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NBA Legends and Their Modern Day Equivalents

The NBA is one of the biggest sports leagues in the world, and I have been a fan for nearly three decades.

Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki were big men with a shooting touch better than most guards.

Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki were big men with a shooting touch better than most guards.

Legend: Larry Bird

Back in the 80s, the skill set of big men were very much different from what they are today. Big men would normally score in the post, rebound, block shots and guard the paint. They also were the enforcers for their respective teams and used to intimidate the stars of the other team or to stand up for their teammates if they were being wronged by the opposing team.

Nowadays, it is commonplace to see big men shoot threes, but back in the day this was not so.

Enter Larry Bird. Larry was a guard in a power forwards body. He was not as athletic as his peers but his high skill level more than made up for it. Larry did not have Michael Jordan's hops but his timing was impeccable. He would make that timely steal or block.

A testament to Larry's skills were his 37.6% shooting from the three-point line and 88.6% shooting from the charity stripe. These numbers were very rare during those days.

As a cherry on top of the sundae, Larry even won three straight three-point contests during the All Star weekend. He beat out the sharpshooters of his day in order to prove his shooting dominance.

Larry had a storied career which culminated in three championships, a spot on the Dream Team and an induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Equivalent: Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk Nowitzki was born the year Bird was drafted. Dirk was genetically built for the sport as his dad was a handball player and his mom was a basketball player. Both represented Germany in international events. Dirk's sister also played basketball.

Just like many European stars, Dirk was a veteran of the European leagues. These leagues are tougher than your average college league as you go up against grown men every night and not just against skinny college players.

One of the first glimpses of Dirk's potential was seen during the Nike Hoop Heroes Tour. Dirk held his own against the best the NBA had to offer. He even outplayed the legendary Charles Barkley.

Dallas acquired Dirk on draft day from the Milwaukee Bucks. This was a lopsided deal where Dallas acquired a future Hall-of-Famer for an overweight role player. Dirk played 21 years in the league while Robert only played seven.

Dirk's maiden campaign was nothing special as he was still adjusting to the style of play of the NBA. His second year was a breakout season and this started his rise to superstardom.

Dirk paired up with Steve Nash and Michael Finley to form a big three in Dallas. The peak of their success was in the 2006 Finals where they lost to the Miami Heat two games to four. This was a painful loss as Dallas had a commanding 15 point lead in Game 3 and basically choked. Shaq and Dwyane Wade combined to rally the Heat to their first championship.

Dirk would have his revenge against Dwyane Wade in the 2011 Finals. He led a team of mostly aging veterans and beat the combined forces of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Maimi's big three could not stop the sharpshooting Dallas squad.

Like Larry, Dirk also was a participant in the Three Point Shootout. He won the 2006 event. Dirk also had shooting figures close to the legend with 38.3% shooting from rainbow territory and 87.9% shooting from the free throw lane.

Magic Johnson and Lebron James revolutionized the game by being point guards in power forward bodies. Their vision and passing ability is second to none.

Magic Johnson and Lebron James revolutionized the game by being point guards in power forward bodies. Their vision and passing ability is second to none.

Legend: Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson is known to many as the greatest Laker in franchise history. This is a huge honor considering the other legends that have donned the purple and gold. Think of players like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O' Neil and Kobe Bryant. To be considered the greatest among these players means something.

Magic was revolutionary and changed the point guard position. Before him, point guards were usually the smallest players on the team as oftentimes they were the quickest and had the best handles. Magic was basically a point guard in a power forward's body.

The league was struggling and the rivalry between Johnson and Bird helped revive it. The two teams were the polar opposites of each other. The Boston Celtics represented tradition while the Los Angeles Lakers represented showtime.

Magic was great out of the gate. Even as a rookie, he was the engine of one of the league's most exciting offenses. Magic further cemented his legacy early as he stepped up when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was injured in the Finals. He played all five positions and nearly scored a triple-double to win Game 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Magic would then go on to win five championships. He was also part of the original Dream Team in Barcelona. His career would be cut short due to him contracting the HIV virus. He returned to the Lakers a few years later for brief stints as a coach and player. Though these stints never led to any championships for the Lakers, the Lakers faithful were happy to see Magic back with the team.

After Jim Buss failed to bring the Lakers back to the promised land, he was no longer in charge of the team. Magic Johnson was appointed as the president of basketball operations and he was tasked to bring the Lakers back to title contention.

He started the rebuilding process by getting rid of some bad contracts, drafting some good young talent, signing some crafty veterans and snagging LeBron James.

Equivalent: LeBron James

LeBron James plays the small forward position, but facilitates the offense in a similar manner to Magic Johnson. Unlike Magic though, LeBron grew without a father, as his father Anthony McClelland was a felon and was never a part of LeBron's life.

