Michael Jordan was the best player of the 1990s by a truly massive margin. He's the greatest player in NBA history by a smaller, but still substantial, margin. No one ever approached him as a rival and came out ahead for more than a fleeting moment or two.
But one man did approach him as a partner and rose nearly to the level of His Airness for periods of time. One man did bolster Jordan's credentials by pushing the Chicago Bulls to six titles in eight years. And that man, of course, was Scottie Pippen.
Jordan's Bulls struggled in the playoffs until Phil Jackson and Pippen arrived. Chicago won its first title in Pippen's fourth season, as both he and MJ entered their primes. We've seen so many utility-knife small forwards come through the league, including LeBron James (the best of the type). Often, such a player is used to cover up the superstar's flaws. Jordan didn't have flaws, though, and all those Bulls teams really ever lacked was big man scoring.
Pippen wasn't the type to simply handle dirty work on behalf of Jordan. He was a hero unto himself, a master passer, scorer, rebounder and a superior defender to even His Airness. In fact, it's likely Pippen was better than Jordan in every category other than scoring/shooting. Admittedly, that's an important piece of basketball. But to star next to the best player ever and one-up him in key aspects of the game repeatedly? That says something major about Pippen's excellence.
Only one of Pippen's post-Bulls seasons -- 1998-99 with the Rockets -- is captured in this decade, leaving out his powerful run with the Blazers. That success in the early-'00s, which included a near title in 2000 as Portland was inches from beating the Lakers in the West finals, proved what many knew to be true: Pippen was the second best player in the league through the '90s.
We've talked about Jordan and Pippen. Here are 13 more awesome players from that decade.
The Dream was our third team center for the '80s, and he was pretty clearly No. 1 for the '90s. He famously led the Rockets to back-to-back titles in MJ's absence, trumping Patrick Ewing's Knicks and Shaquille O'Neal's Magic, winning Finals MVP both years. He won the league MVP in 1994, and back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards as well. Olajuwon was essentially the league's best player as soon as Jordan retired the first time -- he was at his peak while Pippen was still climbing. Olajuwon slid toward the end of the 90s, but he was without question the best center of the decade.
Malone nearly made our All-'80s team; there's no question he belongs high on the All-'90s squad. The question is where he belongs in relation to Charles Barkley given Pippen's claim on one first-team forward spot. Malone's pretty clearly the answer after you look at the honors each earned and the numbers. The Mailman won two MVPs in the decade to Barkley's one. He was First-Team All-NBA all 10 years of the '90s. Barkley nabbed three such honors. In addition to his two MVPs, Malone had five top-5 MVP finishes in the decade. Barkley had two. Sir Charles finished his career ranked No. 29 on the all-time NBA/ABA scoring list. Malone is, of course, No. 2. Barkley is much preferred in retirement; on the floor, Malone was better.
No explanation required.
Like his partner, Stockton nearly made the '80s team. Instead, he's an obvious first-team selection for the '90s as the best point guard of the decade. What's interesting is that at no point was Stockton ever considered one of the best players in the league. He never finished higher than seventh in MVP voting, and landed in the top-10 only twice in the '90s. But he was the consummate point guard and paired with Malone so incredibly that everyone still knew what he brought to the table. It can be argued that Malone's pair of MVPs were nods to Stockton's excellence as well. Stockton was a nasty, little defender, landing on four Second-Team All-Defenses along with a couple of first team All-NBAs and a bevy of lower honors.
NBA All-Decade Teams
Magic was way more important than Bird in the '80s
The Magic-Bird rivalry ushered in the modern era of the NBA, but that framing makes them seem like equals when the Lakers star really accomplished more.
NBA All-Decade Teams
Shaq was a phenom for the first part of the '90s, a megastar for the latter half and somehow got better in the '00s. Diesel debuted in 1992 and had the Magic in the playoffs by Year 2, in the Finals by Year 3 and heartbroken by Year 5. In L.A. he continued his reign, though his greatest individual and team successes came in 2000 and beyond. As it is, in the '90s Shaq had a scoring title, a string of All-Star nods and spots on the All-NBA teams every season. He also knocked on the MVP door quite a bit before winning his only one in 2000. This included a No. 7 finish as a rookie and a No. 2 finish to Hakeem in 1995.
