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Back to the Future: What Former NBA Players Would Be Best Suited to the Modern League?

By: Jared Gode

The modern NBA is a game built off the league’s past, but the style and skills demanded of today’s play differ greatly from the NBA of the 80s, 90s, and even as recent as the 2000s. Aspects like scoring, pace of play, and even the average heights of NBA players differ between the past and the present.  These differences can make cross-era comparisons particularly challenging, but questions are still raised: Who is the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan or LeBron James? How would post players like Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fare in the perimeter-centric play style of today?

The goal of this article is to answer a question akin to those listed above: What NBA player (or players) from a previous era would thrive in the modern era? To answer this question, we must first look at the skills or statistics that are most valuable in the modern NBA. First and foremost is 3-point shooting, a skill that is the defining trait of the modern NBA, as stars like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and James Harden have redefined the importance of the 3-point shot in the league today. The inability to shoot 3s is a glaring weakness in any player’s game, so our past players must be able to shoot at least a passable percentage. Another vital skill in the modern game is versatility, both in terms of statistical versatility and physical or positional versatility. Statistically, players like Russell Westbrook, Nikola Jokic, and Luka Doncic have produced jaw-dropping numbers with apparent ease, registering high amounts of points, rebounds, and assists, and serving as the catalyst in every aspect of their team’s game. Physically, players like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Paul George use their unique skill sets alongside their large frames in order to run the offense as a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. To truly star in basketball today, versatility is another key trait to look for in our past players. Finally, a skill that has been crucial throughout NBA history is defense, though the ideal defensive skillset has adjusted to the modern NBA, specifically around the 3-point shooting and versatility we’ve already discussed. Interior defenders like Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis, as well as perimeter defenders like OG Anunoby and Kawhi Leonard, provide elite defense, both in terms of turnover creation and easy scoring prevention. These three ‘pillars’ are the hallmarks of an ideal modern NBA player, and they’ll serve as our benchmarks in determining what past players would adjust best to the modern game. 

For this cross-era examination, I chose 9 players, 3 from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s respectively, focusing on one statistically impressive season in particular. The 9 players chosen were Isiah Thomas (1983-84), Larry Bird (1987-88), Dale Ellis (1988-89), Scottie Pippen (1994-95), Reggie Miller (1995-96), Mitch Richmond (1996-97), Rasheed Wallace (2001-02), Shawn Marion (2002-03), and Peja Stojakovic (2003-04). I chose the 9 players in this case study of sorts based on these 3 categories. Bird, Ellis, Miller, Richmond, and Stojakovic were all elite 3-point shooters, shooting over 40% from 3 in their given seasons, and even Marion and Wallace were above-average shooters at their positions. Thomas, Bird, and Pippen especially displayed statistical versatility, averaging impressive points, rebounds, and assist numbers, and in the case of Bird and Pippen, they did so as non-point guards, making the assist numbers more impressive. In terms of physical versatility, Bird, Miller, Pippen, Wallace, and Stojakovic are all at least an inch taller than the average height of their respective positions (2022-23 season), giving them the ability to play and defend multiple positions. Defensively, every player on the list averaged at least one steal or one block per game, with some stand-out defenders being Thomas (2.5 steals), Pippen (2.9 steals, 1.1 blocks), Wallace (1.3 steals, 1.3 blocks), and Marion (2.3 steals, 1.2 blocks). Overall, each of the 9 players selected is elite in at least one of the key skills mentioned, and many of them possess multiple of the skills at a high level, but one player from each decade stood out above the rest.

For the 80s, this player was clearly Larry Bird. In the selected season, he averaged 30 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists per game, displaying incredible versatility and efficiency in his offensive game, shooting nearly 53% from the field and 41% from 3. Further showing his offensive skill are his 11.2 offensive win shares (OWS), a stat meant to calculate an individual player’s contribution to his team’s offensive success. Bird’s 11.2 OWS were the 2nd most of any player in the study, behind only Peja Stojakovic, showing how impactful a player he was on the offensive end.  Put him into the modern league, although his athleticism wouldn’t blow you away, his shooting and playmaking ability can shine and his size can make him a matchup nightmare, Larry could end up in a role like Luka Doncic, as the catalyst of an offense even though he wouldn’t be a standard point guard. Neither Luka nor Larry would blow you away with their athleticism, but both are highly skilled and high-IQ players capable of using their size and finesse to their advantage.

The standout of the 90s decade is Scottie Pippen, whose defensive versatility would make him an invaluable asset to a modern NBA team. Pippen averaged nearly 3 steals and over a block per game while racking up 6.7 defensive win shares (the most of anyone in the study), showing his unique impact as an elite perimeter defender and paint protector. In the present day, where basketball is becoming increasingly positionless, the ability to guard anyone anywhere would put Scottie in an elite group of defenders with players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Herb Jones, and Scottie Barnes. Aside from his defense, Pippen averaged 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists per game this season, showing off impressive scoring and playmaking ability, especially for a defensive-minded forward. Dropped into the modern NBA, Pippen could play a variety of positions with success, from an oversized point guard to a skilled power forward, and he’d come with the added bonus of being able to effectively guard any position as well. His skill set would likely put him in a role similar to Kawhi Leonard or Scottie Barnes, who are both high-level defenders and primary scoring options capable of playing on or off the ball.

Finally, for the 2000s, the player that would translate best to the present-day NBA is Shawn Marion. Like Pippen in the 90s, Marion displayed high-level defensive ability and adaptability, averaging over 2 steals and 1 block per game to earn himself a total of 5.8 defensive win shares. Marion was also an elite rebounder even though he was only 6’7, averaging 9.5 boards per game alongside 21 points. This ability to play bigger than his stature gave him positional flexibility during his career, and it would allow him to play either a forward position or possibly even small-ball center in the current league. While not the most dynamic offensive threat of the 9 players in the study, scoring 21 points per game as the 2nd option in the slower-paced 2000s is not a small feat, and Marion would serve as a great 2nd or 3rd option on a modern NBA roster, perhaps similar to Mikal Bridges or Jalen Johnson as a 3&D wing or a versatile power forward. 

All of the players chosen as our ideal candidates to be dropped in the present day fit the criteria we defined at the beginning of this article: Offensive ability built for a league that loves shooting threes, physical and skillset versatility to play multiple positions and affect the game in ways other than scoring, and defensive ability to lock down multiple positions in the highly skilled modern NBA. Though we’ll never be able to see these legends suit up against the stars of today, we can consider the talents they showcased in their own time, and project how they would translate if they played today.




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