Bruenig and deBoer: both wrong about GOAT basketball debates
Today's players are much better than the older generations, and it's not just because of training or nutrition
Freddie deBoer and Matt Bruenig are posting about a question that basketball fans have been arguing over forever: can you legitimately compare players from different eras? Freddie thinks this kind of direct comparison is ridiculous, but that you can save it by stipulating “older players get all of the advantages of modern medicine and modern training methods that today’s players have.” Matt thinks this is silly too, however, since if you gave everyone the exact same external advantages, the odds are that the best player in the world probably never touched a basketball.
Matt and Freddie are both wrong for the same reason: genetic height. Height has a demonstrable relationship to performance in some positions, humans are getting taller, and while progress in popular nutrition has played a significant role here there appears to be a genetic component as well. For this reason, given the same nutrition, training, and other external advantages, it appears that your average center and power forward born in one era will probably be better than your average center and power forward born in a previous era.
The only thing I have said here that I think is even remotely controversial is the claim that genetics are playing a role in the increase in human height. The advantages of height in performance are often oversimplified, but they plainly exist: while there is no overall correlation between height and scoring, for example, it does provide a significant advantage if you play in certain positions. And while average player height has leveled out in recent decades (it is actually down an inch since 1988), the overall trend since the first years of the NBA has been a two inch increase.
As for height, the conventional narrative is that average averages were pretty static for most of human history, and then around two hundred years ago, people became less likely to go hungry, more likely to get all of their vitamins and macros, and as a result the average human height started to jump. Scientists have begun to suspect, however, that the real story is more complicated. Last November, for example, Christiane Scheffler and Michael Hermanussen published a paper in the American Journal of Human Biology arguing that
The evidence for the global agreement on the association between the prevalence of stunting and chronic undernutrition in modern and historic populations is weak…Recent considerations upon community effects on growth, on competitive growth and strategic growth adjustments need further attention in order to better understand the complex regulation of human growth.
In all likelihood, I suspect that this debate is moving in the same direction that “nature vs. nurture” debates usually do: towards a “both” conclusion that acknowledges multiple factors and feedback effects.
What this means for the basketball debate is that while the effect is extremely modest, there is nevertheless good reason to believe that homo sapiens are evolving to become better centers and power forwards. On the timescale of NBA history, this probably doesn’t add up to much since genetically-determined height increases have probably been relatively small. But go back just a few hundred years to when your average man was between 5’2” and 5’6”, and I’m pretty sure that Giannis would’ve squashed all of them. Pit him against earlier humans and even the GOAT homo nadeli (4’6”) probably wouldn’t have been able to get on the scoreboard.
If you think it’s unfair to compare Giannis to pre homo sapiens humans because they’re so genetically different, that’s the point. A truly fair comparison of basketball players can’t just take away unearned nutritional and training advantages; it also has to take away unearned genetic advantages as well. Once you do that everyone is basically competing in the exact same body, and all we can really ask are question about intangibles like “who wanted it more?” and “who had the most heart?” Which, incidentally, is why Allen Iverson is the greatest of all time.