One of the major throughlines of this NBA season has been the tension between stars of yesteryear and those of the present day, with many retired players offering at-times unflattering assessments of the game and gumption of today's top talents. You've heard this stuff — the game's gone soft since the defensive rules changed; today's greats aren't as multifaceted as the old heads were; the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors can't hold the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' collective jocks; Stephen Curry's doing what he's doing because nobody defends him; the overall talent pool is watered down; everything was better when everyone whistled elbows at everyone else's temples.
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Some find this strain of analysis compelling, a refutation offered by true hard men of the latter-day athlete's bent toward collaboration and friendship. Some find it confounding, a collection of older gentlemen shaking their fists at 3-point-bombing youngsters for spending too much time on their lawn and not enough time in the low post. Whichever way you lean, it's worth noting that #NotAllLegends feel this way. One of them, in fact, seems pretty into what he sees on a night-to-night basis from October through June, according to Charles Bethea of the New Yorker:
[The 3-point line's] introduction in the N.B.A. coincided with the Hall of Famer Larry Bird’s rookie season. “We didn’t gravitate to the three at first,” Bird, now the president of the Indiana Pacers, told me. “We weren’t like, Oh boy, here it is! No, it takes time. When they first put it in, some team took five three-pointers a game and that was a lot.” This season, teams averaged more than twenty-four attempts, many of them taken from well beyond the arc.
“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 comments came in the context of a discussion about the possibility of the NBA one day adding a 4-point line as an offensive innovation and a means of altering the geometry of the court to create more interior space in a contemporary NBA where so many players have become proficient out to 23 feet. Not everybody's on board with the idea. Reggie Miller, for one, decries the theoretical 4-pointer as a gimmick. (Which, of course, is how folks talked about the 3-point line when the ABA introduced it, and later, when the NBA brought it over too after it was a wild success in the red, white and blue-ball league.)
The larger overarching point, though — that the more players' skill sets grow and change, the more the game has to grow and change with them — is precisely the kind of thing that has drawn so much push-back from former pros of late. But Bird, perhaps due in part to his persistent day-to-day involvement in that growth as an executive in charge of trying to deliver a championship in today's conditions rather than just talking about the ones he won under different ones, doesn't see it that way. More from Bethea:
Larry Bird is nearly sixty years old now, having spent most of those years in or around professional basketball. He is ready for whatever awaits the game. “When I played, I never did practice three-point shots,” Bird said. “But these kids here, that’s all they do. The game has changed, no question about it. Every ten, twelve, fifteen years, there’s something new coming in. You put that four-point line in there and people will start practicing. And once they start practicing, they get better at it. Maybe five or ten years down the road, fours are what everybody will be shooting. The game evolves.”
So too, hopefully, will those of us watching it.
Hat-tip to Deadspin.
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