For whatever reason, a large number of former NBA greats have had a hard time acknowledging how much the level of play in the league has improved over time.
Whether it's Charles Barkley complaining about how many 3-pointers players take nowadays to Shaquille O'Neal "motivating" players by telling them they don't have what it takes, there's typically no shortage of criticism coming from the best to ever play the game.
But don't put Kevin Garnett into that group. The former MVP, NBA champion and Basketball Hall of Famer believe today's game is at another level, one that players from his era wouldn't be able to keep up with.
"I don’t think guys from 20 years ago could play in this game," Garnett told the New York Times' David Marchese. "Twenty years ago, guys used their hands to control players. Now you can’t use your hands. That makes defense damn near impossible. Can you imagine not hand-checking Michael Jordan? Naw. The fact that you can’t touch players gives the offensive player so much flexibility. Defensive players have to take angles away and stuff like that. But if you have any creativity and ambition, you can be a great offensive player in this league."
Garnett's citing the 2004 rule change that outlawed hand-checking in the NBA. Instead of using their hands to keep offensive players in front of them, defenders had to slide more. The rule change allowed skill to dictate success on the floor rather than sheer physical force, leading to higher scores, more efficient offenses and a higher level of play in general.
The biggest impact the rule change had may be on the point guard position. With hand-checking, smaller players had a tough time getting to the rim consistently and finishing through contact. There were the rare cases like Allen Iverson who dominated as a scorer despite being less than six feet tall, but by the time he was 34 he was out of the league.
Most guards, arguably the most skilled players on the floor, were put into "floor general" roles, either setting up wings like Michael Jordan, Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant or the game's best big men like O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Garnett himself. With the absence of hand-checking, we've seen a wave of incredibly talented scoring guards take over the game from beyond the 3-point line.
"Steph Curry revolutionized things with being able to shoot it from distance with such consistency," Garnett said. "Klay Thompson. Dame Lillard. These guards changed the game. I don’t know if even the guards from 20 or 30 years ago could play in this time right here. It’s creative. It’s competitive. It’s saucy. You’ll get dropped! A [expletive] will cross you over and break your ACL these days. The game is in a great place."
Today's game isn't nearly as physical as it used to be. It doesn't value the back-to-the-basket bigs and floor general point guards as much as shooting and ball-handling are targeted by teams now.
Does it feel like the rules are tilted too heavily in favor of the offense at times? Yes. However, the level of play is better than it used to be and the players who have been more accepting of the NBA's evolution (Garnett, Iverson, Bryant, Paul Pierce) are the skilled players from that era who would've benefitted from a cleaner game.
20 years ago, the league's top-scoring offense (Kings) averaged 105 points per game and attempted just over 20 3-point attempts. Fast forward to today and only three teams score 105 points or less per game, while the Cavaliers are dead-last in the league in 3-point attempts per game at 26.5.