In today’s NBA, the best offenses weaponize the threat of the 3-point shot to spread the floor; the best defenses scheme ways for long, smart über-athletes to erase that space; and the best players tilt that spatial battle in their teams’ favor. But today’s players aren’t the only ones with the right skills to tick those boxes; plenty of their predecessors could, too.
In fact, some of them might have translated even better to today’s league—and might have been even more enjoyable to watch in the 2020 NBA than they were in their heyday. I decided it might be cool to write about some of these players.
This is not intended to be a definitive, inarguable list, or a scientifically rigorous exercise. There will be some statistical cherry-picking, because cherries are delicious, and there will be some decisions made purely on aesthetics, because we hold it as true that things that look dope should be prioritized. We’ll go position by position over the next few weeks, aiming to pass some of our seemingly endless downtime by remembering some kick-ass players in a fun thought experiment.
Career (797 games, 2001-11, 2012-15): 11.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.8 blocks per game, 47.4% FG, 31.0% 3FG, 75.4% FT
I’ve thought about this time-machine premise a few times over the years, and Kirilenko has always been the first player I think of—a do-everything floor-raiser who could contribute in any role and at any position on both ends of the court. Only two players in NBA history have logged multiple 5x5 games—at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. One is Hakeem Olajuwon. The other one’s our boy with the hall pass, the full-back World of Warcraft tattoo, and the unmistakable shock of blonde that led Jerry Sloan to tersely comment, “He tested my patience a little bit with his haircut.”
Kirilenko never totally won over the eternally crusty Sloan—“Andrei and I are fine,” Sloan told Sports Illustrated in 2008. “I don’t need my players to like me. I need them to play for me”—but he would be a kinder, gentler, more modern coach’s defensive dream: 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, the quickness and agility to corral smaller guards in space, enough strength to battle burlier big men, and the length, instincts, and timing to eat up space, shut down passing lanes, and protect the rim. The Russian shapeshifter could start every game slotted against the opponent’s best perimeter scorer, guard all five positions on any given possession, and strike fear into the hearts of would-be drivers as a havoc-wreaking helper flying in from the weak side.
AK-47’s game would stand a good chance of aging well on the other end, too. It’s easy to envision him running the wing like a gazelle alongside a go-go point guard on teams eager to push the pace—think the Deron Williams era in Utah, played on fast-forward—or grabbing a defensive rebound off the rim and pushing the ball in transition, putting to use what he learned while “playing point guard as a boy in Russia,” as Chris Ballard noted in The Art of a Beautiful Game. In the half-court, Kirilenko’s gifts as an off-ball cutter and opportunistic offensive rebounder could put plenty of pressure on defenses tilted toward more pressing on-ball threats, and he had more than enough juice to drive around a closing defender, get into the paint, and either fire a pass to an open teammate or raise up to finish at the rim.
It would be cool to see a contemporary Kirilenko get more regular run as a playmaking 4—a role he played brilliantly on the post-Stockton-to-Malone ’03-’04 Jazz, averaging 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.8 blocks, and 1.9 steals per game on .559 true shooting and making his only All-Star team. As one of the only noncenters ever to lead the league in blocks, Kirilenko would make for an interesting small-ball 5, too. You’d trust him to guard all but the most hulking centers; he wasn’t on Draymond Green’s level as a facilitator, but his underrated court vision would make him a good high-post hub; and his on-and-off 3-point shot wouldn’t be quite as much a concern if you put a credible stretch 4 next to him. He could’ve been the skeleton key that unlocked all sorts of lineups and options; those, in turn, might have unlocked an even higher level of play and production by letting the wonderfully weird Russian deer finally run fully free.
