“People think us old guys hate when we talk about it. It has nothing to do with the Warriors’ greatness, LeBron’s greatness. But I’ve never seen the NBA as bad as it is, and I’ve been saying it the last three or four years. We’ve got too many young players coming out of college that don’t know how to play. It’s frustrating for me because I want to see competitive basketball.”
Apparently not seeing the competitive basketball currently being played, or perhaps misremembering his own playing career and somehow thinking that everything was far more competitive back in an era where the same team won the title six out of eight years, Barkley rustles up the well-used mantra that the NBA is not as good as it was.
Many have stated this before, yet here, Barkley states it more bluntly, and in his own inimitable way. He later attempts to speak forebodingly of this summer being “do or die” for the NBA, as if ‘die’ were ever an option. (Maybe it would ‘die’ in Barkley’s mind. But on the basis of the evidence thus far, I suspect this will be his belief anyway.)
In contrast, not one week earlier, former NBA great and current Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird pretty much did the opposite when speaking to the New Yorker, championing the current era and celebrating the diversification of different styles over time:
“It’s funny how the game has changed,” Bird continued. “And my thinking about it. I was really worried—back sixteen, seventeen years ago—that the little guy didn’t have a spot in the N.B.A. anymore: it was just going to be the big guards like Magic Johnson. But then players started shooting more threes and spacing the court, and everyone wants small guards now. Watching these kids play now, I’m like everybody else: Wow, man. They can really shoot! They have more freedom to get to the basket. The ball moves a little better. These kids are shooting from farther, with more accuracy. Now some teams shoot up around thirty threes a game. My era, you always think that’s the greatest era. But I’m not so sure anymore.”
Bird’s timescales might be a bit off – as we will see below, 16 or 17 years ago was not the era of the dominant big guard (nor was it the era of Magic Johnson, who retired for the first time 25 years ago and who was playing exhibitions in Sweden 17 years ago). Nevertheless, his point strikes a much more conciliatory tone than that of Barkley, or of all those like Barkley before him (including Gary Payton, Oscar Robertson, and about a million more besides) who confuse evolution with degradation.
Both have vested interests in their comments here. Barkley is currently employed by an NBA media partner, and while this statement somewhat lies in conflict with his position with his employer (it is surely not a good idea to put down the product your employer is trying to sell, after all), Barkley essentially gets some immunity from this from years of being Barkley. His personality sells, and his personality is reliant upon speaking matter-of-factly and in seemingly not caring for the repercussions. He speaks from the heart, if not the brain.
Meanwhile, Bird is currently employed by, and pretty much in charge of, an NBA team. Understanding the modern NBA is a daily task for him, as is the championing of the product he needs paying fans to come and see. Bird has a team and a league to sell, while in comparison, and notwithstanding the fact that such comments are a terrible self-marketing strategy should he still have any front office aspirations of his own, Barkley has only himself to sell.
The difference is that Bird looked. Because of his role, Bird analyses the modern NBA for a living. Barkley should do this too, but his is a part-time job with not nearly the depth of analysis taking place, not the myriad conversations with other NBA personnel paid to apply the same level of analysis in the pursuit of an accurate, contextualised overall picture. TV analysis is not an analysis as much as it is entertainment, and that is Barkley’s industry.
(It is also worth remembering that Barkley, the man currently lamenting that players leave college with no idea of how to play, also thinks players should stay in college for longer to ‘learn how to play’. And in his 2009 defence for such a position, whilst he conceded that “[t]he NBA is back on the upswing”, he felt that there had been “a few years where we had a bunch of talented players who didn’t have a clue how to play”. Apparently, he still thinks we do. And so maybe we always have. Maybe we’re meant to.)
There is no right or wrong answer to the overall question of which is the best era in NBA history, nor is there any reason to even ask such a question, unless you find it entertaining. But the biases employed by those sharing their opinions can be taken into consideration when interpreting their value, and some of the points of fact raised can definitely be disputed.
To that end, Barkley’s opinion and the little corroborating evidence he offers for it (“I want to see competitive basketball”, the blatant inference being he does not currently see it; “we’ve got too many young players […] that don’t know how to play”, the assumption being this is an endemic problem and something found only in modernity) struggle to hold water.
Without meaning to, however, Barkley’s comments accidentally highlight a shift in the NBA. Skip back ten to fifteen years, to that era between roughly 2000 and 2004. The post-Jordan depression, the pre-LeBron doldrums.
All-Star players between those years included Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, Glenn Robinson, Michael Finley, Allan Houston, Theo Ratliff, Anthony Mason, Stephon Marbury, Antonio McDyess, Antoine Walker (starter!), Steve Francis (multiple-time starter!), Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Brad Miller, Wally Szczerbiak, Elton Brand, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Kenyon Martin, Sam Cassell, Andrei Kirilenko and Michael Redd.
