Trade rumors are usually the biggest stories of All-Star Weekend, but not this year. Not when the three-day event coincided with Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday. While Jordan has been retired for a decade, his mystique remains as powerful as ever. Even in Houston, the exhaustive 24/7 coverage of his career was impossible to escape. Jordan gave his first wide-ranging interviews on the sport in several years, which was treated within basketball circles like Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai.
The substance of his comments were parsed, analyzed and dissected into a million pieces, but the tone was even more interesting. Everyone always talks about how different he is from the average person, but Jordan at 50 sounds like every other 50-year-old who has ever walked the Earth. He’s not totally sold on the young kids today and he isn’t sure they would have been as successful back in his day. One of basketball’s most revolutionary players has become a reactionary in his middle age.
Of course, the game has changed since Jordan’s heyday. In the crucial moments of the 2013 All-Star Game, there wasn’t a single traditional center on the floor. Instead of wrestling in the low post, the biggest players on the floor were spread out along the three-point line. The game on Sunday night bore more than a passing resemblance to the small-ball revolution we witnessed in the 2012 Finals, in large part because six of the key players from that series are All-Stars this season.
Basketball is no different than any other sport: players in 2013 are bigger, faster and more athletic than ever before. In 1988, Ben Johnson’s 9.79 in the 100 meter dash was good enough for a gold medal and a new world record. In 2012, it would have put him in a tie for the bronze. A bronze-medal winning time in the 100 meter freestyle in 1988 was barely enough to make it out of the qualifying rounds 25 years later. Dunks that were inventive and breathtaking in 1988 are run of the mill today.
If the students in James Naismith’s class had the size of a LeBron James or the speed of a Russell Westbrook, he probably would have made the court a little bit wider. There just isn’t as much space on the floor as there was in the past. But since the dimensions of the floor haven’t changed to compensate for the modern player, the game has. In Jordan’s day, the game was played from the inside-out and the three-point shot was still viewed as somewhat of a gimmick. Today it’s played from the outside-in while spacing the floor with three-point shooters in the front-court has become the norm.
There were plenty of great three-point shooters in 1988, but elite players had yet to fully incorporate the shot into their arsenal. The Eastern and Western Conference All-Stars combined to take 10 in the 1988 game; they took 71 in 2013. And where there were 78 free-throw attempts in 1988, there were only 31 on Sunday. It’s a reflection of a fascinating statistical trend unearthed by True Hoop: over the last 25 years, the number of three-point attempts per season has steadily increased as the number of free-throw attempts has decreased.
On Sunday, the result was a more free-flowing game with far fewer stoppages of play. With so little offense being run through the low post, the game was played at a near breakneck pace for 48 minutes. In that type of semi-transition setting, basketball resembles soccer, where fluid athletes with an innate feel for the game are at a premium. Chris Paul is the least athletic All-Star in the NBA; he won the All-Star MVP in 2013 because speed, fluidity and court sense were more important than size and strength. In the same way, Lionel Messi, at 5’7 150, is the most feared soccer player in the world.
None of this could have happened if the NBA hadn’t changed its officiating over the last generation. That was one of Jordan’s main points: there’s a lot less clutching and grabbing in the modern game. In theory, at least, defensive players are no longer allowed to hold guys with the ball 25 feet from the basket. Jordan frames it as a question about the toughness of modern players and whether they could succeed in a more physical game. But, on the other hand, why exactly would less talented players uglying up the game be more interesting to watch or fun to play? Does it matter if Wes Welker was “tough” enough to play WR in the 1970’s?
Jordan spent most of his career saddled with defensive-minded centers who clogged the paint and weren’t threats on the offensive end of the floor. In contrast, LeBron has a breathtaking amount of space to operate when Miami and/or the Eastern Conference All-Star team plays small. The three-headed monster of Will Perdue, Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley wouldn’t see the floor in Erik Spoelstra’s small-ball attack. Spoelstra flipped the dynamic in the Finals when he started Chris Bosh at center, which isn’t a strategy that would have worked against Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning or David Robinson.
LeBron and Durant have to deal with fewer great big men than Jordan, primarily because they would have been considered great big men a generation ago. Back then, a 6’9 270 or 6’11 235 player would have been stationed on the low block from the moment they picked up a basketball. The NBA’s two best players are the end product of Jordan’s perimeter revolution: growing up, everyone wanted to be like Mike, even the big men. In the AAU game, the best 6’9+ players don’t want to be pigeon-holed as conventional big men, so they practice ball-handling and three-point shooting more than post scoring.
If we are comparing eras, the question is more whether retired players could play in the present than whether current players could play in the past. The greatest players would have thrived in any era, but the average older player would have had no chance of staying in front of Kyrie Irving or Tony Parker without grabbing them or making enough three-pointers to space the floor for them. However, since every athlete is ultimately a product of the time they played in, how they compare with players from different eras isn’t all that relevant.
Jordan may think guys in the 2010’s couldn’t play in his era, but I’d be willing to bet Dr. J thought the same thing about guys in the 1990’s. Going further back, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain probably had the same view about guys in the 1970’s as George Mikan and Bob Pettit did about guys in the 1960’s. And when LeBron and Durant hit 50, odds are they’ll be similarly dubious of what the guys in the 2030’s are up to. It’s the natural reaction of anyone who reaches middle age and sees their own mortality looming: tearing down the present in order to protect memories of the past.
But Jordan’s legacy shouldn’t depend on him forever being considered greater than Kobe, LeBron and Durant. Without Jordan, none of those guys could have existed in the first place. That’s his legacy. As Isaac Newton once said about the history of science, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Players with historic talent aren’t just the face of the franchise they play for; they’re faces of the game itself. All that’s asked in return for the fame and fortune is that they leave the game a better place than they found it.