Knowing History When You See It: A Guide To Today’s NBA

Kyle Terada - USA Today Sports

Look at your cell phone right now. Take it out of your pocket. In one device you can access the entire globe.

You can manage your bank account, capture your child’s first steps, and tweet bad sports opinions all from one object. The cell phone is one of the wonders of human evolution and technology. If you were to borrow the time stone from Thanos and travel back to 1995 and drop your phone into someone’s hands you would probably be able to build a cult and take over the world by convincing people that you were a space pirate of some sort. 

That aside, one of the valuable aspects of humanity is the ability to improve over time and adapt to change. You would be hard-pressed to find some sector of society today that is not better than it was 20 years ago.

Life expectancy is at an all-time high. Elon Musk is sending Teslas into space. You can be on the internet and the phone at the same time. Some of you reading this won’t know what that last sentence even implicates. There has never been a better time to be alive. So I suppose my question to my peers in media and former NBA players alike is, how can you not see that the NBA follows the same rules of improvement and evolution that the rest of the world does?

The Players:

NBA legend Oscar Robertson went on Mike and Mike during Stephen Curry’s historic MVP season in 2016. It has taken me two years to dig through the salt in his comments to even address what he was trying to get at during his appearance.

“I just don’t think coaches today in basketball understand the game of basketball,” Robertson said. “They don’t know anything about defenses. They don’t know what people are doing on the court. [Curry] has shot well because of what’s going on in basketball today.

“… When I played years ago, if you shot a shot outside and hit it, the next time I’m going to be up on top of you. I’m going to pressure you with three-quarters, half-court defense. But now they don’t do that. These coaches do not understand the game of basketball, as far as I’m concerned.”

This sounds good in theory, however, the reality is that Robertson never played against a player like Stephen Curry.

This is akin to a Power Ranger saying the Avengers are overrated. There is a second level here. Curry is the best shooter in the history of basketball.Just stay in front of him and beat him up,” is a defensive cliche that is much easier said than done once you’re running around infinite screens and also have to worry about the rest of the Warriors’ roster.

If you were born before 1988 and are calling me names consider the growth and impact of the game.

At one point Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming were focal points of international basketball. The gap between the United States and the rest of the world is closing rapidly. The best training and coaching techniques have been widespread and kids all over the world are playing better basketball than ever before.

Our U19 Junior Men’s Basketball team lost last summer for the first time since 2011 after being absolutely destroyed by Canada’s R.J. Barrett to the tune of 38 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists.

Today’s game is now full of skilled international players. Of the 16 teams in this year’s NBA playoffs, 62 players on those rosters were foreign-born and represented 33 different countries. Expect for this trend to grow as time goes on.

There are some players throughout history that would dominate in any era. Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Larry Bird, all of your household names in NBA lore would be perfectly fine whether the television is broadcasting games in color or black and white.

However, due to the advanced versatility of the game, it is fair to question whether the skillset of players from previous eras would carry over. David Robinson is a Hall of Famer who was a defensive anchor in the early days of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty.

However, he classically struggled in the playoffs, particularly against more mobile bigs like Hakeem Olajuwon. I question how valuable would a slow-footed mountain man in the middle be today against offenses that are more athletic and wider spread than the slower-paced 90s.

Advancements in Training and Medicine

As previously stated we tend to get better with time. Sports, in general, have widely benefitted from our better understanding of keeping the body in elite condition for longer periods of time.

LeBron James reportedly spends $1.5 million on his body every single year. We marvel at what he is able to do in the 15th season of his career, but a large part of that is what we don’t see between games.

The system of resting during the season and specialized rehab between games is keeping players going stronger for longer into their careers. Gone is the prehistoric badge of honor for slugging your way through 82 straight games en-route to the playoffs. LeBron won’t be the last player that we see maintain a high level of play well into his 30’s. That quarterback in New England is still doing pretty good too so I hear.


Try to imagine Derek Fisher playing point guard today in the West with a straight face. Certain playstyles are all but gone in the league. The game has become faster paced for two distinct reasons. The first is the change in coaching philosophy.

During the ’80’s and ’90’s NBA possessions per game declined sharply before reaching an all-time low in the 1998-1999 season. During this time coaching was much more conservative.

Shooting three-pointers on a fast break was frowned upon and patience was valued over taking shots early in the shot clock. Second, there were two traditional big men on the court at all times. Both teams were simply slower and bigger than they are today.  Fast breaks were harder to capitalize on as small ball lineups weren’t really a thing.

Mike D’Antoni was way ahead of his time once his early 2000’s Phoenix Suns teams began to challenge the standards of the ’80’s and ’90’s.

The idea became to attack defenses before they were set and push the ball whenever possible to run the opposing team ragged. His Steve Nash-led teams produced three of the top-20 most efficient offenses in NBA history at the time and cleared the path for the offenses that we see today.

With the addition of analytics, people have figured out that the three-point shot is a much more efficient shot than previously thought. The long ball, especially from the corners, is the best shot you can get besides a dunk or a layup. This revelation caused changes in personnel and made GM’s transition from the Glen “Big Baby” Davis’ of the world to guys like Lauri Markkanen.

It is no longer enough to be big and use your forearm to send a message a few times per game. Some holdovers of that style include P.J. Tucker and Draymond Green, two modern-day enforcers that also have the ability to score and defend on the perimeter. Scoring and defending on the outside is mandatory at every position in today’s league.

Other things to look at would be the changes in the “illegal defense” rules that the NBA eliminated in the early 2000’s.

Teams now don’t have to play strict man-to-man defense and are allowed to deploy hybrid man-zone schemes that enable for a “floating defender” to deter iso situations. Without going into too much basketball nerd talk, in the ’80’s and ’90’s, teams had to play defense with guys attached to whoever they were primarily defending unless they were in a classic zone scheme.

That being said, teams were able to just clear space offensively and let their star go to work on the other side of the floor.

Nowadays, iso situations still continue to exist but help defense is aided by the ability of the players to play centerfield in space to provide aid in iso while still defending their own man. 

This rule change was one of the most significant in NBA history and makes it much harder for teams to get their stars going in the scoring column. Can you imagine dropping Russell Westbrook in a time machine back to the ’80’s? At the 1:20 mark in the following vid you can listen to Tracy McGrady talk about the effect the rule change had on his career after averaging a gaudy 32 points per game the previous year.


While it is important to respect the legends, it is just as important to appreciate greatness and evolution when it is sitting right in front of our faces. Basketball has never been as polished and as efficient as it is today.

It is time for former NBA players and the “millenials ruin everything” guy to stop hating on modern basketball and the elite stars of today. This article is some ammo for the next time your uncle tells you that the Bad Boy Pistons would’ve just beaten up LeBron (“Enforcer” Bill Laimbeer only had three inches and 10 pounds on James in his prime and was infinitely less athletic). Times change and things get better with age. The NBA is no different.

You can fin Justin on Twitter: @jkirk41



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