Is it really the NBA's golden age?

Despite extraordinary talents like LeBron James, this era is rather ordinary

Originally Published: October 31, 2012
By Neil Paine | Basketball-Reference.com
Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Wilt ChamberlainGetty ImagesHas LeBron James ushered in a golden age of basketball like Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain?

Are we currently in a "golden age" of basketball?

Many fans and journalists (including ESPN's own Henry Abbott) seem to think so, and it's not very hard to see why. Over the past few seasons, the NBA has finally emerged from the mid-2000s doldrums that saw league television ratings hit record lows, mainly thanks to an impressive influx of new talent in the last decade. Since 2003, the NBA draft has produced superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook (among others), a great haul for any 10-year stretch of drafts.

On an absolute scale, though, it's hard to say the league's quality is notably high at the current moment. In the Basketball Prospectus 2012-13 annual, I expanded on this Insider piece from July that examined the NBA's change in talent over time, with a sample that extends all the way back to the late 1970s. The basic idea was to look at the difference in age-adjusted productivity for common players who were active in back-to-back seasons. A mass increase in productivity from Year X to Year Y would imply that Year Y was easier, while a decrease in aggregate productivity suggests that Year Y is more difficult.

The final results showed that the league's current overall talent level is at roughly the same level as it was in 1994-95 and 1977-78. That's higher than where it had been sitting in 2004-05, when NBA talent hit its lowest point in at least 35 years (coinciding with the league's aforementioned TV ratings collapse), but a far cry from the league's heyday of the mid-1980s.

These numbers say a team of average players in 1983-84 was nearly three points of efficiency differential better than the average team in 2011-12. By this measure, then, the current NBA is in a somewhat unremarkable place on the talent curve, relative to the last three-and-a-half decades -- hardly the makings of a "golden age."

Neil Paine writes for FiveThirtyEight, the data-supported sports, politics and culture site coming soon from ESPN.