The '90s NBA Star Your Favorite Player Resembles Most
The NBA is in a perpetual state of evolution, and its superstars are no different.
Today's hardwood heroes are better conditioned, more versatile and as skilled as ever. But they're also built from a foundation formed long before their big league arrivals.
Each current star has a historic doppelganger, although not by appearance but rather play style and production. These aren't exact replicas, since the Association has changed considerably, but they are different chapters from the same book.
With the 2010s down to their final months—can we get some flying cars already?—we caught the nostalgic bug, so we're looking back to the 1990s for yesteryear's version of today's elites.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Kevin Garnett
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the face of positionless basketball. He has spent at least 6 percent of his career at all five positions and had everything but center as his listed position.
His range of potential comparisons stretches as far as one's imagination.
His former coach, Jason Kidd, said, "He can be Magic Johnson and KG [Kevin Garnett]," per Yahoo Sports' Chris Mannix. His recent teammate, Pau Gasol, detailed shreds of Russell Westbrook (downhill pressure), Shaquille O'Neal (speed, skill, physical dominance), Kevin Garnett (intensity and aggressiveness) and Kobe Bryant (focus, approach, competitive fire) in a piece for The Players' Tribune.
Antetokounmpo is an amalgam of all of the above and more, but Garnett comes closest to sketching the blueprint.
While '90s NBA coaches more strictly adhered to positional designations, Garnett forced them to think outside of the frontcourt box. In his first season, he saw 52 percent of his playing time at the 5. By his sophomore campaign, he logged 37 percent of his minutes at the 3. In his third go-round, it was 82 percent at the 4.
Garnett could lock down the interior or shut down smaller players on the perimeter. He had handles, a knack for shot-creation seldom seen in someone his size and explosive athleticism, a combination that made him a formidable offensive player on the perimeter even without a three-ball. Antetokounmpo just turned that model into an MVP award.
Stephen Curry: Mark Price
Before Stephen Curry could conquer the NBA, he had to revolutionize it.
That means his fingerprints will forever be on the league. It also means appropriate comparisons don't really exist.
Phil Jackson caused a stir when he linked Curry to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 2016, but it wasn't entirely off-base. In terms of play style only, Abdul-Rauf played a similar game built on handles, pull-up shooting and an emphasis on the deep ball.
But comparing a two-time MVP with a zero-time All-Star feels preposterous. Not to mention, Abdul-Rauf's lack of accolades makes him ineligible based on our criteria.
Enter Mark Price. While hardly a Curry clone, Price, a four-time All-Star, helped pave the path for a below-the-rim point guard to dominate with outside shooting, expert vision and fearless attacks, as Joe Posnanski detailed for NBC Sports:
"When you look back at Price highlights, you can see some of the early sketches of what Steph Curry would become. Price would slip between defenders. Price would unleash the quickest shot around. Price would make passes to teammates who did not even know they were open. And, of course, Price had a glorious shot."
Price never climbed as high as Curry or matched his volume, but the shooting efficiency was a mirror image. Price compiled a 47.2/40.2/90.4 slash line over his 12-year career. Through 10 seasons, Curry's career line sits at 47.7/43.6/90.5.
Anthony Davis: David Robinson
Anthony Davis is unfair.
His size-skill combo is absurd, especially when it's all powered by turbocharged explosiveness. He's a former guard in a center's body, and he has maintained his old perimeter talents while wreaking havoc on the interior as a shot-eraser, glass-cleaner and lob-crusher.
Show that paragraph to a hoops addict in the '90s, though, and they'd swear you were describing David Robinson. The San Antonio Spurs legend blazed an almost identical trail to the top back then, logic-defying growth spurt included.
"Robinson was 5'9" his junior year of high school, grew to 6'7" in his senior year, then up to 7'1" while at the Naval Academy," ESPN's Andre Snellings wrote. "Davis was 6'3" as a junior in high school but hit 6'10" by the time that he graduated. Both players retained much of the quickness and skill of their shorter selves even after they attained their full heights."
Robinson took a longer route to the pros, spending four seasons at the Naval Academy and another two in the service before his debut. When he finally arrived, he was shot out of a cannon. Over his first seven seasons, he averaged an incredible 25.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 blocks and 3.1 assists. Over the past three seasons, Davis has tallied 27.5 points, 11.6 boards, 2.4 rejections and 2.7 dimes.
