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HomeBasketballNBANBA All-Time Greats: Jordan takes the GOAT title with 90s run

NBA All-Time Greats: Jordan takes the GOAT title with 90s run

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I’ll be 42 next month. I started watching the NBA religiously when I was 8 or 9. 

The 90s represents the start of when I fell in love with the game.

I started my first job at 14. I worked part-time at The Pretzel Peddler in Southland Mall. I used my first couple of checks to buy a 13-inch TV/VCR combo. I recorded every televised game I could.

The rankings in the previous editions of this series come mostly from research and reading about the players of those decades. From the 90s on, there’ll be some of that, but I’ve watched the majority of the soon-to-be-mentioned players’ careers.

If the 80s is the decade that saved the NBA, the 90s took the game worldwide.

More games were televised, through deals with NBC and Turner. That gives us the still iconic “Roundball Rock” theme music used by NBC for its coverage. More and more players became celebrities. More and more players got shoe deals. I contend that the mid to late-90s will always be the peak of basketball sneakerdom.

The 90s brought us the Dream Team, as NBA players were thrust into Olympic action to restore order in the world. The 90s were a great time. I mean, we got Inside Stuff in the 90s!

We also got the peak of the best basketball player who ever lived.

As always, we start with the five best players of the decade, regardless of position.

Michael Jordan

Full disclosure: I adore Jordan. I know I’m not the only one, but for a kid growing up in the 90s, I thought Mike was a superhero. His was the first jersey I ever owned. When I finally got my first pair of Js (the 11 low Tuxedo) shortly before I turned 32, I got a big grin on my face every time I slipped them on. We know all the particulars: best player on six title teams in the 90s, two three-peats, four MVPs in the decade (should’ve been six, but, whatever), first-team All-League and All-Defense every full season he played in the 90s, highest per-game scoring average of all time, best sneaker pitchman ever, probably the greatest competitor alongside Bill Russell. Jordan changed the game. At 6-foot-6, Mike from the 1987-88 season through the Last Shot in Utah, was the best offensive player and the best defensive player in the league. He overwhelmed opposing players and teams with his scoring. When it was time to lock down an opponent’s best player, he did it. Jordan over that span, at that height, was the best post player in the league. In a league that featured greats like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson, Jordan was almost automatic when he got the ball on either block. When Jordan returned in 1995 following his first retirement, he developed these crafty post moves, showing footwork only a handful of other players have ever exhibited. Mike late in his Bulls tenure broke out this move where he’d get the ball on either block (at 3:22 here), back a defender down and take a couple of dribbles, fake a fadeaway jumper and step through for a little layup. It was beautiful. As a guard, Jordan for his career shot nearly 50 percent from the floor. He didn’t hit 3s at a particularly decent rate. Jordan had so many hot spots on the court he didn’t need to take a lot of 3s. I think Mike is the best player of all time. Once his Bulls got past the Pistons in 1991, they owned the decade like only the 60s Celtics did prior. The Bulls lost three straight early in the 1990-91 season, the year of their first championship. Chicago didn’t lose three in a row again with Jordan on the roster. Jordan turned it up when the lights shined brightest. His already-historic scoring average (30.1 ppg) increased by more than 3 points a game in the playoffs. In 126 playoff games in the 90s, Jordan in the decade played more than 41 minutes per game. Then there are the moments: the most amazing layup I’ve ever seen, the ferocious baseline dunk on Patrick Ewing in the 91 east semifinals, the spectacular move in the 91 Finals, The Shrug in 92, all of the 93 Finals, the Double Nickel,  the buzzer beater in 97. I know what you’re thinking. “Jordan fans always forget to mention the Bulls losing to Orlando in 95.” That series started less than two months after Jordan returned. That Magic team had continuity. The series was tied 2-2 before Orlando won the next two games by a combined 14 points. That loss pushed Jordan and the Bulls to work harder than ever in that offseason and led to the best start-to-finish season in NBA history — a run that included a sweep of that same Orlando team in the 96 East Finals. At the end of the Bulls run, Jordan dragged that team to the 98 title. Scottie Pippen’s back was so mangled he could barely move. Dennis Rodman’s sideshow act was becoming too much. In the 2-3-2 series format, Utah in 1998 had the last two games on its home floor, when The Delta Center was the loudest arena in the league. The Jazz led for most of Game 6. Then Jordan put together the most memorable 41 second stretch in history to cement his place as the best player ever.


