In a comparison of the different NBA eras, you can roll off multiple lists of great players that have played over the past three decades. But when looking back on the 90s, the story isn't so much who had tremendous success, but rather who didn't.
Karl Malone. Charles Barkley. John Stockton. Gary Payton. Patrick Ewing. Alonzo Mourning.
Those aren't just the names of great players, those are the great players that never won a championship in the 90s for one reason - Michael Jeffery Jordan.
There are those would say that the name Michael Jordan alone defines the 1990s as the greatest NBA era, but in truth his dominance wasn't purely measured by his own success, but with his ability to overwhelmingly monopolize the National Basketball Association for the majority of a decade. Jordan's mark is left not only with the amount of rings he won, but because he trampled over hall-of-fame players who would have won multiple championships in another era.
Every era had great players, this one is no exception as you'll in a moment when I list some of the best from the decade, but the 90s were defined by Michael Jordan - the player so great he willed other player's greatness into the background, not seeing it fit to exist on the same level as his. Michael Jordan was the best of the best, the slayer of fellow NBA giants, the true All-Star of All-Stars.
In a hypothetical game of the different all-decade teams (from the 80s, 90s, and today's current crop of stars), there should be no doubt that the squad touting the greatest competitor in the history of sports would win. But just in case you have any doubts, allow me to break it down for you.
Go watch ESPN Classic some time, or even NBA TV, and check out some old NBA games. In between the run-and-gun years of the 70s and 80s, and the similar hustle-and-flow flavor of today's game, there was the 90s.
Seriously, try and find the time to watch this stuff. Granted, I'm sure your recollection serves just fine in general, but you would be surprised how the details resurface in a different light now, contrasted against the way the game is played today.
Watch closely. Reggie Miller gets bumped and grabbed one too many times going around screens back in his old Pacers days; you almost find yourself yelling "foul" at the TV, already reconditioned to the touchy feely standard of officiating games these days. MJ gets cracked an elbow in the ribs, once, twice, three times, at the top of the key by his defender. "Damn," you find yourself muttering under your breath, "isn't that a foul?" Today, yes. Back when they played real ball, no.
Hand checks were frequent, and not only accepted, but encouraged. And if your quickness, handles, and upper body strength could keep you on balance and on course enough to manage a drive down the lane or towards the baseline, there would be seven feet and two hundred and seventy pounds of pain waiting for you at the rim in the form of an opposing big man. No touch fouls here. If you went up, you were going to get hammered. And this was in the days when contact around the rim wasn't considered an automatic trip to the free-line, just the usual routine drive, bang, and bucket of the NBA in the 90s.
If you wanted to score, you had to earn it - the hard way.
And that was just the guards, playing down low was a battle on an entirely different scale. The big men in the 90s may have been the best group of post players, league wide, that the NBA had seen since the days when Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell battled it out. Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal, Dikembe Mutombo. There won't be that many truly great centers in the NBA for the next twenty years, much less all in the same decade.
The 90s were the time when big men were real big men, warriors, giant forces of intimidation and dominance - they were colossal, not merely in stature but results. There were no Barbie Doll Princess, "please don't touch me," big men like Dirk Nowitzki in the 90s, there couldn't be. Mark my words, players like Dirk Nowitzki couldn't even survive in that era. (Technically Dirk did play half a season in the '98-'99 lockout campaign, in which he sucked, thereby proving my case.)
Big men pounded and battled for position in the lane like sumo wrestlers contend for space in a circle that's too damn small, pushing, shoving, elbowing, treating every inch of painted real estate like it was priceless. Today, if you get hit down low you instantly get put on the line. Back in the day? There was no 'if' involved, you were going to get hit, and unless you got the living shit smacked out of you and hit the hardwood, you probably weren't getting a call.
So what does all this mean? Why does it matter? And most importantly, why does it make the 90s better than any other NBA era? Because players were tougher, both mentally and physically, then they are now. There was a style of physicality that has been deliberately removed by the league in favor of a softer, gentler, more offensive driven league, all because the networks and David Stern believe high scoring, no defense, basketball is the only thing that can get ratings. The 90s weren't just the era of Jordan, or the era of some of the best big men ever, it was the era of the badass.
Remember that hypothetical game between the all-decade teams? Yeah, well if the Newtonian universe as we know it could be altered, here's the squad the 90s team would be suiting up.
PG - John Stockton
The perennial point guard, the NBA's all-time assist and steals leader by a considerable margin. Stockton was a ten-time All-Star, one of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time, and a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist. But if you ask anyone who played with or against Stockton, they would probably just describe him as one tough, smart, unselfish player, and that would probably be enough for him.
Stockton was tough as nails, one of the most tenacious defenders you could find, a sharp shooter from three, and one of the all-time best floor generals and game managers. And yes, he flopped a lot. It worked. Give him credit. Anyone who knows anything about basketball would have loved to have Stockton run their basketball team.
