Talking about the old-school game is always a fun blast from the past. The hypotheticals between the brand of basketball from the 90s and the more modern version is a debate that has been fluid for a while now. When looking at some of those players in the 90s, it would have been interesting to see them go against today’s game’s biggest stars.
Some of the members of the 2007-08 All-NBA First Team remain in the game today. While they are pushing the later stages of their 30s, three of the players find themselves contributing to their teams. It’s been 14 years since that team was announced, while it’s nearly a quarter of a century since we saw the 1997-98 team that featured some of the greatest players we have ever seen offensively and defensively. If we paired those two squads against each other, what would be the result?
Let’s take a look as we pose the hypothetical matchup between the 1997-98 All-NBA First Team against the 2007-08 All-NBA First Team.
1997-98 All-NBA First Team: Gary Payton, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal
2007-08 All-NBA First Team: Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard
Gary Payton vs. Chris Paul
Gary Payton is known as one of the greatest defenders of all time. A nine-time All-Defensive First Team selection, Payton’s reputation speaks for itself. What many forget is that he was able to put points on the board as well. During this season, he averaged 21.7 points and 8.7 assists. With a squad that allows him to focus more on defense and playmaking, Payton would be the ultimate role player for this team.
When looking at comparable players, Paul was like the 2000s and 2010s version of Payton. With the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans), Paul averaged 21.1 points and 11.6 assists per game. Paul also contributed 2.7 steals, whereas Payton finished the season with 2.2. Both players were All-Defensive caliber players, but this season saw Paul finish as the runner-up in the MVP voting.
Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant
This was the matchup that everyone dreamed about. This is a highlight-reel offense going toe-to-toe with one another. The 1997-98 season saw Jordan win his 10th scoring title with 28.7 points per game. Jordan also contributed 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. By the end of the season, Jordan finished with his sixth Finals MVP Award after leading the Bulls to their sixth championship.
What makes this season even more special is that Jordan won the league MVP Award. It would pose an MVP vs. MVP matchup because Bryant was the 2007-08 MVP winner. Bryant averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. Bryant led the Lakers back to the NBA Finals despite the team coming up short, but it wasn’t the fault of one of Bryant’s best seasons of his career.
Tim Duncan vs. LeBron James
Given the two other post players, it would likely mean that Duncan would have to play out of the paint more often. You have to remember that this is the earlier version of Duncan, who had just entered the league as a rookie. Given his youth and stature, he could play the wing more. Duncan finished his rookie season with a line of 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks.
As for James, he would be on the cusp of winning two straight MVP Awards. James led the league in scoring this year with 30.0 points per game. He also added 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists, and 1.8 steals. This might be a matchup for James to shine by pulling Duncan out of the lane. With that said, Duncan was a defensive expert who could always find a way to stop his opponent.
Karl Malone vs. Kevin Garnett
Both of these power forwards were on championship-level teams. Malone led the Jazz to the NBA Finals before falling to Jordan and the Bulls twice. As for Garnett, he should have been the Finals MVP for the Celtics that won the 2008 title over Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. This would have been an excellent matchup of offense against defense.
Malone finished the season with a line of 27.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.2 steals. Malone was one of the top finishers in the paint. As for Garnett, he averaged 18.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.3 blocks. His defensive efforts landed him the Defensive Player of the Year Award. This would have been a sensational battle.
Shaquille O’Neal vs. Dwight Howard
Around this time, O’Neal was playing out his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers. O’Neal was exceptional after he averaged 28.3 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks. His 58.4% shooting mark led the league, which was also the league’s best mark from two-point range. At the time, O’Neal was fairly young in his career.
That is why this matchup would have been first. Howard was playing his fourth season in the league and was turning into the modern-day version of O’Neal. The 2007-08 year was his best season in four years as he averaged 20.7 points, 14.2 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. Howard made his lone All-Defensive Second Team and was just one year before his reign as a three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
1997-98 All-NBA Advantages
Allowing Payton to focus as a defender would make it incredibly difficult for the 2007-08 team. The team would not need Payton to score his 20 points in the night. With Payton, he could be used as the primary guard on Bryant, which would slow down their prime overall shooter. By slowing down Bryant, it would put more pressure on James to be more of the primary offensive weapon.
