- We all think we’re ready for a break, every time this weekend rolls around. Then, soon as it’s here, we’re starved for content and competition, again. NBA TV was wise, this year, to fill some of the empty air time with their MJ, Bill Russell, and Barkley interview pieces; each of the pieces was intriguing. But MJ’s pre-leaked comments from his sit-down with Ahmad Rashad, and those from his extended ESPN profile by Wright Thompson, cast a huge shadow on the weekend, as his suggestion that the league is now softer, more coddled, and less challenging was the biggest discussion piece throughout much of the media—and, one can likely assume, amongst some of the players. But comparing generations of players is always a slippery endeavor, to say the least. While it’s true that Michael’s 90’s boasted far more physical basketball than is now seen anywhere (this is simply a matter of the game’s constantly evolving set of rules), it’s also changed in other ways. Defensive schemes have become more complicated, for starters—this means a higher premium on ball movement, and finding gaps in team coverage to shoot more three-pointers in. According to the rules of Michael’s game, these defenses were penalized, and so he was regularly doing the best thing for this team by dominating in isolation play. The 90’s set of rules—while, arguably, leading to a worse brand of basketball—were more friendly to individual dominance, and stardom. Who knows if MJ could have dominated like he did against a Tom Thibodeau defense? Most likely he could have, because Michael was king of the league’s hill in a way unseen since Russell; and not seen since. And this is the one undeniable advantage: his competitive fervor was miles beyond anything in the league, now, and his desire for championships was profound enough to significantly elevate the play of not only his teammates, but also of the entire NBA around him. And until LeBron imposes his will onto his competitors in a similar way, I’m not convinced we’ll be clamoring to install so many red curtains for his 50th birthday.