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Sorry, old-school guys: Modern-day NBA players are better than ever

From Oscar Robertson saying today’s coaches don’t know anything about guarding shooters like Stephen Curry, to Isiah Thomas calling the perimeter defense in the NBA right now the worst he’s ever seen, to Stephen Jackson picking his 2006-07 Warriors to beat this year’s 57-6 Warriors team and Charles Barkley calling Kawhi Leonard the best basketball player in the world, the number of veiled (and sometimes the veil is completely omitted) shots at Curry, this year’s Warriors and the type of basketball being played in the NBA is mounting.

In some ways, this type of gut-reaction makes sense. The Warriors and Curry really are the culmination of the modern era of basketball. The lack of traditional bigs, the perceived emphasis on pace and offense, all the three-point shooting and a lack of focus on traditional basketball tenants like offensive rebounding and post-up scoring. The game has changed, and a visceral reaction from ex-NBA players who considered the type of basketball they played to be the correct way to play the game is understandable.

It’s worth noting that some of the arguments from the old-school camp aren’t necessarily attacks towards the players today, but also reactions to rule changes regarding taunting and flagrant fouls.

As push back, many are pointing out that it’s silly to compare eras, and just because the game is different doesn’t mean today’s players wouldn’t be great in any and every era. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Curry would be legends no matter what.

With this view, quite often the opposite is also considered true. George Mikan, John Havlicek, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West would be great in the modern era too. Like Curry, Durant or James, they are so great and their skill sets are special enough to stand the test of the time and transcend the decades. And while a there’s a ton of discussion around how the style of play is different, very few have openly gone a step further.

NBA players today are, on average, significantly better at virtually every skill relevant to basketball than ever before. And the gap between modern players and players in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s is enormous, and even since the late 80’s and 90’s there’s been at least some improvement.

A fun thought experiment to run: How far would you have to go back in NBA history for Louis Williams to be a Hall of Fame caliber player if you just dropped him off in the middle of another era?

Here are some reasons to think that question isn’t a ridiculous one, and why the NBA players of the past have an uphill climb justifying players in their era were, in any sense, better basketball players.

Opportunities to play basketball

The first factor that impacts the level of competition in any professional sports league is the available talent pool, and in terms of sheer numbers, the number of people with the opportunity, in essence, to try-out for the NBA has increased tremendously over the past decades.

Basketball is an international game, and the number of non-U.S. players in the NBA has been at a record high every opening night over recent years –  from a record-breaking 83 players at opening night in 2009, to 84 the next year, 92 in 2013 and 101 in 2014.

The gap is closing between the United States and the rest of the world, and the best training methods and coaching philosophies have been exported by the best coaches in the U.S. to youth coaches abroad. The resources to learn about developing the best possible basketball players are available for coaches anywhere in the world.

Not only has knowledge proliferated, but the sheer number of people with the opportunity play basketball is always increasing. Entirely untapped talent pools that didn’t have the opportunity to participate in professional sports before are now a part of professional sports. If you look at the marathon, for example, world record times were dominated by Europeans in the 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s all the way until the start of the 2000’s, after which record times have been obliterated by East African runners.

Younger players are getting the opportunity to train at a higher intensity as well, and larger scouting networks allow more potential talent to be discovered and developed. Youth academies for the most talented soccer players in Europe are renowned for nurturing the next generation of greats.

The economic incentives to make the NBA (or other professional basketball leagues) have gone increasingly insane – and the amount of money generated and involved is rocketing to the moon right now. Basic economics would imply that because of the limited number of available jobs in the NBA, and the ever increasing value of said jobs, the amount of resources invested into securing one of those jobs would increase as well.

Basketball actually throws an interesting variable into the equation because height is an incredibly valued tool. According to David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, in 1983 when the NBA signed its first agreement making the players entitled to a certain percentage of the ticket revenues and television contracts, the proportion of 7-footers in the NBA doubled almost overnight. And for every few inches after 6-foot-2, the odds of making the NBA is increased by an order of magnitude.

Sports science

One way to see how better training regiments, improvements in surgeries and recovering from them, and increased focus on rest and injury prevention have impacted the NBA is to look at the length of player careers. By the end of this season, 143 seasons in the NBA will have been played by a player over 37 years of age. In the 1980’s, less than one of these seasons were played per year, in the 1990’s, it was about three per year and over the past few seasons that number has ballooned to seven.

