Ranking the 10 Best NBA Teams of the 1990s

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2020

Ranking the 10 Best NBA Teams of the 1990s

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    The NBA has been on hiatus for a whopping four months. And though the season's reboot is looming, the league's history remains a captivating topic of conversation.

    As we barrel toward the continuation of 2019-20, let's look at the best teams the NBA has ever produced.

    We already broke down the 2010s and 2000s. Now, let's look at the 1990s.

    Of course, you'll hear plenty about Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls here. It's tough to imagine any of the six title teams losing to any other squad from the decade, but there were some other stars and teams that made names for themselves in the '90s.

    Hakeem Olajuwon snuck in two titles. Karl Malone and John Stockton pushed MJ and Scottie Pippen. Tim Duncan made his debut before dominating the 2000s. And Isiah Thomas was the last star to take it to Jordan before his first three-peat.

    To see where they all fall, scroll through the article. But first, some words on how we reached this order.

Methodology

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    *Takes a deep digital breath...

    The methodology for this project was fairly complex.

    First, one hard-and-fast rule was instituted: To qualify, teams had to make it to the NBA Finals. That eliminated a couple of regular-season powerhouses that fell apart in the playoffs, including the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers (eliminated from the 2000s list and the Top 50 of All Time list coming soon).

    Next, the following numbers for each of the remaining teams were found:

    • Playoff and regular-season winning percentage
    • Playoff and regular-season simple rating system (combination of point differential and strength of schedule)
    • Playoff and regular-season offensive rating (team's points per 100 possessions minus the league average)
    • Playoff and regular-season defensive rating (team's points allowed per 100 possessions minus the league average)
    • Playoff and regular-season net rating (points per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions)

    Points were also awarded to each team based on whether it won the title.

    With all those numbers in place, the entire group was sorted by the average of their ranks in those numbers with extra weight given to regular-season and postseason winning percentage, postseason net rating and whether it was a championship team.

    That gave us a baseline. A couple of judgment calls were made here and there. For the most part, though, the statistical criteria remained our guide.

    And finally, each of the 1990s teams from the exercise was separated from the group.

    (For the purposes of these articles, decades will be defined as years zero through nine, with the year in which a season ended being used for counting purposes. For example, the 1990s will be the 1989-90 season through the 1998-99 season).

    *Phew...

10. 1993-94 Houston Rockets

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    Believe it or not, Hakeem Olajuwon's title teams actually struggled a bit under the objective criteria. Among every team sampled (so we're talking all of NBA history here), regular-season relative defensive rating was the only number in which the 1993-94 Houston Rockets ranked in the top 50. And they fared much better than the 1994-95 team.

    When the 1990s teams were separated from the group, this Rockets squad still didn't crack the top 10. It just didn't feel right to omit Olajuwon and the only team to interrupt MJ's reign, though. So, this is one of those judgment calls mentioned in the methodology slide.

    This particular Houston squad featured Hakeem's lone MVP season and his second-best individual campaign by box plus/minus. He averaged 41.0 minutes, 27.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.7 blocks and 1.6 steals.

    Then he somehow got even better in the playoffs, posting 28.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 4.0 blocks and 1.7 steals in 43.0 minutes per game.

    With MJ off playing baseball, the league suddenly belonged to The Dream.

    "It's a joke how good he is," Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh said ahead of the 1994 Finals. "He's the best player in the league, and there's nothing you can do with him."

    With Jordan gone, that was a tough sentiment to challenge, especially after the Rockets secured that 1994 championship.

    This wasn't entirely a one-man show, though. Houston also received solid contributions from a young Robert Horry, Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, Mario Elie and Sam Cassell that season.

    And, as seems to be the case with the modern Rockets, they were ahead of the analytical curve, leading the NBA in three-point attempts per 100 possessions.

    The attack wasn't quite as triple-heavy as those of today's teams, but the philosophy of surrounding a dominant big with shooting is something that still resonates.

9. 1996-97 Utah Jazz

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    The only non-championship team in the top 10, the 1996-97 Utah Jazz were a powerhouse that just happened to peak in the middle of Jordan's second three-peat.

    Karl Malone won the MVP that season with averages of 27.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.4 steals. The Jazz, who went 64-18, were plus-11.7 points per 100 possessions with Malone on the floor and minus-10.2 with him off.

    John Stockton was a few years past his prime, but he was still plenty impactful too. His 14.4 points and 10.5 assists gave him a 10th straight campaign with a double-double average (he put up 15.6 points, 12.8 assists and 2.6 steals over that decade-long stretch).

    And Jeff Hornacek (14.5 points and 4.4 assists with a 59.6 true shooting percentage) and Bryon Russell (10.8 points with a 60.0 true shooting percentage) were solid too. They ranked 22nd and 48th, respectively, in box plus/minus that season, giving Utah four players in the top 50 (Malone and Stockton were third and fifth).

    But after a relatively painless 11-3 run through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Utah found itself matched up against Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman and the reigning champion Bulls.

    Chicago won the series in six games, but the Jazz were only outscored by four points in the aggregate.

