By H. Esteves
Today’s game is different. That is certainly undeniable, but much debate roams over whether it is tougher to play in today’s fast-paced NBA or in the 1990s. For one, these days the three-point line is a major emphasis on the game, with teams shooting virtually 40% of their shots from behind the arc. Many old fans of the NBA suggest that the game today has ‘softened’, and that in the past the NBA referees were less anxious with their whistles.
Lebron James is currently one of the greatest players for perhaps the past decade and a half. He has played from 2003 to the present day, with career averages of 27 points per game, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists, whilst averaging 50% from the field and 35% from three. There’s much more to his numbers though, as standing at 6 feet 9 inches and 250 pounds, he’s huge. On top of that he has a high vertical leap, fast speed, and quick feet to match. In other words, he’s big, he’s skilled, he’s athletic. But imagine for a second, we plucked his 2008 self and placed him in the 1990-91 season, how well would he handle it?
With less of an emphasis on the 3-point-line and thus tighter defenses, Lebron would have less space to work with inside the paint. The game was even more physical too because hand-checking is allowed—hand checking refers to when a player holds his hand or hands on the attacker’s waist and effectively limits his movement. A player of Lebron’s physique would handle any physical era well, but it is fair to say that clogged up paints and contact-heavy defenses would hinder his production. Another byproduct of the lack of 3-point shooting would be less playmaking and assist opportunities for James in drive-and-kicks, which has been a staple play in his career, as his hypothetical 90’s teammates would not knock down open 3-pointers at the rate which players do today.
One other crucial aspect is the pace. Nowadays, the NBA is more than ever a league filled with quick passing, fast breaks and shooting earlier in the clock. A few rule changes have sped up the game too—think for example the 14 second shot clock reset after rebound rule implemented in 2018, or the rule for time to cross mid-court reduced to 8 seconds in 2001. Other rules have made the League more offense friendly—like no hand checking. The 90’s had very isolation-heavy, slow offenses with a focus of getting open 2 pointers. In short, this all allows Lebron to have more touches and more shot attempts in today’s NBA than what he would in the 90’s.
Lebron is a player of legendary caliber, and as one of the greats it is undeniable that he would adapt his game to the era and still dominate. His physicals would become more important than before, and he might have a shorter career period of superstar production since it is likely that he would be more dependent on his body. His career numbers might look less impressive than what they used to be, and his stardom might be less long-lived, but he would, nonetheless, be a superstar.