If you ever tune into an NBA broadcast or any form of media that discusses the NBA, chances are you have heard about players from today's generation that ex-players think wouldn't survive in their era. For the most part, this is only nostalgia and just like the 18 miles your grandfather had to walk every day to get to school, those ex-players sometimes overstate how difficult it was to play in "their day."
As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle and of course, players from today could thrive in yesteryear. Michael Jordan was considered the best player to ever touch a basketball at his peak and even the idea that someone could challenge his throne was blasphemous. Today we know, the sport evolves and players such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James indeed entered the G.O.A.T. debate with His Airness. As much as we hate to admit it today, there will be more players down the road to challenge the LeBron James' and Kobe Bryants of the world as well.
On the other hand, some of our favorite players from year's past would look a whole lot different in today's NBA. Given the athleticism and speed advantage of players today, the physicality and rule differences would make player's today struggle to have the same effectiveness. Let's take a look at 10 legends who would get embarrassed in the NBA today, and 10 current players who would not be nearly the same back in the old days.
20 Legend: Wilt Chamberlain
There is only one player in NBA history that ever scored 100 points in a game. The interesting thing about that story is that there was still time on the clock and Chamberlain very well may have scored another 10 points or so.
In the '60s when Wilt was at his peak, there wasn't much resistance for him around the basket, and he truly was a man among boys.
That is, unless he played Bill Russell, who didn't have the numbers of Wilt but was the leader of the winningest team in NBA history. The centers and guards in the NBA would make it a little more difficult for Wilt to rebound and score at the rate he did during his career.
19 Present Star: Steph Curry
Under head coach Steve Kerr, Steph Curry has established himself among the best players in the NBA. Becoming the NBA's first and only unanimous MVP winner, Curry has indeed changed the game with the accuracy in which he shoots the basketball from behind the arc. Take out hand checking and the recently added "freedom of movement" rule, and players like Curry who lack size have the chance to even the playing field.
In the '80s, the Detroit Pistons implemented the "Jordan Rules" and were set on fouling Michael Jordan as hard as possible any chance they got. If such a strategy was implemented for Curry, he may not have lasted the entire season, let alone play at an MVP level.
18 Legend: Bill Russell
Known as the winningest player in sports, Bill Russell won 11 championships in his playing days and even won his last championship as a player/coach for the Celtics after Red Auerbach retired in 1966. Russell never averaged fewer than 18.6 rebounds in a season and eclipsed 20 rebounds per game in 10 consecutive seasons. Not known as a dominant scorer, Russell found other ways to impact the game.
Today, Russell wouldn't be the same rebounder, as his size would lean more toward that of a small forward. Russell also plays the game as a true big and with a limited offensive skill set; due to that, he may find trouble playing consistent minutes in this current "positionless" era.
17 Present Star: James Harden
If you are a fan of any other team not named the Rockets, watching James Harden can be frustrating. The rules and officiating allow Harden to get to the charity stripe at a rate that tops the league by a wide margin. Last season, James Harden was the MVP and there can be a debate that he should have two other MVP awards.
Without the leniency of the officials on his patented step back jumper, Harden would struggle to create space.
As he's not known as a quick guard, the hand check in the 1990s would really hold back Harden from doing what has made him so successful.
16 Legend: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar patented the most unstoppable shot that the NBA has ever seen. Unlike players such as Michael Jordan, Kareem's move was so unstoppable and unique to him that we have not seen a player use the sky hook as a go-to move since Cap played. In the conversation for greatest of all-time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar should most certainly be in there as a six-time champion and the league's all-time leading scorer.
Today, Kareem would be great offensively but the spacing and small ball that has taken over the NBA has made it harder for big men. Defensively, guards are able to put pressure on coaches to make tough decisions about lineups.
15 Present Star: Kyrie Irving
The biggest shot in Cleveland sports history that secured the 2016 NBA Finals was made by Kyrie Irving. No luck involved, just a regular day at the office. In clutch situations, Irving thrives and seemingly takes his game to another level. The talent is there, but with defenders able to grab, hold, and play more physically intimidating, Irving wouldn't be as effective.
