I’ve spoken to a number of people recently who tell me that they don’t enjoy watching the NBA anymore. One person was telling me that the game isn’t played the way the Knicks of the early 70’s played it, which is the way it is supposed to be played. A few people were telling me that it isn’t played the way the Celtics and Lakers of the 80’s played it, a few complained that it isn’t as good as it was when Reggie, Patrick, Michael and Hakeem were battling it out in the 90’s, and a few just sounded grouchy. The point, though, is that a number of people aren’t feelin’ it the way I’m feelin’ it.
[AUTHOR’S DISCLAIMER: The crew of people that I interact with on a daily basis is, I know, not necessarily reflective of the overall population. An illustration of a typical conversation for me to have with a friend is a conversation that I had yesterday. I said something about the hoops that was played on Monday night. My friend responded by saying that he was watching WWE wrestling (Monday Night Raw) during the game I was talking about. This led to a back-and-forth, which culminated in him arguing that The Undertaker would make a great power forward — kind of like The Birdman — and me conceding that the NBA’s ratings might improve if The Undertaker signed with an NBA team. Yup, these are my friends. But the point remains… a bunch of people are unhappy with the NBA.]
I wasn’t around to watch the Knicks of the early 70’s, so I can’t respond directly to the assertion that they played the game better than the teams play today. But I watched plenty of hoops starting in the mid-80’s, and I know a thing or two about the history of the game. At least enough to address the feeling that the game is getting worse.
For starters, I agree that something has gotten lost with the addition of more teams. ‘Twas a time when there was no such thing as a Tuesday in February when a few games were being played between two lousy teams. Now there are so many teams that there are bound to be some games that are no fun to watch. (Even if all the other teams in the NBA got better, the Knicks would still be the Knicks, guaranteeing at least 82 meaningless, uninteresting games every year).
But there’s a reason why the league expanded; at bottom, it’s a business. When people like what it’s producing, it’s going to produce more. Sure, it might get to a point where it overexpands (I would argue that it passed that point 2 or 3 teams ago), but you can’t expect the league to sit still if it thinks there are markets to be tapped into profitably.
I also agree that the best teams do not seem to be as good. I doubt we’ll ever see a team like the ’86 Celtics, with 3 Hall-of-Famers in the frontcourt, 1 in the backcourt, AND BILL WALTON ON THE BENCH, going against the Lakers, with arguably the best PG ever, the league’s all-time leading scorer, AND JAMES WORTHY FILLING THE LANE. When you add teams, you diminish the likelihood of any team accumulating that much talent.
But let’s not look at the past with rose-colored glasses. When those Celtics and Lakers teams were dominating the league, the teams on the bottom were terrible. Anyone remember the Jazz before Stockton and Malone? The Kings in the sky blue uniforms? The Nets before they drafted Derrick Coleman? The Rockets before Olajuwon? You don’t? Neither do I. That’s my point. And I made that point without even mentioning the pre-Ewing Knicks — the team with Pat Cummings and Rory Sparrow in the starting lineup.
I’ll give one other point to the teams of yesteryear; they typically had guys who fit into our notions of the five different positions. Kareem was a C, Magic was a PG, Byron was a SG, Worthy and Rambis were forwards. That’s what a basketball team was supposed to look like. And there was a harmony to it. Today, many teams have a few guys who are “hybrids,” which sounds good in theory, but sometimes leads to something awful-looking. Like the Golden State Warriors. And nobody wants that.
But, again, let’s not look at the past with rose-colored glasses. It’s true that the Lakers and Celtics of the ’80’s, or the Knicks of the early ’70’s, started 5 guys who each played one of the “5 positions.” But, it’s also true that they started SGs who were 6’4” or smaller. Good luck trying to pull that off in today’s game (unless your 6’4” SG happens to be named Dwyane Wade).
There’s much more to say on this topic, but I won’t try to cover too much in one posting. The last thing I’ll say is that anyone who is down on today’s game should watch the Suns-Spurs series. Watch Nash, Duncan, Manu, and Grant Hill, and then talk to me about whether today’s players aren’t playing the game the right way.
Which reminds me… I have a game to go watch.