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The Golden State Warriors vs the 1980's and 1990's
After Saturday night, after the amazing victory the Warriors stole from the Thunder, after the damn near half court game winner by Steph, the topic becomes how good are the Warriors, how good is Steph, and is that type of basketball and this team transcendent through different eras?
This started on Thursday when Oscar Robertson, widely regarded as one of the best players in basketball history, came on the radio and completely dismissed what Stephen Curry is doing. He said the rules allow for him to do it, he said there is no coaching right now, and worst of all, he said that he had a guy on this team who was just as good as Curry. Not that he would be one of the top players back then, but that he had some no name player who was just as good. Come to find out that after his career, he had a stint as a radio broadcaster where he did the exact same thing. He dismissed all the players playing as average, saying that players from his era were much better.
Next in line was Isaiah Thomas the next day saying that Steph is one of the best, "perimeter players" in history, thereby giving him a backhanded compliment saying that he couldn't do the things he himself (Thomas) did around the hoop because of how physical the game was. And then Jerry West, Charles Barkley and on and on have talked about how the rules have changed and how the hand checking would have made it harder for them to score, how the the game was more physical and how they would just break Curry down with hard fouls and physical play.
So before we get into all of that, lets first look at why. Why do these players say these things? What is there motivation? Are they just plain haters? I personally don't think they are haters and I think they speak as guys who are still very competitive. And I think that this point goes for everyone who played sports at a high level. Why would they think that someone who comes along after them is better? Why would they think that all the time and blood, sweat and tears they put in over the years are erased by some new player who has emerged in the league. I get it. I obviously didn't play at as high of a level as NBA guys but I know I am as competitive as anyone I have come across. And at 36 years old, I walk in the gym and believe I can guard whoever I think is the next best player in the gym. Or I look at a guy playing at a high level now and say "When I was his age he wasn't as good as me." And I believe that is what these guys are doing. Do you expect a competitive guy like Charles Barkley to go, "Yep, Kevin Garnett is way better than I ever was." No way. Just like Isaiah. He looks at the NBA and their supposed "soft play" and thinks he would just kill these guys. And he really believes it. And while I believe he is way wrong, I want you to think about your own life. Take the thing in your life your most proud of whether it be you children, your job, whatever it may be. And then try and have someone tell you the kid down the street is cuter than yours. Or is smarter, or is more polite. The fact is that kid may be one of those things, but our reality honestly doesn't see that. And I don't want to go too deep into our own personal realities or our own personal perception but think about your kid or even your dog. When was the last time someone said that they have the cutest kid or the cutest dog in the world. Happens every day. And let me tell you the truth...You don't have the cutest kid or the cutest dog. But our love and our pride makes us feel that way and we truly believe it in our hearts. And that's why these guys say these things.
So having said that, you talk to lots of people who say basketball in the 90's was the best or basketball in the 80's was best or whatever the case may be. And again I feel like they really believe that but there is a reason for it. Those people who think that time was the best ever are people who were in their youth at that time. Which means that these players and these teams were larger than life to them. I think I have written about this before but when I was a kid my dad took my brother and I to high school basketball games. And we would watch Huntington Beach high school and Tony Gonzalez. And he was larger than life to me. He looked like the biggest guy I had ever seen. And years later I played against him and I was much taller than him. And even though he was really good, I was not as in awe of him had I been when I was young. So I think the same thing exists as far as those people evaluating basketball. Just like the ex NBA players, they saw guys who were there idols and said these guys are the best I've ever seen. Then when they become adults and see these guys that don't seem as big and after a while are younger than them so they don't see as dominant. And as rules change and fights are taken away, these people say the game is now soft and so on and so forth.
And here is why those wrong. All of them. And the next comments by me are gonna piss off everyone. EVERYONE.
I did something no one who has talked about this subject has done. I watched games. I watched those games. I watched a game in the 80's and I watched a game in the 90's. Tip to horn. Now I also want to make it clear I only watched one of each. I did't watch a big enough sample but I just don't have the time to watch a ton of old games just so I can write a blog that a few people will read.
The first game I watched was Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals. Lakers vs Celtics in the Garden. Here is the link to the game for those who want to educate or, in most cases, reeducate themselves on 1980's basketball.
I will give a quick synopsis of the game I watched last night. We are watching arguably two of the greatest players in NBA history, two players in Magic and Bird who are on most peoples short list of top players in NBA history. Well lets start with the numbers. People say the game was more physical back then. I'd argue the opposite. There are so many touch fouls called in the game I couldn't believe it. There are so many fouls in general I couldn't believe it. One starter on the Celtics got 4 fouls in the first quarter before they took him out. Dennis Johnson of the Celtics got 3 fouls in the first quarter and was not taken out. There were so many fouls called and 3 seconds called and illegal defenses called it was crazy. To say the games were more physical back then is just not true. Were the fouls harder? Yes. Could you throw punches and not get thrown out? Yes. But that doesn't mean anything because these teams were parading to the line. In the game, the Lakers were 18-28 from the free throw line and the Celtics were 43-51. 51 free throws. 43 of their 111 points came at the line. I think I remember one hard foul, which I don't think would have been called flagrant in today's game, but other than that nothing was any more physical.
