Talking about the old school game is always a fun blast from the past. The hypotheticals between the 90s basketball brand and the more modern version has been a fluent debate for a while now. Looking back at some of these players in the 90s, it would have been interesting to see them take on the biggest stars in the game today.
Some of the 2007-08 All-NBA First Team members remain in the game today. As they push through the late stages of their thirties, three of the players find themselves contributing to their teams. It’s been 14 years since this team was announced, while it’s been almost a quarter century since we saw the 1997-98 squad that featured some of the greatest players we’ve ever seen offensively and defensively. If we matched these two teams against each other, what would be the result?
Let’s take a look as we pose the hypothetical game between the 1997-98 All-NBA First Team vs. the 2007-08 All-NBA First Team.
1997-98 All-NBA First Team: Gary Payton, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal
2007-08 All-NBA First Team: Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard
Gary Payton vs. Chris Paul
Gary Payton is known as one of the greatest defensemen of all time. Selected nine times to the All-Defensive First Team, Payton’s reputation speaks for itself. What many forget is that he was also able to score points on the board. During this season, he averaged 21.7 points and 8.7 assists. With a team that allows him to focus more on defense and play, Payton would be the ultimate role player for this team.
Looking at comparable players, Paul looked like the 2000s and 2010s version of Payton. With the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans), Paul averaged 21.1 points and 11.6 assists per game. Paul also contributed 2.7 interceptions; while Payton finished the season with 2.2. Both players were All-Defensive caliber players, but this season Paul finished second in MVP voting.
Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant
It was the game everyone dreamed of. This is a highlighted offense that goes hand in hand. The 1997-98 season saw Jordan win his 10th title with 28.7 points per game. Jordan also contributed 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game. At the end of the season, Jordan finished with his sixth Finals MVP award after leading the Bulls to their sixth championship.
What makes this season even more special is that Jordan won the league MVP award. This would pose an MVP vs. MVP matchup because Bryant was the 2007-08 MVP winner. Bryant averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.8 steals per game. Bryant led the Lakers back to the NBA Finals despite the team’s failure, but that wasn’t the fault of one of Bryant’s best seasons of his career.
Tim Duncan vs. LeBron James
Considering the other two post players, that would likely mean Duncan should play out of the paint more often. You have to remember that this is the previous version of Duncan, who had just entered the league as a rookie. Given his youth and stature, he could play more on the wing. Duncan finished his rookie season with a line of 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.
As for James, he is said to be on the verge of winning back-to-back MVP Awards. James led the league in scoring this year with 30.0 points per game. He also added 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.8 steals. This could be a match for James to shine by pulling Duncan out of the way. That said, Duncan was a defensive expert who could always find a way to stop his opponent.
Karl Malone vs. Kevin Garnett
Both of these power forwards were on championship-level teams. Malone led the Jazz to the NBA Finals before falling twice to Jordan and the Bulls. As for Garnett, he should have been the Finals MVP for the Celtics who won the 2008 title against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. It would have been a great offensive versus defensive game.
Malone finished the season with a line of 27.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.2 steals. Malone was one of the best finishers in the paint. As for Garnett, he averaged 18.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks. His defensive efforts earned him the Defensive Player of the Year award. It would have been a sensational battle.
Shaquille O’Neal vs. Dwight Howard
At this time, O’Neal was playing his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers. O’Neal was outstanding averaging 28.3 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. His 58.4% shooting mark led the league, which was also the league’s best mark from two points. At the time, O’Neal was quite young in his career.
That’s why this match would have been first. Howard was playing his fourth season in the league and transforming into the modern version of O’Neal. 2007-08 was his best season in four years, averaging 20.7 points, 14.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Howard made his only second All-Defensive Team and was only a year short of his reign as the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
All-NBA Benefits 1997-98
Allowing Payton to focus as a defender would make it incredibly difficult for the 2007-08 squad. The team wouldn’t need Payton to score their 20 points on the night. With Payton, he could be used as a primary guard on Bryant, which would slow down their primary overall shooter. Slowing down Bryant would put more pressure on James to be more of the primary offensive weapon.
