A running joke around this site is that the Oscar for best picture should just always go to the Avengers, or whatever other movie makes the most money at the box office. After all, isn't popularity the proof of the best in a meritocracy? For example, D'Angelo Russell had the gall to imply the Tracy McGrady might have been a better player than Kobe Bryant. By the Avengers test, this seems silly. Kobe trounces Tracy McGrady on every accolade known to man. But is Kobe vs. Tracy McGrady a fair comparison? Or is it possible that other factors should be taken into account when comparing players.
A fun experiment by Salganik, Dodds, and Watts looked at how music popularity. Thousands of participants downloaded songs and rated them. However, there were three conditions:
- In the first, participants just downloaded and rated songs
- In the second, participants could see a grid of how other people had rated every song
- In the third, participants could see a ranked list of how other people had rated every song
When users couldn't see how others voted, it was much easier to guess which songs would become the most popular. But as soon as they could see other users votes, individual songs got much more popular. And the kicker? The researchers couldn't guess which songs that would happen to.
It makes sense, a song that quickly gets two votes can cascade into being the best, even if it was as good as another song. And if you give the population that information in an easy to read fashion it gets even worse. This phenomenon has been called "The Matthew Effect," which means advantages get you more advantages. Putting it all together means - favorable starting conditions are key to success in areas where social interaction determines "the best."
In regards to Kobe and the Avengers, I have no doubt that both of them qualify as very good. However, it's just worth noting that both had to have very favorable conditions to achieve the astronomical success they did. Sure, the Avengers franchise has grossed billions of dollars. It also came to market at the perfect time with the perfect cast. You need only look back a few decades when a few bad superhero movies made the notion of a large team blockbuster like the Avengers impossible.
And that brings us to Kobe vs. Tracy McGrady. Now, calling either the "greatest of all time" seems sketch to me. Both were good players, and one could argue that Tracy McGrady's per-minute performance was better than Kobe's, while Kobe's longevity obviously trumps T-Mac's. But we haven't been watching both players in a vacuum.
Tracy and Kobe's beginnings were quite different. In 1996, Kobe Bryant was drafted by a fifty-win Charlotte Hornets, who then traded him the Lakers, who had just acquired Shaquille O'Neal. On a winning team, Kobe was slowly given more minutes until he became a full-fledged starter in 1999 and a piece of a title winning Laker squad. And right around the time the Lakers started winning titles, Kobe started picking up annual awards. He made every All-Star game after 2000, and regularly made the All-NBA team, usually the first team. After a disappointing breakup of a franchise, the Lakers were able to get key assets for Shaquille O'Neal, and luck into an All-Star center with Pau Gasol and Kobe would get another pair of titles.
Tracy McGrady was drafted by a horrible Toronto Raptors. He was slowly given more minutes until he was traded to a mediocre Orlando Magic in 2000. He became a key part of a mediocre franchise, while he started earning accolades. He was an All-Star and All-NBA regular from 2001 on. The Magic traded him to a promising Rockets franchise in 2004, but a combination of his health, Yao Ming's health, or the rest of the Rockets kept the squad from going anywhere. After the health of the Rockets finally fell apart, Tracy McGrady bounced around the NBA, never living up to his potential.
With almost twenty years of basketball in the bag, it's easy to look at Kobe versus T-Mac and give the nod to Kobe. So many of his accolades speak for themselves. Except, Kobe's accolades have a ton to do with being part of a social network and having key starting conditions. All-Star berths are voted on by fans. Writers give All-NBA awards. These groups have been shown to love large markets and winning teams. Kobe starting his career on a killer squad in a big market has undoubtedly helped his career. Tracy McGrady was toiling away on a horrible team, before going to a mediocre squad, before even getting a shot at a real team matters! It matters for public perception, and it might even matter for how their careers played out.
Count the Rings
I often hear Kobe's work ethics praised. And I've heard Tracy McGrady called a talented player that didn't want to put in the work to sustain his greatness. But compare where Kobe and T-Mac were in the middle of their career. Kobe Bryant had won three titles and was fighting to be viewed as the same level of player as Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan (sadly he is, and no, he shouldn't be) Tracy McGrady? If he tried really hard, he might be on a team that made it out of the first round of the NBA playoffs!
If Tracy McGrady has started his career on a better team in a better market, and Kobe Bryant had started on a horrible team, would we be having an entirely different discussion? I think it's fair to say probably. It's fair to say that D'Angelo Russel's claims aren't that far off the mark. Both Kobe and T-Mac were talented high schoolers filled to the brim with potential. Both had exhilarating games. I'd even argue if he was given the chance, McGrady probably would have been more clutch than Kobe.
In the fictitious world of Ann Rand, the cream rises to the top. In the world of Ann Rand, Kobe Bryant has had a better career than Tracy McGrady because he's a better player. But in the real world, where initial conditions matters and where social voting compounds on itself quickly, I think it's not so outrageous to say that Tracy McGrady should be viewed in the same light as Kobe Bryant. Of course, most sports fans would probably disagree.