If Bird and Magic brought the NBA to the center of attention in the 80s, then the “Golden Age” of professional basketball took place in the 90s. It was a decade filled with Hall-of-Famers battling for supremacy, and the “Dream Team” was created to save the USA’s dominance on the world’s basketball stage at the Summer Olympics. Easily, a list of this nature could be extended out to 30 players as the 90s produced multiple superstars at each position.
Here are the best NBA players of the 90s:
15. Chris Mullin (1985-86-2000-01)
Chris Mullin was one of the premier outside shooters of the 90s. He teamed with Tim Hardaway and Mitch Redmond to form “Run TMC” during their time together with the Golden State Warriors. It was a team that relied heavily on perimeter shooting to defeat opponents as the Warriors averaged 116 points-per-game. Their style of play was a foreshadow for the Warriors’ teams that dominated the NBA in the 2010s. Mullin averaged 19.0 pts, shot 51 percent from the field and 40.1 percent from beyond the three-point arc for the decade.
At the beginning of the 90s, Mullin was one of the NBA’s top scorers as he averaged nearly 26 points-per-game before injuries slowed his production down. However, Mullin’s career received a reboot after he was dealt to the Indiana Pacers. He teamed with Reggie Miller to form a deadly outside shooting duo that led the Pacers to consecutive Eastern Conference (1998-99) Finals appearances.
14. Dikembe Mutombo (1991-92-2008-09)
Defense was defined by one action: a finger-wagging by Dikembe Mutombo. He was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year (1995, 97, and 98) award-winner. No NBA follower of this decade will forget Mutombo leading the eighth-seed Denver Nuggets in a stunning upset of No. 1 seed Seattle Supersonics in the first round of the 1994 playoffs. You would be mistaken to describe Mutombo as a one-dimensional player as he averaged (12.9 points and 12.1 rebounds) a double-double for the decade.
The statistical numbers show Mutombo as a gritty player on both ends of the court. However, shot-blocking was his forte as he blocked over 3,200 shots for his career, and that made him the ultimate rim protector of the 90s. Mutombo was the last of a long line of centers (Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning), who played for John Thompson at Georgetown, and he developed himself into one of the best NBA players of the decade.
13. Dennis Rodman (1986-87-1999-2000)
No question, Dennis Rodman is one of the best rebounders and big-man defenders of the 90s. Averaging double-digits in rebounding for a decade is a difficult task, but the four-time NBA champion accomplished that goal. In fact, Rodman won the rebounding title seven times in the 90s. His time in the decade was spent primarily with two franchises (Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls). Rodman was a key performer coming (9.8 points and 8.7 rebounds) off the bench for the Pistons, while in his three seasons with the Bulls, he became less of a scorer and more of a rebounder (6.8 points and 15.1 rebounds).
The one constant in Rodman’s overall game was his defensive prowess. In the two NBA Finals (1997-98) appearances against the Utah Jazz, Rodman continually took Karl Malone out of his comfort zone to capture back-to-back titles. NBA historians will suggest that Rodman is best remembered for his off-the-court antics, but it’s safe to say that no person will ever play the game of basketball quite like him again.
12. Gary Payton (1990-91-2006-07)
Gary Payton’s rise to stardom didn’t take place immediately, but once he found his game, no one could stop him on the court. Payton played the entire decade with the Seattle Supersonics as he averaged 16.3 points and 6.8 assists for the 90s. His teammates affectionately called him “The Glove” as the five-time NBA All-Star was just as a terrific defender as well as a prolific scorer. If you need proof, watch Payton’s defensive performance against Michael Jordan in the 1996 NBA Finals.
Opponents marveled at his ability to penetrate the paint and score with such ease. If you looked at Payton’s shooting chart for the night, it would show the majority of his points came from the foul line in towards the basket. But, opposing defenders couldn’t disregard his ball-handling skills as Payton could easily dish an Ally-Oop pass to Shawn Kemp for an easy dunk or draw the defense closer, only to pass the ball to an open Detlef Schrempf for a long three-point shot.
11. Reggie Miller (1987-88-2004-05)
Reggie Miller wasn’t the flashiest player to ever play in the NBA, but he was one of the top clutch performers in big games that were played in the 90s. If you have your doubts, take a close look at Miller scoring 8 points in the final 8.9 seconds in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. His performance snatched a victory from the jowls of defeat. Big moments of this nature became known as “Miller Time.” Opponents feared his mental toughness as it made Miller nearly unstoppable as an outside shooter.
