Wilt. Kareem. Doctor. Magic. Michael. LeBron. Dirk. Steph. Vince.
All certifiable NBA game changers. But what does that even mean?
Game changer (noun): a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way
While the idea of "changing the game" as it relates to sports or pastimes dates back over 100 years, the origins of the literal term "game changer" is up for debate. Some claim that it was first used in relation to sports in 1981 in Volume 3 of 'Inside Sports' while referencing one-of-a-kind baseball players. Others point towards a story in The Atlanta Constitution from 1930 which described an attempt to improve the game of bridge. "Seldom are game-changers idle."
According to Google Books Ngram Viewer, which is an online search engine that charts the frequencies of any string of text found in sources printed between 1500 and 2008, there is no evidence of it used as an expression prior to the 1960s. Today, it's firmly entrenched in the vernacular and casually tossed around as an understood part of everyday lingo.
In the context of the NBA, the true game changers are rare.
There are always a slew of great players, the giants of the game who tower over all and cast a shadow that extends beyond their own immediate sphere.
But even the best of the best aren't necessarily game changers. More often than not, they're simply following in the footsteps of those who came before them, evolving and naturally building upon an already predefined construct. Dominance doesn't necessarily equate to game changing.
So who then are the actual game changers? Who are the players who forever altered the course of NBA history, who changed the direction of the tracks for an NBA train barreling into the future?
Stuck out like a sore thumb doesn't begin to approach the level at which The Big Dipper was just different.
From the moment he stepped foot in the NBA, it was clear that he operated on a plane reserved for him and only him. Chamberlain dominated in ways nobody had even considered to the point where they literally had to change the rules to make it more fair. Not only did the league widen the lane in an attempt to make it harder to just camp down low, they also outlawed over the backboard inbounding and introduced the idea of the free-throw lane.
Early in Chamberlain's career, teammates would inbound the ball under their own basket by simply lobbing it over the backboard so the record-breaking high jump champion could sore into the clouds and casually convert without a care in the world. You can't do that anymore.
He also routinely lofted the ball off the backboard to himself, essentially throwing himself an alley-oop while shooting free throws. In order to curb what had become impossible to stop, the NBA instituted a rule whereabout the shooter could not advance over the line until the ball touched the rim.
It's not simply that he dominated, it's the manner in which he dominated that caused the stewards of the sport to reconsider basic underlying principles of the game itself.
During Lew Alcindor's first season playing on the varsity team at UCLA (freshmen were ineligible), he routinely dunked on anyone and everyone en route to averaging 29.0 points per game on 67% shooting.
He was unstoppable, so naturally, the NCAA made a rule to prohibit dunking ahead of the 1967-68 season that would remain in place for 10 years.
Though never officially cited as the reason for the rule, Alcindor is speculated to have been the main cause and officials later admitted that his name did come up in the committee where the decision was ultimately made. Media members dubbed it the 'Lew Alcindor rule'. Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden - who won 10 national championships - told his star centre that the ban would make him a better basketball player and it's hard to argue with the results. A stickler for fundamentals, Wooden impressed upon Alcindor the need to develop a skyhook.
Once the skyhook was in place? Game over.
And so borne from a rule established to help curb his own dominance, Alcindor mastered the most unstoppable shot in the history of the sport. Not only did he skyhook his way to two national championships in college, he then used that same shot to propel him to six NBA MVP awards, six NBA titles, and a record 38,387 career points, the most in NBA history.
Anytime you cause institutional change that leads to a 10-year ban... and then out of it respond by mastering the most unstoppable move that would alter the course of NBA history... well, I think that qualifies as a game changer.
Dr. J quite literally soared to new heights in a way that no player up until that point ever had as he - along with David Thompson and George Gervin among others - ushered in a new era of high-flying, above-the-rim wings.
Dr. J oozed cool at a time the NBA desperately needed it.
Erving injected some sorely needed style into a league that had yet to truly vault into the limelight as an elite entertainment option. Games were still being shown on tape delay (if at all) and fading interest tugged at the heart of a league desperately looking for personable stars.
Today's game is one dominated from the outside in and its a paradigm shift that began with Erving's arrival and subsequent summit. Consider the MVP award.
The first 25 years of its existence, it went to a big man 23 times with only Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy proving the exception. When the Doctor claimed the MVP award in 1980-81, it triggered a decades-long shift that's taken hold in recent years with perimeter players claiming 11 straight, leading up to Giannis Antetokounmpo's triumph last season.
Erving didn't simply pave the way for the spectacular above-the-rim acts like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, and Vince Carter, he symbolised a greater shift away from the monotonous paint patrolling behemoths to the dynamic fast-breaking uber athletes.
