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The Mytic 1990s..

Discussion in 'NBA Dish' started by SK34, May 24, 2015.

  1. SK34

    SK34 Member

    Jan 13, 2012
    Likes Received:

    Its a great read.

    The 3 Myths.
    1. Defenses were better in the 90s.
    2. The rule changes were a big deal.
    3. The talent is inferior in todays game.

    Spoilered for those that don't want to click the link.

    The Mythic 1990s

    I’m writing this article because I’m tired. I’m just damn tired. I’m tired of talking heads, fans, debaters, pundits, players, coaches, and all claiming that “the golden era of the NBA was the ‘90s” or that “today’s game is nothing compared to the ‘90s.” It’s time for this ignorance to end. Due to the media’s ridiculous romanticization of this supposedly superior decade, many now believe many of the myths created. The 1990s were easily the most romanticized and mythical years of the NBA. Why? Because Michael Jordan is easily the most romanticized and mythical player that has ever played in the NBA.

    I’ve literally never heard these arguments used for any other player in that decade other than Jordan. Not Magic, not Barkley, not Robinson, not Drexler, not Hakeem, not Pippen, not Shaq, not Malone, not Penny, not Hill, not GP, not Alonzo, not Duncan, not anyone else other than Jordan. So, why is he so special? Well, he’s the greatest basketball player of all-time, of course. But there are so many of Jordan’s fans that are so incredibly insistent, stubborn, and eventually reverting that there were some bound to claim that, not only was Jordan the greatest player ever, but he dominated the greatest decade ever.

    So, now I’m forced to write this long, specific, detailed article disproving the many myths created about this fairy-tale era. I don’t want to do this, but I have to, because I’m just damn tired.

    Myth No. 1: Defenses were better in the ’90s

    If you comparing any two teams defensively, what’s the first thing you would look at? Their stats, right? Alright, guess which two teams these are: Team No. 1 has a 106.8 defensive rating, 46.3 opponent’s field-goal percentage, 14.3 opponent’s turnover percentage, 68.4 defensive rebound percentage, and a 0.241 FTA/FGA; while Team No. 2 has a 106.3 defensive rating, 45.4 opponent’s field-goal percentage, 13.6 opponent’s turnover percentage, 72.9 defensive rebound percentage, and a 0.230 FTA/FGA. Trick question. Team No. 1 is the average defense of the 1990s, while Team No. 2 is the average defense of the last decade. You would expect from reputation that the average defense from the ‘90s would be far superior to the average defense of the past decade; but when looking at the facts, they’re nearly indistinguishable. If anything, the past decade wins out.

    Now, I’m not only arguing that today’s defenses are equal to those of the ‘90s; I’m arguing that today’s defenses are better. The only reason that their stats are nearly equivalent is because today’s defenses are playing far superior offensive systems than the defenses of the ‘90s did, and here’s how.

    Firstly, offensive scouting has advanced tremendously. Every single NBA team now uses ridiculously in-depth scouting that provides their offenses with information that the teams of yesteryear just didn’t have. They have scouting that tells them which plays, shots, or sets should be made during a game and at what point during that game. They’re able to recognize opposing defenses and know immediately which offensive strategies to use. They just know a lot more because of this advanced scouting, and it helps today’s offensive capabilities immensely.

    Secondly, coaches are just smarter now. They understand the game like none ever have, and due to scouting, general analysis, film study and more, coaches have adjusted and changed the way offenses operate. They’ve cut down on the inefficient plays like midrange jump-shots and isolations, while also emphasizing shots in the paint, high ball-screens, and three-pointers, especially from the corner — the most efficient offensive plays in the game. They’ve also continually understood the value of three-pointers, and as they’ve emphasized the three more and more, coaches are utilizing role players who are able to shoot three-pointers more than ever, yet those who still have good defensive capabilities (think of a Shane Battier or Bruce Bowen-type).

    So, why are today’s defenses nearly statistically equal to those of the 1990s, despite playing superior offenses? Because defenses are better. A lot better. And here’s why.

    Just as scouting has changed the way offenses operate, scouting has changed the NBA’s defensive philosophy. It’s impacted the league in a way that the average fan doesn’t really know and can’t know. It’s been a complete transformation. I can’t necessarily explain it as well as others, so to learn about it, read Zach Lowe’s piece on Toronto’s analytics, Ethan Sherwood Strauss on the Warriors’ analytics, Brandon Curry on Indiana’s analytical defense, or Zach McCann on player tracking. This type of thing has made a huge impact. NBA teams are using analytics on a game-by-game basis to shut down opposing offenses in a manner that was previously impossible — something that the average fan might not fully understand.

    And as coaches develop more of a hands-on (or control-freak, either one works) attitude, they’ve recognized the advantages of a slower pace defensively. As the league gets more and more defensively oriented, the pace has continually gone down. Back when Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson were the titans of basketball, the game was played at a breakneck pace. But as time went on and as coaches got more and more in-depth, the overall pace of the game has slowed, something that inherently favors the defense. In a slower pace, defenses can get set quicker and give up less fast-break opportunities. A defense that is set in the halfcourt is obviously better than one that’s being forced into a scramble. This is proven by Blake Murphy, who wrote an article on this very concept; and in 8 of the past 10 seasons, the best defensive team (measured by defensive rating) has had a pace factor lower than the league average.

