clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the NBA Has Changed in the Last Three Decades

A Blazer's Edge reader asks about the biggest changes to hit the NBA since the days of Clyde Drexler and company. We chronicle them.

Mail call! Let's get to it.


Simple question. You've been watching the game for a minute. What are the biggest changes you've seen? For perspective I grew up with Clyde Drexler and Jerome Kersey and today's basketball looks somewhat familiar but only somewhatThe Biggest. Can you quantify the major changes since back in the day?


Another fantastic question! We're on a roll this summer. If you'd like to add your submission, send it to

4 significant changes stand out in my mind between now and the "old days" you mention.

The Hand-Check Rule

This is the biggest rule-based shift over the last 30 years. I doubt that can be argued. Prior to 2004 offenses were isolation-based, driven by huge physical specimens who could score over smaller opponents. We don't even have to name the exemplars; you know them by heart: Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, and yes, Clyde Drexler.

Point guards were important in the isolation era. They set up the scorers, provided outlet shots to keep defenses honest, made sure everybody stayed happy. Occasionally a multi-faceted (Isiah Thomas) or hyper-athletic (Allen Iverson) point guard would play the role of primary scorer as well, but you could get away with less scoring and athleticism as long as your ball-handler had brains and experience.

The point guard position revolutionized after 2004. Suddenly smaller, quicker players found themselves unimpeded as they gained steam towards the hoop. Layups, step-backs, and pretty dishes around collapsing defenses followed and the era of the Star Point Guard was born. Point guard isn't just a position on the team anymore, it's the position. Start with Steve Nash and continue through a half-dozen bring young point guards today...more than we've seen than at any time in the history of the league.

If 6'5" defenders were still allowed to hold dribblers in place with one hand past the three-point arc, you wouldn't see as many 6'2" guys becoming superstars. Instead the success of modern point guards has caused the shooting guard position to morph into PG-Lite. It's no longer uncommon to see a pair of 6'4"-and-under offensive wizards playing side by side with the 6'5"-6'7" guys who used to rule the league find themselves stuck as wing position tweeners.

Emphasis on the Three-Pointer

The Clyde Drexler teams you mentioned attempted 565, 904, and 944 three-pointers respectively in their 3 seasons of peak success. Last year's Trail Blazers attempted 2231, barely shy of matching all 3 Drexler seasons combined. Damian Lillard alone attempted more threes last year than the entire 1989-90 NBA Finals squad. (He hit more too, 196-190.)

The growing popularity of the three came side-by-side with advances in statistical analysis. From the moment the three-point arc came into effect analysts were trumpeting the "33% on threes = 50% on regular shots" mantra. The math took a while to sink in. As the old guard gave way to a generation raised on stats, the three-pointer came into vogue.

The final four teams in the 2015 NBA Playoffs ranked 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 6th in the league in three-point attempts. 8 of the top 10 three-point attempt teams made the playoffs. All 10 of the Top 10 three-point percentage teams (and 13 of the Top 15) reached the post-season.

The death of the isolation set and the advent of the mobile, scoring point guard contributed to this trend. Point guards take threes--off the dribble and off screens--but they also dish. In a stand-still offense a deep-shooter's defender was more likely to stay home while whomever held the ball was more likely to pound it inside and shoot. With everybody in motion, including and especially a quick dribbler with passing ability who commands extra defensive attention, finding an open-stand-still three is as simple as finding a seam.

Emphasis on the three has also contributed to...

The Evolution of Big Men

The classic power forward stood 6'8"-6'9" tall, sported a ripped physique, played with his back to the basket and rebounded like a fiend. Centers measured near 7'0", weighed a ton, and prided themselves on post footwork and short jumpers. Neither needed to be fleet of foot. Any offensive production from them beyond 15' it was luck or an accident.

That type of player is nearly extinct in today's NBA. Big guys still have the physique--they're in better shape, in fact--but raw strength and size are devalued compared to the ability to cover ground on defense and make the opponent do the same on offense. Big-man superstars today--Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love--run, shoot, and dunk like old-time shooting guards. A whole host of also-ran bigs clock in at 6'10"-6'11" and boast sweet-looking face-up jumpers. Today's bigs stretch and move around defenses rather than bull over them. If a center exhibits great footwork and earns a dunk from an iso post play, you're pleasantly surprised. Most of them can't. When the ball stops, so does their offense.

The absence of the Next Great Center (in the classic Ewing-Olajuwon style) isn't due to a deficit of talent alone. Nor can injuries explain it entirely (though huge players do seem to have trouble keeping their joints and power platforms intact in a more mobile, vertical style of play). Rather 7-footers are picking up different tool belts and filling different job descriptions than did their predecessors. Back-to-the-basket offense now shares billing with screen setting, floor-running, and the stretch jumper. There'd still be room for Top-50-All-Time centers in today's league, but the average lumbering Joe camping near the lane would be perceived as clogging the offense more than helping it out. And woe be unto him if he couldn't get back on defense in time to stop his man from dunking on the secondary break.

The Prominence of Free Agency

Free agency had existed in some form since the 70's, but 1988 proved a watershed moment for player freedom and mobility. The 1998 Collective Bargaining Agreement opened the doors for unrestricted free agency...the ability of a player to choose his place of employment.

As with the three-point rule, the power of this change took time to catch on. The "Tracy McGrady to the Orlando Magic" circus--technically a trade, but forced by McGrady's unwillingness to remain with the Toronto Raptors--made big news in its day. Nowadays we get 2-3 of those every free agency period and half a dozen more threatened.

Players are more aware of the power that free agency gives them and more willing to exercise it than ever before. Their power comes not just in signing with new teams but forcing trades and/or forcing management to accede to their demands via threat of departure. LeBron James is the poster child for this generation. He'll make an art form of keeping front offices stretched over a barrel for the rest of his career, his talent and continuous short-term contracts keeping the threat of him walking if he's not happy front and center.

Players also employ--and publicize--diverse criteria for choosing their teams. Loyalty and dollars remain among the top, but joining it are chance to win (often in combination with other free agents forming "Super Teams"), comfortable environment, proximity to home and family, and presence of friendly teammates. You couldn't blame Karl Malone and Gary Payton chasing elusive championship rings in the waning days of their career. Now players in their primes conspire to do the same in the city, and with the teammates, of their choice.

As a result, NBA free agency has taken on all the hallmarks of college recruiting, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake with a single signature. If loyalty ever was defined by uniform, those days are passing. It's now a contractual matter. Allegiance lasts as long as terms do. After that it's anybody's guess where "your" player will end up.

San Antonio remains a throwback and a few other franchises have enough marquee credibility to paint themselves as premier destinations. Outside of those 4-5 cities, the age of the lifelong franchise superstar may be over. Reality didn't always live up to that image (Bill Walton and every prominent member of Drexler's Blazers left Portland before their careers were through) but the dream of the career-spanning superstar buoyed generations of young fans for decades. Those fans have to face reality younger now. The star player they dreamed of emulating at age 5 will likely be wearing somebody else's jersey before they hit puberty. Welcome to the New NBA.

What changes would you name in addition to these? Add to the list in the comment section or reflect on the topics we've already brought up. Do you like the way the NBA has gone? What would you bring back from days of yore if you could?

Thanks, Eugene my friend! Everybody else remember to send your questions to

--Dave / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge