1. Back In My Day, Part 50: Charles Barkley is a fun character. He isn’t stupid but shoots from the hip with his opinions and can say things that sound right but sometimes aren’t. On the subject of whether the current Warriors could beat the old Michael Jordan Bulls, Barkley said the following on ESPN Radio: “The Bulls team would kill this little team….Who is going to guard Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan? What about Dennis Rodman?…[The Bulls] would love playing the way the Warriors play. It’s a much easier game now. Could you imagine hoq many points Michael would average if you couldn’t touch him? Dennis would get so many rebounds against that team. They are a very small team.”
It is a fair point that Jordan and Pippen would enjoy the less touchy defense of today but the Warriors would very much enjoy the closer three-point line that the Bulls had in 1995-96 and 1996-97 (and still didn’t shoot great). The Warriors might not be able to guard Jordan (nobody ever really could) but doesn’t Barkley wonder that the Bulls would have Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, or Randy Brown on Stephen Curry? Pippen was a great player but Andre Iguodala/Harrison Barnes isn’t exactly terrible matchup for the Warriors. As for the size issue, the Bulls weren’t exactly big. They had a few bigs (Luc Longly and Bill Wennington) but these were not guys who were great rebounders or defenders. I would think Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli would not have big problems playing against them. Finally, Rodman was tough but he was the same size as Draymond Green and a much less complete player. This is not to say the Warriors would definitely beat those awesome Bulls teams but there is very good argument that this Warrior team is the best of All-Time relative to its peers.
Barkley’s comments are proof how quickly conventional wisdom creeps with a bias against the recent. Similarly, in 1995-96, the notion that the Bulls might be as good as or better than the Larry Bird Celtics and Magic Johnson Lakers was scoffed at by many old timers. For an illustrative example, take Peter May in his 1996 book “The Last Banner,” about the 1985-86 Celtics. The book is excellent and May knows as much about the NBA as anyone. In the end of the book, May does an analysis of the top five teams of All-Time. May asked the old Celtics if they were better than the current players and, perhaps not shockingly, the Celtics thought there was no comparison.
May and the old Celtics both felt the NBA had declined in quality due to expansion by 1995-96. May wrote: “the talent in the NBA is so diluted that teams that would otherwise be considered ordinary are winning championships. Are the 1994-95 champion Houston Rockets even better than the [the 1985-86] Rockets [who played the Celtics in the Finals]? One thing is certain: neither of those [1990s] Houston title teams confronted a team as good as the 1985-86 Lakers in the playoffs.”
Did the Rockets have an easier path to the title in the 1990s and did they play a team as good as those Magic Lakers? Let’s take a look…The 1985-86 Lakers were 62-20 and had an SRS of 6.84. The 1993-94 Rockets beat the Blazers (47-35, 2.59 SRS), the Suns (56-26, 4.68 SRS), the Jazz (53-29, 4.10 SRS), and the Knicks (57-25, 6.48 SRS). The 1994-95 Rockets beat the Jazz (60-22, 7.76 SRS), the Suns (59-23, 3.85 SRS), the Spurs (62-20, SRS 5.90), and the Magic (57-25, 6.44 SRS). The Jazz were better than the Lakers and the Knicks and Magic were pretty close.
For a comparison, the 1985-86 Celtics beat the Bulls (30-52, -3.12 SRS), the Hawks (50-32, 2.59 SRS), the Bucks (57-25, 8.69 SRS), and the Rockets (51-31, 2.10 SRS). Strictly by SRS, the Celtics played only one really good team. The Bulls were terrible and the Hawks and Rockets rated as worse than the worst team the 1990s title Rockets beat over that two-year span. The Bucks were great in 1985-86, though they fail the other “test” May invoked—namely that a team is only great if it has multiple Hall of Famers. The Bucks had a few really good players (Paul Pressey, Sidney Moncrief, and Terry Cummings) and good role players but no one transcendent enough to pass May’s test.
