The Great Debate: The NBA Then vs. Now

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Updated: August 13, 2015
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Perception is a wonderful sense (if I may call it a sense) because it gives people the feeling of understanding that they know something quite well. I perceive a lot of things daily, as do you. And as a sports fan, my perception of things may differ from yours, but after years of non-stop sports watching, I always feel as if I’ve perceived certain things better than most people.

And currently, there is a great debate going on between basketball fans (online and offline) about just how good different eras of basketball were compared to others. There seems to be two schools of thought on this. Rather, two sects of fans.

There is NBA fan who thinks today’s NBA is the best NBA product the Association has ever produced, and that what we are witnessing now is basketball at its zenith.

Then there is the other group of fans that think the era of Michael Jordan and the Bad Boy Pistons and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson rivalry eras were far superior to what we have now.

So to recap, it’s Lebron James era basketball vs. everything that came before him. Both sides make valid points as to why their particular favorite era is better than the other one, but do these arguments makes sense in hindsight?

Get Off My Lawn Guy, and His Drug of Choice, Nostalgia…


Let me first go on record here by saying I am very guilty of this in every single aspect. I adore pre-LeBron era NBA and always will. I rant about how great it is all the time, and why it was superior to modern-day basketball But how accurate am I?

Well, I can bore you all with statistical data on who scored more points and who did what, but luckily at my age I saw a lot of ball since the early 90’s until now, and I have to admit, when watching old NBA games, a lot of these guys probably wouldn’t be NBA players today.

Now granted, times have changed, players now are all world-class athletes that take pride in being in the greatest shape on Earth, which is just a testament to the times. But the game in the past eras were much slower and definitely lacked the sort of flair and excitement that we get night in and night out today.

I am certainly not saying there were never any exciting games because that would be false. But in the old era there were lots of wasted possessions from guys trying to get the ball to the star far too much, because in past eras there was no such thing as the construction of a Big 3.


So every team had their one alpha male, the then a second in command, a third really good player, then 12 other role players who usually couldn’t create their own shots and were beholden to the top two players in order for them to be relevant. That formula is still prevalent today because not every team has a big three, in fact most don’t.

But today, you can watch a teams like the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers or Oklahoma City Thunder and just stare in amazement as they seem to have more players who are capable of doing out of this world stuff night in and night out while seemingly not breaking a sweat.

The game is more fluid now. It’s faster, the guys are more athletic, there’s more emphasis on scoring, everyone can jump through the roof, more guys can create a shot for themselves (whether good or bad) and today’s players are more confident in their skills than ever before.

I can’t say most of those things about Jordan’s era, and certainly can’t about Bird’s and Magic’s from what I was old enough to witness.

This modern era is far more point guard driven and the depth of PG talent completely gulfs every other era. And the more the point guard play evolves, the more the game will have to change.

Another aspect of the past eras that is always brought up is the toughness and the bully ball players used to play. Everyone knows about the infamous “Jordan rules” that the Detroit Pistons utilized in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and of course the New York Knicks teams with guys like the great Anthony Mason (may he rest in peace) and Charles Oakley were nothing to play with.

Driving down the lane in Madison Square Garden during the Patrick Ewing era may have gotten you killed on some nights. But in actuality, did any of that make the game better?


No, because physical isn’t always better. The need for an enforcer kinda shows that there was enough free space on a roster to employ a few goons who usually couldn’t do much other than be goons. Not saying Mason and Oakley were just goons because those two brothas could ball, and that’s a fact. But there were plenty of others who weren’t that great at actually basketball and were around for just a sheer physical presence. Did I love that physical style of play? Absolutely.

Did it enhance the game? Certainly not. It’s the same in hockey. I think the fights are great, because it’s what I grew up with. But now the NHL is phasing these silly fights out. Has it made the NHL product any worse? Not even one iota, and to be honest, I don’t even realize there aren’t any more fights.

It’s the same with today’s NBA. The bygone era of physicality was great, but in the end, it didn’t improve the game, so continuously bringing it up doesn’t really mean much.


Prisoners of The Moment Fan, and The Youngsters Quandry…

There’s nothing funnier than arguing with an NBA fan about things that happened before they were even born. The internet is the breeding ground for baseless stat driven opinions about things people never witnessed.

I’ll give the perfect example that I see from the fans of this generation who think this current era is the greatest era of basketball ever.

Allen Iverson gets a bad rap on social media which I find so puzzling because Iverson was a force of nature.

He was a one man wrecking crew and put that 2001 Philadelphia 76ers team on his back all the way to the Finals. Iverson and Sixers lost to an all-time great Shaquille O’neal and Kobe Bryant team and A.I. never made it back to another final.

The amount of libel that Iverson gets on social media is funny because he’s the sort of point guard that this generation is obsessed with. An athletic score first point guard who wasn’t scared to get into the lane and try to make things happen for his team by any means necessary.


