After Pierce reopened the Bird discussion this month, The Republican (Mass.) columnist Ben Larsen wrote:
“The general era in which Pierce has played his career also skews how many fans see him. Not only does he have to compete with Bird, (Bob) Cousy and the other great Celtics, he has had to go against the NBA’s change in demographics. Those who lived through the league’s golden era from the Bird-Johnson, Celtics-Lakers rivalries through Jordan’s heyday aren’t the NBA’s target demographic anymore. Nor will they ever give credit to the way the game has been played for the last 15 years. Those fans, however – like the rest of us – still hold a stake in deciding ‘who’s the greatest.’”
Which brings up the most glossed-over and miscalculated factor of the old-school/new-school divide: Today’s NBA may actually be better than the league of yesteryear.
Think about it: From the time Magic and Bird entered the NBA in 1979 and well into the ‘90s, the league’s talent pool was almost solely limited to U.S.-born players.
Power forwards back then were not shooting 40 percent from three-point range and moonlighting as point guards.
Point guards were not scoring 25 points a night and making a habit of dunking on seven-footers.
Twenty-two year-olds were not good enough to win league MVP.
There were no 6-11, 270-pound centers that could do windmill dunks with their head on the opposite side of the backboard – and have enough skill to lead the league in rebounds and blocks a combined five times.
There were no 6-8, 260-pound small forwards blessed with track-star speed and linebacker strength – and skilled enough to consistently average 27 points, seven boards and seven assists per night while being one of the top defenders in the world.
Think about somebody like Rudy Gay. He’s a 6-8, 230-pound small forward who shoots 40 percent beyond the arc, handles the ball like a guard, doesn’t turn the ball over much, and can hurdle a normal man on his way to the rim. How many changes of pants would you have to give an NBA scout in 1987 or 1993 had they seen that kind of player? But in 2012, Rudy Gay can’t even make an All-Star team. He might not be the best player on his team, and his team isn’t all that great.
This is today’s NBA. Coaches have more knowledge, scouting is more advanced, training and nutrition is on another level, injuries are easier to overcome, and players have been playing against their country’s best in their age group, year-round, from the time they are nine and 10 years old. The league, just like society as a whole, is bigger, faster, smarter and stronger.
That isn’t to imply that Bird or Magic or anybody from their era had it easy. Absolutely not. It’s just simple evolution.
Have you ever wondered how the best players from the Golden Era would’ve fared in today’s game?
Paul Pierce is your answer.
His game is throwback, ground-bound, our best example of how practiced skill and basketball IQ and elephant-sized onions combat unprecedented athleticism and advanced scouting. Pierce has scored thousands of points, won hundreds of games, and hit dozens of daggers, operating within his prehistoric body in a P90X league.
For that, he should be recognized as one of the greats of his era.
And then after that, Pierce and his peers should take their rightful places among – if not above – those whom we consider the greatest of all time.
What do you think?
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