Michael Jordan‘s agent, David Falk, recently said that his client would, if he were in his prime, score 60 points on 75% shooting in today’s NBA. Likewise, there’s an old familiar refrain of old-school NBA fans who claim that (insert superstar here) would never be able to hang with the Bad Boys Pistons or the Shaq and Kobe Lakers or whoever they grew up rooting for.
The young folks then counter with “Bill Russell was only 6’9, he wouldn’t even make the roster today” and other such nonsense.
The takeaway, generally, is that “you can’t compare players across eras, so stop trying.” Russell didn’t have the benefit of 2020 sports medicine and nutrition, hard screens to spring shooters would work just fine in the 1980s when contact was much more lightly officiated (Draymond Green would be able to practically tackle Rick Mahorn if it meant Stephen Curry could get a shot up), and if His Airness didn’t do something about his career 32.7 percent 3-point shooting, he’d be a rich man’s DeMar DeRozan in today’s league.
But at the same time, there’s a certain basketball DNA that runs through a lot of players across eras that is comparable, and it makes for some fascinating considerations of “who would so-and-so be if he’d played in X era instead of the one he played in?”
Be warned, things are about to get weird.
Bill Russell, in 2004, is Ben Wallace.
Russell was 6’9”, an absolute force on the boards, a shotblocker and rim protector without peer in his era especially when considering his size.
Russell led the league in rebounding five times, was never a dominant scorer, but his leadership let the players around him become better than the sum of their parts. In the 1950s and ’60s, that won 11 championships.
In the Dark Ages, it won the Pistons one, as Wallace led the league in rebounds twice, was never a dominant scorer, but his elite defense and ability to make the players around him better than the sum of their parts took down a Lakers team with big names and no chemistry (Shaq was the Wilt to Wallace’s Russell in 2004) to win a title in a much more competitive league than the one Russell played in.
Winning a chip and making the Eastern Conference Finals five times and the NBA Finals two times over a five-year stretch in a 29- or 30-team league is a feat in the salary cap era, and if Wallace’s Pistons or an analogue for them had existed in the Western Division in the 1960s? They might’ve taken on Russell’s Celtics every year.
Oscar Robertson, in 2017, is James Harden.
The comparison to Russell Westbrook is lazy and obvious, but Big O led the league in assists seven times and won one scoring title (1968; 29.2 points per game.)
When Robertson averaged a triple-double in the 1961-62 season, he averaged 12.5 rebounds per contest, but the league leader that year, Wilt Chamberlain, averaged 25.7. As a percentage of the league leader’s rebounding total (which acts as a proxy in this case for relative rebounding frequency), that’d be like averaging 6.8 rebounds a game in 2016-17 (when Hassan Whiteside led the league with 14.1 boards a game.)
Harden, when the Rockets use him as a point guard as they did in that ’17 season, is a high-assist guy (11.2 a game, leading the league that year) who translates a relatively low FG% (44.0, and a below-league-average 34.7 3P% that year) into a high scoring output.
Robertson was a more accurate shooter than Harden in raw FG% terms (48.5 for his career), but at the same time, Big O played before there was such a thing as a 3-pointer. High 3PAR would’ve dragged his FG% down, just as Harden has in his career hit 51.1 percent of his own 2-point shots but lands at 44.3 percent overall.
Allen Iverson, in 2020, is Spencer Dinwiddie.
In 2020, there is no greater exemplar of the high-volume shooter who can’t shoot than Dinwiddie, who with Brooklyn this year averaged 20.6 points per game on 16.0 FGA, but on an atrocious 41.5 percent shooting and 30.8 percent from long range.
Dinwiddie also averaged just 3.5 rebounds a game to go with 6.8 assists.
Iverson, for his career? 26.7 points on 21.8 shots (1.22 points per FGA, to Dinwiddie’s more efficient 1.29) to go with 3.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists. He hit 42.5 percent of his shots and 31.3 percent of his threes; he just took a lot more of them.
