Go to any YouTube video of an NBA game from the 1980s and count the dramatic ways the game is so different from today. The shorts, sure. No one needs to see that much of Bill Laimbeer. But there’s so much more. The players are skinnier. There are more fastbreaks, more scoring but the defense is much worse, much less intense. You could score four points in those games. Big guys play down low and when they try to handle the ball you can tell they’re having flashbacks to the time in 7th grade when the coach screamed at them that anyone who’s the tallest player on the court should never try to dribble. In today’s game 6-11 guys handled it like 6-1 guys did in the past.
It’s all there on the video. But if you don’t have the patience for viewing, simply read the old boxscores.
The 3-pointer dominates in today’s NBA, as teams space out the floor, drive and dish out to shooters scattered around the perimeter. The shot has altered how the game is played. Need proof? Check out the composite boxes from the NBA Finals in the early 1980s, which is something I make a habit out of since the Lakers won five titles throughout the decade. Reliving the past makes it so much easier to deal with LA’s dreadful present and unknown future.
Last year, when the Heat defeated Oklahoma City in five games, Miami went 42 of 98 from 3. The losing Thunder hoisted up 105 3-pointers, hitting 32 (somehow, even though it’s a year later and he’s playing for a different team, which isn’t even in the playoffs at this point, James Harden just missed another 3 in the Finals. It’s a weird time-travel thing). Compare those numbers to the NBA Finals from 1980-83.
When the Lakers beat the Sixers in six games in 1980 — you know it as the game Jamaal Wilkes scored 37 in Game 6, while Magic Johnson had a pretty good game himself in the closeout game — LA went 0-4 on 3-pointers. For the whole series. Four attempts in six games, no makes. Philly? The Sixers went 1-16 (Doc Erving made the one, possibly by leaping from beyond the 3-point line and throwing down a dunk). It’s startling and it is obvious when watching those games how the teams avoided the line as if they’d receive an electrical shock if they ventured outside it. The perimeter players operate from 20 feet and closer, dumping the ball down low in tighter spaces.
In 1980 the Celtics coasted past Houston in six games. Boston had a guy named Bird and other long-range shooters like Chris Ford. The Celtics were 3-for-16 on 3s, with Bird — in the conversation for the greatest shooter who ever wore short shorts — only going 1-for-2. Houston made 3-of-11, with Mike Dunleavy, who was still years away from making bizarre substitutions and creating odd end-of-game strategies on the sideline, making all of them for the Rockets.
The Lakers again defeated the Sixers in six in 1982 and they followed a familiar pattern: Magic won the Finals MVP and no one shot from 23 feet, 9 inches away from the basket. LA went 1-for-7 on threes in six games, Philly 4-for-9 (Andrew Toney was actually 3-for-4. Shoot the ball, ‘Drew!). When the Sixers finally got some revenge in 1983 it was thanks to Moses Malone’s dominating presence in the paint. When Philly swept the Lakers, the victors made…zero 3-pointers. How many did the Sixers shoot? Two.
Things finally started changing a bit in ’84, when the Celtics went 9-for-23 in their seven-game victory over the Lakers. But even in ’86, with Bird at his peak and the Celtics again defeating Houston in six, Boston was still only going 12-for-35. Not that there was a dramatic change in the evolution of the game, as Detroit only went 5-for-20 when winning the 1989 title. By 1990 the Pistons were shooting 56 3s in their 5-game victory over Portland.
The game’s obviously not returning to those types of numbers, not when so many advanced stats show how efficient it is for teams to shoot 3s instead of long 2s and not when the game is becoming ever-more reliant on perimeter players, whether it’s guys who can get to the basket thanks to superb ball handling or can launch and hit threes with two defenders in their face. To watch Stephen Curry operate above the three-point line is to see the game being played in a way that’s unique in NBA history, someone who shoots more threes than anyone but makes a higher percentage than the best who have ever played. Imagine a team shooting four threes in a game today, much less in a series. The league and the Feds would investigate the players and coach for point-shaving.
Back to another player with unique skill sets: Magic. Look at his career numbers and you’ll see how long-distance shooting changed, even while he still spent all his career leading fast breaks and mystifying defenses with his passing, drives and late-developing hook shot. Magic entered the league with a reputation as a poor outside shooter and he didn’t go out of his way in trying to prove critics wrong. From 1980-88 here’s how many three-pointers Magic made:
7, 3, 6, 0, 7, 7, 10, 8, 11
Zero! That was in 1983. Even in 1987, probably his greatest season when he won his first MVP, he only made 8 3s, and one of those was a famous midcourt buzzer-beater at the end of the third quarter in a regular season game against the Celtics. When Magic threw his entry passes to Kareem he was well inside the line and you wonder why anyone played him honestly out there. But Magic was always adding elements to his game, whether it was becoming the best free-throw shooter in the league one year or the mini-hook. But nothing compared to how he developed his 3-point shooting. After making 11 in 1988 he made 59 in 1989 and then 106 in 1990. Even in 1996, when he returned to the NBA but only played in 32 games, he hit 22 3s, basically matching his total from his first five years in the league. If Magic played today? He’d be launching 5 a game himself.
The game’s completely changed, but one thing hasn’t: The NBA playoffs are still the best basketball in the world and my favorite two months of the year.
Oh, and the Lakers? They again can’t make threes and I wish Metta World Peace would follow the example of his forefathers and never shoot them.