Coffee Talk #591: Is the NBA Softer Than it Was in the ’80s and ’90s?

Last week in the RPad.TV Google Hangout, RPadholic bsukenyan shocked a bunch of us by saying that he doesn’t believe that the NBA is softer than it was in the ’80s and ’90s, and that aside from hand checking, the rules are basically the same. His comments stopped my brain activity for a millisecond. In my mind, his claim was a step removed from saying, “You know what? I don’t believe that the atomic weight of cobalt is 58.9.” Here’s some of what he had to say:

The current game is not soft compared to ’80s/’90s NBA.

They didn’t play as close in man-to-man defense, and as far as fouls are concerned they really weren’t that much different than they are now.

Man-to-man is much tighter now than I’ve seen in any older games…more

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Last week in the RPad.TV Google Hangout, RPadholic bsukenyan shocked a bunch of us by saying that he doesn’t believe that the NBA is softer than it was in the ’80s and ’90s, and that aside from hand checking, the rules are basically the same. His comments stopped my brain activity for a millisecond. In my mind, his claim was a step removed from saying, “You know what? I don’t believe that the atomic weight of cobalt is 58.9.” Here’s some of what he had to say:

The current game is not soft compared to ’80s/’90s NBA.

They didn’t play as close in man-to-man defense, and as far as fouls are concerned they really weren’t that much different than they are now.

Man-to-man is much tighter now than I’ve seen in any older games. They played so far away from each other.

I have not seen a game that shows a more physical game than average ones I’ve seen during the regular season of today’s era.

I suggested that this would make a fun Coffee Talk debate and bsukenyan agreed. So let’s do it! If you disagree with him, please counter his thoughts in a respectful way.

As for my opinion on the issue, I couldn’t disagree with him more. To me, the game was absolutely rougher and tougher back then. Hand checking, zone defense being illegal, and being able to deck a guy in the back court that has a clear path to the basket — the game was much more physical in the ’80s and ’90s. Hell, you could frickin’ punch a guy and stay in the game during the ’80s.

As for saying the rules haven’t changed much, let’s take a look at NBA.com:

1990-1991

  • Penalties for flagrant fouls increased such that an infraction is penalized by two free throw attempts and possession of the ball out-of-bounds. The offender may also be ejected if there is no apparent effort to play the ball and/or, in the official’s judgment, the contact was of such an excessive nature that an injury could have occurred. Ejected players will be automatically fined $250.

1993 Playoffs

  • Any player who throws a punch now immediately ejected from the game, suspended for at least one game, and fined an appropriate dollar amount. Any player throwing a punch that connects with another player will be ejected from the game, suspended for a minimum of one to five games, and fined an appropriate dollar amount. Teams will also be fined an amount equal to the total sum of their players’ fines. Any player leaving the bench area during a fight will be fined $2,500, up from $500, and that player’s team will be fined $5,000 for each of its players who leave the bench area.

1993-1994

  • “Five-point” flagrant foul rule implemented whereby if a player’s season total exceeds five points, he receives an automatic suspension following the game in which his point total exceeds five and for each additional flagrant foul committed during the season.

1994-1995

  • Any player who leaves the bench during a fight automatically suspended for a minimum of one game and fined a maximum of $20,000; in addition to losing 1/82nd of his salary for each game, he is suspended.
  • Any player who commits two flagrant fouls in one game will be ejected.
  • Hand-checking eliminated from the end line in the backcourt to the opposite foul line.
  • “Clear path” rule changed to include contact in the backcourt. If a defender, grabs a player when the player has a clear path to the basket on a breakaway, two foul shots will be awarded.

1997-1998

  • A defender will not be permitted to use his forearm to impede the progress of an offensive player who is facing the basket in the frontcourt.
  • The “no-charge area,” formerly a two-by-six foot box where an offensive foul is not called if contact is made with a secondary defensive player who has established a defensive position, will be expanded to the area consisting of a half circle with a four-foot radius measured from the middle of the goal.