With Duncan, Malone, and O’Neal that is three players that can be dominant inside. Even if we went through the matchups, this squad would have the advantage. Howard could potentially neutralize O’Neal. Garnett could neutralize Malone. However, Duncan would have the edge on James inside even as great as a defender James was back in his prime. With screens and movement, man-to-man defense wouldn’t stick the entire time. Having three guys that can shoot 60% inside means points on the board.
2007-08 All-NBA Advantages
Two clear advantages come to mind. The first is the defense. While Duncan is one of the greatest defenders ever, this was his rookie season. He was leaner around this time and not Mr. Fundamental just yet. By clogging the paint, it would force more outside shots. Duncan, Malone, and O’Neal are not effective from midrange. Even with Jordan, that’s a lot of a load for one player.
Assuming that the defense is great, that leads to transition points. This team’s transition game would excel. With Paul, Bryant, and James, the team would rack up fastbreak points because you know that Malone and O’Neal are not going to be quick enough to get back on defense. If this team can cause turnovers, which they can, given that Paul and Bryant are an excellent defensive backcourt, it would lead to very quick baskets on the other end.
Who Wins A Best-Of-7 Series?
The All-NBA 1998 team would snag the first win. Payton would do an excellent job of guarding Bryant by holding him to 2 of 13 shooting, including a 0-6 performance from three-point range. With a heavy load of the offense thrust upon James, it would wear him down and not be enough to keep up with a super hyped-up Michael Jordan. Leading the way would be 36 points from Jordan, while O’Neal would add 21 points and 16 rebounds of his own in the 109-87 win.
The following game would be won by the 2008 team. Bryant would adjust and find more effective ways to get to the rim. The pick and roll tandem of Bryant and Howard would look exactly the way the 2012-13 Lakers team wished it did. The duo of Bryant and Howard would combine for 30 points. Howard’s electric dunk and scream in O’Neal’s face would be remembered down the stretch and for the future. James would be one assist away from a triple-double as the 2008 team took the win 99-93.
Before the game, the taunt from Howard would stick in O’Neal’s head. While Jordan would want to take over, it would be O’Neal taking over instead. Jordan and Payton would finish with a double-double with 10 assists apiece as O’Neal was scoring everything thrown to him. It would eventually force Garnett to come over and double team with Howard. Then, it would lead to more open opportunities for Malone, as his 18 second-half points would help the 1998 team take a Game 3 win 108-100.
Needing a huge Game 4 win, Paul would bring “Lob City” to town before it ever originated in Los Angeles. From James to Garnett to Howard, dunks were flying everywhere because the defense tightened up. Bryant took more of a defensive role to help outlet passes to Paul as he led the charge. It would be only fitting that a dunk in the final minutes to give the 2008 team a narrow 99-97 edge with 32 seconds left was the dagger. After a pair of free throws from Bryant, the 2008 team took Game 4 with a score of 101-97.
No team has won two games in a row, but that would change as the 2008 team took the momentum with a Game 5 victory. Bryant and Paul took turns guarding Jordan. The constant wearing of him down would help the team pull away in the end. Jordan would score his highest total with 48 points. Jordan would even pass up some open shots, to the dismay of his teammates in Malone and O’Neal. This selfish play wouldn’t work tonight as the defense was keyed in on him. With a balanced effort of four players with 20 points, the 2008 team took the fifth contest 102-95.
Jordan would take ownership for his mistake in the fifth game. Needing a breakout game, it would be Jordan and Malone’s teamwork that was unstoppable. O’Neal took more of a rebounding role and finished with 25 rebounds and eight blocks. Jordan and Malone’s ball movement always found one of the two open. Jordan finished with 32 points and 11 assists, while Malone led the way with 35 points and 11 rebounds. The 100-85 win was good enough to send the series to a seventh game.
In the end, the greatest player of all time comes up clutch in the decisive game. Jordan would go toe-to-toe with Bryant and James, who both put on a clinic offensively. However, the combined 70 points from those two stars were matched by 48 points from Jordan exclusively, while the rest of the team rallied in their own ways. Despite a 10-point lead with under 20 seconds, Jordan would take a final shot instead of dribbling out the clock. His jumper would miss and he would be visibly upset about not getting to 50 points despite pulling away with the 110-100 victory.
Final Result: All-NBA 1998 vs. All NBA 2008 4-3
Finals MVP: Michael Jordan
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