If you were to watch an NBA game from each decade then you will notice that each game will be vastly different, and not just because of the silly haircuts and alarmingly short shorts. Over the years the NBA has evolved and developed to the game that we recognise today, and a large part of this evolution is due to a crop of players that have revolutionised the game. These players are less common nowadays as it is in the earlier years where the biggest changes were made, but every now and then you will still get a player that will change the way in which the game is played. This could be a particular attribute they have, a trademark move, a style of play or they could even revolutionise the game by introducing an entire new nation or market to the sport.
This evolution is fascinating to follow as it adds a new dimension to the game, and you can also see players enter the league that have been influenced by one of these revolutionary players and the more this happens the more the game changes. Some players have been so revolutionary that the NBA has had to change the rules, and it is thanks to these players that we get a fast paced, free flowing game where players as short as 5-foot-5 can excel, as can those at a towering 7-foot-6.
It is important that players revolutionize the game from time to time, as this is how it is kept fresh and interesting. If teams were to play in the same way in each decade then it would be predictable to watch, but when a player changes the game is makes it entertaining and it also ensures that both coaches and players are kept on their toes as they will also have to adapt their playing style.
Here are 15 players that have left their fingerprints on the game and changed the NBA forever.
15 Allen Iverson
Although not as revolutionary as the guards that came before him, Allen Iverson certainly left his mark on the NBA and changed the way the game was played. Players like Bob Cousy, Pete Maravich and Magic Johnson brought flash to the game, but AI brought basketball from the streets to the hardwood. Iverson’s 1-on-1 game was like no other, where he would deliberately try to embarrass his opponent through his handles. A guard of just 6-feet that won four scoring titles, AI changed the game for smaller players attacking the basket and paved the way for the likes of Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Aaron Brooks, Nate Robinson and Tony Parker.
Although not single handily, AI also played a large part in bringing a hip-hop culture to the NBA, and his iconic cornrows and tattoos inspired an on court look and attitude that still resonates through the game.
14 Dirk Nowitzki
When you watch a game today you will often hear the term “stretch 4” being banded around, and this is down to Dirk Nowitzki. The towering German power forward revolutionized his position when he entered the league in 1998, and this is because no Big Man has ever shot the ball from outside as well as Dirk. All of a sudden Dirk was creating havoc for opponents, as a Big Man who could step outside and shoot a 3, pulls defenders from the post out to the perimeter. This stretches the entire floor and creates easy lanes to the basket and gaps in the post. Dirk of course also possesses an excellent mid range and post up game, and coaches still struggle to come up with ways to contain him and the Mavs 17 seasons later.
In terms of the modern era, few players have had a bigger impact on the NBA than Nowitzki. He has revolutionized the role of a Big Man, and many now work tirelessly at becoming reliable shooters. His influence can be seen on players like Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge.
13 Kevin McHale
Boston legend Kevin McHale revolutionized the low post through a huge array of moves which had not been seen before in the NBA. Players defending McHale did not know what to do when he caught the ball down low, as he would use a combination of head fakes, drop steps, fadeaways, baby hooks, pump fakes and wide variety of other moves to bamboozle defenders. He was also incredibly quick and had long arms, making him a handful for any defender down low. Thanks to McHale, players down on the block could be as creative as guards bringing the ball up.
This array of moves down in the post revolutionized the position, paving the way for Hakeem Olajuwon (most notably), Patrick Ewing, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard.
12 Spencer Haywood
Spencer Haywood pioneered the way for a high percentage of players in that he was the first player to turn professional without completing four years of college. This was a rule, but the ABA adjusted their policy with Haywood being used as an example because he needed to work to support his family. Haywood had a remarkable rookie campaign in the ABA, and he would then join the NBA and the Seattle Supersonics in 1970. The NBA still had their eligibility rule, forcing Haywood to the sidelines. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Haywood eventually won and became the first NBA player to suit up despite not completing four years of college.
