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 during 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 (1,462 games, 1995-2016): 17.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.4 blocks per game, 49.7% FG, 27.5% 3FG, 78.9% FT
Ladies and gentlemen, the shape of punk to come:
That’s 37 points on 16-for-26 shooting, 13 rebounds, seven assists, and two blocks to beat a damn good Pacers team. Garnett was 23, midway through his fifth pro season after jumping straight to the league from Farragut Career Academy, and already had damn near every weapon in the arsenal. (OK, poor choice of words.) The wildest thing: There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this particular game. Garnett just sort of did this—which is to say, he did everything—all the time.
Twenty years ago, KG looked like the future, and was establishing a template for inside-out all-purpose excellence used (often unfairly) to measure countless prospects who came in his wake. And 20 years later, the future looks like him—big men with backcourt skills; giants with a feathery touch; multipositional menaces who blow up pick-and-rolls, defend in space, and protect the rim; solutions for every problem packed into long, lithe frames.
“I think back then, you started to think about how big, how tall these guys were with those skills, and is that going to be the norm?” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report for a 2015 oral history on KG. “Are we going to have more guys like this come along that can do that? That’s what I thought of when I first saw him. It was incredible.”
Garnett was one of the most versatile basketball players ever. The only other player to log more than 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists, 1,500 steals, and 1,500 blocks was Julius Erving, and Dr. J wasn’t also regarded as arguably the greatest defensive player of his generation. Or a guy who might have actually had another layer to his game that we never really got to see.
“A lot of people didn’t know: I had a one-on-one that I never really got to show,” Garnett told Shams Charania of The Athletic last month. “Face-ups, like ahh, ahh, ahh, ahh, ahh. I had a bit of handle that’ll get me from A to B, and I was … man. [...] I had a one-on-one game that I never really got to display other than when I played in the summer or when I played on Team USA.”
It’s cool to imagine Garnett isolating like Harden and shaking dudes off the dribble, but it’s the way the modern game would’ve fully unlocked his skills that’s most enticing. A KG coming up today doesn’t have to tongue-in-cheek his way into “6-foot-13” status to avoid being pigeonholed as a paint-bound center. He finds encouragement early on to stretch that cash elbow-extended jumper back behind the arc, putting even more pressure on defenses and racking up an extra point on all those pick-and-pops.
Combine that defensive genius, that deft passing touch, that precision on his footwork and post-up package, and that sheer size and mobility, and Garnett becomes maybe the most devastating frontcourt player in today’s game. He’d be a monster stretch 5, provided he was cool with lining up there—KG really made the move to the pivot only out of necessity, and didn’t much care for it, so perhaps he’d insist on staying at the 4 spot, like spiritual successor Anthony Davis. He’d be an absolute nightmare to deal with as a 7-foot playmaking hub and defensive quarterback who can also serve as a primary scoring option.
My first thought was that a present-day iteration of Peak KG—which, for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll say was his 2003-04 MVP season—would be like Draymond Green on Super Soldier Serum. My second thought, though, looked elsewhere on those world-beating Warriors teams:
KG vs. KD
It’s not a perfect comparison; I don’t think KG would ever be able to replicate the shooting volume and accuracy of Kevin Durant, because there haven’t been more than a handful of players in history who could. Given a different developmental regimen and a time-shifted move beyond the arc, though, it’s interesting to think about, and to wonder whether we’d wind up seeing a different Kevin as something like “the ultimate player.”
Career (1,109 games, 1995-2010, 2012-13): 14.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0steals, 1.3 blocks per game, 46.7% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 72.1% FT
To some degree, Wallace’s case is similar to KG’s, just with the volume turned down. Well, to the extent that you could ever turn down Sheed’s volume.
Wallace had the size—6-foot-10, 225 pounds, a reported 7-foot-4 wingspan—the mobility, and the mind to thrive as either a power forward or center in today’s game, along with the skill to get buckets inside and out. Roscoe had every post move in the book, every drop step, half-hook, and baseline fade, even in the latter days of his career, to go with a smooth stroke and nigh-on-unblockable release that extended out to the arc.
He was never a high-volume marksman, per se, but he presented a credible threat from distance that predated the backward shift for big men across the league; from 1998 through 2009, he shot 34.5 percent from deep on 3.5 attempts per 36 minutes of floor time, creating matchup problems by dragging opposing big men out into deep water. In an age when it’s now customary for big men to cast off—21 dudes 6-foot-9 or taller averaged at least five triple attempts per 36 this season—it’s not hard to imagine him bombing away with greater frequency, giving shape and space to four- or five-out offenses that punish opponents by stretching them past their breaking points.
