In ESPN Insider's "What if they played now?" series, we'll translate the statistics of stars of the 1980s and 1990s to the present-day environment to give an idea of how they might have stacked up to their contemporaries. Each season's stat line is compared to league average at the time, then projected using the current NBA averages. We begin with Bernard King.
A quarter-century before Carmelo Anthony was traded to the New York Knicks, another high-scoring small forward made Madison Square Garden his personal playground. Like Anthony, Bernard King was born in Brooklyn, and he honed his game not far from where he would eventually star. King played for five teams during his 14-year NBA career, but it is his stint with the Knicks--which included leading the NBA in scoring in 1984-85 at 32.9 points per game--that has proven most memorable.
In many ways, King was the quintessential 1980s player. He benefited from playing in a fast-paced league where small forwards were asked to score and save their energy on defense. Though translating King's stats to the present day means taking a bite out of his high scoring averages, his numbers remain impressive. We've imagined that King joined Anthony and LeBron James as the third great small forward in the 2003 NBA Draft, and placed him on the same teams for which he actually played--the New Jersey Nets for two seasons, one in Utah and two in Golden State before landing in New York, as well as the Washington Bullets, and finally the Nets again after his comeback from a devastating ACL tear suffered at the height of his powers late in the 1984-85 season.
Here are King's translated stats:
Year G MPG PPG RPG APG FG%
2004 79 39.1 18.5 7.8 1.9 .469
2005 82 34.9 16.8 7.2 2.8 .505
2006 19 22.1 8.4 4.6 2.4 .504
2007 81 36.0 20.4 7.0 3.1 .576
2008 79 36.2 21.5 6.1 3.3 .542
2009 68 32.5 20.5 5.1 2.6 .494
2010 77 34.6 23.1 5.4 1.8 .549
2011 55 37.5 28.9 5.9 3.2 .499
2013 6 35.7 20.7 5.2 2.7 .490
2014 69 29.6 15.7 4.1 2.4 .491
2015 81 31.6 18.2 4.7 3.1 .460
2016 82 32.8 20.0 4.7 4.0 .473
2017 64 37.5 26.3 4.8 4.1 .460
2019 32 13.4 6.3 2.1 0.5 .503
The difference in decades is most evident during King's rookie season, 1977-78, when the league was integrating newcomers from the ABA. Back then, NBA games averaged a blistering 106.7 possessions per 48 minutes. By contrast, the fastest team in 2003-04, the Denver Nuggets, averaged just 92.3. So King's scoring average, which was 24.2 points per game, drops by nearly a quarter. He would have finished behind Anthony (21.0) and James (20.9) for rookie scoring, though ahead of Dwyane Wade (16.2).
In our version of his career, King would have landed in the Bay Area just in time to be part of the up-tempo 2006-07 "We Believe" Warriors, finding a pace more to his liking and averaging 20-plus points per game for the first time.
In real life and in our translation, King found his greatest success in the Big Apple. Translated to 2010-11, his 1984-85 season still would have seen him lead the league in scoring, surpassing Kevin Durant's 27.7 points per game. King's projection of 28.9 points a night would rank him among the 20 most prolific NBA seasons of the 2000s, tied with Anthony's career high from the 2006-07 season.
What we cannot simulate is how much different King's recovery might have been given our advancement in dealing with torn ligaments over the last 25 years. Now, King might have pushed to return for the start of the following season after being injured in late March. For example, David West tore his ACL at virtually the same time last season and was so confident in his return that he opted out of the final year of his contract to become a free agent.
As it was, King missed the entire 1985-86 season (2011-12, in our scenario) and did not return until April 1987--more than two years after his injury. Given the dismal track record of ACL surgery at the time, King was considered lucky to play at all, and the Knicks showed so little faith in his recovery that they released him after the 1986-87 season. King would go on to put together a second productive career with the Bullets, averaging 28.4 points per game in 1990-91 at age 34. Because the league's pace had already slowed by then, King loses only a couple of points per game off his average when we translate it to the current environment.
The injuries kept King from reaching 20,000 career points; he retired in 1993 a mere 345 points away from the milestone, which has been reached by 37 players. Had he come along a quarter-century later, King would not have been able to rack up the same kind of career total. We project him ranking 132nd all time with 14,478 points.
That's not to say, of course, that King would not have been plenty valuable in the modern NBA. According to our similarity scores, last season's closest comparisons for King in 1984-85 were Kobe Bryant, Durant, Anthony, Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, in that order. Though King was a better passer than Durant and Anthony, those scoring-minded small forwards provide a good idea of what King would look like if he played now.
One notable difference between King and present-day wings is how little the three-pointer was a part of his game. Certainly, that was true in general in the 1980s, when threes were considered the exclusive province of specialists. Even translated to now, however, King's 1984-85 season was equivalent to making just nine three-pointers all year. The last wing player to average 20 points per game without making at least 10 threes in a season was Grant Hill, back in his Detroit days. The lack of an outside game made King unusually dependent on making two-point shots, which he did with rare skill. In fact, King's projected 57.6 percent shooting from the field in 2006-07 would have ranked him tied for fourth in the NBA, among post-up players like Dwight Howard and Amar'e Stoudemire.
Though King could have thrived playing in the current decade, his game would most assuredly have been a throwback to a different period in NBA history.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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