Dinwiddie doesn’t have Iverson’s eye-popping steal totals, but steals do not a great defender make, and Dinwiddie’s minus-0.5 DBPM for his career is comparable to Iverson’s minus-0.2, so you can’t say “The Answer” was a better defender.
Plus, Dinwiddie’s humble enough that he did a stint in the G-League in his early career without making it sound like he was being sent to prison the way Iverson’s constant griping whenever coaches made him ride the bench marred his legacy and kept him from playing at a time when he could still contribute to a team. The difference between Iverson retiring without a ring and guys like Andre Iguodala and Dwight Howard bolstering their Hall of Fame cases as key bench contributors late in their careers on championship teams is worth noting.
I have called Iverson the most overrated player in the history of the league, and a blind “Player A, Player B” comparison between him and Spencer Freaking Dinwiddie, who was fifth up from the bottom among qualified players in eFG% in 2020 is part of that argument.
Domantas Sabonis, in 1988, is Kevin McHale.
Sabonis, 2018-19: 14.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 59.0 FG%, .197 WS/48 (20.4 pts/13.5 reb per 36 minutes)
McHale, 1987-88: 22.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 60.4 FG%, .205 WS/48 (21.8 pts/8.1 reb per 36)
McHale was a slightly better scorer even as he didn’t have to bear the primary load offensively thanks to Larry Bird, while Sabonis was a capable scorer off the bench for the Pacers while sharing the floor with guys like Victor Oladipo and Bojan Bogdanovic, who were the Pacers’ primary scoring options in most of the lineups Sabonis was in.
Sabonis was the better rebounder because he was the best rebounder on his team by a country mile, while McHale had fewer rebound chances because of Robert Parish (McHale’s REB% is comparable to Myles Turner over the course of his career.)
But both guys had that “if he’s the second-best player on your team, your team is pretty good, especially if as in McHale’s case the first- and third-best players on your team are Hall of Famers” quality to them.
Another guy who lives in this same territory? Arvydas Sabonis. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Tom Heinsohn, in 2010, is Chris Bosh.
Heinsohn, for the Celtics in 1962: 22.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, .187 WS/48.
Bosh, for the Raptors in 2010: 24.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, .185 WS/48.
Tommy was already a sidekick on a championship team in 1962, as he won his fifth of what would be eight rings alongside Bill Russell before retiring in 1965.
Both guys fit to a T the notion that if the third-best player on your team is as good as those two guys were (Russell and Sam Jones were the top two WS/48 guys on that ’62 Celtics team), you have one special roster that has all the potential in the world to be something great.
Other guys with this kind of DNA include Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, early-career James Worthy (when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still the second-best player on the Lakers), Robert Parish, and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson respectively on the Warriors before and after Kevin Durant arrived.
Speaking of KD, I’ve got one more for you:
Kevin Durant, in 1975, is Rick Barry.
Barry came out of the ABA and led Golden State to a championship in 1975, combining volume scoring from the field (30.1 a game) with a preternatural ability to hit free throws (90.4 percent).
Durant came out of Oklahoma City and led Golden State to a championship in 2017, combining volume scoring from the field (25.1 a game) with a solid ability to hit free throws (87.5 percent.)
Durant had his best defensive season in 2017, helping the Warriors to the league’s second-best defense; Barry had his in ’75 as Golden State had the league’s fifth-best defensive unit.
Shooting percentages are harder to compare across eras (thanks to the threes-and-layups high-efficiency era Durant plays in compared to the two-at-a-time woefully inefficient low-percentage era Barry played in), but in terms of a team getting its hands on a spark plug forward who turbocharged the offense?
Durant was that guy three or four years ago, and Barry was that guy 45 years ago.
Even though the stats change, the rules change, what the referees call and don’t call change, the DNA of NBA players is as recognizable in the early days of the game as a guy dragged via time machine out of the Bronze Age would be to people in 2020. If I ever end up writing about MMA, just wait until you hear my theories about Milo of Croton taking on Conor McGregor in the Octagon.