8. 1989-90 Detroit Pistons

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    The 1989-90 Detroit Pistons won the organization's second consecutive title behind Isiah Thomas, one of the greatest postseason performers in NBA history.

    For his career, Thomas is 16th in NBA history in playoff box plus/minus. And in that particular postseason, he averaged 20.5 points, 8.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals.

    "Thomas, at 6 feet, is the only small man in the league who can make the game his," Michael Wilbon wrote in June of 1990. "... Ever since throwing that errant pass to Larry Bird in Boston Garden three years ago, Isiah Thomas has been as clutch a player as there is in the league. Jordan included."

    In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls, Thomas did indeed make the game his, finishing with 21 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. For the second straight year, he led his team over the game's brightest individual star.

    But these Pistons were much more than a one-man show. Joe Dumars averaged 17.8 points and shot 40.0 percent from three that season. James Edwards pitched in with 14.5 points. Mark Aguirre added 14.1. And Vinnie Johnson put up 9.8 off the bench.

    Of course, it wasn't all about guards and wings. One of the hallmarks of this team was the bruising corps of big men. John Salley was an elite rim protector, averaging 1.9 blocks in just 23.3 minutes. Dennis Rodman won his second straight Defensive Player of the Year. And Bill Laimbeer was an early pioneer for stretch bigs. He averaged 12.1 points and a team-leading 2.0 three-point attempts per game while shooting 36.1 percent from deep.

    This squad was deep, gritty and led by a superstar.

7. 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs

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    From the champions who opened the decade to the ones who closed it, the 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs featured one of the best frontcourts in NBA history.

    San Antonio's so-called Twin Towers boasted Tim Duncan and David Robinson, two defensive juggernauts with plenty of offensive skill to boot.

    In just his second season, Duncan averaged 21.7 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.4 assists. He finished third in MVP voting.

    Robinson, meanwhile, may have been past his prime, but he still managed to put up 15.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 2.1 assists per game.

    When both were on the floor, the Spurs were plus-12.7 points per 100 possessions. And they were even more dominant in the heightened intensity of the playoffs. Their two-man net rating that postseason was plus-19.3.

    It wasn't always smooth sailing, though. San Antonio started the season 6-8, and the offense appeared congested. It wasn't until Robinson, who entered that campaign trailing only MJ in career box plus/minus, took something of a backseat that things started to click.

    "If he was a jerk, if he had no character, if he wasn't smart enough to know it's for the good of the team, I'd have all kinds of problems," Popovich said.

    Robinson's example of selflessness seemed to rub off on Duncan, who led the Spurs through one of the game's greatest stretches of team basketball with the same sort of humility.

    Elsewhere on the 1998-99 roster, the Spurs got solid contributions from Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson, Mario Elie and Jaren Jackson. But ultimately, this title-winning team was mostly about the Hall of Fame bigs.

6. 1992-93 Chicago Bulls

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    In Jordan's final pre-baseball season, he averaged 32.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.8 steals. He totaled 27.5 wins over replacement player (value over replacement player times 2.7). The rest of the 1992-93 Chicago Bulls totaled 19.7.

    Of course, this team had plenty of talent beyond MJ. Horace Grant averaged double figures and provided his typically versatile defense. B.J. Armstrong was one of the game's best three-point threats. And Pippen was named to his fourth All-Star team thanks to point forward abilities that were far less common in the early '90s.

    But the clearest difference between Chicago and the rest of the league was the presence of the GOAT, who was motivated in part by a rival winning that regular season's MVP honors.

    "I was a little bit upset that I didn't get the MVP that year and they gave it to Charles Barkley," Jordan said during ESPN's The Last Dance. "But with that said, OK, fine, you can have that. I'm going to get this."

    "This" was the title. And that postseason, MJ averaged 35.1 points and 6.0 assists while shooting 38.9 percent from deep and connecting on a playoff career-high 28 threes.

5. 1991-92 Chicago Bulls

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    On the off chance there's anyone left who thinks Jordan might've had a tougher time dominating today's three-heavy game, they need not look much further than the 1991-92 Chicago Bulls' Finals victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

    "Clyde was a threat," Jordan said of Portland's Clyde Drexler during The Last Dance. "But me being compared to him, I took offense to that."

    In Game 1 against Drexler's Blazers, Jordan drilled six threes in the first half before giving the world his famous shrug. Jordan would finish that 33-point blowout with 39 points and 11 assists.

    For the series, he averaged 35.8 points and shot 42.9 percent from three (Drexler averaged 24.8 points and shot 15.0 percent from deep).

    In the regular season, the Bulls got a monster season out of Pippen. The do-it-all forward averaged 21.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks. Grant was stellar, as well, averaging 14.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals. And after that, Chicago had four more players between 7.0 and 9.9 points per game.

    Though many of the names were the same, this was a deeper and more balanced team than the 1992-93 version. That was largely because of better performances from Pippen and Grant.

4. 1997-98 Chicago Bulls

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    The subject of The Last Dance, the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls may have missed Pippen for much of the season and been mired in drama for most of it, but they still emerged from the playoffs as champions.