As far as Bird and Magic. Magic was 5-14 (35%), had 16 points, 15 assists, 5 rebounds, and 7 turnovers. Bird was 6-18 (33%), had 20 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 turnovers. Again, I watched one game, but obviously it was one of the biggest games of both of their careers, and both would have been in their primes, 5 years or so into their NBA careers.
As far as the team stats, the Lakers were 41-88 (48%), 2-8 from 3 (25%), and 18-28 from the line (64%). The Celtics were 34-86 (39%), 0-2 from 3 (0%), and 43-51 from the line (84%).
So now that you know the numbers let me talk about the game. I thought it was the worst basketball I have ever seen in my life. There was no movement on offense, no movement on defense and basically both teams would just stand around while one guy posted up. Then when he got the ball they may or may not double and the rest of the guys still just stood. There were no real offenses and the defense was really really bad. Now when the Lakers got a rebound they would run. This was known as showtime basketball. To me it looked like a regular fast break we see 100 times a night in the NBA now. Was it revolutionary then? Probably. But it was nothing special at all. What was really weird to me was that both teams would get out on the break and go and score, but if they had no break or if the fast break didn't yield anything, then they would just go back to bogging it down and walking it up. There was no middle ground. They had great floor spacing on the break but then nothing after. I wish I could diagram it on here but basically there would be one guy on the post and two guys on the weak side block just standing there. And they would try and force it in, and if they couldn't they would reverse it and try and force it in on the other side. And like I said, the refs called EVERYTHING. And probably the most shocking thing to me, and what makes my blood boil when people talk about Steph Curry not being physical enough to play back then is the perimeter defense. Or basically the lack thereof. So defenses would pick up their men at their own free throw line. Not full court free throw line, like inside their own 3 point arc at their own free throw line. And if the guy was dribbling at 17 or 18 feet, at any moment during the game he could shoot a wide open shot. I'm talking about shots that every NBA player with the exception of like 5 now make consistently, any player on the court could take at any time and be completely wide open. Michael Cooper came off a screen once to just outside the elbow for a shot and there was no one within 10 feet of him. It was shocking to watch. They just had no interest in guarding the perimeter players. Magic would come down and dribble and dribble and it would be like Rajon Rondo had the ball. No one was near him, they were backed way into the paint to try and cut off his passing angles. And occasionally he would shoot. And occasionally it would go in. Danny Ainge, who is "known" for being a great 3 point shooter, caught the ball on the 3 point line and the defender ran away from him to double Bird on the post. And Ainge didn't even look at the basket. He still forced it into Bird and cut through. There were hardly any defensive players standing outside the paint. If a guy hit two mid range jumpers the announcers said they were on fire. There was another play where Bird's man caught the ball at about 17 feet. Bird stayed waaaaaay off him and when he rose to shoot, Bird turned around and ran to the paint to rebound. Didnt try and contest the shot, turned and ran the other direction. And to try and tell me that Stephen Curry couldn't have played just based on that information is a joke.
Now before I move on I need to insult the masses. Here goes. In my opinion, the only two players from that game that could compete at a high level in today's NBA would be Magic and Kareem. Kareem, in my opinion, was the best player in the game. Magic was very average, but in this era with so much more space on the floor, his ability to see the floor, and his size, he would be great today. But Bird was awful. He played below the rim. He took bad shots, he airballed, and he got a ton of calls. All the Celtics did. There is a reason why we don't see players in the NBA today who look like him and jump like him. Because they can't compete with the athleticism of today's game. Same with Kevin McHale. Players just don't look like him. Porzingus? Ya, add 5 inches or else he wouldn't be in the NBA either. Besides for Kareem, the entire game was played below the rim. Which could be why he was so dominant. But I don't want to take away from how he played and how good he looked in that game. He looked like a player. Is it one game? YES. I get it. But just because you don't shoot the ball well doesn't mean you weren't athletic that day or playing hard or anything like that. And Bird looked like an average player.
