B/R NBA All-Decade Teams: Who Ruled the '90s?
Some say the 1990s marked the NBA's golden age. We aren't here to argue it one way or another.
We're just going to celebrate the decade's best ballers in the latest installment of B/R's All-Decade teams.
As a refresher, we're trying to turn this subjective exercise into a mostly objective assignment. Intangibles like impact and stardom have their place in the discussion, but we're more concerned with stats (traditional and advanced) and achievements (titles, end-of-season honors, etc.).
We'll hand out five honorable mentions before diving into the first and second teams comprised of the traditional designations: two guards, two forwards and one center.
Let the hand-checking commence as we wind our way through the '90s, defined here as the 1989-90 to 1998-99 seasons.
Armed with a killer crossover, an eye for open teammates and (for the time) a fiery three-point shot, Hardaway was an offensive eruption waiting to happen. He averaged 20-plus points five times during the decade—despite losing the entire 1993-94 season to a torn ACL—and in four of those seasons, he put up at least 9.3 assists per night, too.
His production didn't always yield team success, so his accolades weren't quite what his numbers said they could've been. He made the All-Star and All-NBA teams five times, but he made All-NBA first team and finished higher than sixth in MVP voting only once. That's enough to keep him off our first two teams, but he's obviously worth a mention as the decade's 11th-best scorer, third-best distributor and sixth-best outside shooter.
Miller arrived in Indiana as the 11th overall pick in 1987, which gave him just enough time to find his footing before the '90s opened so he could hit the ground sprinting when they did. He averaged 24.6 points on 51.4/41.4/86.8 shooting in 1989-90, setting the stage for a decade of electric scoring, elite sniping and unmatched efficiency.
Only six players scored more points in the 90s, and no one approached his marksmanship. His 62.5 true shooting percentage paced all qualified players, and he had the decade's three-point lead by 274 triples. He booked five All-Star trips in the '90s, although he never made All-NBA first or second teams (three third-team selections) or landed among the top 12 in MVP voting.
It shortchanges Kemp's game to only talk about his dunking. But it disrespects his aerial artistry to start the discussion anywhere else. The NBA put together a highlight reel of his 50 greatest rim-rockers, and it had to open the video with another minute's worth of honorable mentions. He soared in a way that 6'10", 230-pounders shouldn't be allowed to soar, and he would let everyone know when he yammed on someone. (Ask Alton Lister.)
Kemp turned himself into an All-Star regular and helped fashion the Sonics into Finals participants. He was a six-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA second-teamer, plus the decade's No. 14 scorer and No. 9 rebounder. If only someone had tracked his highlight dunks per contest, which surely put him in either an elite group or a class all of his own.
The first jackpot prize of the NBA's initial draft lottery, Ewing's career lived up to and often exceeded colossal expectations. Say what you will about his lack of rings—'90s superstars not named Michael Jordan litter the discussion of the game's greatest players who didn't win a title—Ewing was an almost unstoppable force of two-way production. He made the Knicks annual postseason participants, and they usually won at least one series.
It almost feels impossible that he can't get one of the official spots here, since his '90s averages included 24.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 2.2 assists. He enjoyed eight All-Star selections, five All-NBA honors (including one first team) and an All-Defensive election. But much like his jewelry count, his omission comes back to unfortunate timing—as great as he was in the decade, two centers were a pinch better.
When O'Neal rolled into the Association as the top pick of the 1992 draft, his impact on the league was astronomical almost from the start. He averaged roughly 23 points, 14 boards and 3.5 blocks as a rookie. For his follow-up, he went for nearly 30 points a night on 59.9 percent shooting. During a golden age of big men, O'Neal looked the most Wilt Chamberlain-esque for his complete domination.
The NBA isn't the same without O'Neal. His dunks were so vicious that backup baskets became necessities. He was such a nightmare matchup around the rim, the league legalized zone defense. He had a hundred nicknames, a thousand highlights and a million memorable moments.
But remember, this isn't about player careers, but rather how each fared during this specific time period. That's where O'Neal falls just shy of the first- or second-team center spots. He was left out of the first three years of the decade, and the top centers padded their leads just enough during that time to hold him off.
Guard: Gary Payton
Payton was a pest. He was constantly in his opponents' airspace, bothering them with size (6'4"), great hands and seemingly inexhaustible supplies of toughness and tenacity.
Drafted second overall in 1990, The Glove played nine seasons during the decade and punctuated six with All-Defensive first-team honors. He was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1995-96, and he remains the only point guard to capture that hardware.
While defense formed the foundation of Payton's identity, he eventually surged into stardom at both ends. Over the decade's final five seasons, he averaged 20.4 points on 47.4 percent shooting and 7.7 assists. He made six All-NBA appearances in the '90s, including first-team honors in 1997-98.
He might've been the most talented player at the position during the decade. His impact was just as incredible, as the Sonics surged to prominence under his watch. In 1995-96, the Chicago Bulls lost just 13 times all season, including the playoffs, and three of those defeats came against Seattle.
