The game of basketball has been in a perpetual state of evolution since the late James Naismith had people tossing soccer balls into peach baskets.
But even if the modern, perimeter-based NBA can sometimes seem a different sport than the post-oriented style of yesteryear, there are footprints bridging one era to the next.
Even today's most innovative hoopers at least partially reside in the shadows of past legends. Sometimes, the resemblance can be striking; the play style, the accomplishments, the stats all can have a deja vu feel among basketball junkies. For others, the similarities are more subtle. Maybe intangibles like creativity, dominance and impact can link two ballers who otherwise might be, at best, funhouse-mirror images of one another.
Cross-era comparisons are tricky, but they can help paint a fuller picture of where our current stars are at and where they might be headed. So, we're here to spotlight the closest career comparisons—based on projected trajectories—for the Association's top players by analyzing everything from numbers and accolades to on-court approaches and aesthetics.
Some require more of a stretch than others, but if you look closely enough, you'll spot the blueprint.
Javair Gillett, Director of Athletic Performance for the Houston Rockets, joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss how the Houston Rockets, as an organization, are working with players on training and nutrition during the NBA shutdown, his thoughts on what it will take to get players in game-shape once the season resumes, and some of the tips he’s providing to players.
Giannis Antetokoumpo: Kevin Garnett
The NBA can't quite get a grasp on what to call Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Basketball Reference designates him as a "power forward and point guard and small forward and shooting guard." His former Bucks coach, Jason Kidd, saw him as a blend of Magic Johnson and Kevin Garnett. When Antetokounmpo's former teammate, Pau Gasol, went searching for a comparison, he mentioned everyone from Russell Westbrook and the late Kobe Bryant to himself, Garnett and a young Shaquille O'Neal.
Antetokounmpo, in other words, is tough to define. Back in the mid-'90s, the hoops world needed time to figure out KG, too. He actually broke in as a small forward, which seems impossible given how perfectly he later fit as an interior anchor. But he had a similarly unfair combo of size, length and skill that Antetokounmpo now uses to render defenders helpless. They're cut from the same uber-competitive cloth, too.
Garnett collected both an MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year, and he made 15 All-Star trips over his 21 seasons. Antetokounmpo already has an MVP under his belt and earned All-Defensive First Team honors last season.
If there's a flaw with this comparison, it's that Antetokounmpo could ascend even higher. His current offensive level has already surpassed Garnett's peak, and Antetokounmpo's top two seasons in defensive box plus/minus (4.1 each) cleared Garnett's best (3.5).
Stephen Curry: Jerry West
Comparisons for Stephen Curry don't exist. He is, in the words of two-time MVP Steve Nash, "the ultimate one-off...the evolution of basketball," per ESPN's Brian Windhorst. Curry normalized the 30-foot pull-up and became the first player to splash 300-plus triples in a season—by dropping 402.
History shows a few fuzzy recollections—Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had the pull-up triples, Mark Price had the rapid release and efficiency—but none that approached Curry's peak. Pete Maravich, who had a similar mix of style, handles, range and scoring, came closer, but even he had only a single top-10 finish in MVP voting over his career. Nash matched Curry's two MVPs but lacked the scoring punch.
With impact and accolades in the mix, then "The Logo" Jerry West looks like the answer. Maybe that's why the basketball gods brought them together when West served as a consultant for Curry's Warriors for six seasons.
It's not a perfect comparison—Curry was a better dribbler, West a superior stopper who played without the three-point line (added in 1979-80)—but the 6'3" Curry and 6'2" West found their spots on the game's all-time hierarchy in similar ways.
They could score, shoot and create for themselves or their teammates. They oozed confidence. West once said, "I'm surprised when the ball doesn't go in the hoop." Curry couldn't have trademarked his off-the-dribble-from-anywhere shots without the same kind of self-belief. West is the league's only player to win Finals MVP on a losing team; Curry is its only unanimous MVP.
