You’ve probably seen the headlines. Charles Oakley says Giannis Antetokounmpo would come off the bench in his era. Tracy McGrady says Giannis Antetokounmpo would’ve ‘struggled’ in his era. We’ve seen this movie before; the perk of having the best player in the league is that these asinine takes get directed at him (and by extension us) instead of others.
Reputable commentators (including but not limited to Isaiah Thomas) have been quick to eloquently consign these opinions to the dustbin where they belong. But, me being me, I want to wallow a little more deeply into the fundamental misunderstandings that headlines like these are based off. Today, I’ll be using the concept of affordances to provide a useful explication for the lunacy that Giannis would not start in other eras.
We here at BrewHoop pride ourselves on our high journalistic standards, so let’s base our discussion on primary sources rather than clickbait headlines.
He wouldn’t have been a force back in the day. He would have struggled because they would make him shoot jump shots. He wouldn’t be doing no [Eurostep] to the basket and just get a layup. Somebody’s gonna knock his head off... I’m glad he’s doing what he’s doing now, but he definitely wouldn’t have... he’d come off the bench back in the day.
And here’s T-Mac:
I think he would have struggled because of how closed up the paint was... It was tough offensively because the defense was so great... If you can’t shoot, it’s gonna be hard, and Giannis’ game is predicated on coming downhill… It would have been tough for him to be who he is today, back then.
Two aspects are notable here. First is the assertion that basketball was fundamentally different in earlier eras: they shot jump shots, there were no Eurosteps, it was more physical, the paint was closed off, the defense was better, you couldn’t get downhill... you get the picture. Second is the assumption that Giannis would operate as fundamentally the same player in earlier eras: Oakley focuses on “what he’s doing now,” and T-Mac says it would be “tough for him to be who he is today, back then.”
The thrust of the remainder of this article will be to vociferously counter these two points. To do so, let’s start by introducing affordances.
In his Theory of Affordances, James Gibson clapped back at previous models of visual perception. Such models posited that the information that we take in through our eyes is pretty shabby, requiring a lot of legwork by the brain before it makes sense. Instead, Gibson argued that we can directly perceive so-called affordances - essentially what we can do with things. For example, a chair “affords” sittingness. To Gibson, objects have affordances, which we then perceive.
Don Norman notably applied the concept of affordances in his book, The Design of Everyday Things. The book is hinged on doors, specifically door handles. He argued that different types of door handles afford different actions, in what is essentially a glorified game of Bop-It. Flat door handle? Push it! Round door handle? Twist it! (Door at the Midvale School for the Gifted? Pull it...) Opening doors and interacting with other common objects come naturally to us because they are designed to effectively convey affordances that we can easily perceive. To Norman, affordances lie at the intersection of user and object.
Recently, affordances have been increasingly applied to my neck of the woods: studying how people use technology. They have become particularly useful because technology changes quickly. For example, social media platforms are constantly in flux. TikTok is widely used today, but was barely known a few years backs. Facebook’s user base has shifted to older adults, which has accompanied changes in usage norms and the product itself. When studying technology - or really just thinking about technology - there is a tendency to proclaim things as new. The lens of affordances allows us to understand that, although today’s technology companies may be making new recipes, they are still cooking with the same ingredients. TikTok is similar to Vine. Facebook is similar to MySpace. Crucially, these ingredients (i.e., affordances) involve both the user and the technology (e.g., posting a video, creating a profile).
It is in this application of affordances to technology that a parallel to basketball emerges. Let’s revisit the main contentions raised by Oakley and T-Mac: that basketball today is different than basketball back in the day, and that Giannis plays today in the same manner that he would play back then.
Is basketball today different than back in the day? Sure. But, from an affordance perspective, we can ask whether any of the underlying ingredients were different. Members of the commentariat with a deeper knowledge of basketball in the 80s, 90s, and 00s can chime in here, but from my youthful vantage, I think that differences are overstated. To be sure, today’s play is more open due to an emphasis on shooting threes. But at the end of the day, basketball is about putting the ball in the basket and preventing the opposing team from doing the same. It would be one thing to question whether Steph would be as successful prior to the advent of the three-point line; it is another thing to doubt that Giannis’ abilities in and around the point on both ends of the floor would translate.
However, even that reasoning still operates under the assumption that Giannis today would be identical to Giannis in 1990. The affordance perspective reminds us of the importance of both user and technology. Likewise, basketball is a product of the people who play it and the sport itself. Giannis’ game today is not just a product of his own making; it is shaped by the training that he receives from coaches along contemporary players. If Giannis played back in the proverbial day, he would have received different training from different coaches alongside different players. It is comical to suggest that he could not adapt to a different era, especially in light of his incredible work ethic and desire for greatness.
Taken together, we reach a conclusion similar to some of my previous articles: basketball is a social construction. Although the fundamentals of the sport remain constant over time, everyone involved in the sport co-create how it manifests in every era. As two men who were involved with this process in their respective eras, it makes sense that Tracy McGrady and Charles Oakley look at the star of the current era with skepticism.
Yet, the very reason that Giannis now receives such skepticism is because he has shaped the current era (or paradigm, if you will) in his image. This is an intriguing Catch-22: either you’re a middling player who is clearly not good enough to succeed in prior eras, or you’re a star player that, by virtue of ascending the pyramid of your era, clearly could not succeed in a previous era. Ultimately, while it can be interesting (not to mention profitable) to compare the apples and oranges of the stars of different eras (see: GOAT debates), we would do well to simply admire paradigm-defining stars that, much like doors that open intuitively, are the best players of their time.