Fans and foes fondly remember Miller running through multiple screens in order to gain some daylight from a defender for an open shot. For the decade, Miller averaged 21.0 points, shot 48.2 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from beyond the three-point line. Sadly, Miller was in a long line of Hall-of-Famers who were blocked from capturing an NBA title by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. However, he did compete in four Eastern Conference (1994, 95, 98, and 99) Finals.
10. Clyde Drexler (1983-84-1997-98)
The song might not have been written for him, but Clyde Drexler was a smooth operator with the basketball on the open court. The fans called him “Clyde The Glide” because of his effortless movement on the fast break as there was no better finisher to the basket than Drexler. Chicago Bulls fans can thank the Portland Trail Blazers for drafting Sam Bowie instead of Micheal Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft. Drexler’s on-court skills had plenty to do with that decision. His superb athleticism made him a force on both ends of the court.
Somehow, Drexler worked his way back to Houston in a trade and helped the Rockets win a title in 1995. He averaged 20.9 points and appeared in three NBA Finals for the 90s. And if MJ didn’t dominate the decade, then we might be discussing how Drexler was the top shooting guard of his era.
9. Shaquille O’Neal (1992-93-2010-11)
It didn’t take long for the NBA universe to declare Shaquille O’Neal the biggest, strongest center to ever play in the 90s. He made headlines by breaking backboards and re-directing shot attempts to the cheap seats. O’Neal came off the campus of LSU with much fanfare and didn’t disappoint the Orlando Magic faithful as he won the 1993 Rookie of the Year Award and the 1995 NBA scoring title. In the 90s, Shaq averaged 27.1 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks for the decade. The Diesel may not have been a complete package as a basketball player, but no other NBA center could stop him from scoring near the basket.
Shaq teamed with Penny Hardaway to lead the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals, but he learned a valuable lesson from Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon in the series defeat. The Diesel became more of a team-first player, and this new mindset helped him become one of the biggest winners in the 2000s. He played seven seasons in the Magic Garden before heading off to Hollywood and signing with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent.
8. Patrick Ewing (1985-86-2001-02)
At Georgetown, Patrick Ewing was a menacing rim protector who had a limited offensive game. By the end of the decade, Ewing became one of the best NBA players of the 90s and the face of the New York Knicks. He did this by developing a deadly mid-range jumper from the baseline. Ewing averaged 24.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, and shot 50.3 percent from the field for the decade. Even though he never won an NBA title, Ewing did lead the Knicks to two finals (1994-99) appearances in the decade.
Unfortunately, he played in the era of Michael Jordan, but those Knicks/Bulls playoff series were memorable. Often, the majority of those games turned into a steel cage match between the two bitter rivals.
7. John Stockton (1984-85-2002-03)
John Stockton was one of the greatest distributors of the basketball to ever play in the NBA. He led the league in assists for the first seven years of the 90s. Opponents thought Stockton’s on-court intelligence made him a matchup nightmare. At times, he made it look easy by either creating a high percentage shot for himself or dishing the ball off to Karl Malone for an easy basket. Stockton teamed with Malone as they became the greatest duo ever to execute the “pick and roll” play in NBA history. Together, they led the Utah Jazz to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Stockton averaged 14.9 points, 11.9 assists, and 2.3 steals for the 90s.
6. Charles Barkley (1984-85-1999-2000)
Arguably, Charles Barkley was the best power forward of the 90s, despite being several inches shorter than his contemporaries. He was a dominant rebounder who could score like a small forward and wasn’t afraid to exchange trash talk with an opponent. His long arms and jumping ability made it easier for him to score on his opponents near the basket. Barkley was great at creating his own space in the paint as he averaged 22.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, and shot 52.3 percent from the field for the 90s. Barkley only competed in one NBA Finals (1993), he was named league MVP and led the Phoenix Suns to an NBA-best 62-20 record in that season.
One of his career’s biggest disappointments came in 1997 when he joined the Houston Rockets, who had a star-studded roster that included Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. The trio played well together as the Rockets had 57-25 record, but lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Utah Jazz.
