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NBA: 80s/90s vs Now

So, what do you think? I’ve been an NBA fan since the 80’s and grow up in SoCal so followed Magic and the Lakers. (Although I migrated to the Clippers during the Shaq/Kobe era). The popular opinion among older fans is that “it was much better back in the day”, which is not unique to NBA basketball but pretty much applies to anything someone grows up with (music, movies, work ethic, etc…, etc…) so that isn’t compelling or surprising.

Invalid arguments:

  1. Simply naming HOF players from the past, and using this to back up that the NBA used to be more competitive. There can be no HOF players in the current NBA, just as Magic, Bird, Barkley, etc… weren’t HOFers when they were in the NBA.
  2. Not realizing that total wins/losses are always the same, regardless of the quality of a league. I have heard some argue “there used to better teams, without these weaker teams”. Well, for every team that wins another game in a season, another team must lose another game. Seems easy to see, but there are sports sites were some fans fail to grasp this. So wins/losses cannot be an argument for the quality of a league.

My opinion for the argument that today’s NBA is better than ever: athletes are evolving because training/coaching/conditioning/films/statistics have evolved. There are simply so many more tools in a team’s disposal that was not true 20-30 years ago. Players are stronger, faster, better coached, better conditioned than ever. The arguement that players used to play more minutes and today’s NBA athletes are weak and pampered, consider this weightlifting analogy: the stronger and more explosive you are, the more you need to rest. A weak dude can get into the gym and do sets after sets with little rest because they’re not moving any weight. A strong, conditioned athlete can do heavy, explosive sets of cleans, etc…which require so much force and power, they need to rest. Look at what Russell Westbrook and Lebron can do, and how they’re too exhausted to play back to back days. Now go to your local YMCA and watch unathletic dudes play for hours straight every day of the week.

My opinion for the NBA of the 80’s/90’s being superior: Players weren’t drafted at 19 years old and have only potential. They were more fundamentally sound when they entered the league. The league was still more of a pure game rather than the entertainment, huge money industry it has become. Michael Jordan played in this era and will always be the pinnacle of an NBA player, and pretty much anyone that argues otherwise isn’t taken seriously.


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Tldr, but

Competitive sports get better with time, like evolution.

Think of how training has evolved, we stack knowledge as we go and are better for it.

When you say “better” do you mean the entertainment value, quality of play, or ability of the teams/athletes?

Entertainment: Terrible. Absolutely awful. Everybody knew who was going to make it to the finals this year, and they were right. Golden State and Cavs will meet for the third time in a row. This year it looks like both teams will get there without losing a game. I think a competitive league is a better league.

Quality of play: This is the toughest argument, as the game changes over time. The three point shot abilities of teams (Steph Curry leading the revolution) has changed strategy completely. I don’t think this is a good/bad thing, just part of the process. You had big men dominating, you had jump shooters dominating (Kobe, Jordan), now its three point shooting taking over.

Ability of players: I think there is no question that players are more athletic, better trained, better nutrition…etc. This doesn’t always translate to basketball skill though, and basketball IQ is hard to measure. I think American basketball players are more pure athletic and European basketball players are better skilled, and overall the league has a similar basketball IQ but more overall athleticism. I could see an argument over the “similar basketball IQ”.

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I think the NBA reached its peak in the 80’s and 90’s. It had all of the right ingredients for spectacular entertainment. We got to watch hard-nosed athletes playing physical basketball under rules and refereeing that, for the most part, acknowledged that things will get chippy when world-class athletes try to put a ball inside a 10 foot-high metal ring.

If you’re Charles Oakley and someone on the other teams needs to get their nose broken, you can just eat the $2,000 fine and do what needs to be done, maybe get suspended a game. I’m not suggesting fighting should be encouraged, per se, but anyone’s whose ever played a lot of pickup ball knows that things can get chippy and sometimes you have to self-police by choking the other player a little bit.

Malice in the Palace combined with gangsta rap fashion trends taking over the NBA pretty much put an end to physical basketball.

Expanding the league diluted the NBA-level talent pool even more. I can’t recall any recent years with more than 5 possible contenders, with the favorites usually being favorites for a reason.

There’s some fantastic talent in the league but I rarely tune in until the playoffs roll around, and only then for matchups I think will be good. Boston Washington was a fun series to watch this year.

Otherwise why bother tuning in until the Finals?

