One thing ESPN’s The Last Dance has really hammered home for me is just how stark the contrast in playing styles is between the modern game and even 20-30 years ago.
That premise has gotten my mind racing: What players from that era would seamlessly fit in the modern NBA?
Remove the brutish post-ups and lack of spacing, and let’s jump straight to the skill level and positional ambiguity that is embraced in 2020. There are plenty of guys who missed their era and would have maximized their skill levels had they been utilized in today’s game.
We’ll look at five names who, regardless of the impact of their career from a holistic standpoint, would have left a larger imprint had they been embraced by the position-less, 3-point happy era we see today.
He’s fresh in our minds due to the ongoing documentary, but Toni Kukoc had already become classically underrated.
A talented scorer, shooter and playmaker, Kukoc sacrificed so much to mesh with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. During the five years he played with MJ, Toni produced 13.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg and 4.0 apg.
It was more than just those modest numbers that were integral to the team’s success. Having such a versatile option who could shoot it at 6’10” meant the Bulls could be flexible in both their lineups and approach when needed.
As The Last Dance progresses, we’ll see the formidable threat the Indiana Pacers provided the Bulls in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Those Pacers pushed Chicago to a decisive seventh game with the NBA Finals appearance on the line. It was Kukoc who turned in the performance of a lifetime and carried the Bulls for stretches:
Kukoc’s peak might have actually come before heading to the United States: During the 1996 Olympic Games, he put up insane averages of 16.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 7.8 apg. He was the FIBA World Championships MVP in 1990 at the tender age of 22. A year later, he was EuroBasket MVP.
Those across the pond called him “The White Magic” for his propensity to handle the ball, make tremendously flashy passes and combine those skills with his daunting height.
After Jordan retired and Scottie Pippen left the Bulls, Kukoc became the man while Chicago waited for their youth movement to blossom. In the 68 games he played in Chicago during that time, he posted averages of 18.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg and 5.3 apg. The only other players 6’10” or bigger to produce 18-6-5 over a full season with his volume of 3-point makes are Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and DeMarcus Cousins.
Unfortunately, once Kukoc left the Windy City he was at the age of 32 and was a complimentary piece on rebuilding clubs for the rest of his career. American fans never got to see him as the focal point of an offense, something his skills would certainly lend to.
Today, we can imagine how the more perimeter-oriented style would fit naturally with his game. Kukoc was a smooth shooter and terrific passer who could have an offense run through him. He’d come off pick-and-rolls, set screens as a pick-and-pop threat and be an elite rebound-and-run guy. His statistical production would blossom in the modern era.
Speaking of international guys, Mehmet Okur also missed his generation by about a decade. He was 6’11” and a true stretch-5 in an era when the position was very rare.
An All-Star during the 2006-07 season with the Utah Jazz, it’s not like Okur was underappreciated or consistently overlooked during his playing career. But 3-point attempts have doubled since his All-Star season, which would have meant a much higher output for him.
As a side note, history doesn’t look kindly enough on those late-2000s Utah Jazz teams.
They were terrific, top to bottom. Deron Williams was always a fringe MVP threat; Carlos Boozer and Okur were a great tandem for inside-outside scoring on the frontline; and Andrei Kirilenko was the athlete on the wings. From 2007-2010, those Jazz teams lost to the eventual Western Conference champion each year, including in the ’07 Conference Finals to the San Antonio Spurs.
Often the unsung hero of Utah’s core, Okur’s propensity for floor spacing is easily transferrable to today’s game. His pick-and-pop ability would make him an unbelievable threat in so many modern offenses:
Memo’s relevance with the Jazz ended during the first game of the 2010 NBA Playoffs when he tore his Achilles tendon. He managed only 30 career games after that point and retired at the early age of 32. But his skill set lends itself well to older bigs, as we’re seeing with the late-career utility of guys like Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez.
Even if we got a couple of years of Okur splashing down in high volume, we could have a much different perception of how impactful he really was.
Josh Smith last played in an NBA game barely 24 months ago, but somehow it feels like forever since he’s been gone. What’s even stranger: He’s only 34 years old.
