Before we get started on this latest installment of #86Celtics, let me just say that this is a horrible idea. This particular column is a no-win situation that will annoy more readers than it pleases and will in some cases border on blasphemy. In the event you keep reading, don’t say that I didn’t warn you.
So this week we’re going to try and place the #86Celtics -- or at least the five starters and Sixth Man of the Year Bill Walton -- within the context of the 2016 NBA season. More specifically, we’ll ask and answer questions like: Which current player is most comparable to 1986 Larry Bird? Who affects today’s game most like 1986 Kevin McHale? Why are you doing this? Seriously, what’s wrong with you?
But first here a few things to keep in mind:
1) There’s no perfect comparison: Part of what makes the #86Celtics so legendary is a unique combination of talent, the likes of which doesn’t come around every day -- or even every generation.
2) The game has changed: In 1986, Larry Bird led the NBA with 82 made 3-pointers. So far this season a whopping 50 players have already topped that. Steph Curry (226) has more than tripled it. In 1986, Dennis Johnson played 35 minutes a game and was one of the most valuable point guards in the league while shooting 6-of-42 (.143) from deep. Danny Ainge would eventually evolve into a significant long-distance threat and actually led the league in made 3s (148) in 1988. But in 1986, Ainge was 26-for-73 for the year. Meanwhile Kris Humphries has made 26-of-76 3s in only 31 games this season.
Conversely in 1986, 12 teams averaged more than 110 points a game, and 22 of 23 averaged in triple digits. Today the Warriors are the only team over 110 and only 22 of 30 are over 100. On average, teams scored eight more points a game back then than they do now.
3) Number don’t lie: Except when they do, which is to say that just because two players have the same stats 30 years apart (especially given the previous paragraph) doesn’t mean that they’re the same player. But it can still mean that they’re very similar.
4) Age matters in context: Robert Parish was a better player at 28 years old than he was at 32, but he was 32 in 1986 so that’s the comparison we’re looking for.
5) This is a horrible idea: But it’s too late to turn back, so let’s kick things off with Larry Bird.
The Legend turned 29 during the 1986 season and finished with numbers more than worthy of his third straight MVP. For the year Bird averaged 25.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2 steals a game. He also led the league in 3-pointers, free-throw percentage (.896), PER (25.6) and Win Shares (15.8). He was beyond compare in that generation and in this one, but still . . .
For starters, there’s only one player in today’s NBA averaging at least 25 points and 9 rebounds a game -- and that’s DeMarcus Cousins. Anthony Davis is the only other guy averaging even 20 points and 9 rebounds a night. That’s pretty good company for Larr,y but to encapsulate the full breadth of his game consider that Boogie and the Brow combine for only five assists a night this season. Larry dished out 6.8 a game all by himself. In other words, he was scoring and rebounding in the realm DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis while simultaneously assisting more than Kyle Lowry, Reggie Jackson and Steph Curry. Speaking of Steph, he’s a pretty good shooter. This year he leads the NBA in 3-pointers made, just like Bird did in 1986. Curry’s fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage, just like Bird was in 1986. He also ranks second in free-throw percentage at .909, barely a decimal better than Bird’s 1986 league-leading .896.
From an all-around perspective, there’s an instinct to compare 1986 Bird with today’s LeBron James, but that’s doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t do Larry justice. First of all he was two years younger in 1986 than LeBron is in 2016. Larry bested LeBron in every major statistical category, and while Bird was among the league’s best 3-point shooters that season, these days LeBron is statistically the worst.
Honestly, when it comes down to it, the best modern comparison for 29-year-old Larry Bird might be -- wait for it -- 27-year-old Kevin Durant. KD doesn’t rebound quite as well and certainly doesn’t pass like Larry, but at 6-foot-9 (although he’s probably at least 6-11) Durant can score from anywhere, he’s deadly in the clutch, and he’s a real son of bitch. Durant’s developed a nasty, unapologetic edge that Bird himself must love and actually helped inspire:
“Larry Bird is a guy I like watching,” Durant told USA Today back in 2012. “I watch film on him all the time. I like his approach to the game when he was playing. When I first started playing the game, my godfather – who taught me how to play – he always was a Larry Bird guy, always used to look up his stats.
“So of course as I got older and started to watch NBATV, Legends games, and of course you hear the stories about the rivalries with him and the Lakers and him and Magic, so I like his competitiveness, how low-maintenance he was, how he just went out there and did his job,” Durant said. “He played hard. He played for the love of the game, and that's what I've got.”
(P.S. Come to Boston, Kevin. You know you want it.)
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Kevin McHale turned 28 during the 1986 season. That was his first year as a full-time starter, and he averaged a career-high 35.1 minutes and a career-high 21.3 points to go along with 8.1 rebounds and 2 blocks. McHale also finished in the top five in NBA field goal percentage, top 10 in blocks, made his second All-Star game and was named to his first of three First Team All-Defensive squads.
Looking at the pure numbers, there are only three players averaging 21 points and 8 rebounds in 2016. You already know about Boogie and Brow, but there’s also Carmelo Anthony. Then there’s Brook Lopez, who comes close with 20.6 points and 8.3 rebounds, and Durant, who’s even closer with 27.7 points and 7.9 rebounds.
