For the billionth time, some of the venerable NBA players of the past insist that the world was better in their day. This sentiment is now coalescing around the argument that the 2015-16 Warriors couldn’t beat their old teams. Here’s the current rundown of wet blankets and how much of a point they each make on a 0-to-10 scale (with 0 being pointless and 10 being irrefutable truth):
–Oscar Robertson: The Big O complained that the modern coaches don’t play tight enough defense on Stephen Curry. Robertson asked: “don’t you want to extend your defense out a little bit? I just don’t think coaches today in basketball….They double-teamed me an awful lot during my career. I look at games today, and they’ll start a defense at the foul line. When I played, they were picking you up when you got the ball in bounds. So it’s a different strategy about playing defense.”
Robertson was an unbelievable star and probably would’ve been a star today but his argument here is quite weak. In fact, defenses (and coaching in general) have gotten much more sophisticated since the 1960s. Moreover, teams guard Curry really deep. The problem is that if you pick him up full court, he will drive by you because his handle is incredible and he can shoot of the dribble from 30 feet [note that while writing this article, Curry hit 12 threes to beat the Thunder in one of the best games I have ever seen]. So, how much of a point does Robertson make? On our scale, we give the Big O a big 0.
–Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Kareem argued that Curry has an advantage because modern players play less physical defense. In some senses this is accurate. The NBA has steadily reduced the ability of perimeter defenders to hand check penetrators and thuggish intimidation has also been reduced by more stringent ejection/suspension rulings. But this argument is also not totally true. While the NBA allowed more physical play in the 1970s and 1980s, most teams played at a fast, less defensive pace.
Indeed, for most of that time, the standard small forward was a slashing scorer or undersized post-up player, who was not great defensively (see Orlando Woolridge, Mark Aguirre, Bernard King, Kiki Vandeweghe, Dominique Wilkins, Mike Woodson, Kelly Tripucka, etc.). It wasn’t until coaches realized that you might get more efficient teams with more versatile small forwards (Scottie Pippen, young Dennis Rodman) that defense got much tougher in the 1990s. As for the ability to physically intimidate, Kareem, himself, would probably admit that the NBA is much better today when teams can’t take gratuitous shots at star players (who could forget Abdul-Jabbar knocking out Kent Benson in frustration of being continuously hit?). So, how much of a point does Kareem make? On our scale, we give Kareem a 3. Defense was more physical because the rules were different, not because the players were somehow better at it.
–Cedric Ceballos: In a radio interview, Ceballos was asked whether his 1993-94 Suns could take the current Warriors. Ceballos said his Suns would win, noting that the Warriors couldn’t guard Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge, Kevin Johnson, and Tom Chambers (who wasn’t actually on the 1993-94 team). Before reviewing Ceballos’ contention, we’ll afford Ceballos the benefit of the doubt that he meant the 1992-93 Suns, who were a good deal better than the 1993-94 edition.
For a quick review, the 1992-93 Suns won 62-20, had 6.27 SRS (third in the NBA that year), and lost to the Bulls in the Finals. Phoenix was the best offensive team in the NBA (113.3 rating) and solid enough defensively (106.7, 9th). The current Warriors play under very different rules defensively but here are their current vitals: 53-5, 10.68 SRS, 114.5 offensive rating (1st) and 103.1 defense (5th).
It would be unbelievable to watch the Warriors play in a shootout against KJ and Barkley but SRS shows the Warriors as much more dominant. Of course, SRS is calculated relative to one’s competition. If the game was played today, you have to wonder if the Suns could guard under the modern rules (Majerle couldn’t hold people on the perimeter like he did back then) and the Warriors surely would’ve defended really well under laxer rules of 1992-93. In short, the Warriors look like a clearly better team. We can understand Ceballos’ defending the honor of his old team but a Suns win is not a likley outcome. So, how much of a point does Ceballos make? On our scale, we give Ceballos a 2. The old Suns probably would not beat the Warriors but they do deserve to be remembered as a really good team.
Stephen Jackson: The mercurial S-Jax said in an interview that the 2006-07“Warriors would beat today’s Warriors team. I guarantee that. I guarantee that.” Jackson also mentioned that his team had more “heart.” The Warriors had a nice moment. They went 42-40 before upsetting the 67-win Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. They won that series through an interesting confluence of events: (1) Don Nelson went small and Avery Johnson wasn’t sure how to adjust to this (he started Devean George at center). That strategy would be less effective against Draymond Green, (2) the 2006-07 Warriors got really hot from three against the Mavs. In particular, Baron Davis, Jackson, and Barnes shot 42-93 from three (.452%) that series). This was sort of a fluke. They followed that up with 28-91 (.308%) the next round in a 4-1 loss to the Jazz, (3) they stopped Dirk Nowitzki somehow (actually Jackson and Barnes both did a great job bodying Dirk that whole series).
So, how much of a point does Jackson make? On our scale, we give Jax a -10. Unlike the 1992-93 Suns, the bravado here is not understandable. The 2006-07 Warriors played hard but they were a .500ish team (in fact, they were below .500 by expected win-loss) and were below average defensively. If Jackson wanted some props for his playing career, he should’ve argued his 2002-03 Spurs were better than the 2015-16. This also wouldn’t be true but, at least, it would past the straight face test.