Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Progression of the NBA Over the Last 30 Years

Due to popular request I've decided to write this blog post regarding the progression of the NBA over the last 30 or so years.  It doesn't take a basketball genius to see that there have been some obvious changes in the game of basketball, but how do these changes affect the players today?  Hopefully this post will be able to answer a few questions that you may have and educate those who are curious about the changes.

Before I start I'd like to say that I am not 'hating' on the NBA or those responsible for the changes, I am merely an observer of the game and am presenting facts and statistics to support what I'm saying. 


One of the major changes in the NBA over the last 30 years is the decline and eventual removal of hand-checking in the NBA.  For those of you who don't know what hand-checking is it's being able to exert physical force on a player using your hands, regardless of whether they are on the perimeter of in the post.  Tex Winter (responsible for the refining the world famous 'triangle' offense) describes hand-checking as a "freedom of movement initiative."

Note the defender's left hand pushing against Jordan's chest, physically detaining him from driving to the basket.

Again, note the defenders left hand pushing Jordan's chest. (1993 NBA Final)

Hand-checking was eventually removed from the NBA at the end of the 2004 season.

As stated by the website
  • 2004-05 - New rules were introduced to curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to open up the game.

(I'll cover the defensive three second rule later)

Well what affect has this had on the game I hear many of you saying.  One season after the total removal of hand-checking (2005-06 season) the NBA recorded its worst defensive season since its beginning in terms of defending perimeter players; ten players averaged above 25PPG (points per game), see below.

Points Per Game Leaders
1. Kobe Bryant - LAL  - 35.4
2. Allen Iverson - PHI  - 33.0
3. LeBron James - CLE  - 31.4
4. Gilbert Arenas - WAS - 29.3
5. Dwyane Wade - MIA - 27.2
6. Paul Pierce - BOS - 26.8
7. Dirk Nowitzki - DAL - 26.6
8. Carmelo Anthony - DEN - 26.5
9. Michael Redd - MIL - 25.4
10. Ray Allen - SEA - 25.1

I believe that this sharp increase in scoring is due to the removal of hand-checking (amongst other things).  To give you an idea of how big an increase this is currently (23/02/2013) only 5 players in the NBA are averaging over 25PPG.

Kevin Durant - OKC - 28.9
Carmelo Anthony - NYK - 28.4
LeBron James - MIA - 27.2
Kobe Bryant - LAL - 26.9
James Harden - HOU - 26.4

Additionally, in the 2004 season a big man; Kevin Garnett led the NBA in both total points and points in the paint, the following season a perimeter player led the NBA in total points (Tracy McGrady) and a perimeter player also led the NBA in total points scored in the paint (Tony Parker).

The Three Second Rule
Another big thing the NBA has done in order to increase the amount of scoring, especially of that of perimeter players, is the introduction of the three second rule.

2001-02 rules changes state:
• Illegal defense guidelines will be eliminated in their entirety. (Zone defence is now allowed legally in other words)
• A new defensive three-second rule will prohibit a defensive player from remaining in the lane for more than three consecutive seconds without closely guarding an offensive player.

2004-05 Rules changes state:
- "… and call defensive three seconds to open up the game."

For those of you who do not play basketball and don't understand the concept of "the three second rule"; currently a defensive player cannot be in the 'key' (the painted area under the basket) for more than three seconds unless he is guarding an opposing, offensive player.  When a player is close to being inside of the key for three seconds he must leave the key (therefore providing an open lane to the basket if you will.)

Why is this so big? Because as the rules changes state it "opens up the game."  Previously to this a player would not have been able to drive towards the basket for a dunk of layup when in the half court set at will because an opposing player such as a power forward or centre would have been waiting for him to disrupt his shot attempt.  However, in today's game an offensive player can now drive past a defensive player on the wing (now with much more ease due to the curtailing of hand-checking) and attempt a layup or dunk with a reduced (not total) chance of being disrupted.

This leads me onto my next point; the lack of big men in the NBA.  There is currently a myth going around that the NBA much now is taller then it's ever been.  This is simply not true.

Height in the NBA

(,_weight,_age_and_playing_experience )

Below is a table taken from Wikipedia regarding the average height of NBA players over the years.  The orange represents the three seasons with the highest average height and the blue represents the three seasons with the lowest average height.

The average height of NBA players season by season

As the table shows the average height for an NBA player went below 6"7 in 2006 and the two seasons from 2006-2008 are the seasons in which the NBA was at its smallest.

Personally, I'm not going to use the reduction in 1 or 2 inches on average to prove that the NBA has become "softer" than in the 80s or 90s, I merely included that to destroy the myth that many people believe.  However, what I will say is that there are a lack of big men in the NBA today, and this I have evidence for.

The 2013 NBA All Star Weekend just passed and this was the first All Star Weekend in which people were not given the opportunity to vote for a centre, why? Because the NBA removed the centre position from the all-star balloting.  Surely this shows that there are not enough high quality centres in the NBA today?

Furthermore, it is common knowledge that the NBA has become more ethnically diverse in recent years and consequently there has been an increase in the number of European players (especially big men).  These European players such as Pau Gasol (Spain) and Andrea Bargnani (Italy) are notorious for being able to shoot better from mid range and three than the typical post dominating centre.  But wait, being able to shoot is to do with offense I hear you say and yes, you are correct.  

However this means two things.  One, it forces the opposing centre to leave the key and defend on the perimeter (thus leaving the key open).  Secondly in order to be a decent shooter from mid range and from three point range you have to be leaner and carry less muscle mass than a typical post 'pound it inside' centre.  

