The Best Basketball Player Ever Probably Never Touched a Basketball

One of my favorite sports trolls is the era-comparison troll. The way it works is you take someone who was considered a great player many decades ago and claim that they would not even be able to make a team in today’s league.

You can do this with pretty much any sport that depends a lot on athleticism and be correct almost all of the time. For sports that don’t depend as much on athleticism, like golf and baseball, it’s perhaps less true, but still amusing to do.

What’s great about this troll, like all sports trolls, is that it truly doesn’t matter because sports, like all kinds of entertainment, are just fun, low-stakes affairs. But sports, like all kinds of entertainment, have some people who get way too serious about it and get very heated over trivial questions like whether Kareem could play in today’s NBA.

The leading counter-argument to the point that players from prior eras would not do well in today’s leagues is to change the question to whether players from prior eras would do well in today’s leagues if they had all of the knowledge, training, and nutrition of modern players.

Freddie deBoer made a version of this move in his post today.

Yes, if you dropped Bob Cousy from 1955 into a modern NBA game, he’d get run off the court. But if you drop Lebron from today into a game 70 years from now, he’ll get run off the court. That’s because human progress exists. It’s not even worth saying. Here’s the actually interesting question: if you took 8-year-old Bob Cousy in a time machine and dropped him into the 21st century, as he grew up what kind of player would he develop into given modern advantages? And the only honest answer we have to that question is “we don’t know.”

This is a clever move, but if you actually pursue it, you wind up with an even more amusing conclusion, which is that the best player, so defined, in the history of any sport probably never played the sport. Billions of people have lived and died without ever touching a basketball, football, or soccer ball. In a debate that uses actual performance as the metric of greatness, these people don’t rank at all because their actual performance was zero.

But if we switch to counterfactual performance — i.e. how well someone would have performed if treated with the best of the modern knowledge, training, and nutrition — as the metric of greatness, then these billions of people now come into the calculation. And, probabilistically, one of these counterfactual billions is probably the greatest of all time. Indeed, these counterfactual billions probably have in their ranks hundreds or thousands of players that are better than all of the players who have ever played in a professional sports league.

So this move doesn’t ultimately salvage the rankings of players from prior eras. If you use the actual performance of players from prior eras, you conclude that even the greatest among them would not be viable in today’s league. And if instead you use the counterfactual performance of people privy to peak modern sporting conditions, then you also conclude that even the greatest among them would not be viable in today’s league.