Wednesday, April 29, 2020
the time Machine all-stars: 5 pOint guards who would have dominated 2020
The best players—be they queens, unicorns, or some other type of character you’d encounter in a fantasy story—are the ones who can tilt that battle in their teams’ favor, whether by creating space and using it to produce points, or erasing it completely. (Do all of the above, and you’re probably in the running for MVP.) But today’s players aren’t the only ones with the right skills to tick those boxes; plenty of their predecessors could, too. In fact, some of them might have translated even better to today’s league—and might have been even more fun to watch in the 2020 NBA than they were in their day. They just played in the wrong era.
I decided it might be fun to write about some of these players. This is not intended to be a definitive, ordered, and inarguable list, or a scientifically rigorous exercise. There will be some statistical cherry-picking, because cherries are delicious, and there will be some decisions made purely on aesthetics, because we hold it as true that things that look dope should be prioritized. We’ll go position by position over the next few weeks, aiming to pass some of our seemingly endless downtime by remembering some kick-ass players in a (hopefully) fun thought experiment.
In the long, long ago—before the knee went, the guns were drawn, the finger-guns came out, the injuries kept piling up, and things mostly fell apart—Arenas was the absolute business: a high-usage, low-turnover three-level scorer (and, when he set his mind to it, a sharp and stylish passer) who was a threat to raise up at any time and from anywhere.
At 6-foot-3 and just under 200 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Arenas had the size and quickness to get where he wanted on the court, and the handle to create space and get into his shooting motion. He combined the body control to stop on a dime with the strength to finish in traffic, and he was willing to take the hit to get himself some easy ones; from 2004 through 2010, he averaged just under nine free throw attempts per game. He was never exactly a sharpshooter or an elite playmaker, but he was efficient enough at high volume to be in some rarefied air. Only a dozen players in NBA history have posted at least three seasons in which they averaged at least 25 points and five assists per game on a true shooting percentage north of .560. Five are already Hall of Famers (Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant). Five are surefire future inductees (LeBron James, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade); one becomes a more likely enshrinee with every passing year (Damian Lillard). The 12th is Gil.
Perhaps most relevant to this discussion: Arenas had limitless confidence when it came to firing the sort of super-deep, off-the-bounce 3-pointers that have become the currency of the league a decade after his heyday. When Paul George responded to Damian Lillard ending the Thunder as we knew them with a 36-foot heat-seeker by calling it “a bad, bad shot,” I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of Kobe Bryant saying of Arenas, “He doesn’t seem to have much of a conscience. I really don’t think he does. Some of the shots he took tonight, you miss those, and they’re just terrible shots. Awful.” I mean, you’ve got to say something when the dude just rang you up for 60. (A truly great Arenas postscript: After Kobe said that, he briefly switched from yelling “Hibachi!” after letting loose a jumper to saying “Quality shots!” as the ball was in the air.)
Arenas likely would have benefited from the league’s philosophical shift toward load management—who knows how those knees would’ve held up if he hadn’t averaged 40.4 minutes per game over a four-year stretch? A healthier Gil probably also sees his light turn an even brighter shade of green; at his peak, the only player taking more 3s per game was Ray Allen.
The degree to which Arenas’s jumper unlocked not only the rest of his game, but the Wizards as a whole, might translate into him serving as the cornerstone on which a perennial present-day playoff team could be built. Squint a little at his age-25 season—the one in which he first hurt that left knee, setting in motion the disastrous events that saw him miss 199 games over the next three seasons—and it looks pretty similar to a pair of campaigns in which two current megastars really began their ascents:
Maybe a contemporary Arenas wouldn’t have made the same kind of year-over-year advances that Harden did after finishing second in MVP voting in 2014-15, or that Dame has over the past few seasons. It’s at least possible, though, that his particular set of skills would have played up, that his efficiency would’ve risen along with them, and that his swag would look even more phenomenal today.
You could argue that this is completely wrong, and that a player who often took 25 shots to get his 25 points—among 175 players in the shot clock era with at least 10,000 field goal attempts, Iverson ranks no. 172 in effective field goal percentage—makes a poor fit for an era in which the pursuit of ruthless efficiency rules all. My counter-argument: Playing now would remove the emergency brakes from one of the most kinetic and indomitable forces the NBA has ever seen.
