BEST OF THE BEST?
5 reasons modern athletes have the edge over the all-time greats
Recently, 118 former NBA players across several eras were polled (don’t worry, nobody was hurt) for their opinion on today’s game. They were asked a wide range of questions, including …
Who is the best NBA player right now? Winner Kevin Durant (44 percent). I totally agree. In fact, I think Durant may be the most purely talented, impossible to guard offensive player ever. He’s almost 7 feet and shoots 3-pointers with the ease of a layup.
Best player five years from now? Winner: Giannis Antetokounmpo (28 percent). Agree with reservations. He really is a freak of nature, so tall, strong and powerful. When he goes to the hoop, look out above and you better get out of his way. But there are holes in his game, free throws and 3-pointers. Who knows? The best NBA player five years from now could be entering college next year.
What rule changes would they like to see? Winner: Refs need to call traveling and palming the ball (15 percent). Wrong. Sorry, we were looking for “fewer timeouts,” especially in the last two minutes.” The NBA builds to a thrilling climax, then teams start that timeout nonsense. It’s excitement interruptus.
What do they think about the emphasis on 3-point shots? (Winner: Big positive (34 percent). Yes and no. Love watching Steph Curry light it up from the suburbs. Cringe watching Draymond Green (28 percent). You see No. 30 in the corner? Pass him the ball.
The one response I find most troubling and out of touch with this poll of retired players: Who would win a best of seven series, the 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers or the 2020-21 champion Milwaukee Bucks? Winner: the Lakers (95 percent!) Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
True, the Lakers finished the regular season in '86-'87 with a 65-17 record and polished off the playoffs with 15-3. Meanwhile, the Bucks limped through the shortened '20-'21 schedule at 46-26 and won the title going 16-7 in the playoffs. They even were down 0-2 in the Finals before roaring back to win the next four games.
Yes, the Lakers had three Hall of Famers – Magic, Kareem and James Worthy, and the roster was packed with dependable stalwarts like A.C. Green (All-Star), Michael Cooper (Defensive Player of the Year), Kurt Rambis (looks like Clark Kent) and Byron Scott (middle name Antom, future NBA Coach of the Year). Their coach was Pat Riley, also in the Hall of Fame.
The '20-'21 Bucks had only one player, the Freak, most likely headed to Springfield, Mass. The rest of the roster was filled with capable (obviously) but hardly superstar players. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton could score in bunches. Brook Lopez is a big body. P.J. Tucker has a magnificent sneaker collection. Coach Mike Budenholzer was on the verge of being fired earlier in the season and needs to wear looser shirts.
Here’s why Giannis and the No Names would beat the '86-'87 Lakers in a hypothetical NBA Finals. Simply, it’s not '86-'87 anymore. Sports have marched forward with better training, diet, technology, the lure of potential earnings and perhaps a little funny stuff.
Like the Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communiter,” today’s athletes, including the '20-'21 Bucks, are “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together.” Magic Johnson may have been a freak in his day, a 6-9 point guard. But that day was 35 years ago. Giannis is THE Freak now, a locomotive roaring down the lane and ferociously slam dunking over anybody in his path.
Saying the '86-'87 Lakers would beat the '20-'21 Bucks because of the Lakers’ star power and fistful of NBA titles is an argument for saying the 1960-61 Celtics would be unbeatable in any era. Those early Celtics had six Hall of Famers: Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Bill Sharman and the legendary Bill Russell. Those Celtics won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons.
Of course, even with Russell dominating the boards, that Celtics team couldn’t stay with the '86-'87 Lakers. Cousy was 6 feet, maybe an inch more, certainly no match for Magic Johnson. The Lakers would overpower the shorter, weaker, slower Celtics. It’s an evolution thing.
If you look at any measurable, quantitative sport, like track or swimming, the Olympic heroes of yesteryear would almost always be left in today’s dust. In 1987, Carl Lewis set a world record running the 100 meters in 9.93 seconds. Lewis’ time has been topped a dozen times since then.
The current record is 9.58 seconds by Usain Bolt. I know .35 seconds doesn’t seem like a lot, but in a 100-meters race, .35 seconds is an eternity.
In 1988, Matt Biondi won the Olympics 100-meter freestyle gold in 48.63. The world record was 48.42. In 2021, Caeleb Dressel won the gold with a time of 47.02. All eight swimmers in the 2021 Olympics finals topped Biondi’s time back from 1988.
Tennis players hit the ball harder and faster than they did in 1986-87. Baseball pitchers throw the ball harder and faster. Long ago, fans were astounded when third baseman Brooks Robinson charged a bunt, grabbed the ball with his bare hand and fired to first for the out. Now third basemen are expected to make that play. It’s practically routine for Alex Bregman.
In 2018 Red Sox reliever Adam Ottovino made headlines - mostly calling him insane - by saying he could strike out Babe Ruth every time he faced the Bambino. I don't know about every time, but I agree that Ruth - the Ruth that played in the 1920s - couldn't keep up with modern pitching. Nobody in that era could. Of course, if the Babe dedicated himself to training and laid off the hot dogs and beer, it might be a different story.
Football players are bigger, stronger and faster than in the past. Defensive lineman are 260-pounds and ripped and they can chase down quarterbacks.
Yesterday’s athletes, even the greats like the '86-'87 Lakers, are no match for today’s fantastic, supremely gifted stars.
By the way, this whole thing is just my way of saying …
LeBron over Michael.