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Today’s players more athletic than 20 years ago, but are they better?

Sep 13, 2011, 6:13 PM EDT

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers, Game 5 Getty Images

Nobody in their right mind wonders if Magic Johnson, Dr. J or Larry Bird could compete in today’s NBA. Certain players would succeed in any era.

But could the average NBA player from the 1980s compete in the NBA of 2011? Well, let’s make that 2010 because who knows if there will be an NBA in 2011. But you get the idea — it’s fun in video games, but could it really happen.

A player like, say, Mitch Kupchak. A North Carolina standout who had a nine-year NBA career, won a couple rings and was a solid 10 points, 5 rebounds a game guy from 1976 – ’86.

Over at, Mike Trudell asked both Lakers GM Kupchak and longtime trainer Gary Vitti to compare the two eras and their players.

“In my opinion, we have much better athletes today but maybe not as good of basketball players,” said Vitti. “There are plenty of exceptions, but many players of today are not as skilled because they didn’t need to be growing up; they were competitive by running by you or jumping over you, and didn’t need to be skilled because of their athletic ability.

“A case in point are the European players who are generally less athletic but have better skills.”

The conversation was sparked because Kupchack’s 14-year-old son Maxwell taunts his dad in 1-on-1 games that he couldn’t make an NBA roster today.

“I think today’s players, to a great degree because of the innovative training techniques that are available that didn’t exist or weren’t believed in 30 years ago, if you’re looking at film may make it easy to say that today’s players are much more gifted than players of the past,” he said.

“You look at the players of the 1980’s (like) Kareem, Michael Jordan, Dr. J, Magic, Bird … they competed, and the players they competed against were able to compete with them,” he continued. “So to say that those players could not play and compete with players of today’s era would not be true.”

There are guys that come through the system now and do have a high basketball IQ, that do know the game. But the depth of knowledge is not what it was a couple decades ago. What would happen to a gifted but erratic guy like JaVale McGee on the 1980s Lakers or Celtics? Would he even get off the bench? Would he play a key role because of his athleticism?

There is no one correct answer, but Kupchak and Vitti have a great perspective from witch to judge.

  1. jrmcool20 - Sep 13, 2011 at 6:30 PM

    to say that players 25 years ago could not play with the players of today is a big joke ,,, first off as the post says the trainning today is very , very , fine tunned that IF the players of 25 or 30 years ago was playing now they would be trainning like the players of now !!! SO they would be as athletic as the players of today so whats that right there tell us ?? lol also the players of 25 yrs ago even without the super tech training of today , played VERY hard ball games look at some of the low scoring games back then and look at how much defense they played ,, its much harder to play defense then it is like today for teams to always avg at or over 100 points a game ok !!! just look at the , pistons , knicks , bulls , boston , bullets , etc… from back then them guys played there hearts out on defense which we dont see much of TODAY !!! if the jordans ,, magics ,, birds ,, thomas , kareem , etc,,, played today ,,,, WOW , they would be still the BEST in the game regardless of todays players

  2. cosanostra71 - Sep 13, 2011 at 7:18 PM

    I think it’s different athleticism. Players now have better raw athleticism… strength, speed, agility, jumping… Players then had a different kind of athleticism however, based especially off endurance. The game was generally played faster then with more shots. I think there are certain teams from the 80s that could run some teams from the present out of the gym.

    Going off that, I think that players now have different skill sets than they did in the 80s. When you play different styles, you require different skill sets.

    • cosanostra71 - Sep 13, 2011 at 7:18 PM

      players are a product of their generation, basically

  3. therealhtj - Sep 13, 2011 at 7:45 PM

    I don’t think anyone outside Boston thinks Larry Bird would have a shot in today’s NBA.

    • cosanostra71 - Sep 13, 2011 at 9:11 PM

      LOL. Yeah right.

  4. jebdamone - Sep 13, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    short answer is the players have become but that has very little to do with their level of skill when it comes to basketball. the majority have never mastered the fundamentals or learned the value of playing as a team/unit. i would say this is true for the vast majority of sports but probably more particular to basketball.

  5. jebdamone - Sep 13, 2011 at 10:28 PM

    there was supposed to be ‘more athletic’ between ‘become’ and ‘but’. the sentence doesn’t make much sense otherwise.

  6. danvoges - Sep 13, 2011 at 10:57 PM

    did larry bird even lift weights or speed train?

    • Meloship of the Ring - Sep 13, 2011 at 11:42 PM

      does kevin durant lift weights?

      • danvoges - Sep 14, 2011 at 12:48 PM

        yes. and he trains extremely hard. google/youtube it.

    • passerby23 - Sep 14, 2011 at 1:00 AM

      The guy was still strong and tough as hell. What if he did train by today’s standards? Larry could easily play in today’s era. Dirk is not an exceptional athlete with a more slender frame and he’s a top 5 player in the league.

  7. rgledz - Sep 14, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    Did you really post “from witch to judge”……..? Is it a nod to Halloween or are you just bad with spelling?

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