Iverson averaged 22 points or more per game for 10 straight years in Philadelphia (and two more after the trade to Denver), and led the league in scoring four times, despite playing on just one Sixers team that featured more than two decent 3-point shooters. That would be the 2000-01 squad, with George Lynch, Aaron McKie, and Toni Kukoc. (And even that year, McKie and Lynch struggled from deep, shooting 31.2 percent and 26.3 percent beyond the arc, respectively.) That team, you might remember, won 56 games and went to the NBA Finals, with Iverson winning league MVP honors.
AI was a speed demon plunged into a slow-down era. During his rookie season, the Sixers led the NBA in pace with 97.05 possessions per 48 minutes; that would’ve ranked 29th this season. Under the watchful eyes of Larry Brown, Billy King, and the rest of the Sixers’ early-aughts brass, Iverson was like a running back facing a loaded box on every snap; he shouldered nearly the entire creative workload for teams with limited offensive talent that were built to grind down the action and win defensive slugfests. And even with those governors on, he managed to do this shit:
Maybe Iverson’s shaky 3-point shooting would hamstring him in this era, with defenders sagging off of him and going under high screens to try to take away his driving lanes. The bet here, though, is that if you gave him a rim-running screen-and-roll big man, a couple of 3-and-D types to stick in the corners, and a competent complementary playmaker on the wing, he would absolutely annihilate even the most carefully constructed and disciplined drop coverages with that lightning-quick first step. He’d live at the rim and the foul line to an even greater degree than he already did; his assist numbers would rise, thanks to all those kickouts to the waiting shooters that opponents had to help off of after he’d broken down the defense.
Those who grew up watching Iverson already view him as one of the greats—a half-court locksmith with the dribble; a staggering athlete capable of throwing down alley-oops and tip dunks at a generously listed 6-foot; an ace off-ball defender who led the NBA in steals three times; and pound-for-pound one of the toughest competitors the league’s ever seen. Put him in an uptempo spread pick-and-roll system, though—say, the one that Mike D’Antoni ran with the Suns and the Rockets, before Houston became the iso-ball capital of the world—and the NBA’s collective ankles might just spontaneously combust.
The 11th pick in the 1991 draft, Brandon went from starring at Oregon, where he won Pac-10 Player of the Year as a sophomore, to serving as Mark Price’s understudy with the Cavaliers. He spent some three and a half years in that role before stepping into the spotlight midway through the 1994-95 season, as Price started to battle injuries. Come the start of the ’95-96 campaign, Price was in Washington and Brandon had the keys in Cleveland. Brandon established himself as a top-flight playmaker, averaging better than 19 points and six assists per game despite playing at the league’s slowest pace both years under Mike Fratello.
Whether with the Cavs, a brief stint in Milwaukee, or alongside Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, Brandon exuded calm and confidence. At just 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, his game was always longer on form and function than flash, built on efficiency rather than explosiveness; he was the straw that stirred the drink, a table-setter who put pressure on defenses in the half court and in transition.
He had a patient, methodical touch in the pick-and-roll, equally adept at pulling up for a jumper behind a screen or slinking around it, waiting a beat for the chessboard to shift, and choosing the best option available—a slaloming drive to the basket, a drop-off pass to a cutter, a stop-and-pop J over a retreating defender. He was also a smart and opportunistic defender, lurking in passing lanes to bust up your best-laid plans or waiting to pick your pocket if you got a little too loose with the dribble.
When Sports Illustrated trumpeted Brandon as the best point guard in the NBA just before the 1997 All-Star Game, it was a bit much; Gary Payton and John Stockton started that game for the Western Conference, after all. But the part about Brandon being the league’s best-kept secret might not have been too far off. From age 25 through 30, his last full healthy season before suffering left knee problems that would eventually lead to microfracture surgery and prematurely end his career, Brandon averaged 26.7 points, 11.4 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.9 steals per 100 possessions with a 21.4 player efficiency rating and a .528 true shooting percentage. Those numbers roughly translate to about 85 to 90 percent of Chris Paul’s career production … which sounds pretty friggin’ good to me.
Playing in more space, with room to snake around screens and look for pull-up Js, and with more incentive to extend his range from long 2 territory (where he was a marksman, knocking down just under 46 percent over his final five full seasons) back beyond the 3-point arc (35.5 percent for his career, though that’s buoyed by career-best numbers in three seasons with the shorter line), a 2020 Brandon might have become an even more dangerous scoring threat, opening up more room for him to thread the needle to teammates. Crucially, the knee issues that ended his career—the injuries themselves, and the microfracture surgery from which he, like many other NBA players of the aughts, never fully recovered—might have been managed and treated differently. Rather than retiring at 31, Brandon could have had an entire second act—as a solid starter, a quality backup, or an end-of-the-bench old head who sticks around well past his expected expiration date—and carved up many more defenders along the way.