Career (1,026 games, 1994-2013): 16.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.2 steals per game, 48.3% FG, 31.4% 3FG, 76.9% FT
The “next Jordan” hype never quite fit, did it? For all his devastating off-the-dribble explosiveness, his silky, all-purpose floor game owed less to Michael than Magic—the “player after whom Hill tried to pattern his style, ‘and I do mean try,’” as he told Jack McCallum in Dream Team. Hill’s temperament always seemed to veer that way, too: Alexander Wolff’s 1993 Sports Illustrated profile paints the then-Duke phenom as someone “more interested in harmony than disharmony,” whose “sense of protocol” and “belief in hierarchy” make him “reluctant—maybe too much so—to stand out, to be perceived as better than others.” Jordan, as we are being reminded each Sunday, never had such reservations.
In the historical context, Hill reads more as a proto-LeBron—a 6-foot-8, 230-pound point forward whose combination of athleticism and court savvy allowed him to answer nearly any question an opponent could pose. Before the onset of ankle injuries that derailed his career, Hill did damn near everything at a high level, to a degree that few ever have; only three players in NBA history have ever totaled more than 9,000 points, 3,000 rebounds, 2,500 assists, 500 steals, and 200 blocks through their first six pro seasons: James, Hill, and Larry Bird. (More on the latter in a bit.)
The major knock on Hill’s game in a modern context would be his aversion to the 3-point shot—he averaged less than half an attempt per game through his first dozen seasons—and his lack of success (a career 31.4 percent shooter) when casting away. I’m not as concerned about how that aspect of his game would translate if he were coming up today, though. For one thing, Hill didn’t take a lot of 3s, especially in his younger days, because nary a soul could stick with his evil array of crossovers, hesitations, spins, and post moves to keep him away from the rim, or stop him from finishing with a flourish once he got there:
Beyond that, he showed enough touch in a variety of ways during his career: on stop-and-pop J’s and one-dribble pull-ups in Detroit, from midrange as he worked through injuries in Orlando, from beyond the arc (most notably from the corners) during his third act as a 3-and-D wing in Phoenix, and from the free throw line (just under 77 percent for his career). It seems reasonable enough to believe that a modern Hill would be capable of developing a 3-ball early in his career—maybe not consistently approaching the 43.8 percent he shot as a Sun in 2009-10, but knocking them down at a roughly league-average clip to keep defenses honest.
I’d be fascinated to see what kind of role Hill would wind up playing in today’s game. After spending his first two seasons sharing responsibilities and shots with Joe Dumars and Allan Houston, Hill seized the reins in Detroit in his third season, nudging his usage rate north toward 30 percent (an indicator of offensive control reached typically only by stars on teams lacking other creators) while continuing to produce at an efficient clip. Over the next four seasons, Hill averaged 31.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 8.9 assists, and 2.3 steals per 100 team possessions—the kind of numbers only LeBron, Larry, and Russell Westbrook have produced over a full career.
Hill’s career could go two ways in 2020. He could find his level as an all-time gap-filling second banana—basically turning into a 21st-century Scottie Pippen. (That was more or less the idea when Orlando paired him with an ascendant Tracy McGrady in 2000.) Or, dropped into a league in which triple-double threats rule the day, would a healthy modern Hill—who’s still tied for 13th on the NBA’s all-time triple-double list—be a top dog vying for primacy against the LeBrons, Giannises, and Hardens of the world? Either way, it’d be a hell of a lot of fun to find out.
Career (1,178 games, 1987-2004): 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.0 steals per game, 47.3% FG, 32.6% 3FG, 70.4% FT
With our recent renewal of national interest in all things ’90s Bulls, and with it the debate over Jordan’s particular style of leadership, I’ve found myself thinking about something Chris Mullin said about Pippen in McCallum’s Dream Team: “I’m not going to say that Michael made him. That’s too strong, because Scottie had a lot of game. But if Scottie plays with another guy, I’m not sure whether it’s not just the gifts that wouldn’t have come out, but also the drive.”
It’s certainly possible that Pippen wouldn’t have become who he became without spending the formative years of his career alongside one of the most maniacal competitors in sports history. And I don’t think that Pippen would trade his career—seven All-Star and All-NBA nods, six championships, one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History—for an alternate history in which he hadn’t come up under Michael’s wing, and had instead gotten to run his own shop his own way. It’d be cool to see what that would look like, though—if a player who, like Hill, can be positioned as something of an evolutionary precursor to LeBron (minus the whole “built like Karl Malone” thing) had come along now and gotten the keys to a team in the way he did during MJ’s interregnum in the minors.