Wallace was also an elite interior defender, capable of stifling high-scoring big men in the post and protecting the rim. It’d be interesting to see how he’d fare in an era when defensive bigs have to cover more ground than ever, but considering Sheed was a helpful backline presence even in his final days with the Knicks, I’d bet on him using his smarts, instincts, and length well enough to grade out as a positive contributor, even if he wasn’t quite the ideal “switch every screen, guard every position” prototype of a modern defensive 4 or 5.
The thing about Sheed is that even if he’d be well-suited to shine in today’s game, I’m not sure he’d necessarily be a transcendent superstar in it. Then again, that never seemed to be what he was looking for, anyway.
Wallace never averaged 20 points or 10 rebounds per game in a season, and while he made four All-Star teams, he never put up the sort of outsized production that would’ve enabled him to break the stranglehold that the other power forwards of his era—Garnett, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitzki—had on the All-NBA ballot. (“Rasheed was a joy to coach, and I was impressed by his knowledge of the game,” the legendary coach Dean Smith, for whom Wallace starred at the University of North Carolina, told L. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated in 2000. “If anything, he could be too unselfish.”) Until his final years, Wallace’s teams always performed better with him on the court than when he sat, but he always seemed more comfortable as part of an ensemble, like when he was with the 2004 champion Pistons, than stepping into the spotlight as a signature star; as the FreeDarko collective described him in their Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, Sheed’s brand of “reluctant dominance” was more akin to “an alpha predator conserving its energy because it’s got nothing to prove, then inflicting savagery because that’s what it does.” Like, say, when Slava Medvedenko starts throwing elbows.
Superstar or not, I think Wallace would be an ace stretch 4 or 5 in today’s game—a more volatile and longer-range LaMarcus Aldridge, or maybe a lower-volume Karl-Anthony Towns who didn’t kill his team on defense—and, if not a perfect one, then at least a perfectly entertaining one. We could all use more Ball Don’t Lie in our lives, irrespective of eras.
Career (882 games, 1989-2003): 10.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.7 steals per game, 50.9% FG, 16.7% 3FG, 70.9% FT
I’ve always loved the way David Roth once described the style of Pat Riley’s ’90s Knicks: “They remind you of getting elbowed in the throat, repeatedly, on a crowded city bus.” No player—not even Charles Oakley, who was sort of like if you made the whole plane out of throat-elbows and gave it a mustache—more fully embodied that vibe than Mason, who went from a third-round pick out of Tennessee State to a pivotal role on an NBA Finals team and, eventually, to All-Star and All-NBA berths through sheer power and force of will.
And yet, for all the hard fouls and on- and off-court scuffling, that was never all there was to Mason’s game. Sure, he was a brick shithouse with a penchant for follicular sloganeering, but he was also a deceptively canny passer, playmaker, fast-break facilitator, finisher, and perimeter defender. A bully, yes, but one who played all five positions in college, and who could do a lot more than just play bullyball.
“Anthony’s what I’d call an oxymoron,” Riley told Marc Jacobson of New York magazine in a November 1994 feature. “He defies expectations [...] As a player, you look at Mase’s size and court demeanor and think he’s a blue-collar banger, and he is, but he’s also very nimble, can outrun people, and has superior ball-handling skills. He’s deft, almost cute. There’s a bundle of contradictions about him. He’s versatile, unique in that way.”
Mason displayed that versatility more as his career progressed, developing into a bona fide point forward in Charlotte and Miami without losing any of the snarl or flexibility that made him such a tough defender in New York. From the start of the 1995-96 season, his last run with the Knicks, through his All-Star turn for the Heat in 2000-01, he averaged 14.2 points on 51.2 percent shooting, 9.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and just 2.2 turnovers in 40.5 minutes per game, while guarding players up and down the positional spectrum.
