Kevin Garnett On The NBA’s Evolution: ‘I Don’t Think Guys From 20 Years Ago Could Play Now’

Every sport sees a constant evolution in the game, both in the caliber of athletes that play it and the style of play that maximize their abilities. In basketball, it’s been an embrace of pace and space, a phrase that has become a cliche of sorts to describe what teams want to do, running the floor and shooting three-pointers.

It’s the combination of the level of athleticism and skill that has become the baseline in the NBA these days, with players of all sizes capable of putting the ball on the floor and, most of them, also being able to shoot out to the three-point line (and well beyond it), and the embrace of analytics, which point to where the easiest and most efficient shots are to be taken at the rim and from three-point range. The change in how the game is played irks some former players, as evidenced by the constant gripes on shows like Inside the NBA that there are too many threes taken and not enough post ups.

However, for others like Kevin Garnett, who is much closer to his playing days than a Charles Barkley, they can recognize the immense amount of skill required to succeed in the modern NBA — in part because they paved the way for this radical change. Garnett recently did an interview with the New York Times in which he explained why he doesn’t think most players, not just bigs but even guards, from 20 years ago when he came into the league would struggle to find their way in today’s game.

The game is at another level. I know you said that you made the team with Vancouver, but I want you to get on a court, sprint corner to corner, stop on a dime and shoot a 3. I want you to do 10 of those. Then I want you to focus on how tired you are. Because these players do that for 48 minutes. I don’t think guys from 20 years ago could play in this game. Twenty years ago, guys used their hands to control players. Now you can’t use your hands. That makes defense damn near impossible. Can you imagine not hand-checking Michael Jordan? Naw. The fact that you can’t touch players gives the offensive player so much flexibility. Defensive players have to take angles away and stuff like that. But if you have any creativity and ambition, you can be a great offensive player in this league. The fadeaways, one-leg runners, the one-leg balance shots — that’s stuff that Dirk Nowitzki brought to our game. And now when I watch Joker play, it feels like he has taken that Dirkness and mixed it with his own talent. And Steph Curry revolutionized things with being able to shoot it from distance with such consistency. Klay Thompson. Dame Lillard. These guards changed the game. I don’t know if even the guards from 20 or 30 years ago could play in this time right here. It’s creative. It’s competitive. It’s saucy. You’ll get dropped! A [expletive] will cross you over and break your A.C.L. these days. The game is in a great place.

It’s always nice to hear former players give flowers to the current stars in the league rather than complain about how things are different, and Garnett, along with Allen Iverson, is among the best at doing so. That’s in part due to the fact that he saw this evolution happen during his career and only stepped off the court a few years ago, so he has seen it up close and seen how good all these guys are. It’s also just being able to see that different isn’t bad and also recognized that the differences separate players both ways. He mentions the lack of hand-checking, which is a common refrain from older players to disparage the lack of defense today, but Garnett notes how that allows for more offensive creativity and, in his words, have made the game “saucy.”

He’s not putting down his generation of players, but simply noting that the game has moved to an almost unrecognizable place, which isn’t a bad thing.