See Karl Malone's entry.
Yes, I'm giving Duncan the second-team All-'90s nod off two seasons. He had teams tanking for him in 1997, and the Spurs got lucky. Duncan had led them to a championship by 1999. And that wasn't just any title run, it was perhaps the second-most dominant title run ever as Duncan led to the Spurs to a 15-2 record. Duncan was the Finals MVP a year after being the Rookie of the Year (a year after being the unanimous College Player of the Year). He actually finished third in MVP voting in 1999 in an extraordinarily tight race with Malone and Alonzo Mourning. In 1998, he landed on the All-Rookie, All-NBA and All-Defense teams. He was one of the few unanimous No. 1 overall picks (the first since Shaq and last before LeBron) who immediately lived up to all of the hype and began delivering on Day 1. And while two seasons is a light record to put him into the All-'90s team, the other forward options below him were clearly inferior.
PROFESSOR FLANNERY: With the exception of David Robinson over Shaq for second-team center, which is splitting hairs, Ziller and I are in lock-step on every other selection for the first and second team. Except for this one. Dennis Rodman was a cartoon villain and often a caricature of himself throughout most of the '90s, but he was also the best rebounder of his generation (if not ever), a great defender and a key contributor on four championship teams during the decade (five overall), including one of the best teams of all time. Tim Duncan was, is and will always be one of the greatest of all time, but considering the balance of the '90s, Rodman was more impactful.
Drexler led the Blazers to the Finals in 1990 and 1992, won a title with Hakeem in 1995, and was considered the second best shooting guard for at least the first half of the decade. He was a four-time All-Star starter in the '90s and made one First-Team All-NBA with a few lower honors. He also finished No. 2 to Jordan in 1992 MVP voting after a masterful 25-6-6 season. That campaign was in some ways Portland's last gasp, and MJ and Pippen snuffed the Blazers out in the Finals. Portland got punked out in the first round the following year, and midway through the '94-95 season, Drexler was shipped to Houston, where he had some good years and won that elusive title.
Miller was the successor to Drexler on the Not-Jordan-But-Still-Damn-Good level of shooting guards. He was, more importantly, the first lights-out three-point shooter in the league, a man known almost exclusively for his exploits beyond the arc. By his fifth season (1992), 30 percent of his shots taken were from beyond the arc; he got as high as 43 percent for a few seasons. In the modern game, that wouldn't be particularly noteworthy. In the '90s it was unheard of. He was deadly efficient from deep, and it's pretty amazing that despite the three gaining in use and importance at a rapid speed in the 2000s, Miller is still No. 2 all-time (behind Ray Allen) in makes. In terms of individual honors, he was never remotely in any MVP conversation, but he made four All-Star Games and three Third-Team All-NBAs in the '90s.
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He was Hakeem's Drexler for the bulk of the '90s, if that makes sense. Is it wrong to think that the most important thing that The Admiral -- who won a Rookie of the Year, a Defensive Player of the Year and a freaking MVP -- did for the Spurs was getting hurt in 1996-97, because that helped bring Duncan and dynasty? For what it's worth, Robinson could easily be above Shaq based on the 1999 title and his defensive prowess. Shaq just felt so much more important and ... good.
Hill's career is considered a disappointment because injuries robbed him of his prime, but we tend to forget why those injuries were so unfortunate: he was really damn good early on! While Hill's Detroit never had much playoff success, he starred as a Swiss Army Knife in the Pippen mold, racking up All-NBA nods and finishing No. 3 in 1997 MVP voting (far) behind Malone and Jordan.
FLANNERY: For the record, my third-team forwards were Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf. The Reign Man's legend is still strong, but we'd do well to remember that Schrempf averaged 17 points, 7 rebounds and four assists throughout the '90s, while being incredibly durable and posting a True Shooting Percentage of .598. He was a three-time All-Star and twice named Sixth Man of the Year. Hill was incredible over the second half of the '90s and his injuries didn't mount until the aughts, but Schrempf's prime simply lasted longer.