    For the second straight season, the Bulls topped the Jazz in the Finals. And this series gave us one of the most iconic images and moments of Jordan's career.

    With time winding down in Game 6 and Chicago in possession (thanks to Jordan stealing the ball from Malone a few seconds earlier), Jordan isolated on Bryon Russell on the left wing. After a hard dribble right, Jordan stopped, crossed over to his left, sent Russell flying and shot the pull-up that proved to be the Finals sealer.

    The familiar follow-through was the perfect way to end his run with the Bulls.

    That regular season, Jordan had finally started to show signs of mortality. His 6.9 box plus/minus trailed those of Robinson and Malone, and it was the second-lowest mark of his career (only his truncated 1994-95 was worse).

    But when it mattered most, Jordan was able to once again assert his dominance. That postseason, he averaged 32.4 points and comfortably led the NBA in wins over replacement player.

    It's always worth remembering Jordan didn't win these titles by himself, though. During the playoffs, Pippen, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr and Scott Burrell all posted above-average box plus/minuses. And Dennis Rodman was still one of the game's best rebounders and a versatile defender.

    Jordan is the greatest player of all time, but he had plenty of teammates who accentuated his abilities.

3. 1996-97 Chicago Bulls

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    The 10.7 simple rating system posted by the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls is tied with the 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks for the fifth-best mark in league history.

    They were an utterly dominant 69-13, with an offense that scored 7.7 more points per 100 possessions and allowed 4.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than that season's average team.

    At the time, Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum wondered if that was a good thing:

    "The NBA should write B.B. King a nice royalty check, because one of his hits is the theme song for this season. The Thrill Is Gone, baby, and it's been gone for quite a while, probably since Michael Jordan laced 'em up in training camp. Seven weeks remain in the regular season, but is there any reason the engravers should not get started on the championship trophy right now?"

    Modern NBA fans know this feeling well. It accompanied much of the Golden State Warriors' three seasons with Kevin Durant. And that's not the only similarity here.

    The length and athleticism of Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Kukoc allowed the Bulls to play something of a positionless game akin to today's. Chicago was plus-29.1 points per 100 possessions when those four were in the game, the best mark in the league among four-man lineups with at least as many minutes.

    Round that lineup up with Steve Kerr and the net rating jumps to 38.7.

    The Bulls seemingly discovered the key to modern basketball almost 20 years before the NBA at large.

2. 1990-91 Chicago Bulls

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    The 1990-91 Chicago Bulls, Jordan's first title team, weren't quite as dominant as the 1996-97 squad in the regular season, but their playoff dominance gives them the edge.

    • 1991 playoff Bulls: .882 winning percentage, 6.3 relative offensive rating, minus-6.9 relative defensive rating (minus is good here), 13.2 net rating
    • 1997 playoff Bulls: .789 winning percentage, 0.8 relative offensive rating, minus-5.7 relative defensive rating, 6.5 net rating

    The 1990-91 squad steamrolled the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons in an 11-1 run through the Eastern Conference. And in the Finals, they utterly dominated Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.

    The 49-point spread over the course of the series is tied with the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth-biggest in Finals history (and it's the biggest of any Bulls team).

    In terms of individual performances, Jordan was, as you might expect, absurd. He averaged 31.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.0 blocks in the regular season. He upped that assist average to 8.4 in the playoffs.

    Scottie Pippen was growing into the dominant point forward he'd one day become. He averaged 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.1 blocks in the regular season. 

    Those two, of course, were the foundation, but there were plenty of contributions from other Bulls. Grant was a defensive anchor and solid finisher. Armstrong was a spark plug off the bench. John Paxson and Craig Hodges were two of the game's best floor-spacers.

    Jordan had been established as a phenom long before 1991, but it wasn't until this specific supporting cast came along that he was able to break through for a title.

1. 1995-96 Chicago Bulls

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    Prior to the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' 72 wins seemed like one of those unbreakable sports records.

    That season, they led the NBA in simple rating system (their 11.8 is the second-best mark in NBA history), offensive rating and defensive rating.

    Jordan averaged 30.4 points, 4.3 assists and 2.2 steals. Pippen was good for 19.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Kukoc added 13.1 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 40.3 percent from three in 26.0 minutes off the bench. Kerr shot 51.5 percent from three on 2.9 attempts per game. And Rodman dominated the glass to the tune of 14.9 rebounds.

    Jordan was the main attraction, with Pippen as a worthy supporting actor. But there was talent and laser-focused execution up and down this roster that lasted well beyond the 72-win regular season.

    "We've had a very unique success this year, and I think we have a great team," Jordan said after securing the single-season wins record. "But we've still got a lot to prepare for. The regular season doesn't really count from here on out."

    In the playoffs, Chicago was nearly as dominant, outscoring teams by 12.1 points per 100 possessions (the fourth-best playoff net rating of all time) and going 15-3 on the way to the title.

    Fans may remember certain Bulls teams more than others. Statistically, 1995-96 was the climax of the Phil Jackson-led dynasty.

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