Who really is the greatest-of-all-time?

We love to argue. The subject we argue about most is sports. One of the most commonly held debates is the comparison of athletes from different generations. Examples include: Kobe vs Jordan, Federer vs Sampras, Tiger vs Jack, and Peyton vs Montana. But, since these athletes did play during different eras, how can you really determine who was the better player?

For a lot of people, the answer is the numbers and/or statistics. They argue that once Roger Federer wins more Grand Slams than Pete Sampras, Roger is the best of all time. They argue that once Tiger Woods wins more Majors than Jack Nicklaus, Tiger is the greatest golfer ever. They argue that since Michael Jordan has a higher scoring average and higher FG% than Kobe Bryant, Jordan is the better scorer. To determine who is the greatest at a particular sport, you have to establish criteria. The problem is that two people rarely agree on the correct criteria and waste most of their time bickering over it.

Take Michael Jordan, for instance. I believe him to be the greatest basketball player of all time. Most basketball fans agree. But what criteria are we using when making this claim? Perhaps it is that Jordan led the Bulls to 6 NBA Titles. Except, Bill Russell led his Celtics to 11 Titles…in 13 seasons! Neither the Celtics nor the Bulls had won a title before these two arrived. If not titles, how about the combination of regular season MVP awards and titles. Along with 6 titles, Jordan won 5 MVPs. Except, Bill Russell also won 5 MVPs and Kareem Abdul Jabbar won 6 MVPs to go along with his own 6 titles. Jordan also once won the Defensive Player of the Year award. Bill Russell won the award 10 times. If your criteria is most dominating player ever, then Jordan does not compare to Wilt Chamberlain who has four times as many 50+ point games as Jordan. Jordan is often called the most complete player ever, but take a look at Oscar Robertson. While Jordan’s best season was 32.5 pts, 8 reb, and 8 asst; Oscar’s best was 30.8 pts, 12.5 reb, 11.4 asst. Now, you may ask how Jordan is the greatest ever after falling short in all these arguments. The simple fact is that Jordan is the only player in each one of these arguments. He is in the conversation no matter which criteria you use. Is he the greatest player ever because of statistics and numbers? No. He is the greatest ever in spite of statistics and numbers.

The reason for this post was to look at how statisics have changed throughout the years. It is easy to see the change in a sport such as baseball. Home-run numbers skyrocketed in the “steroid era,” but have fallen almost as drastically since. To examine a less obvious change I took a look at the NBA’s league statistics since 1980. I was shocked to see how much they had changed.

Note that 1999 lockout season was not included. Also 3 seasons in the 1990s with a shorter line were discarded for 3PT statistics.

FG% - Peaked at 49.2% in 1984, low of 43.9% in 2004. Are defenses better or are players worse shooters? Coaching and scouting are definitely far more advanced.

3PT - In 1981, 166 threes were attempted at 24.5%. In 2008, highs reached in both attempts (1485) and percentage (36.2%). Players attempt more threes each year.

FT% - Remained fairly consistent through the years. High in 1989 (76.8%), low in 1994 (73.4%), and this past year was 75.5%.

REB - Drastic variations here. Offensive rebounds highest in 1980 (1235) and lowest in 2007 (912). Defensive rebounds have increased in recent years to a high this past season (2524). Is this due to less effort on rebounding or better boxing out?

ASST - Drastic decline from high in 1984 (2153) to low in 2006 (1690). Are players becoming more selfish or are statisticians less liberal about handing out assists?

STL - Similar fall from high in 1980 (772) to low in 2006 (588). Are players better ball handlers or are defenders less aggressive?

BLK - Fallen from high in 1984 (459) to low in 2007 (378).

TOs - Declined from high in 1984 (1567) to low in 2008 (1157). See STL.

PTS - High in 1986 (110.8); low in 2004 (93.4). Has risen since to 99.9 in 2008.

Click for Full Excel Spreadsheet

How can you compare Magic Johnson’s statistics of the 1980’s with Chris Paul’s statistics of today? You can’t. They simply cannot be compared 1-to-1. The game has changed dramatically over the years. The average player is by far stronger and more athletic. The level of coaching and strategy has risen drastically. There have also been several rule changes instituted such as illegal defense and hand-checking. Teams such as the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors have gone against conventional basketball wisdom and pushed the pace of the game to the limit. It also seems that the traveling violation is no longer called. Remarkable new talents such as Jordan, Shaq, and now Lebron drastically changed the way officials call games. So who really is the greatest? The answer to this question will always be an opinion, a judgment call. If Jordan played in today’s era, would he still have achieved as much? If Shaq played during Wilt’s era, what kinds of stats would he have produced? Not only has the physical makeup of the athletes changed over the years, but the numbers have too.

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