With Duncan, Malone and O’Neal, these are three players who can be dominant inside. Even if we went through the matchups, this team would have the edge. Howard could potentially neutralize O’Neal. Garnett could neutralize Malone. However, Duncan would have the advantage over James on the inside even if a James defender was back to his prime. With the screens and the movement, the man-to-man defense wouldn’t hold up all the time. Having three guys who can shoot 60% inside means points on the board.
2007-08 All-NBA Benefits
Two obvious advantages come to mind. The first is defense. While Duncan is one of the greatest defensemen of all time, this was his rookie season. He was leaner at that time and not yet Mr. Fundamental. By clogging the paint, it would force outside blows more. Duncan, Malone and O’Neal are not effective from the midrange. Even with Jordan, it’s a lot of load for a player.
Assuming the defense is excellent, this leads to transition points. This team’s transition game would be excellent. With Paul, Bryant and James, the team would be picking up points fast because you know Malone and O’Neal won’t be fast enough to come back on defense. If this team can cause turnovers, which they can, given that Paul and Bryant are excellent defensive backs, it would lead to some very fast baskets on the other side.
Who wins a Best-Of-7 series?
The 1998 All-NBA team would earn the first victory. Payton would do a great job of guarding Bryant by holding him 2-for-13, including an 0-6 three-point performance. With a heavy attacking load on James, it would wear him down and not be enough to keep up with a super excited Michael Jordan. Leading would be 36 points from Jordan, while O’Neal would add 21 points and 16 rebounds in the 109-87 win.
The next game would be won by the 2008 team. Bryant would adapt and find more efficient ways to reach the rim. The pick and roll tandem of Bryant and Howard would look exactly like the 2012-13 Lakers team wanted. The duo of Bryant and Howard would combine for 30 points. The electric dunk and Howard’s scream in O’Neal’s face will be remembered for life and into the future. James would be one assist away from a triple-double as the 2008 team took the 99-93 win.
Before the match, Howard’s taunt would stick in O’Neal’s head. While Jordan would like to take over, it would be O’Neal who would take over instead. Jordan and Payton would finish with a double-double with 10 assists apiece as O’Neal scored everything thrown at him. This would eventually force Garnett to come in and double team with Howard. Then it would lead to more open opportunities for Malone as his 18 second-half points would help the 1998 side win Game 3 108-100.
Needing a huge victory in Game 4, Paul would bring “Lob City” to town before she was even born in Los Angeles. From James to Garnett to Howard, dunks were flying everywhere because the defense tightened up. Bryant took on a more defensive role in assisting out passes to Paul as he led the charge. It would be only fitting that a dunk in the final minutes to give the 2008 squad a narrow 99-97 advantage with 32 seconds left was the dagger. After a pair of free throws from Bryant, the 2008 team won Game 4 with a score of 101-97.
Neither team won two games in a row, but that would change as the 2008 team gained momentum with a victory in Game 5. Bryant and Paul took turns guarding Jordan. The constant wear and tear on him would help the team come off in the end. Jordan would score his highest total with 48 points. Jordan would even let a few open shots through, much to the chagrin of his Malone and O’Neal teammates. This selfish game wouldn’t work tonight as the defense was focused on him. With a balanced effort from four players with 20 points, the 2008 team won the fifth contest 102-95.
Jordan would take possession of his mistake in Game 5. Needing an escape game, it would be the teamwork of Jordan and Malone that was unstoppable. O’Neal took on more of a rebounding role and finished with 25 rebounds and eight blocks. Jordan and Malone’s ball movement always found one of the two open. Jordan finished with 32 points and 11 assists, while Malone led the way with 35 points and 11 rebounds. The 100-85 win was good enough to send the series to Game 7.
In the end, the greatest player of all time prevails in the decisive match. Jordan would face Bryant and James, who both staged an offensive clinic. However, the combined 70 points from these two stars were matched by 48 points exclusively from Jordan, while the rest of the team rallied in their own way. Despite having a 10-point lead with less than 20 seconds left, Jordan would fire one last shot instead of dribbling the clock. His jumper would miss and he would be visibly upset not to reach 50 points despite winning 110-100.
Final result: 1998 All-NBA vs. 2008 All-NBA 4-3
Finals MVP: Michael Jordan