Are Today’s NBA Players Soft?
I recently played in a High School Alumni basketball tournament. We played 4 games in a 24 hour period. Luckily we didn’t have to play through the Consolation Bracket, where the team we met in the championship game was playing its 6th game in 24 hours. By the final game, both teams were physically spent. It was a tournament of attrition and, after watching the last few years of the NBA Playoffs, it was a lot like playing in the NBA. The healthiest legitimate title contender wins.
Steph Curry, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin…all have fallen to injuries in this year’s Playoffs. Last season you had All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love watching their undermanned Cavs lose to the healthy Warriors team in the Finals. The Warriors took offense to Doc Rivers’ observation that the Warriors were “lucky” last season that they were so healthy. Now they understand a little better what he meant. Ironically, Rivers didn’t even have time to tell the Warriors “I told you so” before he lost his two top players not 24 hours after Curry went down. Health is everything. If you do not have your best players on the floor, it’s tough to beat the team that does.
Doesn’t it seem like more and more big time players are missing more and more games to injury? Do you wonder why players are talking more than ever about shortening the season or spreading out the games? Are you starting to see just how far ahead of the game Gregg Popovich has been with his “maintenance programs” over the years? If it feels like stars are missing more games, it’s because it is true. Over the last few years, I have tired of the “old timers” criticizing the current NBA players for being “soft” and pointing out that the change of the hand-check rule has made the game unwatchable because there is no defense. I’ve heard too many say that if you breathe on somebody you will be whistled for a foul in today’s game. I’ve heard it over and over that the NBA game isn’t as “physical” as it used to be. Well, I see it a little differently and the numbers seem to support my position.
It’s true that during the hand-check era there was more pushing and holding. There also seemed to be more slapping matches, and afterall, there is no better measure of how physical the game is than how many “brawls” there are where 7-foot men try to punch each other. It is also true that players were not as free to go to the basket when Gary Payton is hanging on their arms–it slowed the offensive players down. It is also common knowledge that playing defense with your feet is much harder work than using your hands to slow someone down. It is for that reason that I would argue that the game has gotten more physically demanding since the hand check rule was changed in 2004-05. Players are running faster, jumping higher, driving harder and less impeded to the rim, and hitting the floor harder than ever before. This season, the NBA’s combined Effective Shooting Percentage was .502, the highest in NBA history. This season also marked the highest average scoring output since 1992-93, set records for most three-pointers taken and made, and marked the lowest average Offensive Rebounds per Game (10.2) on record (a sign of long rebounds off long jumpers). Not only are teams shooting more threes, more players on each team are shooting more at every position. With the advent of the “stretch-big” (that didn’t even exist ten years ago), the game is more wide open than ever before which gives players attacking the basket more room to get up a full head of steam on their way to the rim and a greater likelihood of meeting an out of position rotating big to put him on the floor. The players are not “softer” than the players of yesteryear, rather their bodies are breaking down at a more rapid pace because of the speed and impact of today’s game.
The training programs, medical treatments, travel accommodations, and equipment have never been better. Yet, star players on average are playing fewer games than ever before. Looking at All-NBA level performers in two year periods: 2014-15 and 2015-16, 2004-05 and 2005-06, and 1994-95 and 1995-96, we can get a picture of what is happening.
|Average Games Played by Top 10 Stars||78||78.6||75||76.3||62.5||73.1|
|All-NBA Players W/82 GP||6||5||2||0||2||?|
Of All-NBA performers, it used to not be that uncommon for a player to play in all 82 games. This year, maybe James Harden will make the All-NBA team, but no other All-NBA performers played in every game this season. Top players are much less likely today to play in all 82 games. In fact, when you look at top 10 stars from those years, the average number of Games Played has dropped significantly over the past two decades.
|Michael Jordan||17 (Retired)||82|
|Average||78 (excluding MJ)||78.6|
If you think I hand-picked these players for the purpose of to prove a point, remember I could have chosen DeMarcus Cousins and his 65 and 59 games over Andre Drummond’s 82 and 81. Don’t like that I included ironman John Stockton as a Top 10 “star” from those two years to boost my averages and prove a point? Forget that he was 1st Team and 2nd Team All-NBA and All-Defensive Team over those two seasons and led the league in assists both seasons, and let’s replace him with perennial All-NBA player, Gary Payton and his 82 and 81 games. These players are just examples and represent the era. Players today are hurt much more than players even two decades ago. Do you think it’s because the athletes have inferior shoe technology, braces and pads, or training regimens? Do you think it’s because they are less athletic or just more accident prone? It’s the same 82 games. Players are averaging roughly the same number of minutes per game. Now, are teams more cautious in protecting their multi-million dollar investments than they were in the 90’s, absolutely. But, everyone is trying to win and players want to play whenever they can. An MCL sprain is what knocked out Karl Malone in his lone Finals with the Lakers. I don’t think many 90’s point guards would have played with a broken shooting hand. I don’t think there are many players from any era who wouldn’t have missed time with Paul George’s broken leg or Kevin Durant’s Jones fracture. I would submit more players miss more games because the game itself has gotten more physical. Now when I say more physical, I do not mean that the players engage in more physical contact (read pushing and shoving), but rather the game is more physically demanding because of the rules. The explosiveness, spacing, speed, and jumping ability we see in the NBA today is greater than anything we have ever seen in decades past.