Were Magic, Bird, and the 80s Anomalies?

Amazon Prime has older NBA games their airing now. When I say older, I mean in the 70s and 60s. I watching a few quarters of Kareem and the Big O with the Bucks, Rick Barry and the Warriors, among others. Watching a few of these games reinforced a hypothesis I had about Magic, Bird, and the NBA in the 80s–namely, they were anomalies, and the 80s were an exception rather than the rule. I’ll explain my reasons for feeling this way in the next post.

5 thoughts on “Were Magic, Bird, and the 80s Anomalies?

  1. Magic and Bird

    LeBron James is a really good player, and I know some consider him as a candidate for an all-time great. But to me, he’s not in the same class as Magic and Bird. But to be fair, almost no other player is. Since they’ve left the game, I don’t think I’ve seen a player that was in the same mold. I can’t say that about MJ. Kobe was almost a clone. (By the way, the one player I’ve seen that I think has potential to be the same mold is Nikola Jokic. I don’t know about his scoring ability, but his passing reminds me of Bird and Magic. Dude, looks out of shape, though.)

    What sets Magic and Bird was a combination of size and skills–multi-skills–especially their passing. There are many multi-skilled players at since then and now–Jordan, Barkley, Clyde, Pippen, LeBron, Westbrook–I’m sure I’m missing players–but not on the same level as Magic and Bird. With Bird, I would say he was a jack-of-all-trades, master of all.

    Anyway, I think Bird and Magic were a big reason the 80s were so exceptional, but they weren’t the only reasons.

    Dr. J Ushers in Great One-on-One Players

    Some will point to Elgin Baylor or Connie Hawkins, maybe. I haven’t seen those guys play, so I’m going with Doc–and maybe we should add the Iceman as well. What I’m talking about is great one-on-one players–players that could create their own shots.

    The development of the isolation-style offense was also equally important. Some may think this is really not team basketball, but I think this is mistake–especially as a blanket statement. Isolation-based offenses, especially in the post, can be classified as team basketball. Watching some of those 70’s games, my guess is that some defined team basketball as characterized by offenses based on set plays and patterned movement. Passing, player movements, and screens were really critical. Yes, that’s team basketball, but isolation-based offenses aren’t just about one player playing one-on-one. Eventually, defenses double team, and that creates opportunities for other players. Good ball movement can capitalize on that. Besides, all NBA teams ran set plays as well.

    In any event, both things–better one-on-one players, plus isolation-based offenses, made the league more exciting, and I tend to think better. (By the way, when watching the Kareem on the Bucks, they didn’t run the type of isolation offense, and it seemed like they just wasted Kareem’s ability. It kinda reminded me of the offenses Brian Hill installed when Shaq was in Orlando. I thought this was a misuse of Shaq and the other players.)

    Tradition of Great Centers Continues

    Kareem, Moses, Parrish/McHale, Olajuwon–they were great. Artis Gilmore, Jack Sikma, Brad Daugherty were second tier centers, and they were solid. I’d probably put Ewing as a second tier guy as well.

    I’m too tired to write about this now, but basketball is a very different game with or without a few great centers. So not only did you have Magic and Bird, but you had a bunch of great one-on-one players and great centers.

    NBA declined after the 1980s

    In my view, the quality of the teams started declining after the 80s. The Bulls were a contender for all-time great team, and the Knicks and Rockets, of the 90s, were really good, but there weren’t many more in my view.

    In another era, if the Celtics and Lakers would have won more championships. But as great as those teams were, they didn’t always make it to the finals, which speaks to quality of the league. This isn’t to say they weren’t bad teams–but they were were many really good teams. 76ers, Rockets and Pistons all beat the Lakers and Celtics, but there were teams like the Spurs (of the early 80s), Stockton and Malone Jazz, Knicks with Bernard King, Bucks with Moncrief and Marques Johnson that were really good. Even the Nuggets (with Calvin Natt, Fat Lever, Alex Engligh) were really good one year. Mavs, with Jay Vincent and Aguirre, had some decent teams. But they were second or third tier compared to the best teams.

    1. I would agree with the Bird and Magic era. At the time, compared to the Pistons and Bulls, it was definitely a nicer form of basketball. That being said though, whenever I watched those games from the 80’s as replayed games, the intensity doesn’t match the Bulls and Piston’s era. And to me that takes a lot away from the quality.