Eligibility rules were changed, and Haywood’s fight led the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and hundreds of players to leave college early. It also allowed players including Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to skip college all together and reach the pros.
11 Magic Johnson & Larry Bird
Magic Johnson inspired dozens of guards that came after him, but as this list will show he was not the first tall or flashy guard to play the game. He was still a revolutionary figure however, creating a point-forward position alongside Larry Bird where a non traditional point guard is capable of creating plays and running the offense as well as slotting into a forward position. The “Showtime” era had a large impact on the NBA, and this is still a phrase which you will hear used today (but not so much at a Lakers game).
Additionally, the fierce rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed the game of basketball and made it hugely popular around the world (before the arrival of MJ who took this to the next level). Interest in the league was fading prior to these two entering the league, but they reignited popularity and breathed new life into the NBA.
10 Oscar Robertson
“The Big O” entered the league in 1960 and would go on to become one of the all-time greats, as well as a player that revolutionized the point guard role through his versatility. Typically point guards were strictly playmakers, but Robertson could do it all and became a triple-double machine. He could play the typical role of PG and make plays, but he was also a prolific scorer of the ball and at 6-foot-5 he could grab rebounds too. He is widely considered to be the first big guard in the game, and of course this is now a common sight in today’s game. Robertson paved the way for players such as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Penny Hardaway, Jason Kidd and Shaun Livingston.
He is also thought to have introduced the “pump fake” to the game, where a player fakes a shot to get their defender up in the air. This has become a heavily used move in every position.
9 Yao Ming
China’s 7-foot-6 Yao Ming has had a gigantic, global impact on the game of basketball and the sport has never been the same since he was drafted by the Rockets in 2002. Ming brought the NBA and the game of basketball to the country with the highest population in the world, and an entire new market. A cultural figure and global ambassador, Yao Ming helped globalize the NBA and the game of basketball to a new level, and despite his career being cut short due to injury, he is one of the most revolutionary figures in NBA history.
8 Arvydas Sabonis
Sabonis, alongside the likes of Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic and Sarunas Marciulioni were the first European players to have an impact on the NBA, and therefore paved the way for an enormous amount of players who came from overseas to play in the best basketball league in the world. The success of these players in the early 90’s made the NBA popular in Europe, but it also showed the USA that there was talent elsewhere and soon there was a huge influx of European players. These players helped bridge the gap, and because of their different brand of basketball they have also changed the way the modern game is played (particularly Sabonis with his passing ability as a center).
If you watch an NBA game today you are likely to see several European players or players from other areas around the world, and the Spurs have even fielded 5 players born outside the States this season. This is thanks to Sabonis and co., who revolutionized the game and helped to globalize the sport.
7 Elgin Baylor
Prior to Elgin Baylor being drafted in 1958, players were very set in their position and had particular duties on the court. Elgin Baylor was the first player that could do it all and play multiple positions, as he could pass and dribble like a guard, shoot the ball, attack the basket and grab rebounds all at 6-foot-5. He played as a forward but teams would not know what to do with a player talented and capable in all areas of the game. This completely revolutionized the game and has paved the way for powerful players such as Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Oscar Robertson and LeBron James.
In addition to his all-around play, Baylor is credited as the inventor of “hang time”, where he would leap into the air, change position of the ball and shoot from different angles much like Jordan became famous for in the 90’s.
6 Julius Erving
Much of what is so entertaining in the NBA is thanks to Julius Erving, or Dr.J as he is famously known. He brought creativity and high flying athleticism to the game, and this came in the art form of dunking. Whether you are a basketball fan or not, everyone loves watching dunks and it is one of the most electrifying moves in all of sport. Dr.J harnessed this in the 70’s and 80’s, and because of this he is one of the most popular players of all time and brought an enormous fanbase to the league. Dr.J would leap into the air, palm the ball, turn in the air and throw down all kinds of jaw dropping dunks. Part of the reason the NBA is so popular and watched around the world is thanks to Dr.J, whose innovative and amazingly athletic play changed the game forever.
