DPOY will typically be bestowed to a player on one of the league’s best defensive teams. So even if a player like Anthony Davis leads the league in blocks in only his second season, Joakim Noah is viewed as more valuable because of his team’s defensive reputation. And do Dikembe Mutombo’s NBA-best five DPOY awards really make him a better defensive player than Bill Russell?

The last personal accolade that inaccurately measures a player’s greatness is Finals MVP. An award that has only existed since 1969, only once has it been given to a player on the losing side of the NBA Finals, and many times the recipient was someone other than a team’s best player. Jerry West certainly deserved the award in 1969, but at the time it was seen as more of a consolation for continued defeat at the hands of the Celtics. Who’s to say that LeBron James didn’t deserve the same treatment for carrying the rotting corpse of the 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs? And do Cedric Maxwell’s 1981 performance and Chauncey Billups’ 2004 performance really make them better overall than Larry Bird and Ben Wallace?

Team success is a worthy acknowledgement of a player’s ability to impact the game on a larger scale, superseding individual plays and games and taking into account a consistent level of excellence over multiple games, seasons, and even decades. The issue, of course, is that this collective success is the end result of a combined effort of many different players. And with the league comprised of 30 different teams–the most ever–it becomes that much more difficult to win repeatedly and without pause. 82 games and four rounds in the playoffs are a gargantuan task for any roster much less a single player.

At the same time, a team’s lack of success could hurt an individual player’s perception. Was 2003 Tracy McGrady any less of a player because his team stunk up the floor night-in and night-out? Steve Nash may certainly be underrated because his team couldn’t break through when on the doorstep of the NBA Finals three different times in 2005, 2006, and 2010.

History is harder to define and replicate after nearly 70 years of the National Basketball Association. Certain accomplishments are nearly impossible in this day and age. It is unlikely that we’ll ever see another 100-point game and 50-ppg season in the league. No team within the constraints of the Collective Bargaining Agreement is likely to win eight straight championships ever again.

A player’s impact on history is readily apparent by the implementation of rules to make it more difficult for one player to dominate the league. Zone defense was banned in order to prevent superior shot-blockers from unfairly guarding just the basket. Hand-checking rules were meant to force physical on-ball defenders to move their feet more. Flopping became a fineable offense due to the propensity for players in the ‘10s to draw whistles on non-fouls.

With a multitude of measures that allow us to compare players from different teams, seasons, and eras, it is paramount that we scale each standard appropriately and within context so as to reward players for excelling in areas for which they deserve recognition and limit the impact of external factors outside a single player’s control.

The most difficult part of determining a player’s greatness exists in factoring in a player’s competitiveness or “will to win.” Personal accolades aside, Michael Jordan is widely considered the Greatest of All-Time because he took the crown as the best in the league and never relinquished it. Time and time again teams sent multiple players to try and stop MJ, but he still found a way to win the game. Kobe Bryant’s relentless work ethic isn’t measured by statistics, but it made itself apparent in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals when he drilled a long two-pointer that he’d practiced thousands upon thousands of times.

Perhaps the history of the NBA wasn’t meant to be compartmentalized, and these players weren’t meant to be analyzed and compared. But then again, why else would the game exist if not to decide who was better between this particular group of five people and this other group? With the game on the line, why else does the last shot so often come down to an isolation play? Team A’s best offensive player versus team B’s best defensive player. It is a game of winning and losing, and with the stakes so high, it is only nostalgia and pure enjoyment of the sport that drives us to remember and differentiate between the champions of old.

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