During what were hopefully the early days of the pandemic, when the country was quarantining in lockdown and hanging out on Zoom was all the rage, groups of friends would meet up virtually to drink, watch TV and discuss the sorts of things they would have otherwise talked about at bars in their kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms.
Sometimes those discussions would be about relationships. Sometimes they’d be about vaccines. And sometimes, especially after The Last Dance filled the content void that Tiger King temporarily filled, those discussions would center on a debate that is as old as time: would today’s NBA stars have been successful in the old days, and vice versa?
There are different ways of phrasing that question and framing the discussion, but it essentially boils down to arguing Jordan vs. LeBron, the 2015-16 Warriors vs. the 1995-96 Bulls and the 3-point era vs. the decades of big-man dominance.
According to Rich Cohen, the author of When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season, there’s a very good reason why the never-ending NBA eras argument surfaces time after time.
“Everybody wants to believe their time is the best time, that they’re living in the golden age and that the people they’re rooting for are the best,” Cohen, whose book delves into the struggle for dominance between Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan during the 1987-88 NBA season, tells InsideHook. “TV coverage and the quality of the picture has also gotten so much better. My father was into baseball and he trained me on the old-time guys. Babe Ruth was before my time and my father’s time, but I remember getting into an argument with a kid in high school who said Ruth ran herky-jerky and couldn’t play like that today. I’m like, ‘That was the film. He didn’t really run like that. He wasn’t in black and white.’ It’s an analogy.”
“I think players today are more athletic and it’s probably true marginal players today are better than the marginal players back then,” he adds. “But the really good players then were just as good. Some of them were better. I don’t think there’s anybody as good as Michael Jordan playing now.”
What does Cohen, who has also written best-selling books about the Chicago Cubs, Chicago Bears and a variety of other topics, base that opinion on? We asked him about it, and other hotly-debated topics.
InsideHook: Don’t necessarily disagree with you — LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Steph Curry might — but why do you believe Michael Jordan was better than anyone playing in the NBA right now?
Rich Cohen: Michael Jordan was a freak, but I also don’t think there are many players better than Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. Bird would still be an MVP. Johnson would still be an MVP. They were less dependent on the three-point shot and could do more things. The rules of the game, the ones that are really important, have also changed. I think it’s made the game easier offensively, not harder. Jordan would do better. He’d be freed up. He wouldn’t have three guys physically hanging on him the way he did then. He wouldn’t have to figure out how to win against the 1980s Pistons, whose strategy was just to knock him down every time he touched the ball.
The rise of the three-point shot thanks to players like Curry really has changed the game hasn’t it?
There’s no way to go back from it. The three-point shot was never intended as a thing to be relied on all the time. It was more intended as something to be used when a team was way down to keep the game interesting for fans in the last three minutes. If you’re down by nine points with a minute left, there’s still hope if you start shooting threes. Then somebody figured out you can shoot threes nearly every time down the court and make 40% of them and you’ll beat a team shooting 60% from inside.
The unintended consequences are the rebounds off misses are completely different kinds of rebounds. Everybody starts moving outside and it just becomes a completely outside game. It’s no fun to watch. To some of us, it looks almost like a carnival game. I saw an interview with Phil Jackson where he said there should be a four-point shot. He was joking, but his point was it’s not basketball as he recognized it, where half the game was a physical battle under the glass. There were guys who were masters at that inside game. It was very similar to watching a forward and a defenseman battle in front of the goalie in hockey. It was really fun to watch.
Do you still enjoy watching the NBA as much as you did back when the game was more physical?
I don’t like it as much. Part of it is I’m no longer watching with the intensity I did when I was a kid. I didn’t watch basketball in the ’50s and ’60s, but I read enough about it to know the collection of players who were playing at the same time was just different. That’s how I feel about the NBA in the ’80s and ’90s and that collection of players. There were more future Hall of Famers playing then than at any other time. It was a special time when you had all these athletes that in another era might not have played basketball now playing basketball. It was a unique time and there were real stars you wanted to follow. I wasn’t a huge Knicks person, but I loved to watch John Starks play Reggie Miller. Who didn’t love that? I like it now, but I actually prefer college basketball because it still has some of that intensity and teams try different kinds of offenses.
Are there any players in the league now who you think would have had success in the ’80s and ’90s?
LeBron for sure. There’s no doubt about it. Nikola Jokić. Giannis, this version of him that’s a little bit bigger and stronger. He’d be fine. Julius Randle would probably be totally fine. I gravitate rather toward the bigger guys who also can shoot a little. Kevin Garnett was sort of in the middle of these eras. He obviously was okay in both, although he’d probably have to get a little bit bigger to play in the ’80s. That’s a key thing when you want to argue how guys back then would do now: overlap. Jordan is never a good example because he’s the best ever, but he played against guys who were just playing recently and did very well against them. There’s no reason to think he wouldn’t do very well right now. I saw a quote from somebody the other day saying Jordan was a better player than LeBron, but that he didn’t have a better career. Is that true? You really can’t say he had a better career? I know LeBron has more points, but there’s something to be said about winning all the championships with one team and playing with the same people instead of it being on a series of pickup teams.
What would an NBA “different eras” discussion be without an all-time Top 10 list?
- Michael Jordan
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Magic Johnson
- LeBron James
- Bill Russell
- Larry Bird
- Wilt Chamberlain
- Kobe Bryant
- Isiah Thomas (the elder)
- Steph Curry
When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season is on shelves — online and in-store — now.
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