Yesterday's NBA vs.Today's NBA

Beyond the Arc BasketballContributor IJuly 9, 2009


A common myth–Today’s NBA is so much better/more athletic/insert BS term here, than the '80s and early '90s

You hear it all the time. Usually you hear it from people who only stand to profit if the masses buy into the idea that today’s NBA is better than the NBA of yesterday. In Jemele Hill’s disastrous train wreck article written two years ago, where she said that Kobe Bryant was better than Michael Jordan, her opinions on today’s NBA struck me as particularly blind.

For those who haven’t read Hill’s article, she basically concludes that Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan, dismisses all empirical or objective indicators in favor of Jordan (MVPs, winning, statistics), makes a bunch of dumbfounding assertions, and then backs all of this up with:

Her opinion and pure speculation (“Jordan would have struggled to coexist with Shaq”—when she basically has no way of knowing that)

In that article, she also blindly asserts that today’s NBA is superior to the one that Jordan played in. This argument needs to be settled separate of any Kobe v. Jordan debate, because it’s so tired and thoroughly indefensible, it’s disgusting.

Let’s take a look at Jemele Hill’s disaster and compare the 06-07 NBA to the 89-90 NBA.


Jemele Hill’s “argument” and the counter-argument

“There was definitely a difference in the level of competition during Jordan's heyday compared to now.

Yesterday's NBA player certainly was more fundamentally sound, but there's no question that today's player is bigger, stronger and faster.”

First, isn’t being more fundamentally sound a huge thing?

The 02-03 Chicago Bulls were bigger, stronger and jumped higher than just about any team from the 1980s, but they lost 52 games because Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and Eddie Robinson couldn’t do very basic things that Tom Coverdale and Dane Fife probably mastered by the third grade. Robinson is 6’9” with a vertical well over 40”, but he was always hurt, and really had no basketball “skill” whatsoever. Curry and Chandler have gone on to become at least competent to below average, but at that point, they would have made Chris Washburn wince.

What you’ve seen is a league where a player like Steve Nash can win an MVP by doing things that guards in the '80s who “didn’t suck” could do rather easily. John Stockton was old by 1997, when Nash was a rookie, and Nash struggled. Nobody watched him then and thought that he was fundamentally where John Stockton ever was. But that is how low expectations have become.

Expectations have become so low that Kirk Hinrich gets the star treatment in Chicago for doing basic things well and almost nothing spectacularly.

Take Hinrich’s old teammate Chris Duhon. Duhon was actually a second rounder, has almost no individual scoring ability, and yet he’s a prominent member of the Chicago Bulls. Why? Because he does things today that all point guards were expected to do in the 1980s fundamentally. John Paxson has taught the league a lesson.

When you can find a point guard with elite quickness and passing in today’s NBA, a point guard who doesn’t want to “show them that they can’t sleep on my scoring ability,” a point guard who is content to just quarterback an offense and play defense, you grab a hold of him and don’t let go. This is true regardless of any other glaring deficiencies in his game.

Or look at the Chicago Bulls overall. Who is very athletic at all on that team? Tyrus Thomas is, but he hasn’t played a lead role on that team, and he’s very incomplete as a basketball player being a three year proand all. Who is next? Luol Deng? Imagine Luol Deng being guarded by Scottie Pippen.

The Bulls are mocking the league (considering their record despite any sort of lock hall of famer). They won 41 games, the seventh best record in the Eastern Conference, by doing all the things that middle-of-the-road players like John Paxson were expected to do in the 1980s.

Fundamentals are a huge deal. If you’re not an intelligent observer, you could have let Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson fool you into thinking that supreme athleticism could overcome fundamental play. But there was a huge difference. Michael Jordan played under Dean Smith. He jumped like Vince Carter, but did the little things in a way that made Bobby Knight happy in 1984. Knight wasn’t only happy, he was beaming like Santa Claus. Think about that for a second.

At some point the games elite athletes took over, and then at some point after that, athletic players started to think that they could put on an “And 1” display and beat people.

It’s no wonder that the better teams and players today are usually in the extreme minority as fundamental superiors. By the time you reach the conference finals, you are usually reduced to the few teams that still play basketball like most teams had to play in the 1980s.