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I agree with pretty much all you wrote. I think if one could magically teleport today’s top players into the games 25+ years ago, their athleticism would be absolutely unstoppable. I think in the 80’s and before, highly skilled players without freakish size and athleticism could thrive, whereas it’s very difficult to do so in today’s NBA.

That said, the games today are often kinda boring. I was excited for the playoffs to start, but usually tune before long. Perhaps the finals will make up for it.

Its the only thing that can save it at this point. It is ridiculous that the same two teams not only have gotten there 3 years in a row, but didn’t lose a game in the playoffs.

I’m honestly curious how LeBron’s career would be different if he didn’t get to coast through the eastern conference playoffs every year.

I don’t know NBA salary cap rules well enough to see how they could change the creation of super teams, but having such a power concentration in a few teams is bad for the league. The fact that the warriors were one win away from one of the best seasons ever and were able to add an MVP to their team is ridiculous.

Any ideas on how to change things to make it more competitive?

I understand most folks view the East as weak, but coast? Come on…they’re still professional athletes of an elite caliber and for most of his career he was, “the dude” with teams knowing they had to stop him and they would win. I hate to be seen as a LeBron fanboy (because while I am a fan, I don’t see myself as avid) but the stuff he does is amazing.

Yes. For example, Cleveland would’ve been a 4/5/6 (3 teams with same record) seed in the Western conference this year. They would’ve been a 3 seed last year, and 4 seed in 2015. If they were a 6 seed this year they would’ve had to go through Houston, San Antonio, and Golden State just to get to the finals. That would be extremely tough, especially with a healthy San Antonio.

That doesn’t get into how rest after sweeping teams allows them to be fresh heading into the finals or how the lack of competition to get a 1/2 seed allows them to coast the last month of the season.

These types of arguments are always tricky, because its a “how good would he be if x/y/z happened” which we obviously will never know. I think he has had it easy by always being in the weaker conference, but he is a great player regardless.

I just don’t think you can ignore the fact that golden state played a 7-game tough series against the Thunder while Cleveland was watching at home well rested. In 2016 the three best teams in the league were Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder. I say coast because Cleveland would have to make big mistakes to not get to the finals, while if they were in the western conference they would have to scratch and claw through a minimum of 2, most likely 3 tough series to win.

Like I said earlier, I don’t like how the talent is so concentrated in a few teams and teams can coast to the finals (like both Golden State and Cleveland) this year. Not sure on how to fix it though, they’ll probably have to change salary cap rules or break up the super teams somehow.

I would love to comment more on the entire thread (and probably will at some point) but for now I’ll just throw this out there: several of the NBA’s policies designed to promote parity (i.e. maximum salaries for individual players, letting teams offer their own stars more than they can get on the open market) actually hurt parity rather than promote it.

One solution that I’ve seen is to keep the overall team-level salary cap, but remove the max on individual player salaries.

The rationale: salary of the absolute top-level guys (LeBron, Durant, etc) is artificially deflated in the current system, leaving them a somewhat-easier decision to give up a few bucks, join other stars and create super-teams since they’re not actually giving up much salary.

As Durant entered free agency in summer of 2016, the most OKC could offer him was 5 years and $153 million (the same contract that Mike Conley signed with the Grizzlies, and while Conley is a wonderful Grit-N-Grind ballplayer, it’s ludicrous that Durant’s value is capped at the same level as Conley’s); the most anyone else could offer was 4 years, $114 million. GSW swooped in and got him for 2 years, $54 million. It was an easy choice for KD: on a per-year basis, he got to join GSW for $27 million/year (and get to hit free agency again soon) vs. taking $30 million to stay with an inferior set of teammates in OKC. Remove the individual cap, and what if someone else (Sixers?) had offered him $50 million/year? Would he still have turned that down to sign with GSW? How many guys would continue taking discounts to play with other star teammates if the “discount” they had to take to play together got a lot bigger?

It’s not just about the dollars with these guys, but the “status” that comes with being the highest-paid player in the league or on your team. If LeBron and Durant are capped to getting the same contract that players like Mike Conley and Gordon Hayward get, though, it’s easier to say “Whatever, I’ll just sign one- and two-year deals and keep picking my teammates year by year.”

The current max-salary system actually makes it easier to fit three (or even four) “star” level players on one team. Remove the individual player max and the stars would probably get more evenly dispersed, not less.

