Everything is influenced by that which comes before it. There is no modern NBA without experimentation, evolution and growth in years past. Along those lines, modern players are made possible by the new paths explored by previous adventurers. The game evolves, and so do the players.
In this piece, we look at the precursors to current stars. Who are the bases from which guys like Durant, LeBron and Joakim Noah evolved? What's different and what's similar about them? Dive into history with us.
The Iceman was a scoring machine for the Spurs for a decade -- he won four scoring titles, using incredible shooting, sweet touch around the rim (finger roll!) and a notable size advantage over his defenders to rack up points. Sound familiar? Durant does all of the same things, even if he's basically a 7-footer at the small forward spot. (Gervin was more like 6'7 in a smaller league.) What Durant lacks is that one signature play type that kids will emulate for decades. (Unless you count the rip move. We're not going to count the rip move.)
Like Durant, Gervin was also incredibly efficient as a top scorer. Iceman finished in the top 10 in both true shooting percentage and scoring for three straight seasons from 1975 through 1978. In 1977-78, he was No. 1 in scoring and No. 6 in True Shooting. Last season, Durant finished No. 2 in both categories. This year, he's poised to win the scoring title. He's at No. 3 in True Shooting. The combination of volume and efficiency Gervin and Durant boast is incredible.
One area Durant will hopefully depart from Gervin is in playoff success. Gervin's Spurs never made it to the ABA or NBA Finals and he won just three playoff series in his career. Durant already has him beaten there in the newer, larger playoff system; the Thunder made the 2012 Finals. But KD would love to add a championship Gervin was never able to claim.
I once called LeBron the evolutionary Bird, and I still agree with that. But that's more in terms of production and impact. Stylistically, LeBron evolved from Dr. J: a super athletic monster with a nose for the basket and incredible skill.
The first thing folks remember about The Doctor is that he could fly. No one of his era matched his ability to lift off quickly, soar and maintain flawless body control on his way to a powerful dunk or twisting layup. In the modern game, we have a number of superb airmen, including rotation players like Gerald Green and stars on the rise like Paul George. But LeBron remains the most dynamic dunker among all wing players, a guy who can take off from seemingly everywhere and hammer harder than anyone (well, almost anyone ... an exception will soon be mentioned).
In addition to that, Erving was a three-time ABA MVP and one-time NBA MVP. He was incredibly productive, just as we know LeBron to be. The Doctor never racked up assists at a point guard level like King James, but he did his fair share of playmaking.
Shawn Kemp and Karl Malone
The aforementioned most powerful dunker in the game is Griffin. To me -- and has been written dozens of times before -- Griffin feels like an updated, improved Shawn Kemp. Most of this is in style: The Reign Man was really aggressive and physical, and at his best, Griffin overpowers defenders. In addition to power, both can also fly. (Well, Kemp could fly. He's only 44; maybe he could still fly today?)
But Griffin also boasts a skill level Kemp never had. With that, we nod to The Mailman, who transitioned from a dunk beast early in his career to the master of the pick-and-pop later on. Griffin has become a good shooter and has a bevy of post moves; that he's opened up that part of his versatile game before hitting his prime is pretty evolutionary. Right now he's combining early Kemp and late Malone into a nice stew of awesome.
John Stockton and Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas is the typical comp for CP3, but these days The Point God feels more like peak John Stockton ... and not just because he has the Malonian Griffin next to him. CP3 is tough and/or dirty, depending on your perspective. He's sacrificed some scoring to deliver the ball to his teammates more frequently. He's averaging a league-best 11 assists per game this season and would be the assist champ for the third time if the numbers maintain. Stockton won nine assist titles in 19 years. Isiah, for what it's worth, had one assist title in a career that overlapped with that of Stockton. CP3 has moved from an Isiah-style point guard to one more in the Stockton mold. In the process, he's created his own identity thanks to incredible shooting talent.
Defensively, all three came off as total pests and more physical than you'd expect. But Stockton and CP3 did it while maintaining choirboy reps among the most casual NBA fans. (CP3 is the face of an insurance company and president of the players' union, after all.) Isiah played for the Bad Boy Pistons, and the exploits of Laimbeer, Rodman and Salley rubbed off on his rep ... even if he now stars as the second-most pleasant athlete on Twitter (behind Pau Gasol).
A big red flag in this discussion, though, is that Thomas has titles neither Stockton nor Paul can claim. We'll see if CP3 can begin changing that narrative this spring.
This is our most speculative retro comp, but Davis has shown crazy potential this season. Gilmore was an elite scorer, rebounder and defender, and that describes what we're seeing from Davis. Unfortunately for Artis, his best early years came in the ABA; they were so heavily discounted that he just recently got into the Hall of Fame. Davis will suffer no such slights. We're all fully aware of how special he can be.
The more common Davis comp is Hakeem Olajuwon, but I'm going to hold that one in reserve for a certain prospect still in college. (Like everyone else in the known world.)
JOAKIM NOAH AND MARC GASOL
Big Red was a superlative passer and a first-team All-Defense center. (He also won an MVP and made eight All-Star teams.) Noah and Gasol both fit the bill, even though they are so very different. Joakim's advantage comes from speed and hectic energy, whereas Gasol is strong and all-around bigger. Cowens fell in between those two poles: he had great physical size relative to his contemporaries, but wasn't terrifically more fleet or stronger than his top rivals.
Really, Cowens and his predecessor Bill Russell have molded the modern elite center more than guys like Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did. The heir to those guys is perhaps DeMarcus Cousins, who stands out as weird as a shot-heavy center in today's game.
Cruel are the injuries to big men.