The 80’s and 90’s are a time of nostalgia, a time to remember what we call “the good ole days.” A time where the news wasn’t so in our face, sports were fun, and corporate America wasn’t as ingrained into our society as it is now. It is common for people to always claim that the time when they grew up is the best time. Never is that more evident than when people talk sports. In the NBA, the 80’s and 90’s are seen as the same, a time of great rivalries, great players, and great teams. If you listen to these people talk about the game now, you’d think the NBA was absolute trash. You’d think players never develop, skill is not important, and any past player would dominate just based on their presence alone. It’s time to expose the myths that people claim about today’s NBA, and show once and for all why the game is better now than it has ever been before.
Myth #1: The game was more physical, which equals better defense
This myth came about because of all the rules starting 1997-98 to eliminate hand and arm contact on wing players, culminating in the eradication of handchecking completely after the 2003-04 season. The myth states that this type of physical defense, allowing a defensive player to basically rest his hand on an offensive player and push him where he wants him to go, is the best type of individual defense. Newsflash: It isn’t. Under the old rules, if you were strong you didn’t have to work very hard on defense. All you had to do was handcheck and you could keep a smaller guy at bay without having to move your feet. Why is pushing a guy away from the basket better defense than moving your feet, sliding your hips, and contesting a shot? It’s considered better because its easier to do. Maybe you don’t like my explanation though and say to just look at the numbers. Well let’s look at the numbers.
From 1983-84 until the end of the decade, 37 teams made the playoffs allowing more than 110 points per game. I know that pace was significantly higher than it is now, which inflates scoring, so I looked at the average defensive rating for these 37 playoff teams to see if they were legitimately bad defensive teams, or if pace inflated their stats. The average defensive rating among these 37 teams was 108.5. To compare that to the present day, I took a look at the 6 worst defensive playoff teams based on points allowed in each season from 2008-09 through 2013-14, which is the same span of time as the 80’s, to see if the average defensive rating of those 36 playoff teams is anywhere near the teams in the 80’s. In 2013-14, two teams tied for the 6th spot so I included both and got an even 37 teams, just like the timespan in the 80’s.
Average defensive rating from 1983-84 to 1988-89: 108.5
Average defensive rating from 2008-09 to 2013-14: 106.2
Again this was looking at strictly the worst defensive teams that made the playoffs in these eras. In the 80’s case, it was the 37 teams that allowed more than 110 points per game. In the present era, it was the 37 teams with the worst points allowed margin, with at least 6 teams in each season included. I think it’s pretty clear that defense is much better now than it was in the 80’s.
As for the 90’s, it really depends on which part of the 90’s you are talking about. The early 90’s, Jordan’s 1st three-peat, was more 80’s than 90’s in style of play. The Pat Riley Knicks changed the style of play to a more grind-it-out, slow style of play than the free-flowing game of the 80’s. For the sake of this article, we’ll look at the 90’s from 1993-94 until the end of the decade, since 1993-94 was really the start of the defensive era of the 90’s. Until that year, the Knicks were the exception, not the rule. In 1992-93, the Knicks defensive rating was 99.7. The next best rating was Seattle at 104.9 and only 5 teams had better than a 106 defensive rating. In 1993-94, the Knicks had a 98.2 defensive rating, but 12 teams had a defensive rating better than 106. That’s why we will start with that year. I again will look at the 6 worst playoff teams in each season based on points allowed and find their average defensive rating. The average defensive rating of those 38 playoff teams(7 in 1995-96 and 7 in 1997-98) was 106.3.
Average defensive rating from 1983-84 to 1988-89: 108.5
Average defensive rating from 1993-94 to 1998-99: 106.3
Average defensive rating from 2008-09 to 2013-14: 106.2
Both the 90’s and the current era have very similar defensive ratings among its playoff teams that allowed the most points per game during the season. Defensive rating adjusts for pace of play so it looks very even. I looked at its worst playoff teams to showcase the depth of the league, which gives you the strongest indication of how successful the league is as a whole, rather than looking at the best teams, which may skew numbers and not really show how good the entire league is.
Myth #2: Lack of dominant centers hurts the game
This is a very common myth that is perpetuated by people who just rattle off Hall of Famers to make their point instead of focusing on why this is an issue. The style of play in the 90’s allowed bigs to flourish on the block as opposed to now when they need to develop a jump shot in order to be successful. The rule change in 2001-02 allowed for zone defenses by getting rid of the confusing illegal defense rules. Zone defense by itself, such as the 2-3 zone or 3-2 zone is not a successful NBA defense. You will not see a team run it an entire game. Where it has its effect is when teams are able to mix it in with man to man defense and disguise their looks. In the 80’s and 90’s, players had to stay attached to their man if they were spread out because of the illegal defense rules, even if they were a non-shooter. Nowadays, if a player can’t shoot, his defender will come off and give help on a post-up. He is allowed to come halfway between both players instead of having to commit to a double team under the old rules. This does open up possible backdoor cuts, but a good defensive team will be able to rotate correctly to shut off the paint. As a result, any time a player posts up, he sees multiple bodies facing him, cutting off any paths to the basket. This is where zone defense is so effective. By being able to play more of a quasi-zone, the lane gets packed and players tend to settle for jump shots out of the post much more often. This is why post play has been discouraged in favor of developing a jump shot. It is not feasible any more to just dump it down on the block and let your guy go to work 1 on 1 every single time down the floor. Big Al Jefferson and Pau Gasol have tons of low-post moves, yet they don’t score in big numbers because that post-up style is just not as effective. They would have been great in the 90’s, but their games are just pretty good now because of the rules.