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Absolutely would have been a tougher road, but on the flip side, if he’s on that side…who’s on the east? The conference finals are then a joke and the playoffs leading up are awesome, it’s a coin flip to me in that regard, but I definitely understand what you’re saying. I guess I’d rather see a competitive Finals than a super competitive run to it, if it could be divided more evenly that’d be great, no doubt.

And yeah as far as the “what if” game, I’m not arguing for or against him being the greatest of all time (I’m so far from qualified it’s laughable) but he will go down as one of the greatest.

Yeah, attempting to fix it is gonna be a tough deal for the administration in the NBA.

The NBA is different than other sports in that going into the season you pretty much know what 2-3 teams have any chance of being elite. MLB has Cinderella teams nearly every year that compete and often win it all. NFL also has surprise teams every year, and the nature of the NFL playoffs means anything can happen which keeps fans more engaged.

The NBA has always had dynasties and never had parity. This year is as bad as ever, where you knew Cleveland vs. GSW was going to happen and the whole regular season and playoffs were just a long, winding road to the inevitable. Living in the Bay Area, it’s exciting having a team that is historically great, but it can’t be great for fans of other teams. Let’s say you’re a Milwaukee fan. They’re a good young, exciting team, but have no real chance to win anything.

That’s why the NBA draft is so popular and exciting. For most fans, it’s the “what if” that keeps them interested in the sport rather than the actual season that unfolds.

I want to see both. To get that, more teams need to be competitive and not have super teams.

He will be no doubt. I’m not a fan of GOAT arguments, but you can’t deny what he has accomplished. It is curious to see some others (Spurs, Curry and Durant) stealing his thunder though.

I agree, and as a casual sports observer I think it is because the impact 1-2 players can have in the NBA. Because you’re only playing 5 players at a time, that one player can dominate, similar to a quarterback in football. It comes down to touches and how much that player impacts the game.

It’s one of the things I love about baseball. One dominate pitcher or hitter doesn’t guarantee anything. Paying a ton for Mike Trout is a big difference between getting a Lebron or a Manning. Both LeBron and Manning switched teams and took a mediocre barely playoff team to title winner. They all have value, but in baseball it takes the entire team. Specifically pitching, a dominate pitcher will win you 1 in 5 games (with a perfect season), you need a lot more than that.

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Great input, don’t have a ton to add, but I like the idea. Honestly, anything to get the league more competitive. Thanks for chiming in.

I would say today’s player is more modestly dressed, what with their undershirts, pedal-pusher leggings, and elbow sleeves.

You youngin’s would blush at the short-shorts of yesteryear.

And Showtime. That was skill. That was fun.

Once in a while it could get straight-up nasty. Nowadays this would get like 5 technical fouls…

You could take your pick of just about any time Jordan or Pippen touched the ball against the Knicks or the Pistons in the playoffs and it would be like 5 technical fouls.

Prime Jordan would eviscerate the entire league under today’s guard-friendly rules.


I agree; to be fair, he also eviscerated the entire league in the 1990’s, too, lol.

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Well he obviously won a lot, but growing up in the Chicago area let me watch a LOT of Bulls games in the 80’s and 90’s. I think people forget just how close a lot of those series were over the years. That’s why Jordan was the man though. Once the 90’s rolled around, he ALWAYS found a way to win, and he didn’t need to hatch a scheme to join forces with Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird to be a winner.

He wanted to destroy them, not make friends, and that’s ALWAYS better entertainment. Same goes for Bird/Magic in the 80’s.

Quoting myself here, but I think this was such a crucial factor for making the NBA such compelling entertainment in the 80’s and 90’s.

I watched the whole OKC/GS series last year. That was a GREAT series, and basketball fans got robbed of a repeat because Durant wanted to join the team that just beat him.

This would be akin to Jordan joining the Pistons in 1990. Of course, he didn’t do that. He brooded over it and made it his mission in life to destroy them, which he did in 1991. That was awesome to watch.

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I don’t disagree with you. I think the mentality of society and players has changed, and players today see themselves as entertainers who are also looking out for their own happiness. Also, the league knows the top players are such money draws that it doesn’t want them flying into the lane getting hacked by 3 guys.

Here’s another take on Durant: he took the toughest way out. He picked the one team that if they didn’t win it all, it would be an epic failure. It would have been easier to stay in OKC or pick another team (like Boston), and get close, and no one would fault him. But to go to the biggest stage in the league and literally HAVE to win it all or be a failure is no easy task.

Also, he played out his contract and was free to pick any team that offered him a contract. If it were me, I would choose to live and work in the Bay Area over OKC any day.