Whatever basketball’s blue-collar bona fides, whatever its associations with the barbershop and the neighborhood blacktop, its culture has proved hostile to at least one category of everyman: the plumber. A few years ago, fans on YouTube and TikTok began uploading grainy footage of star players from previous decades and zooming in on the defenders, usually white guys with short shorts, long mustaches, and very little muscle definition. After these players were centered and freeze-framed, a voice-over would deride them as “plumbers.” As in: “Michael Jordan played against plumbers.”
Basketball fans love to argue about the evolution of the game, and whether yesterday’s superstars had it easier. Putting aside the meme-makers’ contempt for tradesmen, they’re right: Today’s professionals do look more athletic and skilled than their predecessors. But then again, today’s fans are steeped in the current visual style of the game, which has changed over the past few decades. We may underestimate former players’ explosiveness, fluidity, and precision.
To find out whether NBA gameplay has indeed become more challenging, I embarked on an investigation—and I didn’t like what I found. Like many basketball fans in their early 40s, I’m hopelessly nostalgic for the NBA of the ’90s, for Hakeem Olajuwon’s slippery footwork, and Penny Hardaway’s pretty interior passing. But after digging through data and consulting with league insiders, I can’t help but conclude that today’s game really is more rigorous.
A large body of evidence suggests that NBA players now move more explosively than those of previous eras— despite the fact that they aren’t themselves larger-bodied. The league’s average height peaked at 6 foot 7 in 1987, and since then, only the (relatively) diminutive point guards have inched up as a group. Taller players—centers and forwards—have actually shrunk a bit. NBA players packed on weight all the way through 2011, but they’ve since thinned. That evolution can even be seen across individual careers: LeBron James fussily shapes his physique during every offseason, and in recent years he has transitioned to a slimmer frame.
To measure how those (slightly) smaller bodies move, some NBA teams turn to a company called P3. More than two-thirds of the players who were on pro rosters when the season tipped off earlier this week have worked out at a P3 facility, according to the company. Players are outfitted head-to-toe with more than 20 sensors. They’re asked to perform intense vertical and lateral movements atop special, sensor-laden platforms. Their every twitch is recorded by motion-capture cameras. Marcus Elliott, the founder and director of P3, told me that his system measures raw-force production, power, overall movement, and speed, and that with respect to all of them, “today’s average NBA athlete is 4 to 7 percent better than the average NBA athlete from more than 10 years ago.”
When Elliott first started evaluating players about 15 years ago, many were operating at only 75 to 80 percent of their potential athleticism. They weren’t as ballistic as today’s players, but they could still get by on skills. Most of today’s players, by contrast, are more than 90 percent optimized by their first visit to P3. Elliott compared them to Formula 1 cars: “They accelerate at a faster rate to higher velocities and they change directions quicker.” I asked him about previous generations of players. What cars did they remind him of? “They weren’t Hondas,” he said, “but maybe something in between.” You can decide which is worse: Hondas or plumbers.
Basketball has never been a more global sport; a record 125 international players are on teams’ rosters this season. But before NBA general managers raided the worldwide talent pool for exceptionally skilled players, some taller players basically got by on their height. There were outliers: Bill Walton regularly threw no-look passes from the center position; Magic Johnson played point guard at 6 foot 9; Jack Sikma (6 foot 11) and Sam Perkins (6 foot 9) both stroked it from beyond the arc. But their fellow bigs tended to be clumsy ball handlers who took few shots outside the key. Now shooting and passing abilities are the purview of virtually every player. Centers are logging nearly 30 percent more assists than they did a decade ago. One of them, the 6-foot-11-inch Nikola Jokić, may have the best court vision in the NBA. Centers are also taking more than four times as many three-point shots as they were 10 years ago. Power forwards have become long-range bombers, too; a whopping 40 percent of their shot attempts are now three-pointers.
NBA gameplay has been transformed by these sharpshooting big men. “It used to be that there was always a non-shooting specialist on the court,” Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, told me. Usually, this person would be a pure rebounder or rim protector. Teams could rest their stars by having them defend such players, or design defensive schemes to make sure that the ball ended up in a non-shooter’s hands. Now every team has five shooters on the floor, Cuban explained. “Guys have to work harder on defense. They have to scramble more.”