    In today’s era, the pace has gone down and so logically, defenses have improved. The average pace of today’s game is just about at 92 possessions per game; in the ‘90s, the average pace was just below 97 possessions per game. Just as it’s been proven that defenses get better in a slower pace, defenses are better in the slower pace of today’s game.

    Finally, there’s the biggest reason why the defenses of today are superior to those of the ‘90s: “illegal defense.” See, prior to the 2001-02 season, the NBA had a rule in place called “illegal defense,” which put a bunch of restrictions on defensive systems, specifically in the positioning of its players. The main goal of this rule was to eliminate zone defense, which was and still is a mainstay of college basketball. The specific rules are somewhat unclear, but here’s the gist: (1) a defensive player must be guarding a man, not a “zone” or a specific area of the floor, (2) a defensive player may not station himself in the paint for more than three seconds, unless he is specifically guarding an opposing player, and (3) weakside defenders may not come across the lane, unless in an attempt to double-team the ball or follow a cutter.

    This rule was completely eliminated prior to the 2001-02 NBA season. This has allowed many defensive advancements to occur, specifically through the third rule of the illegal defense that I stated. As this rule was eliminated, teams are now allowed to send multiple defenders from the weakside in between the ball and the basket, creating an infinitely difficult proposition to perimeter scorers attempting to reach the rim uninhibited. Here’s an excerpt from Bill Simmons’ book that furthers this explanation:

    The new wave of coaches made defenses sophisticated enough by 1981 that the league created an “illegal defense” rule to open up the paint. Here’s how referee Ed Rush explained it to SI: “We were becoming a jump-shot league, so we went to the coaches and said, ‘You’ve screwed the game with all your great defenses. Now fix it.’ And they did. The new rule will open up the middle and give the great players room to move. People like Julius Erving and David Thompson who used to beat their own defensive man and then still have to pull up for a jump shot because they were being double-teamed, should have an extra four or five feet to move around in. And that’s all those guys need.”

    Essentially, this new rule has allowed today’s coaches to flood the paint with extra defenders who act as a buffer between a perimeter scorer and the paint. As Ed Rush stated, the old rule “[opened] up the middle.” As the rule was taken away, the middle got clogged up again. Smart people in basketball knew what would happen, and they knew the obstacles that perimeter players would face in the future.

    Back in 2001 before the change even occurred, Dean Oliver wrote about the change’s possible impact, and he had this to say:

    These rule changes, though nearly unanimously adopted by the league, are not meeting with unanimous agreement among league followers, especially the elimination of the illegal defense rules. Players who have made their living beating defenders off one-on-one sets are particularly fearful that their impact will be reduced with zones allowed. With no increase in the shot clock, there is fear that offenses will be forced into a lot of rushed shots at the end of the clock.

    Before this rule change was even put in place, there were those around the association expressing their concerns. Steve Smith, a guard with Portland at the time, said, “You put in zone, you take away stars.” “I think it’s a huge mistake,” Pat Riley said. “There’s not going to be anybody able to drive. With these rules, you’re going to be back to the 70s in scoring … Fans like to see Vince Carter play one-on-one outside. That stuff is going to be history. Isolation basketball has been part of the game ever since I’ve been in it.” Rudy Tomjanovich said, “It would change the sport. We should create a situation where great players get a chance to excel. Zones neutralize athletic ability. People want to see guys who can soar to the basket … People will be coming up with all kinds of crazy defenses.”

    And believe it or not, they were absolutely right. People came up with all kinds of crazy defenses, starting specifically with Tom Thibodeau, known for his work as a defensive coordinator on the late-2000s Celtics teams and as current Chicago Bulls head coach. Though he didn’t invent the strategy, Thibodeau is credited with popularizing the newest defensive strategy called “ball-side box.” Basically, it works like this: a scorer on the wing is set up in an isolation or on the mid-post, and he’s looking to drive the ball to the goal. Without illegal defense, however, coaches can now legally send multiple weakside defenders intent on positioning themselves in between that wing player and the paint, taking away any previous driving lanes. To visually see what I’m talking about, click here and then click “present” in the top right corner of the linked powerpoint to see examples on video of “ball-side boxes.” Try not to look at the on-ball defense, but instead focus on the layers of defense behind the ball and in the lane, because that’s what really makes the difference.

    Most people don’t understand this, including and especially the great Michael Jordan, who is known for publicly criticizing current players and claiming that today’s perimeter players have it easier than he and his pals did back in the 1990s (by the way, here’s another minor thing that helped players from the ‘90s: the shortening of the three-point line. From 1995 to 1997, the NBA shortened its three-point line from from 23 feet, 9 inches and 22 feet in the corners to a uniform 22 feet across the entire line. While that might not seem like a big deal, it had a legitimate impact. Dennis Scott set a then-record 267 threes in the 1996 season, and outside shooting numbers, from efficiency to volume, spiked. Also, the nineties were famous for being an era that gave out assists a lot more freely, for reasons that no one ever really found.). David Thorpe of Scouts.com had this to say about Jordan’s continual comments:

    Now, when you beat that first line of defense, you’ve got four dudes very often sitting, waiting for you on ball-side … You might have three, four, even five defenders on that ball-side box. That wasn’t the case when Jordan played … You couldn’t go anywhere near a ball-side box back then. There were great teams like Chuck Daly’s Pistons and Pat Riley’s Lakers that devised “zone,” so to speak, to kind of flood the ball more, but it was nothing, Henry [Abbott of ESPN], like it is today. The teeth of the defense today is much sharper, and there’s many more teeth then there was back when Jordan played, so I understand a little bit of what he’s saying, but I think ultimately, he’s completely wrong.

