The NBA provides the best arguments and debates for sports fans breaking down the stars of the current generation against the legends from the past. 90s fans have especially become defensive of their era thanks mostly in part to the iconic work of Michael Jordan. LeBron James’ ascension and Kobe Bryant’s body of work have put them in the all-time great conversation but fans will chastise anyone who dares think Jordan could be passed by today’s softer stars. While the arguments can sometimes be juvenile and arrogant, it’s quite accurate. Jordan’s legacy is not close to being touched by Bryant or James despite their great careers.
One major point that has been made more frequently is that today’s game is soft and watered down. Players are allowed to put numbers up more easily and the rules protect them from being stopped due to the officials being strict with the whistle. The concept of hard-nosed defense and fighting in the paint for a loose ball is no longer common. Today’s talent however hold the advantage of being more athletic, working on new aspects of the game and just evolving into new territories. Both sides have their own merits but not all players would have been superstars in each era.
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are special and rare breeds of talents. Those guys would have been able to make All-Star appearances and have a Hall of Fame trajectory with their skill sets. Most of the other current superstars would not have had the same fortune and the differences in past eras would have slowed down their rises to success. We’re going to take a look at that today with the new generation of All-Stars and superstars that would need drastic changes to have any chance at replicating the success they hold today. It’s impossible to say any era is better than another but these are fifteen current NBA stars that would have achieved much less success during the Michael Jordan 90s era.
15 Blake Griffin
The most important tools for a big man in the 90s NBA landscape was showing toughness and the ability to post up in the paint. Blake Griffin has failed to show both of those on a level that would have made him a top star back in the Jordan era. The finesse game that exists today allows Griffin to dominate the offensive side of the game, not to mention the freedom to stroll into the paint and deliver highlight dunks on a nightly basis. The bruisers of the NBA past would have shut down Griffin and challenged him to fight for a relevant position in the basketball world.
14 Isaiah Thomas
The Boston Celtics struck gold when acquiring Isaiah Thomas to become their next star point guard. Thomas made his first All-Star appearance this season and is the best player on a very good Boston team. As a 5’9’’ guard, Thomas is one of the smaller All-Stars in NBA history but his size would have been a detriment in the 90s. It was a more physical and slow paced game that would have prevented Thomas from using his great speed to get to the paint easily. Thomas likely would have been a backup point guard during that time frame instead of one of the most exciting players today.
13 Ricky Rubio
Ricky Rubio is not an elite NBA player but he has achieved stardom and has become a very exciting player in today’s sporting world. The Minnesota Timberwolves point guard is a very popular fan favorite with his great passing skills and overall fun style of play. It’s hard to envision Rubio ever getting playing time during the 90s with the likes of Gary Payton defending him. Rubio already struggles to make open shots in transition, so the tougher defenders and smash mouth style of play would have ruined his chances of offensive success. Rubio's strengths would not have helped him as much as they do these days in the NBA.
12 Klay Thompson
On the surface, Klay Thompson looks like he would be able to excel in any era of the basketball game. Between his athleticism, shooting touch and ability to play superb one-on-one defense, Thompson appears bulletproof but his lack of an all-around offensive game would have hurt him. Thompson’s scoring revolves around the three-point shot. The 90s era required more versatility and the three-point shot rarely led to winning. Thompson’s lack of offensive success would have devolved him into an average player. Stephen Curry would have thrived more due to the all-around game and once in a lifetime shooting skills. Thompson’s more common good shooting wouldn’t have been enough to carry him.
11 Reggie Jackson
Reggie Jackson has emerged into one of the rising star point guards in today’s NBA and has led the Detroit Pistons back into playoff contention after a few years of disaster. While he has tremendous talent, Jackson would not have been able to showcase it in the 90s due to a lack of mental toughness and the signs of immaturity. On a winning team with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jackson demanded a trade to a team where he would get more playing time and make more money. The idea of a player doing that in the 90s before achieving noteworthy success would have made him a marked man and his potential would have likely gone unfulfilled due to being somewhat blacklisted.
10 Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose's ascension helped surge the current era in today’s NBA of athletic point guards taking over the game. The point guard has become the most important position in the NBA with the guard needing to have a dynamic scoring game as much as he needs to facilitate the ball while defending other stars of equal skill. In the 90s, point guards were mostly needed to set up teammates in a position to score and play hardnosed defense. Rose has never been the best facilitator with a career average of just 6.2 assists per game. Between fewer options to score and an inability to assist on a stronger level, Rose wouldn’t have fit into the time.