Hakeem Olajuwon

While Jordan was off riding a bus in the minors, Olajuwon over two seasons took the vacated title of best in the world. Olajuwon’s Rockets became just the fourth team in history to win back-to-back championships. Olajuwon’s 1994 run was one for the ages. He won his only MVP that season and a second straight Defensive Player of the Year award. Dream led that Rockets team to the title when its second-best player was Otis Thorpe. No shade to Otis, but, c’mon. The Rockets in 1995 slept-walked through much of the season, but turned this on in the playoffs. Houston swept the Magic team that eliminated Jordan’s Bulls, and Dream stood tall as the best big man in the world. Olajuwon in the 95 playoffs emasculated 1995 MVP David Robinson and outplayed Shaquille O’Neal in back-to-back rounds. Olajuwon in those two runs put up 28.9 and 33 points per game, respectively. In the 1994 playoffs, he averaged 4 blocks a game in 23 games. Olajuwon in the 90s had six straight years where he averaged at least 3.5 blocks a game. When he retired, Olajuwon ranked in the top 10 in steals and blocks. Offensively, he had the best footwork I’ve ever seen. The Dream Shake is a move that can’t be imitated. Olajuwon developed a reliable mid-range jumper. He also had an underrated handle. Olajuwon is the sixth-best center of all-time, but his skillset makes him the starting center for my All-Time Team. Dream was one of the best two-way players of all time and has become one of the more underrated players ever, despite being one of the 16-17 best players of all time. He’s so good that players from the next generation often sought him out to help with their footwork. 


Karl Malone

If you look at his stats, you’d think Karl Malone was one of the five best players of all time. Malone is third all time in scoring. His 14 All-NBA teams are third most in history. Malone from 1989-90 to 1997-98 averaged at least 25.2 points per game every year. He even made three straight All-Defensive teams late in the 90s. The numbers are all there. The team success is there too. Malone’s Jazz advanced to the West Finals five times in seven years in the 90s. Utah played in the Finals in 1997 and 1998, falling to Jordan’s Bulls both times. I know Malone was great. There’s something missing, though. One title really can make a difference in how you’re perceived. Malone never got that title. I never saw Utah as a threat to Chicago in those two late-90s Finals matchups. Utah even had homecourt in 1998 and couldn’t close the deal. The Jazz had a chance to steal Game 1 of the 97 Finals in Chicago, but Malone failed to come through in the clutch. His counterpart on the other side didn’t have that problem. History shows Malone has two MVPs to his credit. He probably shouldn’t have won either. Malone in 1997 edged Jordan out for the award. Malone earned 29 more points than Jordan in the voting and nine more first-place votes. That’s despite Jordan averaging more points per game, more minutes, more steals and virtually the same number of blocks. Jordan also had higher win shares and higher win shares per 48 minutes. Malone won a similarly close vote in the shortened 1999 season, edging out Alonzo Mourning and Tim Duncan for the award. It was just Duncan’s second year in the league, but I’d argue he should have won his first MVP in 1999. Duncan was a catalyst of a Spurs team that went 37-13 that year and finished with same record as Malone’s Jazz. Duncan’s scoring output was similar to Malone’s. The second-year player averaged more rebounds and nearly two more blocks per game than Malone. But he’s got two MVPs on his resume. And the numbers are eye-popping. You can’t help but believe Malone left a lot on the table.