After Steph Curry and his imitators started shooting from the logo zones way beyond the three-point line about 10 years ago, the space defenders had to scramble across grew much larger. More than half of these ultra-deep-shot attempts miss, and many clang violently off the rim, leading to long rebounds and quicker transitions. Thanks to this shift, and the NBA’s earlier decision to shorten the time by which a team must advance to half-court after gaining possession, the league’s pace has increased dramatically.
All that speed has drawbacks. In describing today’s players as Formula 1 cars, Elliott wasn’t only emphasizing their acceleration. “The thing about those cars is that they’re dangerous to drive,” he said. And in recent years, wreckage has been piling up on NBA sidelines. Players have missed more games due to injuries than in previous eras. This uptick in injuries—primarily ankle sprains, along with hamstring and calf strains—is somewhat mysterious, because NBA teams have never been more obsessed with the physical well-being of players. (Not that this concern springs from pure altruism. It’s just that most NBA contracts are guaranteed.)
NBA franchises previously entrusted the physical care of their players to a staff of two to three people. Most now have a training staff of at least eight—and many players also have their own personal trainers and nutritionists. Asheesh Bedi, the chief medical officer of the National Basketball Players Association, told me that in the olden times, “treatments in the training room were often limited to ice and ‘stim,’” short for muscle stimulation. Now teams have gleaming sci-fi facilities, complete with whole-body cryotherapy chambers, special pools for underwater treatments, antigravity treadmills, and ultrasound machines for advanced imaging. Teams also fly private so that they can time their takeoffs to players’ sleep cycles. When players get soft-tissue injuries, a team’s medical staff can deploy platelet-rich plasma to speed healing. On top of these efforts, the league has also shortened its preseason, and minimized back-to-back games and cross-country flights.
All of this pampering might seem to imply that today’s players have it easy. And yet, injuries are still up, and everyone in the league is trying to understand why. One theory is that today’s players are more injury prone when they reach the NBA, because they’ve been playing in year-round travel leagues since adolescence, if not earlier. Research has shown that Little Leaguers and cricketers who pitch or bowl too many times during their formative years can become predisposed to specific injuries, but so far, no evidence suggests that something similar is happening to young basketball players.
Perhaps the increase in injuries is instead a function of the pro game’s new physical demands. In 2018, researchers measured the movements of professional basketball players in Barcelona in a game setting and found that, among the 1,000 or so actions that players perform during a game, some are especially hard on the body. Jumps were obviously intense—as even casual hoopers can tell you, rough landings lead to ankle sprains. So were accelerations, all-out sprints, and decelerations. According to Elliott, the latter are most likely to give players traumatic injuries and wear and tear, especially when a player has to decelerate on short notice.
“If Luka Dončić is coming at you really hard and then he steps back, you have to try to decelerate out of nowhere, and then accelerate in some other direction” to close out, Elliott said. “Those transitions are so hard for human bodies,” especially if an athlete already has a strain, or some asymmetry that causes him to favor one leg over the other. The spacing of today’s game, and the sheer ubiquity of good shooters, requires players to constantly accelerate and decelerate on defense, and doing so across an 82-game season may be bringing them within range of the human body’s limits. Teams have started strategically benching their best players, forcing the NBA to crack down with new rules intended to keep stars on the floor. Some commentators have even suggested shortening the season, but because the NBA is set to negotiate a new TV deal soon, that’s unlikely.
There is a certain kind of fan who believes that the NBA reached its apex in the ’90s, if not in competition, certainly in physicality. They rightly point out that back then, the rules allowed for a much rougher style of play. To reach the hoop, Jordan had to leap into a violent gantlet of heavy-bodied bigs—Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, and Bill Laimbeer, to name a few—who delivered hard fouls with relish.
But that’s only one kind of physicality. Today’s playing environment puts a different set of demands on a player’s body. They may not have to dodge as many elbows and clotheslines as they did in the paint of yore, but that doesn’t mean their game isn’t more dangerous. That’s not to say that Jordan couldn’t thrive in today’s NBA. It just would have been more difficult. It would have required more from him. He might not have found it so easy to win all those rings.