Many of us spent the NBA hiatus watching games from the NBA’s past. I know I have. I have watched games as recent as the Spurs OT win over the Rockets this season (Lonnie Walker IV’s coming out party) and as distant as Pistol Pete Maravich’s 68-point game in a 1977 win over the Knicks by the New Orleans Jazz. (As an aside, when I am President, I will require teams to return their team names to their rightful home city, starting with the Utah Jazz — the embodiment of an oxymoron.) While nothing is as good as live basketball, watching those classic games from the NBA past gave basketball fans some solace while we waited for the “real thing” to return.
Now we have live games, including Thursday’s exhibition game between the Spurs and the Bucks. Others will surely write about the odd feeling of the game, with no fans in the stands and great plays being followed by . . . silence. I want to write about something else: a comparison of classic games from the past with the modern game now re-opening in an odd new setting in the Orlando bubble.
An initial point: I have often gotten frustrated watching the modern game. I like watching offenses where the ball moves, players move and the result of that movement is a good — or great — shot. To pick a team at random — the 2014 Spurs. However, I don’t like watching offenses where one guy dribbles forever, perhaps coming off a high pick and roll, and the remaining players stand around waiting to see if the dribbling player happens to pass the ball to them so they can launch a three-pointer. To pick a team at random — the 2017-2020 Rockets.
In my memory of the classic games of the past, I remember the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s and the Spurs of the late 1990s as more akin to the joy of the 2014 Spurs than the misery of the James Harden-led Rockets. When I watched those classic games live, in the 1980s and 1990s, I very much enjoyed watching them. Now though? We just didn’t know any better.
Compare it to television technology. Every time the technology improves, we can’t believe we used to watch games that were not in color, or non-HD, or didn’t have the score on the screen at all times. Watching those old games, we are forced back to blurry games with no score on the screen, and worst of all, Don Musberger and Tommy Heinson as announcers.
But more surprising to this long-time basketball fan was the quality of game itself. Let’s talk about the Showtime Lakers first, beginning with the 1979-1980 Lakers — Magic Johnson’s rookie season. That season started with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky-hooking the game-winner in Game One, Magic jumping on Kareem in celebration, and Kareem saying “Get off me, rookie, this is game one of 82.” The season ended with 1979-1980 MVP Kareem injured and out of Game Six of the Finals in Philadelphia. Magic jumped center and went for 42/15/7 in what might be the best single game by an individual ever played, all things considered. As a Lakers fan (in those days), I thought that this Lakers team was the pinnacle of hoops. And it was — in those days.
But looking back with my modern eyes, the game played by that team does not hold up as well as I remember it. Watching the game before teams learned the “three is worth more than two” math was fascinating, and frustrating. After the ball crossed half-court, for most of the remaining 24 seconds, all ten players from both teams parked themselves well inside the three point line. No one on offense “spread the floor” by standing outside the three-point line. As a result, none of the defenders were more than 15 feet from the basket. It was darn crowded in there.
Think about how defenders now play against guys who can’t shoot, like Rajon Rondo. Defenders play five feet off him when he has the ball, go underneath every screen, and his defender packs the paint when he doesn’t have the ball. The defensive teams in 1980 did that for almost every player, including Magic, who was a non-shooter when he came into the league. The defensive team would much prefer giving up an 18-foot jumper than allow the offensive team to throw a pass to a player closer to the basket.
When the offensive team passed the ball to someone in the post, the defensive team would double (or triple) team that player. The “closer to the basket” guy would then either try to score through and over two or three guys, or kick the ball back out to the guy 18 feet away — rarely passing to the opposite wing. That player would then either shoot or, more likely, try to jam it back into the nine-player scrum in and around the paint. In the Lakers first game of the season, they made no three-pointers. The Lakers made the same number of threes — zero — in their last game of the Finals. Magic led the team in three-pointers made in the regular season with seven — less than one for every ten games played
I also re-watched Game Seven of the last Showtime Lakers championship, in 1988 against the Isaiah Thomas/Joe Dumars Detroit Pistons. Spoiler alert: The Lakers won. But other than running the ball up the court every time, even after made baskets, the Lakers offense (and the Pistons) was remarkably stagnant. The Lakers offense was designed to pound the ball into the post, where Kareem, Magic or James Worthy tried to take their man one on one. All the while, the players filled five spots — one player on each block, two on the wings, one at the point. No one was cutting, moving, screening off the ball, or exchanging positions. There were no dribble hand-offs, or back screens, or elevator screens for a three pointer shooter, or lob passes to a baseline cutter. Even the player feeding the post from the wing or corner would stay in the same spot when his defender either doubled the post or hedged halfway down.
I also watched the Spurs first championship over the Knicks in 1999. While teams had started to take a few more threes by this time, and learned to completely clear the side where a post player was trying to score, the offenses remained stagnant compared to today’s game. As proof, when the Spurs finally dispatched the Knicks in Game Five to win the series 4-1, the final score was 78-77. The Spurs did not score more than 20 points in any quarter, but won anyway. (The 2014 Spurs averaged over 26 points per quarter against the Heat.) The Spurs offense was designed to get the ball inside to the Great Tim Duncan (who scored 31) and the Admiral (who scored 15). Spurs point guard Avery Johnson rarely shot at all, though his baseline jumper in the final minute turned out to be the game-winner.
Modern basketball has so much more player and ball movement. For one thing, there is often only one player in the post, freeing up the paint for cuts and drives. Indeed, in the Bucks-Spurs scrimmage, the Bucks often had no one on the block, and stationed their 7-foot tall centers well outside the three-point line.
The offensive revolution (which was in fact televised) began with the triangle offense of the Bulls and Lakers. Although the triangle seems stodgy today, it featured player and ball movement, with the ball changing sides several times before going inside. The Utah Jazz offense of those days also featured a fair amount of player movement, highlighted by the John Stockton-Karl Malone pick and rolls and the other players (like Jeff Hornacek) running off screens while the defense focused on Stockton/Malone. Those offenses evolved into the culmination of team basketball, with constant ball and player movement, in the Big Three Spurs teams of the last decade. Even the scrimmages going on now, with players not having been together for months, feature more offensive movement and good shooting than the classic games of my youth.
So now that the NBA has returned, appreciate the quality of the play, and how enjoyable it can be to watch (for any non-Rockets games). As Carly Simon sang — For NBA offenses, these are the good old days.