Payton could make a strong case for the first team, but he wasn't quite as dominant for quite as long as the two guards who made the cut.
Guard: Clyde Drexler
While Father Time would catch Drexler before the decade ended, he bounced into it like he had a pair of moon boots on his feet. He was gliding as effortlessly as ever and piling up production by the busload.
Drexler played 608 regular-season games during the '90s—most of them during his 30s—and used them to deliver per-night contributions of 20.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
He had size, handles, flashy footwork and an outside shot that was there when he needed it. Although he fell short of a title in Portland, he pushed the Blazers to a pair of Finals berths. A midseason move to Houston at the 1994-95 deadline finally put a championship ring on his finger, and he finished first or second on the Rockets in points, assists, rebounds and steals during that playoff run.
If he didn't peak at the same time as Michael Jordan, Drexler's career might be received differently. But even as it stands, he was one of the decade's greats as a seven-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA selection (once on the first team) and the silver medalist in the 1991-92 MVP race.
Forward: Grant Hill
This might be the most contested spot of all. Kemp came close to claiming it. Dominique Wilkins, Dennis Rodman, Chris Mullin and Tim Duncan can all make their own arguments. Hill's case is compelling, but it's far from airtight, since he didn't come on the scene until the decade was already half-finished.
Once he arrived, though, he made a splash like few others in history. While he shared the Rookie of the Year honors with Jason Kidd, Hill's buzz was on a different level. His Pistons jersey was seen on courts from coast to coast. His All-Star support was almost Beatles-like. He paced everyone in votes as a rookie in 1994-95 and then did the same in 1995-96, Michael Jordan's first full season back from his baseball break.
Before injuries got the best of him, Hill was otherworldly. His '90s arsenal included everything but an outside shot. His '90s numbers included per-game averages of 20.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 1.6 steals. For context, only three other players—Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Russell Westbrook—have matched that production for an entire season.
While Hill couldn't match the longevity of our first-team forwards, neither of them were ever identified as Jordan's heir apparent the way he was.
Forward: Charles Barkley
The calendar didn't cooperate with Chuck. He didn't see enough of the '80s to snag a first-team spot for that decade, and he didn't put enough of his peak into this decade to justify one here. But given the levels he maintained in the '90s, it's wild to think they weren't all his prime years.
Barkley combined skill, strength and tenacity into an often unstoppable package. He could bully defenders down on the low block, outrun them in the open court, take them off the bounce or finish right through them. Generously listed at 6'6", he still tracked down the decade's sixth-most rebounds. He also scored the ninth-most points and even dished the 33rd-most dimes.
Barkley posted the decade's fifth-most win shares and had the fourth-highest box plus/minus. He made eight All-Star appearances, earned seven All-NBA selections (three on the first team) and took home the 1992-93 MVP award. He's closer to jumping to the first team than falling to an honorable mention, but some injury-riddled seasons to close out the decade sabotaged his chances.
Center: David Robinson
Impossibly athletic for his size (7'1" and 235 pounds), Robinson was a cheat code from the start.
As a rookie, he became the second player to sweep the Rookie of the Month awards, made his first of many All-Star appearances, claimed an All-NBA third-team spot, landed on the All-Defensive second team and averaged 24.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.9 blocks, 2.0 assists and 1.7 steals.
That was just the beginning.
He claimed a rebounding title in year two and a blocks title the following season. In 1993-94, his fifth year in the league, he snagged the scoring crown with 29.8 points per game and became the second player ever to average 29 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks, a distinction he still shares with only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Objectively speaking, Robinson has the strongest resume among all of the non-first-teamers. He was an MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year and a champion, all in this decade. He was an eight-time All-Star and an eight-time All-NBA honoree, making four appearances on the first team. He contributed the second-most win shares of anyone. But he was never the best player on a championship team, and our first-team center was—twice.
First-Team Guard: John Stockton
While positional designations evolve, most hoops heads can still conjure an image upon hearing the term pure point guard. It's the classic pass-first floor general, an organizer at both ends who works feverishly to elevate the players around him.
That's John Stockton in a nutshell.
The 16th pick in 1984 became the Association's standard-setter for table-setting and maybe the peskiest head-of-the-snake we've seen. Not only does he hold the all-time leads in assists and steals, but he's still awaiting his first serious challenger in either category.
"There is nobody that can distribute the ball, plus lead his team, like John Stockton," Magic Johnson told reporters in 1995. "He is the best at it."
The Jazz never missed the playoffs in the '90s, and they reached the Western Conference finals five times in a seven-year span. He punched Utah's ticket to the 1997 Finals by burying a buzzer-beating series-clincher over Charles Barkley to close out the conference finals. He made nine All-NBA appearances in the decade and four on the All-Defensive squad.
His fingerprints were all over Utah's success, and only three players produced more win shares.
First-Team Guard: Michael Jordan
Asking who ruled the '90s is essentially no different than asking for Michael Jordan's career retrospective.
