Today’s NBA vs. ’50s – ’60s NBA
I’ve always viewed sports ‘back in the day’ through a skeptical lens. Lots of old timers like to say that Oscar Robertson, Babe Ruth, Johnny Unitas, etc. would be among the best in their respective sports even today.
I’m not saying they’re wrong, as I do think there are examples of athletes who were simply ahead of their time. But I came across a stat that shows just how big the disparity in ability is in today’s NBA vs. the 50s, 60s, and even 70s.
Of the 200 worst seasons, here’s how they break down by decade:
- 1950s – 70 (37.2%)
- 1960s – 63 (38.5%)
- 1970s – 21 (39.7%)
- 1980s – 2 (39.2%)
- 1990s – 13 (39.0%)
- 2000s – 24 (38.8%)
- 2010s – 7 (37.3%)
Note that a player can only appear once on this list. If you allow multiple entries per player then it’s almost entirely 50s and 60s.
This probably isn’t a surprise but, simply put, people in the 50s and 60s couldn’t shoot.
You don’t need to be a freak athlete to be good at shooting. In theory, shooting should be comparable across decades (though you may argue they just didn’t know HOW to shoot back then or that the game was played much differently, I don’t know the answer to either), but it’s clearly not.
Bob Cousy would be a bad player in the NBA today. Wilson Chandler would probably average 30 and 10 if he was on Bob Cousy’s team back in the 60s.
I’m not writing this to diminish the players from generations ago, but more to give context to the hypothetical GOAT-type arguments we all have.
In fact, I usually argue that the GOAT arguments should have historical context. Wilt, for example, dominated the game like no one ever will. That means something, even if he was playing a bunch of 6’5 white dudes who could only dribble with their right hand (Wilt is someone who most would say actually was ahead of his time and would still be a beast today, which I agree with).
One thing I find interesting is the sudden spike in the 2000s because a lot of the players are big names; Allen Iverson, Chauncey Bilups, Jason Kidd, Baron Davis, Ron Artest, Gilbert Arenas, etc. I’m completely guessing but I think isolation play became more prominent and it was the golden age of the contested-shot. These days the deep 2 is scolded as inefficient so people don’t take them anymore but they were cool 15 years ago.