Eric Walden: Until time travel comes to the NBA, we’ll just have to ‘settle’ for this modern game being the best era of basketball

Six triple-doubles in one night highlight the increasingly apparent notion that we’ve never had more collective basketball talent than we do right now.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James smiles during the first half of basketball's NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Sunday, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Watching the Jazz play the Celtics on TNT this past Tuesday night, I was struck by a remark from color commentator Chris Webber, who registered mild disbelief upon learning that Joe Ingles recently had become Utah’s all-time franchise leader in 3-pointers made.

It shouldn’t have been that surprising. While 3s aren’t exactly a newfangled fad, they are being shot with greater regularity and efficiency now than ever before. Meanwhile, if you ever watched any Jerry Sloan-coached teams, it should not shock you that it only took Ingles 6.5 years to best what John Stockton managed in 19.

Thinking about such statistical absurdity sometimes elicits fantastical thoughts within me — like, say, what if time travel was a thing, and some coach from the 1980s or ’90s hopped in Bill and Ted’s telephone booth or Doc Brown’s DeLorean and sped forward 30 to 40 years?

Would he, seeing the impact of the 3-point line, take that back to his time, put all his players on an offseason regimen of practicing deep shots, then encourage them to go bombs away in games? What could Larry Bird do if given a perpetual green light from beyond the arc?

Conversely, what if a player from this era went back and latched on with a team from then? What kind of bombastic production might Steph Curry or Damian Lillard rack up? And exactly how long into Jordan Clarkson’s first practice would it take for Sloan to challenge him to a fistfight?

Such are the reasons why I typically avoid protracted arguments of whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the Greatest Of All Time, or who would win an NBA Finals series between the 2017 Warriors and the 1996 Bulls. Sure, they can be fun debates and interesting thought experiments — right up until the point that someone “guarantees” that so-and-so is obviously better, “and it’s not even close.”

I lose patience with such absolutist nonsense, given how fundamentally different the league has been across different eras. Shaquille O’Neal was a beast in the ’90s/early 2000s … he would have been an absolute destroyer even earlier … but would he have anywhere near the same impact in the modern game? He certainly would get significantly fewer post-up opportunities, and he might be an outright liability defensively.

Nevertheless, in spite of my stated aversion to cross-generational declaratives, I’m increasingly having a difficult time believing that any era of professional basketball has more collective talent than this one.

Getting back to the notion of “statistical absurdity,” there were 10 games on the schedule this past Wednesday … and that particular slate saw six players register triple-doubles.

Wizards guard Russell Westbrook posted 26 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists — his dozenth triple-double of the season. Draymond Green put up 16/12/10 in a Golden State win. Philly’s Ben Simmons notched 13/10/12. Nuggets playmaking center Nikola Jokic contributed 12/10/10 in a blowout victory over Charlotte. And the Nets’ victory over the Pacers saw one player from each side accomplish the feat, as James Harden racked up 40/10/15 while Domantas Sabonis totaled 18/11/11.

Those stunning six triple-doubles on March 17 set a new NBA record for the most ever in a day, topping the old record of five, which was established … all the way back four days prior, on March 13.


Oh, and there were four triple-doubles on March 15 … and also on March 3 … and Feb. 17, as well. Per NBA.com, before this season, there were only three total days in the history of the league that produced four triple-doubles — Feb. 25, 1999, Jan. 31, 1989, and Feb. 10, 1984.

I know all the arguments that critics will throw out there — modern players have the benefit of scoring more thanks to that aforementioned reliance upon 3s; defense is lax now compared to what it used to be; Westbrook himself is in-the-moment proof that some players with impressive numbers don’t actually impact winning, they’re merely glory-seeking stat-chasers.

That’s fine. I, on the other hand, go back to the argument of “Could Player X flourish in other eras?” and can’t help shake the idea that while a great many stars of yesteryear would struggle to adapt to this game, there are plenty from these days who would still tear it up even if they time-traveled back a decade or three.

LeBron, Kawhi, Giannis, Durant, Harden, Luka, Dame, Joker, Embiid … and on and on. Those guys — and many more — have such an impressive array of skills that they would find a way to overcome the glory years of hand-check defense, the lack of a 3-point line in the ’70s, and pretty much anything else.

So, yeah, it bugs me to hear old heads dismiss present-day basketball as nothing more than “guys getting free throws for getting breathed on” — ignoring that the league-leading 858 freebies which Harden attempted in our last full season of 2018-19 are actually less than the 916 Dwight Howard shot in 2010-11, or the 972 Shaq shot in 2000-01, or 925 by David Robinson in ’93-94, or 972 by Michael Jordan in ’86-87, or 865 by World B. Free in ’78-79, or the 977 from Jerry West in ’65-66.

It’s also annoying to hear apparent nostalgia for the days when Kevin McHale could clothesline Kurt Rambis on a layup attempt and not even get ejected for it. What, exactly, is so entertaining about that? I personally see more skill in a crossover/stepback/fadeaway 3 sequence than in one 260-pound dude roughing up another 260-pound dude. If I want the latter, well, that’s what I’ve got football for.

As for basketball, how fortuitous is it that our technological ability to watch more games than ever has coincided with arguably the most talented era in the history of the sport? These are the halcyon days — it’s never been better than this.

Which is not to say it can’t get better still. I, for one, can’t wait for time travel to come to the NBA. Those matchups between the Kareem/Magic/Worthy “Showtime” Lakers and the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili Spurs are gonna be beautiful to watch.

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