The young LeBron James was a sensation in St. Vincent-St. Mary high school. Even during his freshman year, he was already averaging 21 points and 6 rebounds. He led the school to an undefeated record and a division title.

Even as high school player, LeBron already had national attention. He was already on the cover of Sports Illustrated. People flocked to watch his games.

After his high school career was over, LeBron was the consensus number one pick in the stacked 2003 draft that featured the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. He immediately met expectations as he averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists and was the Rookie of the Year.

LeBron got to taste his first Finals appearance in the 2007 NBA Finals. He tried his best to lead the Cavs to the promised land but the triumvirate of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were too much for him to overcome.

LeBron would leave after seven seasons and join forces with his buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Miami would then go on to make four straight Finals appearances and win two straight championships.

LeBron returned home to Cleveland and promised them their first NBA championship and their first professional sports championship in over five decades. He fulfilled that promise in 2016 when the Cavs came back from a 1-3 deficit to beat the 73-win Warriors.

LeBron made the Finals all four years he was back in Cleveland but his three other attempts were thwarted by the golden State Warriors.

In 2018, LeBron signed with the Los Angeles Lakers and hopes to bring them back to relevance.


Legend: Scottie Pippen

Scottie Pippen was one of the best two-way players of all time. Not only can he make jumpers and take the ball to the hole, he can also lock-up the opposing team's best player. Scottie was not that good out of the gate. But, through Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson's mentorship Scottie became of the the premiere players in the league.

Scottie's defense was highlighted during his first Finals appearance. He was able to lock down Magic Johnson, one of the biggest stars of the era. He held Magic to 4/13 shooting in a game 2 rout. Magic even credits Scottie for his physical brand of defense.

Scottie was a very good player in his prime and easily average 20 points along with half a dozen rebounds and half a dozen assists. He was an excellent one-on-one player and could score at will and made his teammates better. Scottie was so good that the Bulls went deep in the playoffs even without Michael Jordan.

Together with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen won six titles. He and Jordan transformed the lowly Bulls into a championship dynasty.

Scottie went to the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trailblazers afterward. He was not the same player he was in Chicago but he was still good. The big three in Houston did not work due to injuries and his feud with Charles Barkley. The Blazers were so close to winning it all but were undone by an epic game 7 collapse in the Western Conference Finals.

Scottie would return to Chicago and play his final 23 games with the Bulls.

Equivalent: Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard was a raw prospect coming out of San Diego State. He led the Aztecs to the Sweet 16 but they were derailed by the eventual champion UConn.

Kawhi was drafted by the Pacers but was acquired by the Spurs in a trade that centered around veteran George Hill. Kawhi was a project much like Scottie was. He had the same tools that Scottie had in terms of length and athleticism. All he needed was guidance and there was no one better to do it than Gregg Popovich.

In just three years, Kawhi went from an unheralded rookie to a Finals MVP. He was very efficient in the the series by shooting 61% from the field. He also stifled LeBron James throughout the five games of the Finals.

For his defensive prowess, Kawhi was named Defensive Player twice and named to All-Defensive Teams on multiple occasions.Kawhi is one of the best two-way players of this generation.


Legend: Reggie Miller

Back in Reggie Miller's heyday, the three-point line already existed but was not emphasized. The mid-ranged shot was king as it was perceived to be a more efficient shot.

Reggie was one of the marksmen who specialized and lived on the three-point shot. The three-point shot can be a potent weapon. After all, a three-pointer can easily win the game or send it to overtime.

Reggie learned to shoot threes because his sister Cheryl was much taller than Reggie at the time and she would often block his shots.

One of Reggie's finest moments was beating the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden by scoring 8 points in 9 seconds. He had a nice exchange with Spike Lee during the game.

Reggie spent eighteen years with the Pacers but never won a ring in Indiana. He did go to the Finals once but could not get past Shaq and Kobe. Reggie made multiple trips to the Eastern Conference Finals but clashed against all time great teams such as the Michael Jordan-led Bulls and the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks.

Currently, Reggie sits in the top three in the list of three-pointers made with 2,560.

Equivalent: Steph Curry

Steph Curry has basketball in his blood as he is the son of former NBA player Dell Curry. Even-though Dell was never a superstar, he was still a very good player and is best known for his time with the Charlotte Hornets. He was a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

He played for the Davidson Wildcats and was a surefire lottery pick. The Knicks wanted him but the Warriors grabbed him one spot before.