9 Joe Johnson
Joe Johnson has been one of the best NBA players over the past fifteen years but it goes understated due to his quiet demeanor and low key personality. With seven All-Star appearances, Johnson has been highly success in the current era but it’s hard to see him reaching the same achievements in the 90s. The defensive intensity has changed in the game and Johnson would have been met with a tough wing defender in most games. As successful as Johnson has been, his game was quite one-dimensional as he was known as “Iso Joe” for his isolation plays. Johnson's success would have occured on a much smaller scale as a role player rather than one of the richest players in the sport.
8 Chris Bosh
The transition of styles in the NBA has seen the significance of Chris Bosh grow through the years. Bosh was always good but he’s taken his game to a new level over the last six years. The power forward is another big man with more of a finesse game that wouldn’t have fared well dealing with the bruising game that took place in the 90s paint. Bosh has even ventured into taking more shots from the outside as a frequent three-point shooter and that’s something that would have not been tolerated during the prior era. Bosh's career would have seen a different trajectory with the tougher defenders bullying him.
7 DeAndre Jordan
Another current NBA star with immaturity issues and a lack of a defined game is DeAndre Jordan. The Los Angeles Clippers center was in the news last summer for going back on his word and deciding to snub the Dallas Mavericks despite verbally agreeing to the deal. Along with his moodiness, Jordan is basically just a very athletic big man that can make open dunks. Sure, he has talent and uses his size well but he also plays with gifted point guard in Chris Paul. Jordan can’t make free throws or do anything else on the offensive end and that would make him rather useless on one side of the court during the tougher defensive schemes.
6 DeMarcus Cousins
The overall talent and potential of DeMarcus Cousins would make him a decent prospect in any era but his mentality is the issue. Cousins frequently loses his cool and snaps when anyone gets in his head. Considering today’s NBA features less trash talking and mind games, the 90s would have saw Cousins melt down far more often than he does today. Imagine Gary Payton’s trash talk or the dominant defenders of the 90s getting the better of Cousins. The Kings big man may have reached the point of throwing Gatorade jugs onto the court given how he reacts to minuscule frustrations today and how much more intense things were in the prior era.
5 Tony Parker
The NFL will often see arguments of which quarterbacks are truly great and which were carried by their system. While it’s less applicable to NBA players, Tony Parker would fall under the same category due to his success with the San Antonio Spurs. Parker is likely going to enter the Hall of Fame one day and has been very good, but as an individual, the point guard has never been one of the best overall players in the NBA. The limited ceiling of Parker’s success would have been lost in the 90s and a single system would not have been able to elevate him into the All-Star and HOF stratosphere that he has hit due to the Spurs franchise.
4 Dwight Howard
Between his size and God given ability, Dwight Howard is one of the most talented big men in NBA history but he has shown a few glaring flaws. Howard has arguably the worst attitude in the sport with an entitled mindset and juvenile mentality. The All-Star is quite frankly a very soft player and it showed when he failed to co-exist with Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers. Howard has spent the better part of the last five seasons complaining and expecting things to happen for him rather than just do the work. The prior era of tough-minded centers would have chewed Howard out and embarrassed him on a nightly basis until he finally toughened up.
3 Carmelo Anthony
As a consistent All-Star and scoring sensation, Carmelo Anthony has carved out quite a memorable career but he lacks the “killer instinct” and winning mentality that was more prevalent in the 90s. Anthony has a very one-dimensional game with the inability to play consistently hard defense or show a style that makes his teammates better on the offensive end. The great scorer would have always found a way to put up points but he likely would have been on a losing team for the majority of his career if playing with his current style against tougher defenses. Anthony would have been forced to either change his game up or wallow away in obscurity rather than being a popular sports name like he is today.
2 Kevin Love
The luster regarding Kevin Love has worn off looking at how disappointing he has been with the Cleveland Cavaliers but he still wields star power and years of putting up top tier numbers. Love is a good rebounder but that’s mainly due to the lack of tough bruisers in the paint these days fighting for boards. The three-point shooting of Love will always be limited when the game slows down and a slower pace is basically what the 90s was all about. Love would have never cracked an All-Star team and may not have even been a starter during the time. In some ways, the max-contract forward may have been comparable to someone like Toni Kukoc of the former era.
1 James Harden
The biggest example of differences in superstars from the 90s and the big names today would be James Harden. Someone like Harden would have had no chance of leading a team to the postseason with record statistics. The Houston Rockets superstar plays some of the worst defense you’ll ever find in the game of basketball and his offensive style is a bit more selfish despite his numbers looking all around great. Harden gets a high percentage of his points at the free throw line but players didn’t get easy calls back then like he does today. The culture of the 90s would have forced Harden to be humbled with his style pushing him lower down the totem pole.