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 fun to watch in the 2020 NBA than they were in their heyday. I decided it might be fun 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.
I started my Time Machine All-Stars at the point. Today, we turn to shooting guards.
One quick note: Michael Jordan is not on this list. That’s not because I don’t think Michael Jordan would be fun to watch today; it’s because I think there’s probably already enough talk about Michael Jordan to fill every media outlet, thanks. So let’s discuss some other dudes.
Career (658 games, 1970-80): 24.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.4 steals per game, 44.1% FG, 82.0% FT
That Pistol Pete was just matter-of-factly doing stuff like this more than 40 years ago will always blow my mind:
Pete Maravich outlet pass, January 1978 vs. Portland. pic.twitter.com/u6JUVtwyIR— Ben Taylor (@ElGee35) April 22, 2020
In fact, that probably undersells him. That clip comes from 1978, after Maravich had already suffered the knee injuries that would end his career just two seasons later. He’d been doing this kind of shit for a decade—only faster, and with even more reckless abandon. Quoth Isiah Thomas: “If Maravich was playing today, he’d be a god.”
Maravich was already a legend and a sui generis spectacle by the time he entered the NBA, having averaged an obscene, record-setting, and star-making 44.2 points per game during three seasons at LSU. (It’s worth noting that they came on an equally obscene 38.1 shot attempts per game; it’s nice when Dad’s the coach.) He brought an irrepressibly flashy game to the pros, one built off a handle famously honed through a variety of wild training practices—dribbling through lightning storms and while riding a bicycle; dribbling blindfolded through the house, and out of the window of a moving car—and boundless confidence in his ability to find the open man or the bottom of the net, and damn near always in a way you’d never seen it done before.
“[The fans] remembered the moves. All of them,” the great David Halberstam wrote for Inside Sports in 1980, as Pistol Pete neared the end of the line. “None ever patented, because each move was an original, never seen before, never seen again. They were exciting, always so quick, as if Maravich himself did not know what he was doing until he had done it and then it was too late. Not just behind-the-back passes, and passes that were parts of acrobatic spinning reverses, passes, it was said, that were often too good for some of his teammates—but moves invented on the spot, moves that were ends unto themselves.”
So, yeah: Give me a 6-foot-5 wing who lived to push the pace in transition, who found every crevice in a defense and created plenty of new ones, and who had a penchant for routinely pulling up and draining jumpers from well beyond 20 feet out in the years before the NBA implemented the 3-point line. (They didn’t put the arc on the court until 1979, meaning Maravich played just one season, as a shell of his former self, with the extra point; he made 10 of his 15 tries that season.)
Let me see how a dude who could hang 68 points on Walt “Clyde” Frazier and the Knicks on only 2-pointers and free throws—“I was just happy there wasn’t a 3-point line, because he would’ve gotten 100,” Frazier later said—in a performance that Knicks coach Red Holzman would call “the best I’ve ever seen by a guard” might fare in a go-go era when you got an extra point for those long bombs.
And, for that matter: Let’s find out how one of the more fascinating characters of the period before the NBA’s Magic-and-Bird resurgence would’ve translated to the contemporary media landscape. With all those points, all those shots, and all those turnovers on all those losing teams—Maravich’s squads finished under .500 in eight of his first nine seasons, and made the playoffs just three times—Pistol Pete became an exceedingly divisive figure in the league, as Curry Kirkpatrick summed up in Sports Illustrated back in 1978:
Probably no man in team sports has engendered such diverse verdicts from his peers as Maravich. Portland Coach Jack Ramsay: “Pete is the best. A great player, a great competitor. Of course he could play with us. He could adapt to whatever was necessary to win.” Former Laker Pat Riley: “Maravich is the most overrated superstar who ever came down the pike. Every guard in the league wants to send a limo to pick Pete up at the airport and play against his soft defense. I not only don’t think Pete could play any other way, I don’t think he wants to.” Detroit Center Bob Lanier: “He’s a team player. Give Pistol another forward and a center and he’d be all-everything. He’s the only player I’d pay money to see.” Phoenix G.M. Jerry Colangelo: “His domination of the ball tends to be a distraction, pulling apart team effort and the attempt at unity.” Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch: “We’d win the whole thing with Pete in the lineup.”
