This is the first in a two part series criticizing how sports fans as a whole seem to overhype the best players and teams, comparing them to the all-time greats and having a tendency to use the word “best” more often than it is deserved. This part will concentrate on players, while the second part will concentrate on teams.
Andrew Wiggins is the next LeBron James. Remember when that was all anyone was talking about? While Wiggins was in high school and college he was hyped as one of those “once in a generation” players, only to disappoint everyone by failing to live up to near-impossible expectations. Wiggins, for a rookie, is one heck of a player, but nothing like the animal King James was in first season, averaging nearly 21 points per game to go along with five rebounds and just under six assists.
The Wiggins scenario is one that has played out all too frequently in sports. A year ago, Jadeveon Clowney was being dubbed the next Lawrence Taylor, another unreasonable comparison solely based on high school and college performance. Instead of performing like the greatest defensive player of all time, we are now wondering if Clowney will be able to perform at all after multiple injuries limited Clowney to only appearing in four games for the Texans this season, accumulating just seven tackles in the process. Greg Oden was thought to be the next Shaq. We all know how that turned out- injuries tore everything apart, and Oden is still struggling to even make a roster, having only played in three seasons for a total of just over 100 games since being drafted #1 overall in 2007.
The point I’m trying to make here is that all too often in sports we, the fans, get ahead of ourselves and exaggerate things, and I’m not just talking about hyping draft picks. We put extreme emphasis on the best players, the best teams, the worst teams, and jump to make either unrealistic or unnecessary comparisons at every given opportunity. We all have a tendency to compare the current greats to the best of all time, and tend to rush calling players “great” before they’ve really proven themselves. All of this can be seen from some of the biggest stories in sports today.
Let’s talk about Odell Beckham Jr., something I love to do. Beckham took the world by storm this past season, putting up one of the most impressive rookie seasons in recent memory, marked by his incredible three-finger touchdown grab considered to be one of the greatest catches of all-time (which actually might not be an exaggeration). Immediately Odell began being called one of the best receivers in the league, and receiving comparisons to Randy Moss and Jerry Rice. Does he have the potential to be as good as these all-time greats? He very well might. But will he? It’s a totally different question.
People have to understand that things happen. I hope it never happens, but there is the possibility that Odell could get injured. He also could be facing a bit of a reduced role with the return of Victor Cruz, although I still see him getting as many touches as possible. Teams will also no doubt be better adjusted and prepared to guard him after getting the offseason to watch film. The idea here is that Odell hasn’t even played a full season yet, so it’s not reasonable to start estimated how good his career will be. Sure, his potential might be incredible, but so was Oden’s. Shaq’s best rebounds per game season came as he was a rookie, and Randy Moss had his highest yards per reception and second highest touchdowns in a year as a rookie. The point is, he might not continue to dominate as much as he has.
Shifting back to basketball, I want to discuss the LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Different from my previous examples, James and Bryant have already established themselves as some of the greatest players to have played the game. Naturally, they’ve both been the subject of comparisons to the widely considered greatest player of all-time, Michael Jordan, because as I’ve stated, the sports world tends to want to evaluate the top players with regard to the GOAT (or greatest of all-time). It’s why Messi is always compared to Diego Maradona, the best Argentinean ever and one of the greatest soccer players to have ever lived, right up there with Pele, and why the legacies of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are always looked at in relationship to Joe Montana’s. But back to James and Bryant, I will say that in both cases I am not a huge fan of the comparisons. To show why, I have to lay out my rules for making player comparisons.
1) Players have to both be either active or retired: there’s no use in comparing a rookie to a legend, simply because we don’t know how good the rookie will be. We determine how valuable players are through statistics, so it’s only fair that if one player has finished their career, we wait for the other one to have a full list of both players’ awards and statistics before judging who has a better resume. If you want to compare two active players, compare their value in the current season, unless they have played for the same amount of time, where a career comparison may be appropriate.
2) Players have to have played in a similar era with similar opponent skill level and without any substantial rule changes, or keep time differences in mind during the comparison: there’s no use in juxtaposing a 1950s quarterback with a present-day one. The league was so different back then, and a quarterback was great if they could just throw more touchdowns than interceptions. Nowadays Eli Manning puts up a 4410 yard, 30 touchdown and 14 interception season and is called “average” by most (he’s a fringe top 10 in reality). The importance of time was shown very recently when Klay Thompson broke* the record for most points in a quarter with 37. Notice the asterisk? That’s because the previous record of 33 set by George Gervin was before the 3-point shot existed. If Klay played by those rules, his 37 would be 28.
3) In a sport where players are given specific positions, players should only be judged against players of the same position: LeBron is a small forward, and Michael Jordan is a shooting guard. They are much different players with different roles. Kobe-Jordan is a better comparison. In sports like golf and tennis, this rule doesn’t apply, but just don’t tell me Roger Clemens was better than Albert Pujols. I might not want to talk to you from that point on.
To wrap up this part, I want to make something clear. The excitement of the general population is a big reason why sports is as exciting as it is. If nobody cared or showed enthusiasm, there would be no point in watching or talking about sports. However, we still need to be reasonable. We can give credit where credit is due, and get excited when someone makes a huge play. It’s just when we start using the words “best ever” or start getting ahead of ourselves and trying to compare everyone to legends that we can get ahead of ourselves, and end up looking dumb. So slow down the hype train, and don’t hyperbolize for the heck of it. We do it enough already with players, and as I’ll explain in part 2, we do quite enough with teams as well.