2000-2001

  • No contact with either hands or forearms by defenders except in the frontcourt below the free throw line extended in which case the defender may use his forearm only.
  • Neither the offensive player nor the defender will be allowed to dislodge or displace a player who has legally obtained a position.
  • Defender may not use his forearm, shoulder, hip or hand to reroute or hold-up an offensive player going from point A to Point B or one who is attempting to come around a legal screen set by another offensive player.
  • Slowing or impeding the progress of the screener by grabbing, clutching, holding “chucking” or “wrapping up” is prohibited.

2001-2002

  • Illegal defense guidelines will be eliminated in their entirety.
  • A new defensive three-second rule will prohibit a defensive player from remaining in the lane for more than three consecutive seconds without closely guarding an offensive player.

2004-2005

  • New rules were introduced to curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to open up the game.

A lot of the ’90s rule changes were a result of the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks. While they were multifaceted teams, a lot of people remember them for their punishing defense that bordered on assault. In my head, the 2004-2005 rule changes were basically David Stern’s way of saying, “Okay Detroit, your defense is too good and other teams are copying it. It makes for a slow and boring game, and I can’t have that!”

Objectively, I don’t see how anyone can say that the NBA hasn’t gotten softer. Look at the rules. Players used to be able to do a lot more, physically. I’m not saying that today’s defense is bad. On the contrary, there are some wonderful defensive teams that execute fantastic defense through brilliant athleticism and smartly coached zone schemes. In the ’80s and ’90s, players generally weren’t as athletic as today’s players (nutrition and sports medicine have advanced a ton) and coaches didn’t have the benefit of zone defense. The luxury those teams were afforded was the liberal stretching of liberal rules (i.e. muggings).

Subjectively, look at some of the players back then. Enforcers like Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Charles Oakley, and Anthony Mason (who mugged me in high school…I think) were lauded for their tough play. If those guys played under today’s rules, they would be kicked out of the league. Even the top stars played rougher back then. In a game between the Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz, Isiah Thomas humiliated John Stockton to the tune of 44 points. The next time those two teams met, Karl Malone greeted Thomas with a bionic elbow that resulted in a cut that required 40 stitches. You can still see the scar on Zeke’s head.

That elbow resulted in a $10,000 fine and one-game suspension — one frickin’ game! If a superstar like LeBron James or Kevin Durant delivered an elbow like that, the fine would be much heavier and the suspension would be much longer. With that in mind, Malone had a history of delivering flying elbows to several (mostly smaller) players. And why not? The penalties were a slap on the wrist back then.

Anyway, in what’s possibly the longest Coffee Talk ever, my conclusions is that basketball in the ’80s and ’90s was undeniably tougher and more physical than today’s game. I’m not saying that it was better or that the modern game is less entertaining. Today’s NBA is simply softer than it used to be because the rules have changed.

What say you? Do you believe that the “legend” of ’80s and ’90s basketball toughness has been exaggerated? Or do you believe that the modern NBA is soft? Kindly share your thoughts in the comments section!

Author: RPadTV

http://www.RPad.TV

9 thoughts on “Coffee Talk #591: Is the NBA Softer Than it Was in the ’80s and ’90s?”

  1. Yes the current NBA is soft. I don’t see how this is debatable unless you are on the Lebron James fanclub and feel the need to defend him constantly. Players miss games from a chest contusion! Are you kidding me? The rules are softer these days just like the NFL. Watch the embedded video of Malone elbowing Thomas. If that play happens today, I don’t see how the player misses less than 20 games.

    Talent level: I think the current talent level in the NBA is not what it was in the 80s and 90s. This might have to do with the europeans playing in the NBA now and that changes the game and requires new things. Idk. I think the NBA will face issues with players trying to force trades to specific teams in the future or collaborating with one another about future free agency etc.

    1. Talent level is due to expansion, don’t you think? Two teams were added in ’88, ’89, and ’95, and one team was added in 2004.

    2. That reminds me: Look at the Playoffs, and how many guys sit out for seemingly minor issues. And that’s the time you need all hands on deck! I remember Jeremy Lin sitting out of the Knicks’s run in 2012 and thinking, “Is this guy who we’ve all gotten behind actually a big pussy?”