The kiss of death for Smith’s career (and, sadly, how he’s remembered by many) was signing a four-year, $52 million deal with the Detroit Pistons in 2013. Once he joined Detroit, he was jettisoned to playing the 3 as the team’s frontcourt was occupied by young stalwarts Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
The Pistons went huge as the rest of the league went smaller, started taking a ton of treys and devalued back-to-basket play.
Smith was trapped with the Pistons, where spacing didn’t exist and touches on the interior were at a minimum. He guarded faster, smaller guys and was vilified for not living up to the production of his contract. Some other teams (Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers) tried to revive Smith in their modern systems, but he never stuck.
He was an absolute beast with the Atlanta Hawks, though. Over his nine years in the ATL, Smith stuffed the stat sheet with averages of 15.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, 2.1 bpg and 1.3 spg.
With freakishly athletic leaping skills, smooth handles and a dynamic defensive presence, prime Smith was like a caged animal waiting for a positionless scheme to unlock his potential:
Even at the tail end of Smith’s career, there weren’t many 6’9″ centers, and most teams were skeptical of embracing a switch-heavy scheme. Once the revolution caught on, Smith’s athleticism began to falter and he slipped off NBA radars. Had that revolution taken place a decade sooner, Smith may be talked about as one of the most athletic bigs of all-time. He averaged almost 17-9-4 over his final four seasons with the Hawks.
Smith was strong and bouncy, but he wasn’t a great 3-point shooter. In today’s NBA, he would have needed to embrace the small-ball 5 position and be used more as a dunker, screen-and-roll finisher and mismatch handler against other bigs.
Part of me wishes Smith never had signed with the Pistons and had gone to a scheme that would have played to his strengths. We may still have him in the league today as a result.
Son of a coach; 6’9″ with a career 3-point percentage north of 37. Mike Dunleavy’s 15-year career was long enough to span so many different brands of basketball.
By the end, he was a role-playing 3-point shooter for some pretty good teams like the Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls and a half-season with the LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers. However, Dunleavy was well into his thirties by the time he linked up with those contenders.
Unfortunately, he spent most of his career on sputtering teams and amazingly only appeared in nine playoff games until joining the Bulls in 2014.
Dunleavy’s size and pure shooting on the wing make him perfect for both ends of the floor in today’s game. He was a switchable 3-and-D wing before the label existed. A constantly underrated defender, he could guard up to the 4 in the modern era with the more perimeter-oriented 4-men we see today.
The effects that would have on his team’s offense are immeasurable. Can you imagine a team with Dunleavy at the 4?
He also posted some crazy efficient seasons while hitting a ton of shots. His 2007-08 campaign with the Indiana Pacers is one of the great shooting performances of all-time: He posted 19.1 ppg with 42.4 percent shooting from deep on 4.7 attempts per night.
Somehow, it took Dunleavy nine years and 624 games before he made his postseason debut. In our 3-point-heavy era, it’s hard to imagine that remaining true for such a dynamic auxiliary threat.
If you’re unfamiliar with Royce White’s story, here’s the gist. He was a lottery pick talent who played for Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State and was a highly-rated prospect in the 2012 NBA Draft.
At 6’8″ with a monster frame, White was an incredible passer, had touch from the perimeter and could use his bulk on the interior to mismatch post guys. He was the ultimate glue guy, a high-character kid and could be deployed in so many ways. In some form, Hoiberg’s NBA head coach candidacy is due to how he utilized a player as unorthodox as White.
But White had one major obstacle in his way: He was deathly afraid of flying. Massive panic attacks and anxiety issues cast doubt on whether he could make it in a league so heavily predicated on travel. The Houston Rockets eventually believed in White’s talent enough to take him with the 16th overall pick.
None of this was a surprise to them, and they planned to work with White to accommodate his challenges. Can you imagine how good someone has to be in order to spend a top-20 pick on them with all the logistical and emotional challenges that go along with it?
White was an absolute stud and is someone I regularly think about. He averaged 13.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg and 5.0 apg in college and could have been a more offensively gifted version of Draymond Green.
Unfortunately, the travel woes and lack of mental health accommodations derailed White’s career before it truly began. He and the NBA were just not a good mix:
White played in three games and never scored an NBA point. He remains a massive “what if” in my mind, not just due to the talent he flashed, but the seamless fit he’d have in the modern game where “tweener” has now become known as “versatile”.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.