NBA: Days Of Future Past

Recently on a Jalen & Jacoby podcast (shout out) we heard Jalen discuss the one dimensional nature of players in today’s league. He was using Allen Crabbe’s contract with the Brooklyn Net’s to highlight inflation in value for players with limited skill sets. He alluded to the fact that in the space-and-pace era, having a one dimensional skill set is imperative in the minds of NBA general managers.

Although I am inclined to agree with Jalen Rose, to a certain extent, I would argue that a player with a plethora of different skills actual epitomises the contemporary league ethos. That’s not to say Jalen doesn’t agree with this assertion, but it wouldn’t be a good opening paragraph if I just absolved him of an antithetical argument (even if he is bound to agree with it).

This led me to think about how being born in the wrong generation can led to a perception that implies lack of talent. Shaq was born in an era, where his size and skill set were utilised. Would he have been allowed to be as dominate now, as he was then? How great would’ve Dwight Howard been in the 1980s? Of course hypothetical quandaries lack imagination, and hindsight is the greatest friend to the obnoxious. But I think there is an abundance of former players who would have thrived, and been perceived as superstars (at least All-NBA calibre) talents in the league today.

This article will look to examine which players from past eras would have taken the mantle of superstar in the league today. We will analyse the fundamental attributes needed in the league right now: defensive versatility, ability to shoot 3 pointer and capacity to switch off the pick-and-roll. Of course we won’t be discussing the Michael Jordans, Kobe Bryants or Larry Birds of the world, because they transcended basketball. Instead we will discuss players on the tier below.

Andrei Kirilenko

AK-47 may retain the cruellest conational nickname (I mean he is Russian after all), yet the coolest! What Andrei also possesses is the versatility of a NBA unicorn. Just to explain to people, the term NBA unicorn was coined by the great Bill Simmons of The Ringer. It is an expression that describes the unique skill set of an NBA player that can dominate, incredulously, on both the offensive and defensive end. Here are his stats for his 3 best seasons:

Season Points Per Game Assists Per Game Rebounds Per Game Blocks/Steals Per Game
2003-2004 16.5 3.1 8.1 2.8/1.9
2004-2005 15.6 3.2 6.2 3.3/1.6
2005-2006 15.3 4.3 8.0 3.2/1.5

Defensively AK was maybe the most extraordinarily distinctive player in the league. Imagination if Draymond Green was on Vitor Belfort level steroids? That’s Kirilenko in his prime. During the 2004-2005 season he averaged 3.3 blocks per game in 41 games (people thought it was a fluke), yet he followed it up with 3.2 blocks per game in 69 games during the 2005-2006 season. His defensive awareness kept the Utah Jazz in relevancy after the departure of Karl Malone and John Stockton. In today’s league Kirilenko would be a juggernaut. Not only could he guard multiple positions, the 6’9 small forward was also a rim protector. Such versatility is a rare commodity in the NBA today. So if Draymond Green could become an All-NBA talent in the league because of his flexibility, surely Kirilenko would too?

Well that argument has one aspersion: the streaky shooting of Andrei Kirilenko. Yes Draymond himself is a liability from the 3 point line; however he plays alongside, arguably, the 3 greatest shooters of all time. The ability to hit a 3 is less of a necessity for him.

When attempting over 100 three pointers, Kirilenko had seasons where he has averaged over 36% on two occasions. But he has also two seasons of over 100 attempts where he averaged fewer than 29%. His erratic three point shooting is also visible when we look into advance stats, and AK’s ability to shoot corner 3s. Two seasons he averaged over 50% from corner threes and other seasons he averaged below 15% (3 different occurrences).

Offensively he was streaky, but could still slash to the basket and make the sporadic 3 pointer. But his defensive game is what would have isolated him as a potential modern day great.

Arvydas Sabonis

As a Thunder fan, I had high hopes for his son. But if Arvydas was mythological and transcendent, then Domantas is a pure bum. I proclaim that to emphasise the comprehensive contrast between father and son.

Indeed Arvydas Sabonis was a player born in the wrong era; however his talent was still recognised as unique and effective. Standing at 7’3, he was the prototypical ‘stretch five’ that is so coveted in today’s NBA. He was able to utilise the three-point line throughout his short tenure with the Portland Trail Blazers. In his first three seasons for Portland, Sabonis shot 118 out of 351 (34%) from three point land. However his main offensive attributes game from the high post.

Much like Blake Griffin, Sabonis would post up from the high post to set up teammates. He had the height to look over the defensive, but also the accuracy in passing to simulate point guard style court vision.

Although not known for his defensive prowess, he was a capable shot blocker. In the NBA he never averaged less than 1 block a game. But this was mainly because of his height and wingspan, rather than his defensive tenacity. Even so, he would have fared better in today’s league because the physicality was more ferocious back then.

Michael Cooper

When we think about the Showtime era of basketball, exhibited by the LA Lakers, we think about the dynamic passing and charisma of Magic Johnson. Maybe we think about the graceful elegance and longevity of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We may even remember the clutch performances of James Worthy. However there has always been an unsung hero in that team. His name is Michael Cooper.

In today’s league Michael Cooper would warrant a $135 million contract over 5 years. I mean if Otto Porter can get signed up for a max offer, than surely someone of Michael Cooper’s calibre deserves more right? It wasn’t just his relentless defensive dexterity which made him a menace to opposition teams. It was his clutch performances, and three-point shooting which would make him one of the most valuable commodities in the league today. How do I know this? Because that same skill set was valuable to the 5 championship teams, in which he was integral member.

At 6’5, Cooper had the ability to defend smaller guards, yet guard bigger forwards. The latter was on full display during the 1985 NBA Finals were Cooper was catechised to guard Larry Bird. In game 6 of the NBA Finals, he held Bird, 6’10, for 12-29 shooting, which helped the Lakers win the championship that year. In 1987 Cooper became the first bench player to become defensive player of the year, and over the course of his legendary career he secured 8 All-NBA defensive team selections. He could guard anyone in the league during an era of comprehensive robustness. Imagine what he could do in today’s league?

In my opinion Michael Cooper was the original ‘3-and-D’ guy in the NBA, and it was definitively shown within his stats. Cooper shot 34% from three-point land over the course of his career, and was exceptionally efficient in clutch moments. For instance during the 1987 NBA finals against the Boston Celtics, Cooper shot 6-7 from three-point range and secured a game 2 win over the Lakers’ arch nemesis.

It’s incredible the money that is being thrown around in the current NBA. Players are averaging 5 ppg and 4 rpg and getting 12 million a year. Andre Roberson, who shot 13% from the free-throw line in last year’s NBA playoffs, received $30 million over 3 years. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy these players are getting paid. I wish Andre would get offered $60 million over 3 years; however I can’t help but wonder if players like Kirilenko, Sabonis and Cooper really got value for their skill sets.

Probably not. Many of us feel like we were born in the wrong generation, but it has rarely affected our ability to earn and provide for our families. I would feel bitter, but these guys are in the NBA fraternity and are happy with the acceleration of salaries. But, I still wish there was a time machine so these guys could get what they deserve.


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