Earlier this week, USAbetting highlighted several players in today’s NBA who are out of place. Their impact would have been greater playing in an earlier era of the league’s history.
Today, it’s time for me to do just the opposite. So many players in the NBA’s past had skill sets that were before their time and it is unfortunate that we didn’t get to see them reach their full potential. Six players stand out to me as guys who were good in their own eras, but would really shine if they were playing right now.
F/C Sam Perkins (1984-2001)
Perkins had a great career. NBA fans may forget the big man because he never made an All-Star team, he never won a championship and he topped out at 16.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. His teams made the playoffs in 16 of his 17 seasons and he started a total of 841 games in his career combining the regular season and playoffs.
I think “Big Smooth” would be even better if he were drafted 30 years later.
It took Perkins 10 seasons finally to start shooting three-pointers consistently and once he did, he was a devastating weapon outside the arc. Between the 1993-94 and the 1999-2000 seasons, he drilled 697 threes, more than any other power forward or center in the league. His accuracy was a very good 38.5 percent, as well.
Perkins, at 6’9” and 235 pounds, was smaller than many big men of the 80s and 90s. He wasn’t quite as effective near the basket as many of his bigger peers. Nowadays, teams would take full advantage of his long-range shooting ability and his defensive versatility at the 4 or small-ball 5 position.
F Andrei Kirilenko (2001-2015)
Kirilenko’s prime was way too short. For about three seasons between 2003 and 2006, he was a fringe All-Star caliber player who made the actual team once, in 2004. From then on, injuries and a Utah Jazz team that didn’t feature him nearly enough demoted him to role player status.
“AK47” stayed in the league for 14 seasons, but he was an afterthought in most people’s minds for the past seven or eight of those years. I think his prime would have reached even higher heights in today’s NBA. I also think he would have been much more highly valued during his role player days if he were playing today.
Defense was Kirilenko’s calling card. He was a 6’9” forward with a 7’4” wingspan and excellent quickness and leaping ability. He averaged more than 3.2 blocks and 1.5 steals per game in consecutive seasons. He could defend any position. AK47’s offense was solid, too, as he was an excellent cutter and slasher, a solid passer and occasional outside shooter.
Utah didn’t appreciate Kirilenko’s wide-ranging skill set and miscast him as a low-usage small forward next to two offensive-minded big men starting in 2006. Also, the NBA’s pace in the early 2000s was much too slow to utilize Kirilenko’s athleticism. The Jazz averaged 86.6 possessions per game in 2003-04, much lower than the NBA’s average of 100.2 in 2019-20.
G Byron Scott (1983-1997)
Younger NBA fans probably know Scott as a former head coach of the New Jersey Nets, New Orleans Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers. His NBA playing career definitely had more highlights than his coaching career, though.
Scott played the bulk of his career for the Los Angeles Lakers, winning three championships as a No. 3 or 4 offensive option. He earned a reputation as a three-point marksman, placing 10th in the NBA in three-pointers made between 1983 and 1990 (345) while shooting an elite 40 percent from downtown. Scott’s other main strengths were stout perimeter defense and his ability to complete athletic finishes in transition.
The current style of play in the NBA is similar in terms of pace, but it also prioritizes three-point shooting and perimeter offense in general. Scott’s coaches would encourage him to shoot more three-pointers. They would also feel good leaving him on the court for heavy minutes to match up against elite perimeter scorers.
Scott never made an All-Star game during his career, but that is merely because he was a victim of playing in the wrong era.
G Penny Hardaway (1993-2008)
Hardaway’s career is one of the great “what-if” scenarios in NBA history. He entered the league with a bang, making two All-NBA First Teams in his first three seasons and combining with Shaquille O’Neal to lead the Orlando Magic to an NBA Finals appearance and an Eastern Conference Finals outing.
From then on, Penny’s career took a couple of devastating turns when O’Neal left for the Los Angeles Lakers and knee, foot and back injuries started taking a toll on his body. His career lasted surprisingly long, but he was a constant injury risk.
It is a shame Hardaway couldn’t have played 20 years later, though. His 6’7” frame for the point guard position made him extremely versatile on the defensive end and his speed, leaping and passing abilities would have fitted well with the faster-paced game of today’s NBA. His three-point shooting was just OK, but he would primarily be an on-ball threat anyway.
Finally, today’s NBA also places more emphasis on load management. Hardaway played more than 37 minutes per game in his first three seasons, only missing a total of five games. Would a current NBA team have been able to prevent some of his injuries by being more careful to manage his workload?
F Lamar Odom (1999-2013)
Odom was good at a lot of things in the prime of his career, which lasted from about 2003 to 2011. He was an agile 6’10” forward who could handle the ball, pass, rebound, play above-average defense and shoot the ball decently. He didn’t necessarily have an elite skill, which probably affected the league’s opinion of him during his career.
Nowadays, NBA teams revere versatility. If you are a big player with quickness and some skill, you can fit in essentially any lineup. Odom doesn’t necessarily fit the traditional mold of any position, but teams nowadays could slot him at small forward, power forward or center and even let him bring the ball up the court now and then. Teams nowadays are more flexible in how they look at positions anyway.
Odom’s athleticism and shooting would be a mismatch against bigger players and his size would be a mismatch against smaller players in today’s faster-paced NBA. His statistics might not increase that much from his actual prime numbers, but I think pundits would better recognize his value as a supercharged role player with All-Star level impact.
G Eddie Jones (1994-2008)
From 1999 to 2005, Jones made 784 three-pointers, more than all but five players (Ray Allen, Peja Stojakovic, Antoine Walker, Reggie Miller and Paul Pierce). His accuracy was 38 percent, which was (and still is) considerably higher than the league average.
Of course, Jones’ skill that he is probably better known for is his tight on-ball defense pressure. He always brought great effort, which combined with his 6’6” frame and excellent athleticism to give him five seasons averaging two or more steals per game.
Jones’ downfall in his era is that guards were pigeonholed into strict roles. Guards were expected to create shots for others or themselves and be capable midrange scorers. Jones got most of his points on spot-up three-pointers or on cuts or transition buckets, but sometimes his teams asked him to do more than he was capable of.
“Steady Eddie” would have been a classic three-and-D wing in today’s NBA. His efficiency would be sky-high if he were on a fast-paced team that had other players who could set him up for open three-pointers and fast-break finishes.