Every generation believes that its successor isn't as tough, strong, good, smart, etc. as its own. Our grandparents thought that our parents were wusses, our parents think that we're wusses and we think that those coming after us are wusses. I myself am guilty of this as I recently crossed the 40-year birthday mark and often look with disdain at the "entitled, overly sensitive millennials" closing in on me through the rear view mirror, a la Phoenix Suns' owner Bob Sarver and former Denver Nuggets' head coach Brian Shaw who each famously whined about the millennial generation.
This "my generation was tougher than yours" narrative is particularly prevalent in sports, where the old school guys who paved the pathway for today's (admittedly) spoiled rotten, overpaid athletes can't help themselves by constantly bringing it up. You know how the narrative goes. There will never be an NFL team as good as the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins (even though they played a 14-game schedule and not 16). There will never be a boxer as tough as Joe Louis. There will never be baseball player who hustled as much as Pete Rose. And so on.
In basketball, the bar for championships was set long ago by Bill Russell and his 11 rings. The bar for individual accolades was set by Wilt Chamberlain and his - pick your unbreakable record - 100-point game or his 50.4 ppg / 25.7 rpg season, and by Oscar Robertson, who averaged a triple-double in his second NBA season as a 23 year old. And the bar for regular season prowess in the NBA was set by Michael Jordan's 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and their astounding 72 wins - three more than the previous record holder, the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
Today - with the Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry unleashing one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history combined with his team being on pace to break the Bulls' regular season wins record - the old guys are once again coming out of the woodwork to speak up on behalf of "their era" at the expense of being congratulatory about the current era. Just last week the always curmudgeonly Robertson denigrated Curry and the Warriors' outstanding play by saying: "[Curry] has shot well because of what's going on in basketball today." And adding: "I just don't think coaches today in basketball understand the game of basketball. They don't know anything about defenses." Implying that he and those he played against 50 years ago could defend Curry today. This is the same Robertson who in the past has stated that assists are handed out too leniently by score keepers in the modern NBA.
Adding to Robertson's sentiment about Curry and the Warriors was Robertson's former teammate and record-setting six-time NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who joined ESPN's NBA broadcast soon after Robertson's comments went public. Abdul-Jabbar also ruffled some feathers a few years ago when he said that Robertson was better than Jordan and James.
And piling on to Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar's arguments last week were former Warriors' guard / forward Stephen Jackson and former Suns' role player Cedric Ceballos, both of whom said their respective best teams could have beaten today's Warriors.
We saw this just two years ago when LeBron James left the great Russell off of his "Mount Rushmore" - i.e. the four best players in NBA history (James named Jordan, Robertson, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) - and Russell responded by pointing to those 11 championship rings. And somewhat recently when Lakers great Shaquille O'Neal and Bulls great Scottie Pippen got into it over whose team would beat the other's, and Jordan himself responding in kind to O'Neal's former teammate Kobe Bryant when Bryant suggested that his 2012 Olympic team could have beaten Jordan's 1992 "Dream Team."
I'll get back to Curry and the Warriors in a moment, but in regards to Russell, Robertson and Pippen's trash talk about their respective accomplishments, teams, etc. some perspective and context is in order. First and foremost, I have no doubt that Russell and Robertson could both compete at a high - even superstar - level in today's NBA. They were not only gifted athletes, but had a competitive drive unmatched by virtually any athlete in any sport. But when Russell brags about his 11 rings, he all too often leaves out that nine of his 11 championships came in an NBA that had 10 or less teams. It's a hell of a lot easier to win a championship when you have nine teams in your way versus 29 like teams do today. In fact, when Russell won his last championship in 1969 the NBA still only had 14 teams.
In regards to Robertson, his 1961-62 triple-double feat of 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg will never be matched. (And often overlooked is that Robertson essentially averaged a triple double for the first five seasons of his remarkable career.) But like Russell's rings, some perspective and context is in order when looking at Robertson's triple-doubles. Robertson's nine-team NBA played with one fewer referee and played at a much higher pace than the modern NBA. Robertson's 1961-62 Cincinnati Royals averaged 123.1 ppg (second in the NBA at the time) and were fifth in overall pace with a 124.9 pace rating. The Chicago Packers of that season scored the fewest amount of points per game and still averaged 110.9. Just watch those games on NBA Hardwood Classics some time and you'll think someone sped up the camera. Conversely, Curry's 2015-16 Warriors - the NBA's leading scoring team - average 115.4 ppg and are second in pace with a 100.0 rating. Simply put, even though Curry's Warriors play much faster than most teams they don't play nearly as fast as the teams of Robertson's era did.
