The throwback player is the man who has all the appeal of yesteryear without the short-shorts. He’s a mix of the old and the modern. He embraces the modern but still holds to what was the best of the past.
Perhaps it’s because we, as a society, continue to progress, but at the same time recognize that things are lost as we do so, and we lament that loss, finding an appeal in players who can still keep the best of what has gone before. In their honor, we give you our throwback team. But first a brief history lesson.
The game has been evolving ever since it was invented. In its inception there was an actual basket—a peach basket to be precise—and when a player made a shot, someone had to climb up a ladder and get it out. You couldn’t run with the ball. Dribbling hadn’t been invented yet.
Then someone came up with the brilliant idea of cutting a hole in the bottom of the basket and letting gravity do the work. Imagine how long it would take if every time someone made a shot you had to get a ladder in today’s NBA! Needless to say, that sped up the game.
Next, someone came up with the idea of dribbling. The game sped up even more.
The game evolved more, and giants like Wilt Chamberlain dominated the game, so they widened the lanes to speed it up. Then they widened it even more.
When the three-point line came into play, it spread out the court, allowing perimeter players to have more influence, and accelerating the game even more.
But as much as the game was speeding up, it was still very physical. A player could get wrecked going into the paint. It was the price you had to pay. That combination of speed and physicality defined the 80s to mid-90s as a particular era in the history of the game.
Hand check rules, flagrant fouls and the like have softened up that aspect of the game, but there are players who have an attitude that would have worked then. They are throwback players in a modern era.
Some of these players are stars today, and some are just role players, but each of them would feel more at home in a previous generation. They play a game that has an 80s flavor. They are devoted to defense and do not shy away from the physicality of the game.
Here are two players from each position, one over 30 and one under 30, who would feel at home in the previous age of the NBA.
Kirk Hinrich plays with a ubiquity and toughness that is reminiscent of John Stockton.
He’s different from the new era of point guard. He doesn’t drive to the hole. He prefers to dribble around the defense, not through it. He finds the open man, and is more comfortable passing the ball to the “roll” player in the pick and roll than keeping it.
When he doesn’t have a pass, he can step back and knock down a three. He pours out effort on defense with an almost reckless abandon.
And, oh yeah, he’s not afraid to tackle 6’8”, 280 pounds of LeBron James 18-wheeler power when he’s the only thing between said oncoming truck and the basket. He’ll rip the ball out of the opposing center’s hand. Kirk Hinrich plays like he’s a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than he is.
Deron Williams is a great point guard in this age, but he would have been even better in the previous era. His size, lack of fear of contact, affinity for the flex offense, shooting ability and knack for passing the ball into the post would make him perfect for an 80s-style, Jerry Sloan offense. Oh. Wait…
Now that Brooklyn D-Will is starting to resemble Utah D-Will, we’re being reminded of why he was considered one of the best point guards in the league. He’s more comfortable playing a throwback game than trying to be a Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose.
He’s better with scoring as a second option and dishing to Carlos Boozer or Brook Lopez into the post. That both Boozer and Lopez emerged as great offensive threats with Williams feeding them the ball is no coincidence. It’s why it’s very easy to see Williams running an offense 30 years ago.
Who else could we even consider here but Kobe Bryant? He is as throwback as they come. After all, down to the finest details, he’s modeled his game after the player whom is the quintessential architect of the era, Michael Jordan.
In the previous age, with hand checks being legal, it was much more common to see players with their back to the baskets than it is now. Offense wasn’t run an iso play, make a nice crossover dribble, explode past the defender and drive to the lane like it is now.
It was a lot more back your defender down to the basket, post them up, and knock down the shot. Don’t think LeBron James exploding to the rim. Think Hakeem Olajuwon’s Dream Shake, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky-hook.
Bryant, without question, is one of the best post-up players in the league today. His average of 1.05 points per play based on Synergy stats is the fourth best of any player in the league—a phenomenal number for a guard.
Bryant’s defense is well attested by his 12 All-Defensive Team appointments. That he is fifth all-time among guards in minutes played speaks volumes about his toughness.
Then there are the little things, like knocking down free throws with a torn Achilles tendon—you know, just in case he decides to come back in.
A little known fact about James Harden is that he never actually grew a beard. The Beard grew a James Harden.
His own personal face-forest that says “old school” when you watch him play, but the way he plays almost makes you forget that magnificent follicle sculpture.
Harden is utterly fearless in the way he plays the game. He gets to the rim a lot—he has the third-most field goals among guards—but unlike Dwyane “Flash” Wade and Russell Westbrook who have more than him, he doesn’t rely on his speed and explosiveness to get there.
