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A comparison between NBA players competing for the Finals and NFL players drafted at the same time

Cleveland Cavaliers v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I don’t pay that much attention to the NBA anymore. Not since the Sonics left Seattle, and that seems like a long, long time ago. It was in fact a decade ago, in 2008, and it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to pay attention.

What has struck me so much is not what has changed (though a lot has changed), but how much has stayed the same. The NBA Finals could still feature players I was well aware of before 2008 like LeBron James and David West. Or Joe Johnson and Al Horford. Some of the teams are different, but players can last for a very long time in the NBA, especially as compared to NFL players.

So I took a look at some active NBA players who are currently playing in the Western and Eastern Conference Finals for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, and Golden State Warriors. Then I wanted to see who some draft and age equivalents were in football for those basketball players taken around that time. It’s a fascinating look at the perspective we have for “old” when comparing the two sports.

2001 NBA Draft: Joe Johnson (10)

I remember back in the day when Johnson felt like a “do-it-all” player because he had 20 points, four rebounds, and six assists. Now it seems like you’re lazy if you don’t get a triple-double. Johnson is buried on the Rockets’ bench right now but he’s still in the NBA, which seems remarkable to me. This is his 17th season in the league.

Johnson was drafted 10th overall in 2001, but he’s not the only one remaining from that draft: Zach Randolph, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, and Richard Jefferson are all still around. Randolph, Chandler, and Gasol all still get significant moments. The top pick that year was Kwame Brown and Seattle chose Vladimir Radmanovic.

The 2001 NFL Draft featured the Michael Vick sweepstakes, and even Vick had one of the longest careers from that class, playing until 2015. The 2001 draft was so long ago that it even features a current Hall of Famer: LaDainian Tomlinson. 2001 was the year that the Seahawks picked Koren Robinson and Steve Hutchinson in the first round.

Imagine if Dan Morgan, now the director of player personnel for the Bills after year’s in Seattle’s front office, were still making tackles on Sundays. Think of Chad Johnson still putting in 50 yards per game. Consider Drew Brees ... okay, actually, consider Drew Brees.

Brees was the 32nd pick in 2001 — so long ago that that was the second round — and he’s still one of the top players in the NFL. But that’s one guy out of hundreds who entered the league 17 years ago. The NBA gets a lot fewer new players and yet that means they also have a lot more who can last into their mid-to-late 30s.

2002 NBA Draft: Nene Hilario (7)

Nene puts in about six points and three rebounds for the Rockets. He was selected the same year as Yao Ming and Jay Williams. Ming’s career ended in 2011, while Williams’ stopped playing after a motorcycle accident in 2003.

The last active players from the 2002 NFL Draft are Julius Peppers and Josh McCown, following the retirement of Dwight Freeney. The Seahawks’ top pick in 2002 was Jerramy Stevens. The top quarterbacks in the 2002 draft were David Carr and Joey Harrington.

2003 NBA Draft: LeBron James (1), David West (18), Kendrick Perkins (37), Zaza Pachulia (42), Kyle Korver (51)

I was going to say that the Cavaliers “feature” three players from the 2003 NBA Draft, but let’s be honest and say that Cleveland only features one player at all. From anything. What’s interesting is that LeBron was the best player in the 2003 draft, has been the best player of at least his own generation, and continues to make the argument that he’s the best current player 15 seasons later.

West may have peaked a decade ago, but he remains a key role player for a team that is likely to repeat as NBA Champions. He shares that center spot for the Warriors with Pachulia, who was taken 24 spots after him in 2003.

The top player in the 2003 NFL Draft has actually had good longevity to, even if was not nearly as GOAT-y as LeBron: Carson Palmer just retired after 15 years, a few of which were really good. Palmer was also a rare case of still being active from that draft, and things got even rarer when Jason Witten (69th overall) left for Monday Night Football recently. That only leaves Terence Newman (announced he will retire after 2018) and Terrell Suggs as the active remaining players from the 2003 draft.