A 22.5 point per game career scorer, Kyrie would have to approach the game differently, and the paint finishes that have become his staple will cost a bigger toll on the body. Staying healthy has always been a slight concern, and the defense of the 1990s partially caused the rise of the perimeter shot.
14 Legend: Charles Barkley
When you think of Charles Barkley today, he may be more known for his television career as opposed to the fantastic NBA career he had in the 1990s. With a career average of 22.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, Charles Barkley is one of the best pure rebounders the league has ever seen. In today's NBA, a 6'4" power forward would struggle against the forwards in today's game.
There would be challenges with switches against quicker guards and especially the centers in the Western Conference.
Could Barkley play well in limited minutes? Sure, but with players like DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Jokic, and DeAndre Jordan, the rim won't be open that often.
13 Present Star: Trae Young
If you watched college basketball last season, then chances are you are familiar with Trae Young's game. Not expected to be a one-and-done, Young was the most electrifying player in the country to start the season. Towards the end, defenses adjusted, and Young hit an untimely shooting slump. Trae Young is still unproven and even 10 years ago in the NBA, Young would have some difficulties. Bigger guards would take advantage of his size and take him out of the game early due to foul trouble. When a player is that much of a liability on defense, coaches won't feel comfortable with that player on the floor in winning moments.
12 Legend: Magic Johnson
Despite only playing for 13 seasons, Magic Johnson won five NBA championships. Known for his play style, passing ability and size, Magic was an NBA unicorn in his own right and heavily influenced the up-tempo pace the league plays with as the leader of the 1980s Showtime Lakers.
Not known for being explosive, Johnson would still be a great facilitator today, but the years it took for Magic to become a respectable outside shooter would hold him back in today's NBA.
Defensively, Magic would have been better served as a power forward, and even though Johnson temporarily switched to center as a rookie in 1980 to secure a championship, logging heavy minutes in the frontcourt would be difficult.
11 Present Star: Kevin Durant
Everything that you want from a scorer in 2018, you get with Kevin Durant. KD has the size, shooting touch, and creative scoring ability to be a matchup nightmare in a small ball league. But take Durant back to the 1980s and KD's frame would be a glaring weakness in his game. You should see a reoccurring theme here; players in today's game are allowed to be thinner and not take the punishment that was maybe a prerequisite 15 years ago. The frontcourt players that were in the Western Conference were so dominant that trying a small ball lineup wouldn't be a viable option.
10 Legend: Karl Malone
In the '90s, the Utah Jazz featured the NBA's most lethal pick and roll partners in the game. The passing and facilitating by John Stockton paired with the bruising screens by Karl Malone were tough to stop. Malone made his bread and butter in the mid-range area from flares close to the free throw line. The pick-and-roll in today's NBA is more centered on clearing space for a ball handler all the way out at the three-point line.
A team like the Houston Rockets' coaching staff teaches their players to avoid the mid-range shot. Analytically, the contested 15-footer is the worst shot to take on the floor. With only a 10.1 rebounds per game average, Malone did not have extended range and would not have the same opportunity.
9 Present Star: Draymond Green
The small ball lineups that yo often see today have a lot to do with Draymond Green and his skill set that allows the Golden State Warriors to play five out on offense. The ball movement is crisp and the spacing allows their scorers to get easier opportunities.
With a center like Shaquille O'Neal on the schedule four times per year and an inevitable playoff series, you have to build your roster differently.
Draymond would have to play a more traditional small forward role, and he went in the second round of the draft because of question marks about him at the three.
8 Legend: John Havlicek
Over a 16-year span, John Havlicek was one of the elite guards in the Eastern Conference for the Boston Celtics. In what may be the most iconic moments in sports broadcasting history, "Havlicek stole the ball!" was a play in which the former Ohio State star secured a steal against Hal Greer of the Philadelphia 76ers to clinch the 1965 Eastern Finals. The Celtics went on to win the finals that season, as well as seven others in 16 seasons.
