The NBA’s Best Decade? The 1990s

This is the second post in a three-part series we will be running today on the best decade in NBA history. Was it the 1980s? The 1990s? Or the 2000s? Can you make the arguments that one of the earlier decades was even better? Sure. But not likely. Can you make an argument that one of these three was the best ever? Of course. And that’s what we’re doing…

The 1990s. Known for long hair, increasingly long shorts, and some of the best basketball ever seen. The reason? It starts and ends with Michael Jordan. The best basketball player to play the game may have gotten his start in the ’80s, but he hit his prime and won all six of his championships in the ’90s. MJ, for better or worse, owned this decade. But there are other reasons why the ’90s have arguably the greatest collection of NBA players ever. They’re named Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller, Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson, Chris Webber and Gary Payton.

All hit their prime in the ’90s. Their stats portray sheer star power and numbers that can’t be matched. Sure, you could argue that today’s game is loaded with superstars. And that’s true. But these guys from the ’90s are simply the best. But why? What makes these guys the best? There’s no better word to describe them than domination.

The perfect example: the Dream Team. The team did include ’80’s legends Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Clyde Drexler, along with Chris Mullin and Christian Laettner. But most of the players on the team made their name in one decade — the ’90s. Robinson, Ewing, Pippen, Jordan, Malone, Stockton and Barkley all helped lead the team to the Olympic gold medal in dominating fashion. Every game was won by at least 30 points. The Dream Team set the tone for the decade. The theme of domination would only continue. Why? Jordan.

He is the backbone of the ’90s, without a doubt. If you’re starting a team, you want MJ. As for point guard? It’s hard to argue against Stockton, the No. 1 assist-man of all-time, who averaged 10.5 assists per game during his career. And up front? Olajuwon (11.1 rebounds per game), Robinson (10.6), Mourning (8.5) and Webber (9.8) aren’t too shabby. This roster is a team of pure scorers too. You have Malone (second all-time in career points), Ewing (16th), Barkley (18th) and Pippen (18,940 career points as MJ’s wing man). There’s a shooter extraordinaire in Miller (No. 2 all-time in three-pointers made) and a glove-like defender in Payton (fourth all-time in steals made…Stockton is first and Jordan second). All are Hall-of-Famers or should be inducted in the near future. These players have all-around accolades (arguably the best player ever, No. 1 man in assists, etc.) that are hard to top.

But if there’s one area that some players on this decade team fail in, it is championships. Ewing, Barkley, Stockton and Malone are arguably four of the best players never to get a ring. Webber and Miller never won it all either. Why? To start, Jordan had six of the decade’s 10 titles. So unless you were on the Bulls, chances are your ’90s title hopes were slim. Stockton and Malone found that out firsthand in both ’97 and ’98, losing in the Finals to MJ’s Bulls. Barkley’s Suns lost in the ’93 Finals. Ewing lost to MJ’s Bulls in the playoffs a number of times. Olajuwon probably only won two titles because he benefitted from Jordan’s break from basketball, winning back-to-back championships with the Rockets in ’94 and ’95. Robinson managed to win two (one of which came in the ’00s), while Mourning and Payton finally won it all at the tail end of their careers in ’06.

If you look at today’s great players, nearly all have titles: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen. And the same can be said of the pre-’90s decades: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas all have rings. The fact that half of the best players of the ’90s went title-less is a direct result of Jordan.

But here’s where these guys stand out in comparison to players from other decades. Despite having a perennial roadblock to a title in the form of Jordan, most still found a way to eventually win a title. Their drive and determination shaped the decade. That’s the ’90s difference. There was no social media, less branding. Sure, money was a big deal, but these guys really wanted it. They had to find ways around Jordan to get a title. And for those that didn’t, the fact that their legacies remain intact is a testament to their individual statistics.

Was Jordan’s dominance during the ’90s good for the NBA? Maybe, maybe not. A transcendent star like Jordan, even if he does hog so many championships, was probably good for the NBA during that time period. He didn’t completely overshadow the other stars, and he was a superstar athlete that throngs of fans could religiously follow. He alone spiked the interest of fans toward the NBA. Arguably, no one in the league can compare, at any point in time, to MJ’s basketball and cultural influence on the game.

During this decade, basketball was also affected by what was seen both on and off the court: the styles. As MJ lengthened his shorts and added a compression element underneath them, NBA brand socks developed instead of tube socks. Stitched jerseys replaced screen print and shiny numbers that used to grace the players’ tops. If you think about today’s styles, a lot of the ’90s fashion has come back: flat brims, neon colors. Even the styles of the ’90s are pushing out the styles of the 2000s. Vintage is in, even if the ’90s are now considered “vintage.”

On the court, the game was more physical than today and less finesse than the ’80s. Back in the ’90s, you could hand check. That is until 1995 when it was eliminated from the end line in the backcourt to the opposite foul line. The three-point line was shortened that same year. Even the rule changes of the decade shaped the kind of game that was being played. But the game was still bruising, and the Bad Boys from Detroit in the early part of the decade made a strong impression and foreshadowed the style of the ’90s. Defense was key.

So why were the ’90s the best decade? You could look at the leader board of all-time leading scorers, or assist men, or steals and see a list dominated by players of the ’90s. You could look at the culture change that the league underwent during those 10 years.

But then you’d be ignoring the elephant in the room. Love him or hate him, Jordan made this decade the best ever. He owned it. That’s why the ’90s have the best collection of players. And Jordan’s at the top.

Best Player: Michael Jordan
Best Team: Chicago Bulls
Best Song/Artist/Band: “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer/Mariah Carey/Nirvana
Best Movie: Titanic
Best TV Show/Cartoon: Seinfeld/The Simpsons
Best MTV Show: The Real World
Best News Story: The growth of the Internet
Best/Funniest Coach: Phil Jackson/Jeff Van Gundy

Was this the best decade of NBA basketball?

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