Tomase: Picking duos if ‘NBA Jam’ was released now originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Back when we could do things, like visit a speakeasy retro-arcade in Cambridge accessible only through the freezer door of a grilled cheese shop (come back soon, A4cade), one of life’s certainties was that gamers would line up five deep to play NBA Jam.
A surefire lock on the Mount Rushmore of sports video games, the 1993 classic exploded in arcades, where four players could crowd around a cabinet and square off as, say, Utah’s John Stockton and Karl Malone vs. Charlotte’s Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning in absurd games of 2-on-2 featuring somersault dunks, halfcourt 3s, and a coked-up announcer screaming catchphrases like, “OH MY HE’S ON FIRE!”
The game became a dorm room staple in the ’90s on consoles like the Sega Genesis and the simplicity of its format — 2-on-2 full court, street ball rules that encourage pushing and shoving, gonzo dunks, and of course, the flaming basketball when a player makes three straight and thus can hardly miss — allows it to endure to this day.
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The last NBA Jam game was released, as best I can tell, in 2011 on the PS3 and Xbox 360. And so that leads to a fun exercise that I am completely stealing from WEEI’s Rich Keefe and his buddy Ryan Davey at the pop culture Dork Podcast (it’s great! give them a listen!): Which current duos would be featured on NBA Jam if the game were released today?
Rich and Ryan released their list on Twitter. Mine is slightly different (I mean, how do you pick one Knick, let alone two?), but in either case, it just highlights how much talent is spread across today’s NBA. Would you take the easy way out and play as LeBron and AD? Fun and gun with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield? Stay local with the two Jays?
Let’s run through all 30 teams . . .
Bucks — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton
The name of this game is dunks, and the Greek Freak should be nigh unstoppable in that regard, as long as he doesn’t get his pocket picked en route to the basket. In Middleton, he has the perfect complement, a 3-point bomber whose range should extend to halfcourt.
Bulls — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen
It’s hard to imagine too many fans outside of Chicago choosing this duo. LaVine was born to dunk, so he might end up better in the game than real life. Markkanen is a sneaky dunker himself, with one memorable throwdown over Nikola Vucevic earning him a technical.
Cavaliers — Collin Sexton, Andre Drummond
Only four short years ago, Cavs fans theoretically could’ve played as LeBron and Kyrie. Now they’re stuck with Sexton — who has experience playing shorthanded after nearly leading Alabama to a win playing 5-on-3 vs. Minnesota in 2017 — but this is an uninspiring duo. The bruising Drummond could be replaced by the broken-down Kevin Love.
Celtics — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown
This should be one of the more entertaining duos in the game. Both can dunk, both can shoot 3’s, and both can handle the ball well enough. They’re a marked improvement over the ’90s Celtics of Dino Radja and Dee Brown. I believe the original included a gimpy Kevin McHale.
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Hawks — Trae Young, John Collins
There’s good and bad with tiny players like Young in this game. On the one hand, they’re defensive gnats who can poke check bigger players all over the court and frustrate the bleep out of their human controllers. On the other hand, they have this annoying habit of scooping easily blocked layups when they should be dunking.
Heat — Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo
Here’s an underrated aspect of the game — shot blocking. Players like Bam can swallow up 3-point shooters in the corner, because they’re programmed to jump practically off the screen. The game’s capriciousness on block vs. goal tend was one of its eternal frustrations.
Hornets — LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward
There’s only one rookie on our list and it’s the high-flying Ball, who inherited the family’s inability to shoot, but is more of a recognizable name than third-year point guard Devonte’ Graham. Hayward gets the other slot because he has made an All-Star team, though his fatigue meter will probably red-line quickly.
Knicks — Dennis Smith Jr., RJ Barrett
The Dork guys went Julius Randle and Obi Toppin, and the discrepancy between our selections isn’t because the Knicks are overflowing with talent. Smith had some Donovan Mitchell vibes as a rookie with the Mavs in 2017, but that didn’t last and so of course now he’s in New York. Barrett put up 14 a game as a teenager and is the best candidate on this woebegone roster to make The Leap.
Magic — Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic
Gordon’s a high flyer who was born to be featured in this game, a la LaVine, but there’s nothing more depressing than playing as the lumbering center when everyone else’s No. 2 is some exciting wing player.
Nets — Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant
But are there enough shots for both of them?!? Kyrie’s greatest skill is his reality-bending handle, which isn’t really the point of NBA Jam, so my guess is they’d just honor that ability by making him an insane dunker. Durant should never miss. Just be sure to sage your game room first.
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Pacers — Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis
Can I just say I wish the Celtics had found a way to acquire the post-injury Oladipo? Because if he’s healthy, he’s a killer. He’s got a little bit of the Leandro Barbosa slouch to his game, and even when it doesn’t look like he’s moving that quickly, he gets to his spot. Sabonis would be rugged, if nothing else.
Pistons — Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose
If only it were 2011; this duo would be unstoppable. Now the two former No. 1 overall picks are kind of old men. It has been fascinating to watch each of them, out of necessity, alter their styles of play. At this point, Rose is probably the more valuable of the two, which no one would’ve seen coming three years ago. Griffin plays much closer to the ground, jacking up indiscriminate 3’s.
Raptors — Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry
A year from now, this pairing will probably be Siakam and OG Anunoby. But the tough-as-nails Lowry still has a little something left in the tank as he enters his 15th year. Outside of the Great North, however, it’s hard to imagine this being anyone’s go-to selection.