Both wrecking balls in the open court and too big, quick and strong for anyone to comfortably cover in isolations, each was a walking cheat code.
Kevin Durant: Larry Bird
Kevin Durant is the first of his kind.
He's essentially a 7-foot scoring guard, only his game has matured to the point he also fills secondary roles as a playmaker, rebounder and shot-blocker. The history of the Association shows no one quite like him, and those who perhaps come closest—George Gervin, Tracy McGrady—don't fit this exercise, since neither made an All-Star appearance in the '90s.
But the final three of Larry Bird's 12 All-Star selections came in the decade, which is perfect since he's the better comparison in terms of impact and ability.
"He and KD had a lot of the same skills," ESPN's Jalen Rose said on Get Up!. "They both could dribble, pass and shoot. They both could knock it down from three. They both could play from the post. They both did their best to compete defensively."
Durant has more hops, Bird was the superior distributor, but they reached a similar level of across-the-board dominance.
Each is a member of the vaunted 50/40/90 snipers club. Both are among the four players to post career marks of 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists and 49 percent shooting. Each has at least one MVP trophy from the regular season, the Finals and the All-Star Game.
These are two of the greatest this game has ever seen, and they share more similarities than you might think.
Joel Embiid: Hakeem Olajuwon
Ever catch a clip of Joel Embiid clowning a defender in the post or otherwise flashing impossibly fluid footwork for his size and think you stumbled on an old clip of Hakeem Olajuwon?
So has The Dream.
"I can see myself [in him]," Olajuwon said in 2017.
That didn't happen by accident. As Embiid wrote for The Players' Tribune in August 2018, he watched a DVD featuring Olajuwon and other legendary NBA bigs "probably … every single day for three years."
Embiid attacks the hardwood like he's pining for the lead role in an Olajuwon reboot. It's all there: the ball fakes, the shoulder shakes, the unnatural agility, the comfort away from the basket, the rim protection. Even the backstories are the same—born in Africa, late starts in basketball, footwork and agility honed on soccer fields.
Olajuwon made his first All-Star Game as a rookie; Embiid was selected the first time his body held up for 40-plus games. Olajuwon's career-high scoring average was 27.8; Embiid just posted a best-for-now 27.5. Olajuwon made nine All-Defensive teams; Embiid just made his second in three years.
Olajuwon earned 12 All-Star selections, 12 All-NBA honors and a pair of world championships. Embiid has a chance to follow those footsteps and maybe make it even farther.
Paul George: Scottie Pippen
Paul George broke his own mold this past season, which complicates our process. He had been a star before, but this was the first time he gained entry to the superstar club.
Considering his NBA career started in 2010, though, it feels foolish to discard everything we previously knew about him and label him a permanently changed player. In fact, now that he's teamed up with Kawhi Leonard on the Los Angeles Clippers, a comparison with Scottie Pippen seems more apt than ever.
Both have an enviable collection of height, length, agility and strength, culminating in what would appear to be a lab-created defensive stopper. Like George, Pippen could handle—and ace—defensive assignments of nearly all sizes, all while earning high marks as a table-setter, floor-spacer, transition attacker and scoring co-star.
Pippen never had a scoring season like George's 2018-19 (28.0 points per game; Pippen maxed out at 22.0), but that year could prove to be PG's outlier since he'll likely take on the Robin role Pippen so masterfully played to Michael Jordan’s Batman.
LeBron James: Magic Johnson
Depending on your perspective, LeBron James has either entered the G.O.A.T. discussion or closed it for good.
If he has historical peers, they reside on basketball's Mount Rushmore—and they're saving his spot. He could hang up his size 15s tomorrow, and he'd leave with all-time rankings in career points (fourth), assists (10th), win shares (fourth) and player efficiency rating (second).
He's the first LeBron, not the next anyone. But his size, versatility and skills most closely connect him to Earvin "Magic" Johnson, his future neighbor in granite.
"LeBron is the closest thing to Earvin that we've ever seen because of his size, his speed, his acceleration, his vision," Miami Heat president Pat Riley said in 2017. "… The way that LeBron plays the game now—coast to coast, handles the ball, runs the offense—it's just like Earvin. I mean, same mold. Same DNA."
