Truer words have never been formed in any medium.
Dudes can literally just sit around and name old sports players and just have the best time.— E.M. Hudson (@EMHudsonlives) July 15, 2021
I have a group chat that solely exists for this purpose, and it pops!
Part of what makes basketball so incredible is its growth and evolution across time. Not even a decade ago, the game looked quite different compared to what it is today on either end. Pick-and-roll offense was less prolific, ICE defense was en vogue and the utilization of space on the court was drastically different.
Understanding and appreciating the game today is even better achieved through grasping how we got here, what the pathways were, why and how they were taken, and the context surrounding each era. The spacing revolution didn't just happen. The seeds were set and nourished over decades, with gradual shifts and eventually an explosion in the 2010s.
Who from past years might be even better today? That's not to say that these players weren't good in their own time, but rather that they may have thrived to even greater heights in today's game. Why? Each player fits some semblance of the proliferation of today's game, whether it be through shooting, decision-making, ground coverage, switchability or a conglomeration of many skills.
So let's dig into two perfect examples.
It wasn't all that long ago that Josh Smith was in the league, and you may not remember that he last played on a 10-day for the Pelicans during the 2017-18 season!
He's such a difficult player to parse through, but I think he fits today's game much better than general thought may hold. As we know (as does Stan Van Gundy), Smith was a pretty rough shooter from just about anywhere on the court. I don't think it matters when looking at projection to today.
I don't think Smith would magically develop touch in 2022, but I also think it would be odd to ask him to. Would it be great if he was a shooter from deep on volume? Of course! But, he'd be utilized much more as a screener and roller today. Smith would be so dynamic making plays on the roll, hitting the corners, finding cutters and even tossing in lobs. He could be utilized in the post with split-cut actions similarly to what we see with Draymond Green in Golden State's offense.
One of the coolest parts about his expansion with the Houston Rockets after his Detroit Pistons tenure was seeing some shades of what he'd look like in today's game.
While he had an underwhelming game from the short mid-range (39.5% from 3-10 feet from 2008-13), Smith had a really good handle for his size that would make him even more difficult to play against defensively when attacking on the short roll. You could certainly try and play him into floaters and post-ups, but he was so athletic and coordinated that he could easily draw fouls or find easy at-rim attempts when he had momentum.
Lest we forget what Smith did to the rim when given even a sliver of space to leap.
With more opportunities to attack on the move and potentially more chances to play as a 5 in smaller lineups, Smith's athleticism could potentially be even better emphasized today. With more open lanes, the tomahawks would rain down supremely.
Smith was a borderline All-Star a little over a decade ago, and today's game arguably would benefit his skill set with a reigned-in shot selection and honed-in role.
It's actually criminal that Smith only made one All-Defensive team. He was an exceptional rover, blowing plays up from the weak side as a shot-blocker, disrupting in passing lanes and covering ground exceptionally. From 2007-2010, Smith averaged 3.9 combined steals and blocks per game. Smith was so incredible as a help defender, often leaking off of a spaced shooter to clean up looks at the rim.
His synergy with Al Horford was so fun, as Horford was a fantastic defender already at that point, stonewalling bigs in the post with Smith adding his verticality emphatically over top.
Other than LeBron James, there was no more imposing chase-down shot-blocker in the NBA from the late 2000's into the early 2010's.
Smith would be a star role player in the NBA today and greater appreciated for the things he excelled at a decade ago.
I would pay an exorbitant amount of money to see Monster Mash play his prime days today. (Be sure to check out his son Jamal Mashburn Jr. at New Mexico — fun player.) He had a fascinating career.
Jamal Mashburn started with a young and exciting Dallas Mavericks squad featuring Jason Kidd and Jim Jackson that flamed out. Then, he really began finding his stride with the Miami Heat as more of a role player for a few years. But after that, he ended up as an All-NBA player and had the best season of his pro life, leading the Charlotte Hornets as a big shot-making and playmaking wing/forward late in his career.
It's not often that a player downsizes his/her role after a huge usage start and then reverts back to high usage later down the road. Even less common is doing it with even greater efficacy.
Mash was a bit of a tweener, caught between the 3 and 4 for much of his career, although he'd be pretty cleanly a 4 today in my opinion. At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, Mashburn was ridiculously strong and powerful, operating a lot out of the mid-post. What I find most interesting about Mashburn is that he's someone I actually don't think would have to change his game to the amount you'd expect.
He might exchange a lot of his mid-range looks to opt for a greater deal of threes, but how he was able to operate from the middle of the floor is what I most enjoyed about his game. A solid enough mid-range shooter to make defenders care, you couldn't leave him open. Imagine him in some Triangle-akin actions in the corner, or out of Horns operating as a high-post playmaker. Drawing two with his scoring gravity and ability to generate a mismatch due to his mesh of size and skill would equate to many forced rotations and drawn double teams.
He'd be so intriguing to me with how he could toggle on and off the ball to maximize his skill set and the abilities of his teammates. That's a large part of what made him so good in Charlotte/New Orleans. A 27.4% usage in his 2002-03 season is nothing to scoff at, but it wouldn't rank top-20 in the league in usage today. Playing alongside a young Baron Davis and veteran David Wesley, Mashburn showcased his ability to operate as a primary, but also make himself a tremendous outlet.
We'd see a lot more of this today!
Mashburn had the chops to be a tough shot-maker, but the screening and versatility of his shooting and scoring profle make him so enticing as a player who could also dominate on the roll.
While he wasn't an above-the-rim athlete, his strength, touch and playmaking made him remarkably difficult to guard, and I'd argue that modern spacing and offense could put him in even better positions more routinely.
While both Josh Smith and Jamal Mashburn were excellent players in their own time, it's tantalizing to envision them playing today. The skill sets they possessed were valuable at the time, but have only grown in commodity in recent years. If you can extrapolate or minimize space, you have a place in the NBA today.