It feels weird that a player as crafty, creative, and productive as Strickland played for 17 years and never made an All-Star team. Like, it’s not unconscionable or indefensible; there were so many good guards from the late ’80s through the early ’00s, and he played his peak years in comparative anonymity for some waning post–Shrug Game Trail Blazers teams and some middling-or-worse Washington squads led by the too-young-to-know-what-they-don’t-know tandem of Chris Webber and Juwan Howard. (After the ’97-98 season, when he averaged a league-high 10.5 assists per game for the Wizards, Strickland made the All-NBA second team, marking him as one of the four best guards in the league … even though an injured Penny Hardaway, Tim Hardaway, Steve Smith, Reggie Miller, and Jayson Williams all beat him out for Eastern All-Star nods. Like I said: weird.)
There’s an argument to be made that Strickland wouldn’t really move the needle one way or another in this era. He was never a knockdown shooter, even from midrange. His somewhat casual commitment to defense rankled many a coach. And for all the numbers Rod racked up—he averaged just under 18 points and 9.5 assists per game for a five-year stretch—the only team on which he played a significant role that ever made it out of the first round of the playoffs was the 1989-90 Spurs. Maybe his game was what it was, and it fit where and when it fit, and that’s that.
I’m not saying Rod would be Kyrie today just because he’s Uncle Drew’s godfather and it looks like that layup package might have gotten transferred in the baptismal font. (For what it’s worth, Rod’s not saying that, either.) The difference in shooting proficiency from beyond the arc—28.2 percent career for Strickland, 39 percent for Irving—is massive, and it might well be the difference between what makes Irving an annual All-Star selection and what always left Strickland on the outside looking in. I do wonder, though, if a version of Strickland coming up today—with the same electricity off the bounce and below the rim—might get a developmental directive to focus on his long-range jumper a bit earlier, and wind up honing that part of his game to pair with his peerless court vision and ball-on-a-string handle. What could a player like that do in today’s league? Maybe finally make one of those All-Star teams … and make at least a few more people jump along the way.
Four years ago, during his disastrous (but remarkably eventful) tenure as Knicks president, Phil Jackson kicked up some dust with a tweet. (Which, as we know, is how all good stories start.) After watching Stephen Curry pour in 46 points, tie an NBA record with 12 3-pointers in a game, break his own NBA record for most 3-point makes in a season, and beat an extremely good Thunder team with a 37-foot pull-up bomb in overtime, the Zen Master decided to note that Curry wasn’t quite as unprecedented and mold-breaking as everybody else seemed to be suggesting:
This sentiment, of course, quickly became a “take,” and was as such pilloried by other “takes,” many of which called the 11-time NBA champion onto the carpet for doubling down on all that “how’s it goink?” nonsense by hacking up even more such virulent sputum. How in the world could someone look at Steph—the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, well on his way to a second (in the first unanimous MVP vote)—and see a player who’d never averaged 20 a game or shot 40 percent from 3, even during the years he played with the shorter line?
The following morning, Jackson clarified that he wasn’t comparing the quality of the two players as much as he was commenting on the similarities in their style of play. And, well, if you’d seen what Abdul-Rauf did to John Stockton (among others) ...
Abdul-Rauf never became the sort of sensation in the pros that he was at LSU, when he went by the name Chris Jackson (before converting to Islam), and repeatedly torched opponents to the tune of 29 points per game over two seasons, both of which ended with consensus first team All-America selections. But what he was—a quick, aggressive, score-first point guard who could shake defenders off the dribble to get to the rim or rise up from the perimeter, a dangerous off-ball threat who could compromise a defense by racing around screens, and a credible playmaker who managed an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3.5-to-1 during the ’95-96 season—was still awfully good, and maybe a couple of decades ahead of his time. In more ways than one.
