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November 18, 2011
What if They Played Now?
Charles Barkley

by Kevin Pelton


In ESPN Insider's "What if they played now?" series, we'll translate the statistics of stars of the '80s and '90s to the present-day environment to give an idea how they might have stacked up to their new contemporaries. Each season's stat line is compared to league average at the time, then projected using the current NBA averages. Next up: the Round Mound of Rebound, Charles Barkley.

One of the many traditions NBA fans are missing during the lockout is hearing Charles Barkley hold court on the league on a weekly basis on Inside the NBA. Often, the subtext of Barkley's comments is about how different modern players are from Barkley's generation. Statistics can't tell us how Barkley's toughness and tenacity would have helped him in the contemporary NBA, but they can give us an idea of how a player with Barkley-like skills would perform.

In this scenario, we'll imagine that Barkley just completed his first season with the Phoenix Suns. In real life, that 1992-93 campaign earned Barkley his lone MVP trophy and ended with a loss to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. Now let's see how it would stack up with Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Derrick Rose and company.

Year    Tm   GP    MPG    PPG    RPG   APG    FG%
2003   PHI   82   28.6   11.6    8.3   1.6   .496
2004   PHI   80   36.9   15.9   11.9   3.1   .469
2005   PHI   68   40.3   20.2   14.6   4.3   .483
2006   PHI   80   39.6   25.6   11.7   2.6   .505
2007   PHI   79   39.1   22.0   11.6   3.4   .496
2008   PHI   79   39.1   22.4   11.1   3.5   .538
2009   PHI   67   37.3   26.2    9.6   3.8   .516
2010   PHI   75   38.4   21.7   10.9   3.7   .500
2011   PHX   76   37.6   23.3   11.9   4.3   .485
2012   PHX   65   35.4   20.3   11.0   4.0   .467
2013   PHX   68   35.0   22.1   11.2   3.7   .476
2014   PHX   71   37.1   23.2   11.6   3.5   .495
2015   HOU   53   37.9   20.3   13.6   4.7   .486
2016   HOU   68   33.0   16.0   12.2   3.2   .487
2017   HOU   42   36.3   18.1   12.4   5.0   .503
2018   HOU   20   31.0   15.5   11.1   3.2   .485

Our imaginary Barkley would have been drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2002, teaming up with Allen Iverson. It's difficult to imagine how much trouble the two MVPs could have caused on the court as well as off it. By 2004-05, the Sixers would have been as much Barkley's team as Iverson's. During the first of 10 seasons with averages of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, Barkley would have led the NBA in rebounding.

In part, Iverson and Barkley would have been an interesting pair because of their contrasting styles. While Iverson piled up points with low-percentage shooting, Barkley was one of the most efficient high scorers in NBA history, especially as a young player. In real life, Barkley led the NBA in true shooting percentage every season from 1986-87 through 1989-90. The Barkley of today's NBA would not have been quite as effective, though he would have been a close second to Steve Nash in 2005-06.

The 2008-09 campaign would have been the most prolific of Barkley's career from a scoring perspective. He would have ranked fourth in the NBA in points per game, trailing Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. That's the same as Barkley placed in the real-life 1990-91 season, his highest finish on the scoring leaderboard.

By the summer of 2010, our modern Barkley would have grown tired of playing for an also-ran Philadelphia team. This fits with the timeline, as the 76ers went 27-55 during a lost season. For Phoenix, Barkley could have been a replacement for Amar'e Stoudemire in 2010-11. Compared to Stoudemire's averages of 23.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and just 1.0 assist per game during his final year with the Suns, Barkley would have represented an upgrade. It's intriguing to consider how Barkley, who preferred to spend entire possessions setting up his defender on the low block, might have fit in with Steve Nash and Phoenix's pick-and-roll-heavy offense.

Barkley's translated 2010-11 averages would have put him 10th in the league in scoring, just ahead of Dirk Nowitzki, and fifth in rebounding. His line would have been similar to Howard's production, though without the shot-blocking prowess that made Howard the Defensive Player of the Year. The Suns would have had to stun the league with their success as a team to make Barkley an MVP, which illustrates why his selection over Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon has been criticized, most prominently in Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball.

Questions about Barkley's MVP trophy should not detract from his phenomenal career. Despite declining athleticism, he remained an elite player through his first season with the Houston Rockets--2014-15, in our scenario. As late as the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season (2016-17 here), Barkley ranked in the NBA's top 10 in PER at age 36.

One factor that would work against Barkley is his fondness for the three-pointer. In real life, Barkley has the lowest career three-point percentage (.266) of any player with at least 1,000 attempts. In fact, no one else is particularly close; Ron Harper (.289) is next on the list. Playing in an era of more accurate long-range shooting would have lifted Barkley's percentage slightly to .280, but also translates into increased attempts--more than 4,000 in his career. So while Barkley would have tied for 19th in the NBA with 133 triples in 2010-11, they would have required the league's seventh-highest number of attempts.

Besides three-pointers and turnovers (he surely would have committed fewer of them in today's NBA), Barkley's career stats are relatively unchanged. By the second half of his career, the league had already slowed down considerably and was no faster--or even slower--than it is now. Barkley's translation does drop his career scoring from 23,757 points to 22,019, which would take him from 18th in NBA history to 25th. His projected rebound total of 12,309 is scarcely different from his actual mark of 12,546 boards and would be good for 19th all-time.

Barkley's variety of skills makes it difficult for the SCHOENE projection system to compare him to a modern equivalent. Just two players score a similarity of better than 90 to Barkley's MVP campaign: James and Wade. Only after them come more predictable comparisons to undersized power forwards Kevin Love and Zach Randolph. In any era, Barkley was a unique talent. No other player so short (it's universally acknowledged that Barkley was a couple of inches less than his listed 6-6) has been able to dominate the paint so thoroughly.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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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