Those players were good, no doubt. Yet they were far from great. In that era, they were amongst the best. But this was an era in which Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse were scoring champions and no one seemed to mind how they went about it, in which a title team’s best player was Chauncey Billups, and in which Bruce Bowen was considered an elite role player.
This, surely, is the kind of era Barkley is referring to. This was the anti-competitive era, when Shaq would win the title if he wanted to, the Eastern Conference was about as much use as a chocolate teapot, and the copycat nature of the NBA brought in an influx of high schoolers who had little foundation on which to succeed and then promptly didn’t.
Perhaps he is just ten years too late. Perhaps Barkley still thinks Antonio and Dale Davis, the Davii, are All-Stars. They aren’t. Nor, frankly, is anyone of their calibre. Apart from perhaps Kyle Korver, the uber-Bruce Bowen, this isn’t the era of the decent role-player All-Stars anymore. And this is especially true when it comes to big men.
As evidence, we need not look at who the starting centre for each NBA team is. Instead, we need only to look at their backups. Backup five men in this league today include Enes Kanter, Willie Cauley-Stein, Kelly Olynyk, Bismack Biyombo, Aron Baynes, Joakim Noah, Timofey Mozgov, Jusuf Nurkic, Myles Turner, JaMychal Green, Gorgui Dieng, Nikola Pekovic, Boban Marjanovic and Nene. Some of those are plausible circa-2002 All-Stars.
One name, in particular, shines forth right now; Biyombo.
In the Toronto Raptors’ playoff run to the Eastern Conference Finals – where they currently trail the Cleveland Cavaliers by three games to two, but certainly have a chance at the upset – Biyombo has been something of a revelation. Or rather, he has been something of a revelation to those who were not already aware he was good.
Prior to this year, Biyombo’s name was perhaps most likened to spectacular offensive inefficiency. There have been many big men over the years who were not even average on offence, many of whom still went on to be good players – a recent example, Ben Wallace, was arguably pretty great. Yet Biyombo stood out not only for being clumsy and under-skilled on offence but for not being allowed to try at all.
He was the most invisible offensive presence in the league, and this after several years in it, not appearing to get any better. As far away as possible from the old school belief that young big men should get touches in the post to learn the basics, Biyombo was actively avoided to a staggering level.
Now, though, Biyombo is hot property. It no longer matters so much in the public narrative what he cannot do, given how ably he has been demonstrating what he can.
Biyombo is a force defensively around the basket right now, perhaps even better on switches, and one of the game’s very best rebounders. He was always good in these facets, but never this good. Perhaps most importantly, he was never recognised for being this good, nor trusted to sustain it over starter’s minutes.
While he is still capable of terrible offensive play, even that side of his game has shown signs of life. Biyombo has shown this year that he is capable now of setting screens without pushing someone over, and no longer is he always dropping the ball, limiting himself to only occasionally doing it.
He even hit a jump shot the other day, doing so with unprecedented confidence. He is still a significantly below par individual offensive player, but he has found his role, and he is absolutely thriving within it.
To resort to an overused cliché, but one which is entirely accurate here, Biyombo does stuff that can’t be taught. You either have that reach or you don’t. You either have that timing and those instincts, or you don’t. Biyombo still can’t dribble, shoot a hook, post up, consistently finish anything at all, or catch the ball in traffic, but it has never really mattered, and it really doesn’t matter now. Biyombo is good now, a developed talent in a league Barkley seems to think has little of that.
Perhaps, then, Bismack Biyombo is a better embodiment of the new NBA than Barkley’s words. Biyombo is a testament to the depth of the league today, a league in which all but the very bottom have legitimate quality throughout, a testament to the development offered within, and to the new scouting and analytical techniques available to all and proffered by most.
Infuriating at times he may still be, but Biyombo has long been pretty good, and now he is very good. He is somewhat of a unique player, especially with those arms like fallen sequoias, but not a unique case.
There is plenty of talent in the NBA, regardless of Barkley’s beliefs. The race is to find it first and find it cheapest. That is a race that is only possible if there is plenty of talent on offer. There may have been a time that Biyombo could have been one such young player who “didn’t know how to play”. But if he was, he isn’t now. Biyombo had the physical tools and the instincts, if not the skills. And his progression is an endorsement of not only the talent spotting/developing abilities of Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors, but also the NBA as a whole. Players come to the NBA to learn how to play the game, and always have. This is to the league’s credit, regardless of what most former NBA greats will tell you.
Biyombo had the physical tools and the instincts, if not the skills. And his progression is an endorsement of not only the talent spotting/developing abilities of Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors, but also the NBA as a whole. Players come to the NBA to learn how to play the game, and always have. This is to the league’s credit, regardless of what most former NBA greats will tell you.