The Progression of the NBA Over the Last 30 years

Due to popular request I’ve decided to write this blog post regarding the progression of the NBA over the last 30 or so years.  It doesn’t take a basketball genius to see that there have been some obvious changes in the game of basketball, but how do these changes affect the players today?  Hopefully this post will be able to answer a few questions that you may have and educate those who are curious about the changes.

Before I start I’d like to say that I am not ‘hating’ on the NBA or those responsible for the changes, I am merely an observer of the game and am presenting facts and statistics to support what I’m saying.


One of the major changes in the NBA over the last 30 years is the decline and eventual removal of hand-checking in the NBA.  For those of you who don’t know what hand-checking is it’s being able to exert physical force on a player using your hands, regardless of whether they are on the perimeter of in the post.  Tex Winter (responsible for the refining the world famous ‘triangle’ offense) describes hand-checking as a “freedom of movement initiative.”

In 94 the NBA removed hand-checking from the baseline to the freethrow line, in the year 2000 they removed chucking and wrapping from the game and in 2001 they introduced the 3 second rule and allowed zone defence to be played legally.

Hand-checking was eventually completely removed from the NBA at the end of the 2004 season.

As stated by the website:


2004-05 – New rules were introduced to curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to open up the game.

(I’ll cover the defensive three second rule later)

Well what affect has this had on the game I hear many of you saying.  One season after the total removal of hand-checking (2005-06 season) the NBA recorded its worst defensive season since its beginning in terms of defending perimeter players; ten players averaged above 25PPG (points per game), see below.

Points Per Game Leaders
1. Kobe Bryant – LAL  – 35.4
2. Allen Iverson – PHI  – 33.0
3. LeBron James – CLE  – 31.4
4. Gilbert Arenas – WAS – 29.3
5. Dwyane Wade – MIA – 27.2
6. Paul Pierce – BOS – 26.8
7. Dirk Nowitzki – DAL – 26.6
8. Carmelo Anthony – DEN – 26.5
9. Michael Redd – MIL – 25.4
10. Ray Allen – SEA – 25.1

I believe that this sharp increase in scoring is due to the removal of hand-checking (amongst other things).

Additionally, in the 2004 season a big man; Kevin Garnett led the NBA in both total points and points in the paint, the following season a perimeter player led the NBA in total points (Tracy McGrady) and a perimeter player also led the NBA in total points scored in the paint (Tony Parker).

The Three Second Rule

Another big thing the NBA has done in order to increase the amount of scoring, especially of that of perimeter players, is the introduction of the three second rule.

2001-02 rules changes state:

Illegal defense guidelines will be eliminated in their entirety. (Zone defence is now allowed legally in other words)
A new defensive three-second rule will prohibit a defensive player from remaining in the lane for more than three consecutive seconds without closely guarding an offensive player.

2004-05 Rules changes state:

“… and call defensive three seconds to open up the game.”

For those of you who do not play basketball and don’t understand the concept of “the three second rule”; currently a defensive player cannot be in the ‘key’ (the painted area under the basket) for more than three seconds unless he is guarding an opposing, offensive player.  When a player is close to being inside of the key for three seconds he must leave the key (therefore providing an open lane to the basket if you will.)

Why is this so big? Because as the rules changes state it “opens up the game.”  Previously to this a player would not have been able to drive towards the basket for a dunk of layup when in the half court set at will because an opposing player such as a power forward or center would have been waiting for him to disrupt his shot attempt.  However, in today’s game an offensive player can now drive past a defensive player on the wing (now with much more ease due to the curtailing of hand-checking) and attempt a layup or dunk with a reduced (not total) chance of being disrupted.

This leads me onto my next point; the lack of big men in the NBA.  There is currently a myth going around that the NBA much now is taller then it’s ever been.  This is simply not true.

Lack of Big Men in the NBA

The 2013 NBA All Star Weekend just passed and this was the first All Star Weekend in which people were not given the opportunity to vote for a center, why? Because the NBA removed the center position from the all-star balloting.  Surely this shows that there are not enough high quality centers in the NBA today?  Additionally, the 2012-2013 NBA season is the first season since the inception of the NBA in which there will not be a 20 point, 10 rebound a game player; yet more evidence that the big man is disappearing in today’s game.

Furthermore, it is common knowledge that the NBA has become more ethnically diverse in recent years and consequently there has been an increase in the number of European players (especially big men).  These European players such as Pau Gasol (Spain), Dirk Nowitski (Germany) and Andrea Bargnani (Italy) are notorious for being able to shoot better from mid range and three than the typical post dominating center.  But wait, being able to shoot is to do with offense I hear you say and yes, you are correct.

However this means two things.  One, it forces the opposing center to leave the key and defend on the perimeter (thus leaving the key open).  Secondly in order to be a decent shooter from mid range and from three point range you have to be leaner and carry less muscle mass than a typical post ‘pound it inside’/rebounding/defensive center.

As an example I’ll take Pau Gasol – who many claim to be the best shooting big man in the game today, and Dwight Howard – who many claim to be the best overall center as well as most athletic center in the NBA.  For those who are not aware of the noticeable size difference; Pau Gasol is 7″0 tall and weighs 250 pounds where as Dwight Howard is an inch shorter at 6″11 and weighs 15 pounds more at 265 pounds.  It would be foolish to draw a conclusion about the entire NBA from only two players however I believe that these two show the general rule in that big men who play in the post weigh more than big men who play further away from the basket.

Are Defences Tougher Now?