As an example I'll take Pau Gasol - who many claim to be the best shooting big man in the game today, and Dwight Howard - who many claim to be the best overall centre as well as most athletic centre in the NBA.  For those who are not aware of the noticeable size difference; Pau Gasol is 7"0 tall and weighs 250 pounds where as Dwight Howard is an inch shorter at 6"11 and weighs 15 pounds more at 265 pounds.  It would be foolish to draw a conclusion about the entire NBA from only two players however I believe that these two show the general rule in that big men who play in the post weigh more than big men who play further away from the basket.

Changes in Shooting Percentage
One of the more overlooked things when it comes to the advancements of the NBA is the way in which FG% is measured.

During the 80s and 90s a missed shot, even if the player was fouled still counted as a missed field goal.  However, in today's NBA the same missed shot when a foul is called does not result in a missed field goal.

For example: If Clyde Drexler was to drive to the basket for this first shot of the game, get fouled, and miss his FG would be 0-1.  Whereas in today's NBA if LeBron James was to take the same shot while being fouled in the act of shooting and miss his FG would be 0-0.

Taking this into consideration leads us to two things:
1. What would today's players FG% be like under the old FG% marking system? (I predict it would decrease)
2. What would the 80s and 90s players FG% be like under today's FG% marking system? (I predict it would increase)

Remember, this is just taking into consideration the way in which FG% in marked.  We have yet to add in hand-checking, the 3 second rule and much tougher defences and centres.

Are Defences Tougher Now?
As I covered before in the hand-checking section the removal of hand checking led to the NBA's worst season for defending perimeter players.  Although scoring has slowed down since then it is common knowledge that players score a lot more then they did when compared to twenty or thirty years ago.

One thing that cannot be disputed is that today's defences are not as physical as previous.  One only has to look at best defences of the past such as the 'Bad boy Pistons' and 92 Knicks when compared to top defences today such as the Miami Heat and San Antoni Spurs to see that there is a difference.

Defensive techniques such as wrapping, hand-checking and even mauling have all been removed from the game.

In the 2011 off-season the NBA introduced a rule that states if contact is made with a player while he is at full extension when attempting a layup or dunk then an immediate flagrant foul is given to the defensive player.  Rules such as this are responsible for defences being less physical than twenty years ago.  It is worth noting that defences are more sophisticated now than before due to the advancements in technology and better coaching, but I don't believe that these single advancements are enough to out-weigh the changes in the game of basketball.

Adding all this together; the removal of hand-checking, the addition of the three second rule, less physical defences and the lack of big men in the game today leads us to only one conclusion; it is easier for perimeter players to perform at a high level today than compared to in previous years.

I took the time to explain all of this because I feel that it is drastically overlooked by many NBA fans and the media when it comes to comparing the current players to the past ones.  Many times the media will hype up an achievement without putting it in proper perspective.  An example of this is LeBron's recent run of 6 games shooting over 60% while scoring 30 points or more.  Yes, LeBron is to be commended for shooting efficiently and reading what the defence gave him and adjusting accordingly, but it is important to put into perspective the circumstances which he did it in.

Hopefully this blog post has educated you in the changes of the NBA, although it seems that I might be bashing the NBA there have been many positive consequences to this, for example, the increase in marketing for perimeter players that has lead to more people becoming interested in the NBA.

Although I generally dislike using quotes from NBA players and coaches I will leave you with some regarding the changes of the NBA.

During a 2007 L.A. Lakers pre-season broadcast, Phil Jackson was asked how he thought Michael Jordan would perform today, Phil said: "Michael would average 45 with these rules."
MJ also says due to defensive rule changes like hand checking, if he played in today's NBA, dropping triple digits would be reachable for him. “It's less physical and the rules have changed, obviously” says Jordan. “Based on these rules, if I had to play with my style of play, I'm pretty sure I would have fouled out or I would have been at the free throw line pretty often and I could have scored 100 points.”

"You can't even touch a guy now," says Charlotte coach Larry Brown. "The college game is much more physical than our game. I always tease Michael [Jordan], if he played today, he'd average 50." 

“The history book inspires them to be some of the best,” said Jordan. “Rules have changed to help them. I could have averaged 50 points today!”

Question for Clyde Drexler:
"In the current league where there is no hand checking and no ruff play how much better would your numbers be?"

Clyde Drexler: "Oh, tremendously better, from shooting percentage to points per game everything would be up, and our old teams would score a lot more points, and that is saying something because we could score a lot back then. I do think there should be an asterisk next to some of these scoring leaders, because it is much different trying to score with a forearm in your face. It is harder to score with that resistance. You had to turn your back on guys defending you back in the day with all the hand checking that was going on. For guys who penetrate these days, it's hunting season. Yes, now you can play (floating) zone (legally), but teams rarely do."

"The defensive rules, the hand checking, the ability to make contact on a guy in certain areas [have] all been taken away from the game. If Kobe could get 81, I think Michael could get 100 in today's game." Scottie Pippen - January 2006

Hall of Famer Rick Barry, a keen observer of the game, said he would love to see players of the past getting to attack the basket under the new officiating. “They’d score a lot more,” he said.

Tex Winter said. "Players today can get to the basket individually much easier."

Asked if he could defend Jordan under today’s interpretation of the rules, Dumars first laughed, “It would have been virtually impossible to defend Michael Jordan based on the way the game’s being called right now.”


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