NBA Fan Evolution: Part 1 – Fan Eras

Here are a few highly evolved fans…
I recently engaged in a lengthy discussion with an older NBA fan regarding various players in different eras. He was a big fan of guys like Wilt/Russell/West/Kareem and got quite passionate when I suggested that while great and deserving HOF players they played in a much weaker era that inflated their stats. They could not compete at the same level during the 90’s peak.

He passionately argued these stars would have no problems retaining status. In fact, it was not weaker but stronger. Play today is just ‘flashy’ or ‘fancy’, not quality. While I respect his opinion as a fan supporting his players to do it he had to more or less ignore an exhaustive list of strong points which settled all but his mind.

Its self-evident the league has evolved from it’s past, I won’t write about that, but rather what I learned: the basketball fan in general has evolved with the league. In fairness its possible he’s right and I am wrong. I doubt it based on full games and clips I’ve watched. Compared to today’s game it looks like the video game graphic at the top of this blog.


These are the stars of a finals game? Seriously? No wonder Bill had 35 boards: he invented ‘jumping on defense’
Ignoring video evidence he said that it was only a perception that the guys on old film never jump or display ability dribbling the ball… its because they did not want to?? At some point during the back and fourth I realized the intense differences in being a casual/serious fan of pro basketball and how that has itself evolved. It’s not so much that you can’t compare eras but fans from different eras are too set in their preconceived notions of quality to agree. There is no other reason to think someone could ignore the following list of points. The 60’s/70’s were weak. Not to say I can’t be wrong because my own era affects my own thinking in the same way. But I’m me, not that guy, so I’m writing it from my perspective.

Click to expand an exhaustive list of factual points, if you care…

There are 5 myopia inducing Fan eras with plenty of overlap in the group. Fans form opinions about the game and once set its locked in for life. While the 90’s/MJ era stands alone as a seperate era, in terms of fandom, the game was very much the same as in the latter 70’s and early 00’s. Fan eras tend to be driven by how basketball is thought about rather then those who play it so things like major rule changes are the turning points. There are 4 fan eras of hoop:

Pre Shot Clock Era


Did “Mr. Basketball” actually play basketball? Sort of…
Not many of these dudes left. This era occurred when the league was in a formative state. Play varied so much its difficult to imagine any comparisons being made. Games were won with stalling techniques and scores were regularly in the teens and 20’s.

Simultaneously equipment was improving. Basketballs before the late late 40’s and early early 50’s were not quite symmetrical and did not bounce consistently. Dribbling therefore didn’t become a crucial part of the game till the 50’s altering how you played. Basketball resembled team hand ball with limited on-ball movement resulting in a very pass oriented game. Maybe an old timer thinks George “Mr. Basketball” Mikan is the greatest but its like trying to argue Charlie Chaplin being more talented then Martin Scorcese.

Post Shot Clock To The 1976 ABA/NBA Merger

Athletic players in the NBA were not really welcomed or accepted. People rarely dunked and much of the league was still quite slow. This era was dominated by the Celtic’s 11 championships in 13 years and fostered rules to limit Wilt Chamberlain’s size induced dominance.


Much Improved: But This Is The Finals With GOAT Candidates??? Really???

While players like Jerry West, Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor dramatically increased elite talent the NBA expanded from 9 to 24 teams negating them. Simultaneously the ABA formed in 1967 and drew many of the best making both ends of the era a wash.

In 1976 75% of the merging ABA players forced out their NBA peers. 10 of the new league’s 24 all stars were ABA players . 3 of the elite teams 1976 NBA teams were the ABA teams despite financial and draft penalties accepted as a concession of the merger. Needless to say talent was spread far and thin prior to 1976.

Fans in this era may tend to feel the well documented statistical achievements of the players indicate supreme strength. Due to their disproportionate size many also consider the era’s centers the best to ever to play.

Factoring into their stats however is a much faster pace (25 possessions/game or more) and watery competition sporting boys to take on the men. The size factor meant the few truly dominant bigs feasted on a league of diminutive front court players. Elgin Baylor at 6’5″ approached scoring 40 PPG and 20 boards over an enitre season. Twice! Nuff said.

