On August 22, word of a blockbuster trade in the NBA shook the sports world. The Cleveland Cavaliers were sending All-Star guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics in exchange for high-profile guard Isaiah Thomas, veteran swingman Jae Crowder, second-year center Ante Zizic and draft picks.
The deal garnered buzz well beyond the pro basketball sphere, which was evident to anybody who follows their favorite NFL players on Twitter.
Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson was excited to declare that Irving was finally “free” after several years of playing second fiddle to megastar LeBron James. Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward wondered aloud if Irving would regret asking for the trade. Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert welcomed Thomas to Ohio. Washington Redskins safety Su'a Cravens speculated that this might lead to LeBron’s departure next offseason.
It was a reminder that the NFL and NBA have long shared a deep connection. A lot of great football players are also superb basketball players. Many of them played competitive hoops as youth, and many remain avid basketball fans.
Basketball is one of the most widely discussed topics in NFL locker rooms, so we decided to get some of that talk on the record. In recent conversations with Bleacher Report, here’s what eight NBA-loving NFL players had to say regarding the most topical topics and buzziest buzz on the hardwood.
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Just this summer, Bleacher Report’s Tyler Dunne made the case that Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is the Kobe Bryant of the NFL, and it’s been suggested that several different players might qualify as the LeBron James of professional football (with Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s name coming up quite often). But those comparisons are admittedly subjective and tricky, since the sports themselves are dramatically different and there’s no way to quantify the two. But which NBA player comparisons do NFL players make when they look in the mirror?
I am the [NBA comparison] of the NFL:
Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: I would say Kevin Durant, but he’s more outspoken. He just say what he wants and don’t care about it. I’m getting to that point but I’m not there yet. I would say Steph Curry. He’s a nice dude off the court but a fierce competitor on the court. He’s not the biggest guy, not the fastest guy but can shoot lights out, his technique is great. That’s me, I’m a technician. I try to make sure my technique is right. I try to stay away from controversy. The Currys are the sweetest people.
Brandon Graham, DE, Philadelphia Eagles: I’m Lebron James, baby! (laughs) Nah! No! Let’s see, who’s a grinder? I’m gonna go with Kawhi Leonard. Because he’s hardcore, you know? He’s always hustling, plays good defense. I mean, I can’t play basketball. I wish I could, but overall defense is where you win, and he’s a grinder.
Donovan Smith, OT, Buccaneers: My brother used to call me Big Baby Davis and Shaq, so probably them two.
LeGarrette Blount, RB, Eagles: It’d have to be somebody that’s really aggressive, and goes to the paint. I don’t think anybody in this league can compare themselves to LeBron James, in football or basketball. So I’m going to go with somebody like DeMar DeRozan. Physical. Got a little mid-range game. I’ve seen him dunk on a lot of players.
Cameron Brate, TE, Buccaneers: I always say I’m a right-handed Thaddeus Young. I’m a slasher. That’s my game. I’m not a shooter.
One thing the NFL has a lot more of than the NBA? Parity. NFL rules make it tough for good teams to remain good and bad teams to remain bad, save for exceptions like the New England Patriots (always good) and Cleveland Browns (always bad).
The dynamics of the NBA make it easier for certain teams to load up on talent and dominate almost everybody else. So-called superteams—rosters comprised of several veteran stars who essentially decided to come together to make a championship run or two—have become particularly trendy of late.
There were the Boston Celtics with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen; the Miami Heat with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; the Cavaliers with James, Irving and Kevin Love; the Golden State Warriors with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson; and now the Oklahoma City Thunder with Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
Our NFL focus group has mixed feelings on the "superteam" phenomenon:
Tre Boston, S, Los Angeles Chargers: It’s the new thing. If you can’t beat them join them, isn’t that what they say? You keep creating superteams and there are only three or four teams in the league. They should just let them go straight to the playoffs. Skip the rest of the season.
Chris McCain, DE, Chargers: I like it, but it’s frustrating what Golden State is doing because I can’t stand Golden State. I feel like everybody who likes them is a bandwagon fan. Nobody liked them when Nick Van Exel was there shooting threes.
McCoy: It’s what’s in now. The game is evolving. Be with it or get lost.
Brate: Ooooh. They make the playoffs exciting, but not the regular season. Being a Bulls fan, we’re not a superteam, so it’s tough to watch.
Smith: At some point everybody wants to get a ring. If you can put together a superteam, why not? As long as you can get everybody what they need in terms of money and happiness, then go for it.
The NFL is also a lot richer than the NBA, but because far more players are owed a piece of the NFL pie and because NFL contracts typically aren’t fully guaranteed, NBA players often make a lot more money than their pro football peers. Predictably, that doesn’t sit well with a lot of NFL athletes.
