Scarcity Increases Perceived Value: The Stars of Yesterday vs The Stars of Today

There’s this sense among many basketball fans that stars and stats just don’t matter like they used to.

While part of this is likely due to nostalgia (which I cover in depth in the next chapter), there’s another factor at play here: scarcity, and the average level of competition.

The average level of competition back in the day was lower. It just was. Imagine a team winning eight straight titles like the Boston Celtics, or a star winning eleven in their career like Bill Russell.

It just wouldn’t happen!

Part of that is there’s no longer 8 or 9 teams. There’s 32. There’s more money in the sport. There’s more awareness. And there has been for years, so the competition level is much higher. And excellence begets further excellence.

The Golden State Warriors had the greatest team ever assembled, and they only lasted for three years with Kevin Durant. Due to player movement and empowerment, dudes just don’t stick together as long anymore.

Plus, in those three years, the Warriors lost a finals due to bad injury luck and twice narrowly escaped upsets due to other teams bad injury luck (shouts out Kawhi & CP).

Lucky to be good, good to be lucky. All champions experience it.

Regardless, these teams now are not the same as then. Why? Because every team has a star, usually stars, and they impact winning.

There were less stars in previous decades, and the gap between them and the ‘average’ player was wider, which made them feel more special and greater than they actually were, at least when it comes to comparing them to current talent. Dr J was the first player to perform aerially like he did. Now there’s hundreds of dudes, at least, that can do that shit.

It’s why I struggle with all-time rankings. We can put players like him high on all-time rankings, but only if we acknowledge his talent was relative to his era, and if you took him in his prime and dropped him in today’s league, his handle and jumper would need work if he were to chisel out a starting position for any team.

He’s a waiver wire guy, sticking due to his athleticism, which was more than enough back then. He could get by and dunk over anyone. I just feel like there’s three guys on each team, at minimum, who could stick in front of him and meet him at the rim now.

And that’s not a knock! Dude played in the 70s (when there were two leagues!) & 80s. That’s fifty and forty years ago, for those of you keeping score at home. Back when talent was diluted and the NBA played on tape delay.

He was incredible for his time. He’s just not for this time.

Frankly, it would be embarrassing to today’s talent, given all the advances in training & treatment during that time, if he could step into today’s league and still dominate. I have all the respect for his talent at his time.

And yet, given the same training and treatment opportunities, there’s no telling for certain that he’d be a meaningfully different player. There’re tons of athletic players today who never develop much skill, despite every chance. You can probably think of several you’ve seen and perhaps even played with who never went quite as far as they should have. There’re no guarantees in player development.

But I’ve gotten off track.

Back to scarcity. Back then, every high-flyer, deep shooter, and ball-handling maestro was one in a million, the biggest and brightest show in town. You’d never seen anything like it. Now, with training and coaching and development and interest in the sport (plus, social media vs newspapers and TV), there’s a much deeper base of both adequate and exceptional players, and they all play against each other and better each other, and thus the gap has shrunk.

Plus! You have access to every crazy NBA, college, high school, hell, even elementary highlight as it happens all around the world. And not only do you have all present highlights, but those past ones – they’re not going anywhere. They’re still everywhere online.

With every passing year, we have more stars from the past to compare against stars of the present, so most everything has some sort of comparable, and it’s not the ‘brand new’ or ‘wow’ factor anymore. 

Jordan dunked from inside the free throw line and everyone lost their fucking minds. Zach LaVine went between the legs from the free throw line and everyone forgot about it the next day. That probably says as much about our shortened attention span and the rapid expansion of attention grabbers as it does about anything basketball related.

The bar only gets higher, and even when special things happen, they somehow seem less special. 

This is the same problem prevalent in music and film and really anything involving creativity, by the way. There’s so much that’s already been done that it takes a lot more to impress us, and it’s a lot harder to create with what can feel like a pre-painted canvas.

The talent level, at every level, is incredibly high now. And it will only continue to increase. 

There’re 42 players averaging over 20 points this year. In 2000, just 20-ish years ago, there were 27.

Of course, this is in part due to the rule change in the post-Jordan prime where help defense and zone defense were made legal, which tanked scoring averages because defenses got much better. And what happened? Offenses adjusted (eventually).

That’s why the ‘Jordan would have averaged 50’ arguments always ring hollow to me. One, no team would have let him, and if the defense loaded up on him, he was good/smart enough to make the right play and pass when his teammates were wide open. Two, he couldn’t have treated his body the same way he did if he wanted to win all year round (see – James Harden). 

Three, he would have needed to get better to keep up with modern defenses, which would have confused the shit out of him (here’s a video that proves I’m smart and one that proves I’m stupid). Four, it got harder to score after his second retirement, as Tracy McGrady tried to use to say Giannis would have struggled.

Of note in that article is this blurb, which will make me shut up now “These discussions also tend to overlook how any player is a product of the league landscape. If you take Antetokounmpo and put him in the NBA 10 or 20 years ago, then he would’ve adapted to fit however the game was being played.”

Jordan’s great. He would have always been great. It just would have been harder for him to dominate now. 

For those wondering, the three-point shot is not my argument against him. The three-point revolution applies more to role players than stars. The best wing scorers have always thrived in the midrange.

Let’s do a little thought exercise – compare the best players from every roster ten years ago, twenty, however long, to the best player from rosters today. Then the second best, third best, etc.

What you may find is that the top-level talent is certainly rarer, yes, but the difference gets even more stark the further you go down. And don’t just look at stats. Watch film. That never lies.

Let me put it this way – the tenth man on today’s NBA rosters would put the 10th man on rosters from 2004 in the fucking ground.

And! And! The NBA has emphasised parity, meaning stars are spread out across teams now more than ever. You think the Heatles were stacked? Again, go check those Celtics teams, and some Lakers teams while you’re at it.

In summary, with every passing year, players get better, and we consume more great highlights from both past and present, which numbs us to the greatness on display in front of us. As well, with every passing year, there’s more eyeballs on every game. It used to be that the national audience only had room for one or two players to pay attention to. Now, everyone’s jumping on bandwagons at the first sign of a hot streak.

It’s a problem of supply and demand. Economics 101 – when supply increases, price (aka value) decreases.

It’s not that being a star means something different than it used to. It’s just that there’s more of them now, which is a great thing for entertainment, but a bad thing for how we value and appreciate them.

Speaking of how time warps appreciation and valuation – let’s talk nostalgia.