5. Scottie Pippen (1987-88-2003-04)
If Michael Jordan was Batman, then Scottie Pippen was Robin, and together, they dominated the NBA in the 90s. The Chicago Bulls dynasty was one of the greatest in modern sports history. Pippen was described as a superior defender who could score with great regularity. He loved to slash through a crowded lane towards the basket, but Pippen developed into a decent outside shooter over the course of his NBA career. His improved offensive play forced opposing defenses to play a more conventional style that opened the floor for Jordan to do his magic nightly. Pippen’s professional resume is quite impressive as he won sixth NBA titles with the Bulls, perennial member of the NBA All-Defensive team, and All-Star Game participant.
However, he never gained respect from opposing teams as the Bulls No. 1 scoring option during MJ’s sabbaticals from the sport. Pippen never could win a title without Jordan as he tried multiple times with the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers. Critics believe this failure does diminish Pippen’s overall star status. He averaged 19.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.2 steals for the decade.
4. David Robinson (1987-88-2002-03)
It’s rare when a professional athlete is a Hall-of-Famer both on-and-off the court, but David Robinson checks both of those boxes. He changed the description of the center position as Robinson could score, defend, and rebound on both ends of the court. After completing his two-year commitment to the Navy, Robinson entered the NBA and produced the biggest team turnaround in league history. The San Antonio Spurs went from 21-61 in 1989 to 56-26 in Robinson’s rookie season.
The center position had the most talent in the 90s, so never dismiss Robinson’s career honors. He made eight All-Star appearances, won an NBA title (1999), NBA MVP (1995), Defensive Player of the Year Award (1992), and member of the Olympic Dream Team. It’s remarkable to think that the Admiral scored 71 points in the final game of the 1994 season to win a scoring title. Robinson averaged 24.4 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks for the 90s.
3. Karl Malone (1985-86-2003-04)
Many consider Karl Malone the greatest big-man scorer of the 90s. The Mailman always delivered for the Utah Jazz as he missed only three games for the decade. His production came against some of the great big (Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon) men of his era. Often, he set up shop in the low post for a baseline jumper. Malone was a very physical player who would trade elbows with some of the league’s toughest power forwards.
The Mailman was a great situational defender in tight games. His efficiency may not have been as great as on the offense end of the court, but it played a major role in the Jazz success. Malone’s partnership with John Stockton brought great results as the Jazz made the playoffs every year of the 90s and appeared in consecutive NBA Finals (1997-98). Malone averaged 27.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and shot 53.1 percent from the field in the decade. It earned him two NBA (1997-99) MVPs and nine All-Star Game appearances.
2. Hakeem Olajuwon (1984-85-2001-02)
When Michael Jordan took the first sabbatical from the NBA in 1994, Hakeem Olajuwon firmly took control of the sport as the league’s best player. He won consecutive NBA (1994-95) titles and revolutionized the center position. Prior to Olajuwon, the center position seemed to dominated by slow, plodding big men. Hakeem was a unique athlete as he was tall and very nimble on his feet. Neither Patrick Ewing or Shaquille O’Neal could figure out how to defend him in the finals as Olajuwon was too active on both ends of the court. His low post move was called “The Dream Shake,” and most opposing centers felt hopeless in defending him. They felt his shot was as unguardable much like Kareem’s Sky Hook.
Olajuwon became one of the great team leaders in the NBA. Often, mentoring some of the top players early in their career. The Dream would share his full repertoire of offensive moves near the basket. Rarely did he take credit for his actions as the soft-spoken athlete did his speaking on the basketball court. Olajuwon averaged 23.9 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks for the decade.
1. Michael Jordan (1984-85-2002-03)
This comes as no surprise to anyone that Michael Jordan is the best NBA player of the 90s. He re-defined the competitiveness level needed by an athlete to capture a championship. None of his peers (Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, and John Stockton) could ever match Jordan’s will to win. His name will always be in the conversation when choosing the greatest NBA player of all-time. Jordan’s resume is flawless: six NBA titles, six Finals MVPs, four league MVPs, seven All-Star Game appearances, and the NBA leading scorer in seven seasons.
He averaged 30.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.3 steals for the decade. And to think, MJ accomplished all of this by playing in seven full seasons in the 90s. Simply put, if the game is on the line in the final seconds, there is no other player you want the ball in their hands except for Michael Jordan. Case closed.
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