In 1961, the New York Mets hired the great Rogers Hornsby to prepare a scouting report on every player in major league baseball. The idea was to use Hornsby’s reports to help select the players who would make up the Mets when they joined MLB in 1962.
According to Jimmy Breslin, in his classic Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game, Hornsby found very little to like in the ballplayers of the day. His most glowing report said “looks like a major league player.” The subject was Mickey Mantle.
Old fartism has been around in sports for a long, long time. When Hornsby, who holds the modern major league record for batting average (.424) was playing, there were probably dead ball era ex-players who criticized him for lacking range on defense.
This brings us to the topic of the Golden State Warriors and their superstar Stephen Curry. Last year, the Warriors won the NBA championship. This year, they broke the record for wins in a regular season that was previously held by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
As for Curry, he has surpassed the great Lebron James as the league’s best player. This year, he averaged 30.1 points per game (best in the NBA) and made a record 402 three-pointers, with a success rate of .454.
Some basketball old-timers aren’t impressed. Scottie Pippen, who played with Jordan on the record setting 1995-96 Bulls team, says those Bulls would sweep Curry’s Warriors in a four game series.
Charles Barkley, who played against the Jordan-Pippen Bulls takes the same view. “That Bulls team would kill this little [Warriors] team,” Barkley opined.
Then there is the legendary Oscar Robertson. According to “The Big O,” Curry is scoring so much because modern day coaches “do not understand the game of basketball.” In Robertson’s day, coaches required their players to play better perimeter defense against star shooters. Thus, Curry wouldn’t have had so many good looks at the basket back then.
Is this valid criticism or old fartism.” I say it’s the latter.
Let’s start with Robertson’s comments. If defense was so stellar back in the day, why were scores so high? In 1962-62, one of Robertson’s many great seasons, his Cincinnati Royals averaged 119 points per game, second to the Syracuse Nationals who averaged more than 121. No team averaged fewer than 109 points per game.
In the regular season that just ended, only Golden State (114.9) and Oklahoma City (110.2) averaged more than 109 points. Seven teams failed to average 100 points per game.
Keep in mind that there was no three point shot back when teams routinely were playing 118-113 type games. Remember too that there wasn’t nearly as high a percentage of black players in the league back then. Blacks had fewer opportunities to play college ball and some pro team probably still limited the number of blacks on their roster. Thus, the pool from which to draw high quality defenders was smaller.
If defense was so stellar back in the day, why, in 1975, did the great basketball writer Curry Kirkpatrick say “the truth is that nobody really stops anybody else in the NBA”?
What about Pippen and Barkley and the comparison between Jordan’s Bulls and Curry’s Warriors. Logic suggests that a series between two clubs with nearly identical records would be very close. Only if NBA basketball was better in the mid 1990s than it is today, would we expect the Bulls to rout the Warriors.
There is no reason to believe that NBA basketball was better then. American kids are probably even more devoted to playing basketball now (thanks in part to what Jordan did for them game), and they have more opportunities now to play against top competition before they reach college.
Moreover, there are many more foreign players in the NBA today. Since the talent pool is bigger, the basketball probably is better.
Both scouting and conditioning are vastly better now than in Robertson’s heyday and somewhat better than 20 years ago. Breaking down film has become an obsession. So again, if anything, the quality of play is probably higher now.
Barkley argues that the Bulls would whip the Warriors because they are a bigger team. He asks, rhetorically, how the “little” Warriors could effectively match up with the Bulls.
The 1995-96 Bulls had only two major scoring threats — Jordan (30.4 points per game) and Pippen (19.4). The only other Bull in double figures was Toni Kukoc (13.1) who played only 26 minutes per game, probably because he was a liability on defense. Barkley wonders who on the Warriors would guard Dennis Rodman, but Rodman averaged only 5.5 points.
Jordan was 6 feet 6 inches tall. Pippen was 6-8. Rodman was 6-7 (but inch for inch, possibly the best rebounder NBA history). The other starters typically were Luc Longley (7-2), a mediocre player, and Ron Harper (6-6) or Steve Kerr (6-3), the coach of this year’s record-breaking Warriors team. Kukoc was 6-11 but didn’t play that big.
If the Warriors win the NBA championship this year, they will probably have to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs feature Lebron James (6-8), Kevin Love (6-10), Tristan Thompson (6-9), J.R. Smith (6-6), and Kyrie Irving (6-3).
Before they can reach the finals, the Warriors will probably have to beat the San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio features Tim Duncan (6-11), LaMarcus Aldridge (6-11), Kawhi Leonard (6-7), Danny Green (6-6), and Tony Parker (6-2).
If the Warriors defeat either of these teams, we can conclude that their size would not prevent them from competing on even terms with the old Chicago Bulls. If the Warriors don’t beat at least one of them, they almost certainly won’t win the championship this year. In that case, barring special circumstances such as key injuries, presumably Golden State will fall out of the discussion of best NBA team ever.
Which team would I pick in a seven game series between Jordan’s Bulls and Curry’s Warriors? In a series played as the game was played in 1995-96, I’d favor Chicago. In a series played as the game is played now, I’d favor Golden State. Why? Because the two teams were built to compete in the era in which they competed and because any advantages in modern scouting would be cancelled out.
Everything being equal, I think this would be a toss-up series, assuming Golden State takes care of business in the upcoming playoffs.
UPDATE: You can read a similar point of view at Porcupine Huddle. As noted there, when one looks at sports in which competitors are measured objectively by a clock, performance typically is better now than in the old days.