      You go out and give your all, like Allen Iverson says (“Practice?!”). I was in a play at the Geffen in 2011, one of LA’s biggest playhouses. I took powerbombs and back bodydrops 8 shows a week. After a while, I was banged the F up. But it was a matter of pride and determination to not sit out. You nut up, hope toughness and adrenaline will be your best friends, and you do your job.

  2. Based on only the games I have seen during the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s, I don’t think the current NBA is soft. There is a lot of pushing, shoving and elbowing still going on (especially if you look at where the ball isn’t). I think of it more like an ebb and flow kind of thing. There are just some players that are more aggressive than others. These players come and go. Maybe one year, the NBA has more aggressive players than the next. The players that are not aggressive either look like toothpicks next to the more aggressive players or they have to step up their game and become more aggressive. This will lead to the perception that the league in general is more aggressive.

    You guys point to new rules to curb a lot of the tough physical play, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen or the refs enforce those rules evenly and equally (because they really don’t).

    In the games I have seen, I think that the biggest negative trend is the increasing use of flopping. Back in the day, I rarely saw this happen. Today, every friggin team has at least one or two (or in the case of the Heat; five) serial floppers. I especially hate it when the refs call a foul for a guy that takes a dive that was barely touched. It drives me crazy! Yes, I know there is a fine for flopping that happens after the fact, but apparently, it’s not enough. The mentality seems to be: “Well, the other guys does it and gets a foul call, so I’m going to do it, too.” If the refs stop calling fouls for flops, I’m pretty sure that it will greatly cut down on the number of stunt actors in the NBA.

    -M

    1. It doesn’t matter the if rules are enforced evenly or equally. The refs have to make calls for plays today that were non-issues before and those calls are certainly made. That has changed the game. You can’t hand check, hip check, and body check like you used to. There are even rules that dictate the proper way to fight through a pick.

  3. I still stand by what I said in the G+ Hangout, and I’ll take this time to add some video evidence. Most videos I’m using do feature Lebron James and Michael Jordan, but are not meant to be used to draw any direct comparisons; I am simply using all-star players from two different eras as examples.

    First, I went to youtube and typed in “Detroit defense Jordan” to find some videos. Detroit’s defense was considered one of the best of the 80’s/90’s era that we are discussing, and Jordan was clearly the best player of that time period. Let’s see what a game of theirs looked like… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7S76yjxSWE . This Pistons team features Rodman, and also around this time Jordan was mvp. You don’t have to watch this whole video to see that they are playing each other pretty loose. Sure there is some contact, but their man to man defense is pretty far away.

    Second, I went looking for a clip that I have seen plenty of times in the past and felt would be good for this discussion. Sorry for the ad at the beginning, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AV3O94yv4vc. Obviously there is a huge contrast between this play, which persisted throughout that game, and the previous video. This is the type of playing you can see in practically any basketball game in the nba, or if you decided to watch the Bulls/Heat or Pacers/Heat or Spurs/Heat series.

    Obviously I am sort of making a direct comparison between these two videos, but that isn’t exactly my intention. These are both just meant to be short examples of the style of play that I have seen from each respective era of basketball.

    Now of course I’ve seen plenty of other clips before that show some fights and some hard fouls, and I’ve seen plenty of clips or examples that show today’s players being a little soft. Certainly Smartguy’s example of Jeremy Link missing several games because of a chest contusion and his example of Malone’s elbow to Thomas would be perfect examples of this. Let’s keep this in perspective though, neither of those things are actually the norm from their respective eras. Saying that hard fouls were the only thing that happened in the 80s/90s is just plain romantacizing the past. And let’s face it, that example is making a comparison between hall of famers and all stars from the 80s/90s to people who are definitely not going to be hall of famers at the end of their careers (sorry Lin, I just don’t see you getting consistently better and becoming an all star in your own right). I would refer back to the point I made in the game 7 discussion about Colin Cowherd’s rant dealing with previous all stars being judged by a series or at this point simply their whole career, and today’s athletes are judged possession by possession. If you decide to ignore and negative aspects of the past then of course the present, with all its scrutiny, will never live up to the myth of the past.

