Athletes are better today than yesterday, and they'll be even better tomorrow. Humans as a species get stronger, faster and better as time goes on. The NBA is no different; it is getting better as I type.
We have seen things in this decade that we could never have imagined in the 80s or 90s.
Now I am not going to sit here and argue with you that Michael, Magic and Bird weren’t All-Time NBA greats.
Michael Jordan is almost universally recognized as the greatest of All-Time and it is hard to argue. You also have to consider, however, the time period of his dominance.
When Magic and Bird were at the height of their game, they had to battle each other along with their consistent championship-caliber teams accounting for eight of the 10 championship rings won from 1980 to 1989. Those two players were way ahead of their time and were playing against a league that found it almost impossible to compete during their prime years. I find it hard to consider the 80s the golden age because of the lack of competition outside of those teams.
Jordan never had another player of his caliber with a team around him that could compete. There were no other dynasty-type teams during the 90s. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls beat five different teams en route to their six NBA titles, save the Utah Jazz twice. None of those teams had a player near Jordan’s talent level outside of Magic’s Lakers in the 90-91 season at the end of his career. Before their run, they had to meet a strong Pistons team with a player on Michael’s level, Isaiah Thomas, and it took them multiple years to finally get over that hump. Because of the lack of the consistent threat to Jordan’s Bulls, I find it hard to consider the 90s the golden age of basketball.
What was the Golden Age of the NBA?
Here we are, living in the current era. Since the last Bulls championship there have been 11 NBA Championships. Notably, five by the Los Angeles Lakers and four by the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs may not have the look of the typical dynasty, but winning four NBA championships in the nine years after Jordan retired is a major accomplishment. It shows their ability to retool around Tim Duncan year after year.
The Los Angeles Lakers are looking for their second 3-peat, but have done it with two entirely different groups. The first, a 90s Bulls-type unit with two superstars, Shaq and Kobe, surrounded by a fantastic group of role players. The second, an incredibly diverse and deep team with arguably the second best crunch time scorer in NBA history in his prime, and also Kobe.
We have also seen the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 80s reignited with two finals matchups in the last three years. We watched in amazement as Shaq claimed four rings of his own, grabbing three with the aforementioned Lakers, then being forced out of LA and promptly claiming another one the first year playing the role of sidekick to up and coming star Dwayne Wade in 2006.
The talent these teams have to face every series in the playoffs is what makes all of this remarkable. In the NBA this decade, there have been three players with a chance to finish as top 10 players ever: Kobe, Lebron and Wade. Not to mention maybe the most dominant player ever in Shaq and possibly the top two power forwards to ever play the game: Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan.
In the 80s and the 90s, there was no seven-footer with the athleticism that Dwight Howard displays on a nightly basis. The otherworldly athleticism shown by Dominique Wilkins has become a nightly occurrence that we see from the likes of J.R. Smith and DeMar DeRozan. I won't say either is more athletic than him, but they surely are on the same level. We have so many spectacular point guards in the league right now that when you talk about the best you have to discuss at least five different names.
That is why we are now in the NBA’s Golden Age; the players have evolved to a whole new level of competition. Maybe if the greats of old—Jordan, Bird and Magic—were playing now, we would be having an entirely different discussion.