Johnson was a 6'9" point guard who once delivered 42 points as a fill-in 5 to clinch an NBA title. James is a 6'8", 250-pound linebacker who just happens to be great at everything basketball-related. The hoops world has never seen anyone else quite like them, and they may be the two most powerful fast-break forces of all time.
James was thrust into more of a scoring role, while Johnson always played pass-first, so their stat sheets read differently. But both were successful beyond the wildest hoop dreams, and their statistical excellence will carry their stories from one generation to the next.
James Harden: Allen Iverson
Before James Harden changed the equation of NBA mathematics, Allen Iverson played his own numbers game. Each embraced a version of quantity over quality, with Harden rewriting the record books on three-point attempts and Iverson posting the second-highest career field-goal attempt average of the three-point era.
Each was an isolation assassin. Harden's is-that-even-legal step-back might one day be archived in a museum alongside Olajuwon's Dream Shake, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook, Michael Jordan's fadeaway and Dirk Nowitzki's one-legged leaner. Iverson's killer crossover amassed a body count in the triple digits.
These were bucket-getters of the highest order. Iverson collected four scoring titles over his career, which remarkably didn't include his personal-best effort of 33.0 points per outing in 2005-06 (Kobe Bryant took the crown with a career-best 35.4). Harden has captured the past two, this past season joining Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor as the only players to average over 36.
If they weren't shredding nets from the field, then they lived at the stripe. Each accounts for two of the 20 highest free-throw attempt averages among all guards in NBA history. While they found their way to the line in different ways—the 6'0" Iverson slithered around defenders, while the 220-pound Harden bullies through them—their relentless nature was identical.
"I took some of the things from him as far as how much heart he had and he was willing to compete with anybody," Harden said, per Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle. "He is just a great player."
They averaged an identical number of assists (6.2) and turnovers (3.6), and their defensive contributions were mostly restricted to gambling. Iverson exited as one of the most explosive scorers in NBA history, and Harden is on track to do the same.
Kawhi Leonard: Michael Jordan
We get it. Any Michael Jordan comparison might carry a blasphemous tone, let alone one largely based on a load-managed, 60-game season.
But the two-way dominance Kawhi Leonard unleashed in 2018-19 felt like a recreation of Jordan's greatest hits.
Leonard dictated the action on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he played downhill without being rushed and manipulated defenses to get to his spots. He torched defenders in the post, dusted them on the perimeter and glided on his way to the rim—all different recipes in Jordan's cookbook.
"[Leonard] is the most like Jordan that we've seen," Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said on ESPN in May. "… Big hands, post game, can finish. Great leaper, great defender, in-between game. If you beat him to the spot, he bumps you off, and then you add his three-point shooting."
Defenses proved powerless against them. They could win with speed and quickness or length and strength. Their physical tools were second to none, but they were just as likely to dismantle defenders with skill and finesse.
History may forever hold them in different tiers, but they were cut from the same cloth when it comes to approach, precise execution, competitive drive and a commitment to both ends of the floor.
Damian Lillard: Tim Hardaway
Damian Lillard has continued the NBA's trend toward high-octane, score-first point guards. He can thank Tim Hardaway for helping set the precedent for future floor generals.
Back when most point guards treated table-setting as their first, second and third orders of business, Hardaway feasted in the scoring column like few others at the position. Armed with handles so tight they featured a nicknamed move (the UTEP two-step), deep shooting range and elite quickness, he was a bucket waiting to happen.
It took him just two seasons to average 20-plus points, and he hit that mark five times in his career. From 1989-90 (his rookie year) to 2000-01 (his last year as a full-time starter), he ranked 14th in points, third in three-pointers and third in assists despite missing the entire 1993-94 campaign with a torn ACL that permanently robbed him of some explosiveness.
Lillard is the mirror image of Hardaway—well, a modern-NBA funhouse-mirror image, at least.
Lillard brings less distributing and more aerial acrobatics and perimeter firepower to the mix, but his ability to wreak havoc from the top of the key is nothing short of Hardaway-esque. Ditto for his offensive output. Since entering the league, Lillard sits sixth in scoring, fourth in made threes and 10th in assists.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.