Clyde Drexler would love to play his best years in the current NBA. In a recent on-line chat with fans, Drexler, who has been retired for nearly 11 years, claimed that his points per game (PPG) would be “tremendously better.”
Is that true? I examined this argument by comparing the 1988-1989 season, Drexler’s best season, with the 2007-2008 season, the last full season, using statistics from databaseBasketball.com
Drexler makes a fairly convincing argument. In the late 1980s, Drexler’s prime, defenders were often allowed to put their forearm in the offensive player’s chest. This made it extremely difficult to drive to the hoop for a layup. Players like Drexler had to play with their back to basket in an attempt to avoid this hand checking.
If Drexler played now, he would not have this problem. Hand checking fouls are called more often and the physicality of the sport has decreased dramatically. The Glide could easily have glided his way to a three layups every game.
He would penetrate so much that he would force defenders to foul him. In the 1988-1989 season, Drexler averaged 6.68 free throws per game. Could Drexler have shot 10 free throws per game in the 2007-2008 season? Considering that he was consistently about 80 percent free throw shooter, Drexler could have added a little more than two points to his PPG on the charity stripe.
One point that Drexler does not make is the decline in shot blocking. True centers have been popping up on the back of milk cartons lately. There are very few seven-footers playing consistent minutes in the NBA. Most teams have a 6’10’’ or 6’11” player managing the post for them.
As a result, there were 0.6 less blocks per game in the 2007-2008 season than the 1988-1989 season. It makes sense that Drexler, a penetrating guard, would have scored more points if he did not have to worry about being in some seven-foot monster’s highlight reel.
Yet, many players such as Clyde Drexler and sport journalists conveniently forget that there are even more differences between the 1988-1989 NBA and the 2007-2008 NBA.
First, many players in the 1980s had a less-than-stellar commitment to defense even though they were allowed to give forearm shivers. In the 1988-1989 season, the average team scored 105 points per game if you take out the atrocious Miami Heat. Last season, teams averaged 97 points. This time I took out the Miami Heat (coincidence?) and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Still, Drexler’s Trail Blazers were not an average team. Their PPG was 114, and they took advantage of bad defenses better than most teams. If Drexler had to play the current Spurs, Rockets, and Hornets teams on a consistent basis, he would have scored less often. Since he contributed about a quarter of his team’s points, the lame defense of the 1980s could have given Drexler four extra points a game.
Plus, if you watch a 1980’s NBA game on ESPN Classic, you are sure to notice one difference immediately: tempo. Games in the late 1980s were played at a much faster pace, and many points were scored in transition. Transition points do not happen nearly as often in the current slow-down style of offense with the possible exception of any Mike D’Antonio team. The number of shots taken by an average team has increased by seven (89 to 82).
More importantly, the Trail Blazers hoisted up a whopping 95 shots a game during the 1988-1989 season. If we assume Drexler was on an average team in the 2007-2008 season, those extra shots (95 shots compared to 82 shots) gave him at least three more shots a game.
Being conservative, Drexler could have scored eight to nine more points per game without hand checking and with more free throws. On the other hand, with better defense and a slower pace, the Glide would lose about six to eight points per game. His numbers would probably be rather comparable to his current statistics if he played now.
I do not have a crystal ball that would tell me who Drexler would play with in the current age and what his injury history looks like. But, from what I can tell, Drexler would be Clyde ‘The Glide’ Drexler if he played today—nothing more, nothing less.