Greats are compared by their status among peers of their generation. There is no point and time, where players of one era were completely cutoff from the previous or next. George Mikan, in the 1950s posted up against Bob Pettit, who played Wilt Chamberlain in the 60s, rival to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the early 70s. Kareem fought other players including Hakeem Olajuwon in the 80s. Hakeem faced Shaquille O’Neal in the 90s, while battling Tim Duncan in the 2000s. Duncan dueled with Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2010s. When you look at each players’ direct competition against each other, the statistics are consistent. The veteran player often holds his own or wins in the early contests, until the young lion dethrones the old master, forcing him into retirement.
The game does discriminate. It is a big man’s game, just as horse racing and gymnastics suit comparatively smaller athletes.
There were only 10 teams in the league during the 1966-67 NBA season. While some would scoff at the lack of cities represented, one should consider the challenge of playing any team so often. You have a playoff atmosphere for an entire season. The talent pool has widened as the game has grown. The number of players and teams represented the most able players of the time. It does not take away from the quality of the competition. As long as they played the same amount of time, with similar rules. We are all even.
The 24-second shot clock, defensive 3 seconds, hand checking, illegal defense, the 3-point line. All these rules altered the game, yet overall statistics have not fluctuated much. Players determine the pace—great players dictate the pace. With all of that said, five major statistical areas, with the exception of truly legendary feats, have remained consistent.
The game has evolved.
The best athletes have always been athletic—just not as innovative. Running, jumping, timing, speed and accuracy are all elements of an athlete. Sports science, training and medicine, meanwhile, continue to advance.
The talent pool is much wider, as is dedicated time to the craft of basketball.
Rules have and will continue to change. Players have and will continue to adapt.
The best of all eras given the same opportunity and resources would prove to be at a level playing field.
So, we can look at statistics (and we have to actually look at the statistics) and accurately compare players of different eras.
The regular season is now finished. How do these hardwood heroes perform against, under more pressure with better teams and players?
It is playoff time.
Table 3: Total Average Points (Playoffs, Career)
Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson have precipitous drops in their playoff performances. Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Bill Russell and Hakeem Olajuwon each post significantly better playoff numbers.
A quick note from the bench: Nine of the Elite 16 played between the 1986-87 and 1992-93 seasons. Six were represented on the 1992 USA Olympic ‘Dream Team’. Barkley and Malone, the only players in the 40 Point Club to never win a championship both lost to Michael Jordan.