The best rebounder of all time. The most, uh, interesting character in modern basketball history. A five-time champion (four in the '90s). He won the first two DPOYs of the decade and made two All-Star teams, even. Going back to 1989, he appeared on an All-Defense team eight straight years. Critical piece of the Bad Boys and the second Jordan three-peat squad. Completely untenable on 29 of the 30 teams at any given point.
The Glove was an absolute workhorse -- he missed only two games in the entire 1990s. He was one versatile man, too: in addition to his famous defense, he moonlighted as a Reggian shooter in 1999-2000, leading the league in threes attempted and made plus racking up the most assists. (Yes, that's outside the 1990s. Just adding some flavor to the Payton story.) In the '90s, Payton had the masterful Finals run in 1996 plus a few years where Seattle looked like the absolute future. He was the 1996 DPOY and a perennial All-Star. And he eventually got his title in the 2000s ...
Homer alert. I don't care. Here in Northern California, we frequently argued that Rock -- not Drexler or Miller -- was the league's second-best shooting guard. Richmond made six straight All-Star teams in the '90s and was named All-Star MVP in 1995, which was actually the best moment for Sacramento fans to that point in the decade. The Kings' brief playoff run in 1996 was the next and final high point for Richmond's Hall of Fame stay in Sactown: The Kings peeled one game off of the brilliant Sonics. Richmond hung 37 points on Seattle in Game 2, tying the series and setting up what is the greatest crowd I've ever seen through the TV screen for Game 3. (The Kings lost that and the series. Oh well.) I'd be willing to hear cases for Kevin Johnson, Tim Hardaway and Glen Rice here if it weren't my first opportunity to get a King on a list.
FLANNERY: You're a homer. It should be Hardaway.
Patrick Ewing, Shawn Kemp, Isiah Thomas, Detlef Schrempf, Horace Grant, Kevin Johnson, Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, Joe Dumars, Glen Rice, Dikembe Mutombo, Chris Mullin, Penny Hardaway, Brad Daugherty, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Vin Baker, Rod Strickland, Larry Johnson.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
A FEW WORDS FROM FLANNERY ABOUT PATRICK EWING
The '90s belonged to the Chicago Bulls, but for every dominant team there must be a loser and so the decade was also marked by a long line of tragic figures. The ‘91 Bulls ended the Pistons and Lakers hold on the league and subsequent championship seasons denied the Blazers, Suns, Sonics and Jazz from reaching the summit. That, in turn, kept Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Karl Malone and John Stockton from championship validation in their prime. (Drexler and Payton won rings with other teams.)
The Bulls also lorded over the East as they repeatedly turned back the Cavs and Pacers during their run and dealt the Shaq-Penny Magic a death blow a year after Orlando became the last team to beat Michael Jordan in the playoffs. So many players and teams lived in Jordan's shadow during this decade, but none bore the marks of defeat more critically than Patrick Ewing and his star-crossed Knicks.
The Bulls swept New York in 1991 en route to their first title. They beat them in seven games in the second round the following year and in six during the 1993 conference finals. Few teams challenged Chicago like those Knicks, but challenging and defeating are two separate things. It wasn't until Jordan retired for the first time that the Knicks finally broke through in 1994, beating a Jordan-less Bulls squad in the conference semifinals. In keeping with their unfortunate legacy, they eventually lost in the Finals to Hakeem's Rockets.
With a brutalist defense as their calling card, the '90s Knicks were the logical extension of the Bad Boy Pistons, but without the offensive firepower or depth to carry them across the finish line. They had characters like Oak and Mase and Starks, but in the middle of all this was Ewing, the great center who in the context of his era was merely very, very good.
Ewing did not make our All-'90s team and it would be difficult, although not impossible, to make a case for him above Olajuwon, David Robinson or Shaq. That does nothing to diminish his accomplishments: eleven All-Star selections, six top-5 MVP finishes, six All-NBA Second-Teams and one First-Team nod in addition to two gold medals, a national championship and three Final Fours in his four years at Georgetown during his Hall of Fame career.
He arrived in New York with a challenge to revitalize the game in its adopted capital and create a legend that would parallel the achievements of Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He accomplished the first, but came up short on the second. In another time and another place, Patrick Ewing would be remembered for what he did and not what he couldn't quite grasp.
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