Merger To Bad Boys 2

One of the reasons bigs were able to dominate pre-merger was absence of the 3 point shot. Adopted from the ABA it helped to even the size advantage as the lower percentage outside shot now counted for more then a high % inside one. Good shooters at a distance had to be covered by defenders helping to spread the floor and open lanes inside the painted area.

This new unclogged middle opened up the game spawning new strategies featuring athletic players quick players. A 6’5” player who could jump could get a very high percentage dunk or grab a rebound over a center who had moved out of defensive position. Pro ball as we know it was born when the ABA brought it’s style and talent to the NBA.

Offensive juggernauts like the Celtics/Lakers led by Bird and Magic flourished as the running game exploded on the 1980’s NBA. Jordan and Dominque were fixtures of the league’s highlights and stats. No guard had ever been able to control games like this. They could nearly beat the other team all by themselves as long as it was close near the end. In Jordan’s rookie season he dropped 63 points on a shocked Celtics team. Larry Bird won the game. His face however acknowledged some part of of him had been defeated.


No player has been so great under such pressure in history

In response new sophisticated defensive schemes were developed to fight back. The Pistons bad boys team were notoriously physical taking contact to a whole new level. Result: back to back championships. Could have been 3 but the Lakers were bailed out by Pistons injuries in 1988. They made specific “Jordan Rules” to wear down the game’s best player with success.

Defense intensified into the 90’s. Teams saw it as the only way to stop the freakishly athletic new breed of players from crushing them on a nightly basis. Pat Reilly’s Knicks and Heat teams took advantage of ‘hand checking’ loop holes in the rules to literally beat on anyone scoring in the paint. Players like Jordan reacted using their athleticism to become some of the best defensive players ever but to the determent of scoring which was beginning to dip below 90 PPG. Jordan’s own PPG would decline as he entered his prime.

Fans from this era are invariably obsessed with defense and incredible individual play capable of beating those defenses. MJ’s quote “defense wins championships” is used more then Michael Jackson’s attorney. After years of marketing ‘superstars’ the league was at a loss on how to sell team defense to it’s fanbase without an MJ caliber superstar to beat them. Combined with the late 90’s parade of reitring superstars and weak drafts, they started to feel desperate

The league attempted to curtail the physicality with little success. A tipping point was reached when the second Pistons defensive powerhouse, with no marketable ‘stars’, bullied their way to a 4-1 finals victory (and near sweep) over the NBA’s flagship Lakers team. LA was fielding 4 future HOF players in their prime to late prime, and all arguably more talented the their counterparts who won ‘the belts’.

2005 Rule Changes To Present

Don’t cry Minny KG… your title is coming soon!
Ratings slipped and the front office responded with intense aggression. It wanted the growth it saw in the 80’s but didn’t have the talent anymore to build around.

NBC was in a similar scenerio a few years back when it replaced Carson with Leno only to learn that Letterman and the guy who replaced David were both much better at the job. NBC was stuck with Leno and it’s solution was to copy Letterman’s old material and showcase it being fronted by Jay. The NBA did the same thing and copied their 70’s ancestors. Instead of copying the 3 point line, they just told their refs to give stars more calls then ever and fronted it as a minor ‘rule revision’.

Stern created the world’s first ref fueled time machine. Hand checking which had been made illegal already was redefined to allow a ref to call fouls on even the most minimal contact or just for plainly arbitrary reasons. A defensive 3 seconds forced centers out of the lane and defensive position to block shots and rebound. Refs were told to call as much contact on the perimeter as possible.

It worked. Big time. Steve Nash experienced an unprecedented non-stereoid fueled resurgence at 30. He won two back to back MVP’s after his owner refused to give him a relatively modest contract extension. 13 teams averaged 99 points a game or more after only 2 teams did the previous year.

The Pistons did luck into the finals again due to Dwyane Wade’s shoulder injury but lost to the Spurs… SA had equally good defense but it their guards won the series for them. Their penetration game was built for the new rules. Tony Parker led the league in points in the paint, something no small guard had ever done. The next year saw two offensive teams in the finals with Wade’s call inflated games defeating the Mavs.