    In Zach Lowe’s article titled “Smashmouth on the Hard Court,” there are several quotes from writers, players, coaches, and more who express their thoughts on the new defensive strategies. Really, you should just read it. But here’s Zach:

    In short: If defenses pack the lane to take away an offense’s first option, that offense better be creative enough to adjust. “Getting to the hole is getting harder and harder,” says Chicago’s Carlos Boozer, who should know, considering the identity of his coach.

    “A lot of the defensive strategies you see now are a natural evolution from rule changes,” says Houston GM Daryl Morey, in reference to the league’s decision a decade ago to abandon illegal defense rules and essentially allow zone defenses. “First the defense evolved by overloading the strong side, and now the offenses are evolving to beat that.”

    The Heat are the most obvious example of a team that has torn down and rebuilt its entire offense over 18 months to counter defenses committed to clogging the lane, sending an extra defender toward the ball, and forcing offenses into second, third, and fourth options. It’s no coincidence Miami plays in the same conference as Boston and Chicago — the two teams most associated, via Tom Thibodeau, with that strangling defense. Thibodeau didn’t invent this system, and he’s loath to take any public credit for it, but coaches, scouts, and executives all over the league agree he was the first coach to stretch the limits of the NBA’s newish defensive three-second rule and flood the strong side with hybrid man/zone defenses.

    “Teams that just play on one side of the floor are going to struggle against defenses that load up on that side,” says a Houston assistant. “The league has gotten so different today. You just have to move the ball from one side to the other against the really good defensive teams,” says Jim Boylan. “Predictable offenses just aren’t good enough anymore against elite competition,” says Lowe.

    Beckley Mason wrote an article comparing the famed “Bad-Boy” Pistons’ defense of the late-eighties facing Michael Jordan to the Thibodeau-run 2010 Celtics facing LeBron James:

    First off, you’ll probably notice that Bill Laimbeer deters Jordan from finishing around the rim about as well as my office’s “no Youtube” policy keeps me from watching KBlaze mixtapes on slow afternoons. But besides Laimbeer’s awful individual effort, there are a number of instances in which the Pistons, as a team, wait for Jordan to make his move before taking action to stop him from scoring. Also, the on-ball defender seems to have no plan for where to push Jordan. Often Dumars et al play him straight, and [lets] Jordan decide where he wants to go. …

    Even a cursory examination of these two tapes will prove that the Celtics’ intricate strategy is far superior to the Pistons’ organized thuggery. In the first minutes of the clip above, the Celtics are called for two defensive three-second violations because they are preemptively over-rotating to fill the spaces LeBron would like to use. Bron still managed to have an excellent game, but you can see the foundation of how the Celtics were able to force him out of simply exploding past his defender to the basket.

    Although ‘89 Jordan may be able to escape his first defender more easily in today’s game [due to his thoughts on hand-checking], good defensive teams would employ more aggressive and nuanced schemes to keep him from the hoop. Ultimately, it’s these second and third lines of defense that matter most. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are still average defenders at best, but they can apply heavy pressure to quicker offensive players far away from the hoop because the Boston Big Men are ready to aggressively rotate. Modern defenses force wing scorers like LeBron, Kobe, and Wade to analyze layers of team defense in a way Jordan didn’t. Add that to the advances in statistics and scouting, and NBA defenses know more than ever about a scorer’s preferences and habits.

    The numbers and video don’t lie. Jordan would have to ball futuristic just to maintain his 1989 scoring levels against the evolved, more sophisticated defenses and slower offensive pace of today’s NBA.

    Are you getting it, people? Defenses are a lot better. It’s just that simple. Obviously, this has made it harder on offensive superstars, but there are also some other indirect results of this new defensive movement.

    One, isolations are slowly fading out of pro basketball. This was a logical step, being that one of the modern defense’s advantages is stopping isolations. Because of this new development, isolations don’t work anymore; they just can’t work in this new era of basketball. If, say, the Knicks set up an isolation for Carmelo Anthony on the left wing, today’s defenses are going to flood that side of the court and take away any driving lanes, forcing ‘Melo to either pass the ball up for another set, swing the ball across the perimeter, or force a contested jumper — the latter being used most often. And due to this newfound difficulty, isolation basketball is going away, for better or for worse.

    Two, offenses are getting crazy. As isolations are become less useful, coaches have searched tirelessly in order to find a way around these defensive systems. There’ll be stuff rolled out at the start of next season that have never even been seen before. Small-ball, while actually a lesser development than others, is a widely recognized form of this. Coaches are bending the way we look at basketball, and they’re searching for new ways to get past defensive sets. As defenses got better, coaches searched for new innovations that make it easier to attack them, creating a back-and-forth between coaches, somewhat of a chess match or a race to the next innovation.

