A New Way to Think about the Best of All Time

I’m 20 years old. I wasn’t close to being born when Wilt dropped 100. I never got to see Bird and Magic battle it out throughout the 80’s. I never had the privilege to watch MJ in his prime dominate the NBA. I’m just a young boy, but one thing I do know is that basketball has evolved through the years. And some people need to recognize that.

Now, I know this article will make me seem like a stupid kid. That’s fine with me. I’m not trying to change up the rankings of the best players ever. I just want to change the way we look at those rankings and compare players.

We need to look at the list of the greatest players and compare them to their era and think about the impact they had on the game. Too often, we talk about what would happen if someone were matched up in an actual game. For example, my dad has been quoted as saying that LeBron James, “can’t hold Billy Cunningham’s jockstrap.” Is my dad an idiot sandwich? No doubt. I’m sure Billy Cunningham was a hell of a player in his era, but LeBron James would split him open, like a coconut.

This isn’t just true with Billy Cunningham and the King. A lot of players would struggle tremendously in this era. That’s nothing against them. This NBA is just different. The quality of the athletes in the league has gotten significantly better and the style of play has changed as the years have gone by. The league is bigger, stronger, and faster.

I’m going to get a little extreme with my next example. Bill Russell is a top 10 player of all time. Very few people will debate that. He’s certainly in my top 10. You know who isn’t in my top 10? Brook Lopez. He’s not all that close either. (I swear the takes get much hotter than “Brook Lopez isn’t a top 10 player of all time.”)

When Bill Russell was playing, he was 6’9” and 220 pounds. Brook Lopez stands at 7’0” and 268 pounds. Back in the day, the big guys didn’t have the moves they have today. I know you all see where this is going, so I’ll just get it out of the way: Brook Lopez would beat Bill Russell one on one. I’m not exactly certain that it would be that close.

So if you haven’t clicked out yet and you’re giving me a chance to make my case, thank you. Here’s the case for Brook. He’s got all the size in the world on Bill. He has three inches and almost 50 pounds on Russell. If Brook gets the ball on the block, he’s going to take it to Bill with an array of moves that would baffle Russell or he could just overpower him.

The competition that Bill saw during his time didn’t have the moves that we have seen through the years. Kareem hadn’t shown everyone how to perfect the skyhook. Hakeem wasn’t dream-shaking all over bigs yet. And Shaq wasn’t overpowering all of the bigs in the NBA yet. The game was more basic back then. The big guy that dominated the league was Wilt. That was the best player Bill went up against and Wilt didn’t have a quarter of the moves that the bigs have today.

So, Brook has the size and the array of moves. I’m taking Brook in the one on one matchup. Does this mean Brook should be higher on my all-time list? Absolutely not. Because it’s Brook Lopez and Bill Russell. One of them has 11 championships in 13 seasons and the other one is a barely above average center on an embarrassment of an organization. But the point is that we need to think about the all-time list in a different way.

We need to look at what players did for their era. Bob Cousy is a legend. How would he do if he were matched up against Kyrie Irving? I don’t even want to think about that. That is a sad thing to think about. However, Cousy is in the top 50 for most people. Kyrie Irving isn’t there. He may never get there. But that doesn’t matter because Cousy was one of the best players in his day and his legacy is set in stone.

The list goes on and on with players that have had a great impact on the game and dominated their era, but would struggle in this day and age. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be at the top of our greatest players list. We need to think about the impact on the game and how good they did in their era. Do I sound like a stupid kid saying Brook would beat Bill Russell in a one on one game? Absolutely. But, if you watch any old film on basketball and can say with a straight face that the quality of play hasn’t gotten significantly better than you need Chef Gordon Ramsay to tell you that you are indeed an idiot sandwich.

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