The passing of time and subsequent dulling of our memories always makes the past look grander than it actually was. What’s the reason? Simply put, people don’t want to look back with a critical lens at our past. Everyone wants to believe that the icons of their era, whether they reigned in the fields of politics, music or the crux of our discussion, sports, are universally the “best.”
It has become an inarguable fact in most circles that the NBA’s watershed stretch came during the 1980s, during the heyday of stars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, as a young phenom named Michael Jordan rose to prominence. Those three names alone carry with them a reverence that most feel is untouchable by any players in the modern era.
I’m here to change that line of thinking. I fully believe the NBA is as good, if not better than it has ever been on a variety of levels. In a series of posts, I’m going to show and tell you why I believe that.
Today’s Topic: Depth, and the Myth of the Superteam
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With the All-Star Game playing out over the weekend, many have decried the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and rightfully so. Only four teams in the conference currently sit above the .500 mark, and the conference’s final playoff spot belongs to a Charlotte Bobcats team with five more losses than wins.
But pointing to the East in its current state as the model for why the NBA isn’t as strong as it once was is flawed thinking, and reeks of bias toward a younger generation. After all, when judging the strength of a bygone era, the first and often only teams we bring up are the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, quite clearly the class of the ’80s.
That’s not to say that they were the only teams of merit, but closer examination of both conferences reveals that perhaps the league wasn’t as deep as many like to believe.
Choosing a single year to represent the era is arbitrary in nature, but if we follow the stars, the 1987-88 season is probably our best choice, with Jordan’s first MVP campaign and Bird’s last truly great year highlighting the season. On the flipside of their brilliance: a lot of garbage at the bottom of the conferences.
Take for instance the San Antonio Spurs, who snuck into the Western Conference Playoffs with a 31-51 record. Imagine a team making the playoffs that was 20 games under .500 today–ESPN and its band of merry analysts would proclaim it a disgrace to the game.
And those Spurs weren’t the only ones to sneak in with a pitiful record that year, or even throughout the decade. From the 1979-80 season through 1988-89, an average of 3.7 teams per year made the playoffs having lost more games than they won. Over the league’s last 10 seasons, that number is significantly lower, with just nine teams total making the playoffs with a subpar record since 2003-04.
Highlighting the East also has an unintended effect–marginalizing the brilliance of the Western Conference. Maybe it’s because the West has reigned as the dominant conference for so long that it’s easy to take it for granted, but the overall strength of the conference isn’t just a one-year wonder. Over the last 15 years, the wild, wild West has produced a few of the league’s all-time best teams, such as the Shaqobe Lakers and Tim Duncan’s consistently excellent Spurs. In 2007-08, the Carmelo Anthony-led Denver Nuggets were the final seed…and they won 50 games.