    Three, players are getting tired. As shown by Henry Abbott here, here, and here, these new defensive systems are increasingly tiring on offensive and defensive players due to the increased activity in the lane and on the perimeter:

    I did some rough-and-ready research and found that teams whose top players play a ton of minutes don’t win NBA titles, not anymore. They used to, but not in recent years. The best theory I heard to explain that came from David Thorpe, who laid the blame on that hustling, switching team defense. Once upon a time, lots of teams preferred an isolation offense, which meant one player dribbling alone against one defender, while as many as eight guys caught breathers. On many NBA plays these days, nobody stands around. It’s common to see 10 guys flying all over the court. This is not your daddy’s NBA. It’s great for fans and team play, but it’s much tougher for the players: a minute of play, the theory goes, is now much more work than it used to be, and one result is that more rest is required.

    Four, basketball is continually getting more and more defensive-minded. This has led to a number of things. Defenses don’t take plays off anymore, and they intentionally forfeit offensive rebounds in order to ensure that they are able to get back and stop potential fast-breaks. They take less risks in the passing lanes, opting to not go for any steals on the perimeter and instead focus on staying in front of the basketball. Coaches are requiring more on-ball defenders. On every contender, there is at least one absolutely terrific perimeter defender: New York has Shumpert; Miami has James; Oklahoma City has Sefolosha; Denver has Iguodala; Los Angeles has Bledsoe; San Antonio has Leonard; Memphis has Allen. That wasn’t the case in the ‘90s. Teams weren’t as defensive-minded, and perimeter defenders were less valuable and therefore less widespread than today.

    And finally, for all the reasons that I’ve shown you, defenses of today are not just equal to those of the 1990s. They’re better.

    Myth No. 2: The rule changes were a big deal

    The aforementioned abolition of the “illegal defense” rule was put into place prior to the 2002 season, but that’s not the only rule change that caused some controversy. Prior to the 2005 season, the NBA now started to attempt to curtail hand-checking and call defensive three-seconds. These were put in place to “open up the game,” but did they work? According to the numbers, they didn’t seem to.

    Let’s look at the top-scoring perimeter players in the early 2000s, and we can do a before-and-after analysis of these rule changes. If the illegalization of hand-checking and implementation of defensive three-seconds truly had an impact on perimeter stars, we should see it immediately. It’s not like the illegal defense rule change where coaches took a while to “figure out” how to take advantage of the new rules. If there’s any effect, we should see it right away:

    — Top-10 scoring PG in 2004: 19.1 P/40, 7.5 A/40, 4.9 FTA/40, 19.0 PER, 43.7 FG%; Top-10 Scoring SG in 2004: 20.8 P/40, 4.0 A/40, 5.0 FTA/40, 17.6 PER, 42.9 FG%; Top-10 Scoring SF in 2004: 21.8 P/40, 3.4 A/40, 6.4 FTA/40, 18.9 PER, 44.3 FG%

    — Same PG in 2005: 18.6 P/40, 8.1 A/40, 5.9 FTA/40, 18.5 PER, 44.4 FG%; Same SG in 2005: 20.5 P/40, 3.8 A/40, 5.0 FTA/40, 16.9 PER, 42.3 FG%; Same SF in 2005: 21.3 P/40, 3.5 A/40, 6.5 FTA/40, 17.4 PER, 42.9 FG%

    — Summary of 2004: 20.6 P/40, 5.0 A/40, 5.4 FTA/40, 18.5 PER, 43.6 FG%

    — Summary of 2005: 20.1 P/40, 5.1 A/40, 5.8 FTA/40, 17.6 PER, 43.1 FG%

    Pretty gargantuan change, huh? Nope. As the results of these statistics show, the rule changes failed to legitimately affect high-volume, perimeter scorers. In fact, in three of the five offensive categories (including the all-in-one measure, PER), players actually got worse, proving that the change had no credible impact. The rule changes and especially the implementation of zone defense forced the ball to the outside, changing the style of play, but the specific rules, however, did not change the effectiveness of high-volume scorers, as shown be the before-and-after data. In fact, shooting guards (MJ’s position) had every single offensive statistic decline. It’s laughable that Jordan fanatics not only use this as an element of their argument, they often completely use it as their unmitigated manifestation of today’s players’ supposed inferiority.

    The hand-checking change was overblown for several reasons. Mainly, it was never that big of a deal in the first place. Hand-checking was used as an annoyance and as a crutch for tired players or lazy defenders, but it was never used as a serious tactic in any way. The league banned hand-checking in an effort to eliminate the annoyance with officials’ extremely inconsistent calls, and for the most part, that’s worked.

    Secondly, the new hand-checking rules were made completely obsolete by the new defensive schemes that were explained above. As you could see in the linked video clips, even if a wing superstar like LeBron James would have an easier time getting by his first defender (and there really isn’t a lot out there that shows this), he’s met with multiple defenders before he is able to even reach the paint, making that first blow-by totally irrelevant.