In this case we can eliminate Boogie and 'Melo because they don’t play defense. Same goes for Lopez, who would be a better comparison if McHale played the ’86 season with 10-pound weights strapped to his ankles. We can also eliminate Durant because he’s already Larry Bird. That leaves Anthony Davis as the only guy who shares McHale’s first team All-Defense potential, but we’re not going there. I don’t care how many times you say it, Anthony Davis isn’t Kevin McHale.
The problem is that no one is Kevin McHale. He’s probably one of the most unique players in NBA history — a first team defender who was absolutely unstoppable in the post with an unprecedented arsenal of equally premeditated and improvisational moves that would make your head spin, fall off and shatter in a million pieces on the parquet.
There was nothing like watching McHale throw a defender into the Low Post Torture Chamber, but oddly enough the last time I saw a play that made me think “Wow, that was straight McHale-like,” was just this past Monday against the Celtics -- courtesy of Karl-Anthony Towns. The move happens at the 45-second mark if the link didn’t take you right there, but either way you should watch the whole thing and take note of Towns’ intuition and body control; his long, almost freakishly gangly arms; the different ways and angles from which he can score. There’s a lot of McHale in his game, and the scary part is that it’s only part of his game, and the scarier part is that KAT is only 20 years old. When McHale was 20 he averaged 13.7 points and 7.4 rebounds for Minnesota in the Big 10. Towns is averaging 17.3 points and 10.2 rebounds for Minnesota in the NBA.
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Some of these comparisons are hard to lock down, but others clobber you over the head like Robert Parish on an unsuspecting Bill Laimbeer.
For instance, this blind taste test:
Player A: 32 years old – 31.7 minutes a game – 16.1 points – 9.5 rebounds – 1.4 blocks – .549 FG percentage – 18.1 PER
Player B: 32 years old – 31.1 minutes a game – 13.9 points – 10 rebounds – 1.4 blocks – .549 FG percentage – 18.7 PER
Player A is 1986 Robert Parish.
Player B . . . is 2016 Marcin Gortat.
And the craziest thing? “Marcin” is actually Polish for “Chief”
Okay, no, it’s not.
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Hate that last comparison? Wait until you get a load of this one.
Offensively, there’s one obvious 2016 comp for 1986 Dennis Johnson. DJ turned 31 right before the ’86 season, and went on to average 15.6 points, 5.8 assists and 1.4 steals. He finished with a 14.7 PER.
The guy I have in mind is also 31, and so far this year is averaging 14.4 points and 5.5 assists a game with a 14.9 PER. The only problem is that this guy is Deron Williams -- AND I KNOW -- but bear with me. Offense is only one side of the ball and for DJ it was the less significant of the two. He was a premiere defender. Maybe he was a step or two slower by 1986, but he was still second team All-Defense. He was still a stopper. So let’s turn DJ into a two-headed monster:
Deron Williams’ offense spliced with Mike Conley’s defense.
Deron Conley, at your service.
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Danny Ainge turned 27 in March 1986, and really we have two choices here. One is definitely more flattering than the other, but before the reveal just remember that Ainge was still coming into his own in ‘86. He only averaged 10.7 points per game. The following season that scoring average bumped up to 14.8, then 15.7, then 17.5 and finally to a career-high 17.9 in 1989-90 during his only full season with Sacramento. At his best, Ainge was like a right-handed, not-as-shifty, but grittier version of Goran Dragic, but again, Ainge was more of a role player in 1986. That role was to defer to his superstar teammates, handle the ball, hit open jumpers and antagonize the hell out of the opposition. Ainge was so good at getting under the other team’s skin with a unique brand of bratty relentlessness and it paid off. With that, check out this Per-36-minute comparison:
Player A: 26 years old, 6-foot-4, 12.8 points, 6.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals a game. PER: 13.6
Player B: 25 years old, 6-foot-4, 11 points, 6.6 assists, 3.2 rebounds and one steal a game. PER: 12.59
Player A is 1986 Danny Ainge.
Player B is . . . 2016 Matthew Dellavedova.
And the craziest thing? Dellavedova is actually Australian for “Future Celtics President of Basketball Operations.”
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Finally, Bill Walton turned 33 at the start of the ‘86 season. Doesn’t that seem young? I’m sure it’s because his body was so broken down, and it probably didn’t help that I was 6 at the time, but I always figured 1986 Walton was in his mid-30s. Turns out that he was a year younger than Dwyane Wade is right now. He was basically the same age as David Lee. Either way it’s tough to pinpoint a comparison for Walton because his situation was so unique. He was an all-time, all-world talent trapped in a decrepit body. He could do great things but only in small doses. Per 36 minutes, he averaged 14.1 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.5 blocks a night. That’s insane! But he only played 19.3 minutes a night. He’s still the only player to ever win the Sixth Man Award while averaging less than 20 minutes.
So who is 2016’s 1986 Bill Walton? Where is that supremely cerebral center with a soft touch, next-level court vision, sound defensive principles, a positively infectious attitude and extreme physical limitations? Well, Marc Gasol did just undergo surgery for a fractured right foot. The Grizzlies announced he’ll need at least 16 weeks of recovery. But what if they made him comeback after only eight weeks? What if they then made him play another entire season on his still-not-heeled right foot?
Hmm, you know that might just work. And with that our work is done.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2016 #86Celtics:
C: Marcin Gortat
PF: Karl-Anthony Towns
SF: Kevin Durant
SG: Matthew Dellavedova
PG: Deron Conley
6th Man: One-legged Marc Gasol
See, I told you this was a horrible idea.