At the age of 8, my favorite game was the newly released Super NES title “Bulls vs Blazers”. In the driveway, down by 2, with 1 second to go, it was “uncle Cliffy for three!!!!” – if you know what I mean. I’m a retro Blazermaniac, through and through. I dribbled down the lane to the “Rip City Rhapsody”, faked left to “Bust A Bucket”, before dunking in the new millennia with “Can I Get A Headband”. Now admittedly, though I was a passionate Blazers fan to the core, I did role play the occasional Rex Champman 3-pointer, oftentimes reenact the powerful Dominique Wilkins’ windmill jam, and very frequently attempt the superhuman Michael Jordan flight from the free throw line (with the hoop lowered, of course).
While sitting here bored at work, listening to ringing phone after ringing phone, I got to thinking – I wonder which 1990’s era basketball heroes represent the ceilings of our modern day Trailblazers (read: “ceilings”, not current state). I couldn’t be speaking on a more subjective topic with a wider array of opportunity for conjecture and opinion, and therefore gladly welcome any disagreement with each of my conclusions. I would caution the reader, however, to please keep the debate light hearted and fun. This isn’t being written in the light of objective and concrete facts & expectations, but rather in the light of subjective hopes & wishes – in order to open up a fun topical discussion that I don’t remember having had in my 6 years of Bedge-ing. I’ll cover the current core-4 of Aldridge, Batum, Lillard, and Matthews, as well as our one and only Center-of-the-Future, Meyers Leonard. I’m not going to go over the other benchers because… well… it’s a little too daunting of a task to dig into the obscure cellar-dwelling benchers of the mid-90’s for comparisons – also, that wouldn’t make for a very exciting read. Let us begin.
(Drum roll please………..drum roll?....ok fine.)
Having been drafted in 1997, Tim Duncan qualifies for this little exercise. Had he come into the league and failed to produce until the 2000’s, I may have opted for Chris Webber – but Duncan won a championship as a primary contributor in 1999, so he makes the cut. Tim Duncan is probably one of the most consistent players I’ve ever witnessed. In his first decade with the Spurs, he averaged less than 20p/g only once. Not until 2010 did he average less than 10 rebounds per game. Aldridge didn’t come in to the league with the same authority as Duncan, but he is slowly working his way towards those types of numbers. More importantly, though, is the consistency with which Aldridge performs. The two might have a bit of a statistical disparity, but when it comes to consistency, style of play (sans the bank shot), character, and personality, they have a lot in common – high basketball IQ, high character, strong leadership through example rather than words, and extreme consistency. With a little more production and some time, Aldridge is well on his way to becoming the next Tim Duncan. Tim is 10 years Aldridge’s senior and that gives me hope that Aldridge may in fact reach that level of production at some point.
Damian Lillard = Tim Hardaway
Tim Hardaway was the 14th pick in the 1st round for the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 1989. He came in as the player of the year from a weak WAC conference and yet, similar to Lillard, was overlooked by the top lottery-picking teams because of the conference from whence he came. Hardaway did have a slow start to his career, scoring-wise, in his first year, averaging only 14.7p/g to go along with his 8.7 assists per game. However, in years 2-5, he averaged over 20p/g and 9a/g – a stellar mark for any point guard to aspire to. Over the course of Hardaway’s career, the 5-time All-Star averaged 17.7p/g, 8.2a/g, and 3.3r/g. By comparison, Lillard averaged 19p/g, 6.5p/g, and 3.1r/g in his rookie year. Statistically, the two are very similar. The circumstances that caused Lillard to score more and pass less will hopefully change as his career progresses and I could easily see his averages tilting towards distribution and away from the score-first role that he had to fill this last year. Both players represent the perfect role-playing point guard that fits well into a system with a dynamic scoring power forward (enter Chris Webber of the Golden State variety). If the Blazers surround Lillard with more potent scoring options that can finish at the hoop and if Lillard can improve in his efficiency (generating the same production in less minutes), I can see Lillard emulating the career arc of the 5-time All-Star Hardaway. Only time will tell.
If I had one word to describe the great Scottie Pippen, it would be “Versatile”. Coincidentally, I would use the same word to describe Nicolas Batum. For Pippen, team offense, individual offense, team defense, individual defense, on-the-court performance, and off-the-court character were his specialties. A jack of all trades and a master of…all trades. The comparison between Pippen – one of the “50 Greatest NBA Players” and Batum isn’t as far fetched of an idea as the initial knee-jerk reaction might deduce. Pippen was drafted at the age of 22 – and by the time he was 24 years old, his 3rd year in the league, he was averaging 16.5p/g, 5.4a/g, and 6.7r/g. Not only did he fill up the stat sheets night in and night out, but his defense was impeccable. Pippen, though, had the benefit of one Michael Jordan to divert all of the attention, and his defensive and offensive production benefited greatly from that. A Michael Jordan-less Batum, at the age of 24, has quite a comparable stat line – 14.3p/g, 4.9a/g, and 5.6r/g. His defense is probably on par with Pippen’s in Pippin’s 3rd season, and his ceiling, in my opinion, is just as high as Pippen’s was. The Blazers have a very special player in Nicolas Batum and the future is bright. For what he lacks in consistency at this time, he makes up for in his versatility – and that versatility warrants the Pippen ceiling comparison. Hopefully, over time, he can elevate his game to that All-Star status he longs for.
Finding a 1990’s player to compare to Matthew’s ceiling ended up proving to be more difficult than I thought it would be. The varying criterion that makes Matthews the unique player he is seems rather unmatched on the surface. I was looking for a shooting guard that alternated between starter and 6th man throughout his career (Matthews’ natural fit, in my opinion, is a 6th man role) that specialized in 3 point shooting and elite defense. Matthews may not be at the elite defender level yet, but it should be included in his ceiling comparison. Although he has much room for improvement, Matthews is Portland’s best defensive player in the backcourt at this time. He often draws the most difficult assignments and has, on many occasions, risen to the challenge exceptionally well. Over the course of his career, Majerle fulfilled a very similar 6th man specialist role in Phoenix and in Miami. Majerle shot a little less accurately than Matthews from the arc (35.8% vs 39.5%), but his defense and ability to finish at the hoop were a little stronger. I see Matthews getting a little bit better at defense and hopefully maintaining his consistency from the arc as his career progresses. I don’t see him overhauling much else, so a ceiling of the 3-time NBA All-Star, Dan Majerle (mid-late career Majerle, is the most comparable) seems pretty fair.
Meyers Leonard = David Robinson
Hey!!! Stop laughing!! It’s not as funny as it sounds. I mean – it’s definitely a stretch, but stretch goals are good for rookies, right? What justifies the reach and preserves whatever street cred that I may have is the age differential. Robinson came into the league at the age of 24, whereas Leonard came in at a much younger 20. They’re both 7’1, 250lb (Leonard is currently 245lb, but he’ll gain the 5lb this offseason, I’m sure) centers with stellar offensive games. Leonard has 4 years of play to catch up to Robinson’s rookie season campaign, and in that time, hopefully will be able to figure out the defensive footwork, ball-hawking rebounding intuition, and offensive decision making it will take to propel him to that top-tier, grade-A center he was born to be. Here is a great post by pilotJJ with a few more thoughts regarding the comparison. All that said, I’ll concede that the 2-time NBA Champion, 1990 Rookie of the Year, 1-time League MVP, 10-time NBA All-Star, and 4-time All-Defense First Team David Robinson is quite a lofty ceiling for Mr. Leonard, but – in the childish fantasy world where I can dunk like Dominique, fly like Jordan, and shoot like Uncle Cliffy – it’s a possibility!