He was an average shooter and played ok defense. I literally just described Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Derrick Rose, John Wall and Russell Westbrook. Now Wall was a better defender, but Iverson was a superior basketball player, I’ve seen both, trust me, A.I. was better.

But, figure 14 years ago, when Iverson was at the peak of his powers, a lot of the people using social media were either in diapers or too young to understand the magnitude of what he was bringing to the league. Also, barring Russell Westbrook (who had Kevin Durant as his teammate) none of the point guards I’ve named have made it to a Final.

But somehow they are all “better” than Iverson? I think we have to let their career’s play out first then sit back and really compare and stop being caught up in the here and now.  

There’s also an athleticism aspect of today’s NBA that modern NBA fan doesn’t seem to quite understand. Athleticism doesn’t mean better skills; it just means you’re better at running and jumping.

A lot of NBA players today can’t do the fundamental things that past eras seemed to be able to do straight out of college, hence, why there are no more centers. People haven’t gotten shorter over the last 30 years, so there are plenty of tall people around. It’s just the modern-day center can’t do basics and it’s a detriment to the position.

Dwight Howard is one of the premier centers in the NBA, and it seems as if he’s been working with Hakeem Olajuwon during every off-season for a decade. And Dwight can’t do basic post moves because he relies mostly on his freakish athletic ability.

dwight howard deandre jordan

The same goes with Deandre Jordan and Brook Lopez. Brook is 7’0 tall but can’t rebound or play defense to save his life, and Deandre has no offensive game whatsoever and is a 4th quarter liability because he can’t shoot free throws or offer anything other than defense. All three are good centers, but the deficiencies in all their games is glaring, yet haven’t been fixed.

If you were to drop in David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and prime Shaq into today’s game, they’d be putting up the same name numbers Anthony Davis is doing, nightly. It’s not just the center position either; it’s every position.

When LeBron James and Chris Paul (who’s game is a throwback) are by far the best passers and point guards in the league, then it’s an issue. The amount of good point guards today far exceeds that of past eras, but a lot of these point guards can’t shoot or create an offense to save their lives.

Most players today don’t have an all around good game. They do one thing great, and let that carry them for years. I think the overall talent level of today’s NBA is better, but most of these players have no idea how to use the talents they were given.

Players like JR Smith, Dion Waiters, Javale McGee and countless other have talent, it’s apparent, yet they can’t do basic elementary things to take them to the next level.

And the league today is full of players like this. But, as long as a guy can dunk, or do something spectacular, today’s fan seems to think it means it’s a better product.


We Are all Right, and We are All Wrong… 


In all honesty, it’s just a matter of preference and nothing more. For every one bad thing I can point out in one era, I can do the same for a different x3, and vice versa.

The past greats and the modern-day greats all have one thing in common, their skills and talents transcend any time period.

For those who think LeBron James couldn’t last in the more physical NBA era’s of the 80’s and 90’s….I have one piece of advice for you, Watch more basketball. With LeBron’s frame and his strength, he would be just fine.

Lebron is already an all-time great player, so put him in the middle of any time-period and he would still be a ridiculously great player, just against different opposition. For those who think Larry Bird would have trouble in today’s faster game, you’re just a foolish and the LeBron detractors because Bird was a great shooter, rebounder, passer and team defender.


If guys like Mike Miller, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Peirce can have long NBA careers while not being the most athletic guys on the court, Larry Legend would still be Larry Legend today and maybe even more so with his skill set of being able to do everything well.

That goes for Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Gary Payton, Charles Barkley, Russell Westbrook and plenty of others.

If you look at the numbers for Magic Johnson’s legendary Showtime Lakers team from 1981-1982 season, and compare it to the Mike D’Antoni/Steve Nash Phoenix Suns team from 2005-2006, you’ll see they both had amazing numbers while being entertaining:

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 1.54.36 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 1.53.42 PM

Those two teams were separated by 20 plus years, but were still able to amaze the fans of both their eras. And that’s what the NBA is all about.

The best are going to be the best and provide entertainment no matter when the game was played. Memes like this one:

nba meme

Always make me laugh. Because there are always the one guy who says, “ Man I’m picking the bottom team. And it’s not even close lol” or “I’m picking the top team because that other team has a weak link!”

And you can tell by the responses that most of these comments are coming from people who never saw most of the players in that picture play during their prime. And these memes don’t take into consideration different eras had different rules on defense and offense, so a lot would depend on when they were playing.

The responses to memes like this just lets people tell on themselves about who bias or not. Debates are fine, they’re fun, and hopefully all in good nature.

But in the end, I have no idea how much better one era was compared to the other. It’s just what I believe, and what you believe. And truthfully, does it even matter?

Let’s just celebrate the past and enjoy the present and continuing loving basketball because when it’s all said and done, BALL IS LIFE. And that rings true in every era.

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One Comment

  1. Jon Kay

    August 14, 2015 at 6:10 PM

    I quite liked the article and agree mostly with what you say.

    My only disappointment is that your article started well, but when you threw in words like “kinda” and “brothas”, it seemed to change the tone. Just something to think about.

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