Are Today’s NBA Players Soft?

South Summit High School Alumni Tournament Champs.
South Summit High School Alumni Tournament Champs.

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.

Curry Ankle
Curry, just the latest star to miss time for an injury.

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.

Nothing like a couple of 7-foot basketball players trying to fight
Nothing like a couple of 7-foot basketball players trying to fight

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.

1994-95 1995-96 2004-05 2005-06 2014-15 2015-16
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.

2014-15 2015-16
Lebron James 69 76
Kevin Durant 27 72
Steph Curry 80 78
Russell Westbrook 67 80
Kawhi Leonard 64 72
Paul George 6 81
James Harden 81 82
Chris Paul 82 74
Blake Griffin 67 35
Andre Drummond 82 81
Average 62.5 73.1

2004-05 2005-06
Shaquille O'Neal 63 59
Lebron James 79 80
Steve Nash 75 79
Dirk Nowitzki 78 81
Tim Duncan 66 80
Kobe Bryant 66 80
Dwayne Wade 77 75
Carmelo Anthony 75 80
Kevin Garnett 82 76
Allen Iverson 75 72
Averages 75.0 74.8

1994-95 1995-96
Michael Jordan 17 (Retired) 82
Scottie Pippen 79 77
David Robinson 81 82
Karl Malone 82 82
Anfernee Hardaway 77 82
John Stockton 82 82
Hakeem Olajuwon 72 72
Grant Hill 80 80
Charles Barkley 68 71
Reggie Miller 81 76
Average 78 (excluding MJ) 78.6

John Stockton
Jazz fans took it for granted that Stockton played all 82 games in 17 of his 19 NBA seasons.

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.

2 thoughts on “Are Today’s NBA Players Soft?

  1. It’s because the players weigh more. Do some research into that. Players have a much higher BMI today than that of 20 years ago. So do people in general. Having a low body fat percentage but a high BMI doesn’t mean you are healthy. A high BMI regardless of fitness level makes you more prone to injury illness and premature death. The athletes are so big, not tall, but heavy that they are getting injured much more frequently. Tendons, ligaments and joints simply can’t withstand the forces placed on them. If you look at studies where force in the knee joint is calculated, every 10 pounds gained is 45 pounds of increased pressure in the knee joint…regardless of body fat percentage. Sorry but there isn’t enough strength training in the world that can make your muscles, let alone your joints, ligaments and tendons 4.5 times stronger. Like the rest of America, athletes have gotten too big and they are paying for it in every sport. Doping runs rampant in every sport; literally every sport in some form or fashion. Being big isn’t healthy and athletes and body builders are paying for it with pain killer addictions, destroyed bodies and decreased life spans. It’s time to make a change and emphasize athleticism instead of size and accountability for the long term health of athletes.

    1. I don’t disagree generally, but in the NBA, the last two seasons, the average NBA player was 216.1 and 213 lbs respectively. In 2004-05 and 2005-06 the averages were 219.8 and 216.5. In 1994-95 and 1995-96 the averages were 213.2 and 220.8 lbs.

      I think overall the NBA has traded in the Anthony Mason’s and Charles Oakley’s of the world for Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson. Long and lean that can shoot is taking over from the big banger in the post. Look at the Jazz’s Center position over those time spans: From Ostertag, to Okur, to Gobert. Each one almost the same height, but they are getting lighter and lighter. Look at the injuries from the last few years: Curry, Irving, Paul, Love, Griffin, Paul George, These are not heavy athletes. Love has lost 20 pounds from his days in Minnesota and is leaner than he has been in his entire career. He got hurt on a dirty play. Griffin may be using something that contributes to his injuries, but the others are just freak injuries and they seem more common than ever.

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