76ers — Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid
Oh, please, please, please program Simmons to miss every single 3-pointer he takes. The videogame pairing of these two ought to be just as dysfunctional as the real-life one, at least until James Harden rides in on his step-back pony to give Doc Rivers a more balanced offense.
Wizards — Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal
Call me crazy, but I still feel like somehow, some way, Beal ends up playing in Boston with fellow St. Louisan Jayson Tatum. His max extension only runs through next season, but he’d be the perfect complement to Tatum. I’m not going to pretend to understand whether the timing of his free agency could even match up — the Celtics would need to find a new home for Kemba Walker — but dare to dream.
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Clippers — Kawhi Leonard, Paul George
This duo is joyless in real life, and there are other ways I’d prefer to spend my time than watching them play lock-down defense in a video game. Extra demerits to George for being unable to play for Doc Freaking Rivers.
Grizzlies — Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson
Luka Doncic understandably receives most of the plaudits in the West, but don’t sleep on the reigning Rookie of the Year. Morant plays with style and swagger, and he single-handedly torpedoed any dreams Celtics fans had of that final Memphis pick becoming unprotected in the top 3. Jackson is part of the new breed of soaring big men and a perfect partner in crime.
Jazz — Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert
It’s probably in poor taste to call them Team COVID, but their bouts with the illness opened a lot of eyes to what was going on before everything went completely to hell. Mitchell is a legit leaper, while Gobert is like playing one of the original versions of the game with Robert Parish. Love the Chief, but no thanks.
Kings — De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield
This would be my team. Fox is fast as hell, Hield will shoot from anywhere, and even if they’re susceptible to size, at least they’ll be fun. The “heating up!” and “he’s on fire!” voiceovers should follow Hield all over the floor.
Lakers — LeBron James, Anthony Davis
The original game lacked Michael Jordan for licensing reasons, which meant the champion Bulls featured Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, with B.J. Armstrong in reserve. Jordan sitting out that game would be like LeBron missing from this one. Davis and Kyle Kuzma just doesn’t have the same oomph.
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Mavericks — Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis
Luka magic! Doncic’s greatest skill is his pinpoint passing, which isn’t really rewarded here, but like Kyrie, programmers would undoubtedly transform his pure star power into highlight reel dunks. I suspect Porzingis would collapse under the force of two-handed shoves to the chest in a pile of limbs.
Nuggets — Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic
When we talk about great basketball players from Canada, Murray has sneakily climbed the list. His performance in last year’s playoffs, when he went off for 50 every other night against the Jazz before giving the Lakers a series in the conference finals, cemented his place as one of the game’s great young scorers. Jokic is sort of a 7-foot version of Doncic and the two together are wildly entertaining.
Pelicans — Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball
Just as Bo Jackson was turbocharged in the old Tecmo Bowl, Zion could receive similar treatment here. He’s so powerful he does things like plant his foot to cut and annihilate his sneakers, as if he’s The Hulk or something. Brandon Ingram would be a more traditional choice instead of Ball, but I’m a sucker for that family, I guess. Maybe the programmers can add a G-League team for LiAngelo.
Rockets — James Harden, John Wall
If I were programming this game, I’d make Harden fall down and shoot an airball every time he attempted a step-back 3. That shot is ruining the game, but at least there are no fouls on this court. As for Wall, who knows what he’s going to be after a year off for knee surgery, but when healthy, he plays downhill like Derrick Henry.
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Spurs — DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge
Just a generic duo if ever there was one. The Spurs missed the playoffs for the first time since 1997 — the year the ping pong balls bounced Tim Duncan into their lap instead of Boston’s — and this is the team you’d only play with if you selected random . . . and didn’t hit reset to find someone better.
Suns — Devin Booker, Chris Paul
I’ll be totally honest. Paul has played for so many teams over the last three years, I forgot he had been traded to the Suns until I looked at their roster. The future Hall of Famer can maybe share some May-December chemistry with Booker, an electrifying scorer who had the Suns playing out of their minds in the bubble.
Thunder — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Al Horford
Yeah, Big Al. That’s right. You heard me. There aren’t a lot of recognizable options on OKC’s roster, which was once home to Westbrook, Durant, and Harden. Now the Thunder’s most explosive player is Gilgeous-Alexander, who has already been traded twice entering just his third season.
Timberwolves — D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns
If there’s one matchup where Russell is guaranteed to be unstoppable, it’s vs. the Celtics, whom he has routinely torched throughout his career. Come to think of it, the lefty gunner looks like an NBA Jam player come to life against them, scraping the rafters with 3’s and making pretty much anything he throws at the rim.
Trail Blazers — Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum
Two-guard offenses were my personal favorite in the old NBA Jam, because both guys can handle the ball and their speed actually helps them beat big men up the floor. Even if they never block a shot, these two should be borderline unbeatable, as the game would say, “FROM DOWNTOWN!”
Warriors — Steph Curry, Draymond Green
If only Klay Thompson hadn’t suffered another season-ending injury, the Warriors would be the domain of players who like bombing away more than driving and dunking. Curry is the living embodiment of limitless range, and sometimes it actually looks like there are flames singeing the net on some of his deepest 3’s, but pairing him with the lunch-pail Green is an undeniable letdown.