As NBA observers debate whether the 2017 Golden State Warriors are the best team ever, temporal chauvinism has reared its ugly head. That’s the topic of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Would this year’s Warriors beat the 90s Bulls? Gotta ask because you have experience with both. People are saying Steph would crush Jordan. I think it might be so but what do you say of the older generation haha!
(sigh) They say you’re only as old as you feel and you’re making me feel old now. Knock it off!
I’ve seen this argument whipping around Twitter and it appears to divide across generational lines. The youngsters are (predictably) thinking that they invented air and the older folks are (predictably) claiming that the only legitimately good things the world has ever seen happened back in their day. Having multiple aging superstars claim that their pet teams would whomp the Warriors in 5 hasn’t helped.
I got a question for all of y’all, maybe the only question that really matters: If we could magically bring these teams together, whose rules would they play by?
We’re more than a decade on now, so it’s not surprising that people are forgetting that defensive rule changes in the early 2000’s also changed how the game was played. The most significant alteration—the one that shifted the NBA from a shooting guard’s league to a point guard’s—was the elimination of hand-checking. This has a direct bearing on the matchup you’ve offered: Michael Jordan vs. Steph Curry.
Plenty of guards were quick back in the “old days”. Some of them were as quick as anybody today. They didn’t always get to demonstrate it because opposing guards were allowed to put their hands all over them. With a guiding nudge and corralling grip, a larger guard could compensate for most things a smaller, quicker guard could do. If he couldn’t stop the waterbug, at least he could keep enough contact to make use of longer arms and higher leap when the shot attempt came. If Jordan came up against Curry in the old days he’d put mitts on him, steering him into the teeth of the defense on the drive or shadowing him on the shot. Steph doesn’t have the body mass to compensate. Nor would Curry—or any slighter guard, no matter how athletic—be effective on the other end against Jordan. They could touch Michael any way they pleased. He’d back them down for the turn-around or just bowl over them.
Make the teams play by modern rules and the story’s different. Jordan wouldn’t be a slouch on defense but he couldn’t keep up with Steph laterally. Size and mass would work against him, as would Steph’s three-point shooting. Steve Smith was famously quoted as saying, “Step up, I’ll lay ya. Step back, I’ll trey ya.” Curry would do the same, just at a quicker tempo.
Jordan was an indomitable competitor and he’d adapt to this league easily if he grew up in it, but if you just time warped him for a game or two, Curry would look good on offense and Draymond Green could probably keep Michael from returning the favor wholly on the other end. That’d leave the Warriors at an advantage.
That said, guard vs. guard isn’t where the difference in eras would show up most. Older era teams would have a devil of a time with new-era forwards like Kevin Durant. Their power forwards were 6’9’, muscle-bound post players and rebounders. They were tough but they weren’t equipped to chase a fleet, springy 6’11” (7’3” wingspan) player out to the three point line or stop him off dribble drives or pick-and-pops.
Then again, modern centers would have trouble dealing with strong, 7-foot centers sporting honest-to-God, Pete Newell moves in the low block. Today’s athletes could certainly bother the initial shot but guys like Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon had so much junk in their trunk that they’d leave today’s leaping defenders strung out in the air on their way to a layup off a secondary move. Tim Duncan was a throwback to the Age of Fundamentals and he messed with opponents pretty much as long as he played in this league, including the current era.
Given the improvements in conditioning and the full utilization of the three-point shot, I have to believe that on average, teams from today would prevail over teams from bygone times. But I would not discount the ability of particular superstars to warp those averages. No matter how cocky you are, never bet against the best players of all time. I’d take the Warriors in a single game against any squad that wasn’t prepared for modern rules and sensibilities. Give those great teams of the past a season to adjust, plus maybe an ancillary trade or two to modernize their frontcourts, and the story might be different.
As usual, we’ll open this up to those who differ. Does the modern era so eclipse everything that old legends can’t really compare, or do names like Jordan, Magic, Bird, and Dr. J still carry weight? Have it out below. Maybe even construct an ideal old-time team to take on he 2017 Warriors if you think it’s possible. Meanwhile, keep those Mailbag questions coming to email@example.com!