If you want to see what I'm talking about but don't have the time or desire to watch the whole game, then watch the first quarter and the first play in the second quarter. The first play of the second quarter James Worthy drives baseline and dunks on Bird. Dunks on him baaaaad. Bird falls down and slides backward. And James Worthy is a Hall of Famer so no big deal right? James Worthy was 6-10, 219 pounds. Are you kidding me? How many guys in today's NBA are 6-10, 219? The answer is none. When I got to my biggest and strongest I was 6-8 225 and wasn't anywhere NEAR big enough to make the NBA, yet I weighed more than Worthy who is a Hall of Fame player. And he crushed on Bird. He made Bird look stupid. So what does 80's guy say now? He says they had IQ and moves and knew how to play team ball. Hey 80's guy PLEEEEEEEEEASE click that link and watch the game. There were no moves, there was no cleverness, nothing. I'll tell you the most clever play of the game. It was the Ainge play that I mentioned before. He caught the ball on the 3 point line. His man ran away from him and doubled Bird. And Bird took a step out and caught the ball. And Ainge cut straight to the hoop. And the other 3 Laker defenders didn't move. They stood still and Ainge got an easy lay up. And the announcers went wild. "What a pass by Bird!" What vision by Bird!" It was comical. He hit a guy who was 5 feet from him and totally unguarded as he cut for a lay up while 3 guys stood and watched. That was the highest "IQ" and "Team Ball" play of the whole game.
I know that was long but I'll be much shorter on the 90's game I also watched. It was 1996 Eastern Conference Finals game 1 between the Bulls and the Magic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxyPjvFSepA
It was the year that the Bulls set the regular season wins record and went on to the championship, and is known as the greatest team of all time. And you know what....I was impressed. Really impressed. Jordan and Pippen were defending the hell out of their men. They pressed part of the time and were constantly poking balls away and getting steals. They were great in transition and Scottie was a hell of a finisher. So athletic and so smooth. Rodman was a beast on the boards and guarded Shaq really well. Again it was one game but they played great and they were dominant. I would love to see a game between them and the Warriors. The weakness for the Bulls was at the point where Ron Harper got torched by Penny Hardaway. Hardaway had around 40, all while they gave it to Shaq almost every possesion down the court. The other Bulls weakness was their bench. It consisted of Kerr, Buchelor, and Wennington, along with John Salley and some other terrible guys. They did a good job of keeping Jordan or Pippen in the game to help those guys out because they were definitely role players. But in general, the Bulls moved the ball really well. They seemed to have a great understanding of the triangle and while different than how Golden State plays now, it is also very similar. They took what everyone else was doing and did it better and faster. And thats what the Warriors do. And I know we would all love to see those teams play a best of 21 game series but until technology can simulate that perfectly we are stuck debating. The big debate is hand checking and physical play. And yes the play was physical no doubt. But the rules have also changed to benefit defenses now that weren't the same back then. Remember the 6 foot illegal defense rule of the 90's? Ill refresh you. You had to be within 6 feet of your man or on your way to double team the man WITH THE BALL or it was illegal. Now you get 3 seconds in the paint before its illegal defense. So what I saw is offensive guys standing right next to each other on the perimeter on the weak side, (many of which would never shoot from out there) whose men were forced to stay next to them. This opened up so much space for offensive players to drive and cut. It also limited help side defense because you were forced to be so far away, and then made it very easy to see where the help was coming from when it came. Again, Steph and the Warriors would have a field day with those old rules of defense.
The final thing I'll say is this. One of my friends texted me the other day and said the Warriors would be the fourth or fifth best team back in the 80's and 90's. And of course I scoffed and he started naming teams and he said that Dominique would windmill on Harrison Barnes every possession. And it got me thinking. Why did he think that? And here is the conclusion I came up with. Back in the 80's and 90's they didn't have a little thing now known as league pass, where you can watch every game every night, if you choose to have no social life. There was no NBA TV back then. You could probably watch most of your local teams games, and there were probably nationally televised games here and there. But I remember probably in the late 90's or early 2000's when they started broadcasting every playoff game and it was a huge deal. People got to see teams and players they hadn't really seen before. And before that when could they actually see Bird and Magic and Jordan and Isaiah? The answer is why people hold them in such high regard. Because they only saw highlights. They would tune in every night to Sportscenter and see Dominique windmill his one or two dunks of the game. They would see the up and unders by McHale and Bird that are iconic moments in NBA history. They would see the no look passes by Magic. But what did they not see? THE GAME. The misses, the bad defense, the air balls, and no help defense and so on and so on. Imagine if you didn't watch the Golden State vs OKC game on Saturday and just saw the highlights. Did any of the highlights show anyone missing a shot? Did any of them show air balls or bad defense or turnovers? Of course not. Did they show Ibaka hitting a 15 footer in the third quarter? No, No, No. So what would you base your impressions on. Highlights. And as the years go by, the boring highlights fade away and the exciting ones stand the test of time. We will see that Steph game winning 3 for the rest of our lives. Will we ever see the 6 3's he missed that game? Ever? No, we won't. So as time passes, the things that aren't great and the things that don't make these players immortal start to fade away. Think of your own life or your own sports career in your memory. The things that stick out most to you are your best games, your best moments, your game winners, and not really your 1-20's or your 2 strikeouts in your men's league softball game. You remember the 80 footer you hit on 18, not the 3 footer you missed the week before. Its human nature and there is nothing wrong with it. But if you want to have the debate about what players and what teams are the best of tall time, take some time and do the research, watch the games, and THEN lets talk about it.