    Furthermore, the implementation of the defensive three-second rule was especially unrevolutionary because of the fact that the rule was already in place, ironically, as a part of the illegal defense rules. That’s what’s so amusing. Here’s one component of the illegal defense’s explanation in the NBA rulebook: “Weak side [meaning off-ball] defenders may come in the pro lane (16′), but not in the college lane (12′) for more than three seconds.” Basically, the rule was the same as it is now: an off-ball defender may not stay in the painted area for more than three seconds, unless he is guarding an offensive player or following a cutter. So, the league essentially repealed all illegal defense rules, but kept that one aspect. So, ultimately, there wasn’t really a change.

    Myth No. 3: The talent is inferior in today’s game

    The talent of today’s game is easily and apparently greater than it was in the famed decade of Michael Jordan. Not only are players better, but athletes are better. This is due to a number of factors, most that I’ll mention, but mainly one that is incredibly obvious: population increase.

    I’ll need to dumb down the numbers a little bit for you to get the picture, but trust me, you will. There are currently just over 7 billion people living on earth. In, say, 1995, there were about 5-and-a-half billion people. There was a 24.8% population increase between 1995 and the present. Now, if we dumb the numbers down a little bit in a more visible scenario, hopefully, I can explain it.

    Let’s represent it in this way: there are 100 people living your village in 1995, and only 10 people make your representative basketball team in the inter-village olympics (I know this is far-fetched, but stay with me here). In 2013, however, there are now 125 people in your village, but still, only 10 people make your team. Mathematically, the best 10 players out of a 125 will be better than the best 10 out of 100. The best 8% of players will be better than the best 10% of players.

    Your hypothetical village is essentially a microcosm of the NBA over the past 20 years. Yes, the number of players has increased slightly since the ‘90s, so the village scenario doesn’t exactly work. But the math still works out. I know this is hard to see or fathom its impact, but the best 0.0000037% of players (2013) are better than the best 0.000004% (1995). That may not seem like a significant difference, but it definitely is.

    There’s also another fairly simple analogy that we, as (hopefully) economically understanding Americans, can easily understand: supply and demand. Due to the immense star-power and excitement of the league, along with Michael Jordan’s fame, the league had grown unbelievably popular in America. The average NBA player as of 2008 was about 27 years old. The height of the NBA’s popularity, according to the NBA Finals’ TV ratings, was the late nineties, specifically ‘97 and ‘98. Therefore, the average player today was 12 or 13 years old and grew up during the height of the league’s popularity. Logically, this has led to more young players with aspirations to “be like Mike” and attempt to become a professional player. In fact, it’s probably accurate that this generation of players had the biggest and most aspirations to attempt to reach the league, perhaps creating a peak in talent.

    As far as the supply-and-demand analogy goes, the supply in this case is the number of jobs that the NBA has to offer; as I’ve shown, this number has stayed relatively constant. The demand is the amount of players attempting to reach the league, and the price is the level of talent. Due to the NBA’s increased popularity, the demand has gone sky high. The supply, however, has stayed the same. That dictates a rise in price, or in this case, talent. More players are trying to get to the league, and so logically, the cream of the crop will be better than it was 20 years ago.

    Finally, there is one more pragmatic, “undisprovable?” fact: the increased level of immigration among international talent. Jordan enjoyed the preliminary stages of international imports into the NBA, and even had a teammate in Toni Kukoc who was one of the first great Europeans in the league. There were a few great foreign players, such as Hakeem Olajuwon, but they were few and far between.

    Today, however, the global talent has increased tenfold, and there are more international players than ever: Nowitzki, Gasol(s), Parker, Ginobili, Yao, Nash, Deng, Duncan, Ibaka, Noah, Irving, and countless others. The players of the ‘90s, through no fault of their own, didn’t play against the caliber of international players that today’s do in today’s game, creating an easier environment for the stars of the ‘90s.

    The biggest gain that the NBA gets from this type of thing is athleticism. I know it may seem like a broken record if you’ve ever been involved in era debates, but the athletes of today are much quicker, faster, stronger, and bigger than they were in Jordan’s era. Jordan was guarded by the likes of John Starks and Joe Dumars — fine players, but not even close to being as athletic or as physically imposing as players like LeBron, D-Rose, Westbrook, Iguodala, Bledsoe, J-Smoove, or even Gerald Wallace.

    Before, it was a borderline miracle when a player took off and dunked from the foul-line. Today? That’s commonplace. It’s no big deal. That’s in part because it’s been done so many times since MJ, but it’s mainly because so many players have the athletic ability to do it.

    And I’m not full of ****, either. Everything from combine stats to the eye-test prove what I’m telling you: today’s players are both more talented and more athletic than the players of the 1990s. Now, due to the widespread embellishment of the ‘90s, you’ve probably never heard any factually proven data to back up these claims. Don’t worry, though; here, you’ll get the truth.

    Myth No. 4: Teams were better in the ‘90s

    No, clearly I don’t mean the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls. I think that team would win multiple titles in every era. I’m talking about the Bulls’ competition, which was weak. The Bulls would dominate any era, but they would not dominate any era like they did the ‘90s. It was the perfect storm. The perfect era of the right injuries, the right prospects never panning out, the right coaching blunders, but most importantly, the right expansion.

