When athletes enter middle age, they are obligated by the terms set forth in the contracts they signed as players, to bitch and moan about the current state of their chosen sport and prattle on about how much better it was when they played. We shall refer to this as the Barkley rule, in favor of the Hall of Fame power forward who's always got something to say.
Earlier this week, Barkley said the NBA is the "worst I've ever seen it." That was in response to Tracy McGrady's dumb remark that Steph Curry's unanimous MVP nod was a sure sign that the league is "watered down." These are only the most recent examples of NBA old-timers grousing about the way things were. Here's Scottie Pippen's entry. Here's Dennis Rodman's. And then there's Michael Jordan, who has suggested only four modern players could have cut in his era.
The common refrain from these NBA stars of yore is that the league is soft now and today's players would have been manhandled in the 80s and 90s—"mauled" as Barkley put it. But that's more a commentary on the how the rules have changed than on the player themselves. There's nothing soft about today's players, they're just not allowed to clothesline each other any more.
But the real problem with all these grumpy critiques, apart from being wrong, is that they're lionizing an era that was itself critiqued by grumpy legends. Back in the storied era of Jordan, Bird and Magic, guys who played in the '60s and '70s were issuing their own grumpy critiques of the game.
In a 1991 interview NBA legend Bob Cousey declared that were only five or six point guards who "can really run a team." How would he have fared? "I would be one of the premier point guards," he said, displaying the kind of dick swinging arrogance you'd expect to hear out of a '90s-era player today.
Still, it's nothing compared to how Wilt Chamberlain said he'd perform in the NBA in 1997. " I would love it. 50 points, maybe 60 points, maybe 70 points a game," he said. Walt Frazier thinks Chamberlain would have been ever better than that. "He'd probably average 75 a game if he were playing today," said the legendary Knick and Just for Men pitchman.
This makes it clear: What we're hearing from dudes like Barkley, Pippen and Jordan is the same nonsense you hear from every old man when he enters his cane shaking years. To further illustrate the absurdity of all this, it's worth looking at the game in the late eighties and early 90s, when Jordan, Barkley, Pippen and Rodman were coming of age in the NBA. It was basically tackle football and old guys think that's the only way to play the game.
They're wrong, too. Basketball is more entertaining when it's free flowing and points are being scored. That's not what the league looked like 25 years ago. The Pistons proved the efficacy of a tireless, suffocating defense when they won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990.
The Bulls followed their lead, pairing a sophisticated defensive scheme with Michael Jordan. They won three titles. The era of hardcore NBA defense culminated in the dreadful 1994 NBA Finals, which saw two of the NBA's best defensive teams throw body blows for seven games and the Rockets emerge as champions while averaging 86 points a game.
The NBA responded to that disaster by instituting a slew of rule changes, including the suspension of the hand check. Offensive players could move more freely. It was no longer legal to suplex a guy while fighting for a rebound.
That was the beginning of today's NBA, where scorers can score and shooters can shoot. When these old guys talk about "their day", they're talking about a brand of basketball that was so bad the NBA literally changed the game in response to it. Let's all be glad it's in the past.