Sounds like the kind of dude who’d find himself at the center of an awful lot of gleefully embraced debate in 2020. And, um, maybe some other kinds of coverage, too. More from Kirkpatrick (emphasis mine):
In the past few seasons Maravich’s teammates have taken to calling him the Wildman. With all due respect to his freewheeling ways on the floor, the name is a reaction to his recently formed radical opinions on such subjects as meat (terrible), Laetrile (terrific), world politics and outer space. It isn’t that Maravich forces his views on anybody, it is simply that he is so overwhelmingly sincere as he voices the desire, for instance, “to be invisible so I could kill the heads of all the rich banking families, redistribute the wealth and make the world a better place.” The Pistol also has discussed with his teammates his hope someday to draw a huge target on the roof of his house accompanied by the words “Come Take Me” so that when the spaceships start circling they’ll know where to land. Is this a giant put-on? “I’m going,” Maravich says grimly. “I’ve made a commitment to myself and [his wife] Jackie that I’m going.”
An incredibly gifted scorer and stylish playmaker whose relative contributions to winning engendered passionate disagreement, who groused about the unfavorable media coverage he received (“What really slays me is that people actually believe all that stuff written about me. They don’t know me, yet they think they do”), and who openly discussed his hope that he’d one day be able to take his rightful place among the extraterrestrials? On second thought … nah. No way a dude like that would make it in today’s NBA.
Career (290 games, 1989-93): 15.4 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.9 steals per game, 50.4% FG, 43.7% 3FG, 84.1% FT
Petrovic’s 1993 death in a car crash in Germany was a tragedy, snatching away a beacon of hope and a source of civic pride throughout the former Yugoslavia. When he was buried, tens of thousands marched through the streets to pay tribute to “a symbol of resistance and victory, a figure of something where Croatia was the best in the world, [who] became a legend too soon,” at the tender age of 28.
He had built that legend playing in Croatia and Spain. Before coming to the NBA at 25, Petrovic had already been named Europe’s top player four times, won two EuroLeague championships, and earned MVP honors at the FIBA World Championship and EuroBasket tournaments. His résumé was so impressive that, in 1991, he was named to FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players list despite being only 26. (“Guys would play over there [in Europe] and talk about Petrovic—how good he was, but also how nasty,” longtime NBA writer Peter Vecsey says in Basketball: A Love Story. “I remember Jan van Breda Kolff telling me he spit at him during a game, he talked trash all the time.”)
It took Petrovic two seasons—and a trade away from a Trail Blazers team that already had Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, and Danny Ainge in the backcourt—to find his footing in the NBA. But by the summer of ’93, he’d fully arrived, having earned a spot on the All-NBA third team after averaging 22.3 points per game for a rising Nets team. When you watch the highlights, it’s hard not to envision what might have been had Petrovic gotten to play through the rest of his prime—whether he’d have battled Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller for annual All-Star berths in the East throughout the ’90s; whether New Jersey could’ve built something special around the core of Petrovic, Kenny Anderson, and Derrick Coleman. Given the time and the opportunity, Petrovic might have become the first European player to truly cross over into superstardom in America, years before Dirk Nowitzki became an MVP in Dallas.
It’s also hard to keep your thoughts from lingering on how a player with Petrovic’s game—a combination of versatile scoring, inside-half-court range, and brass-balls charisma—might work out on the scene today.
