NBA Players: Who Would Have Fared Better in Past Eras?

Ben SimmonsNBA fans compare players across eras all the time. Whenever we do that, though, it’s important to consider the impact of the overall talent level and style of play that characterized each era.

Today, USAbetting pinpoints six players currently in the NBA who would have benefitted from playing in one of the NBA’s eras since 1980. I’m not so much looking at this from a talent standpoint, since I believe the overall talent level has improved over time as players learn new skills and training techniques. Rather, I’m looking at the style of play in various eras and how it might bring the out the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of various players.

G Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers – better in the 1980s

Can you imagine if Ben Simmons stepped into a time machine and replaced Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson at point guard? I think he would be excellent replacing a fellow oversized point guard.

In the present day, Simmons’ lack of a jump shot is a killer for his impact. Teams sag off him when he has the ball and encourage him to take shots outside of about 12 feet. Because of this, Simmons struggles to make a positive impact on offense in half-court situations.

In the 1980s, teams played at a faster pace and point guards weren’t expected to shoot from long distance anyway. In Magic’s first nine seasons with the Lakers, he made just 58 out of 302 (19.2 percent) of his three-point attempts. Sure, he made some midrange jumpers that Simmons doesn’t have the ability to hit, but his calling card was finishing around the rim and making plays for others in transition, just like Simmons.

Simmons will never reach Magic’s status as one of the top handful of players ever to play basketball, but maybe he would have done so if he were playing in the 1980s.

G Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets – better in the early 2000s

If you take a look at the NBA’s scoring leaderboard this season, Westbrook’s 27.5 points per game ranks him an impressive sixth among guards. It is even more impressive when you realize that he is making fewer than one three-pointer per game and every other guard in the top 10 is making at least two threes per game.

Westbrook is at his best when he is attacking the rim and not settling for jumpers. His best traits are his quick first step and his explosiveness and body control around the basket. That makes him an excellent fit for the early 2000s era of the league, when you had athletic perimeter scorers like Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady relying primarily on their quickness and scoring ability around the basket.

Nowadays, perimeter players are expected to be high-volume, three-point shooters and Westbrook has fallen victim to that pressure at times by taking too many ill-advised outside shots. I think Westbrook would have feasted in the early 2000s as the league was transitioning to a more perimeter-based offensive attack, but before the league went all-in on three-point shooting.

C Boban Marjanovic, Dallas Mavericks – better in the mid-1990s

Teams absolutely loved big, inside-focused centers in the 1990s, especially as the middle of the decade rolled around. The rules outlawed zone defense and encouraged one-on-one play and the pace of the league had slowed down considerably from the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of the top players from the decade are 7-foot centers: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo all held down the paint for their teams on both ends of the floor.

Marjanovic hardly gets any playing time in today’s NBA, but any team would have loved to have him in the 1990s. At 7’4” and 290 pounds with insanely large hands, he has good post moves and touch around the basket and is also a career 77.2 percent free-throw shooter. He doesn’t really shoot outside of 15 feet, but rarely any teams asked their big men to do that in the 90s.

Defense is definitely Marjanovic’s weak spot. He is an OK rim protector and his extremely slow feet make him a liability in transition or when he has to switch to a perimeter player on defense. However, the league played a slower game in the 90s and teams didn’t force defensive switches nearly as often as they do now. His weaknesses would be evident, but they wouldn’t glue him to the bench like they do now.

Overall, Marjanovic isn’t athletic enough or skilled enough as a rim protector to be a true superstar in the 90s. He definitely would have been a starting-caliber big man who would be featured heavily on offense.

F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dallas Mavericks – better in the late 1980s

The first word that comes to mind for most people when they think of Kidd-Gilchrist is “bust.” The Charlotte Bobcats drafted him second overall in the 2012 NBA Draft before All-Stars Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Draymond Green, Khris Middleton and Andre Drummond.

To be fair, the Bobcats’ franchise was not a good environment for his skill set to develop and thrive. MKG was a defensive-minded, non-shooting wing going to a team that needed shooting and scoring in the half-court setting. Also, no one could have foreseen that three-point attempts per game were going to nearly double across the league in the next eight seasons.

I picture MKG succeeding on a team like the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons of the mid and late-1980s. In an era where no one took many three-pointers, Detroit played physical defense, attacked the rim and dominated the rebounding battle against its opponents. Kidd-Gilchrist’s speed and athleticism would have shined in a fast-paced era.

Kidd-Gilchrist would have had a lot of success 30 to 35 years ago playing like a toned-down version of a young Dennis Rodman.

G/F DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – better in the early 2000s

DeRozan is somewhat similar to Russell Westbrook on offense. Both perimeter players are not good three-point shooters (though DeRozan is even less willing to shoot them) who are very strong scorers around the basket. Westbrook has more athleticism, while DeRozan is more crafty and has elite footwork. DeMar also likes the midrange jumper a bit more.

In today’s NBA, players and offenses as a whole have adjusted their shot profiles to phase out midrange attempts in favor of three-point shots. As a result, the league average true-shooting percentage has risen from 51.6 to 56.3 between 2004 and 2020.

DeRozan’s game is a throwback to that early 2000s style of play that the aforementioned Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady played. While DeMar’s defense would still struggle in that era, I believe he would be seen as a much more valuable offensive player than he is now.

F/C Derrick Favors – better in the mid 1990s

What are the most important parts of a skill set for a 1990s center? I would say post scoring, interior defending, passing out of the post and rebounding.

That’s a check, check, check and check for Favors. He is a high percentage shooter around the basket who does all of the aforementioned things at least pretty well. I believe the reason he is not a star in the current NBA is because of awkward on-court fits he has had to endure, his inability to shoot outside of 10 feet and the fact he is somewhat slow of foot.

All of those weaknesses would be minimized in the 1990s NBA where teams stockpiled skilled big men, pace of play was slower and teams didn’t value spacing as much. Favors is just 6’9”, but his standing reach of a 9’2” is better than many 7-footers and he is a bulky 265 pounds.

I project Favors as a definite All-Star-level big man if he was drafted in 1990 instead of 2010.