Robinson’s Words Echo Critiques From Former NBA Players
By Ian Smith
The NBA does a great job of celebrating its history, and past players always seem to remain connected to the league in some way or another after they’ve retired.
A trend that has been occurring in recent years is that NBA legends have been speaking up about negative traits of today’s NBA.
Coincidentally, it seems to be coming from players whose skill sets aren’t being demonstrated as much in the current state of the NBA.
David Robinson recently lamented at the poor shot selection in today’s NBA, and focused much of his frustration on the reliance of perimeter shooting over establishing presence inside.
The San Antonio Spurs legend pointed out the lack of inside-outside strategy of modern NBA offenses. The game has changed, and Robinson is from the old-school philosophy that championship teams are built with interior stars.
Usually when years of empirical evidence is proven wrong, there’s a natural backlash from those who based their beliefs on it. There was once a time when a championship team always had a dominant post player, and now that rule has been shattered not just by the Golden State Warriors last season, but the Miami Heat teams lead by LeBron James.
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Charles Barkley is also frustrated with trends of today’s NBA. Barkley has been a vocal opponent of the Warriors’ style, and at this point it looks increasingly foolish the more he clings to seemingly outdated beliefs. A jump-shooting team can win a championship, and it will happen again this year, whether the Warriors or the Cavaliers hoist the trophy.
Oscar Robertson also seems to have similar distaste for modern basketball. He made snide remarks earlier this season about how basketball is so bad nowadays compared to when he played. He emphasized a lack of defense and overly-simplistic offenses.
Robertson’s critiques seem to be rooted in something different than Robinson and Barkley’s remarks, but it still speaks to a common discontentment in today’s league.
It’s interesting that this criticism isn’t coming from former players like Reggie Miller or Dennis Scott. The loudest disapproval comes from players who no longer see a place for themselves in today’s NBA.
It’s ridiculous to be threatened by change like this, not just because it’s inevitable, but because it doesn’t take away the accomplishments of guys like Barkley and Robinson.
It’s kind of like a “chicken or the egg” argument: did the NBA morph into a perimeter game due to a lack of quality big men? Or did philosophical alterations and different types of players coming into the league create an environment where 3-point shooting is valued more than it once was? Which came first? What lead to what?
Perhaps the cause of the revolution could indicate how organic the transformation was, but it’s upon us whether you like it or not.
Robinson surely notices that many big men in the league today prefer to shoot perimeter jumpers instead of bruise inside for points in the paint. Spacing is more emphasized in today’s NBA compared to when Robinson played.
It finally occurred to tacticians that a big man who could stretch the defense opened up driving lines for quick perimeter players to cut to the hoop.
Not to mention that analytics finally caught on to efficient ways to score points. The guy who discovered that shooting 40% on 3-pointers was equal to shooting 60% on 2-point field goals deserves a Nobel Prize.
It’s as if the NBA played for decades without realizing the weapon it had on its hands. The 3-point line was originally viewed as a gimmick from the ABA days. Now it’s an essential part of winning a basketball game.
If that indirectly takes away inside scoring from post men or makes the game more finesse than it once was, then that’s simply taking advantage of a rule that makes a basket worth more points if it’s shot behind the arc.
It’s disheartening when past players make disparaging comments about where the game has gone. Imagine football players from the era before the forward pass criticizing the NFL today because of how the ball is allowed to travel downfield.
It begins with the premise that “when I played, the game was better than it is now.” It’s certainly different, but preference depends on what type of basketball is the most enjoyable for you to watch.
Do an experiment: next time a game from the 1990s is on either ESPN Classic or NBATV, sit down and watch it. Some noticeable characteristics differ compared to today. For one thing, it’s a lot slower and more lumbering.
Teams operate mostly out of their half court offense, and plays seem designed to dump the ball into the post and let the best interior player try to score on isolation plays. Spacing is nonexistent, the lane is constantly clogged, and the defense looks much rougher.
Every hard foul in today’s NBA seems to be reviewed for a flagrant. During Robinson and Barkley’s era, a player hitting the court was simply a foul, barring extreme circumstances like a fight breaking out.
Of course this is a generality and will slightly differ from team-to-team within that era, but typically the game looked completely different than it does now.
Is slow, rugged basketball better than quick, finesse basketball? Guys like Barkley and Robinson seem to prefer the former, because that’s the era and style they thrived in.
It’s why comparing players from different eras is a frustrating tale of futility, because players succeed or fail within the context of the league they inhabit.
Would a feathery perimeter guy like J.J. Redick get pulverized in the NBA of 1996? Maybe, but it’s just as likely that he’d be hitting 3s at his same rate and be even more dominant, because the other team wouldn’t have anybody remotely capable of matching him from beyond the arc.
Would a gigantic, hulking center like Gheorghe Muresan dominate the low block in the NBA of 2016? Maybe, but it’s just as likely that his lack of quickness gets exposed on pick-and-roll switches and he ends up clogging the lane for his team on offense with no outside game to keep his man honest.
The opinions of legends like Robinson and Barkley will always be respected, but their evaluation of today’s league comes off with a strong hint of resentment. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Those guys are beloved, and players today are beloved, too. They each help tell the story of a great league. No bitterness is necessary. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson aren’t trivializing the NBA game of 20 years ago, so it’s unclear why past legends are so threatened by a constantly changing league.
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Maybe we’re all doomed to fall victim to nostalgia for simply nostalgia’s sake. Basketball has changed a lot over the years, but its essence remains constant, and the players of the NBA act as artists who contribute a small piece to the mural as they pass through.