It’s true that Mason’s jumper was exceedingly wonky, and that he lacked shooting range. He attempted only 12 3-pointers in a 13-year career, making just two of them, and rarely ventured beyond midrange with his jumper. Even if a contemporary Mase didn’t develop into an average long-distance shooter, though, I still think a player with enough in his game and his gas tank to deliver a 31-14-11 triple-double while running the offense out of the post and effectively guarding a young Vince Carter for nearly 48 minutes in an overtime win—all at age 33—would find a way to contribute in a modern game that prizes the ability to check off multiple boxes on both ends of the floor:
Mason would thrive as a playmaking 4 or small-ball 5, capable of initiating offense, beating closeouts to slice to the rim, and finishing in traffic, and adept at both switching on screens and holding up one-on-one against guards on the perimeter (like, say, Michael Jordan) or big men in the post (like, say, Hakeem Olajuwon). When I envision a modern Mase, my mind conjures a player something like 85 or 90 percent of Draymond Green—not quite on Dray’s level as a defensive disruptor and orchestrator, but cut from the same physical, crafty, positionality-flouting cloth. (Save for a notable edge in the assist column, their per-minute, per-possession, and advanced statistical profiles through their first eight seasons are actually pretty comparable.)
I think that dude would be a ton of fun to watch. I wonder what he’d shave into his hair now.
Speaking of do-it-all dudes from Queens ...
Career (961 games, 1999-2013): 13.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.9 blocks per game, 46.3% FG, 31.2% 3FG, 69.3% FT
With power forward size, point guard handles, and a preternatural calm that seemed to help him process the game a bit faster than most, Odom often appeared to prefer making the play that led to the finish rather than finishing himself. He could get his own, but he more comfortably slid into supporting positions alongside the likes of Elton Brand, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant; he had nearly three times as many games with double-digit assists (23) as he did 30-point outings (eight).
Odom was a delightful facilitator, making beautiful music with Pau Gasol in the high-low game during the Lakers’ run to consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010. He was an above-average 3-point shooter only a couple of times in his 14 seasons, but he was threatening enough to warrant a closeout, and he could dust lumbering bigs off the bounce or punish smaller defenders down low off a switch. His ability to endanger defenses from the perimeter allowed the Lakers to either play gigantic (with him at the 3), and his ability on the glass and in the post allowed L.A. to go small and skilled (with him at the 4) without compromising its defensive spine. (Stan Van Gundy told Ringer colleague Kevin Clark that Odom’s ability to effectively guard stretch 4 Rashard Lewis proved to be the X factor in the Lakers’ victory against his Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals.)
He’d be a tailor-made playmaking 4 today, able to pull the ball off the rim, push it in transition, and either find a trailer filling the lane or fire a bullet to a shooter running the wing. He could work either end of the pick-and-roll, pressuring defenses as a ball handler capable of getting all the way to the rim, a dive man who could spray the ball all over the court in the short roll, or a pick-and-pop target who could make perimeter jumpers. He could defend every frontcourt position—he was actually the starting center on the Team USA that won gold at the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey—and hold up against guards if the game plan called for it. I’m not sure exactly what sort of player that might translate to in 2020—Ben Simmons without the transcendent court vision, but with a jumper he’s willing to use?—but I’d sure like to find out.
Perhaps most importantly, Odom could do it all without needing to be a no. 1 option. While his tendency to defer might prove maddening to coaches and fans eager to see him put all those skills together consistently enough to become a perennial All-Star, it would also make him a perfect complementary piece to a high-usage star in need of a running buddy to do all the dirty work without needing any of the limelight. Every team in the league would love to have a big man who can initiate, pass, defend, and be happy doing it; as Odom’s trainer told Lee Jenkins in 2009, he’d rather “throw you an alley-oop and give you a pound on the way back down” than go hunting for his own highlight. Guys like that could play in any era; guys like that who go 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, though, would play up in this one.
Career (1,073 games, 1984-2000): 22.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks per game, 54.1% FG, 26.6% 3FG, 73.5% FT
There’s a reason all us old folks were talking about Sir Charles when Zion Williamson came to town. It would be exceedingly rad to get to see that reason displayed in a contemporary context.
Young Barkley’s physicality—the open-court speed, all that explosiveness, the springs for second jumps and top-of-the-box rejections, at something like 6-foot-4 and nearly 300 pounds—just straight up didn’t make any goddamn sense. Honestly, even three and a half decades later, the way Chuck just exploded into orbit (especially on those blocks) still strains credulity:
Prime Barkley—the ’92-’93 vintage, after the trade to Phoenix, where he won MVP and led the Suns to the Finals—was a bit less incendiary, a bit more well-rounded and complete, and an absolute stone-cold killer whose only true demerit was that he wasn’t Michael Jordan:
Barkley was so strong and so sudden off the floor that he averaged double-digit rebounds in 15 of his 16 seasons despite giving up nearly half a foot on any given night to most opposing power forwards (he was the shortest player ever to lead the league in rebounding). One of Charles’s best lines, delivered to Jeff Coplon of The New York Times in 1991: “If I were 7 feet tall, I’d be illegal in three states.” He was so quick off the dribble and such a monstrous finisher that he led the league in 2-point shooting percentage for five straight years, despite everyone in the world knowing he was going to drive to the rack and try to dunk with extreme malice on whatever big man he found when he got there. I’d love to see how he’d fare in an NBA in which the average defender is longer and more athletic than in his day, but in which offenses tend to feature significantly better spacing and defenders wouldn’t be free to try to hand-check and steer him away from the hoop.