Petrovic was lethal from distance, whether pulling up off the dribble or careening around off-ball screens, needing only a brief flicker of space to raise up and rain down. The threat of that jumper opened things up underneath—he employed an array of shot and pass fakes, could pump and drive to weave his way to the hoop, and had the vision and gall to fire passes at all angles when the defense closed in—and he wasn’t shy, either. During the 1991-92 season, when the average NBA team attempted just 7.6 3-pointers per game, Petrovic shot 3.4 in 36.9 minutes a night, drilling a crisp 44.4 percent of them.
Like Maravich, questions about Petrovic’s defensive aptitude would be a factor in an era when the average swingman is bigger, faster, and more athletic than in his day. But the bet here is that Petrovic’s mix of toughness, accuracy, and playmaking acumen—combined with an even greener light in an era much less suspicious of the merits of European players and much more friendly to 3-point gunners—would play up in 2020.
Consider: Over his final two seasons in New Jersey, Petrovic used 22.7 percent of the Nets’ possessions and posted a .595 true shooting percentage. Over the last two seasons, only four guards have exceeded those numbers: James Harden, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, and Devin Booker. All four put relentless pressure on defenses all over the court; all four also have usage rates a hell of a lot higher than 22.7. Crank Petrovic’s usage up to their levels, and the buckets—and the fireworks—might get up near their levels, too.
“He was one of the first guys to shoot from 3 and 4 feet behind the line, and he was doing it running full speed off screens,” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, an assistant on those Nets teams, told ESPN’s Zach Lowe in 2018. “It was absolutely wild. He would be perfectly suited to play today.”
Career (938 games, 1997-2013): 19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.2 steals per game, 43.5% FG, 33.8% 3FG, 74.6% FT
I know it’s not the first thing I should think about when I think about Tracy McGrady. My brain should probably flash to 13 Points in 35 Seconds, or the night he hung 62 on Washington, or the time he became the controlling owner of Shawn Bradley. But for the past few years, whenever I have cause to think about T-Mac, I think about a small story from the 2013 NBA Finals.
McGrady was, at that point, essentially an ornament on a Spurs team led by franchise legends Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. He hadn’t played at all during the 2012-13 season, instead going overseas to play in China for the year, but San Antonio signed him on the final day of the regular season to add another veteran for the playoff run; he saw just under 18 minutes of playing time through the first three rounds. But when the time came for the Spurs to take on the Miami Heat, coach Gregg Popovich suddenly called on McGrady to play an important role. Namely, the role of LeBron James on San Antonio’s scout team.
It seemed funny, when you first heard it: a 34-year-old reduced by age and injuries, years removed from his peak, tasked with mimicking the movements and monstrousness of the game’s most singular star. But then you thought about it for a second, and you remembered what T-Mac was—a spring-heeled giant wing who for years had an argument as the most gifted and versatile scoring threat on the planet, whose playmaking feel and court vision might not have approached LeBron’s level but never got quite as much credit as they probably deserved, and who could also do this …
… and it didn’t seem so funny anymore.
At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, with the ability and footwork to roast defenders in isolation, take smaller dudes into the post, and play comfortably in the pick-and-roll, McGrady would be able to slot in anywhere between the point and the 4 in most lineups today. He took a ton of midrange jumpers, the onion-on-my-belt of the late ’90s and early aughts, but he did have touch outside and a willingness to fire—especially the sort of pull-up 3s that have become such a vital part of the offensive arsenal for virtually every great contemporary perimeter scorer. From 2000 through 2007, the last season before injuries really started to limit him, McGrady averaged 4.6 triples per 36 minutes of floor time, and hit them at a 34.6 percent clip. Not elite, but more than enough to make defenses stay up on him on the perimeter, which opened the door for drives to the basket that could result in either steady trips to the charity stripe (just over seven free throw attempts per-36 in that span) or some very loud and stylish finishes at the rim.