During that 1993-94 season, Pippen stepped into those cavernous shoes and became Chicago’s no. 1 option, joining Jordan and Bird as one of three players ever to average more than 22 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and two steals per game. He did that while actually increasing his shooting efficiency over the previous year, continuing his first-team All-Defense prowess on the perimeter, and leading a Bulls team that filled Michael Jordan’s spot in the starting lineup with Pete Myers to 55 wins and the no. 3 seed in the East.
Reasonable people can disagree over whether the period constituted Pippen’s peak. If nothing else, though, that Scottie—a 6-foot-8 chessmaster with a green light to attack, who could take it to the basket against anyone and run point while starting to develop a dependable 3-point stroke, who could dictate a game with his defense, and who could do it all while barely seeming to break a sweat—seems like a perfect fit for the modern game.
Career (1,163 games, 1999-2015): 15.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks per game, 48.4% FG, 33.1% 3FG, 81.0% FT
I wrote about Marion a bit last month, when we revisited the 1999 draft:
When we remember Seven Seconds or Less, Marion is typically the fourth person we think about, behind system architect Mike D’Antoni, point guard/test pilot Steve Nash, and pick-and-roll monster Amar’e Stoudemire. But Marion’s ability to fill in the gaps—to use his length and athleticism to defend all five positions, to space the floor as a credible 3-point shooter, to sprint the floor to finish in transition, to bring the ball up to run the break, and to rebound at an elite level—was arguably just as important to unlocking Phoenix’s most explosive and potent lineups. It also helped usher in a sea change in the way lineups were constructed and basketball was played in the years to come.
It’s a case Marion himself has made over the years. In Seven Seconds or Less, McCallum’s 2006 book tracing a season embedded with the Suns’ coaching staff, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward tells the author, “I mean, damn, I’m doing things in this league nobody else is doing. Come on, now, give me my respect. I’m not no big man.” He struck a similar note in a recent interview with Michael Lee of The Athletic: “I’m a big [reason] why the game is what it is today. … What I was able to do is the model of what everybody is trying to do right now. Everybody is trying to find somebody to do everything that I was able to do. Which they ain’t been successful.”
Despite his status as an early-aughts prototype and positional pioneer, I’m not sure Marion would be a bigger star today than he was back then without a major evolution as a shot creator. Nearly 69 percent of his career field goals came via assist—a function of spending most of his 16 seasons alongside table-setters like Nash, Jason Kidd, and Stephon Marbury, but also an indicator that he was better equipped to finish plays than make them. Among 183 forwards in league history to log at least 10,000 minutes and use more than 20 percent of his team’s offensive possessions, Marion ranks 133rd in assist rate; even his career high in that category (13.1 percent, with the Mavs in 2012-13) would’ve put him more in line with Eric Paschall this season than a no. 1 option. As electric as he was in transition and cutting to the rim in the half court, his limitations as a ball handler and facilitator would probably still prevent him from being the sort of high-usage playmaking hub you could build an offense around.
Then again, roster context and development priorities have a huge impact on how a player’s career unfolds. I’m not sure how many people saw Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler becoming high-end primary playmakers either, and Marion’s statistical profile in his fourth season—his age-24 season, his first All-Star campaign, the year before D’Antoni took over in Phoenix and two seasons before Nash arrived in free agency—looks awfully similar to theirs:
The Matrix Reloaded?
Marion might never have developed the offensive feel that Leonard and Butler have, particularly as pick-and-roll orchestrators you can depend on to generate a good look late in the game. Given a steadier diet of touches and an imprimatur to create in an era when big wings who can make plays run the world, though, it’d be interesting to see him try. Even if his game didn’t evolve that way, Marion would’ve been tailor-made for a league in which his boundary-breaking versatility is held up as a cardinal virtue.