It’d also be interesting to see whether a version of Barkley who came along at the height of the 3-point revolution—rather than one who dismissively claimed that a jump-shooting team would never win a championship, and stuck to his guns even after the Warriors did just that—would have developed a more accurate long-distance shot to better capitalize on his willingness to fire from deep. Twenty years after his retirement, Barkley still stands as the least accurate 3-point shooter ever to attempt more than 2,000 triples; perhaps his balky stroke would limit his effectiveness in an age when nonshooting bigs have a hard time staying on the floor. The bet here, though, is that Barkley’s combination of unprecedented physical tools and dynamite floor game—that dude could pass, too, man—would make him just as jaw-dropping to watch and dangerous today, leaving a whole new crop of 7-footers worried about what fresh hell he might unleash as soon as he reached the paint.
Those are my five, but there’s always room for more time travelers, so let’s hit a few honorable mentions:
Larry Nance Sr. (1981-94): When it comes to describing the elder Nance’s ahead-of-his-time athleticism and length, a picture is worth a thousand words …
Roto-Rooter!— Ronnie Flores (@RonMFlores) April 28, 2020
Jack Stephan "Adeedo!" pic.twitter.com/Atgh8Yll4L
… but it’s pretty good when the picture moves, too:
Even as a raw prospect coming out of Clemson in the 1981 NBA draft, the 6-foot-10 Nance had all the traits and tools to profile as a prospective game-breaker. “I thought Larry Nance could become the new prototype for forwards in basketball,” former Lakers assistant coach (and current head coach of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics) Mike Thibault told Jeff Pearlman in his book Showtime. “Here was a guy who was long and athletic and could maybe be a guy who plays against wing players even though he was mainly a four. He could run all day, and he was just a fabulous athlete. He was someone who could affect a game not just with height, but length.” Then-Lakers GM Jerry West agreed, envisioning Nance sprinting the floor and catching lobs from Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon: “Damn, I loved Larry Nance. He was a special player.”
When it came time for the Lakers to make their selection, though, head coach Paul Westhead pushed for Michigan swingman Mike McGee, leaving Nance sitting there for the Suns one pick later. McGee never carved out much of a role in five seasons in L.A. By his second season in Phoenix, Nance was averaging nearly 17 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks per game; by his fourth season, he was an All-Star. “That one makes me moan,” West told Pearlman. “Still.” (Thirty-four years later, the Lakers got a second chance to draft a Larry Nance. They used it, taking Larry Jr., a power forward out of Wyoming, with 2015’s 27th pick. Junior’s got plenty of hops himself, and a quality floor game to boot, though he trails Pops by a bit in statistical production and overall impact to this point in his career.)
Nance Sr. was a vicious, high-percentage finisher at the rim, most notable for his aerial exploits in winning the NBA’s inaugural slam dunk contest. There was more to his game, though, including a capacity to stick with small, quick guards off the dribble and a rapacious appetite for rim protection that led to an awful lot of blocked shots; from his rookie season through his retirement, only Mark Eaton, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Manute Bol recorded more swats than Nance. He’d be a terror in transition in an up-tempo era, starting breaks with blocks or defensive rebounds before racing the length of the floor to finish above the rim; he’d be a hell of a lob target in the screen-and-roll, a vertical spacer à la Tyson Chandler or Clint Capela. He could also serve as an efficient source of complementary half-court offense without needing to dominate the ball; he averaged more than 16 points per game for 11 straight seasons, and never once used even a quarter of his team’s offensive possessions to do it.
In terms of consistent all-around production and quietly trend-setting style, Nance compares pretty closely to another excellent forward who spent some great years in Phoenix before moving around and eventually finishing his career in Cleveland: Shawn Marion. And, just like “The Matrix,” I’d love to see how Nance’s athleticism and skills would translate today, too.
