Gary Payton made his last appearance in an NBA game on April 29, 2007. While it doesn't seem that long ago, the game has changed a great deal since Payton last took the floor.
Over the course of his 17-year career, Payton made nine All-Star appearances, earned nine All-NBA selections and nine All-Defensive Team selections and won a title with the Miami Heat in 2006. Still, the Hall of Famer admits that this era of basketball wouldn't be an easy one to adjust to.
"The Glove" recently sat down with NBA.com to provide some background on the game's evolution since his prime, how he would fit in today's era and how Russell Westbrook and Marcus Smart approach the game with a similar mentality to his.
Though Payton's career ended 12 years ago - one year after he served as a major contributor for the Heat's championship run - his prime was from 1993-2003. Over that 10-season span, he averaged 20.8 points, 7.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game, earning all of the aforementioned leaguewide honours as well as the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1996.
With that being said, it makes sense that Payton would use the decade of the 1990s as a reference point when sharing his views on the evolution of the game:
"As I tell everybody, it's an era thing. In the 90s, we probably couldn't keep the game that way - we were in a situation where the NBA was in trouble because we were talking about going on a strike, things were getting slow and then all of a sudden David Stern wanted to change the game, he wanted to make it fast, he wanted to make it up and down and then we started having a lot of players that came out of college that were two guards that turned into ones, and we started having a lot of scoring and then the 3-pointer became a very dangerous thing."
It's no secret that teams lean on the 3-pointer much more now than during Payton's time, and as expected, the numbers are pretty staggering: Just look at the league averages from Payton's rookie year, the year he won Defensive Player of the Year, his final season and this season.
While the 3-pointer is the weapon of choice in today's game, Payton provided a reminder that it was the big man that reigned supreme during his era:
"In my day, the big man was our dangerous man - pump it and dump it in there and make them double and then kick it back out. It's changed and it's going to keep changing, it's going to keep evolving into other things. It's going to get faster and faster…"
Take the '91 season for example - Michael Jordan was the league's scoring leader at 31.5 points per game, but three of the top five (Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing) were bigs.
In '96? Jordan led again, but the rest of the top five all played primarily on the inside: Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and David Robinson. This season, James Harden leads the league in scoring, followed by Paul George, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Anthony Davis is the only interior player in the top five - even he is far from the traditional big.
At his peak, Payton was one of the best two-way players the league has ever seen, but he shared that he feels he would have a difficult time adjusting to today's game for a number of reasons:
"It would be hard for me because I like to put my hands on a lot of people and I like to be rough. Plus, I like to post people up and back them in, so they would have to be on an island.
Nowadays, a lot of teams are zoning - they would zone me more, I would have to kick it a little more. I don't think I would like the switching - it's not for me - switching a big man onto a guard, I would like to trap it a lot more and get the ball out of a great basketball player's hands, but that's not the case right now.
Some might say that there aren't any players today that approach the game with the same mentality that Payton brought on both ends of the floor, but the nine-time All-Star quickly thought of a few when he was asked if he saw himself in anybody in the league:
"Westbrook and Marcus Smart from Boston."
Westbrook is one of those guys where I think has the same mentality as I did - he doesn't care about anything, he'll go at you - he can do it. I don't think he's the way I was on defence, but he can be because if he puts his mind to it he could be. On the offensive side, he's explosive - he does a lot of things. At UCLA I didn't think he was going to be this type of basketball player but he was.
I think Marcus Smart is one of the kids that puts defence on his shoulders - that's what he wants to do, and now he's becoming a pretty good offensive player, too."
While Westbrook is averaging a triple-double for the third-consecutive season, Smart has elevated his play on the offensive end by developing as a 3-point shooter. While Smart's scoring is the lowest since his rookie year, he is shooting a career-high 35.5 percent from deep and is also averaging a career-high 1.7 steals per game.
As Westbrook pushes to make an All-NBA team for the eighth time, Smart will make a push to make an All-Defensive team for the first time in his career. One thing's for sure: having aspects of Gary Payton's approach has allowed them to stand out in today's NBA.
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