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The Five Bleakest 'NBA Jam' Pairings in the NBA Circa Now

In 1993, an arcade classic turned two-on-two basketball into a goofy, psychedelic dunkfest. In a 2017 reboot, you would still have to include the Orlando Magic, sadly.

by David Roth
Jul 2 2017, 5:23pm

Photo by Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball video games had some notably serious verisimilitude issues well before NBA Jam arrived on the scene and in arcades in 1993. What gave NBA Jam its edge, and made it immortal, was how absurdly hard it leaned into that unreality. Where other games struggled to replicate the reality of five-on-five basketball played at its highest level or render the dampness of Michael Cage's jheri curl, NBA Jam simply shrugged and spun the dial hard to the right, as far as it would go.

The players were crudely animated, with poker-faced and brutally digitized oversized heads staring out from atop spindly and primitive bodies; the two-on-two game play could be described as cartoonish but could more accurately be described as psychedelic. Players leapt into the rafters, sometimes attended by literal flames. It's tempting to say that NBA Jam anticipated the broader Golden State Revolution by roughly a generation, and not just because Steph Curry looks, in real life, more or less the way that NBA Jam would have animated him back in '93.

It's maybe more accurate to say that the vision of NBA basketball espoused by this goofy and hilariously overstated video/arcade game, which was all avant-garde dunks and 35-foot three-pointers, somehow proved to be prescient in the fullness of time. It's surely not what anyone involved intended, but looking back at this game from where we all are now, we might as well say it: the NBA is more like NBA Jam than it has ever been, and give or take the last inexorable and bummerish postseason, it's hard to say that we're not all richer for it.

Or, anyway, almost all of us. The original slate of NBA Jam rosters was hamstrung both by licensing issues—ctrl-f Michael Jordan, for instance—and the inherent limitations of a two-on-two-basketball-as-less-viscera-intensive- Mortal-Kombat approach, but it is difficult to pull together viable two-on-two pairs from NBA teams even without those restrictions. The game hewed, where it could, to a guard-and-big format but was willing to make exceptions where necessary. This is just a small part of what made the game so indispensable and hilarious, but it's one worth acknowledging.

Jeff Hornacek and Hersey Hawkins are not the two-on-two option you'd go to war with, but if you're pulling from the '92-93 Philadelphia 76ers roster they're the one you have. The same goes for the Dallas Mavericks delegation of Derek Harper and Mike Iuzzolino, who had the unlikely distinction of making it into an iconic video game in his second and last NBA season. I have no comment on the Milwaukee Bucks pairing of Brad Lohaus and Blue Edwards beyond the basic assertion that all of us, regardless of race or color or creed, deserve better than reading the words "Milwaukee Bucks pairing of Brad Lohaus and Blue Edwards." You have my sincerest apologies on that.

The gaming and NBA worlds have both marched forward, fitfully and pissily and not really on any kind of reasonable schedule, in the years since, but the NBA Jam format has endured through numerous reboots and in the broader public memory. NBA Jam is legendary, but more to the point it is a thing for basketball fans, which makes it tough to look at photos like the one of recent Brooklyn Nets acquisitions D'Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov and think anything but Goddamn that is not a great NBA Jam team.

That is why, in the interest of honoring both this classic game and our own intellectual laziness, we at VICE Sports have tried to suss out the most depressing NBA Jam pairings currently available in the league. The really good ones are obvious and honestly a little dull, although it might be illuminating to spend a week at a meditation retreat pondering the fine points of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving versus Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. As usual, though, it's the Iuzzolino side of the continuum that's more intriguing. So let's go there.

Orlando Magic
Elfrid Payton and Nikola Vujevic

Did you know that the inaugural Orlando Magic NBA Jam pairing was Scott Skiles and Shaquille O'Neal? More to the point, did you remember that the Orlando Magic are, in 2017, still playing in the NBA? It's true: they played 82 games during the 2016-17 NBA season, and the same number the year before. All the stats accrued during those games counted in official NBA statistical rankings and standings. Anyway, Elfrid Payton and Nikola Vujevic, who are both flawed but talented pro-grade basketball players and real humans that exist in this world, are currently on the Magic roster. For all you know, their heads are, in real life, three times as large as their bodies. Terrific!

Brooklyn Nets
D'Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov

Nothing helps a potential NBA Jam pairing more than the presence of a player who looks like an imperfect George H.W. Bush-era video game animation. Timofey Mozgov, who is improbably enormous in stature and somehow also always kind of blurry-looking, is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here.

Just the two of us. Photo by Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Sacramento Kings
De'Aaron Fox and Willie Cauley-Stein

Here is a confusing thing I encountered often in thinking through this list: two-man pairings that are objectively fun and cool drawn from teams that are decidedly neither of those things. If the Sacramento Kings were to move from the boring, top-heavy five-on-five NBA to an In Real Life N BA Jam League, they would be pretty fun to watch. Sadly, such a league does not exist.

Detroit Pistons
Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond

Fine players both, although once again there is a sense that both might be better off in an IRL NBA Jam League than they are in the NBA. And yet I imagine that, if given the choice, fewer basketball fans would choose to play as this team than as just about any other. Playing as Payton/Vujevic is a little prank you play on yourself; playing as De'Aaron Fox and Willie Cauley-Stein gives you a guiltless, safe way to feel like John Calipari for a few minutes. Why would you play as this duo, though? What would you get out of it? Don't you think you should value yourself a little more than that?

Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker and Alex Len

If you're going with the two best players on the team, guard-and-big format be damned, then this would be the smurfy but entertaining pair of Booker and Eric Bledsoe. But given where the Suns are, and what the Suns are, and how the Suns are, and honoring the broader guard-and-big template, it just feels right to pair the team's rising young star with a plodding former lottery pick who could see his rights renounced in the next week or so.

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New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis

On the merits, this is one of the better and more entertaining potential NBA Jam pairings in the league. In the world we live in, it forms the core of a team that cannot go 48 hours without accidentally stapling itself to something. The gap between "fun to play with" and "devastating to think about" could not be any wider, and even in a thought exercise about a game in which players leap hundreds of feet in the air and dunk fiery basketballs, this might just be too real.