      Current basketball has definitely moved more in the direction of teams in the 80’s in the sense the game is much more wide open. The scoring is probably close to what it was in the 80’s too. That is after a good decade and a half of just smash-mouth basketball. Teams rarely would average 100 points in that time, and the ones that would weren’t contending teams.

      My favorite basketball of my lifetime has been the Bulls, Piston battles, and maybe some Knick battles. The intensity of those games seem to be at an all-time high. Just off the top of my head, the Warriors without Durant is high up the list too. Again in the moment (ie: watching the Bulls), I think I would have said the Magic and Bird era was better, but seeing it all now, I would definitely choose the Bulls era. Just as a quick example, I cannot imagine Michael Cooper and more so Bobby Jones, being great defenders in any other era. Cooper had length, but he didn’t seem exceptionally quick or strong.

    2. I would agree with the Bird and Magic era. At the time, compared to the Pistons and Bulls, it was definitely a nicer form of basketball.

      What’s the Pistons’ and Bulls’ era? Are you thinking late 80s and early 90s? My time frames are by decade–so the Pistons would fall in the 80s. There is some overlap with the Bulls, too, in the 80s.

      That being said though, whenever I watched those games from the 80’s as replayed games, the intensity doesn’t match the Bulls and Piston’s era. And to me that takes a lot away from the quality.

      How are you judging intensity? Defensively? Physicality? Speed? The Pistons were intense and physical for sure (as was Riley’s Knicks). When I think of the best defenses, I’ve seen I think of those two teams. Larry Brown’s Sixers were close, too. I also liked Miami Heat’s defense when LeBron was there–at least in short spurts guarding three-point offenses. They could cover a lot of ground. But they wouldn’t do this throughout the game.

      I can see how you think this if you watch the half-court action. It can see slow, and the defensive play was solid, but not smothering like the Pistons. But did you get the sense that the Bulls defense was smothering or suffocating?

      In terms of speed, the Lakers fast break was…well, fast. It looks intense if you watch that.

      Current basketball has definitely moved more in the direction of teams in the 80’s in the sense the game is much more wide open.

      By “wide-open” do you mean, higher scoring? Currently, the game is wide open in the sense that they move the post players up high or out on the perimeter–creating huge space in the key. But the 80s was obviously not like that.

      Also, I wonder if you feel that way because of the great centers. That can make the game seem slower or less intense, maybe? You don’t think the presence of great 5 makes a team really good? Add a player like Magic or Larry, and that’s a tough team to beat. (And yet, Dream and Sampson beat the Lakers and put up a fight against the Celtics. Doc and Moses swept the Lakers.)

      Just as a quick example, I cannot imagine Michael Cooper and more so Bobby Jones, being great defenders in any other era. Cooper had length, but he didn’t seem exceptionally quick or strong.

      My sense was that Cooper and Jones were more about defending guys that could move without the ball (e.g., Coop could shut down Dale Ellis)–but not defender super quick penetrators.

      When you say “Bulls era” I’m guessing you basically mean the 90s. You had the Bulls, Knicks, and Houston (for two years). All the other teams–Portland, Phoenix, Orlando, Seattle, Pacers–would have been second or third tier teams in the 80s. I don’t think they’d make it to the finals. I’m not sure Riley’s Knicks or Rudy T’s Rockets are on the same level of the Celtics and Lakers.

      The great centers, plus a Magic or Bird, make all the difference to me. (And the Lakers and Celtics had other really good players, too, obviously.) You basically had no chance unless you had a center that could at least be somewhat competitive. The Mavs, Nuggets, and Jazz had some solid teams in the 80s, but they generally had no chance. The Spurs with the A-Train had a few competitive series, if I remember, but they still came up short. I one of the reason is that these teams lacked a really good, if not, great 5.

  2. When I say intensity I’m definitely talks more about defense. There are times when I watch the Magic Lakers and the Bird Celtics that the defense doesn’t even seem like they are trying, and I’ve said it before but it sort of looks like an all-star game. When you watch today’s game, it sort of moving in that direction too. So maybe it’s not really intensity but how much of an advantage the offense has or how unstoppable the offenses are. But even then, you see guys in today’s game that are in the guy’s jersey and you rarely see that in the 80’s. You used to love to talk about the Seton Hall team and how they got in player’s faces defensively. Why don’t we see that a lot in the NBA and even more so during the Lakers and Celtic’s heyday?