    There’s a reason that Jordan’s Bulls faced so many different playoff foes. None were good enough to stick around. Detroit, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Portland, New York, Phoenix, Orlando, Seattle, Miami, Utah, Indiana… Truly great eras of team basketball don’t have contenders cycling in and out. In great eras, there are mainstays — great teams that stick around. In the early years, there was the Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers; in the ‘60s, there were the Russell-led Celtics and the Lakers; in the ‘80s, there were the Lakers, Celtics, and Pistons (with Philly on the side); in the 2000s and today, there were the Lakers, Spurs, Celtics, and Heat. Each decade of true greatness in teams featured prominent, lasting, great teams. The ‘70s and ‘90s were decades of parity (excluding Chicago, of course). And the ‘90s was a decade of mediocrity — at least among teams. I’ll run down each legitimate “contender” that the Bulls faced in the ‘90s, prove why they were truly inadequate, and that should be that.

    Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons (1991): In Michael Jordan’s first great playoff run, he and the Bulls faced what was left of two of the greatest teams of the ‘80s. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago faced Detroit, who had beaten the Bulls in a seventh game the season before. This was not the same Detroit team, however, as Isiah Thomas battled an injured wrist throughout the series and Chicago easily swept the Pistons — Detroit: not a real contender.

    In the Finals, touted as a matchup of Jordan vs. Magic, the Bulls met the Lakers. In a similar fashion, though, this was not the same LA team, as Kareem had retired a couple years earlier; Michael Cooper wasn’t there; Byron Scott was forced to sit the final game due to injury; James Worthy was hobbled through the entire series from an ankle issue and also had to sit the final game; Magic was on the last legs of his prime; Pat Riley was replaced by Mike Dunleavy — Los Angeles: not a real contender.

    Portland (1992): In another Finals matchup described as a battle of two guards, Jordan’s Bulls and Drexler’s Blazers faced off. Portland posed a solid defensive unit, but their offense was completely over-reliant on Clyde Drexler. Other than Drexler, can you even name a good offensive player on that team? Terry Porter? Danny Ainge? Really? Drexler was a better fit as a sidekick anyway (as were fellow Dream Team members Malone, Ewing, and Robinson), and he didn’t even have one himself as a No. 1 option. This team had no real scoring options away from Drexler, and with Pippen and Jordan constantly harassing him and forcing him to shoot poorly, Portland just didn’t have the consistency on both ends to hold up to the Bulls — Portland: not a real contender.

    New York (1993): In ‘93, the New York Knicks took Chicago to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but had no real shot. While their defense was admittedly good, and they had a very good strategy (double MJ and trust that he doesn’t trust his teammates enough to pass), their offense was just too bad to compete. Their “no layups” strategy worked wonders on Jordan — he shot just 39% — but their offense lagged too far behind, as their regular season offense ranked 22nd out of 27 teams, and failed to reach the century mark in any of the six games. In reality, if Jordan had played this series smarter, it could have been a sweep — New York: not a real contender.

    Phoenix (1993): Barkley and the Suns basically won a rigged game (64 free-throw attempts!) to get past Seattle in a Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and face Chicago in ‘93. They had a very good offense, but its defense was relatively poor, and especially inept in guarding perimeter slashers like MJ. They had no great perimeter defenders (Dan Majerle was the only one with an all-defensive selection, and he was too… hmm, how do I say this? — white — to keep up with young Jordan), and their interior defense was notoriously horrible with Barkley and Tom Chambers — two big defensive liabilities, both particularly undersized for their positions, and Chambers being known as one of the softest players in the decade. As was the case with Drexler and Portland, the Suns were over-reliant on Barkley as their go-to scorer. And while KJ was one of the most exciting guards ever, he wasn’t even an All-Star in ‘93, and in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, he choked so badly that Westphal played Frankie Johnson over KJ in crunch-time of Game 2, giving up their home-court advantage and essentially ceding the entire series. Another case of a ‘90s team that had poor interior defense and only one offensive star — Phoenix: not a real contender.

    Orlando (1996): Horace Grant had joined the Orlando Magic after a three-peat with Chicago, and following a ‘95 win over the Bulls in the playoffs when Jordan came back from baseball, they felt that they had a shot to take down the 72-win Bulls. This was short lived, however, as Grant went down in the first half of Game 1 and wasn’t able to play for the rest of the series, and Nick Anderson went down in Game 3. Add this onto their already average defense, incredible youth, and lack of offense outside of Shaq or Penny — Orlando: not a real contender.

    Seattle (1996): Seattle had a pretty balanced roster and a good defense, but they had no real offensive star or firepower. In the Finals, the Sonics eclipsed 100 points just once, and in the rest of the series, their offenses posted games of 90, 88, 86, 89, and 75. That’s just not gonna get it done. No one else but Kemp could really score consistently, and even he had to work extremely hard against the defense of Dennis Rodman. Frankly, no one was beating this 72-win Bulls team, but the fact that MJ had a 22 point, 5-19 FG game to close out the series, and Chicago still won by 12 points proves that this Seattle team really had no chance — Seattle: not a real contender.

