Watching the games last night has me convinced that the NBA is really in a golden age right now.
— Greg (@Johnny_UT) October 27, 2016
The NBA has always been a league loaded with talent. Be it superstars who defy the laws of physics with plays that make our jaws hit the floor, to the average role guy, who at any moment can produce a dazzling display of technique and skill. To me, that’s the most entertaining aspect of the game. Men that big shouldn’t be so coordinated, so skilled, or so fluid. And with so much widespread talent throughout the association, I’m convinced, the NBA is in the middle of a Golden Age.
This is a little hard to admit. I fell in love with the NBA at an early age, watching the likes of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. Some of my earliest memories — I was seven at the time — include watching the original Dream Team dominate the Olympics. It’s easy to reminisce and believe that basketball had reached its pinnacle during that medal ceremony, but that conclusion is wrong.
Just take a look at some of the stats put up in the first two nights of the 2016-2017 season:
DeMar: 40 on 27 FGAs
Myles Turner: 30-16-4
Harden: 16-14 in first half
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) October 27, 2016
That’s a staggering exhibition of abilities on the world’s biggest stage. It’s also an example of just how talented the league is right now. Yes, the NBA is top heavy, with only a few teams capable of winning a title, but that’s how it’s always been. Need I remind you of the Celtics dominance in the 60’s and 80’s, Magic and Kareem winning five titles with the Lakers, MJ cementing his legacy as the GOAT in the 90’s, or the Lakers three-peat with Shaq and Kobe? I rest my case.
When examining the league as it is right now, the competitive balance is apparent. On a single night, any team can beat another. And, each team has a myriad of players, both young and old, who can fill up a stat sheet. It’s also no secret that NBA players today are significantly more skilled than ever before, and the gap between now and past generations is widening.
The question now is why? I’ll explain.
1) Players Have to Do More
Like anything else in life, the NBA continues to evolve. In year’s past, certain players filled certain roles — point guards handled the ball and set up the offense; shooting guards took shots; and big men made their living scoring in, and protecting the paint. In today’s game, that model seems prehistoric, and players who continue that style — Al Jefferson, Roy Hibbert, Rajon Rondo — are quickly becoming relics of a bygone era.
Instead, the NBA has ushered in the era of pace-and-space, where players are now required to adopt a Swiss Army Knife type skillset in order to be effective. It’s why point forwards have become the norm, and players like LeBron James, Draymond Green, and Gordon Hayward led their teams in assists last year. It’s also why you’re seeing a new breed of stretch fours and fives — Ryan Anderson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Love, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis — whose shooting range extends beyond the three-point line.
In a league where versatility and “position-less basketball” have taken over, simply having one particular set of skills doesn’t cut it.
2) Wider Talent Pool
Going back to that original Dream Team, it was blatantly obvious how much better Team USA was than the rest of the world. Fast forward 24 years and the USA is still winning Gold Medals, but the talent gap has certainly decreased.
More than just about any other sport, basketball has become an international game, and every year the league increases its numbers of non-U.S. players. Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, and Manu Ginobili have all become household names, and creating yearly “All-International Teams” has become a standard thing in the blogosphere. Furthermore, the sheer number of people with the opportunity play basketball continues to increase, and with the rise of the Internet age and the proliferation of social media, basketball continues to rise in popularity.
It’s a simple numbers game: By opening the floodgates of international popularity, the talent pool continues to rise. More players are developing their games at a younger age, and there are more opportunities to compete at a high level across the globe.
What this ultimately boils down to is that the NBA has never been more popular, and there are more people playing basketball than ever before. And with more people hooping, the more talent there’s going to be around the world.
3) Sports Science and Technology
Just like the game itself, NBA players have continued to evolve. And compared to past generations, they’ve never been bigger, stronger or faster. Part of this is due to the natural evolution of man — we as a species have continued to grow bigger and stronger over the years — while another is due to advances in training, recovery, and sports science.
Training regiments, diets, medicine, surgeries, and recovery methods all continue to improve. We’ve also seen teams increase their emphasis on rest and injury prevention which is lengthening careers and productivity. At last year’s Sloan Sports Conference, things like the impact of sleep and the force applied to a player’s knees were discussed. Never has there been a time where more data and technology has been applied to better the game and its players.
Furthermore, we’re also seeing advancements in coaching and teaching via technology, which is rapidly advancing the mental side of the game. Film is being studied more effectively and efficiently. Also, the advent of analytics, player tracking, and advanced stats is helping to break down the game in otherwise unforeseen ways. This allows both players and coaches to prepare more diligently and implement strategies that are elevating the game.
Another element is being able to learn from the past. The NBA will turn 70 next month. Players now have access to a deep vault of history. Being able to study the past allows them to pinpoint what was effective back then, while continuing to advance and build upon the game’s foundation.
Evolution is natural, and the NBA continuing to progress should come as a shock to no one. It’s also why players today should be more advanced than their peers of the past. I promise, it’s okay to love what Patrick Ewing did in the 90’s and still love what Giannis Antetokounmpo is doing right now. But it’s irresponsible to believe that with the game continuing to advance that today’s players aren’t the best we’ve ever seen. It’s why Blake Griffin can master the Dream Shake, while also showing the court awareness and midrange game of Kevin Garnett. Or why Derrick Favors can effectively guard both Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas in pick-and-roll situations.
With the talent pool widening and spreading across the league, we as fans get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. A modern-day NBA Golden Age is upon us. I, for one, couldn’t be more excited.