Arvydas Sabonis si is one of the biggest what-if players in NBA history when you consider that he came to the league past his prime, dealing with several knee injuries. His knees were in such bad shape the doctors said he could easily apply for the status of a handicapped person. Although he was a shell of his former self, Sabonis was a starting center for the Portland Trail Blazers for several years when the team was a legitimate playoff and championship contender in a competitive western conference.
Sabonis could do everything on the basketball court
Unfortunately for the NBA and, in this case, the Blazers, Sabonis played in Europe for most of his prime since the USSR banned its players from playing overseas despite the Atlanta Hawks drafting him in the 1985 NBA Draft. The US players, coaches, and GMs had the opportunity to see Sabonis in action every time they participated in the Olympics or World Championships. That is also when the myth surrounding Sabonis was created, and he was often described as the best player outside the US.
He was portrayed as the most versatile big man in basketball, a 7'3" giant that played like a guard with the ability to dominate a game on both ends of the floor. Former NBA player and another Blazers legend Bill Walton had the opportunity to see Sabonis play in the mid-80s and was astonished by everything he saw from the Lithuanian giant, comparing him to Larry Bird and Pistol Pete Maravich.
"He probably had a quadruple-double at halftime, and his coach, Alexander Gomelsky, didn't even start him in the second half," Walton told Grantland.com. "You might as well just rewrite the rules of basketball after watching him play in the first half. He could do everything. He had the skills of Larry Bird and Pete Maravich. He had the athleticism of Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], and he could shoot the 3-point shot. He could pass, run the floor, dribble. We should have carried out a plan in the early 1980s to kidnap him and bring him back right then."
There were a lot of similarities between him and another Blazers legend Bill Walton
Former Blazers NBA player and later coach Johnny Davis is a person that had the opportunity to play with Bill Walton when they won their only championship in the 70s, but he was also the assistant coach when Sabonis first came to the Blazers. He immediately saw the resemblance between the two centers and how they played the game unselfishly, putting the team first above their own individual success.
"With both of them, you had to understand how the game should be played. If you couldn't get to where they were at in that regard, you couldn't play with them. They made good players better because they had a different way of looking at the game. Guys who didn't understand how to play with others on the floor would have a hard time playing with them. They didn't play isolation basketball; they played team basketball, inclusive basketball"
Sabonis ended his NBA career in 2003, playing only for the Blazers, and just like Walton in his time, injuries derailed him from potentially becoming one of the greatest players of his generation. Sabonis had all the tools and played the game how it's played by big men today in the NBA. He was a phenomenal shooter and a passer, and his size gave him a big advantage over other centers. His high basketball IQ and unselfishness made him a true team player, even though he had all the tools to dominate games by himself. A player of that skillset and size combined don't come too often, so it's quite unfortunate that NBA fans were robbed of seeing prime Sabonis matching up with the best centers in the league then because it would definitely be a treat.