Welcome to Coffee Talk! Let’s start off the day by discussing whatever is on your (nerd chic) mind. Every morning I’ll kick off a discussion and I’m counting on you to participate in it. If you’re not feelin’ my topic, feel free to start a chat with your fellow readers and see where it takes you. Whether you’re talking about videogames, discovering the joys of Farrah Abraham, finally unpacking your games (though not organizing them), or Adrien Broner being an unsportsmanlike punk, Coffee Talk is the place to do it.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!