Consider two stat lines for two players who were each in their sixth season at the time (each of them played 81 games):
MPG FG% 3p% FT% RPG APG SPG BPG PPG
37.7 .489 .344 .780 7.6 7.2 1.7 1.2 28.4
38.3 .514 .000 .745 11.2 3.0 .99 3.2 26.6
We’ll call the guy on top “F” because he’s a forward, and the guy on the bottom “C” because he’s a center. (The formatting might get screwed up in translation. F averages 37.7 minutes, shoots 48.9% from the field 34.4% from 3, 78% at the line, grabs 7.6 rebounds per game, dishes 7.2 assists per game, gets 1.7 steals per game, blocks 1.2 shots per game, and scores 28.4 points per game. C averages 38.3 minutes, shoots 51.4% from the field, didn’t make a 3, shoots 74.5% at the line, grabs 11.2 rebounds per game, dishes 3.0 assists per game, gets .99 steals per game, blocks 3.2 shots per game, and scores 26.6 points per game.)
If I asked who was better, you’d probably say it’s a close call, right? You might note that F brings more to the table, because he shoots 3’s, obviously passes well, is a thief on defense, and rebounds quite well. But, you’d also probably note that C is an extremely rare player: a center who obviously dominates the paint (11 rebounds, 3 blocks per game), and scores 26.6 points per game while shooting over 50%. On the numbers alone, it’s a very tough call. You couldn’t call me crazy if I said that I’d take C over F, if only because it’s harder to find a dominant center than it is to find anything else.
If I told you that F had already led his team to the NBA Finals by the end of his sixth year, and that the furthest C had led his team was to the Conference Semifinals, you’d say that F had probably proven himself to be a better player.
But, if I told you that C, by the end of his sixth year, had never had a teammate who made the All-Star team, and that F, by the end of his sixth year, already had two teammates who made the All-Star team, you might take that back. You couldn’t call me crazy if I said that I’d still take C over F, even knowing that F had already led his team to the NBA Finals.
If I then told you that Bill Simmons took the time to rank the 96 best players of all time, and ranked C number 39 and F number 20, you couldn’t call me crazy if I said that I disagree with Simmons. If I told you that Simmons said of C that his “career was either ‘frustrating’ (the glass-half-full take) or ‘phenomenally disappointing’ (the glass-half-empty take),” and said of F that “he’s a cross between ABA Doc (unstoppable in the open court, breathtaking in traffic, can galvanize teammates and crowds with one ‘wow’ play, handles himself gracefully on and off the court) and 1992 Scottie Pippen (the freaky athletic ability on both ends, especially when he’s cutting pass lines or flying in from the weak side for a block), with a little MJ (his overcompetitiveness and ‘there’s no way we’re losing this game’ gear), Magic (the unselfishness, which isn’t where I thought it would be back in 2003, but at least it’s there a little) and Bo (how he occasionally overpowers opponents in ways that doesn’t seem fully human) mixed in . . . only if that Molotove NBA superstar cocktail was mixed together in Karl Malone’s 275-pound body. This is crazy. This is insane. This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” you couldn’t call me crazy if I said that Bill Simmons got carried away. If I told you that I’d still take C over F in spite of Bill’s swooning, you still wouldn’t call me crazy.
But, if I told you that C was Patrick Ewing and F was LeBron James, you’d probably call me crazy if I said I’d take C over F.