    Utah (1997, 1998): Utah was perhaps the most worthy Finals opponent for these Bulls in the ‘90s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually were worthy. Utah had a very good offense, but at best an average defense. They, too, had no real defensive presence in the paint, as their only legitimate frontcourt defenders over 6-foot-9, Greg Ostertag and Greg Foster, played sparingly. Malone was their stoutest frontcourt defender, and he’s about the size of LeBron James. Stockton and Malone are in my opinion two of the most overrated players of all-time, and Utah had no offensive options from there. When those two struggled, Utah was done. As Rodman handled Karl Malone so well in both Finals, Utah scored over 90 points just once in 12 games, and they scored a mighty 54 points in Game 3 of the ‘98 Finals. One more case of a ‘90s offense over-reliant on its star scoring and a non-existent defensive presence — Utah: not a real contender.

    Indiana (1998): A contender when Reggie Miller is your best player, really? Don’t make me laugh — Indiana: not a real contender.


    As you can see, Jordan’s Bulls weren’t met with a plethora of great teams, which is the common presumption. Due to three separate instances of over-expansion during Jordan’s era, most of the “elite” teams had only one or two stars and a bunch of role players, never more.

    Bob Costas to Larry Bird, “Larry, we know that this Bulls team is on the short list of the great teams of all-time, but what about the overall quality of the NBA in the mid-’90s?” Bird responded, “Well, I think the expansion teams have really hurt the league, and I think it’s depleted some of the talent in our league.”

    Bob Costas to Julius Erving, “Julius, one thing’s for sure, you had Larry and Magic to test yourselves against. There’s nothing comparable to that quality of competition at the top for these Chicago Bulls. Through no fault of their own, they don’t have the Celtics and the Lakers like you did.”

    Bill Simmons wrote that Chicago’s 72-win season came in the right era, citing it as “the league at its most diluted,” called 1994-98 “the weakest stretch of talent since the merger,” and also said this of the late ‘90s, claiming that if Seattle had stayed around and Kemp had matured, the Sonics could have controlled the latter part of the decade and possibly beaten out Jordan and Duncan or a ring — instead, we have the weak ‘90s:

    Really, the late-nineties Sonics should have controlled the West just like the Sampson/Hakeem Rockets should have controlled the late eighties. Then the McIlvaine signing sent Kemp into a tailspin, Houston’s teams with Barkley and Hakeem never quite gelled, Shaq’s Lakers didn’t put everything together yet … and suddenly those Stockton-Malone teams were title contenders. Ridiculous. …

    [The ‘96 Bulls] took full advantage of the We Overxpanded and Overpaid Everybody era (1994-99). Was it a coincidence that Chicago banged out 72 wins during the same season when (a) the Association expanded to Vancouver and Toronto and (b) six teams won 26 games or fewer (compared to two in 1986)? How do you explain why Utah averaging 52 wins from ‘91 to ‘93, then 61 wins from ‘96 to ‘98 … even though they had a worse team and their two stars were in their mid-thirties? You don’t find this fishy? As Bird told SI in ‘97, “The league is a lot more watered down than when I played, so if you have a star like Michael Jordan today, you rule the league. Once he leaves, things will level out.”

    In Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules, he also acknowledged the weakened level of talent, and this was published just in 1991. Smith explained, “Fewer and fewer NBA games were being decided in the last two minutes since expansion hit; the dilution of talent had weakened many teams and created so many have-nots that a team with talent, like the Bulls, would have an easy time many nights.”

    Simmons also acknowledged the considerable luck that they ‘90s Bulls had in opposing centers during their championship run that I keep alluding to. Despite the ‘90s being “the age of the center,” Chicago never faced a dominant big man in an important playoff series:

    The dirty little secret of Jordan’s six title seasons (twenty-four series in all) was his astounding luck with opposing centers: Ewing (four times), Brad Daugherty (twice), Alonzo Mourning (twice), Greg Ostertag (twice), Vlade Divac (twice), Mike Gminski, Bill Laimbeer, Rony Seikaly, Kevin Duckworth, Kevin Willis, Mark West, Shaq, Sam Perkins, Gheorge Muresan, Dikembe Mutombo, Jayson Williams and Rik Smits. He never battled two of that decade’s dominant big men (Hakeem and Robinson) and only faced the third one (Shaq) twice.

    The ‘90s were littered with young players with promise who never panned out due to drugs and increasing character issues in the mid-nineties, leaving teams that were lacking in real depth. The NBA started giving rookies way too much power and money — a few years before they smartened up and forced a rookie salary max — and many careers that would have thrived in Jordan’s era were affected, including Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman, Vinnie Baker, Larry Johnson, Glenn Robinson, Juwan Howard, Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Antoine Walker, Tim Thomas, Stephon Marbury, the list goes on.

    Bill Simmons also had to say of the late-nineties:

    The late ‘90s were the peak of the NBA’s Too Young Too Much Too Soon Era: too many young guys getting paid too soon, and handling it about as well as your average group of successful child actors getting their first fake IDs. This stretch was dominated by posses, tattoos, crotch-grabs, sneers, coach-choking and everything else; just a bunch of immature guys who carried themselves like superstars even though they hadn’t done squat. Really, 1993-99 was one of the two “Wasted Eras of Young Talent,” along with 1978-1986 (the coke era). …

    Piggybacking this point: We have an unusual number of older stars (Nash, Dirk, Duncan, Pierce, Kobe, etc.) extending their peaks; an unusual number of under-twenty-five stars (Durant, Howard, Paul, Rose, Rondo, etc.) coming through; and an unusual number of franchise players (LeBron, Melo, Howard, Bosh, Wade, etc.) seizing their primes and almost-primes. Why? Because potential stars rarely get sidetracked by drugs, money or injury anymore. They have a significantly higher chance of succeeding now. And for longer.

