Former NBA Stars Who Could Thrive in Today's Game
Basketball fans love comparing players from different time periods and different eras. In most cases it's ultimately a pointless task, with rule changes, variations to strategy and overall levels of athleticism and skill improving annually, messing up the parameters for any argument.
But here are seven players from the past who, most likely, wouldn't experience much difficulty dominating today's NBA relative to what they did during their careers.
These seven players went through the prime of their careers between 1988 and 1998. There are obviously so many more from that ripe 10-year period who could step in today and compete at a high level, but these seven had games tailored for basketball's contemporary style.
The league’s assist king probably for the rest of time (his 15,806 career assists are 10,387 more than Chris Paul has logged to date), John Stockton was a tough, fundamentally unrivaled, do-whatever-it-takes-to-win leader who could play—and, more importantly, make his teammates better—in any era.
Rightfully best known for his ability to distribute at least a dozen perfectly placed passes every game (he averaged 10.5 assists per game, but remember that number only accounts for passes immediately converted into a basket), Stockton was also a fantastic shooter.
He finished over 40 percent on three-pointers in seven of his 19 seasons and was close to hitting the 50/40/90 mark several times (Stockton finished below 80 percent from the free-throw line just three of 19 years).
On the defensive end was where his toughness came in handy, running through brick-wall screens, using his steely hands to rip the ball away from his opponent. Out of the 1,526 regular-season games Utah played during Stockton’s career, he appeared in 1,504 of them.
Gary Payton is now in the Hall of Fame because he was the most notorious defensive guard of his generation. Perimeter defense will always matter, especially against someone who dribbles the ball constantly, and Payton made life miserable for those players every minute of every game.
What made Payton so special was his ability to not only pester players who faced him up, but he was strong and technically ferocious in the post, too. (Watch his work against Michael Jordan during the 1996 NBA Finals here.)
As a scorer, Payton alternated between a mesmerizing spin move and the ability to put a defender on his hip and bully him in the post. He was very, very good. (In 1995 he averaged 20.6 points per game on 50.9 percent shooting from the floor—rare company for a guard.)
Thanks to with whom he played and his primary impact residing on the defensive end, Scottie Pippen might be the least appreciated "great" basketball player who ever lived.
Pippen could do every physical act related to basketball well: dribble, shoot, pass, defend, run, jump and cut. He had long arms, quick feet and an unbelievable sense of timing when it came to going for a block, boxing his man out or filling space in the open court.
If Pippen played in today’s game, he’d be an unquestionable perennial All-Star. LeBron James is most often compared to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, but he shares with Pippen an overall versatility that’s rarer than rare.
The phrase "this player only comes around once a generation" doesn't even apply here. Pippen is too unique for it.
In the modern era there’s a noticeable lack of offensively skilled centers. David Robinson fills that void instantly. From 1994 to 1996, he led the NBA in PER—three straight seasons of absolute dominance (including a 29.8 points per game scoring average in 1994 that led the league).
Robinson didn’t attempt as many shots per game as his fellow All-Star centers, but he still managed to score tons of points at an efficient level.
If a 27-year-old David Robinson were in the league today, he'd still be the most athletic seven-footer running up and down the court. He'd still be more graceful than anyone his size and still be able to take over games with his incredible offensive repertoire.
Hakeem Olajuwon won two championships as the best player on his team, led the league in rebounding twice (and blocks three times) and averaged at least 20 points per game for the first 13 years of his career.
While all those feats are impressive, none are more significant for making the case that Olajuwon would thrive in today's league than today's best players seeking him out as a teacher, trying to learn the post moves he put on defenders nearly 20 years ago to incorporate into their own games.
No other great player is sought after like Olajuwon. Nothing validates his status as a timeless talent more than that, and it's a no-brainer to include him here.
The least obvious selection on this list, former Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Mark Price might be the only player mentioned here who would've been more successful playing today than 20 years ago.
His ability to shoot would be the absolute perfect weapon for any modern NBA offense looking to space the floor and keep the defense stretched to a breaking point.
Price is one of the best shooters who ever lived, a true marksman who led the league in free-throw percentage on three separate occasions. His career true shooting percentage of 58.6 percent is truly remarkable after realizing Stephen Curry's true shooting percentage was 58.9 percent last season.
YouTube any dunk Shawn Kemp threw down in the early 1990s (here’s my favorite) and try to convince yourself his level of pure athleticism and physical dominance doesn't compare with the league’s modern-day elite.
Kemp was ahead of his time in so many ways, a player who spent his prime rolling through the league like a merciless tropical storm. The violence in which he departed on the rim remains sensational to this day. But could all that jumping and dunking translate today?
Kemp’s accuracy from the mid-range in his prime isn’t available on Basketball-Reference.com, but in 2000 (the earliest accessible data sample), he shot 42.5 percent from 16-23 feet. By comparison, Blake Griffin (Kemp's modern-day substitute) shot 30.0 percent on 40 more attempts last year.
He could shoot, but if he didn't have to, he wouldn't. There's a chance that rule of thumb would still apply today if a 26-year-old Kemp dropped into the league.