SG - Michael Jordan
If you visit Wikipedia's entry on the NBA, you'll find the entire history of the league broken down into six sections: 40s-50s: The Early years, 60s: Celtics Dynasty, 70s: NBA vs ABA, 80s: Magic vs Bird, 90s: The Jordan Era, and 2000s: Post Jordan. Michael Jordan defined an entire era, something only a team dynasty, entire professional leagues, and two all-time great players can claim. And furthermore the era after Jordan seems entirely defined by the lack of his presence. No player in basketball, or even in the history of sports, has had such a wide and powerful influence.
It seems almost silly to recount why Michael was so good, but for argument's sake let's remind ourselves. He was the most ferocious competitor to step foot on a basketball floor, with unparalleled athleticism, as well as fluid, near perfect, fundamentals, and a complete arsenal of offensive moves; pull up jumpers, step back dribbles, hesitation moves, spinning drop steps, incomprehensible double clutch layups at the rim, and the patented fade away jump shot. He was also dominant defensively, and perhaps the best clutch player we've ever known.
Without question Michael Jordan remains the greatest player in the history of the game. And one of the main reasons why the 90s, and the NBA in general, thrived like it did.
SF - Scottie Pippen
While the preception has somehow always been that Scottie Pippen is the often overlooked sidekick of Michael Jordan, I think in reality most basketball fans acknowledge Pippen as one of the best players of all-time, possessing one of the most well rounded and consistent games ever.
Pippen was quickly dubbed a "point-forward" combining size and strength with vision and playmaking. When you watched Pippen you were constantly reminded that while he was valuable for his scoring, he could have made, and in essence did make, a great point guard. In fact, Pippen is the all-time NBA leader in assists by a forward, making him the iconic point-forward. MJ may have been the force on the floor propelling the Bulls to their six titles, but Pippen was steering. And yet more impressive than Pippen's offense was his defense, as a ten-time All-NBA Defense selection and the record holder for most career steals by a forward.
Say what you will about Pippen never being the man, but if you're building a team Scottie Pippen in his prime is about as good a forward as you can get.
PF - Karl Malone
Karl Malone is one of the players mentioned at the top of this article for having never won a ring. And yet even without that single crowning achievement, he was long considered the best power forward to ever play the game. He is the second all-time leading scorer behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as a two-time MVP. There's a bunch of other accolades I could list, but I think in this case it's more relevant to talk about how he played.
Malone embodied much of the physical style I talked about earlier. The Mailman made his reputation early and throughout his career as one of the roughest, toughest players in the league, often getting to the foul line an absurd amount of times, and forcing opposing big men into foul trouble. That well built physique and incredible upper body strength made him able to create space to get off that infuriatingly good fade away jumper. Malone averaged 25 points over his entire 19 seasons in the NBA, making him not only of the most dominant, but consistent scorers in the league's history.
C - Hakeem Olajuwon
The comment you often hear about Hakeem Olajuwon, and his Houston Rockets of the mid-90s, is that they were the team that won when MJ and the Bulls were on championship hiatus. People say about Olajuwon's rings during the intermission of the Jordan era, "He only won two." Only? Olajuwon may actually be underrated in some sense. In a time when Jordan and the Bulls (and only the Bulls) were winning championships, the Rockets didn't just sneak in and win one, behind Olajuwon, they won two in a row, the only titles between '91 and '98 that didn't belong to Chicago. If MJ had stayed retired, we don't know how many titles Hakeem could have won.
While there were a whole cast of great centers in the league during the 90s (as I mentioned earlier), Olajuwon proved himself the best, with his ring count and otherwise. He stopped David Robinson from advancing to the Finals in '95, he beat Patrick Ewing in the Finals in '94. and he decimated and embarassed a young Shaq in the 1995 Finals. Olajuwon was one of the most dominant forces the league had ever seen, with unbelievable length and shot blocking prowess (one year averaging a jaw-dropping 4.59 blocks per game), and what many have called the best post moves and foot work of anyone that size.
If you're picking your pivot man for the 90s, you want Hakeem Olajuwon.
The 90s encompassed some of the best aspects of basketball, along with seeing some of greatest talents the game has ever seen. Aside from the NBA taking more leaps and bounds forward in popularity, the game started to expand over seas during 90s, starting when the 1992 Dream Team took the world by storm at the Olympics.
Something changed in the time after December 31, 1989 and before January 1, 2000. The NBA was saved in the 80s, and it continues to thrive today, but something special happened in between. The game became more than a game. MJ, the Dream Team, all of it pushed the NBA to a greater social significance than it had ever been to before.
The 90s were the best era in NBA history, and unfortunately we'll never see anything like it again. So do yourself a favor, go watch some ESPN Classic.
This is one of three articles done on the different NBA eras. Myself, Todd Dybas, and Brandon May all collaborated on this, each of us taking a different era. Todd did the 80s, as you can see I took the 90s, and Brandon took the current crop of players. Be sure to check out their articles for the full trifecta.