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A couple weeks ago, I watched a replay of the 1981 NBA Finals, in which Larry Bird’s Celtics knocked off Moses Malone’s Rockets. Forget about wondering how those Celtics would fare against today’s version: I'd venture to say the ’81 conference champion Rockets would get mopped by the Lottery-lounging 2011 Rockets.
No disrespect to the older set, but basketball players today are simply better than they used to be. Just watching that re-run, it looked pretty clear that Moses and Calvin Murphy and crew could not hang with today’s NBA teams, which makes it highly unlikely that Wilt and Russell could hang with Shaq, who has some 40 years of evolution on them.
Modern medical science, advanced nutrition and training philosophies, decades of accumulated basketball knowledge and coaching techniques, plus an amateur basketball system in which the best young players are tested against each other almost year-round through AAU and national regular-season schedules ... it all equals an evolved sport played by an evolved athlete.
It’s not that complicated. Why do we have to proclaim Usain Bolt the greatest sprinter of all-time? Because the clock says so. Maybe Jesse Owens had a bigger impact on the sport of track and field, and maybe Carl Lewis was a bigger superstar, but Bolt is faster. Bolt is better.
It’s the same reason a computer built in 2011 is better than a 1984 model; the same reason the 2011 Cadillac outperforms the 1997 version. Molds are made, then molds are broken. That's why Shaq has to be considered the best at his position.
Men like Wilt, Russell and Kareem never had to deal with a monster like Shaq—not only bigger, stronger, faster and more agile than his historic foes, but also utilizing the ingredients from their games to build his own. Shaq took the Chamberlain blueprint and made it better. Now that’s not to say every center who enters the NBA post-Shaq will be automatically better than Shaq. But the next great center probably will be. That’s just how our world works.
But until then, that world belongs to Shaq.