Career (897 games, 1979-92): 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals per game, 49.6% FG, 37.6% 3FG, 88.6% FT
Yes, I know what website I work for. But I solemnly swear that Bird appears here not because of how often Bill has waxed rhapsodic about his childhood hero over the years, but because I also enjoy watching players who whip fuckin’ ass:
Back in 2017, to honor the 25th anniversary of Bird’s retirement, Ben Rohrbach of Yahoo Sports asked some of Larry’s former teammates how they thought his game would translate today. Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, who spent three years as a Celtics reserve next to Bird at the peak of his powers, quickly pointed to the 3-point boom that has revolutionized the NBA over the past decade.
“He was one of the first guys to use the 3 with any frequency, and so in today’s game, with the spacing dynamics, he’d be taking more—no question,” Carlisle said.
What was “with any frequency” in the context of Bird’s age is downright wild in retrospect. During the 1984-85 season, Bird shot 42.7 percent from 3-point range, second best in the league behind Lakers guard Byron Scott—but he took only 1.6 triples per game. At a time when the average team attempted only twice that many each night, Bird’s willingness to fire was revolutionary. For his career, though, only 10 percent of his field goal attempts came from behind the arc, and he never topped 20 percent in a single season. If he came along now, with his combination of size and stroke, how much higher would that go? How many more points would Bird—who still ranks 17th on the all-time scoring list, averaging 24.3 per game—have scored in an era when he was encouraged to go for the extra point three or four times as often?
“Wouldn’t it have been awesome in the ’80s to watch those teams play [the way they play] now?” Chuck Klosterman asked on The Bill Simmons Podcast two years ago. “If [Larry] Bird was taking 14 3s a game, wouldn’t that have been better? I think the way the game is played now has never been better. It has sort of amplified the importance of skill over physicality in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated.”
With better court spacing and the threat of a pull-up triple forcing defenses to hound him well beyond the line, it’s easy to envision Bird pumping, feinting, and faking his way past onrushing closeouts and into the teeth of the defense, where his peerless passing would’ve made him one of the most lethal playmakers in the league:
Bird spent part of his time as a sharpshooting, playmaking power forward before the term “stretch 4” entered our lexicon, but he’d be close to the ideal version of that now, able to stretch defenses past their breaking point and spray the ball all over the floor to waiting shooters. He could launch over smaller defenders in the post, torture slower-footed marks with doctorate-level footwork and wizardry with the ball, and create even more matchup problems in the pace-and-space age than he did at the advent of the 3-point era—maybe, even, as a small-ball center.
“Picture a Draymond Green who’s a much better shooter at 6-foot-9 instead of 6-foot-6,” Kevin McHale told Rohrbach in 2017. “He’s a better rebounder, better shooter, better passer—a better player. Better at everything.”
You’d be forgiven for arching an eyebrow at McHale’s Draymond comp, given the Warrior’s Defensive Player of the Year bona fides and universally recognized status as the defensive key to unlocking arguably the best basketball lineup of the past 25 years. It’s worth noting, though, that Bird was an elite defensive rebounder from the wing, averaging more than 10 rebounds per game six times and more than nine a night in 11 of his 13 seasons, and that he made All-Defensive second-team appearances for three straight years, even with the huge offensive workload he shouldered, before Father Time and injuries started to catch up with him as the ’80s wore on.
I’m not sure Bird would have the quickness or athleticism to serve as a DPOY-caliber back-line stopper in a league where big men are forced to prove they’re up to the challenge of handling dozens of pick-and-rolls all over the court in every game. It wouldn’t be stunning, though, if a player who was widely considered one of the smartest and savviest players in the league to translate his elite instincts into the sort of one-step-ahead anticipation that buys you an extra half-second to swipe down on a gather or raise up to contest a shot. The (possibly aspirational) defensive model for a player like Bird today shouldn’t be Draymond, Kawhi Leonard, or Paul George; it’s probably someone more like Paul Millsap—always in the right place, opportunistic when there’s a shot to take the ball, and ready to make the subtle stop that forces the offense to keep looking for another point of entry.
