Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Death of History-Basketball Division

Listening, but not too closely, because Stuart Scott was involved, to an NBA-related discussion on ESPN the other night, I was astonished to hear the following question put out for debate. Has Kobe Bryant now surpassed Michael Jordan as the best OFFENSIVE (emphasis mine) player in pro basketball history?

Not best player ever, mind you. That would have been as arrogantly dismissive of the past as the actual question, but at least would have been a subjective sports argument where well-defended opinions mean more than boring old facts. No, Jordan and Bryant were being cited as the two players who scored and/or helped their teams score more points than any others.

Unlike baseball offensive statistics, which have been statistically divided up into more complex, math-choked tranches than your mortgage, basketball offense remains simple. There's points scored, then, a very poor second, and maybe only third, is assists. Oh, throw in offensive rebounds finishing up the track somewhere. But mostly, it's points scored.

A quick turn on Google, which apparently they don't have at ESPN, brings us to Wilt Chamberlain. And Michael and Kobe's numbers bow their heads in respect and quietly walk away. When one of those two AVERAGES 50 points a game for a season, they can come back.

The Dipper's scoring statistics are literally fabulous, they don't seem real to people who didn't him play. I had a copy editor at the Phoenix in the '80s who became a basketball fan due to the Celtics of that era. Once I referenced Wilt's 50 point, 25 rebound average for a season. She was going to make me take it out, on the grounds it was impossible until I showed her accepted reference documents.

Oh, yeah, Wilt led the league in assists once, just to show he could. Bryant and Jordan never have, which is no knock on them. In one way, an assist is a wasted possession by your best scorer. Nobody gets fouled on assists. I'm going to go out on a limb so I can keep writing without going back to another section of the Internet, and guess that Chamberlain had more offensive rebounds than Bryant or Jordan, too.

As overall basketball players, I'd rate Jordan ahead of Wilt for a number of reasons, mostly his ability to win championships with only one real great player (Pippen) as a teammate. I don't think there's much doubt Bryant is a Hall of Famer and was the league's MVP this season on merit. But that's not the same thing as thinking they're better scorers than Chamberlain. For him, until about 1965, 30 points was a BAD game. It meant his team lost, and he got blamed, even if he was being guarded by Bill Russell, then and I hope now still seen as history's greatest DEFENSIVE player.

Why make such a ridiculous claim about two innocent great players? Alex Rodriguez is the best hitter in baseball and will go on to set many records. But nobody says he's better than Babe Ruth, not even MLB's marketers. That would be stupid.

The NBA loves to eat its history. It's another part of David Stern's short-term focus on quarterly earnings as opposed to his real job as steward of a sport loved by millions. I'm perfectly prepared to enjoy the 2008 Finals as a superior sports event without having to think that the current Lakers and Celtics are better teams than their 1984-85 forefathers. That just isn't true, and more importantly, isn't relevant. Let the current teams create their own history.

This becomes impossible when you deny there's a history for them to be part of.


At 3:44 PM, Anonymous howard said...

michael, it's worth noting, for the record, that by the time wilt led the league in assists, he no longer was a dominant scorer, so there was no waste there.


Post a Comment

<< Home