David Robinson

Few players walk into the league who can make an immediate impact. Robinson was one of those talents. David Robinson’s career started in 1989 after he completed two years of service with the U.S. Navy. While at the Naval Academy, Robinson led the Midshipmen to the Elite Eight in 1986. The Admiral in his rookie season earned Rookie of the Year honors. Robinson in 1990 was also named to the All-Defensive second team and third-team All-NBA. As a rookie, Robinson put up 24.3 points per game, 12 rebounds per contest and 3.9 blocks per game. Robinson in the decade earned eight All-NBA nods, including four first-team awards. Robinson’s All-Defense honors match his All-League awards. He also won the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year award, when he averaged 4.5 blocks a game — fifth-best in a season in league history. I thought Robinson was a robot. He was the most physically imposing basketball player I’d ever seen. I didn’t think you could play basketball at a high level with a body like Robinson’s, but he did it for a long time. Robinson in the decade had five top-three finishes in the MVP vote, winning the award in 1995. Robinson was clearly the best player in the league that season, taking 61 more first-place votes than Shaq, who finished in second place. Robinson ran up against a highly-motivated Olajuwon in the West Finals, leading to the Spurs star developing a reputation as a soft player. There was nothing soft about Robinson. He just ran up against a better player. Robinson in the 1996-97 preseason suffered a back injury that kept him out of the team’s first 18 games. He came back, broke his foot after playing six games and missed the rest of the season. That led to San Antonio winning the 1997 NBA Draft lottery and drafting Tim Duncan, who developed into the best power forward ever and was the driving force of five Spurs title teams. Robinson after years of being far and away the best player the Spurs had settled into a complementary role next to Duncan, winning his first title in 1999. The Spurs would win another title in 2003 — Robinson’s last year. 

Scottie Pippen

I debated going with Charles Barkley here. Pippen’s contributions to six title teams can’t go understated, though. Scottie Pippen more often than most spent more time on the opposition’s best wing player than Jordan did. Pippen earned nine All-Defense team nods in the decade, including eight straight first-team awards. Pippen in the decade also made All-NBA in seven straight seasons. In the season following Jordan’s retirement in 1993, Pippen led the Bulls to 55 wins and finished third in the MVP vote. That season remains the reasoning some people use to argue against Jordan’s status as the GOAT. Pippen did it all for those 90s Bulls teams: he scored, he passed, he rebounded, he defended. In the 1998 run, chronicled in the great documentary “The Last Dance,” Pippen’s back failed him for much of the season. He was still on the court for all 21 playoff games. You can see the pain in his face in the Game 6 title clincher in Utah, as he grimaces upon coming down from a short hook attempt. Pippen added to his legacy by helping Portland to two West Finals in 1999 and 2000. Had the 2000 Blazers not blown a huge lead to the Lakers in Game 7 of the 2000 West Finals, Pippen could very well have seven rings.

Honorable mention

Charles Barkley: the1993 MVP who made the Phoenix Suns a title contender

John Stockton: durable point guard who still holds the record for most career assists and steals

Joe Dumars: underrated guard who gave Jordan fits

Grant Hill: the biggest individual “what if” in league history, Hill was on his way to superstardom before injuries held him back.

Clyde Drexler: Drexler did more than ride shotgun with Olajuwon on the way to his first ring in 1995. Drexler, who led Portland to two Finals in the early 90s, in the 1995 Finals averaged 21.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game.

Gary Payton: the best defensive guard of all-time. And one of the best trash talkers too.

Shaquille O’Neal: Young Shaq was slim and a beast. He developed into one of the five best centers ever.

Dikembe Mutombo: One of the best defensive players ever, Mutombo won three Defensive Player of the Year awards over a four-year span in the 90s.

Reggie Miller: I’m reluctantly including Miller on the list. Reggie’s teams played in four conference Finals in the decade.

Patrick Ewing: Ewing’s knees robbed him of a better place in history. Still, he’s one of the best centers ever.

Penny Hardaway: Like Hill, Hardaway is an ultimate “what if.” Only Magic had played point guard so well at that size before the 6-foot-7 Penny came along.

Tomorrow: the 2000s.

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