Besides, given what Bird would be capable of providing on the other end—especially if his body were in better condition, with closer monitoring of his pedal-to-the-metal minutes perhaps making him less likely to be hobbled by the array of elbow, heel, and back injuries that plagued his final half-dozen years in the league—maybe his team would feel pretty comfortable with the tradeoff.
“It was virtually impossible to guard him as a 3-man during the ’80s and ’90s,” Carlisle said. “I would feel very sorry for someone in today’s NBA who had to guard him as a power forward or center.”
Those are my five, but there’s always room for more time travelers, so let’s hit a few honorable mentions:
Marques Johnson (1977-90): Youngbloods may know Johnson as an analyst on Bucks broadcasts. Cinephiles may be most familiar with his turn as Raymond, who briefly considered getting his gun and shooting everybody in White Men Can’t Jump. Viewers of The Last Dance might have caught him as The Dude Whose Poster Michael Jordan Has On His Wall in That Photo of Him With The Umbrella. Back in the day, though, before dalliances with drugs and a serious neck injury that scuttled his career, Johnson was the truth—a 6-foot-7, 220-pound collegiate National Player of the Year at UCLA who stepped into the league as a monster in the paint and on the wing, helping make the Bucks a perennial contender in the early ’80s, and making five All-Star teams and three All-NBA teams:
Johnson had the size and strength to bang inside and control the boards (especially on the offensive end), the hops to play above the rim, the quickness and handle to penetrate from the wing, and the touch to finish in traffic. He was also ahead of his time as a big playmaker, becoming one of the earlier “point forwards” under Don Nelson and averaging just over four assists per game in five years in Nellie’s Milwaukee laboratory, where—even in the late ’70s and early ’80s—positionality was something to play around with.
“That’s why I kind of chuckle when people talk about Steve Kerr playing small or the Death Lineup or whatever they call it with Draymond at the 5,” Johnson told Eric Nehm of The Athletic. “I played the 5, having to guard Darryl Dawkins for long stretches of ball games with the lineups that Nellie would use.”
Like many swingmen of the era, Johnson didn’t have deep range, preferring to burrow his way toward the lane for closer looks. But he could step out and hit long midrange jumpers; it’s not too hard to imagine him stretching that range out to the arc in the modern day. As he told NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner last year, “If a coach would have said or I would have felt, ‘You need to work on this 3-point shot,’ I believe in all honesty I could have shot 36, 37 percent. But there was no reason to focus on shooting long-ass 25-foot jumpers when I could get to 16 feet and knock down 75 percent of those.” Far be it from me to suggest that someone good enough to go toe-to-toe with Dr. J without blinking wouldn’t have what it took to adapt to the times.
Speaking of which ...
Julius Erving (1971-87): This is one where I don’t really give too much of a shit about efficiency or jump shot counterarguments. Whenever I watch Erving’s old games or highlight packages, I find myself thinking some of the same stuff I do when I watch old Allen Iverson tape—if this dude’s burst, elevation, and craftiness were good enough to make him an elite scorer when opponents were packed inside the elbows like sardines in a tin, how the hell would he be in a contemporary setting where the floor is spread out and the on-ball defender can’t just hand-check and maul you as soon as you go into a move?
On top of that, I’d be fascinated to see how Doc’s all-around game, a freewheeling and fast-paced style descended from the brand he played in the ABA, would translate in today’s NBA. (In addition to all those high-flying, whirling-dervish finishes, Erving averaged more than 10 rebounds and four assists per game in each of his five ABA seasons.) It’d also be cool to see how a player with Erving’s physical attributes—6-foot-7, 210 pounds, with feline quickness, a condor’s wingspan, and hands that Peter Vecsey used to say were “big enough to palm Sunday”—would look on the defensive end today. The excellent Ben Taylor’s stats-and-film breakdown of Erving’s game paints an unclear picture of his defensive impact, but there’s no doubt that he could be disruptive; only eight other players have ever posted block and steal rates as high as he did, including Kirilenko, Hakeem Olajuwon, and former Sixers teammate “The Secretary of Defense” Bobby Jones, as well as ace present-day defenders Draymond Green, Robert Covington, and Nerlens Noel.