I have a man crush on Lebron, but he does have it easier
The trend has continued. We were all a witness to Lebron’s vastly inferior team climbing on his back as he continually annihilated the Piston’s defense for 29 straight points in game 5 of the East finals in 2006. The Spurs continued to win with good defense and great slashing guards who closed out game: before they won with the twin towers of Duncan/Robinson surrounded by shooters.

What does this say about the fans of this new era? I really can’t tell. I cut my teeth on the defensive 80’s/90’s making it hard to get a good read. Defense is still important but you can’t win a title without quick slashing players. Effective centers are shrinking in size and weight as mobility to get back into position is trumping power and the banging game.

Players like Marcus Camby, Josh Smith, Amare Stoudamire and Dwight Howard have become the best bigs in the game while 7’6” Yao Ming, who would have been a defensive monster in the 90’s (Manute Bol blocked 5 shots a game in that era!) just does not seem quick enough to get to the spot and protect the rim or board. The league has gone from rebound/defend to slash and kick.

Fans who didn’t experience the 90’s may rate these skills as the most important facets of a good basketball star. That was Jordan’s game so he still gets his respect but will a player like Alonzo Mourning, who was absolutely devastating in the paint, get the same props? What about a guy like Patrick Ewing or even Greg Ostertag? Will I be on the receiving end of an NBA fan in 10-20 years who rather justly doesn’t feel many of the players in my era would wilt in his modern game? With Dwight Howard winning the dunk contest and having 9 20/20 games this season, it seems likely.


Forget West, is ‘anyone’ in the 1963 finals even approaching Jordanesque??? Rotation/role playeresque, not 30/7/6, is more like it

Only time will tell. Many claim you can’t compare eras. On stats alone I agree. You can with the right concessions, but maybe comparison is not the right approach as understanding eras garners more legit results. I still think the overall growth of the game and especially the use of athletic ability to not only overpower/out finesse truly trumps many past era superstars. Jerry West would not put up Jordan numbers today but he did in the 60’s.

In the same league Jordan would kill him… its just not even close. There were no Jordans, Battiers, Pauls, Pippens or Stocktons so slow 6’2 guys could put up 32/7/6. The advancement since then is just too much for the old, old school guys to overcome.

Still have to know your roots though. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re from. You don’t want to be the young punk who just does not understand the game but if you look at things honestly you can also avoid being that guy who can’t let go of the past.

This is part of one NBA Fan Evolution. If you enjoyed it be sure to check out part 2. It will examine fan evolution in the context of these eras with regard to the growth of media, technology and general sophistication. Available now, click here!

So just one last video… this is Elgin Baylor’s 61 point FINALS performance. Where is the D? Where is the speed? This guy nearly averaged a 40/20 for two seasons and is routinely compared to players like Barkley and Lebron.


Be Sure To Pay Attention To What Bob Cousey, Best Point Of His Era, Has To Say At The End



4 Comments on "NBA Fan Evolution: Part 1 – Fan Eras"

  1. So you don't see why a lot of people would see this as ignorant?

    How are players from the 1960's supposed to compete against a standard that did not exist?

    Are all modern movies better than those of the 1920's and 1930's because acting and production has evolved?

    It's a gross generational bias. Wilt had a 50 inch vertical at 7'1" and was more skilled by far than all big men (save Russell) in his era.

    Also there were teams and 10 players, only the best 80 in North America. Now there is 450 guys in the league and the talent pool is less than triple the size.

    Evolution is a natural thing in sports and life, but holding people and things from the past to the standards of the present is simply ignorant; end of story.

    Perhaps instead of trying to tell someone older than you why they're wrong about something that can't be proven, you should listen to why they disagree.

  2. Hmm… well, it seems to me the whole point is standards have changed. Just like movies, some players could hack it, but lots could not. Citizen Kane was hyped cuz they used new techniques overlaying two shots on top of each other and thats totally lost on audiences today.

    Wilt did not havea 50 inch vertical and his era does not matter in an all time discussion.

    The talent pool? Its grown 100's of times compared to when people were playing in the 40's and 50's. Its not ignorant to hold players to the standard, its ignorant to state that older players are bhet 'best all time' when they clearly are not.

  3. Again, it makes me laugh. I'm ignorant and bias, yet Bob Cousey agrees with me. :0 did you watch the videos?

  4. Hello, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, Your blog looks good. Have a nice day.

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