And via my ability to not overrate Payton’s era, here’s my take.
I don’t doubt for a second that Gary Payton misses hand checking. That he misses games that routinely finished with an 87-85 score, and that he misses a time when teams were allowed to back down defenders from the three-point arc all the way to the rim, attempting to either earn a whistle, or another endless illegal defense call and subsequent free throw. I don’t doubt that Gary Payton misses the sort of two-man offense that made spectators out of three members of the five man lineup, left to sit on the weak side and wait for some crumb following yet another screen and roll.
That sort of game was Payton’s bread and butter, and while we don’t want to underestimate his Hall of Fame brilliance, those sorts of basketball stylings were one of a few low points in the decades-long up and down run of the National Basketball Association.
Yes, Michael Jordan once ruled the landscape, two different incarnations of the New York Knicks were fun, the Utah Jazz were to be revered, the Rockets ruled and Shaq was relatively svelte at one point. But for a goodly chunk of Payton’s prime between 1993 and 2003, NBA basketball could be a chore to watch. Especially in the years following Jordan’s retirement after the 1997-98 season, and until the NBA decided to pay increased attention paid to hand check laws in 2004-05.
That year brought us the ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ Phoenix Suns, and to a far less famous degree, Nate McMillan’s surprising Seattle SuperSonics squad. Though McMillan’s team rarely ran – it was the fourth-slowest team in the NBA that year – the squad moved the ball expertly in its half court sets, and it obsessed over the corner three-pointer. The lineup, featuring Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in their primes, helped spearhead the league’s second most efficient offense, and the team won 52 games in spite of rolling out the league’s fourth-worst defense.
That group, along with a 2004-05 San Antonio Spurs squad that obsessed just as much with forcing teams into taking low percentage long range two-point jumpers while avoiding fouls, set the standard for the modern NBA. Not so much in terms of execution and play calling, though we’re not far from that nearly a decade later, but in terms of study, willingness to challenge NBA orthodoxy, and the ability to think on one’s feet collectively.
I grew up in Payton’s era, and it inspired me to write about the NBA for a living. And grinding out the post-MJ, pre-hand check years as a struggling writer was no fun, but I hung in there. And I think I’m one of few my age that is uniquely qualified to tell you that a lot of basketball during that time was bloody awful to watch.
Everyone could hand check. Spacing was poor, and though some teams took heaps of three-point shots, it wasn’t quite the weapon it was today. Coaches called out endless plays, even after offensive rebounds, they’d drag out the shot clock, they’d talk up midrange shots, and then they’d wonder why every other game seemed to be finishing with scores in the 80s. National TV contests featuring Allen Iverson’s 76ers, Latrell Sprewell’s Knicks, Jason Kidd’s Suns or Vince Carter’s Toronto Raptors shooting in the low 40s were terrible to watch. It was an ugly, brutal league.
Which suited GP just fine, because that was his game. And he’s right that, at times, there can be too many fouls in the modern NBA – but those games are few and far between as players learn to adapt and, y’know, not stick two arms into a guard while they’re driving to the hoop.
This adaptation has led to another wonderful element, as NBA coaches have gotten smarter and developed fantastic, fluid defenses with the knowledge that they can’t rely on hand checks to keep the top scorers in line. This is part of the reason why you don’t see nearly as many 45 and 50-point games any more, as teams evolve and the game grows. Offense has improved, but so has defense – and in a way that nearly prevents the sort of “50 and 60”-point games that Payton swears he’s seeing all the time.
It’s a better, more interesting, improved game on both sides of the ball. Anyone in a comment section that tells you that defense is a thing of the past simply doesn’t watch NBA basketball. And anyone that tells you that the game has gotten wimpier simply doesn’t watch NBA basketball – especially live NBA basketball.
There’s more movement, there’s more passing, there’s more running, and there’s less standing around. And because coaches, players and teams have to adapt or be left behind, the game has gotten so, so much more intelligent. Even the Knicks are figuring things out.