The way some of the most devastating injuries that you see in the NBA are handled has changed tremendously in the past years. From surgical techniques like knee arthroscopy to the way meniscus tears are handled, the rate of change has been tremendous. According to Dr. Russell F. Wilson, the former New York Giants physician, the number of players that pass post-ACL surgery physicals has improved 10-fold.

NBA teams use wearable tech to measure fatigue and lower injury risks by tracking everything from heart rates and to the force applied to knees. Anti-gravity treadmills are used to keep athletes in shape while decreasing the load they put on their knees. Big data is applied to answer questions about fatigue and player development too. The amount of money spent and the number of investments made into improving players and career longevity have been enormous compared to anything done before in just the last few seasons.

To get a taste of what’s happening in the sports sciences, just take a look some of the presentations at last year’s Sloan Sports Conference, the renowned sports analytics nerd gathering. Everything from the impact of sleep to removing cognitive bias in front office decision making is being studied.

The combined effect of the improved science and better (and more global) training has produced results, and athletes have become faster, bigger and stronger than ever. Polyurethane suits helped swimmers destroy records in 2008 and lightweight bicycles have changed cycling.

In men’s athletics, world records are still being broken at a relatively steady pace, but that number has declined since the mid-80’s. And by all the research, it looks like athletes in the late-80’s reached almost the same level they are at today, and most of the improvement has come by employing better techniques and technology.

One reason to think those diminishing returns have been hit at a later date in the NBA is because, unlike athletics where there are straightforward measures of improvement such as accuracy, speed or length, basketball is a much more open-ended task. Many more different athletic skills go into making a great basketball player than a sprinter, from speed to endurance and strength.

Basketball is also much more complex than running in a straight line, of course, and through repetitions and being in different situations on the court, visualization and automatically making immediate right decisions is a big part of the game. In other words, basketball IQ.

Learning from the best

Just as important as improvement in pure athletic ability and the increasingly available and competent talent pool is the development that’s happened to support the mental side of basketball.

For coaches, the opportunity to study more film in efficient ways is a game-changer that allows to make and adjust to increasingly complex strategies. Basketball is constantly going through innovation as the game and players change. The availability of increasingly descriptive numbers and play tracking is a big help too.

On the players’ side, the chance to watch more games and prepare for opponents is more available than ever. In a playoff series, for example, it can be incredibly useful for a defender to isolate Chris Paul’s pick-and-roll plays and study them to figure out strategies to stop him. Kathy Orton of the Washington Post wrote about how a stats geek helped Kevin Durant break down video and became his trainer.

It’s been hypothesized that athletes use a process called “chunking” in memory, which is well studied among grandmasters in chess. In different situations on the court, a basketball player can recognize similar situations they’ve been in and make snap decisions. This type of sport-specific memory helps players become efficient at recognizing patterns in the game.

Most importantly, players today have had the opportunity to learn and improve from past generations. Louis Williams is adept at making plays off the pick-and-roll, shooting pull-up three-pointers and splitting on-ball screens. Splitting screens is a relatively recent thing and Mark Price, who started his career in 1986, is often credited as one of the first players to make that play frequently.

The pull-up three-pointer off the dribble has only recently become a shot defenses have to guard against. For Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, those are efficient shots that the defense cannot give up. It may take some time for another Curry to make it into the league, but you can bet kids all over the world are practicing those shots more than before in hopes of emulating Curry.

NBA players becoming great at certain specific skills forces the game to change with it – from allowing zone defenses, to the current talk about widening the court or moving the three-point line because the three-pointer is becoming a shot that’s too advantageous. And despite what Robertson says, shooters are obviously better in both getting shots off and making them at a high percentage than ever before – particularly among the top-end of the distribution.

Basketball is a field not unlike others. Progress is made and it’s only natural that there’s improvement. Louis Williams should be better than most of his contemporaries before him, because he’s had the opportunity to learn from them and has better tools available to him, and competition is tougher than ever before.

None of this should be considered a slight, in any way, to any of the great players in NBA history. Players had no choice but to play when they played. And in admiring Moses Malone and George Gervin, there’s no need to be unrealistic about their skills compared to players today.

Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found atNylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.

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