Forget fundamentals, what about just playing hard? Ronald Dupree has survived as NBA journeyman today by basically taking a Chris Doleman approach to basketball. Dupree makes Rodney McCray look like a legend of the game from a basketball skills standpoint.

Next, is the NBA really bigger, stronger and faster?

I was recently told that Yao Ming and Al Jefferson are two of the best five centers in the NBA. Are they bigger and stronger than any of the following players:

Hakeem Olajuwon
David Robinson
Moses Malone
Robert Parrish
Patrick Ewing
Brad Daugherty
Bill Laimbeer
Mark Eaton
Kevin Willis

Are they even bigger and stronger than Karl Malone and Charles Barkley? They may be taller than Barkley, but Karl Malone in his prime would look at both of these “centers” and basically be like “yeah, AND?”

What about Dirk Nowitzki? How many 1990 power forwards is he “stronger” than? I’ll tell you how Dirk would have fared in 1990. Say he played the Detroit Pistons. First, they would have clotheslined him a couple times, since that was basically legal in 1990 (imagine how much more athletic a '90s player looks when he isn’t being plucked out of mid-air WWF style).

Then Dennis Rodman would have followed him everywhere he went, would have been up in his chest like Lennox Lewis, and Isiah and Dumars would have been streaking in underneath ready to pick his dribble. Then Laimbeer and Mahorn would have taken turns fouling him in ways that would warrant a twenty game suspension in today’s league, and that’s about the last you would have heard of Dirk’s “beautiful basketball.” He would have been good back then, but he would not be an MVP candidate.

What about faster? Hill seems to think that McGrady and Carter are better players than Joe Dumars. Are they really faster side to side? There’s a reason that every NFL team doesn’t sport a bunch of 6’7” wide receivers. Because as you get taller, you lose quickness and your center of gravity raises, which causes less balance and agility.

Today’s players may jump higher, but they often get fewer opportunities to take off because they lack the quickness to clear the space needed to launch yourself without obstruction. Luol Deng jumps high, but can you ever see him beating Scottie Pippen off the dribble? I can’t even see him beating Larry Bird in a wash.

Here’s another thing to consider. A little secret if you will. Lean in. Steroids, human growth hormone and speed may not be confined to Major League Baseball and the NFL. There just might be some NBA players taking it. For legal purposes, I am not asserting that even one NBA player is juicing, but scientists have come out and said it.

The evolution of mankind cannot naturally take place in a way that will make athletes get noticeably bigger and faster in twenty years. And don’t start with the “supplements” stuff. They had whey protein in 1990, and health clubs with nice equipment were everywhere.

“When Jordan played, he was a singular force that could not be equaled. Jordan was guarded by the likes of John Starks and Joe Dumars, who were fine players but weren't nearly as skilled or physically imposing as LeBron, D-Wade, Tracy McGrady or even Vince Carter.”

Way to start out with about the tenth best shooting guard Jordan faced early in his career. That would be like referencing centers today and starting with Eddy Curry or Erick Dampier. Using that alarming lack of logic, I could craft this sentence:

“Kobe takes it to the paint against the likes of Erick Dampier and Tyson Chandler, who are fine centers, but aren’t nearly as skilled or physically imposing as Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Moses Malone, Patrick Ewing or even Robert Parrish.”

Yesterday’s positions against today’s positions

Let’s just break down today v. 1990 position by position. We’ll go top ten at each position in 2008-09, and since there were fewer teams, and starters in 1990, we’ll go top nine back then (for today’s players I will use cbssportsline’s player rankings, and for 1990 I will piece it together by referencing stats, leaders, etc.):


Shooting guard

Kobe Bryant 6’6” 220
Dwyane Wade 6’4” 212
Brandon Roy 6'6 215
Andre Iguodala 6’6” 207
Tracy McGrady 6’8” 223
Kevin Martin 6’7” 185
Ben Gordon 6’3” 200
Ray Allen 6'5 205
Joe Johnson 6'8 225
Manu Ginobili 6’6” 205