A lot’s been made over the years about whether or not McGrady worked hard enough in practice to make the most of his prodigious gifts, and how much responsibility he bore for his Magic and Rockets teams routinely falling short of expectations. It’s fair to question McGrady’s performances in some of those disappointing finishes; 7-for-24 shooting in a 15-point loss in Game 7 against Detroit in 2003 and a 10-for-26 mark in a 40-point blowout in Game 7 against Dallas in 2005 stand out.
It’s also worth noting just how large a load he shouldered, though. In Orlando, he essentially carried some very limited rosters to the top half of the league in offensive rating. The three times he played more than 50 games in Houston, the Rockets won more than 50 each time. In both cities, his team routinely fared much better with him on the court than off it; for most of the 2000s, his bona fides as a high-volume, low-turnover offensive hub were rock solid.
Put a healthy McGrady in a modern offense flanked by credible shooters, and his production might replicate (or even top!) his unreal 2002-03 campaign in Orlando …
… which, now that you mention it, bears some interesting similarities to an MVP-caliber campaign we watched two seasons ago:
McGrady vs. Harden
We can’t know whether a modern-day McGrady would’ve followed in Harden’s ever-shuffling footsteps on the path toward cranking up a mind-blowing number of stepback 3s, or how such a pronounced backward shift in his shot diet would’ve affected his efficiency and effectiveness. (Although, with McGrady’s height, length, hops, and high release point, maybe Harden’s the wrong Thunder ex-pat to be envisioning when it comes to stepbacks.) It seems a safe bet, though, that a player with an all-around game devastating enough to make him one of just 15 players ever to average 30-5-5 for a season, and one of only a dozen to post a player efficiency rating north of 30, would have the tools to do some serious damage as a high-usage focal point in today’s league.
Career (1,018 games, 1985-99): 16.1 points, 2.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 0.9 steals per game, 46.0% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 84.3% FT
The great Jack McCallum once asked Scottie Pippen who was a better defender: him or Michael Jordan? Scottie’s answer, as McCallum recounted in his 2012 book Dream Team: “Well, I guess everybody would say Michael.” He couldn’t help but note, though, that Michael “got away with a lot of things” because of his unbelievable level of superstardom. “I mean, officials are saying to me, ‘Ask Michael if I can have his shoes after the game,’” Pippen told McCallum. “Are you kidding me? All that made a difference.”
And then, he added: “Michael goes into the backcourt, mauls Joe Dumars, and steals the ball. What, Joe Dumars is going to get a call? Nobody wanted Joe Dumars’s shoes after the game.”
Ouch. But while Dumars doesn’t exactly share Jordan’s still-outsized importance and relevance—although, in fairness, he’s got a pretty great meme, too—Joe D does feel like the kind of player that every team would be dying to add in 2020.
Throughout his career, Dumars earned a reputation as one of the smartest, toughest, and most disciplined backcourt defenders. He was often Chuck Daly’s preferred option against bigger threats like Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, and most notably Jordan, as the first line of defense in the vaunted “Jordan Rules” that Detroit deployed in knocking Chicago out of the playoffs in 1988, ’89, and ’90. You’d be within your rights to question how a 6-foot-3, 190-pound defender would hold up against some of the bigger, burlier swingmen of the modern age; it’s worth noting, though, that MJ himself said Dumars gave him the most trouble of any Bad Boy Piston he faced.
Dumars was also a polished and versatile offensive player. He could handle the ball and smoothly run the Pistons offense, whether alongside or in place of Isiah Thomas or Vinnie Johnson. He could attack defenders one-on-one off the dribble, spot up on the weak side of a pick-and-roll, or sprint around screens as a catch-and-shoot target away from the ball. (The work that Dumars made Jordan put in defensively by tracking him through all those screens, as longtime Chicago Tribune Bulls beat reporter and The Jordan Rules author Sam Smith saw it, was the secret ingredient that helped make Detroit’s defensive game plan work.)