Steph was a good player the moment he stepped on the NBA court. However, he was beset with ankle and foot injuries in his first few seasons. His stint on the Warriors was almost over when the Warriors were trading for Andrew Bogut. He was among one of the players in the trading block when negotiations were going on. Fortunately, it was Monta Ellis who was traded and not Steph.

Once Curry returned to health, he became a perennial MVP candidate. He first won the MVP award after the 2014-2015 season and then repeated the honor as the first unanimous MVP in 2015-16.

He also continued to shatter 3-point shooting records. He owns the top three spots in 3-pointers made in a season. He had 402 in 2015-16, 324 in 2016-17 and 286 in 2014-15. He also won the Three-Point Contest in 2015.

Much like Reggie Miller, Curry is always money from the outside. Curry would regularly make even half court shots. He would also make clutch shots in both the regular season and in the playoffs much like Miller.

Curry helped transform the once mediocre Warriors into a dynasty. He helped lead the Warriors to five consecutive Finals appearances and three championships. Despite losing to Lebron James and Cleveland in the 2016 NBA Finals, that year's team posted a still mind-boggling 73-9 record that eclipsed the 72-10 1996 Chicago Bulls.

Kobe Bryant Idolized Michael Jordan and even battled him on the court.

Kobe Bryant Idolized Michael Jordan and even battled him on the court.

Legend: Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan rose to prominence when he hit the game winning shot against Georgetown. He was a freshman back then and it was a big deal. Coach Smith trusted Jordan despite his lack of experience.

Michael was drafted third overall by the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls expected Jordan to be good but were pleasantly surprised that the rookie averaged 28 points in his maiden season. He also had an exciting brand of play that brought in the crowds.

Jordan helped propel the Bulls to playoff contention. Unfortunately, Jordan did not have the support to get a higher seed. This meant they would always face the best the East had to offer. In this case it was the Boston Celtics who had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton. The 1985-86 incarnation of the Celtics was one of the best teams of all time. Jordan scored 63 points against them in game 2 but were eventually vanquished.

The 1987 draft was a boon for Jordan as he would get new teammates in Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Though it would take several years for the Bulls to get past the Detroit Pistons, they eventually would get past the back-to-back champs and go on to face Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The series lasted shorter than expected as the Lakers no longer had the services of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and experienced a few injuries. This was a symbolic passing of the torch from Johnson to Jordan.

Michael would win a total of 6 championships among other accolades. He was a 10-time scoring champ, 14-time All-Star, 3-time steals leader, 1-time Defensive Player of the Year and 9-time NBA All-Defensive First Team member.

Michael would go beyond basketball and become a crossover celebrity and endorser.

Michael Jordan ran a successful "Be like Mike" ad campaign with Gatorade. The campaign was so successful that people remember it to this day. Millions of players wanted to emulate Mike and copy his mannerisms and playing style.

Airquivalent: Kobe Bryant

There has been a slew of "next Michael Jordans." There were players like Harold Miner, Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter who were dubbed as the next version of "His Airness." So far the closest is Kobe Bryant.

Kobe is the son of former NBA player Joe "Jellybean" Bryant. He was exposed to basketball at a young age and saw Michael Jordan rise to prominence growing up.

He was a sensation in Lower Merion High School. He concluded his senior year with averages of 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4 steals, and 3.8 blocks. He was coveted by Lakers general manager Jerry West. He successfully acquire Bryant from the Hornets for the small price of Vlade Divac.

Kobe was not an immediate impact player as much as Michael was. He played limited minutes and played behind Eddie Jones. Kobe gained prominence early on as he won the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest.

When Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel were traded away, this gave Kobe the room to flourish. Kobe improved every year he was in the league until he had his breakout year in his junior year.

He and Shaq would form a dynamic duo and would win three straight. The two, however, would clash and the Lakers traded away Shaq after the Lakers were upset by the Detroit Pistons in the Finals.

Kobe would then get stuck with mediocre teams until the Lakers were able to draft Andrew Bynum and trade for Pau Gasol. The Lakers were able to get two more championships with Kobe leading the way.

In total, Kobe would get 5 championships, 2 scoring titles, 18 All-Star appearances and 12 All-Defensive Team selections.

Kobe may not have eclipsed Michael's career, but he came the closest to matching it.

Best Comparison

© 2019 Jan Michael Ong


Jan Michael Ong (author) from Metro Manila, Philippines on February 09, 2019:

Appreciate your comments TT. Well a lot of players could have been the next Pippen but lacked the commitment to defense.

Troy Taylor from Anywhere on February 09, 2019:

The Scottie/Kawhi comparison is a very interesting one. Kobe and MJ is obvious because he really just copied MJ's style. LeBron is Magic as both could play all five positions. Steph could compare to Miller or Ray Allen. Dirk and Durant are very similar as well