Interestingly, Suggs was 20 at the time of the draft. Newman was 24.

Players who have long since left the league include; Charles Rogers, DeWayne Robertson, Byron Leftwich, Kevin Williams, Jordan Gross, and Marcus Trufant. Imagine if Andre Johnson was still putting up 1,500-yard seasons, that would be closer to the level of seeing what LeBron is doing now. Imagine if Willis McGahee was still putting up 700 yards rushing, that might be like what Korver is doing. Even if you still had Dallas Clark as your number three tight end, that could be like Perkins.

But we don’t even get close to seeing that in the NFL.

2004 NBA Draft: Shaun Livingston (4), Trevor Ariza (43)

Livingston and Ariza are two of nine players from the 2004 draft who were still active as of last season. Livingston came into the NBA at 18, suffered a devastating knee injury at 21, and didn’t find a healthy streak until he was 28 — but the NBA offers so much more in terms of patience and opportunity than football does because that’s just the nature of the two sports. A devastating knee injury to a running back at 21 likely kills the career. If you haven’t figured it out by 24, you’re finished. Livingston is now 32 and he’s played in at least 70 games in each of the last five seasons. Imagine Kevin Jones, the 30th overall pick in 2004, still getting four carries a game in the NFL. It just doesn’t work that way.

Active players from the 2004 NFL Draft include Eli Manning, Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Watson, and Andy Lee. Karlos Dansby and Donnie Jones hope to continue playing, but may not get signed. Players not even close to still active include Robert Gallery, Kellen Winslow, Roy Williams (WR), and Reggie Williams.

2005 NBA Draft: Chris Paul (4), Gerald Green (18)

Jose Calderon, NBA Debut: 2005

Paul went 4th overall in 2005 after Andrew Bogut, Marvin Williams, and Deron Williams. The only one who is not still active is Deron, who last played in 2017. Raymond Felton, the fifth overall pick, is also still active. Paul is not just active, he’s averaging 22, 6, and 6 in the postseason and has helped Houston come close to the Finals.

I remember Calderon from way back in the days when I played fantasy basketball. He still gets 16 minutes per game with the Cavs, 13 years after his debut in 2005. NFL players who debuted in 2005 include: Alex Smith, Ronnie Brown, Braylon Edwards, Cedric Benson, and Cadillac Williams in the top five of the draft. Players who are still active and notable include Frank Gore, Richie Incognito, Thomas Davis, Derrick Johnson, Smith, Adam Jones, and Aaron Rodgers.

2007 NBA Draft: Al Horford (3), Nick Young (16)

I mean, 2007 doesn’t seem that long ago, but Horford does feel like a player who has been around a long time and right now with the Boston Celtics, he’s a key piece of a team that has a 2-0 lead on Cleveland to go to the Finals. If Horford doesn’t seem that old, remember that he went third after Greg Oden and Kevin Durant ... and Oden is the oldest living person in the United States.

When Horford was drafted, the NBA was still in Seattle and the Sonics had just added Durant and Jeff Green. The Sonics are long gone but Horford looks like a guy just in the middle of his career about to reach the Finals for the first time.

The 2007 NFL Draft’s top 5: JaMarcus Russell, Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Gaines Adams, Levi Brown. Consider how old players like Adrian Peterson and Darrelle Revis “feel like” right now, but players like Durant, Horford, and Mike Conley still seem to be in stride, mostly.

On the flip side, Boston is also getting immense help from Jayson Tatum (20) and Jaylen Brown (21). Myles Garrett was fairly dominant last season at 21, but he’s a rare talent. JuJu Smith-Schuster was shockingly good at 20, and football players in some cases do seem to be ready for the league sooner than they used to be. But because the NBA is so compact and features a small handful of necessary players on a roster, rather than 22 starters on offense and defense, it’s easier to have an impact, both positively and negatively.