Thoughts on NBA contracts versus NFL contracts:
Smith: Next question (refuses to answer, laughs).
McCoy: It’s not even close. We need [guaranteed contracts]. Our season is much shorter. I’m not saying their season is not grueling. One of my closest friends is Blake Griffin. He tells me about all their games and how tough a three-game road trip in four days is. But they don’t have people going after they legs and cutting them and slamming them. They’re not knocking heads every play. What we do and how short-lived it is, our contracts should be guaranteed. That’s not knocking the NBA. These guys need guarantees too because these guys put on shows and they are bringing in huge grass.
Boston: I feel grateful for what I have. But I’d definitely like to have the money they have. Our sport is more physical. Our company makes about $10 billion more in revenue. I wouldn’t mind if more of that was used on us, and we had more guaranteed money.
McCain: We have to get what we get. The NBA gives more money but they have less players. Who wouldn’t want to sign a deal for $217 million like Steph Curry did?
Brate: NFL contracts are smaller, but it makes sense. More players, it’s a numbers game. But it would be nice to get an NBA contract.
So if you could put together a five-man basketball lineup made up of NFL players, who would make the cut?
Blount: I’m gonna put my dawg Odell [Beckham Jr.] at the point, just because I’ve never seen him play. I never played with him before. I’m gonna put my dawg Le’Veon [Bell] at the 2. I never played with him and I wanna see how he plays too. Obviously, Antonio Gates at the 3. I’m gonna probably put Nate Solder at the 4. And at the 5. Man, I need a big big man. He ain’t even gotta be 6'9" or 6'10", he just gotta be like Shaq. Just big. Intimidating. So I’m gonna go with...I’ll go with Calais Campbell! A big, physical guy that can move. He’s gonna come out there and throw the picks, then get back. And you know he can probably dunk. He can dunk on anybody, probably.
Smith: Brent Grimes, Mike Evans, Demar Dotson, Kwon Alexander and myself.
McCoy: Trent Williams, Jermaine Gresham, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham and Sam Bradford. Sam is a sniper. Anytime he touches the ball, it’s going in.
Brate: Mike Evans is my 2. Russell Wilson will be the point guard. He’d be a good facilitator. Center would be Tyron Smith. He’s a big guy. I’ll round it out with [Rob Gronkowski] and Josh McCown. I’ve heard stories about Josh. I’ll be the coach. I’m not good enough to play with this team.
Graham, in conversation with B/R’s Mike Tanier: No. 1, I’m going with Alshon [Jeffery]. No, wait, let me think about it. Yeah, I’ll go with Alshon. I’m going with who’s tall in the league, and who I have seen. Oh, DeSean Jackson. I’ve seen him play. He’s good. He’s quick, like he is. Shady McCoy is good too. I’m gonna go: Nick Foles at the point. Man, you ever seen Nick Foles move?
Tanier: Well, yes, at quarterback.
Graham: You’ve seen him play football, but you ain’t seen him. He’s different. And he’ll dunk on you. Like, whoa! Where’d that dude come from? Lane Johnson is nice too. That’s my top five: D-Jax, Alshon, Lane, Nick Foles at the point, and then who’s my shooter? Let’s see, Lane will be my 4. Lane can shoot. No, I’ll go Lane at the 5, Alshon at the 4. Who are the other three?
Eagles WR Torrey Smith cuts in: Me!
Graham: You know what? Nick Foles at the 3, because he can move and he can dribble, but I don’t think he’s fast enough for the point. I’m gonna go with D-Jax at the point. Then I might go Torrey. Torrey, you can hoop?
Smith: I can hoop.
Graham: Oh, I didn’t know. I didn’t say that I’m out there dunking on people. So at the point, I’m gonna go McCoy.
Tanier: D-Jax and Shady in the backcourt?
Graham: Yeah. They have good chemistry. I’ve seen them both play together. McCoy, D-Jax, Foles, Alshon and Lane.
As for starting fives made up of NBA stars, it’s a whole lot of LeBron and KD...
Smith: LeBron, KD, Westbrook, Kawhi, Anthony Davis—he can get me my boards and protection, and we can still spread out and shoot.
Brate: Jimmy Butler, Kawhi, LeBron, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
McCoy: LeBron, Kevin Durant and Kobe three times. If you want current guys, LeBron, KD, Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis. And LeBron is the point.
McCain: Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and JaVale McGee if he plays like he did in the playoffs.
Boston: Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Straight power on the block with big boys on the wing who can take it to the rack, and Kyrie going to finish for us.