West has a volume advantage on the stat sheet, but when scaled to per-36-minutes production, there's little difference: 24.8 points, 6.1 assists and 5.3 rebounds for West; 24.6, 6.9 and 4.7, respectively, for Curry. West's career player efficiency rating landed at 22.9; Curry's sits at 23.8.
Anthony Davis: David Robinson
It all started with a growth spurt—for Anthony Davis and David Robinson. Each entered high school as a guard and exited as a blossoming big man. They would later marry their backcourt foundations with their new frontcourt length to become unstoppable forces.
One look at Davis is enough to spot all of Robinson's footprints: unfair size/athleticism combo, explosive first step, prolific face-up game, reliable jumper, elite defense, intimidating aerial attacks. Like Robinson, Davis is a nightmare in the open court and a brutal matchup on isolations. He's an effortless scorer and that might not even be his best end of the floor.
The stat sheet sees the resemblance, too. Over his last six seasons (age 21 and on), Davis has averaged 26.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.4 blocks in 35.4 minutes. During Robinson's first six campaigns (starting at age 24), his numbers were 25.7, 11.7, 3.1 and 3.7 in 38.3. Davis had the edge in player efficiency rating (28.4 to 27.6), and Robinson held it in box plus/minus (8.7 to 7.1).
Davis is playing catch-up in terms of team success (Robinson won two titles with the San Antonio Spurs), but his jump to the Los Angeles Lakers should help. Of course, that scenery change muddles this comparison a bit, as Robinson spent his entire career with the Spurs and wishes more players would do the same.
Kevin Durant: Larry Bird
The scouting reports guiding defenders on how to handle Kevin Durant and Larry Bird might've read the same: hope for the best.
Sure, Bird wasn't the best athlete and Durant needed time to fill out his frame, but there's only so much you can do against a player with size to play in the post and the handles and shooting touch to play on the perimeter.
Bird, who broke in as a power forward, changed perceptions on how "big men" could play. He dribbled, he created, he launched from the perimeter (fourth-most threes over his career), and he still handled the more traditional duties of posting up and glass-cleaning. Durant can't become what he is now (basically, a 7-foot shooting guard) without Bird forcing the game to think outside the box.
"He allowed players like myself to kind of dream big and think big at that position and do things that traditional small forwards or big men weren't doing," Durant told reporters.
Durant and Bird both reside in the vaunted 50/40/90 sniper's club. They comprise half of the four-player group with career marks of 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists and 49 percent shooting. Bird won three rings and two Finals MVPs; Durant has two of each. They didn't play identical games, but the offensive brilliance was all the same.
Joel Embiid: Hakeem Olajuwon
Joel Embiid's fluidity and footwork look like they were inherited directly from Hakeem Olajuwon. That's because in some ways, they were. When the late-blooming Embiid, who hails from Cameroon, started his crash course in basketball, he repeatedly viewed a DVD of Olajuwon, a native of neighboring Nigeria, "every single day for three years."
Maybe that's why when Olajuwon goes looking for a model center in today's game, he keeps coming back to a familiar face.
"What a center should be is what Embiid is doing," Olajuwon told The Athletic's Michael Lee. "You've got the low post. You've got the outside. ... Embiid...you have no answer for him."
Embiid's post work is like a portal into basketball's past life. His perimeter skills are a reminder that in 2020, everyone should have handles and a jumper—even 7-foot, 250-pounders. But Olajuwon was multidimensional, too. His Dream Shake might be his lasting gift to the game, but he had the handles to break down defenders, the vision to spot open teammates and the touch to pull up from the mid-range.
Careerwise, Embiid must cover a ton of ground to catch Olajuwon, but you can see the 26-year-old following the breadcrumbs. Olajuwon's highest single-season scoring average was 27.8; Embiid has already supplied 27.5. Olajuwon's nightly career contributions included 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 2.5 assists; for Embiid, the line is 11.5, 1.8 and 3.1.
James Harden: Allen Iverson
Isolation offense isn't always the easiest on the eyes, but when James Harden is stepping back into an on-target triple or Allen Iverson was crossing over to glide his 6'0" frame around the tall trees in the paint, it's hard not to appreciate the artistry.