As for the great 90’s bigs, such as David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Shaq, Karl Malone, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning, I have a counter. This current era has had Hall of Famers such as Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, great players such as Yao Ming(before injuries), Dwight Howard in Orlando, Chris Bosh, Serge Ibaka(similar to Mutombo), Roy Hibbert(great defensive big), Marc and Pau Gasol, and the young guys coming up such as Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin.
Blocks are less prevalent as an individual statistic now because of the increase in 3 pointers being taken. Teams in the 80’s and early 90’s used to take a ton of two-points shots, which allowed for big men to be able to block more shots. Since there are so many 3’s being taken now, that is less shots for a player to be able to block, which is why you have seen a drop in blocked shots for individual players. There are no Manute Bol’s or Yao Ming’s now where their size alone can get you blocked shots. Instead, everybody on the team is required to block shots in order to be successful. In the 90’s, Portland made it to the Finals twice in three years with Kevin Duckworth as their center(never averaged even 1 block a game at 7 feet tall). The Chicago Bulls won 6 titles in 8 years with Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley as their centers. Magic’s Lakers in 1991 had Vlade Divac at center(not a shot blocker). The Seattle Supersonics made the Finals in 1995-96 with Ervin Johnson as their center. In the years the Jazz made the finals, they made it with Greg Ostertag as their center. Of course there were the two years where Hakeem’s Rockets ran the table against Ewing’s Knicks and Shaq’s Magic, but compared to the rest of the decade, those years were the exception, not the rule.
Myth #3: There were better teams and better players playing back then
The only reason this is even an argument is because we have the benefit of going back and saying definitively who was a Hall of Famer from these past teams now. Obviously since the guys today are still playing, nobody can call them a HOF. There is a major hypocrisy with this issue though. Everybody brings up the 80’s Lakers and 80’s Celtics as all-time great teams with tons of Hall of Famers. When a new team is created now, people complain about it being a super team and that it’s bad for parity in the league. How can you revere the Celtics and Lakers of the 80’s when they were also super teams if you hate them so much? There were only 4 teams that ever had a chance of winning an NBA title during the mid-80’s. Bird’s Celtics, Magic’s Lakers, Dr. J’s Sixers, and the Milwaukee Bucks. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the records of playoff teams starting in 1983-84 when the league first introduced 16 playoff teams in a league of 23 teams.
1983-84: 5/16 teams at or below .500, 4/16 teams with 50+ wins. (Sixers, Celtics, Lakers, Bucks)
1984-85: 6/16 teams at or below .500, 5/16 teams with 50+ wins. (Same 4 plus the Nuggets, who allowed 117 PPG)
1985-86: 6/16 teams at or below .500(Chicago at 30-52), 6/16 teams with 50+ wins. (Same 4 plus the Hawks with 50 and the Rockets with 51 and upset Lakers in WCF)
1986-87: 4/16 teams at or below .500, 6/16 teams with 50+wins. (Celtics, Lakers, Bad Boy Pistons, Hawks, Mavericks and Bucks)
You can see how diluted the talent pool was on these teams and how there were only a few contenders each year. No other teams had much of a chance in the mid-80’s. Now the 90’s is seen as the golden era of parity even with MJ’s Bulls running the show in the East because every year Jordan had a new challenger to the throne and it seemed like every team had a player to build around. Let’s see how the parity of the league back then stacks up to today.
1990-91: 3/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 9/16 teams with 50+ wins(League had added 4 teams in the past 2 years)
1991-92: 3/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 8/16 teams with 50+ wins.
1992-93: 3/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 7/16 teams with 50+ wins.
1993-94: 0/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 10/16 teams with 50+ wins.
1994-95: 2/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 8/16 teams with 50+ wins.
1995-96: 2/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 7/16 teams with 50+ wins. (2 more teams added to expansion pool)
1996-97: 2/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 10/16 teams with 50+ wins.
1997-98: 1/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 10/16 teams with 50+ wins.
Pretty impressive. Over an 8 year span covering Jordan’s reign, 6 new teams were added to the league which bumped up win totals for everybody. The last expansion came in 2003 when a 30th teams was added. Let’s look at the last 8 years in the NBA and see how it stacks up to the 90’s. We’ll leave out 2011-12 since it was a lockout-shortened 66 total games instead of 82.
2005-06: 3/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 6/16 teams with 50+ wins.
2006-07: 3/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 7/16 teams with 50+ wins.
2007-08: 3/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 11/16 teams with 50+ wins.
2008-09: 3/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 9/16 teams with 50+ wins.
2009-10: 1/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 12/16 teams with 50+ wins.
2010-11: 2/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 9/16 teams with 50+ wins.
2012-13: 1/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 7/16 teams with 50+ wins.
2013-14: 1/16 playoff teams at or below .500, 9/16 teams with 50+ wins.
So in total over an 8 year span, the 90’s had 16/128 playoff teams at or below .500, which is 12.5%. It also had 69/128 playoff teams with 50+ wins, which is 53.9%.
In the current era over the last 8 years(not counting the shortened 2011-12 season), it had 17/128 playoff teams at or below .500, which is 13.3%. It also had 70/128 playoff teams with 50+ wins, which is 54.7%. That’s about as even as it gets.
Overall, the NBA nowadays is just as difficult and demanding as it was 20 or even 30 years ago, despite the rule changes. The league continues to have more than half of its playoff teams with legitimate chances to win an NBA title. That not only shows how many great teams in the league there are, but great teams need great players. It’s fun to remember the past as a better time because you can no longer recapture those years, but don’t sleep on the current game. If you love the game of basketball, why risk letting nostalgia get in the way of watching a great game? You can’t change the past and you definitely can’t predict the future, so just enjoy it.