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Taking TIme Off the Clock

“If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?”

Stephen Hawking

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While it certainly is fun to speculate about which teams might come out on top if the great champions of the past were to duke it out with the great teams of the present, it’s too complex a process to really estimate how teams would match up with each other if such a reality were possible.  Basketball fans love to engage in discussions about the greatest teams of all time and to debate about questions like “would this year’s Warriors beat the Showtime Lakers?” or “would the 95-96 Bulls beat the Kobe and Shaq Lakers?” 

However, such debates tend to not be very realistic in terms of how the parameters of play would be set in terms of different rules that impact how teams are built and how they play.  Further, teams respond to how other teams are built, particularly their top rivals.

Consider some of the following variables in analyzing how champion teams in different eras would match up:

From the time of Russell’s Celtics, to today’s Warriors and Cavaliers, we have seen a 3-point shot allowed, the distance of that shot changed for a 3 year stretch, zone defenses allowed, hand check rules changed, and the officiating and league discipline otherwise changed radically over the different eras.

Think about the Maurice Lucas and Daryl Dawkins fight in the Blazers-Sixers Championship Series 1976-1977 season.  Fans spilled out into the court and joined the melee.  The result?  Both players were ejected, but no suspensions were given and only a $2,500 fine was handed levied against Dawkins. Have a look at the video:

In the NBA of today, a host of players would have been suspended: remember the infamous Malice at the Palace?  The Sixers were up 2-0 at this point, and after the fight, the series changed completely and the Blazers went on to win 4 straight games and the title. Maurice Lucas was a much better player, in my opinion, than Darryl Dawkins: if both players were suspended, history very well may have been rewritten, as Maurice Lucas’ terrific play in that series likely would have continued, resulting in a series MVP.  In the context of that fight, I highly doubt that Draymond would have been suspended for Game 5 of this year’s championship series if it had taken place in 1977.

Another way of thinking about the challenges of comparing teams of different eras is to consider specific match ups.  Instead of putting the teams from the past in today’s NBA, what if we put today’s champions in the NBA of an older era?  Any fair evaluation of historic teams would need to be broken down both ways. Maybe a 6 game series – 3 in the NBA of the past and 3 games in today’s NBA?

What if the 2015-2016 Warriors played the 1976-77 Blazers in 1977?  There was no three-point line: how could they have matched up with a healthy Walton in his prime with Lucas alongside him? Without the three-point line, the Warriors strategy would fall apart.  Most fans tend to take the historically great teams and consider them in today’s context with today’s rules without contemplating this alternate scenario. Put today’s teams in a more physical NBA with no 3 point line, the results would be radically different.

Another necessary factor in comparing different eras is considering how the strategies of past teams would change with access to today’s analytics and today’s modern coaching.  What if the 1986 Celtics ran the modern offense of the Warriors, with Larry Bird firing up shots like Steph Curry?

That team could have been even deadlier if Bird had opened up more space for Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, and Bill Walton to work the post.  

It’s also vital to consider that contending teams historically make moves specifically to match up well with their biggest rivals.  What if the Lakers of old could make a move to acquire a 3 point shooter like a Del Curry, to combine with Kareem Abdul Jabaar – 2 players, both in their primes – to compete with the Spurs 2014 team? These great teams may have glaring weaknesses when matched with an opponent in a different era of the NBA, but given the chance, would have look for a trade to help alleviate the match up issue if they actually played in the same era.

Finally, to be fair to the historically great teams, you also need to consider the athletic advantages of today’s players with modern sports medicine, nutrition, access to analytics, and coaching.

While it’s an entertaining thought experiment to hypothesize about these match ups, there is a much more complex reality in trying to compare teams of different eras.  Only a handful of teams have cores that could have been competitive in any era in the NBA; teams like the Showtime Lakers, the Larry Bird Celtics, the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, and Jordan’s Bulls, each possess the talent and depth to go toe-to-toe with championship teams from any eras.  Many teams are built specifically to dominate in the league at that time and in the context of particular rules.  The Detroit Pistons under Larry Brown come to mind, but, particularly the Warriors of the last 2 years are adept in the context of this era of NBA history, but might not do well in a different moment in time.

By Dan Ryan