The NBA of today is not the NBA of yesterday. This is a refrain so common and so ubiquitous across all sports that it has been largely sapped of meaning, capable of covering everything from the length of the shorts to the advent of overseas talent to the brand of footwear being worn. Most often, it seems to refer to the perceived softness of the players in the game today — typically when flagrant fouls are concerned. Sometimes, though, it’s talking about how we talk about basketball.
When Charles Barkley went all Charles Barkley (playing up to the resident cantankerous uncle in the NBA family landscape) about analytics last year, it was rightly portrayed by Grantland’s Bryan Curtis as part of the argument between athletes and sportswriters over who can really talk about sports, in a way that is either smarmy, snide, or simply dismissive, depending on how the comments are delivered. What’s lost in all the discussion and the search for meaning is the ways that analytics have always determined the way basketball is played.
Watch a team like the Houston Rockets on any given day that ends in -y during the 2015-2016 NBA season, and you’ll notice a dearth of midrange jump shots. Houston is the most extreme example of this, a squad dedicated to the three-pointer, the foul shot, and the layup, but most NBA teams are headed this way in the present day, and it’s been a noticeable (read: bloggable) trend for a few years now. Players aren’t encouraged to get the ball in low, to a Kevin McHale, or to make space for a wing scorer like Jordan through the use of the triangle. What Chuck and his ilk are missing is the fact that offensive innovation, combined and spurred on by the way the rules have evolved and the ways teams have evolved to compensate for existing strategies, through analytic discussion is nothing new.
Above is a scene from the 1948 Olympic Men’s Basketball tournament. If you suspect that this is about to be an illustration of the evolution of the game since then, covering the scope of the game on both sides of Barkley’s career, you’re correct. Well done. The point: We know what basketball looked like back in the earliest days of the NBA thanks to the wonders of YouTube. It looked like this.
In case you’re not able to view that footage, know that it features more sophisticated passing and playing than you might expect from footage spanning 1939 to 1967. The offenses, actually, bear more resemblance to today’s game than the iso-heavy, grinding game favored by today’s pros and many of the creakiest armchair shouters. There’s some footage of Kareem’s play at UCLA when he was still Lew Alcindor, and he looks dominant as usual. The defenses are mostly non-extant, which allows us to see how a player like Bill Russell would have been able to come in and dominate — which, of course, he did by blocking shots.
Russell’s Celtics are the winningest team in NBA history, and even the most rudimentary, too-skimpy-for-Wikipedia discussion of those teams will center on the defense. Everyone who was there talks about it, and Russell’s notoriety for turning a block into a fast break is so commonplace among hoop heads that it’s a given. The guy blocked shots. He played tremendous defense. He also entered the league in 1956, retired in 1969, and watched the league begin to officially track his signature play in 1973. In other words, the NBA decided to start evaluating players a different way in order to more properly capture what was happening on the court. Sound familiar?
Pictured, from left to right, are former Houston Rockets Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier, Louis Scola, and Chuck Hayes. We talked about the Rockets earlier, and while the franchise has achieved notoriety with Dwight Howard and James Harden selling jerseys, the team’s analytical approach goes back at least to this squad. Maybe no one emphasizes that better than Chuck Hayes, who was profiled by the New York Times as “The Mite in the Middle” back in 2010, but Shane Battier, who was dubbed the No-Stats All-Star by that same paper a year earlier, might give him a run for his money.
Just five or six years ago, players like Battier and Hayes would get approving head nods and adjectives slung at them from fans and fellow players alike — speaking of Hayes, the Houston Chronicle got his teammates on the record using the words “favorite,” “amazing,” and “perfect” to describe his game, among other laudatory statements of purpose — but today they’re opinions that can be expressed by the casual fan as a high Win Share or a good VORP, value over replacement player. That doesn’t change their value in the slightest, it simply expands the vocabulary we can use to describe it.
Pouring over the internet for vintage basketball games is something that isn’t weird. At least, it’s not weird for us, since we’re mainlining sports all day every day, and one of the things we came across while prepping for this piece was Game Two of the 1986 ECQF between Jordan’s Bulls and the ’86 Celtics. The greatest player and one of the greatest teams, head to head. You can watch the whole thing (albeit with Russian dubbing) here. Again, this is one of the stand out performances from one of the best stars against one of the most heralded teams ever.
And it looks so wrongheaded. Coming from the NBA of 2016, where efficiency is the name of the game and the three point line is guarded religiously, the first two shots come from Jordan and Larry Bird, and they’re contested midrange shots, taken instead of hitting the open man on the perimeter. While we know, in that intuitive and awestruck sense that, hey, this is Larry Legend and His Airness doing the shooting, it’s still a bad shot by today’s standards, even in the hands of an NBA legend.