While doing my daily scan of ESPN's NBA page, I noticed their feature front-page article was one allowing the punters to pick their team's all-time franchise starting five. It proved an adventure for me as I – an extremely well-informed basketball fan – was forced to laugh at some of the selections made by fans worldwide.
After checking the results, I was amazed at who had made it into the teams selected. Flabbergasted. What it proved was this:
That sports fans have an incredibly short memory.
That the voters on the site have only a minimal idea of the game's history, nor the context that should have been applied when voting on the players.
Statistics matter, especially when evaluating players pre-1980, the modern era of basketball.
That these fans were voting just for the hell of it, swayed only by the one-line descriptions offered onsite.
I'm not going to say the exercise had any meaning – of course it didn't, apart from to pull in the casual browsers. But what really made me mad were things like (in no particular order):
55% of the vote for the best-ever Miami Heat Power Forward going to Udonis Haslem.
Wes Unseld beaten out best Washington Wizards Centre by Walt Bellamy. In the same team, Bobby Dandridge – the difference maker behind the Bullets winning the title in 1978 and getting back to the finals in 1979 – got only 3.6% of the SF vote.
Ray Allen's 86.8% vote for Seattle/Oklahoma City's best ever shooting guard became laughable when considered that the runners up – Dennis Johnson (6.4%) and “Downtown” Freddie Brown (1.2%) have legit claims to be the best guard in Seattle's history.
George McGinnis behind Jermaine O'Neal as Indiana's PF? Puh-lease. That Don Buse (0.6%) finished as Indiana's sixth best PG – with one sixth the vote of Jamaal Tinsley – makes one cringe. One of the bets defensive PGs ever (with Al Attles, KC Jones and Gary Payton) rating this low is a sin.
On only cursory examination, it's obvious that many people plumped only for names or statistics. Steve Kerr didn't even start at Chicago yet his profile since retirement (firstly on TNT and then as GM of the Phoenix Suns) means he achieved double the vote of John Paxson, by every account a smarter player and far superior defender; as shooters there really wasn't much difference. Basketball minds far and wide should worry that visibility is other only category on which players are judged, though perhaps Paxson's role in Vinny Del Negro's Chicago coaching cul-de-sac could also factor in. Players – genuine greats of the game like McGinnis, Unseld & Buse are by this measure, being treated only as average players.
You can be sure that many votes were “donkey votes”, chosen only to get to the end of the process, rather than having any meaning. But not to fear. To eliminate these we can simply assign the votes of anyone with less that 1.0% to the winner at their position, ie. Scottie Pippen's 97.1% would receive another 0.9% of the vote from Toni Kukoc and Luol Deng (making his final tally 98%) - and I challenge anyone, anyone to tell me Luol Deng's a better small forward for Chicago than Pippen. That ESPN's chosen to give everyone only one line of statistical and background information hardly promotes effective results. Ask any statistician and they will tell you “You use shitty data and you get shitty results”.
Secondly, I'm certain the voting was swayed by the less-informed masses selecting players not on being the best players for that team, but the best player who played for that team at any time. By logical extension, Paul Gasol suddenly has Dennis Rodman as competition for the Lakers' starting PF gig, and Tim Hardaway has to compare with Gary Payton. Perhaps the best example comes from the Houston Rockets. Clyde Drexler was dealt there in 1995 as the team made their way to the second of their back-to-back titles. If you take their entire careers, there's no doubt that Drexler was superior to the other candidates McGrady, Cat Mobley and Calvin Murphy. But could you honestly say that Drexler from 1995-1998 was a better player than Calvin Murphy, who gave the Rockets 12 years, 20ppg, all-star appearances and shooting for which most current coaches would give their left ball?
Another curious fact is the lack of respect afforded the 1970s. Long considered the dark ages of professional basketball due to the appearance of the rival ABA and the multitude of fights, drugs and excesses of the era, it appears the fine players of that time – Unseld, Dandridge, Buse and the Nuggets' Dan Issel – have suffered because of the league's lack of exposure. Rather than definitive players receiving accolades, poor substitutes and pale imitations get the kudos. Awareness of basketball in popular American – and let's be fair, in world – culture came only after the 1979 Indiana State/Michigan State NCAA Finals, which ushered in the Bird vs. Magic era and shortly after that, the Jordan era.
This is, however, the nature of the internet. To paraphrase that cinematic masterpiece Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back - “The internet has given everyone in America a voice, and evidently everyone in America has chosen that voice to diss Dennis Johnson”. Because the net is only 21 years old, the internet generation is a young one, most of whom wouldn't even know Bobby Dandridge's exploits with the Bucks and Bullets – let alone even recognising the name. Couple this with the explosion of television coverage starting with the Bird/Magic era and suddenly the youth of today – and even those interested in sports history – have a much greater chance of seeing and being swayed by the deeds of the 1980s than even the 1970s.
This isn't the time for the Peak vs. Longevity debate. Or for Intangibles vs. Numbers vs. Impact. The point here is that this process is so subjective, therefore it's ultimately polarising. I'm sure if you took the most knowledgeable NBA fans and asked them for the All-Time Starting Five for a middle-of-the-pack NBA franchise, say the Bucks or the (Zombie) Sonics or the Bullets/Wizards then there would be discrepancies. Some value scoring, others defence, others great service.
Slowly, over time, I have come to realise that comparison between eras is simply a futile exercise. Without an educated populace, methods of comparison or ways of compensating for the changes in the rules of the games it becomes simply an exercise in popularity with the most likeable, approachable and best-remembered players receiving precedence over others with potentially superior bodies of work. Comparison is great for stimulating debate but no seriousness can be placed upon the results of any such exercise.
So why am I devoting so many column inches to the results of something ESPN must have posted simply for clicks and giggles? Because I feel for basketball history and don't want to see players who should remain all-time greats gets only a 0.6% vote. It goes against my sensibilities as an educated fan to think that 90% of people think Ray Allen was a better Sonic than Dennis Johnson.