5 Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan revolutionized the NBA by becoming a global icon and helping the game to reach each corner of the globe. He took the entire game to a whole new level through becoming the most recognizable athlete on the planet, and the NBA is vastly different today because of his superstardom. Through becoming a global star he also helped athletes to earn enormous sums through endorsements.
In terms of revolutionizing the game on the court, Jordan was not as trailblazing as those before him (who inspired his game), but his impact can still be felt and many players begin playing because of Jordan. A few of his trademark moves, such as the fade-away, are heavily used by guards in the post. Any perimeter player will have modeled their game to some extent on Jordan’s, but you can clearly see that Jordan got a lot of his game from the other entries on this list.
4 Bill Russell
No player in NBA history has more rings than Bill Russell, so he must have been doing something right during his time with the Celtics. Russell revolutionized the game through his extraordinary defensive play, an area of the game which had often been neglected before. Russell was a fierce competitor, and he excelled at blocking shots and grabbing defensive rebounds, and his presence inside struck fear into opponents who would be reluctant to go inside. This made defense an important factor in the game and all Big Men over the years have been influenced by Bill Russell. Most notably this includes defensive minded players such as Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, Dikembe Mutumbo, Kevin Garnett and most recently DeAndre Jordan.
3 George Mikan
George “Mr. Basketball” Mikan was a pioneer of the game, and many consider him to be the first superstar, bringing many fans to games just to see him play. His size and strength was not seen before, and this helped to create the position of center. Mikan also introduced a hook shot similar to Abdul-Jabbar’s patented one many years later, and the “Mikan drill” is a widely used drill where a player stands under the basket and performs this hook shot on alternating sides of the basket.
In addition to being the first recognizable center, Mikan also revolutionized the game due to a host of rule changes. He played a part in the introduction of the 24 second shot clock as well as defensive goaltending. Most notably, the “Mikan rule” saw the paint widen from 6 inches to 12 inches due to his dominance inside. Mikan paved the way for all big men in the game and his impact is still felt around 70 years later.
2 Bob Cousy
One thing that basketball is famous for is flashy dribbling moves, and this has been the case in most eras of the game. It all started with Bob Cousy, whose incredible dribbling skills and flashy passing earned him the brilliant nickname “Houdini of the Hardwood” and brought a huge amount of attention to the league and put fans in the stands eager to see him play. His up-tempo pace also helped to revolutionise the game and make fast-breaks an important factor, making him arguably the first “star” guard in the league. His flashy play, quick pace and fantastic passing ability changed the role of point guard, and all guards have been influenced by Cousy over the years (especially Magic Johnson).
Cousy’s impact is perfectly summarized by a writer who claimed “Dr. Naismith may have invented the game, Cousy made it as close to an art form as possible.”
1 Wilt Chamberlain
No player has ever dominated basketball quite like Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain who still holds many NBA records, most notably for most points in a game with a jaw dropping 100. Chamberlain could be compared to Mikan in terms of dominating games and being a physically imposing force, but Chamberlain took this to the next level and the game is now drastically different because of this. Chamberlain’s size enabled him to score whenever he wanted, but he was also an excellent passer, rebounder and defender. He revolutionized the center position and paved the way for all kinds of Big Men, including Bill Russell, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and all the other great Bigs.
Chamberlain is also famous for revolutionizing the game through several rule changes being introduced because of his dominance. Like Mikan, the lane was widened again to try and reduce his presence near the basket, offensive interference was introduced and rules were changed surrounding inbounding the ball and shooting free throws. Chamberlain of course generated an enormous amount of attention and improved the popularity of the NBA.
Chamberlain astonishing dominance had a huge impact on the game and no player has changed the game as much as Wilt “The Stilt”. This makes him the most revolutionary player of all-time.