Debunking Myths: The 1980s NBA Vs. The Modern Game, Vol. 1

The passing of time and subsequent dulling of our memories always makes the past look grander than it actually was. What’s the reason? Simply put, people don’t want to look back with a critical lens at our past. Everyone wants to believe that the icons of their era, whether they reigned in the fields of politics, music or the crux of our discussion, sports, are universally the “best.”

It has become an inarguable fact in most circles that the NBA’s watershed stretch came during the 1980s, during the heyday of stars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, as a young phenom named Michael Jordan rose to prominence. Those three names alone carry with them a reverence that most feel is untouchable by any players in the modern era.

I’m here to change that line of thinking. I fully believe the NBA is as good, if not better than it has ever been on a variety of levels. In a series of posts, I’m going to show and tell you why I believe that.

Today’s Topic: Depth, and the Myth of the Superteam

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With the All-Star Game playing out over the weekend, many have decried the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and rightfully so. Only four teams in the conference currently sit above the .500 mark, and the conference’s final playoff spot belongs to a Charlotte Bobcats team with five more losses than wins.
But pointing to the East in its current state as the model for why the NBA isn’t as strong as it once was is flawed thinking, and reeks of bias toward a younger generation. After all, when judging the strength of a bygone era, the first and often only teams we bring up are the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, quite clearly the class of the ’80s.

That’s not to say that they were the only teams of merit, but closer examination of both conferences reveals that perhaps the league wasn’t as deep as many like to believe.

Choosing a single year to represent the era is arbitrary in nature, but if we follow the stars, the 1987-88 season is probably our best choice, with Jordan’s first MVP campaign and Bird’s last truly great year highlighting the season. On the flipside of their brilliance: a lot of garbage at the bottom of the conferences.

Take for instance the San Antonio Spurs, who snuck into the Western Conference Playoffs with a 31-51 record. Imagine a team making the playoffs that was 20 games under .500 today–ESPN and its band of merry analysts would proclaim it a disgrace to the game.

And those Spurs weren’t the only ones to sneak in with a pitiful record that year, or even throughout the decade. From the 1979-80 season through 1988-89, an average of 3.7 teams per year made the playoffs having lost more games than they won. Over the league’s last 10 seasons, that number is significantly lower, with just nine teams total making the playoffs with a subpar record since 2003-04.

Highlighting the East also has an unintended effect–marginalizing the brilliance of the Western Conference. Maybe it’s because the West has reigned as the dominant conference for so long that it’s easy to take it for granted, but the overall strength of the conference isn’t just a one-year wonder. Over the last 15 years, the wild, wild West has produced a few of the league’s all-time best teams, such as the Shaqobe Lakers and Tim Duncan‘s consistently excellent Spurs. In 2007-08, the Carmelo Anthony-led Denver Nuggets were the final seed…and they won 50 games.

Keep reading for more…

Speaking of Anthony, he’s one of many stars having a career year struggling to work their way into the playoff picture. The fulcrum of a dilapidated Knicks team with little semblance of a plan, Anthony has scored the second most points in the league, alongside career-high three-point percentage and rebound totals, and yet even in the East, he doesn’t have enough help to propel his team into a low seed.

Kevin Love is another prime example. Love’s 26 points and 13 rebounds per game, accompanied by a PER of 27-plus, are numbers produced by names like Kareem, Shaq and Wilt. Despite his individual brilliance, Love’s Timberwolves sit five and a half games out of the West’s final playoff spot. If the league was as watered down as some would have you believe, how could a big man producing at a historic level be so far from the playoffs? Extend that question further–how has a player of Kevin Love’s caliber never made the postseason?

The answer: depth is still king in the NBA. We’ve seen that with the emergence of so-called “superteams” following the partnership of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston, but it’s no different than any other point in the league’s history. And even though there’s a ground swelling of people who point to teams like the Miami Heat and cast them as an example of what’s “wrong” with the NBA, they only show that they haven’t paid much attention to the game’s history.

One of those critics is the man many consider the G.O.A.T., Jordan himself. In reaction to LeBron‘s decision to join Wade and Bosh in Miami, Jordan said, “There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team.’ But… things are different. I can’t say that’s a bad thing. It’s an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.”

With all due respect to MJ (unless we’re talking about his career as an executive), he never had to leave his team to play with top-quality players, because another Hall of Famer (Scottie Pippen) was already in tow. Look at the majority of the teams that have won titles, especially those from the ’80s through the early ’90s, and multiple Hall of Famers adorn almost every roster. Kareem, Magic and Worthy. Bird, McHale and Parish. Jordan, Pippen and Rodman.

And that’s no different now–look at last year’s title teams. LeBron and Wade are locks to be enshrined down the road. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker will be there. Even the supporting casts–specifically Ray Allen–contain players that will be inducted into Naismith’s halls down the line, much like the Celtics once were fortunate enough to bring Bill Walton off the bench, or the Pistons had a young Dennis Rodman lurking on their bench.

The idea that the East’s weakness is enough for us to say the NBA has become “watered down” is preposterous, because the years will always be remembered for the year’s peak performers. As time passes, we remember the teams that deserve mentioning, like the “Fo-Fo-Fo” Sixers and the 72-win Bulls, not the scum at the bottom, or even the eight seeds that get steamrolled by the eventually champion. So stop fretting about the league’s depth, and remember that the very structure that you’re rallying against now is the same one that the league maintained during its breakout decade.

Coming soon: Defense, Better Than Ever.

What do you think?

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