    In stark contrast is the teams of the 2000s and today. Due to conniving GMs, better drafts, and more freedom among free-agents, there are just better teams. There were the early Lakers, who were unbelievably loaded — one of the league’s best defenses, Phil Jackson, Shaq at his peak, Kobe, Malone, GP. Then there were the early Spurs — one of the best defenses ever, Gregg Popovich, Duncan, Robinson, Parker, Ginobili. Then the Kings — one of the league’s best defenses, Rick Adelman, Webber, Stojakovic. Then Dallas with Dirk and Nash. Then the Shaq-era Heat — Shaq, D-Wade, Alonzo. Then the Suns — D’Antoni, Amar’e, Nash, Marion, Joe Johnson. Then the Pistons — one of the best defenses ever, Billups, Hamilton, Wallace, Wallace, Prince. Then Dallas — one of the deepest teams in recent memory, Dirk at his peak, Howard, Terry, Stackhouse. Then the Lakers and Celtics — two of the greatest teams of all-time, Doc Rivers, one of the best defenses ever, Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Phil Jackson, Kobe, Gasol, Odom, Bynum. Then the LeBron-led Cleveland teams with one of the league’s best defenses. Then Orlando with the league’s best defense, Howard, Nelson, Carter, a plethora of shooters. Then the Bulls — Thibs, one of the greatest defenses of all-time, Rose, Noah, Boozer, Deng. Then the Heat — LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Birdman, Allen. Then Oklahoma City — Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, then Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Martin, one of the league’s best defenses. Then the Clippers — one of the deepest teams ever, CP3, Griffin, Bledsoe, Jordan, Crawford, Barnes, Billups, Butler, Odom, Hill. And more and more are emerging every few years.

  2. SK34

    SK34 Member

    Jan 13, 2012
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    Mythic** if anyone can change the name.
  3. Awesome

    Awesome Member

    Oct 31, 2008
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    Its not that defenses were better in the 90s. It was in fact harder on an individual from a personal standpoint because the zone crap now wasn't allowed and they weren't hidden by what would be faux help D.

    Guys were called for illegal defense for not making a decision on whether to double or stay with their man within a few seconds. They couldn't camp and not guard anyone just because.

    Also more contact was allowed, guys were able to push the ball handler off his spots a bit, hand check and pound guys much harder (these were grown men) with it just being a regular foul.

    I love how this article goes on about iso ball without mentioning how the league changed the rules over the years to benefit scoring in a lot of ways. That is the most glaring omission, and its a huge factor.

    Nice try
  4. legend215

    legend215 Contributing Member

    Apr 13, 2003
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  5. plutoblue11

    plutoblue11 Member

    Dec 13, 2006
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    Yet, they expressed their viewpoints, logically without sounding nostalgic or homer-ish.
  6. adobo

    adobo Member

    Jan 12, 2013
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    Oh gosh....not this crapola again.
  7. DreamRun95

    DreamRun95 Member

    Oct 21, 2013
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    Problem with people writing these comparisons is that they always have to write B is better than A or vice versa. Its never good enough to just appreciate that A can be just as good as B. I guess that is what generates the views.

    Still there are a number of holes in his assumptions. I'll just address one or two.

    He states that there are more talent in the league as world population has grown. Not entirely true. The developed nations have actually started to have population stagnation ie. US, Europe and that is still where most players are from. The developing countries like China and India which represent a significant portion of that population growth have not had any type of impact on the NBA other than driving merchandise sale and manufacturing. Yes China did produce Yao but since then have been looking for a replacement since.
    The first Indian player to arrive happened this year and it wasn't like there have been a continued influx of players from the sub-continent.

    Even the developing continent of Africa has not outproduced what was already there in the 90s. The 90s had Hakeem, Manute Bol and Mutumbo. Sure there has been the recent additions of Ibaka, Deng etc. but I wouldn't say we are exceeding the talent level from before.

    He goes and list these names : Nowitzki, Gasol(s), Parker, Ginobili, Yao, Nash, Deng, Duncan, Ibaka, Noah, Irving. Two names stand out. Duncan is from the U.S Virgin Islands and Irving with an American father moved back to the USA at the old age of 2. I wonder which olympic teams they played for?

    I'll put my 90's Hakeem up against anyone on that list other than Duncan and I'll like my odds. Can anyone say Homerism much ?;)
  8. adobo

    adobo Member

    Jan 12, 2013
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    Don't worry there is so many holes in there argument....knowing its from a couple of 15 year olds...not worth the effort
  9. Richie_Rich

    Richie_Rich Member

    Jul 17, 2009
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    Funny, never heard anyone refer to the 90s as the golden era.

    The 1980s however... magical.
  10. Steve_Francis_rules

    Dec 11, 1999
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    So the fact that none of the teams the Bulls played during their championship years could beat them means they weren't "true contenders"? Wouldn't that imply then, that every team that didn't win a championship wasn't a "true contender"?

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