Chris Webber (1993-2008): At the risk of repeating myself: Give me a big man who can pass, and I’ll be a happy fella. Amid a generation of all-time talents at the 4 spot, Webber might have been the most natural and daring playmaker of the lot, whether running the break, kicking the ball out of a double-team with his back to the basket, or dicing up defenses with high-low feeds to cutters from atop the key:
Save for the 1995-96 and ’96-’97 seasons, when the NBA was still experimenting with the shortened 3-point line, Webber never spent too much time beyond the arc. He did, though, develop a consistent 18-to-20-foot jumper—42 percent on long midrange looks over a 10-year period, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s shot chart data—that he’d use to keep defenses honest when they’d try to take away his passing lanes. Like Garnett, if he’d been raised with the belief that taking one step backward would be better for his team’s offense than taking a step in, it might not be too much of a stretch to imagine Webber developing a passable 3-point shot. (His inconsistency as a free throw shooter—just 64.9 percent for his career—offers some cause for concern, though.)
If you paired a credible 3-point shot with all those ball fakes into jumpers, show-and-go drives, deep post-ups into short hooks, and seeing-eye feeds through traffic to teammates who might not even have known they were open … well, you might see something kind of like Nikola Jokic:
It’s not apples-to-apples, of course. Webber, before the knee injuries that effectively ended his career, was much quicker, more explosive, and more athletic than Jokic. (And, as was the case with Terrell Brandon and Jamal Mashburn, bringing Webber along now carries the possibility of a non-microfracture-based treatment for those knee woes, potentially affording him a shot at a few more near-peak years and holding off a premature end to his career.) And as great a facilitator as Webber was—only nine players 6-foot-9 or taller have ever logged a higher career assist percentage or averaged more assists per game—Jokic has to this point in his career been on an even higher level than C-Webb, and is on pace to cement himself as the best passing center the sport has ever seen. But given the success Webber found in Sacramento under Rick Adelman, acting as the straw that stirs the drink in what was essentially a supercharged preview of what so many offenses would look like a decade later, it might not be the worst point of comparison for what a modern Webber might be.
Antoine Walker (1996-2008): We remember ’Toine best, at this point, for his shimmy and for his immortal insistence that the reason he shot so many 3-pointers—he led the league in triple tries in three straight seasons, from 2000 through 2003—was “because there are no 4s.” What those blessed memories might obscure a bit, though, is that when he wasn’t chucking with reckless abandon, Walker had an awfully nice floor game that would make him a tough cover for smaller 3s or larger 4s in an even more spread-out NBA:
During those three seasons, Walker averaged 21.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 1.6 steals per game, sharing responsibility for running the Celtics offense with an aging Kenny Anderson and a rising Paul Pierce. His size, quickness, and handle allowed him to penetrate the lane and create shots, whether for himself or his teammates; he did that well enough, while also helping carry Boston on the boards, to earn three All-Star nods.
Walker’s own shot diet at the time—primarily focused inside the paint and beyond the arc—actually resembled the distribution that would be favored in the league’s Moreyball future. But taking the right shots is one thing; making them is quite another. And while Walker averaged 20 or more points per game in five different seasons, he routinely shot in the low 40s in overall field goal percentage and made more than 36 percent of his long balls only twice. “Had Antoine actually been consistently good at that which he consistently attempted, he would have been a sabermetrician’s ideal offensive power forward,” the great Mark Deeks wrote back in 2014. Instead, he went the other way, serving as an emblem of the sort of inefficient volume-shooting scorers that would fall out of favor as more and more teams began trying to get on the right side of the league’s existential math problem.
I wonder, though: Would a Walker who came along now, with playmaking gifts to spare and enough shooting talent to stretch defenses (if not necessarily rank near the top of the league in 3-point percentage) be put on a developmental path toward finding more shooting consistency rather than, say, building an arsenal of post moves? If so, and if you combined that with the point-forward game he displayed in Boston, the shot distribution he displayed throughout his career, and just a bit more discipline in terms of when he fired away … that player might be a load for defenses to handle, and a load-bearing pillar for a pretty good offense.
I concede that there were a few too many “ifs” in that paragraph to feel exceptionally good about them all panning out. It’s fun to think about, though—the possibility that Walker, who in one sense seems completely of a piece with and stuck in the stagnant style of the early 2000s, might actually have been just a few degrees off from the vanguard of something pretty potent, and pretty fun. Maybe even fun enough to shimmy about.