Most humans, no matter their age, color, or creed, are inclined to think that the era in which they matured most rapidly is much better than whatever current culture exists. We see it in opinions of music, the moral worth of today's youth, and all manner of other issues. Retired NBA players are no different — their era was always tougher, or more challenging, or closer to the true meaning of basketball, as if such a thing could ever be defined.
For the most part, these opinions are fairly harmless. Sometimes, though, they reach well past acceptable bias and towards something so absurd that they should be dismissed entirely. On Dan Patrick's radio show Friday, Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman exhibited one of these opinions in regards to LeBron James (transcription via The Point Forward):
“If LeBron was playing in the late ’80s or early ’90s,” Rodman said, “he’d be just an average player.”
Rodman went on to tell The Dan Patrick Show in an interview that aired Friday that LeBron is “a great player, a helluva player,” but the Hall of Fame rebounding ace said Jordan dominated a much tougher era in leading the Bulls to six titles in the 1990s.
“If Michael played today … really? If he played the game today at 28 years old, he would average 40 points a game, probably more,” said Rodman, who won three titles as Jordan’s teammate with Chicago.
Rodman added: “I’m just sick and tired of people always comparing him and Michael Jordan. It’s a whole different era, man.”
Pressed by Patrick about an “average” LeBron, Rodman said: “Look at those teams [when Rodman played]. Look at the Cleveland Cavaliers. Look at Golden State when they had Chris Webber and all of those guys. If those teams then could play now, they would kick anybody’s ass today. Are you kidding me?”
We could pick apart the specifics of these comments for hours. The basic form of each statement is as follows: Rodman's familiarity with the teams of his era causes him to overrate them, overlooking squads with fairly sizable problems (those Warriors teams didn't play much defense, for instance) to present his case as beyond reproach. Claiming that LeBron would have been average in that era is almost beyond logic, because it's clear that Rodman has little interest in giving an accurate assessment of James's abilities and the circumstances behind them. He wants to make the point that his era was much better than this one, and he'll do whatever he can to make this argument seem better.
The problem here, beyond garden-variety bias, is Rodman's conception of history. While he's right to say that LeBron plays in "a whole different era" from Jordan, he doesn't consider what that means. As someone who came after Jordan, James developed his game in relation to everyone who came before him. Whereas he may have been pigeonholed as a power forward in earlier eras because of his size, the LeBron who came of age in the early '00s had the chance to develop his game without a rigid role. Similarly, the rules and trends of the NBA dictated which skills it made most sense to work on. In the '90s, perhaps LeBron would have developed more post moves sooner and ditched his perimeter game entirely. Conversely, a hypothetical 21st century Michael Jordan may have realized the importance of three-point shooting earlier in his career due to this era's strategic reliance on that shot. We can identify the skills a player has, but it's impossible to port them into another era wholesale because the era in which a player develops partially determines his abilities.
In envisioning LeBron in another era, we must focus on more general aspects of his game such as his strength, his capacity for improvement, his athleticism, and other abilities that define how he approaches the challenges of basketball rather than this specific talents. We can't know how he'd deal with legal hand-checks because he's never had to. Similarly, we don't know how Michael Jordan would score in an NBA culture that prizes highly efficient shots over mid-range jumpers. We can assume that he'd figure out a way, but the exact path he'd take remains unclear.
Comparing players across eras requires a level of imaginative projection that may not be possible given the evidence at hand. Assuming a level of certainty can lead to some goofy opinions. When Rodman weighed in on the differences between Jordan and James, he ended up telling us much more about himself than about either player.