Examining past NBA players complaints that “all this new music sucks”

Posted on November 15, 2017

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The NBA is an anomaly in the sports world. It’s the only major sport where past players routinely criticize current players, in terms of the ability of current players to play in the past.

Old NFL players from 20-30 years ago don’t consistently show up on television saying “If those guys played back when we did, they wouldn’t be able to handle it.” Nobody in baseball says “Pshh, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander would have gotten rocked in the ’80s.”

It’s not so much the style of play as it is the sheer obviousness of the physical difference now compared to decades ago. Like Odell Beckham, Tom Brady, or Adrian Peterson aren’t going to have a hard time back then. While a curveball which goes from heaven to hell (Kershaw) or a 100mph ninth inning fastball (Verlander at his best) are timeless.

It seems no current NBA player is off limits though. One of the freakier NBA athletes of all-time, Lebron James, has even been said to have been average back then.

Let’s take some various looks at the NBA now compared to ~30 years ago, and see if there is any credence to this. This will provide the basis for current NBA players wanting less back to back games, while past players call them divas. We’ll see who we should be siding with.

Height

Over at SeatSmart.com the author did a nice job compiling these graphs. Height over time in the NBA:

basketball height over time NBA

Despite the bashing of contemporary small ball, NBA players are no smaller than they were two to three decades ago. They’re as tall as ever. (Note while the graph seems to make big jumps, the jumps are from one inch to another.)

Weight

average weight nba players over time

Compared to the mid 80s, we’re talking about a 10 pound jump here. Let’s use another source as I don’t know where SeatSmart got their numbers from. According to basketball reference:

basketball reference height and weight over timebasketball reference height and weight over time 2

These are a bit higher than SeatSmart. 15 pounds heavier since 1980, though no change in height. 10-15 pounds may not sound like a lot, but 7% heavier is enormous when we’re at the professional athlete level. These are guys (the top dogs at least) who will usually have their weight so dialed in, they don’t want to be more than a couple pounds plus or minus their sweet spot. 10-15 pounds overall says we have some bigger, stronger dudes out there.

While style of play is a different matter, physically, if anything, the NBA has not become more small ball oriented. It’s bigger ball oriented.

Vertical Jump

This one is tougher. The only solid numbers I can find go back to 2000. We’ll only use players who were drafted. That way we don’t decrease the average by using a bunch of vertical jump numbers from non-drafted players. (Players we’d assume aren’t jumping as high as drafted ones.) Because of this, the best numbers only go back to 2001.

Using draftexpressI find the average,

  • 2001 vertical jump with no run up = 29 inches
  • 2001 vertical jump with run up = 33.67 inches
  • 2017 vertical jump with no run up = 31 inches
  • 2017 vertical jump with run up = 35.7 inches

16 years later and we’re jumping a couple inches higher. Again, doesn’t sound like much, but it’s another seven percent difference. Bring us back another decade or two, and we would likely add another 2-3 inches. We’ll call it a five inch difference.

-> One way to rationalize this is 16 years ago players were lighter, that is, less muscular. Go back another couple decades from this, and they’re again lighter. Vertical jump performance is heavily dictated by relative strength. More muscle yet still as lean tends to = greater jumping ability. This is why NFL guys jump so much higher than NBA guys. 

Points per game

Using basketball reference again:

nba points per game over time nba points per game over time 2

Compared to 2015, some years were less, some years more. There’s no trendline moving upwards though, indicating “it’s too easy to score” nowadays. Or that “nobody plays defense.” (We’re only one or two steals shy and there are just as many blocks.)

Minutes per game

Looking at the top 100 players for minutes per game, in 2016 I count 23 players currently playing in the top 100. That’s 23% for the history of the NBA.

However, for the last 30 years there is no doubt in the last few there has been a little downturn. The leader per year has gone down by about two minutes compared to thirty years ago:

basketball players nba minutes per game leader by year

Two minutes per game. What pussies these young pups are, right?!? Even if guys are bigger, faster, stronger nowadays, which you know, is going to make them more tired per minute played. A cheetah gasses out faster than an antelope because it’s faster.

This is where we go back to our 7% heavier, and at least that much jumping higher in today’s players. This is what THREE PERCENT difference looks like at the highest levels of sport:

One percent:

Not even a drunk Charles Barkley would say those races were close.

Thus, physically, on average, past NBA players are not close to current ones. Therefore, they can’t criticize them when they want more rest. They can’t relate to how much more tired guys get nowadays due to higher intensity.

The greater absolute intensity a human can put out, the greater recovery they need from that output. A kid can go all out…then do it again five minutes later. An adult at the highest level can’t do that. They may require days, if not weeks, to recover from a single output.

If you’re the NBA, catering to this player desire is the smartest move you can make. The NBA, more than any other sport, is star driven. The number one priority of the NBA is to then maintain the health of its stars. Giving them more rest helps your number one priority. (In contrast to the NFL, where if ratings weren’t falling, they’d probably be contemplating Tuesday games and 30 game schedules.)