Would the Magics and Michaels of the world come along regardless? Perhaps. But they grew up watching Erving unpack and unfurl conventional wisdom that set the stage for their arrival and eventual takeover.
Speaking of cool!
Nobody broke the positional mould quite like Johnson. While Oscar Robertson certainly chipped away at common positional distinctions, Johnson took a sledgehammer to the notion of the traditional point guard.
Point guards weren't supposed to stand 6'9".
Point guards weren't supposed to jump centre in the NBA Finals.
Point guards weren't supposed to post up.
And towering 6'9" players certainly weren't supposed to run the floor and drop no-look dimes.
There's quite literally nothing conventional about Johnson - the flair, the million-dollar smile, the magnetic personality, the ability to rise as a mover and shaker behind the scenes. Every ounce of Johnson screamed superstar. He took Jerry Buss's vision for the Showtime Lakers, hopped in the drop top and slammed the pedal to the metal.
In 2020, we've essentially arrived at a point where positions no longer exist. There aren't point guards or small forwards or centres... there are basketball players who play to strengths and throw caution to the wind about sticking to traditional tropes.
And it's all because of Magic.
It's somewhat incredible to think that arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport changed the game off the court more than he did on the court.
But that's exactly what Michael Jordan on his path to creating a personal brand far beyond the realm of the hardwood. He single-handedly flipped the shoe industry on its head. He made it cool to drink Gatorade. He eventually became so iconic that he simply created his own personal brand within Nike itself. He starred in his own movie and even controlled his own likeness to the point where he didn't appear in NBA licensed video games.
Jordan reached a level of worldwide appeal and celebrity that no athlete regardless of sport had ever achieved.
He demonstrated for all to see just what's possible when assuming total control and it's never more apparent than now with players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry leveraging their talents to become even larger powerbrokers in the media sphere and larger business world. There are shades of Jordan in the innovation of Spencer Dinwiddle's efforts to tokenise his own contract, essentially creating his own cryptocurrency as a new-age version of betting on himself.
Jordan played by his own rules and in doing so changed the game for every star that followed.
Today's young NBA fan bears little resemblance to the young NBA fans of previous generations.
They watch condensed games on League Pass. They live for highlights on YouTube. They follow the pre-game tunnel walks posted on Instagram. They drift towards the players who trend just as much - if not more - than the ones who win.
RELIVE VINSANITY. ON THANKYOUVINCE.COM
It's impossible to overstate Vinsanity's explosion in popularity in the early 2000s. The 2000 Slam Dunk Contest elevated Carter into the forefront and collective conscious of the casual fan. It didn't matter that his teams didn't win big. It didn't matter that he wasn't in MVP conversations. It mattered that Carter captivated with an electric, can't miss aura that hadn't been seen since the early days of Michael Jordan.
The biggest difference? YouTube.
Founded in 2005, YouTube's rise to prominence began during the backend of Carter's prime. And although it missed out on his highest-flying days, it wasn't long before Carter's immense catalogue of dunks filled the webs with mixtapes upon mixtapes upon mixtapes. His game fit the bill for the rise of the mobile video era and in part helped Carter's legacy live on far more spectacularly than if he had come along 10 years prior.
More than anyone else, including Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Carter's career unfolded in a snackable format that foreshadowed the digital tidal wave that would come to follow. The images of Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett (among others) looking on in bewilderment with old-school video cameras in hand to log The Vince Carter Experience as a timeless keepsake perfectly encapsulates everything that would come to fruition over the following two decades.
Carter's rise sowed the seeds for the online highlight factory defined by the Zion Williamson's of the world. Before he was even in college, Williamson's Instagram following numbered in the millions and far exceeded the majority of NBA All-Stars. And it's not just Williamson either, as draft prospects, professional dunkers and trick shot artists all have followings that reflect a borderline obsession with "gotta have it now" highlights. The fan in the stand with the phone out recording and posting? It's not that different than Shaq and KG on the sidelines at the 2000 Slam Dunk contest.
The sweet-stroking German forever changed how we view bigs.
There have been other bigs who could step outside and shoot: Bob McAdoo, Sam Perkins, and even Bill Laimbeer come to mind as floor stretchers. But none shot it like Nowitzki who took the idea of the stretch 4/5 to another level.
When it became obvious the Mavericks had scored a massive haul with Nowitzki, teams spent the better part of the next decade desperately over-reaching in their efforts to find the next Dirk. Andrea Bargnani, Darko Milicic, Nikoloz Tskitishvili and plenty others forever live on with "The Next Dirk" label etched on their NBA tombstones. Even the manner in which Nowitzki first popped on the radar - a dominant Nike Hoop Summit - changed the approach that many NBA teams took to international scouting.
