So Michael Schur - executive producer of Parks and Recreation - came up with a challenge. You probably remember that in 1996, in honor of the NBA's 50th anniversary, the league came out with a list of the 50 greatest players in the history of the league.
Michael's challenge: Try to total up how many NEW players would have to be on that list just based on the last 17 years.
His point - one I agree with - is that pro basketball has had an astonishing influx of talent over the last 17 or so years. For the longest time (and this is mostly truly now too) everybody's all-time NBA team has looked something like this:
Point guard: Magic Johnson
Shooting guard: Michael Jordan
Small forward: Larry Bird
Power forward: Karl Malone*
Center: Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
That is one extraordinary basketball team.
OK, but now let's say you put this team of current players on the floor:
Obviously you could play around with that team - Tim Duncan, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, etc. - but the question remains: Who wins that series between current players and the all-time players? Are you entirely certain that the all-time team (with the players in their primes) would win a best-of-seven?
I'm not. Maybe that's crazy. But I have no idea who on that all-time team guards LeBron James. I'm not entirely sure who guards Kevin Durant, either. Gasol - a 7-foot-1 defensive force of nature with an outside shot - is something that simply did not exist in other generations. I'm not downplaying the brilliance of the Magic and Larry and Michael and the rest, they were amazing, and I'm sure they'd figure things out. I'm just saying that basketball has changed a lot. And the players today are incredible.
OK, so back to the question: Who of the last 17 years would have to go on the All-Time 50? Let's start with the obvious ones - I think there are 10:
- Tim Duncan. He entered the league one year after the All-Time Team came out, and he's almost certainly one of the ten best players to ever play pro basketball. The nickname "The Big Fundamental," is perfect for him because it's boring and nerdy and that is his game. He's actually become more noticeable now because he's older and a legend and all that, so you find yourself watching him. But in his prime, he would just disappear into the game, and then at the end you would see that he scored 24 with 13 rebounds, three blocked shots and four assists.
I didn't pull those numbers out of thin air either. He did that combination 57 times.
- LeBron James. He was 12 years old when the list came out. You know, LeBron does not even turn 29 until December of this year.
- Kobe Bryant. Over at Pro Baseball Reference they have something called the "Elo Rater" where they have fans rate a bunch of different matchups - was Austin Carr better than Eddie Johnson? Was Antawn Jamison better than Paul Silas? - and they take all the answers, computer it out, and come up with a fan rating of the best players in NBA history. The Elo Rater, at the moment I'm writing this, has Kobe ranked as the TWO HUNDRED FORTY THIRD best player. Between Red Kerr and Happy Hariston.
Man, people really, really, really must not like Kobe Bryant.
- Steve Nash. Did Steve Nash deserve either of his MVP Awards? I don't really think so. Dirk Nowitzki might have been the best player in the league both years. LeBron James was young but great. Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, all probably would have been better choices in one or both seasons.
That said, Nash's combination as brilliant playmaker and brilliant shooter is probably unmatched in the three-point era of the NBA. Well, there's no probably about it: Do you know how many players have made 150 three-pointers and dished out 800 assists in a season? One. Steve Nash. And he did it three times.
- Kevin Garnett. I'm not too sure about the Win Shares formula on Pro Basketball Reference. However, Kevin Garnett is ranked SEVENTH all-time. The Elo Rater Fan Rankings, the same ones that despise Kobe Bryant, have him ranked as the 10th best player in basketball history (though, admittedly, one spot behind Dennis Rodman. So, uh, maybe I'll stop looking at that thing).
Garnett has had two amazing careers in one. He had the "carry a doomed Minnesota team" career where he was everything - scorer, rebounder, passer, shot blocker, leader, scapegoat, even three-point shooter. And he had the Boston career as a commander, emotional rock, force of will and all that. I don't know if he's the 10th best player ever, but he's in the Top 50 for sure.
- Dirk Nowitzki. I don't think there's any doubt he's one of the 50 greatest players, in part because he's so unique. Who else is like Dirk Nowitzki? Who else is a 7-footer who has been a dominant player by shooting three-pointers and driving to the basket?
Here is a fun stat for you that shows just how singular a player Nowitzki has been: Here are the 12 seven-footers who have played 1,000 games in the NBA . and their free throw percentages:
1. Dirk Nowitzki, 87.7%
2. Patrick Ewing, 74.0%
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 72.1%
4. Robert Parish, 72.1%
5. Kevin Willis, 71.3%
6. Hakeem Olajuwon, 71.2%
7. Tree Rollins, 70.0%
8. James Edwards, 69.8%
9. Vlade Divac, 69.2%
10. Dikembe Mutombo, 68.4%
11. Shaquille O'Neal, 52.7%
12. Wilt Chamberlain, 51.1%
Who else is anything at all like Dirk Nowitzki?