In today's NBA, a chance of dominating the league at that rate is pretty difficult to have. There are more teams and talent is littered across every roster you'll face. A definite superstar in the '60s would be only considered a specialist today.
7 Present Star: Karl-Anthony Towns
If you saw the NBA playoffs last season, Karl-Anthony Towns left much to be desired. For the last two seasons, general managers around the league anonymously voted Towns as the number one player they would start a franchise with. When asked the same question this year, Towns got zero votes from NBA GMs. Clint Capela totally outplayed Towns, and while Capela is quite talented, he is not an elite center.
If that series was a barometer, the Kareems, Shaqs, and Olajuwons of the world would have a field day. It takes a certain mentality to play in the old NBA and according to Jimmy Butler, Towns doesn't have it.
6 Legend: Jerry Lucas
In his first six seasons in the NBA, Jerry Lucas was selected as an All-Star. Lucas was one of the best rebounders of his time as he averaged over 20 rebounds per game twice, and has a career average of 15.6 per game. At 6'8" and 230 pounds, Lucas would be a small forward in today's NBA.
Lucas's skill set favored a center's game more than a wing and that's why he would struggle today.
The players are much bigger, stronger, and faster than they were in the 1960s and some of the most dominant players of that era would find it hard to find a roster spot.
5 Present Star: Ben Simmons
In terms of big guards, Ben Simmons is one of the best the NBA has seen in a very long time. You might see teams try to help 6'10" guys develop into a playmaker, but Simmons does this naturally. Simmons is the rare combination of size and vision. The struggles for Simmons will come with getting to the rim. In a small ball league, Simmons can be a dominant inside presence against smaller bigs. When the centers in the league are all big, strong, 7-footers, Simmons won't be able to play his bully-ball style of play. Simmons would be much better suited in a less physical NBA.
4 Legend: Oscar Robertson
Known as "Mr. Triple-Double," Oscar Robertson, like a few others, was an early NBA unicorn. Today, when you think of "big guards," you may think of LeBron James or Ben Simmons, but it was Oscar that paved the way for a guy like Magic Johnson to get the chance he did. The big difference today is that Oscar was 6'5" and similar to guards that are on every roster in the league.
Oscar would be able to play today simply because of his awesome playmaking ability, but the numbers he would put up would be much different. Oscar would probably not be a 30-point per game scorer and double-digit rebounder today, and that was what made him so unique.
3 Present Star: Damian Lillard
Most of the prolific scoring point guards of today would be much different players in another era. This is true for Damian Lillard as well. Lillard uses his quickness to get to the rim and is not necessarily looking to give the ball to his teammates. This approach is what makes Dame one of the best scorers at the point guard position.
Against real rim protectors, Lillard would have to change his game and without being a natural facilitator, Lillard will struggle.
Defensively, Lillard also has some work to do and the point guards in the old NBA would love to crush Dame with back-breaking screens in the pick-and-roll.
2 Legend: Bob Pettit
Looking back at most players that played in the 1960s, their numbers are very gaudy compared to the averages of today. Like I have said before, the athleticism of the NBA today would force a lot of players to have to play a different position. As a center for the Hawks, Pettit was an All-Star in each of his 11 NBA seasons. At 205 lbs, Pettit would be no match for the bigs in the NBA today, and given the strength of wings such as LeBron James and Ben Simmons, Pettit would struggle to guard those kinds of players as well. The real question here is, would Pettit be a starter in the NBA in 2018?
1 Present Star: Kyle Lowry
Today in the NBA, Kyle Lowry is a lower-tier All-Star. Lowry is good at a lot of things but not great at anything either. Some point guards in the modern NBA have some sort of elite quality that could somewhat transcend eras. Lowry, on the other hand, while he's a pesky defender, wouldn't be a high scorer in the old NBA days. Lowry has never been a high assist guy and the ball pressure of the league 20 years ago, would bring Lowry closer to the middle of the pack. While I think Lowry could struggle and wouldn't be an All-Star, Lowry could start for a team in the 1990s or early 2000s.