He was the best story in basketball, even when he was playing baseball. His combination of volume, consistency and efficiency was rarely seen in anyone, let alone a perimeter player. But he was such an absurdly skilled talent that even other elites took awe.
"There's Michael Jordan, and there there is the rest of us," Magic Johnson quipped, per NBA.com.
As John Starks would later write in The Players' Tribune: "He was probably one of the only guys in the league who had no weaknesses in his game. You'd get the scouting report and it would basically say, 'Good luck.'"
That luck was never enough. Jordan, who often dismantled out of merciless isolations, was in his own weight class of offensive production. Between the baseball sabbatical and his second retirement in Jan. 1999, he only played seven complete seasons during the decade. He was the scoring champ in all seven and a 49.5-plus-percent shooter in five of them.
Karl Malone, who has scored the second-most points in NBA history, had the decade's second-highest scoring average at 27.2 points per game. Jordan obliterated that mark with 30.8, a number that would have been the NBA's best in nine of the last 12 seasons.
He redefined what it meant to be an NBA superstar with unprecedented marketability off the court and unmatched skill on it. His '90s accomplishments—keep in mind, he played only the seven full seasons and 17 games of another—included six championships, six Finals MVPs, four MVP awards, seven All-NBA first-team honors and seven All-Defensive first-team selections.
He was the greatest player of his era, if not the overall GOAT.
First-Team Forward: Scottie Pippen
Swiss army knives are envious of Scottie Pippen's versatility.
The 6'8" do-it-all forward handled the sidekick role better than even Robin did. Pippen may have had alpha scoring ability—in his first season without Jordan, he put up 22.0 points per game on 49.1 percent shooting—but pursuing the Bulls' greatest good usually meant finding other ways to impact the game.
While some expert support pieces specialize in one or two areas, Pippen checked the all of the above boxes. He always dominated defensively, but on offense, he might facilitate one trip and then finish on the next. He could improve the offensive air quality by providing extra space or get his hands dirty on the offensive glass.
Whatever Chicago needed, Pippen provided.
"Scottie would score four points and dominate the game," former teammate Steve Kerr said, per Bulls.com's Sam Smith. "That's what made him one of the best to ever play the game."
Pippen's decade of excellence filled his hand with championship rings and then some.
He won six titles in all, and despite typically sharing the floor with Jordan, Pippen counted five top-10 MVP voting finishes among his '90s accomplishments. Also on that list: nine All-Defensive honors, seven All-Star selections, seven All-NBA appearances and top-30 rankings in points (10th), rebounds (21st), assists (11th), steals (third) and blocks (27th).
First-Team Forward: Karl Malone
Karl Malone's muscles had muscles.
There was plenty more to his game than brute strength, but if you were in the way of where he was trying to go—often rolling to the rim off a screen for Stockton—he could usually just bulldoze you out of the path.
"He was like a video game," Carlos Boozer said in 2018, via Jody Genessy of the Deseret News. "He was just so strong, and his jump shot was wet from anywhere on the court."
Malone earned the nickname Mailman, as if mail carriers are actually as consistent as he was.
He played 785 of 788 possible games during the decade, scoring over 3,000 more points than anyone else and snagging more rebounds than anyone not named Dennis Rodman. Malone's per-game marks for the entire decade were 27.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Most players don't post those numbers together once, but he made it another night at the office for 10 consecutive years.
His All-NBA first-team spot never changed hands for the entire decade. His two MVPs made him the only player other than Jordan to take home the trophy twice in the '90s. He was an All-Star every year he could be—the event was cancelled during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season—a seven-time top-five MVP finisher and a three-time All-Defensive first-teamer.
The frontcourts were ferocious in the '90s, but Malone was on another level than his peers.
First-Team Center: Hakeem Olajuwon
If Shaquille O'Neal was Superman, a defensive assignment on Hakeem Olajuwon was his kryptonite.
"He's a guy that you couldn't study," O'Neal said in 2013, per Houston Mitchell of the Los Angeles Times. "... He would go left, he would go right, so you really couldn't study for him. The best defense was put your hands up and hope he misses."
Olajuwon had the footwork of a soccer star and the soft touch of an expert dart thrower. He could destroy single coverage, pick apart helping defenses as a passer or, if the low block got overcrowded, step away from the basket and stick a jumper. He had a seemingly endless array of spins, half-spins and fakes, collectively dubbed the Dream Shake, and he could free himself at will.
Teams had almost no chance to stop him, and he stormed into the '90s with eight straight seasons of more than 21 points per game.
With all of that said, he wasn't just a scorer. In fact, point production typically took a backseat to point prevention. He opened the decade with both rebounds and blocks titles, and he then led the league in rejections in two of the next three seasons. All told, he was the decade's leader in blocks and its big-man leader in steals.
He won a pair of Defensive Player of the Year awards, a pair of Finals MVPs and the 1993-94 regular-season MVP. He made eight All-NBA teams (three first teams) and six All-Defensive teams (three first teams). He led the Rockets to their first and second (and, as of now, only) world titles.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.