Thursday, July 12, 2012

Just how do you compare?

Expert Roarer Ryan O’Connell posted a great piece this week on Magic Johnson versus Michael Jordan (, which sure enough spurned some great debate.

I’d like to weigh in with my two cents worth.

Sports fans love nothing more than building lists and making comparisons (teams, players and/or eras). While the life’s blood of being a fan might be barracking for your colours, the fringe benefit is the analysis, counter-analysis and psycho-analysis that come with following your chosen sport.

Who are the top ten left handed goalkeepers, Chris Evert or Martin Navratilova, list the top five d#ckheads in squash, Wally Lewis or Brett Kenny, name the worst ten pin bowlers over 117kg…the debates go on, and on, and on.

Ryan’s Magic versus Michael is just another layer on a gigantic onion.

On face value it’s a silly argument. Jordan is universally accepted as not only the greatest baller of all time, but one of the greatest and most dominant sportspeople of them all. And when you look through his resume it’s extremely difficult, nigh impossible, to make an intelligent counter-argument.

Personally I was never a Jordan fan. I’m not saying I don’t think he’s the best player it’s just that I’m a Pistons fan. I grew up watching the Bad Boys knock Jordan on his arse year after year, and I absolutely loved it. While everyone else was clamoring for number 23 jerseys, I was cheering each time Laimbeer knocked down a three, Rodman pulled down a board or Zeke crossed over for a lay-up.

I guess I’ve always been attracted to teams or individuals with a bit of mongrel, and who rise above their limited natural physical abilities to excel. It’s probably why Roy Keane is my favourite Man U player above some of his sexier colleagues, or why Tim Morrissey is my favourite Sydney King...I guess that says a lot (not entirely good) about me.

I digress.

Whilst I can’t honestly say I think Magic is a better player than Michael, I do think the comparison is a hell of a lot closer than it appears on face value.

As Ryan rightly pointed out statistically Jordan is well ahead of the game. And with the advanced metrics available now, the argument for Jordan is pretty much tighter than a nun’s…let’s just say watertight. But for mine stats only tell a microcosm in this story.

     Cricketers and baseballer players live and die by their stats. It’s far easier to measure the quality of players from static team sports, and then make an informed comparison. Difficult to argue against a batsman who has over 10,000 careers runs at an average of 50 plus, or to compare a player against Bradman even though most of us never saw the great Don swing his bat in anger. A career average a pubic hair below 100 will do that for your legacy.

     In flowing team sports, like football, league or basketball, comparisons are harder to make because of so many variables, many of which aren’t measurable. Two things stick out for me when looking at Magic and Michael: 

     1. The discrepancy in their ages/eras
     2. They played different positions/roles

By the time Michael made his first NBA finals appearance, Magic was a 10 year veteran with five championships and three MVP awards. Sure they went head to head a few times in the regular season, but unlike Magic versus Bird or Russell versus Wilt, there isn’t a lot of head to head to go by. It can also be argued that Magic played against much tougher competition in a pre-expansion NBA. The quality of teams he went up against, whether it’s his arch nemesis Celtics or the Pistons, Sixers or Rockets, were of a higher standard than the diluted 90’s league post Magic and Bird.

More important though, IMHO, is the fact that they played two very different roles for their respective teams. As a point guard Magic’s primary role was as both a creator and facilitator on offense – and he was arguably the greatest ever in this capacity. Whilst he had the ability to score from just about anywhere – driving the lane, posting up or shooting the three – his first priority was to ensure his teammates were involved in the game. As good as guys like Cooper, Scott and Worthy were I guarantee playing alongside Magic had a profound effect on how their careers are measured. And this is one of the great intangibles that cannot be calculated when you review Magic’s career. Put Worthy alongside a different point guard in that era and sure he would still have been an All-Star, but a Hall of Famer? There can be no conclusive answer, but I think it’s a valid question. How do you quantify the impact Magic had on his teammates? It can’t be done, but since basketball is a team sport, it’s a key point when evaluating how good a player is/was.

I’m not trying to build a case that Magic is better than Michael, I’m just trying to say (which Ryan did far better than I) that it’s a lot closer than people might think.

There is a range of advanced metrics that have been developed as part of player evaluation. PER, plus/minus and adjusted points per iso can keep a stats geek very excited on a lonely night. Whilst all of these are great (especially for the fans) a lot of them don’t account for the flow of the game - tactics, coaching ability, foul trouble, teammates and a range of other immeasurable that make up team sports.

If a player has been saddled with 5 fouls and the coach keeps him on the floor, more than likely he’ll play softer D so he doesn’t get fouled out. The stats will paint a certain picture but it doesn’t make him a poor defender. If your guards can’t stay in front of their man and you’re constantly challenging shots and getting called for fouls it doesn’t necessarily make you foul prone. If a starter is stuck with his bench warmers and the team is getting blown out his plus minus goes down. If you put Kevin Love and Dwight Howard on the same team its likely no-one else is going to get a board. Doesn’t make you a bad rebounder. If you’re the only guy capable of dribbling and hitting a shot and you’re playing with four Ben Wallace prototypes its more than likely you’ll put up 30 plus per game. You’re not the next Kevin Durant though.

There are so many facets to the game that aren’t visible when number crunching. So when you’re comparing Magic versus Michael, it’s important to look past just the stats and to read the story of their respective games.

Magic revolutionized basketball. He made it possible for big men to be considered point guards. He had the genuine capacity to play five positions on offense. He made his teammates immeasurably better, and played in an era when the league was far more competitive. Whilst he wasn’t a great on ball defender, his immensely high bball IQ (now how do you evaluate that!!!) made him an excellent team defender. He had genuine crunch time cojones and was, by all accounts, as obsessive about winning as Michael, Bird and Russell. Five rings are testimony to that.

Michael will still be the popular pick, and it’s probably the right one. But if you know anything about team sports, it’s not a home run by any stretch on the imagination.

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