Basketball Darwinism — The Evolution of the Game’s Greatest Players

September 13th, 2013 | by Scott Stevens

The game has changed. In three words, I can sum up why: Wilt, Jordan, Lebron.

These are quite possibly the most influential players of their times. Maybe of all time. And I would argue that each is partially responsible for the one those that followed.

Before the advent of the three-point line, big men ruled the league. They were closer to the basket, and therefore better equipped to put the ball in the hoop. It was a different time, and Wilt Chamberlain was the leader. There was no one quite like him. Sure, Bill Russell had more success in the championship department, but he was surrounded by a much better supporting cast. The fact that Wilt’s 100 point mark still stands is evidence enough. But the game was evolving.

It was the 1967-68 season when the American Basketball Association first introduced the three-point line. ABA commissioner George Mikan was quoted as saying the three-pointer “would give the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans.” Wilt might not have agreed, but it’s hard to argue against the excitement of the three ball.

We don’t know if Wilt’s presence in basketball affected the invention of the three-point line, but he did impact other rule changes. During his career, the lane was widened to keep him farther away from the hoop, and offensive goaltending was instituted. Even minute changes regarding inbounds passes and shooting free throws had Wilt in mind.

Was it necessary for the NBA to make all these changes? It’s hard to say. But in my opinion, it was the golden age of post players. After the changes, smaller players had a defined role in the game and could make a larger impact.

Enter Michael Jordan.

He grew up watching big men dominate. With his body, however, he’d have to find a different way to control a game. Without the change to the rules, a shooting guard might never have had quite as much impact as he did. After the change, shooting had to be respected: it wasn’t always about being the closest to the hoop. This is the second wave in the evolution of the game.

It was this era, which can be summed up as the Jordan era, when the NBA began to solidify its roots in mainstream Americana. It was thanks to a cocky, bald-headed, gum-chewing player that couldn’t keep his tongue in his mouth. This was a shift in the game from the days of Wilt. Now, it wasn’t as cool to be “big.” No matter the size or shape, kids wanted the long ball. And they practiced it. Fundamentals were less important than style. Even to this day, many people will walk into a gym and take a three-pointer as their first shot. Shooting coaches everywhere are shuddering.

Over the next several years, we started seeing a higher number of seven-footers that camped out behind the three-point line.  The types of players that come to mind as a result of the Jordan effect are the Allen Iversons, Dirk Nowitskis and Lamar Odoms of the world. Lines blurred. Roles were changing. The game was evolving.

Today, we’re in what I call the hybrid generation, full of combo guards, one-way players and streak shooters. It seems like new positions are being invented every day. The stretch 4. The shoot-first point guard. The point forward. The list goes on.

Enter Lebron James.

He needs no introduction. He’s not like any other player the NBA has ever seen, at least athletically. The perfect example of a hybrid player, Lebron can not only guard, but shut down every position 1-5. He got that way because it was suddenly acceptable for a player of his size to handle the ball and shoot. Previously, he would have been stuck under the basket working on his post moves. The game really has evolved, and the current NBA players are perfect evidence of that.

Lebron James is a result of the Jordan effect, who was a result of the Wilt effect.

So where does the sport go from here? How does the way Lebron plays alter the course of future basketball stars? I’m just as excited as you to find out.

Scott Stevens

A voice of the everyday Jazz fan. Scott works as a creative writer at an advertising agency in Los Angeles. Sticking it to Laker fans every chance he gets. A former "Jazz Rowdy" and avid interneter with production and writing experience on global sports brands. He has lived everywhere from Texas to DC, and all the way to Thailand. He now happens to live on a boat.

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  1. Clint Peterson says:

    There was another golden age for post players in the NBA, one which also resulted in rules changes, a time not so long ago. Pace of play had reached an all-time low and post players dominated a plodding, low-scoring game. Mike D’Antoni played a pivotal role in changing that, forcing the game to evolve with his new philosophy of play.

  2. Matt Richards says:

    Great post! I agree with you players that have came before one another influence each other. Check out my blog too “How 3-pt Line Changed the Game”

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