Dennis Rodman is known for his outrageousness. But there was more than a little truth behind his outrageous words last week, when he said LeBron "would be just an average player" had he played in the late '80s and early '90s.
I literally shook my head at a whole passel of LBJ shots in these Finals, knowing that with old defensive rules in place—rules which were removed after the 2003-04 season—most of his squared-up looks would have been back-to-the-basket efforts; his jumpers would have much more contested; his slashing would have met with resistance or even force.
No one can really argue that. Plain and simple, the four-time MVP would not be as good then as he is now.
The question is, had he played in the good ol' rough-and-tumble days of yore, would LeBron even be a star?
For that matter, what about some of our other stars?
First up are the slashers. There's a reason that certain guys who were more quiet in college surprise with their moves toward the basket in the pros. It's because college basketball allows more defense than the pros do.
For example, the great Allen Iverson, one of my favorite players ever, had just one season in his first eight where he hit 42.2 percent or more of his shots. In his next six, he exceeded 42.2 percent every year but one.
Further, in 2003-04, his eighth year in the league, he was 65th in the league in points in the restricted area. In 2004-05, his ninth season, he was fifth.
What happened? Did A.I.'s shot suddenly drastically improve?
Nope. Defensive rules implemented after 2003-04 allowed Iverson to start driving to the hoop with far less obstruction—thereby giving him more access to higher-percentage shots.
I'm not saying Iverson wouldn't have made it in the old days; in fact, he played during the old days. I'm saying at a time when point guards had already peaked, Iverson's game improved, and it wasn't due to steroids or extra time at practice (sorry, couldn't resist). It was because the game had been made softer.
So which slashers are actually soft and would have been exposed?
James would still have survived. Despite his whining to the referees, I've seen him stick a bunch of tough shots at tough times. But look at his rookie year, before the rule changes, versus his subsequent years.
- Point average in year one, prior to rule changes: 20.9 PPG
- Point average in every other year of his career: 27.1 PPG or higher
You can blame the differential on James being a rookie if you want. And James' vast improvement, Iverson's vast improvement—you can call that coincidence. But you're fooling yourself.
James was a very good player his first year, but not a great one. His greatness came only after the league made it easier for him to be great.
So could he have made the adjustment?
I say yes, for the most part. I say were the rules reimplemented, James is a rare enough talent that he could adjust. But I don't think he'd be as dominant. And he wouldn't be one of the finest slashers the game has ever seen.
Dwyane Wade is a legendary slasher. But in his rookie season, he averaged just 16.8 points per 36 minutes. Since then, he has never averaged fewer than 22. Coincidence too? Just a rookie improving?
Wade has been a terrific defender, and has a good midrange jumper. He'd have survived too. But his slashing...let's just say that would have been drastically curtailed.
All right, let's look at some older players...Jason Richardson, for example. In his three seasons prior to the rule changes, for example, he averaged 15.8, 17.1 and 17.9 points, respectively. In the two seasons after, he averaged 20.6 and 21.8.
I could go on and on and on, but let me get to the point and start calling folks out, because I know that's what you're waiting for anyway.
Chris Bosh. The bigs from previous generations would have crushed the cat. Translation: He's softer than Cottonelle. He'd be a slightly above-average player.
Wade would be a star because he played excellent defense for most of his career. But he wouldn't be anywhere near the megastar he is today.
Let me get off the Miami Heat's case, because I know they're still basking in the glow of their championship season. (And if you're a Heat fan, don't lie to me and tell me you weren't worried—you were sweating bullets, and for very good reason.)
Tyreke Evans. A shooting guard who takes almost all his shots at the rim and is borderline pathetic from every other location on the court except the three-point line, where he's average. The old days would have taken away his slashing...and Evans has little else to offer. He'd be playing pickup games at the YMCA by now.
John Wall. Love to watch him play today's game. But look at his shooting stats: .594 at the rim; .429 from three to 10 feet. From 10 feet to the three-point line, he's in the .375 range, and from behind the arc, he's an anemic .267.
Without his inside game, which the old-school league would have shut down (or made him pay for), his often-abysmal jumper would have been exposed. A bench player at best.
Pau Gasol. Another guy I like to watch. Another guy who would have been exposed.
He's been good and bad at crunch time in the playoffs. But in the old days, if you were bad in the playoffs, you didn't usually get a second chance.
Simply because of his height, which was always a prized commodity even back then, a team would have taken a chance on him after his first playoff experience—which was an abject failure—but he'd be pulling a lot of splinters out of his hindquarters.
Derrick Rose. He's as beautiful to watch in today's game as any guard. But his shot crashes and burns from anywhere farther than 10 feet out. And though he might have made the right decision for his health to not return in this year's playoffs, in the tough old days, that would have been unacceptable. A role player, and nothing more.
Carlos Boozer is not a star anymore. But he might never have been had he played in days gone by...at least not the star he is. His defense, which has always been suspect—the guy was called out by his owner, for goodness' sake—is now embarrassing. He gets injured when a strong breeze kicks up. And that's to say nothing of his lack of integrity and common decency in his despicable departure from Cleveland.
He's too talented an offensive player not to be a star. But he would have been a second-tier one, not a franchise player.
Look at Rajon Rondo's stats in college. That's a better indicator of how he would have fared in the old days than his pro career is, where he can get to the rim more easily than the wise old owl can get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.
They're not too impressive. And neither would Rondo be, were he to play old-school NBA ball.
I'm not saying today's softer game isn't still entertaining. But for those of us who preferred our basketball with a strong dose of defense and physicality, the NBA is simply not as good as it was in the good old days.
And the players I've called out wouldn't have been as good either.
(Relax. I'm just kidding. Superstars all.)