Before I get into the meat and potatoes of this column, I’m first inclined to present you with two quotes from last week that came from two former athletes who had varying degrees of success during their respective careers. The first quote comes from Wayne Gretzky in regards to Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane’s streak of consecutive games with a point. The second quote comes from Reggie Miller in regards to Stephen Curry‘s hot start to the current NBA season.
“The goaltenders in general are better today, the defense is better today, the players are bigger and stronger, so what he’s doing he should be proud of.”
“So, yeah, I’d take down Steph at my peak. Sure, my form wasn’t as good as his. But it’s all about results, man.”
So here’s the deal: I don’t know jack shit about hockey or the history of the NHL nor do I pretend to, but I do know that if the consensus GOAT of hockey, someone whose nickname is “The Great One”, can give high, and from what I’ve been able to gather, deserving praise to the current players in the NHL and the current product as a whole, then it certainly wouldn’t kill some of the former players who played during the “Golden Age” of the NBA to do the same for the guys in the Association right now.
It bums me out that there will be a large number of, let’s call them “NBA fans,” that routinely crap all over the current product and remain enamored with an era where players “cared more”, “actually played defense,” “were tougher,” “weren’t selfish,” and “played better basketball,” who will simply scoff at the notion that I would even dare write about how underappreciated the current NBA players are and how freaking good the game is right now. And let me make something clear: if you prefer to watch games with more semi-contested mid-range jumpers, harder fouls, hand-checking and depending on what team you’re watching, more iso-ball, I’m not one to tell you that you shouldn’t enjoy that. The same goes for people who enjoy country music … it doesn’t make any sense to me, but hey, you do you.
This problem is media driven. NBA fans are always looking to play the comparison game and the sports media outlets knows this. Any time one athlete does something well, you can count on a “Is current Player X as good as long-time retired former Player Y” story to follow shortly after. We’ve become so obsessed with immediately trying to put things in historical perspective, even if it is at the expense of putting things in current perspective. And when that happens, the former players whose era or ego is being challenged can’t help but defend themselves (God forbid these guys make an effort to push these players, give them praise or help to move the league in a positive direction), usually by minimizing the efforts of current players or bashing the current state of the game, and when fans who don’t have the capability to comprehend these sort of thoughts on their own hear a former player foolishly say something along the lines of “The game today is so soft, these guys wouldn’t have been able to hang in my era,” they agree with it. Go ahead, keep trying to tell me about how the athletic freaks that are bigger, stronger, faster and better-conditioned today couldn’t play in the league twenty years ago. No I’m serious, you’re making a whole bunch of sense.
The Warriors blistering start to the season has been a perfect example of this. Rather than looking at it for what it was (a fucking spectacle is what it was), and trying to figure out if a team like San Antonio or Cleveland or Oklahoma City could eventually pose a threat to Golden State’s throne (only if Golden State isn’t totally healthy), we looked at it for what it was in comparison to a team that came twenty years before them (the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that went 72-10 and won the NBA title) that played in a different era with different rules and different players, and used that comparison to determine just exactly how impressive what the Warriors did was. The Warriors won their first 24 games of the season. That’s a chunk of games that makes up more than one full quarter of the regular season. They won more consecutive games to open a season than the Warriors have won total in six seasons in my lifetime. In any era or any sport, that’s just a mind-blowing feat of dominance and consistency, and in the league right now, there isn’t a team that is in Golden State’s class.
The issue is there are a group of short-sighted people, “NBA fans” and former players, that have allowed the glorious memories of a previous era, an era where they either played in the league or fell in love with the league, to cloud their judgment about what is great right now in favor of what was great in the past. Let me just say this very clearly: putting things is historical perspective is absolutely fine, but you can’t skip steps. People get consumed by their biases and only start to appreciate the current greatness when it’s no longer current.
Just look at what is happening with Kobe Bryant. Kobe spent a solid decade as one of the top five players in the league. He won five NBA titles, two Finals MVP, one regular season MVP and two gold medals in the Summer Olympics. He’s made the All-NBA 1st, 2nd or 3rd Team fifteen times in his career and has made either 1st or 2nd Team All-Defense in twelve different seasons. He’s an undisputed Hall of Famer, arguably the 2nd greatest shooting guard ever and quite possibly the best Los Angeles Laker of all time. And until he announced his retirement the vast majority of NBA fans and media members alike trashed him regularly.
Three of Kobe’s titles came with Shaquille O’Neal, so really he only won two by himself. Kobe Bryant was a moody prick and a horrible teammate who wanted to win on his terms and his terms only. Kobe couldn’t hang with Michael Jordan.
The narrative changed once everybody, including Kobe himself, saw the finish line, and now we’re aggressively singing the praises of one of the greatest players to ever step on an NBA floor as he’s become a shell of the player he used to be. It’s almost like some people are trying to make up for lost time. Just think about how much more enjoyable the Kobe era could have been if some people (aka “NBA fans” and those former players) would have been able to put what Kobe was doing in current perspective before trying to put it in historical perspective.
The NBA’s future is bright, and remarkably their “now” is even brighter. When I did my annual Top 50 NBA Players list this past fall I had 80 to 90 players that really needed to be considered for a top fifty spot; the league has never been deeper. The game is trending in a way where only smart, talented and versatile players will survive and thrive, only more and more players seem to be fitting that description each year. I would advise you not to take any of this for granted, but even if you do now you will eventually appreciate it later. Better late than never, I suppose.