As I covered before in the hand-checking section the removal of hand checking led to the NBA’s worst season for defending perimeter players.  Although scoring has slowed down since then it is common knowledge that players score a lot more then they did when compared to twenty years ago.

One thing that cannot be disputed is that today’s defences are not as physical as previous.  One only has to look at best defences of the past such as the ‘Bad boy Pistons’ and 92 Knicks when compared to top defences today such as the Miami Heat and San Antoni Spurs to see that there is a difference.

Defensive techniques such as wrapping, hand-checking and even mauling have all been removed from the game.

In the 2011 off-season the NBA introduced a rule that states if contact is made with a player while he is at full extension when attempting a layup or dunk then an immediate flagrant foul is given to the defensive player.  Rules such as this are responsible for defences being less physical than twenty years ago.


Adding all this together; the removal of hand-checking, the addition of the three second rule, less physical defences and the lack of big men in the game today leads us to only one conclusion; it is easier for perimeter players to perform at a high level today than compared to in previous years.

I took the time to explain all of this because I feel that it is drastically overlooked by many NBA fans and the media when it comes to comparing the current players to the past ones.

Hopefully this blog post has educated you in the changes of the NBA, although it seems that I might be bashing the NBA there have been many positive consequences to this, for example, the increase in marketing for perimeter players that has lead to more people becoming interested in the NBA.

Although I generally dislike using quotes from NBA players and coaches I will leave you with some regarding the changes of the NBA.

During a 2007 L.A. Lakers pre-season broadcast, Phil Jackson was asked how he thought Michael Jordan would perform today, Phil said:

“Michael would average 45 with these rules.”

MJ also says due to defensive rule changes like hand checking, if he played in today’s NBA, dropping triple digits would be reachable for him.

“It’s less physical and the rules have changed, obviously.” says Jordan. “Based on these rules, if I had to play with my style of play, I’m pretty sure I would have fouled out or I would have been at the free throw line pretty often and I could have scored 100 points.”

Larry Brown, the Bobcats head coach also says:

“You can’t even touch a guy now, the college game is much more physical than our game. I always tease Michael [Jordan], if he played today, he’d average 50.”

“The history book inspires them to be some of the best,” said Jordan. “Rules have changed to help them. I could have averaged 50 points today!”

Question for Clyde Drexler:

“In the current league where there is no hand checking and no ruff play how much better would your numbers be?”

“Oh, tremendously better, from shooting percentage to points per game everything would be up, and our old teams would score a lot more points, and that is saying something because we could score a lot back then. I do think there should be an asterisk next to some of these scoring leaders, because it is much different trying to score with a forearm in your face. It is harder to score with that resistance. You had to turn your back on guys defending you back in the day with all the hand checking that was going on. For guys who penetrate these days, it’s hunting season. Yes, now you can play (floating)zone(legally), but teams rarely do.”

“The defensive rules, the hand checking, the ability to make contact on a guy in certain areas …. [have] all been taken away from the game. If Kobe could get 81, I think Michael could get 100 in today’s game.” – Scottie Pippen – January 2006

Hall of Famer Rick Barry, a keen observer of the game, said he would love to see players of the past getting to attack the basket under the new officiating. “They’d score a lot more,” he said.

Tex Winter said. “Players today can get to the basket individually much easier.”

Asked if he could defend Jordan under today’s interpretation of the rules, Dumars first laughed and said:

“It would have been virtually impossible to defend Michael Jordan based on the way the game’s being called right now.”

Question for Dominique Wilkins

Question: Seeing that you played in one of the greatest eras in NBA history, what has changed the most in the NBA since your days as a player?

I think guys played more of a true position back when I played.  A small forward was a small forward, a power forward was a power forward.  You didn’t play both. (Note what I said earlier about big men being able to shoot from the outside more)  The power forward position had the license to kick your butt and the game was very physical.  I think the physical aspect of the game, some of it has been taken away with the rule changes.  But the game is still played the same, you can’t change that.

Question: Do you think you could take them (the players of today)?

I don’t believe in comparisons, but I look at the era I played in.  Like I said, when you have to play against a great player every night, that defines who you are if you can compete on that same level night in and night out.  That tells you where your place is in the whole, I would say, history of the game.  You put yourself in a very high spot. 

When you can compete on that level against the greatest players every single night, and when you can play just as good or better, that really defines who you are as a player.  So if you’re asking me what would I have done [today], well, put it this way, if you couldn’t touch me [because of the rule changes], instead of averaging 25 or 30 [points], I’d probably average 40.



6 thoughts on “The Progression of the NBA Over the Last 30 years

  1. If you know bascetball if you played a little you will know that hand checking benefit more on the ofanicive player.i mean for player who is cuting and sprinting.Always the ofancive player makes the move first he choose when to go and with what force and he uses his hands to push him self from the opponet and gain significant advantage.For the player who have ball in his hands and is atacking,hands on his body means nothing,good handler will always drow a foul from a defencive player who is holding to much.You have some points in your story but you are looking things only on one side.Maybe becouse your preferance of the bascetball.Personaly i think Jordan wouldnt avrage 50 in today Nba in his prime.In 80 90 Trend was the allmoust every team would have one big 7.2 7.3 mureshan rick smit and such and belive me its much easyer to score on that guys than on the quick man with 6.7 atletice long hands in the paint.Every change in the nba that was created ore occurred have flaw and advantages for defence and ofensive.I would say the league is much more ahtletic.And trust me the moust hardest thing in bascetball is to play against smart athletic person.


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