- Paul Pierce. I once wrote this piece about how Paul Pierce is the Jedi Knight of Hoops. By this, I meant the OLD Jedi Knight - the Obi Wan Kenobi Jedi Knight - who wore some kind of decrepit cloak, looked old, worn down, useless, but somehow always got the job done. Sunday, I was watching Pierce and the Celtics stave off elimination against the Knicks - "stave off" being one of those great phrases you only hear in sports - and it's only a matter of time until New York wraps it up. But one more time, there was Pierce looking about 20 years older than anyone on the court, but somehow making the big shot and the big pass and getting the win. When watching Pierce, I always think of that great exchange between Obi Wan Kenobi and the storm trooper who has stopped him and Luke Skywalker.
Trooper: "Let me see your identification."
Obi-Wan: "You don't need to see his identification."
Trooper: "We don't need to see his identification."
Obi-Wan: "These are not the droids you are looking for."
Trooper: "These are not the droids we are looking for."
Obi-Wan: "He can go about his business."
Trooper: "You can go about your business."
That was Paul Pierce too. He'd drive and bump and twist and fall and gripe and rise when he needed to rise. He is, for me, unquestionably a Top 50 all-time player.
- Ray Allen. Now, we will start to get some disagreement, but I don't see how you could leave Allen off the list. He has an argument as the greatest shooter in NBA history. He's a 10-time All-Star and a magnificent player.
- Reggie Miller. He has more or less the same case as Allen, except he's also an iconic player because of his extraordinary rivalry with Spike Lee and the Knicks.
- Gary Payton. I had actually forgotten that Payton was not on the NBA Top 50 list . he was only in his sixth season when it came out. I think of Payton as the Barry Larkin of basketball (or Barry Larkin as the Gary Payton of baseball). Payton scored, passed, rebounded, played defense so spectacular they called him The Glove. Like Larkin (who hit, stole bases, hit with power, played great defense, got on base), Payton rarely did things that jumped out at you. He just did everything.
Well, that's 10 - and I have no doubt all 10 of them belong. But that just scratches the surface of players who COULD be on the list. Many people are already writing angry emails about how Allen Iverson absolutely has to be on that list. I would tend to agree. He was an unstoppable offensive force, both as a scorer and a surprisingly good passer, and he pretty well dragged a kicking-and-screaming Sixers team with Aaron McKie and George Lynch and Theo Radcliffe to the NBA Finals.
What about Jason Kidd? It's been a pretty amazing career for him - four times he led the league in assists, twice he took a gritty New Jersey Nets team to the championship, he was the point guard for that Dallas team that won the title.
What about Dwyane Wade? He's still got good years left, but do you think there have been 50 NBA players better than him? Shawn Marion, Chauncey Billups and Pau Gasol are all in the Top 50 in that mysterious Win Shares category.
I'd say you could probably replace 15 or more of the players on the Top 50 list.
But even that is just a start. You have to think about the young players, the ones you KNOW will be in that Top 50 list when they have played enough games - heck, Chris Paul is already closing in on that kind of career value, and he's only been in the league for eight seasons. Kevin Durant will be there. Dwight Howard will be there. Carmelo Anthony sure looks like a dominant force. And while it's too early to say much about James Harden and Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry and Deron Williams and Blake Griffin and . well, it seems like we're finally getting to the point.
And the point is this: It's a golden age for NBA basketball. It was easy to turn your back on the league there for a while. I admit that I did. The play was sloppy, passing was nonexistent, scoring was down, players seemed one-dimensional. There was a stretch of time when watching a regular season game felt like a colossal waste of time, and watching playoff games felt like an obligation.
Now, the game feels joyful. It's a world game, with great players from all over the place, with different styles clashing, with great young players doing amazing things. Even meaningless regular season games have a passion that seemed lacking for a decade. And the playoffs . well, the injuries in these playoffs have been a bummer, and you do wonder if for the good of the game they should shorten the regular season (not that this is likely to happen).
But whether it's watching Denver and Golden State (with the amazing shooting of Curry and Klay Thompson against the driving will of Ty Lawson and Andre Iguodala) or the Clippers and Memphis (is there a more fearsome player out there than Zach Randolph?) or Brooklyn and Chicago (that triple overtime game Saturday was extraordinary), the playoffs are joyful.
I know I'll get huge arguments on this from people who know a lot more about the NBA than I do, but I think that basketball as a sport has never been played as well as it's being played right now.