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November 7, 2011
What if They Played Now?
James Worthy

by Kevin Pelton


In ESPN Insider's "What if they played now?" series, we'll translate the statistics of stars of the 1980s and '90s to the present-day environment, giving an idea how they might have stacked up to their new contemporaries. Each season's stat line is compared to the league average at the time then projected using the current NBA averages. Next up: Lakers legend James Worthy.

Few top prospects have been dropped into a situation more ideal than James Worthy with the Los Angeles Lakers. In a shrewd trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Lakers ended up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1982 NBA draft just three weeks after they beat the Philadelphia 76ers for the second of their five championships in the 1980s. Worthy got to play alongside the league's best point guard and an MVP center as part of an up-tempo Showtime offense that played perfectly to his ability in transition.

In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons considered those advantages and wondered what might have happened if Tom Chambers and not Worthy had played for the Lakers during the 1980s: "Would he have taken the '88 Finals MVP, made the Hall of Fame and cracked the NBA's top 50 instead of Worthy? It's not inconceivable, right?"

To try to get some idea of how much Worthy benefited from his situation, we'll place him in a new context by moving his career back two decades. We'll still have Worthy get drafted by the Lakers after a championship--in this case, 2002, the last of the team's three titles in the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal era. Worthy would have completed his ninth NBA season in 2010-11 and be heading into the decline phase of his career.

Year    Tm    G    MPG    PPG   RPG   APG    FG%
2003   LAL   77   25.6   11.5   4.9   1.4   .538
2004   LAL   82   29.5   11.5   6.0   2.1   .488
2005   LAL   80   33.7   14.5   6.1   2.1   .520
2006   LAL   75   32.7   16.2   4.9   2.1   .524
2007   LAL   82   34.4   16.5   5.4   2.3   .513
2008   LAL   75   35.4   17.9   4.9   3.4   .507
2009   LAL   81   36.5   18.5   5.8   3.1   .523
2010   LAL   80   37.0   19.9   5.9   3.2   .533
2011   LAL   78   38.6   20.4   4.5   3.2   .473
2012   LAL   54   39.0   18.9   5.8   4.3   .432
2013   LAL   82   28.8   13.9   3.0   3.0   .426
2014   LAL   80   20.0    9.7   2.2   1.7   .398

In reality, it took Worthy until his third season to break through as a full-time starter. That timing would make sense in this context, with Worthy taking on a larger role just as the Lakers were transitioning to becoming Bryant's team after the trade that sent O'Neal to Miami. Essentially, Worthy could have played a similar role as Caron Butler during his season in L.A., when he averaged 15.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as the Lakers' second-leading scorer.

From there, Worthy would gradually ramp up his scoring. We can see this as Bryant slowly hands over more offensive responsibility to Worthy as he grows to trust his perimeter sidekick. The 2010-11 season would have been Worthy's high-water mark and the only time he surpassed 20 points per game. (The corresponding 1990-91 season was also the highest-scoring of Worthy's career at 21.4 ppg but was one of four times he averaged at least 20 points.)

One underrated strength of Worthy's game was his ability to log heavy minutes. His average of 38.6 minutes in 1990-91 was tops on the Lakers, ahead of Magic Johnson. It would have placed him seventh in the NBA last season, just behind LeBron James.

The other attribute of Worthy's that stands out is his high-percentage shooting. Like many small forwards in the 1980s, Worthy was not much of a threat beyond the arc. Even translated to the current three-happy era, Worthy would never have made more than 79 three-pointers in a season. Still, he and his peers remained quality scorers because they were so accurate from closer range. Worthy's projection shows him making better than half of his shot attempts seven times in his career, which is almost unthinkable for a contemporary perimeter player. Besides big men, the lone active players to do so even five times are Shawn Marion (5) and Steve Nash (6).

Overall, Worthy's numbers look less impressive outside the context of the fast-paced '80s. His translated 2010-11 per-game statistics compare well to those of Boston Celtics All-Star Paul Pierce (18.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.3 apg), Rudy Gay of the Memphis Grizzlies (19.8, 6.8, 2.8) and Danny Granger of the Indiana Pacers (20.5, 5.4, 2.6). In a modern context, Worthy would have averaged 15.7 points per game for his career and totaled just 14,519 points--fewer than players like Jason Terry (15,537) and Rashard Lewis (14,809).

But Worthy's top-50 credentials were always less about his statistics than his role as a key player for three champions and his reputation as "Big Game James," highlighted by being named MVP of the 1988 NBA Finals. Could Worthy have done the same in a modern context? Playing for the current Lakers would have afforded him the same opportunities on the big stage, but it has become increasingly difficult for a secondary star to win Finals MVP. Since Joe Dumars in 1989, the only Finals MVP to really beat out a bigger star on his team for the award was Tony Parker in 2007.

That's not to say a modern career would have been all bad for Worthy. Like rival Kevin McHale, he retired prematurely, in part because of arthroscopic knee surgery that might now be more routine. Worthy was just 33 when he played his last NBA game. Last season, there were five All-Stars who were 33 or older. With another couple of healthy seasons, Worthy easily could have ended up beating his actual career total of 16,320 points.

As much as almost any star in NBA history, Worthy was a product of his role in a specific era. Had he come along two decades later, little about Worthy's career would have been the same.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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