In 2003, the San Antonio Spurs beat the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. Since then, 12 years have gone by, and much has changed.
From Bush to Obama, from depleted ozone layers to global warming, from Blockbuster to Netflix. Basketball, too, has been picked up by the winds of change. Still, it’s hard to picture a basketball landscape where the Lakers or Celtics are no longer dominant or even contenders (making the fact that the Spurs’ dominance stretches from 1999 to the present absolutely ridiculous).
Yet, here we are in a bizzaro world, one where the Clippers are the best team in LA, and basketball in the Pacific Northwest lost not one but two teams, with Vancouver moving to Memphis in 2001 and the Seattle Supersonics becoming the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2004. And most notably, and despite all TNT’s attempts to persuade us otherwise, we’ve seen the death of Hero Ball.
Back to that 2003 series: The Spurs won while attempting 12.3 3-pointers a game. The Lakers lost while shooting 17.8 shots per game from beyond the arc. Steve Kerr played on that San Antonio team in 2003, with the current Spurs core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. He now coaches a Warriors team that has started to show how basketball of the future will be played.
In 2003, the Spurs beat the Lakers by playing a form of grind-’em-out, every-possession-matters, isolation-heavy form of basketball. They won by making the most of every possession, playing team defense and having one of the greatest trio of players to ever grace the game. Stylistically, they resembled the Memphis Grizzlies.
Before the Memphis-Golden State series started, Charles Barkley, a man that played against the 1999 championship-winning Spurs, had this to say on the subject of how basketball rings are won:
“My philosophy has always been live by the jumper, die by the jumper. I said the same thing about Oklahoma City with [Russell] Westbrook and [Kevin] Durant. They’re never going to win until they get a big guy down low to get some easy baskets. I have the same issues with the Warriors.”
The great Mr. Barkley was not wrong, at least not back in 2003. It used to be that the NBA playoffs were where jumpers went to die. Teams saw shots from behind the 3-point line as a risk not worth the extra point. Every possession counted — why take a chance giving someone a long rebound and a shot at a fast break?
The shot didn’t let a team’s defense get set and it didn’t let the hulking centers of the past get position for rebounds. Opposing defenses used to slough off and let teams shoot from 3 for exactly those reasons. A layup or a dunk was a good shot. A 3-pointer could be had as a last-ditch attempt in the shot clock, but other than that, it was a bad shot. The triangle offense was built to slash and kick, and even Coach Popovich preferred the Duncan post-up to anything else.
In 2015, Charles’ basketball book is still relevant, but it is fading. The Grizzlies were made for 2003. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are two of the best post-up players in the game. Twenty years ago, they would be superstars in the league.
From 1990 to 2004, the only non-forward or center that won an MVP not named Michael Jordan was Allen Iverson during his sparkling 2000-01 season (Barkley, by the way, won in the 1992-93 season). Now, it’s a guard’s league, a run-n’-gun league, a Steph Curry league.
Over the regular season, the Warriors, on their way to just the 10th 67-plus win season in NBA history, attempted around 27 3-pointers a game. In the Western Conference semifinals against the Grizzlies, they did not take Barkley’s advice and abandon their shot. Instead, they have increased their attempts in the playoffs to just under 30 3-point attempts a game. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, shot only 14 a game and paid for it dearly, making just three of those in Game 1 and failing to close the gap against the supernova Warriors.
To quote “The Wire,” which serendipitously debuted in 2002, “the game done changed.” The game is faster, a team game. Much of the knock against the NBA in the ’90s was that it was essentially a game of one-on-one with eight other guys watching with the crowd.
And while it was magical to watch Mike go to work and incredible to see Kobe do what everyone in the building knew what he was going to do and still not get stopped, the criticisms were fair. The NBA, still comparatively young, had a lot of growing to do still. It seems as though it may very well have done that in the last 12 years.
Teams play defense as a unit, they run in transition and they do not take plays off, especially in the playoffs. The most telling stat is this: The four teams left in the playoffs are the exact four at the top of the regular season’s team 3-pointers made per game: Houston at 11.2, Golden State at 10.8, Cleveland at 10 and Atlanta at 10. Is there any more compelling evidence for the evolution of the league than that?
Charles Barkley says: “I like the bigger teams, because I like dunks more than I like jumpers, plain and simple.” As for me, I like the new NBA, one where a skinny kid from Davidson, a man that the ‘89 Pistons would have tried to knock out and that would have been relegated to the role of “specialist” just a few years ago, can storm the league as the new face of the Association. I like dunks, Chuck, but I’ll take the gasp of the crowd, the snap of the net from 23.75 feet. Hero Ball might be dead, but the new heroes are here.
If you’re also ready to part with the glory days, contact Nic Radoff at nradoff ‘at’ stanford.edu.