A havoc-wreaking freight train in transition who could beat defenders off the bounce, slither through traffic, and detonate like few others in hoops history? Sounds like someone it’d be pretty rad to watch, with or without an automatic J.
“I was in awe of what the guy could do,” the legendary Hubie Brown told Terry Pluto in his seminal book on the ABA, Loose Balls. “He was great in the NBA, but by then his knees had started to hurt, and he had been physically knocked around. But in the ABA, he was fearless. He played with reckless abandon. He made plays no one has seen before or since, plays that not even Michael Jordan can do.”
At the risk of authoring a scalding hot take: I’d really like to see that in the 2020 NBA.
Jamal Mashburn (1993-2004): When I think about Mashburn, the first word that comes to mind, sadly, is “injuries.” I think about the left knee surgery that cost him most of his third season in Dallas; the thumb and knee woes that caused him to miss 60 games in his first two years in Miami; the abdominal strain that sidelined him for more than half of the 2001-02 season in Charlotte; and the persistent right knee problems that would eventually lead to an early retirement at just 33 years old.
The second word that flashes? “Smooth.”
Mash carried his 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame lightly, gliding down the floor and getting to his preferred spots off the dribble; once he arrived, he used that bulk to create the space he needed to put the ball on the backboard or create space to rise and fire. He could face up and shoot, anchor in the post and pivot his way into the paint, shake defenders off the dribble, and dip into a deep bag of finishes to get his buckets. (Only 71 players ever have multiple 50-point games, and Mashburn is one of them, despite missing out on the age of the easy half-a-hundred.)
Mashburn was never the most efficient scorer, but he developed into a 3-point threat as his career progressed, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 3.4 attempts per game between 1999 and 2003. He’d be a dangerous option launching pull-ups off the dribble, spotting up in transition or on the weak side opposite a pick-and-roll, or popping back to the arc after screening. With his triple-threat game, it’s not hard to envision Mashburn as a playmaking 4—triggering dribble handoffs, screening and rolling, becoming a pick-and-pop outlet, keeping the ball to attack a scrambling defense off the bounce, or pounding a smaller defender into the post on a switch. And, like point guard and fellow time traveler Terrell Brandon, Mashburn’s myriad knee woes might have benefited from modern medicine, keeping him on the floor more often and unlocking more opportunities for his combination of size and skill to play up in the pace-and-space era.
Toni Kukoc (1993-2006): It’s hard to envision a much rougher introduction to life in the NBA than what Kukoc received at the hands of Jordan and Pippen at the ’92 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and upon his arrival in Chicago. But the Croatian persevered, earned his keep, and earned their respect because, as it turned out, all that stuff Jerry Krause was saying about Kukoc was more or less true. Who’d have thunk it: That jumbo point forward who had won just about every individual and collective accolade for club and country that European basketball had to offer was pretty good, after all!
Kukoc would still have some of the same defensive problems he encountered in the mid-’90s. But at 6-foot-10 with stellar court vision, enough agility and ballhandling juice to beat opposing forwards off the bounce, a credible 3-point shot (just 33.5 percent for his career, but he topped league average five times and shot better than 40 percent from deep twice), and the feel to make advanced reads in the half court, he would’ve been an awfully tough cover on the other end, too.
From his rookie season in Chicago through the 2000-01 campaign, which he split between Philly and Atlanta, Kukoc averaged 25 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per 100 team offensive possessions, while posting a true shooting percentage of .535—a combination of scoring, glass-cleaning, table-setting, and shooting efficiency that only a dozen players have matched in the past five seasons. I’m not positive that Kukoc would have been a perennial All-Star at the 3 or 4 spot today. But in an era that’s a lot less skeptical about European talent, that lauds big men with the skills to play like guards rather than impugning their toughness, and that wants to get as much size and firepower on the floor at the same time as possible, I think he’d have a shot.