When most NBA fans think of the Top Point Guards in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they are likely drawn to the legend of the Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson, or the great Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons. But there were a number of great guards in that era, including a man Thomas believes would excel in today’s game.
Nothing about former Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Mark Price was overly conspicuous. But he was one of the best shooters in the position and had a certain amount of anticipation for pick and roll that, according to Thomas, would have made him a real star in the modern NBA.
Mark Price and Isiah Thomas played under a different subset of the NBA rules. Handchecking was legal in its day and was used by defenders as a physical tactic to impede the progress of ball handlers.
Thomas’ Pistons teams attempted to use the hand exam as a weapon against Michael Jordan to slow him down before the defense arrived. Bigger defenders could put pressure on Zeke and Price to make quick decisions or give up the ball if they weren’t forced to lose the ball.
But the game has changed a lot.
The elimination of the hand check has allowed even smaller guards like Stephen Curry and Trae Young to take advantage of their ball-handling skills and create a breakup in today’s NBA. There has also been an evolution in the emphasis on three-point shooting, which makes scorers more important than ever.
Thomas believes that someone like Mark Price wouldn’t just be successful in today’s NBA. He would dominate.
Price never had the dynamic athleticism of some of today’s point guards. However, he certainly had the shooting ability and basketball IQ, in addition to exceptional versatility, especially in pick and roll sets.
But who was Price exactly? Well, he’s perhaps the most underrated NBA point guard in a generation.
Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons won their first championship in the 1988-89 season, but then-Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Mark Price wrote his own story.
Price was only the second player in NBA history (at the time) to shoot at least 50% off the field, 40% from beyond the arc and 90% from the free throw line, and he joined Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird. On the way to his first All-Star appearance, he averaged 18.9 points, 8.4 assists and 3.0 rebounds. It was the first in a series of brilliant seasons.
The former Georgia Tech product formed four All-NBA teams between 1989 and 1994. He earned All-NBA First Team honors in the 1992-93 season when he averaged 18.2 points with 8.0 assists and 2.7 rebounds, despite playing less than 30 minutes per game. From 1988 to 1995 Price averaged 17.6 points, 7.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds while shooting over 48% from the field and over 41% from depth.
Price wasn’t just a sniper from across the bow. He practically invented the “split” when opponents would set a trap during pick and roll. He used a quick dribble or cross to switch between defenders and get into the lane, with the option of getting to the finish via various floaters and runners. Price could also split doubles and kick them on shooters. Given the gaps in today’s game, he would undoubtedly be a top assist man if he were surrounded by the right staff.
The combination of shooting ability, skill, and speed would likely have made Price an impossible challenge in the modern NBA. What about Thomas? Would it have been as dominant today as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s?
Unlike Mark Price, Isiah Thomas never had much success shooting out of the area during his 13-year career with the Pistons. He shot 29% over the bow at 1.4 tries per game for his career. Still, it is reasonable to believe that Zeke would be successful in today’s game.
For starters, it’s impossible to imagine that Thomas wouldn’t be working on his sweater. Additionally, Thomas’ ball handling and slashing skills would certainly translate today, probably even more so without a hand check. Up to this point, Thomas could likely excel in isolation sets that usually dominate the modern NBA.
Basketball fans will never know the answer to these hypotheses. But they can be fun to consider, and interesting to see how a guy like Mark Price might have been even better if he’d been transplanted into another era.