Social Media

Since those old timers hate analytics so much, let’s use a non-number metric. How much harder is it being a professional athlete nowadays personally than the days of yore? How would Gary Payton’s trash talk of bringing up an opposing player’s family member DUI go over? (Last year the internet FREAKED out over Draymond calling Lebron a bitch.) How would Michael Jordan being Snap Chatted in Atlantic City fly? How many more games would Dennis Rodman have been suspended? The old time Bulls say they’d kill the Warriors, yet Rodman would barely be able to stay on the court. How killed would Scottie Pippen be, when he was so tough that when finding out he wasn’t getting the ball on the last play, he refused to go in the game? We have one angle of when Charles Barkley spit on a little girl, how many more, and subsequently how much would he get crushed, if that happened today? That genuinely may have been a season suspension right there.

I’m no Lebron fan, but the guy has had to watch his every move since he was 14 years old. All considered, he’s done an extraordinary job. Nobody cared about Jordan until he was in his 20s.

“Just don’t be on social media then,” but it’s not just the player either. Steph Curry has to worry about his wife’s Twitter, like after she complained about some calls in the Finals. His sister had someone talk shit to her about his daughter, Riley, telling her and Riley to “get the eff out of Cleveland.” A 29 year old guy who happens to have the name Riley Curry revealed the nasty tweets he gets, intended for a three year old. Steph was dealing with this in the middle of the NBA Finals!

There is no doubt the NBA used to be more physical in its style of play. There is no doubt the NBA is harder on personal lives now.

Less physical means you need to be more skilled

Again, no doubt the NBA used to be more physical. But go back and watch interviews with players then, like Michael Jordan, and listen to what he says about Bill Lambeer and Larry Bird. How they did dirty stuff to make up for a lack of physical ability and skill.

Some players nowadays would not be able to deal with the physicality of then, sure. Some players from then would not be able to deal with the increased skill of today. Lambeer would be fouled out of games by halfway through the first quarter.

You didn’t see seven footers hitting three pointers on a regular basis back then.

Starting player age (for stars at least)

Another big criticism is top college players leave college too early today, causing them to be less skilled. This is an asinine argument. Basketball is a sport. A sport where you can lose everything in one play. To voluntarily risk an extra two years of your body to play for free, when at 19 years old you can in one paycheck have enough for the rest of your life, is stupid. One could easily argue financially irresponsible. The old timers can say whatever they want; they wouldn’t do things differently than these guys now.

-> Scroll back up. The average age of a NBA player hasn’t budged. This isn’t a valid argument anyways. For some of the potential superstars, sure. For the average NBA player, it’s not.

Throwing that argument out, the main argument then is it is harder for these new comers to the NBA now than then. They’re younger with less experience and more scrutiny.

And a hell of a lot more competition

The 80s had about 25 teams. We currently have 30. Fifteen roster spots * five teams = 60 more players. Salaries have gone up by like 20x. While the population has gone up by about a hundred million people. That’s just America! The game is more global now. You have millions more guys competing for barely more roster spots. Logic says more players, more money, means the average player is better now than ever.

Geriatric history

I was never a history person. As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve realized there is a lot of value in studying it. You often find humans have been complaining about the same problems for a hundred years, yet the world has generally gotten better. You also learn a better sense of the moment. Typically, on any given day, we’re embellishing what’s currently going on. Positive or negative. We tend to act like any given event has no precedent. We’re narcissistic when it comes to our time period.

Due to randomly falling into an older gym when I first started personal training, I’ve had a lot of older clients. Look, many of them have been awesome. However, history shows it is a rule of human nature the average older person feels an incessant need to crap on younger people. I suppose this is evolution speaking, likely because of an inferiority complex. For example, an old basketball player can’t play like a younger person can, so they crap on the younger person psychologically instead. Whether an everyday fan, after hearing these arguments, said to themselves “You know, that old dude is right. Kevin Durant didn’t have to walk to school! I’m going to buy the old dude’s jersey from 20 years ago instead of Durant’s” is unknown, but unlikely.

In other words, older people are arguing something which,

  1. Little can be done about. We can’t go back in time.
  2. Is often not even true.
  3. It’s hard to see the point of.
    1. They complain the world was harder and now it’s easier. Who made it easier??? (Them!)
    2. Is Lebron James supposed to start every interview with “I want to first say, I know the game is not as physical as it used to be.” Do older people want continual praise of their accomplishments? Sounds like a sense of entitlement…

Again, this isn’t new. A hundred years ago Max Planck said “science progresses one funeral at a time.” Luckily, sports, while subject to this criticism, is not subject to its effects. Older people can hold back science with op-eds. They can hold back progress because people still think their opinion should take priority, even if what they discovered happened fifty years ago. (See: Einstein.) That doesn’t hold back athletes. The old fart gets dunked on ten times in a row? He can rant and rave about young people all he wants, but he’s getting cut. Particularly in the NBA, where the players -the younger people- have an unusual amount of power.

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Posted in: Sports