Average height/weight: ~6’6” 209

Michael Jordan 6’6” 200
Clyde Drexler 6’7” 222
Reggie Miller 6’7” 195
Joe Dumars 6’3” 195
Mitch Richmond 6’5” 220
Ron Harper 6’6” 215
Rolando Blackmon 6’6” 190
Jeff Malone 6’4” 205
Hersey Hawkins 6’3” 190

Average height/weight: ~6’5.3” 203.5

Mitch Richmond? Ron Harper? They don’t want any of that Kevin Martin noise. I know Joe Dumars doesn’t want to throw down with Andre Iguodala. This is obviously opinion on my part, but I just haven’t talked to many people older than 20 who would call Carter, Iguodala, McGrady and Martin markedly better than Miller, Dumars, Richmond and Harper. My god an ancient Reggie Miller was still ripping up the league a few years ago.

As far as the weight difference of a whopping five pounds, do you really see Michael Jordan being affected by five lbs.? By the way, Michael Cooper is not even on that list. He’d be superior defensively to anyone at the SG position today, including Bruce Bowen. You remember Bowen right? When Michael was older in 1997, Bowen was 26-years-old.

So it stands to reason that a younger, faster Bruce Bowen would have been a force in that NBA, considering what he can do in today’s elite world, right? Wrong. Bruce Bowen was a CBA reject in 1997, playing one regular season minute for the Miami Heat. It’s interesting that CBA rejects and low-level journeymen (Doug Christie) could be so mediocre-bad in the 1990s, and yet, with older legs, be so good now.

See, the idea Hill wants you to get is that Jordan would have had a harder time today, because he would not have pulled his moves on bigger, more athletic defenders. But take the four big guys on that list. Bryant, McGrady, Carter and Davis. Only one of them is known for playing any defense at all, and that’s Bryant. As with height, you get slower when you get bigger. Tracy McGrady never even tried to guard the ancient Reggie Miller. He couldn’t. Miller at an older slower age would have lost McGrady around one screen just about every time.

You look at those two lists and tell me that the league is close today to what was in 1990, and/or as good. I’ll accept that. I disagree, but it’s an acceptable opinion. It is just not a self-evident truth that today’s league is markedly better.

More from Hill:

“Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing will be among the best centers ever, but none of them affected the league the way Shaq and Tim Duncan have.”



For the sake of discussion, I’m going to include Tim Duncan, because Hill does, even though cbs puts him with the power forwards.

Yao Ming 7’6” 310
Dwight Howard 6’11” 265
Tim Duncan 6’11” 260
Shaquille O’neal 7’1” 325
Al Horford 6'10 245
Amare Stoudemire 6’10” 245
Al Jefferson 6'10 265
Andris Biedrins 6'11 240
Emeka Okafor 6'10 252
Pau Gasol 7’0” 260

Average height/weight: ~6’11.7” 268.8

David Robinson 7’1” 250
Hakeem Olajuwon 7’0” 255
Moses Malone 6’10” 260
Patrick Ewing 7’0” 255
Robert Parrish 7’1” 250
Brad Daugherty 7’0” 245
Bill Laimbeer 6’11” 260
Rik Smits 7’4” 250
Kevin Willis 7’0” 245

Average height/weight: 7’0.6” 252.2

What do we learn here?

I see bigger players like Shaq, Howard and Ming. O’neal is at the end of his rope, averaging a thoroughly unmoving 17.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG and 1.4 BPG. Moses Malone is the best center on the 1990 list that O’neal could spar with at this point in his career.

Amare Stoudemire isn’t even known for defense. His impact in the post offensively is unquestionable, but he gets dunked on by mediocre players. He’s the perfect example of how a bigger and more athletic player can look when he lacks fundamentals, positioning and a feel for the game.

Ming is soft, brittle and not known for being a great defender. Yao, who is largely a media creation, and a product of David Stern’s fanatical desire to tap international markets, is having a solid year at 20.0 PPG, 10.0 RPG and 2.0 BPG. His 10 RPG and 2.0 BPG are thoroughly unimpressive.

As players, in their 2008-2009 form, how many centers in today’s league could rank third on the 1990 list? Zero. By not only opinion, but any empirical measure. Shaq and Duncan used to warrant that consideration, as Howard will one day, but right now, no one does.



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