Dumars made an All-Defensive team in five straight seasons between 1988 and 1993; during that half-decade prime, he also averaged just under 20 points and five assists per game on 47/39/87 shooting splits, and became one of the more reliable high-volume 3-point shooters of his era. Dependable two-way production like that is rare; an elite multipositional defender who can score at all three levels and run the show when you need him to can be an awfully valuable player.
Maybe being, say, a healthier version of Jrue Holiday doesn’t scream “all-time great.” I can guarantee you a hell of a lot of teams and fan bases would love to have him, though—no matter how unmemorable his kicks might be.
Career (932 games, 1960-74): 27.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.7 assists per game, 47.4% FG, 81.4% FT
“It’s too bad there weren’t 3-pointers in the rules back then. Jerry probably could have scored 35 to 40 points a game.”
That’s how Joe Chrest, one of West’s teammates at East Bank High School in West Virginia, described his game to Roland Lazenby in his 2009 book on West. Considering West averaged 27 a night on .550 true shooting in 14 NBA seasons—making him one of only four players ever to marry those levels of productivity and efficiency in his career, and the only one who never got an extra point for the kind of shots that earned him the nickname “Mr. Outside”—it’s a pretty safe bet that Chrest’s projections might have panned out in the pros.
At 6-foot-4.5—he was listed at 6-foot-2, but he has insisted he’s two and a half inches taller, and I’m not going to call “The Logo” (his other decent nickname) a liar—with a wingspan around 6-foot-9, West would measure up just fine with many of today’s top guards. His length and quick release on the pull-up jumper, unfurled with pristine form, would allow him to get his shot off against modern defenders; his versatility as a scorer would give him options to attack whoever the opposing coach decided to throw at him.
“West was what I call a freak,” Celtic lifer Tommy Heinsohn told Lazenby. “He had these long arms, and if you tried to match up to him and bring size into the situation, he would out-quick that guy. And if you matched up speed against West, West would shoot over that defender.”
Considering how much he improved his handle early in his career, I’m betting that a version of West who came along today would be fluid enough to fire off-the-dribble 3s without hesitation. With that shot in the bag, he could use the fear of his jumper to create more lanes for penetration, whether to get all the way to the rim or to get to the line; West averaged just under nine free throw attempts per 36 minutes throughout his career, and cracked double figures in per-game tries a Hardenian five times in his 14 seasons.
I’d also trust him to be able to tailor his game to provide whatever his team required. When longtime running buddy Elgin Baylor missed 28 games in 1969-70 with knee soreness, West stepped into the void and led the NBA in scoring for the first time in his 10th season; two seasons later, with Gail Goodrich in his prime and ready to shoulder a larger share of the scoring responsibility, West led the NBA in assists for the first time.
Efficient high-volume scoring and playmaking would be great on its own merits, but West also used his size and quick hands to become an extremely disruptive defender. A five-time All-Defensive selection (they created the team in 1968, and he made it every season for the rest of his career), West’s full production on that end wasn’t captured, thanks to the NBA not logging steals or blocks until 1973; in his final, injury-abbreviated season, West still averaged three steals and just under one block per 36 minutes of court time. At age 35.
There might not be a better summary of both West’s titanic ability and his insatiable perfectionism than this: “Years after retiring, West recalled a regular-season game in which he made 16-of-17 shots from the field, all 12 of his free throws, and contributed 12 rebounds, 12 steals, and 10 blocks. ‘Defensively, from a team standpoint, I didn’t feel I played very well,’ he said. ‘Very rarely was I satisfied with how I played.’”
West led some of the most potent offenses and best teams of the pre-3-point era; imagining how his game, with its combination of size, skill, defensive smarts, and relentless competitiveness, would map onto today’s game and structure is intoxicating. Could a modern-day West have been something like a less athletic Dwyane Wade with a ratchet jumper—an ever-present threat to author game-breaking plays on both ends, made all the more dangerous because you couldn’t just hang back on him to prevent the drive? (Not that defending D-Wade was, like, easy, obviously.) I don’t know, but I’d sure as shit like to see what a player like that—one whose ice-in-his-veins late-game exploits earned him yet another bad-ass nickname: “Mr. Clutch”—could do in today’s spread-out and pumped-up game.