The league famously suspended Abdul-Rauf without pay in March 1996, near the end of his best season as a pro, for his decision not to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a silent refusal to honor a flag that he called a symbol of tyranny and oppression. He made just three appearances after returning from suspension before being put on ice for the rest of the season with a foot injury; that summer, the Nuggets shipped him to the Kings for an aging Sarunas Marciulionis and a second-round pick. He faded into irrelevance in Sacramento, going from starting alongside Mitch Richmond in the backcourt to scraping for rotation minutes off the bench. Before his 29th birthday, he was out of the league, on his way to Europe to sign with Turkish club Fenerbahçe; save for a half-season with the Grizzlies in 2000-01, he’d spend the rest of his career overseas.
Maybe, as Abdul-Rauf has suggested on multiple occasions, he was essentially sacrificed for his beliefs and forced out of the league during his prime. Maybe, as Abdul-Rauf’s former agent Shareef Nasir told ESPN’s Outside the Lines, the controversy took such an emotional toll on him that he no longer had enough love for the game to motivate himself to remain at the peak of his abilities. Maybe it was a little from Column A and a little from Column B. Whatever the case, we never got a full accounting of what Abdul-Rauf—a 6-foot-1 sniper with Dunk Contest hops, a flick-of-the-wrist release, and a style that traced a path to a bombs-away future—could have been in the NBA if he’d gotten a full prime to work with.
Those are my five, but there’s always room for more travelers, so let’s hit a few honorable mentions:
Mark Price (1986-1998): A consistent 18-and-8 guy who knocked down 40-plus-percent of his triples damn near every year before they moved the line in. He was widely credited with popularizing (if not outright inventing) the practice of a ball handler splitting the pick-and-roll by squeezing between two trapping defenders, creating a four-on-three advantage for the offense:
From 1988 through 1995, he averaged just over 13 field goal attempts per game, and turned in a true shooting percentage just under .600—just absurd scoring efficiency to go with his ace playmaking. You know how these days Steve Nash talks about how he probably should’ve shot more in Phoenix, and you start wondering whether he might’ve been sort of a proto-Steph if he had? Price, before injuries slowed him down, had the kind of game that could’ve invited similar conversations.
Walt Frazier (1967-1980): You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the picks I made up top, but I’m a sucker for big point guards who can defend. (I’ll never quit you, Frankie Smokes.) At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds with long arms, a preternatural sense of when to reach in to swipe an opponent’s dribble, and the athleticism to take a turnover all the way home for a layup, Frazier was a two-way stud in New York, making seven straight All-Star and All-Defensive first team appearances.
Long-range jumpers weren’t a fixture back then, but Clyde had great touch from midrange, especially on turnaround jumpers where he could use his height, length, and high release to fire over the top of defenders. He also had the handle and quickness to weave his way through traffic to the rim, and enough of a nose for the basket to lead the Knicks in scoring five years in a row during his prime.
I’d be interested to see how far Frazier could stretch his range in a pace-and-space era, and whether he’d be able to shoot 3s well enough to keep defenses honest to open up the drive-and-kick game. If you could pair that with the size, smarts, and instincts to defend multiple positions at an elite level, Frazier feels like he’d be a perfect fit—to say nothing, of course, of all the perfect fits we’d surely see from the man who, decades before Russell Westbrook became a GQ mainstay, literally wrote the book on basketball, cool, and style.
Magic Johnson (1979-1991, ’95-96): The iconic jumbo-sized playmaker who made “Showtime” a household name seems like he’d be tailor-made for a league in which more and more coaches are encouraging their big dudes to grab the ball off the rim, tear ass in transition, and try to make a play. I’ll take all those three-quarter-court bounce passes, please, with a side of legit no-look wizardry to hit the trailer:
Also, if I’m being honest, one of the things I’d be most interested in seeing about a present-day Magic is to what degree, and in what ways, he’d look and play differently than Ben Simmons.
I say that not to troll! I understand that Magic is one of the greatest and most decorated players of all time, and that Simmons is a third-year player who hasn’t yet accomplished as much as Magic did in his rookie season. But the stylistic comparison—two behemoth facilitators capable of playing point and center on consecutive possessions, with the vision to see insane passing possibilities and the chops to make them reality—and the statistical comparison don’t seem as far apart as you might think.
If Magic came along now, with his genius-level understanding of the game, would he too pass on the long-range shots he couldn’t make (just 19.2 percent from 3 through his first decade in the league) in favor of moving the ball or trying to get into the paint? I’m trying to imagine a world in which Weird Celtics Twitter yells in unison MAGIC JOHNSON, SHOOT A 3, COWARD; I think I just developed a tumor. This, friends, is a peril of time travel that H.G. Wells never predicted.
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