On the wins front, while Jordan and Pippen's 72 wins should never be discounted, often overlooked is that that team got the benefit of a crummy NBA in 1995-96. The league had just expanded to Vancouver and Toronto that season, adding a 28th and 29th team to a league that had already overly expanded from 23 to 27 teams between 1988 and 1990. Moreover, the sudden influx of raw high school-to-NBA players and raw European players brought the NBA's overall talent pool down, allowing Jordan and Pippen to feast on opponents all season long. During that season, the Bulls led the NBA in scoring with a mere 105.2 average (the 29th ranked team were the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies who couldn't even break 90 ppg). For my money, Jordan and Pippen's 1990 through 1993 Bulls were far better than their mid-90s counterparts because they played in a much more competitive NBA
And yes, I'm well aware that in both Robertson and Jordan's respective eras "hand checking" was allowed - i.e. defenders could place their hands on an offensive player far from the basket to prevent them from driving. By legislating hand checking out of the modern game, NBA basketball has become a much more free-flowing and fluid game, allowing small-ish guards like Curry, Chris Paul, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook and others of their ilk to thrive. The "old school" argument often goes: "If not for no hand checking, Steph Curry wouldn't be Steph Curry." (On a side note, SB Nation's very own Mike Prada wrote a great piece on Jordan and hand checking just two years ago.)
As someone who has been following the NBA closely since the early 1980s, there's no doubt that the NBA of that era and well into the late 1990s was more physically played. Hence why the NBA legislated hand checking out of the game in the first place, because fans like me were sick of watching scoring plummet while fighting increased. Which makes Jordan's 1986-87 37.1 ppg during the "hand checking era" - just like Robertson's triple-double season of 1961-62 - one of the greatest individual seasons we've ever seen or will ever see.
But just because Robertson was incredible in his day and Jordan was incredible in his doesn't mean that what Curry is doing right now isn't anything short of remarkable and worthy of joyous celebration for basketball fans worldwide. Why do previous generations insist on shitting on their successors? Why can't we just enjoy what Curry and the Warriors are doing?
Fortunately, many are doing just that. Including former Bulls and Lakers head coach and current New York Knicks' president Phil Jackson who complimented Curry by comparing him - positively! - to the Nuggets own former sharp shooting-two-guard-in-a-point-guard's-body: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
Never seen anything like SCurry? Remind you of Chris Jackson/ Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who had a short but brilliant run in NBA?— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) February 28, 2016
(For the record, I've been referring to Curry as "the rich man's Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf" as far back as 2012 ... you're welcome, Phil). Our friend Joe Flynn at our Knicks' sister blog Posting and Toasting picked up on the "Jackson compares Curry to Abdul-Rauf" story and ran a nice piece about it on Sunday, referencing Abdul-Rauf's amazing performance in 1996 when his/our Nuggets were one of just 10 teams to beat Jackson's Bulls that season.
Flynn also referenced a terrific 2014 article from SB Nation's Eddie Maisonet when he, too, compared Curry to Abdul-Rauf and brought out one of the great "does this look familiar to Curry fans?" videos of all time, when Abdul-Rauf lit up the excellent defender John Stockton and the Utah Jazz for 51 points in Salt Lake City in 1995:
Both in person and on television, I watched just about all of Abdul-Rauf's games in a Nuggets uniform from when he arrived as Chris Jackson in 1990 (he converted to Islam in 1991 and legally changed his name to Abdul-Rauf in 1993) to when he departed Denver after the 1995-96 season after a National Anthem controversy. (Three years ago here at Denver Stiffs, my colleague Jeff Morton re-visited that tough episode during an otherwise great Nuggets career for Abdul-Rauf.) Abdul-Rauf's controversial post-NBA career political commentary aside, he remains as one of my all-time favorite Nuggets players. And with full homer-ism admitted here, before Curry arrived in the NBA seven years ago I never thought I'd see a small guard shoot as well and as naturally as Abdul-Rauf did.
In response to Robertson, Abdul-Jabbar, (Stephen) Jackson and Ceballos' recent comments, Curry himself - before unloading on the Thunder in Oklahoma City for 46 points while a) breaking his own single-season three-pointers made record, b) tying the NBA's all-time record for three's made in a single game with 12 and, c) nailing the game-winner in overtime from about 35 feet - said that the criticism is "annoying." I couldn't agree more with Curry.
Having often partaken in the narrative of comparing eras in sports and life in general, I've never believed that celebrating one's achievements means you're not giving another's the credit that they deserve. While I might tweak the likes of Russelll, Chamberlain and Robertson a bit because they played in an NBA with less than 10 teams, it doesn't change the fact that they were THE dominant forces of their respective era and should be eternally commended for the enormous influence they had in making the NBA the great league that it is today. Just as George Mikan, Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes did before them and Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Bird and Jordan did after them. Moreover, none of us can choose when we're born. All we can do is strive to be the best that we can be in the era which we're born into.
So join me in celebrating what Stephen Curry is doing this season. Because as someone who saw flashes of this when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf donned a Nuggets jersey 20 years ago, I know how special it is to watch one of the greatest shooters in NBA history perform at his very best.