There have been plenty of historical NBA player comparisons floating around thanks to “The Last Dance” documentary, but part of the problem of judging an older player like Michael Jordan against a modern player like LeBron James is the difference in the way the game is played between eras. We’d love to have an apples-to-apples comparison, but we simply don’t because of dramatic changes in both rules and style of play.
With the modern emphasis on pace and 3-point shooting, we’ve heard some retired players proclaim that they’d dominate the current NBA. But it certainly works both ways. Some players from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s would have no place in the league in 2020, while others had skill sets much better suited for the modern style.
Because shooting is at an all-time premium right now, we took a look at five excellent shooters whose careers would have been even more impressive if they were playing in 2020. We’ll never know, of course, but it would be incredibly entertaining to borrow Doc Brown’s time machine and transplant these five players into the current game.
- Career averages: 24.2 points, 5.4 assists, 44% FG
- Years played: 1970-1980
The greatest scorer in college basketball history, Maravich averaged an absurd 44.2 points in three seasons at LSU — without a 3-point line — before heading to the NBA. Most basketball fans are familiar with the famous exercise conducted by former LSU coach Dale Brown, who supposedly charted all of Maravich’s shots and determined that had he played with a 3-point line that average would have gone up to 57 points per game.
His NBA career can be viewed through a similar lens, since the 3-point line wasn’t introduced until his final season in 1979-80. Not only would the modern emphasis on 3-point shooting bump up Maravich’s scoring average, but the extra space and pace would also create a multitude of opportunities for one of the best and flashiest playmakers in basketball history.
By the way, Maravich took 15 shots from behind the arc in his only season with a 3-point line. He made 10 of them.
A 6-foot-5 combo guard, Pistol Pete had a Hall of Fame career despite it being cut short by injuries. If he played in today’s NBA, however, we might be talking about him as one of the best of all time.
Modern comp: James Harden
- Career averages: 15.2 points, 6.7 assists, 47% FG, 40% FG3
- Years played: 1986-1998
With his infallible shooting stroke, ball-handling prowess and finishing ability, Price’s game is tailor-made for the modern NBA. It’s not hard to imagine Price being used like Steph Curry or Damian Lillard, equally capable of thriving in catch-and-shoot situations and pulling up for 3-pointers off the dribble in transition or pick-and-roll action — shots that were frowned upon in Price’s era but are now encouraged.
Price averaged 3.4 3-point attempts for his career. In today’s game, that would easily be bumped up to at least seven or eight (Curry averaged almost 12 attempts per game last season), making Price one of the most lethal offensive threats in the league.
Modern comp: Trae Young
- Career averages: 14.9 points, 45% FG, 39% FG3
- Years played: 1998-2014
You’d have to wipe the drool from the mouths of today’s general managers around the league if prime Rashard Lewis suddenly appeared on the free-agent market. A 6-10, mobile big with a pure shooting stroke, Lewis would be an ideal power forward in the modern game, and could even play some small-ball center for stretches.
Lewis’ career really took off when he embraced the 3-point shot as a perfect pick-and-pop partner. In five seasons from 2004-2009 with the Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic, Lewis averaged 19.6 points per game while shooting 40 percent on 6.2 3-point attempts per game. Lewis was particularly deadly on corner 3s — one of the most coveted shots in basketball — making over 49 percent of them in 2004-05, according to NBA.com, and 46.6 percent from the corners with the NBA Finalist Orlando Magic in 2009-10.
Add in Lewis’ athleticism, post-up game and finishing ability, and you’re looking at one of the league’s top scorers in 2019-20 and beyond.
Modern comp: Paul George, but taller
- Career averages: 10.5 points, 3.3 assists, 46% FG, 41% FG3
- Years played: 1989-2004
Barros is 22nd all-time in NBA 3-point percentage, and he would be one of the most entertaining and memorable players in the league if he had started his career 25 years later. Listed at 5-foot-11, it’s not hard to imagine Barros manipulating defenses like a prime Isaiah Thomas or Kemba Walker, but with a better 3-point stroke.
Barros was super quick, to be sure, but what would really allow him to thrive in the modern NBA is the ability to knock down 3-pointers off the dribble. This would open up lanes for him to score with pull-ups or at the rim, and would also create drive-and-kick looks for his teammates. It’s no surprise that his best season came in 1994-95, when he averaged a career-high 5.2 3-point attempts per game.
If Barros were encouraged to let it fly from deep in the modern game (Thomas averaged 8.5 3-point attempts per game during his best season in Boston), there’s no telling how dynamic he could have been as a scorer.
Modern comp: Kemba Walker
- Career averages: 18.3 points, 46% FG, 40% FG3
- Years played: 1989-2004
If there’s any retired player who should be itching to get back on the court in today’s game, it’s Glen Rice. He averaged over 22 points per game on 41 percent 3-point shooting during his prime, but took fewer than five 3-pointers per game during those seven seasons. That would easily go up to the nine or 10 range if he were playing today, which would result in a big boost in his career scoring average.
There was no stopping Rice when he got hot, as he was able to work effectively off screens as well as create his own offense.
Rice would also benefit from the faster pace of the modern game, creating more transition 3-point looks for him as defenses scrambled to find him on the break. The average NBA pace (a team’s possessions per 48 minutes) during Rice’s best scoring season in 1996-97 was 90.1. This season it’s at 100.2, the fastest since 1988-89.
Given his fit in today’s game, it’s conceivable that Rice would be a no-doubt Hall of Famer if he were playing now.
Modern comp: Bradley Beal in Khris Middleton’s body