In addition, May assumes that players were just better in the 1980s: “Even the mediocre teams in the mid-1980s were tough. The Bullets and Nets had rosters full of quality players. They just didn’t have enough great ones.” The Nets had some talent but were done in by Micheal Ray Richardson’s drug issues that year. Washington in 1985-86 didn’t exactly look a team that would play well in 1995-96 (led by decent pros like Jeff Malone, the other Cliff Robinson, and an older Dan Roundfield).
In fact, the assumption that expansion hurt the league ignores the more likely reality that the pool of good NBA players expanded quite a bit from 1985-86 to 1995-96 between the improved training, popularity of the game, and the rise of foreign players. In the end, somehow, the 1995-96 Bulls didn’t even make May’s top five teams ever. Well, since that time conventional wisdom seems to be that the old Bulls were the best team ever. At the very least, the notion that they weren’t one of the top five teams ever would be considered ridiculous.
This is not to say that the 1985-86 Celtics aren’t the best ever or that the 1995-96 couldn’t beat the 2015-16 Warriors. Rather, it is a reminder that Barkley needs to take a step back and remember that things weren’t always better back in the day.
2. Old Man Usage: In watching Kobe Bryant struggle through his final season, many have wondered why he can’t customize his game to be a little less volume shot oriented. Could Kobe be valuable if he accepted his limitations and played a smaller role? Maybe. But boy does he love to shoot. This made me wonder whether Kobe’s usage was really as crazy as it seems from watching the games.
In 2014-15, Kobe threw up a ton of bricks and his usage was 24th in modern history, ahead of, among others, great players in their primes like Michael Jordan in 1992-93. Kobe’s 30.6% usage, so far, is the highest of any player at least 37 years old (MJ’s 2002-03 season is second at 28.7). When you lower the line to 35 years old, Kobe’s 2014-15 and 2015-16 are the two highest usages and the only that exceed 30%. Of that group, Kobe’s true shooting percentage was worse than nearly all the older payers (even below 1999-00 Dennis Rodman) except 1991-92 Vinnie Johnson. In fact, Kobe’s usage last season was higher than it was during the first Laker title run in the early 2000s.
In short, Kobe has been shooting way too much. We all know this but the numbers highlight how egregious his gunning has been these past two seasons. The numbers also tell us that it is evident that Kobe can’t play any other way. Hopefully, his body recovers enough from the last two seasons of traumatic injuries to bump up his play so his last season isn’t quite so ugly. In either case, it is clear that Kobe can never stop being the big shooter whenever he is on the court, regardless of the results.
3. Hack-A-Sucks: Last year, we looked at the intentional fouling issue and concluded the following: (a) the tactic destroys the flow of the game and is not fun to watch and (b) intentionally fouling someone off the ball, who is not anywhere near the play, is not the type of strategy that should be protected. Since that time, the NBA decided to leave the rule as it currently stands. Adam Silver stated that he thought it was an interesting strategic decision and a lot of executives and players felt strongly that a change would reward players who couldn’t adjust to a basic skill.
In 2015-16, intentional fouling has only proliferated. As Kevin Pelton wrote in an excellent recent article, the number teams intentional fouling has apparently expanded exponentially. It is not clear that the strategy always works as intended but it totally destroys the flow of the game and coaches are willing to keep trying it. Recently, Jeff Van Gundy also ranted about this issue, noting that the fact that intentional fouling is not allowed at the end of games is a tacit admission that the strategy shouldn’t really be permitted when the game is on the line.
Perhaps the strongest illustration of this point came from watching the Christmas games. The Spurs fouled the Clint Capela or Dwight Howard on most possessions down the stretch. The strategy turned inance when LaMarcus Aldridge attempted to grab Capela with about two minutes left in the game. Aldridge tried to grab Capela before the two minute mark (after which Houston could choose its shooter). The refs had to go to the monitor to see if the foul beat the “buzzer.” Alas, Aldridge was slightly late in fouling Capela. The Rockets were able to put James Harden on the line for one shot and the ball (Harden actually missed shot). You don’t need a statistical study to realize that such situation was unwatchable and should be fixed.