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Why Today’s NBA is No Better Than the ’80s and ’90s

Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

“Larry Bird would be Mike Dunleavy if he played today.”

I remember hearing this comment from a friend and feeling such a deep sense of rage. How can you belittle Larry Legend by comparing him to essentially a spot-up shooter?

It seems, though, that sentiments such as this aren’t that uncommon. The notion that the NBA and sports in general are “bigger and better” in the modern generation leads to such conclusions. The argument centers upon the thought that dominant athletes from years past wouldn’t be the same today because the athleticism would hinder them. “Bird couldn’t get his shot off today.” “Jordan was that good because the rest of the league wasn’t that athletic.” “If LeBron would’ve played in the ’80s or ’90s, he would’ve averaged 40.” “J.R. Smith would’ve averaged 30 in the ’80s.”

A couple disclaimers before I rant about these short-sighted and often moronic conclusions.

First of all, there’s every reason to argue that NBA players from the ’60s wouldn’t relish in the same success today. The game developed immensely from the ’60s to the ’80s, when the talent level and hype surrounding the game exploded. I’ll never believe Wilt Chamberlain would score 50 points per game if he played today, or in the ’80s or ’90s. But we’re not comparing the ’60s to today. We’re comparing the ’80s and ’90s to today. So set aside arguments reaching back to the ’60s.

Secondly, there’s something to be said about athletes today being “bigger, faster and stronger.” It’s a point with some truth to it. With that said, this idea is often the spark for outlandish reasoning. Some can make it seem like being a good basketball player is primarily about being “bigger, faster and stronger” than your opponent, while in turn minimizing pure basketball skill, intellect and mental toughness. Still, there’s no denying that to make the NBA, you have to have certain degrees of size and athleticism, although this is often exaggerated. I mean, how is J.J. Barea entering his 10th year in the league if the game is all about size and athleticism? And why are physical freaks like Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams struggling to remain in the league?

Now let’s get to the good stuff.

Different generations breed different styles of play. Currently, we’re living in an age of insane point guard play. Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook are some of the game’s marquee players, and a slew of other point guards make this position one with incredible depth.

This all-around depth makes it easy to ask such a question, “How would John Stockton fare in today’s game?” This is fair because Stockton racked up big-time numbers at a time when the point-guard field wasn’t as rich. It’s reasonable to speculate if he would’ve dominated that position today like he did during the ’80s and ’90s. Stockton was also undersized (6-1) and didn’t possess blistering speed like Paul, Westbrook, John Wall and some others. Perhaps the speed of this position would limit Stockton’s worth if he was playing today.

This shows the logic behind arguing that the point-guard position is better today than previous eras. But does this mean the league in its entirety is better? This is where we have to slow down and see the full picture.

Let’s consider the center position, which unlike today, was sensational during the ’80s and ’90s. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone and Kevin McHale were ultra-skilled big men throughout the ’80s. Come the ’90s, a wave of beastly centers made their presence known, including Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. These monsters were physical forces who imposed their will in the paint, something the modern era lacks. There just aren’t that many “old-school” centers with freakish size, strength and post presence.

Consider this: Joakim Noah was the All-NBA First Team center a little over a year ago. With all due respect to Noah, there’s no way he earns such an accolade during the ’90s. Noah prides himself on his energy and versatility, but he simply lacks the skills and strength to bang with the brutes of the ’90s. He wouldn’t have been nearly the same player that he is today, in a league with a watered-down interior.

In looking at these two positions (point guard, center), it’s sensible to conclude that, 1) Point guards today are better than the ’80s and ’90s; and 2) Centers in the ’80s and ;90s were better than today. It’s illogical to conclude that today’s game is better as a whole. A much more accurate belief is that the game has changed, but it’s not necessarily better. It’s just different.

This also gets at the reality that the ’80s and ’90s featured their big men much more in the low post, whereas the modern era frequently showcases guards creating off ball screens or via isolations. The ’80s and ’90s teams recognized their horses inside, so they fed them, whereas modern teams (think Golden State) unleash their weapons on the perimeter. It’s different styles in different eras. It’s tough to argue that one “style” or “strategy” is better than the other. Teams are just constructed differently.

An interesting current team to analyze is the Memphis Grizzlies, who are essentially a throwback to the ’80s in their attack. They have two behemoths in the middle in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and they slow the game down and run their offense through them. And guess what? They win. With very little talent on the wing, Memphis has often surprised people with its success, and they’re a case in point that this customary brand of ball from the ’80s and ’90s still works if the right pieces are in place. It’s just that most teams don’t have those pieces anymore, so a different style of play is utilized.

You also have to consider how the “bigger and better” argument concerning today’s players breaks down when you look at the current MVP. Curry is skinny, not super quick and can barely dunk. This sounds similar to arguments made about how Bird couldn’t thrive today. “He’s too slow and can’t jump.” Well, how did Curry not only dominate the regular season, but also lead his team to an NBA title? Because he’s mastered the game’s finer skills, such as shooting off the dribble, timely passing and deceptive dribbling. He doesn’t take over games because he asserts himself physically on his defender. He overcomes his physical limitations with simple basketball talent and mental fortitude.

And this is nothing new. Bird once did this. So did guys like Reggie Miller and Steve Nash. And then you have guys like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James who are the perfect blend of basketball, mental and physical talent. They become the game’s greatest players of all time.

In fact, you can even argue that Bird, Magic and Jordan displayed the deepest sense of mental toughness because they played during an era of heightened physicality. In the modern era, LeBron doesn’t have to battle against a team reminiscent of the “Bad Boys” Pistons. His mental framework has never been tested to this extent. While the ’80s and ’90s didn’t have quite the same athleticism across the board as compared to today, it did possess a stronger presence of physicality and at times straight up bush league aggression.

This is yet further evidence of how the game has changed, yet it’s hard to argue that a certain decade was the best. The greatest players in each generation are the ones who mesh their skills and mentality with their physical tools, and the skills and mentality are typically the key ingredients. This is a reality that transcends time.

This all captures how the game evolves, which is a trend that will continue. However, there’s lacking proof to conclude that the game is better today than the ’80s and ’90s. It’s different. And it’ll probably be different again in 2030. But I don’t predict it to be better.

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