CLEVELAND — As the Golden State Warriors have stampeded through these NBA playoffs, the stiffest defense they’ve faced hasn’t been from their competition on the court.
It’s been from great players of past eras. From Magic Johnson to Julius Erving to Rasheed Wallace, players of all stripes have come out and said that, in some shape or form, their respective teams would wipe the floor with the presumptive NBA champions.
All of them are wrong. And comically so.
This ridiculousness began with Johnson, now president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, who opined at an event Monday that his Showtime Lakers teams would “probably sweep” the Warriors.
“We’re going to win,” Johnson said, seated next to his old coach, Pat Riley, at an event in Los Angeles. “We’d probably sweep them.”
When Johnson explained himself by saying, “They’re too small,” Riley added, “Try to put somebody on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”
“Zaza?” Johnson asked, referencing Warriors starting center Zaza Pachulia. “I’m sorry.”
Johnson’s boasting was followed up by Erving going on the radio — also in Los Angeles (maybe it’s something in the water there?) — and insisted that, after praising the Warriors, his 1983 champion Philadelphia 76ers would be able to take down Golden State.
“This is a phenomenal team,” Erving said of the Warriors on ESPN LA 710. “They can put up points, and they do play team defense. They hustle, and they scrap.”
“But when you have a team with the makeup of our team that year? We could play slow, we could play fast … we had four centers, four guards and four forwards, so a lot of the parts were interchangeable,” Erving said.
“We would have figured out how to play against this team and how to beat this team.”
The most insane boast, though, came from Wallace, who had no problem declaring his 2004 Detroit Pistons would win against Golden State without a problem.
“Oh, we’d run through them,” Wallace said on the “Timeout with Taylor Rooks” podcast. “Not even close.
“We play defense.”
None of these hold up under any level of scrutiny. Let’s go through them:
— Of Johnson’s Lakers teams, let’s use the 1987 edition, which beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals after winning 65 games. Sure, those Lakers were a tremendous team, with Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and a host of outstanding role players like Byron Scott, A.C. Green and Michael Cooper around them — not to mention an all-time great coach in Riley.
But that group also attempted just 447 three-pointers — almost exactly half the number of threes Golden State made this season (982), and well short of five times fewer than the Warriors attempted (2563). No matter how much firepower the Lakers could throw out there in such a matchup, three points per shot always beats two.
— Erving’s Sixers were also a tremendous team, featuring the Good Doctor himself, not to mention Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones. But Philadelphia was only fifth in the league in both offense and defense (the 2016-2017 Warriors were first and second), and, once again, didn’t use the three-point shot at all.
Philadelphia shot 25-for-109 from three-point range that season. Stephen Curry made over 300 three-pointers alone. Once again, it’s hard to see how the Sixers would manage to compete with a team with that much firepower.
— There’s little doubt that those Wallace-featured Pistons teams were fearsome defensively. With both him and Ben Wallace anchoring the paint, along with Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton on the perimeter, Detroit made it to six straight Eastern Conference finals, reached two NBA Finals and won that 2004 title.
But those Detroit teams also couldn’t score. They were playing at what arguably was the most recent nadir of the league, in the early to mid-2000s, when the NBA Finals became an annual slugfest with the goal of trying to reach 90 points (these Pistons averaged 90.1 points per game), when often neither team could. They were the third-seeded team in the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs. Good luck taking on this Warriors team with that kind of statistical résumé.
All of this, of course, leaves out the most obvious argument against any of these teams beating this year’s Warriors in a playoff series. Time marches on for a reason.
If the NBA wasn’t any better off today — or, in the eyes of these players, was somehow worse than when they played — the league would be in serious trouble. Any industry, be it medicine, business, sports or what have you — finds ways to develop and advance as time goes by.
Take a look back at some film of an NBA game from the 1980s. All 10 players are crammed into the paint, and the amount of effort that goes into a defensive possession is about a tenth of what happens in NBA games today, with players speeding around the court trying to prevent the intricate offensive systems employed from spacing the floor and getting open shots.
And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that today’s players — thanks to advances in weight training, nutrition, sleep management and so many other aspects of day-to-day life — are far bigger, faster and stronger than their predecessors.
The most reasonable and responsible answer on this topic came from Draymond Green. Instead of being offended about the old-timers taking shots at his team, he tried to inject some sensibility to the discussion.
“It can never happen,” Draymond Green said earlier this week of these hypothetical battles between teams past and present. “First off, the game is completely different than it was back then. Nowadays, if you can’t shoot a three, you’re a liability on the floor. That wasn’t the case back then.
“So I never understand when people try to compare eras and say, ‘Oh, this team could have beat this team’ or ‘They couldn’t have beat that team.’
“They were great in their time, we’re great in our time and respect that.”
The players from past eras should consider trying that tactic for a change. Plus, let’s be honest. If such a game ever could be played, the result would be obvious — and it wouldn’t work out in their favor.