Those are my five, but there’s always room for more time travelers, so let’s hit a few honorable mentions:
Dale Ellis (1983-2000): Before high-volume 3-point shooters were even a thing, there was Ellis, taking full advantage of the green light he got when he was traded from Dallas to Seattle and bombing away to a degree matched in the late ’80s by only Larry Bird:
Before off-court issues derailed his stay in Seattle, Ellis was something like a prototype for the 2-guards to come: a gunner who could put the ball on the deck and slash to the rim, stop and pop, pull up in transition, and make defenses pay for packing the paint. He averaged 25.6 points per game in his four full seasons as a SuperSonic, using 26.1 percent of Seattle’s possessions at a sparkling .583 true shooting percentage—the sort of marriage of production and efficiency we’ve come to expect from the likes of Harden, Lillard, Curry, and many of the rest of the game’s best guards these days. With even more space in which to operate and an even greener light to fire, Ellis—the first NBA player to break 1,000 made 3s, well before the shot was popularized—could be an absolute monster in a modern system.
Michael Redd (2000-12): Ditto. Before the devastating ACL and MCL injuries that all but ended his career, the sweet-shooting second-round pick out of Ohio State was a matchup nightmare on the perimeter—a 6-foot-6 lefty equally adept at curling around screens, working with his back to the basket, or facing up and driving into the paint for floaters and short hooks.
Redd—who, lest we forget, was a bad enough man to be picked for the Redeem Team in 2008—took just under five 3-pointers per game during his peak in Milwaukee, and knocked them down at a 37 percent clip. If he hit the league now, he’d be nearly doubling that attempt rate, and milking that smooth southpaw release for all it’s worth.
Speaking of the Bucks ...
Sidney Moncrief (1979-91): I mentioned this last time, in writing about Walt “Clyde” Frazier: I’m a sucker for big guards who can defend. Few have ever done it better than Moncrief, the only backcourt player in NBA history to win Defensive Player of the Year two times:
Like Clyde, Moncrief paired his incredible defensive instincts, quick-twitch athleticism, and even quicker hands with a capacity to get buckets on the other end. During his peak, which saw him make the All-Star, All-NBA, and All-Defensive teams in five consecutive years, Sir Sid averaged 21 points on 50.3 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game to go with all that defensive disruption. Moncrief was never as willing or accurate a 3-point shooter as Dumars would become, but as a high-percentage shooter with touch out to midrange, I’d be interested to see how far he could stretch out if he came of age in the pace-and-space era; even a halfway-respectable 3-point shot would have made him a tremendous piece in 2020.
Ron Harper (1986-2001): To most NBA fans, Harper was the veteran Jerry Krause brought in to try to help keep things afloat while Michael was shagging pop-ups in Birmingham, who wound up eventually being a hand-in-glove fit for a complementary role alongside MJ (and, later, Shaq and Kobe) in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. But before Harp was the connective tissue in Chicago’s second three-peat—and before the ACL tear that scuttled two seasons of what should have been his prime—Harper was something more than that:
Before the injuries, Harper was a Swiss Army knife point forward who could defend three positions, break defenders down off the dribble, help clean the glass, use his long-ass arms to harass opponents and deny the ball, wreak havoc in transition, and generally do just about whatever you wanted someone to do on a basketball court. From a statistical standpoint, through the first four years of their careers, he basically was Scottie Pippen, which makes their eventual team-up—after Harper had largely lost his hops, but gained the perspective to remake his game—all the more appropriate. Smart guards who can do everything can play in any era, even if the jumper comes and goes; a five-tool player like the young Harper would be dynamite now, too.