    I wasn’t talking about decades like you were, but the style of play. When the Pistons started winning, they were a different style of basketball.

  3. So maybe it’s not really intensity but how much of an advantage the offense has or how unstoppable the offenses are.

    What I hear you saying: The 80’s offenses may have seemed unstoppable, but this was partly (largely?) because the defenses weren’t as strong. Is that right?

    Last night, I watched a little of game of 3 of the ’87 championship game between the Lakers and Celtics and game 1 in ’97 championship between Jazz and the Bulls. I specifically looked at the defense and any other signs of intensity. What I noticed in the former is that the defenses sagged a lot–they didn’t really extend, and not really pressure the ball or contest passes. I’ve watched segments of these games in the recent past, and that’s the same impression I’ve had, too. I can definitely see why you think the defense wasn’t as intense or as formidable. I would definitely say the defense wasn’t as good as Bad Boys or Riley’s Knicks. I’m less sure about Jordan’s Bulls, but I wouldn’t argue if one said the Bulls defense was better. (I would contest that they were way better, though.)

    Different types of defense

    What might help in this discussion is to talk about three different types of defense. First, there is a defense that is solid or good. This defense doesn’t have much on the ball pressure, and opponents can make passes without struggling. But the defenders are consistently in good position, not allowing a lot of easy, uncontested shots.

    Next, I would mention two types of great defenses:

    1. Great position defense. Same like the solid defense–the ball pressure may not be great or the passing lanes not choked off, but the shots are more consistently and heavily contested. Defenders are smothering shooters. Such defenses are often really physical and good at rebounding. That Seton Hall team falls in this category. I would put the Bad Boys, Riley’s Knicks, and Brown’s Sixers here as well. Really good Big 10 teams played this brand of defense–Bobby Knight’s, Gene Keady, Tom Izzo, Bennett, father and son. Riley Wallace’s defense also in this mold, but not an all-time great level.

    2. Great pressure (half court) defense. Here, the pressure on the ball is intense, and the defense attempts to deny every pass. The position defense may be good as well, but the ball pressure and denial stand out. Think Duke or even Pitino. I don’t know if any NBA team played like this at a high level.

    The pressure defense can seem better and more intense than the position defense because in the position defense opponents don’t struggle as much to dribble or pass the ball. But the position defense’s intensity can show up in the way they contest shots and their physicality.

    Hypothesis on 80s defense

    Now, let’s get back to defense in the 80s. Just because the Celtics and Lakers didn’t contest shots or were as physical as the Pistons, that doesn’t mean their defense was weak or bad. You don’t have to play at Detroit’s level to be good. (If I recall the 80’s Jazz had a solid defense as well, but they weren’t in the same class as Detroit.)

    I also have a hypothesis on the lack of perimeter pressure–namely, both teams were concerned about defending the post. Worthy, Kareem, Parish, McHale (and even Bird to a lesser degree). You had to make it tough on these players in the post. If you didn’t, you almost had no shot. (I should add–you had to rebound, too.) The teams that beat them could defend in the post and rebound–teams with Moses Malone; Hakeem/Sampson; Laimbeer/Salley/Mahorn/Buddha Edwards/Rodman.
    When no team has a great center, then defending in the post and having 4s and 5s that can rebound, aren’t as important.

    So the defenses may not have extended because they wanted to clog the middle or be in position to double. At this point, the offenses really didn’t take advantage of the three point line–like the way Rudy T did in the mid 90s. I think this allowed defenses to sag more, and be more passive on the perimeter. None of this equals bad defense, though.

    Bulls and Jazz defense

    By the way, in watching the Bulls and Jazz, I would say the defense seemed more aggressive–both sides seem more extended, a little more active. I was actually a little more impressed with the Jazz defense, but that’s partly because I wasn’t expecting great defense from them. The Bulls were not really choking off passing lanes. What they were doing was doubling Malone, so maybe that’s why they couldn’t extend as much. And the Jazz didn’t really spread the court and position spot up shooters. (In the first quarter, Malone and Jordan couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean. Actually, from what I remember Malone missed a lot of shots in this series, and I remember feeling he choked and was a big reason they lost. If he was dominant in the post, I think they would have had a great shot of winning. And it’s not like the Bulls defense was a big reason he was missing. Same with Jordan in the first quarter–he was just missing his trade-mark turnarounds and 15 footers.)

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