But beyond that initial knee-jerk drafting overcorrection, Nowitzki's floor spacing served as the first domino in a long series of developments that's now reached the point to where if you're a 7-footer who can't shoot, there's almost no place for you in the league. While Nowitzki long served as the exception, the Dirk-like archetype is now the norm as centres routinely bomb away from downtown at rates which rival some high octane guards.
If Erving served as the precursor for the rise of the high-flying wing, Nowitzki did the same for the stretch big that's now become firmly entrenched and embedded as the NBA's new normal.
There have been other bigs who can shoot, but none remotely on par with Dirk who took the idea of the stretch 4/5 to another level
"I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat."
The King had spoken... and then some.
When LeBron James uttered that one sentence live on an ESPN primetime special, it signaled a shift in how the true powerbrokers wielded their power. Player empowerment is itself a term thrown around as if it's something new. It isn't. The NBA is a heliocentric league and for decades stars have forced hands.
In 1965, legendary Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford penned 'Another Big Bluff By Big Wilt', a sharply worded rebuke of Wilt Chamberlain's penchant for bluffing to get his way.
"The petulant moods of Wilt the Stilt are getting to be a bore...
"Chamberlain has quit or threatened to quit five times: as a sophomore and as a junior at Kansas, after his first year as a pro, when his team moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco and last week when he was traded from San Francisco back to Philadelphia. The threat has nearly always been used by Wilt as an instrument to bargain for more money, and he has consistently gotten away with the bluff. If the NBA had called his hand when he said he was quitting-for silly reasons-after his first year it might have turned Chamberlain into a full-time athlete instead of a part-time financier, into an athlete far more amenable to coaching and to the demands of team play."
He did it again three years later to force his way back west. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asked out of Milwaukee. Ditto for Charles Barkley in Philadelphia. Shaquille O'Neal opted to flee Orlando. The list goes on and on so any claim of it all originating with LeBron is at worst inaccurate and at best incomplete.
But unlike the players before him, James did it with a choreographed plan in mind that gave him freedom. As always, the devil is in the detail.
Not only did James secure an opt-out after the fourth year of his six-year deal, he managed to land in Miami via a sign-and-trade which enabled him to keep the higher raises intended to incentivise players to resign with their teams. By signing in the manner he did - a primetime special with a handpicked host, a player option to opt out early and higher annual raises that wouldn't have been awarded had he just signed outright as a free agent - James got to have his cake and eat it too.
In the 10 years since that decision, players have become emboldened to maintain more control over their own situations. It used to be that players defaulted to resigning for as many years and as many dollars as possible. That changed not only with The Decision but the subsequent move four years later back to Cleveland.
Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Kristaps Porzingis, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler... all of whom in one way or another followed the blueprint laid out by LeBron either as free agents or while under contract. What used to be rather simple and straightforward is now anything but that and because it's a star-driven league, the shift in mindset has forever altered not only the behavior of players but the strategies implored by teams.
3 > 2.
It's basic math that my two-year-old understands.
And yet Stephen Curry took that idea and proved it's success to the point where the entire league played copycat and flipped on its axis faster than ever before.
When Curry entered the NBA in 2009, the average NBA team attempted 18 threes a game. It hovered around that mark for the first three years of Curry's career until his breakout season of 2012-13 which just so happened to coincide with the NBA itself becoming more 3-point happy. The same year that Golden State's golden child set the all-time record for made 3s (a record he would go on to break multiple times in the coming years), NBA teams for the first time averaged 20 3-point attempts per game.
As Curry's shooting continued to explode and the Warriors transformed into a juggernaut, the rest of the league ramped up its efforts to keep pace with the free-wheeling Warriors. By the 2018-19 season, the fifth straight year that Curry's Warriors reached the NBA Finals, teams were shooting over 32 of them per game.
In that 2012-13 breakout campaign, Curry hoisted 7.7 per game and was the only player in the entire league to average at least seven. Care to guess how many players topped that threshold this season?
There were 28 instances of something this season alone that had only happened a grand total of 28 times in NBA history prior to Curry's arrival.
Kids all over the world have spent the better part of the last decade emulating Curry in driveways, parks and gyms, a trend helped by the fact that Curry is about as physically relatable as any superstar in the history of the game. You can't just go in the driveway and uncork drop-step dunks. Or look in the mirror and pretend to be chiseled like LeBron. Even the famous tagline 'Be Like Mike' ignores the fact that it's utterly impossible to replicate the 6'6" Air Jordan.
But anyone can heave as many off-balance 3s as humanly possible. Look no further than the NBA itself as James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, Trae Young and many others have followed in Curry's footsteps and leaned into the novel concept of 3 > 2.
The 3-point revolution represents the biggest on-court strategic change in the history of the sport and there's no player more single-handed responsible for it than the original Splash Brother.
"Seldom are game-changers idle."
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.