Watching Harden play, it’s apparent the “old man” with the beard relies on savvy more than physical gifts to get to the rim.
“Wisdom” is not a word you usually associate with 24-year-old basketball players, but with Harden, sometimes you can’t help but wonder if he trains in a dojo instead of a gym.
If there is one player in the league whom you know would have fit right in with the Bad Boy version of the Detroit Pistons it’s Metta World Peace, which is weirdly ironic when you think about that whole Malice at the Palace thing.
There is a twisted part of me that sometimes wishes I could build a time machine just to see what World Peace and Dennis Rodman would be like as teammates. Who would out-weird whom?
At the same time, the artist formerly known as Artest’s physical play, tremendous defensive acumen, charismatically odious (if that’s possible) nature and tenuous grasp on reality would make for a perfect fit for a team like the Pistons in the late 80s.
Paul George is rapidly becoming a star in the league. His propensity for the three-point shot is certainly noteworthy. Earlier this season he broke former Pacer great Reggie Miller's record for most three-pointers made in a game, with nine.
Being a lengthy wing who drains threes isn’t enough to make George a throwback payer though, even if it is in a Pacers uniform. It’s the absolute love and quality of defense with which he plays.
There is no one player that Paul George calls to mind but there are aspects of Reggie Miller mixed in with Bruce Bowen. The way he plays on both sides of the ball would fit in well with the 80s style of play.
The nastiest team in the NBA right now is the Boston Celtics. They are mean, spiteful, hostile, visceral and at times downright dirty. The word “ornery” aspires to be them.
And the reason that they are is summed up in two words, “Kevin Garnett.” A nastier human being cannot be found in the NBA right now. But 20 years ago, he would have been right at home.
Garnett’s first NBA years were spent being schooled by Kevin McHale, who played with the original Big Three in Boston, along with Larry Bird and Robert Parish. Now that was a group that had some old school ball. They epitomized it.
Garnett plays defense like Parish, rebounds like McHale, passes like Bird and competes like Danny Ainge. He has passed that attitude onto his teammates. In an age where other teams are befriending their competition, Garnett and his teammates are hating their ex-teammates. That’s the way it used to be.
LaMarcus Aldridge has a bit of an old school game. He has an excellent post-up game, averaging an outstanding .94 points per play according to Synergy, is outstanding on defense and has all the grittiness you want from a big man.
But it’s not just play that lands Aldridge here; it’s the quiet contentment to play in a small market. While other superstars are bolting to find other superstars to join up with, Aldridge has quietly, and without complaint, toiled away in the Northwest. The lack of diva to his personality is decidedly old school.
There’s a reason they call Tim Duncan the “Big Fundamental.” He’s big, and he pays attention to the fundamentals. He’s a monster on both ends of the court. He is arguably the last of the great big men that played like big men.
Duncan and four other players in NBA history have exceeded totals of 23,000 points, 13,000 rebounds and 2,000 blocks. The others are some of the great big men from the previous era: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish, and Hakeem Olajuwon, as well as Shaquille O’Neal, who straddled the previous era and this era.
Duncan embodies every virtue that there is in the old-school player. He’s tough as nails and quietly fierce. He plays the post like a monster. He is a truly great defender.
But the most old-school thing about him is the way he lets his game do the talking. If you were to transcribe a Duncan temper-tantrum you wouldn’t need exclamation points. You would just need a play by play. If Duncan is smiling at you, be afraid. Be very afraid.
With the rule changes over the last 15 years, great big men are becoming a thing of the past. Only once in the last 18 years has a center or power forward won the scoring title. This year will be the first time ever that no one will average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Either Charles Darwin is playing a mean trick on us and suddenly started to grow big men differently after the Jordan years, or the rule changes which followed Jordan’s career are having their intended effect.
As a result, it’s hard to measure big men now compared to bygone eras. We try and equate the stats of today’s big men with those of previous big men, but the stats are hard to judge because the game is so different.
Consider that in 1965 there were 60 percent more rebounds in a game than there are now. That means there were that many more opportunities for big men to get offensive rebounds and put them back in. That has a lot to do with how players like Wilt Chamberlin and Kareem Abdul Jabbar accrued a lot of their massive numbers.
Instead of looking at the numbers, just consider the physical toolset that Dwight Howard has. Were he a player in 1985, he would be groomed in the likes of a Moses Malone. Had he played in the early to mid-80s it is feasible to see Howard putting up 25 points and 15 boards with considerable regularity.
Probably no player has been as negatively impacted by his playing in this era than Howard. His size, strength and athleticism all would have had him far more dominant in the earlier version of the game.