There will always be rough patches when quantity holds near-equal footing with quality, but the final results are all that matters. Harden engineered a scoring average for the ages last season (36.1 points per game) while also rewriting the record books on three-point attempts. Iverson had the second-highest career field-goal attempts per game of the three-point era, but he also owns a top-10 career scoring average.
Iverson rode his relentless one-on-one attacks to four scoring titles. Harden, who is on more isolation plays than any other team runs, is en route to his third straight. They are the only players not named Kobe Bryant to average 30-plus points at least three times in the 2000s.
Like Iverson, Harden is a capable creator for others (6.3 career assists to Iverson's 6.2) but most comfortable hunting his own shots. He also gambles too much on defense and is prone to indifferent spells, just like his on-court clone.
But they kept the scoreboard spinning enough to each earn MVP honors. Iverson was a seven-time All-NBA selection; Harden has six already. Iverson was an All-Star regular for more than a decade; Harden has booked eight straight trips.
LeBron James: Magic Johnson
LeBron James is arguably the greatest player this league has ever seen. When it comes to impact, influence and dominance, he's neck-and-neck with Michael Jordan in every sensible GOAT discussion.
But Jordan was a ruthless scorer at heart, and James is most natural (and most effective) as a jumbo playmaker. In that sense, he relates closest to Magic Johnson, who, by the way, shouldn't be lost in the GOAT talks as a five-time champion, three-time MVP and three-time Finals MVP.
"LeBron is the closest thing to Earvin that we've ever seen because of his size, his speed, his acceleration, his vision," Miami Heat president Pat Riley said in 2017, three years after James left the franchise to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. "... The way that LeBron plays the game now—coast to coast, handles the ball, runs the offense—it's just like Earvin. I mean, same mold. Same DNA."
Johnson had higher assist numbers (11.2 career per game to 7.4) and James fared better in scoring (27.1 to 19.5), but you wonder how much of that was related to role. These are two of the most versatile hoopers the sport has ever seen.
Johnson was an all-time great point guard, but if you needed him to fill an at center and drop 42 points—as a rookie, in the Finals—he could do that. James opened his career by skyrocketing up the small forward ranks, helped usher in the small-ball era by shining as an unstoppable power forward, and he's now been repurposed—at 35 years old—as a supersized point guard. And he should win his first assists title.
Kawhi Leonard: Kobe Bryant
When Doc Rivers looks at Kawhi Leonard, he sees Michael Jordan—if not the same player, then at least a similar one in style, two-way execution and physical tools. By extension, that means the Clippers skipper sees the late, great Kobe Bryant, too, since the Mamba was almost a replica of MJ.
The same links between Leonard and Jordan are there with Leonard and Bryant: length, explosiveness, dominant defense, competitive fire, unstoppable in-between game. Like Bryant at his best, Leonard is never hurried but somehow also a step ahead of everyone else. The power in the post is there, and the fadeaway is just as unguardable.
Bryant played a louder, flashier game, but they were both genius-level students of the game and legendary workers. Bryant needed a minute to find his footing after his preps-to-pros leap, and he was an All-Star in his second season and a champion by his fourth. Leonard found his way through the shadows of the Alamo City's elite, but he secured a ring and a Finals MVP in his third go-round.
Before Bryant's tragic passing in January, he had mentored Leonard. And when Leonard won his second championship last season, Bryant was one of the first people he called—to deliver a message only an equally ferocious competitor could appreciate.
"When we won last year, we FaceTimed him, and Kawhi just kept joking with him, 'I'm better than you,'" Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears.
The 28-year-old has a lot of years and a slew of accolades standing between him and Bryant, who played until he was 37, but his path is heading in the right direction. Leonard has Bryant matched in Finals MVPs (two), and while he doesn't have a regular-season MVP (yet), he does have a pair of Defensive Player of the Year awards. Leonard also fittingly became the first-ever recipient of the Kobe Bryant All-Star MVP Award in February.
All stats, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.