    If you talk about fouls and contact being made, I think Iceman already made the point well that just because there are some rules that have changed, it doesn’t mean the fouls have actually stopped. I thought this video also did a decent job of highlighting the lack of changes between past eras and today’s era. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLv2F33snCE. The game is not all that different, and I simply don’t see anything special about the physicality of the 80s compared to today.

    1. You compared a highlight clip, of mostly short cuts, by one of the greatest scorers in the NBA to a clip of LeBron James bullying a player generally regarded as soft. That doesn’t show evidence of anything.

      You think hard fouls haven’t stopped? When was the last time a superstar player delivered a foul that resulted in 40 stitches to the head? Look at the penalties for flagrant fouls today. Look at what’s considered a flagrant foul in 2013 compared to when the rule was introduced.

      Hard fouls were much more commonplace in the ’80s and ’90s because they either weren’t punished or were punished lightly. Of course there are still hard fouls, but I don’t see how anyone can say there as frequent as they were before.

  4. First: I’m a Karl Malone fan. He’s one of my favorite players. The dude was big and strong. Like a lot of guys from that era – Willis, Oakley, Mahorn – if you came into the paint, you’d better have your big-boy pants on.

    NBA back then was more like hockey, and today it’s more like soccer. You had to fight or finesse your way to the hoop, which is partially why there were so many more quality jump-shooters back then. Watch old games and look at the field-goal percentage from the perimeter. Almost everyone had a reliable J.

    Barkley has talked candidly about hitting the hell out of guys. Receipts (wrestling talk for retaliatory hits) were commonplace, and really expected.

    Look at the Bad Boys in Detroit. You didn’t just think twice about driving on them because of their shotblocking ability (which if I remember wasn’t that great); you didn’t want to have your ass handed to you.

    Does that make the League better or worse now? I won’t pick a side on that. Miami and San Antonio are two smaller, less physical teams, and they made it to — and had a very enjoyable series in — the Finals. But also, you could see how LeBron wasn’t getting the calls that Parker and Ginobli were. The refs are protecting the smaller guys now, instead of letting them fend for themselves. Meanwhile, sturdier stock don’t seem to get the benefit of the whistle.

  5. I’m not the biggest basketball fan and I watched the majority of the basketball games I ‘ve watched in the early 90’s yet I have seen some games in recent years. There are really only a few things I can interject.

    1) Jordan was NOT the type of player exemplified by this debate and is therefore a terrible example to use. Let’s talk Barkley, or even Shaq. I remember Shaq’s first couple years in Orlando and that dude was just a monster. He would break anything or anyone in his path. Even Larry Bird was a mean ass redneck.

    2) Players nowadays are definitely bigger primadonnas. I don’t even see how this is arguable. Players definitely didn’t sit on the bench for the minor boo-boos they sit out for today.

    3) I’m noticing that the people who were alive and aware at the time in question are thinking one way and the younger RPadaholics are of a different way of thinking. Now, I’m sure nostalgia plays some role, but in this particular topic, I don’t see that making that much a difference. YouTube research will only show you the cream of the crop. Us older peeps remember mid-season games between teams with mild beefs as well as 3rd game of the playoffs situations that aren’t necessarily YouTube quality.

    4) Where Ray mentioned the rule changes of :

    1993-1994

    “Five-point” flagrant foul rule implemented whereby if a player’s season total exceeds five points, he receives an automatic suspension following the game in which his point total exceeds five and for each additional flagrant foul committed during the season.

    1994-1995

    Any player who leaves the bench during a fight automatically suspended for a minimum of one game and fined a maximum of $20,000; in addition to losing 1/82nd of his salary for each game, he is suspended.

    Any player who commits two flagrant fouls in one game will be ejected.

    This says a lot. This says that at some point in 92-93 there was enough bench-clearers to make the commissioner take action. And THEN it also says that the action taken was apparently not good enough so with his hand over his face and shaking his head, he had to make it stricter the following year.

    That speaks volumes.

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