The NBA has given us some of the best basketball in it' entire history over the past 36 years. Between 1980 and 2016, there have 35 players inducted into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame that played during the past 36 years, the most players in any 30 year time frame in NBA history.
During the 1980s, we were given some of the greatest players to ever play in the NBA and of the 35 Hall of Fame inductees, 23 of them played between 1980 and 1989. It is simply amazing that one decade gave us players like Charles Barkley, James Worthy, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, Kevin McHale, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and a dozen or more other superstars.
So how can the NBA handle the '90s following such an incredible decade? They give us the single greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. He hit his stride during the '90s and produced six NBA Titles for the Chicago Bulls along with his Hall of Fame teammate, Scottie Pippen. The two of them dominated the Eastern Conference but that was coming to an end as the turn of the century would move the NBA titles out West.
The 2000s was the decade where Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal brought the Los Angeles Lakers back to the NBA's elite rankings winning the first three NBA Finals of the New Millennium.
If we learned anything about the NBA over the past 40 years, it's that no matter how good the players are, there are more just waiting for their chances to shine. So after Michael Jordan, one of the last remaining active players from the incredible 1980s class, retired, it was time for LeBron James to step in.
Let's go ahead and rank the last three decades (80's, 90's, 00's) best five players at each starting position, which includes a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center.
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15 Point Guard(1980s): Magic Johnson
At 6'9," Magic Johnson was one of the biggest point guards the NBA had ever seen. In fact, he is the only true point guard in NBA history that was taller than 6'7" which is amazing because he could move through a defense like he was playing the NBA 2k video game on the easiest setting possible.
He had the ability to open up the court because his vision was unreal. He knew where his teammates were at all times and if he couldn't get them the ball, he would just take it to the basket, opening up the floor before dishing it out for an open jumper.
But he wasn't just a point guard, he could play defense, score from anywhere he wanted, and was one of the main reasons the Lakers turned everything around in the '80s, winning five NBA Championships and three NBA MVP awards.
14 Shooting Guard (1980s): Clyde Drexler
There are few players in the NBA that you can count on to consistently put up around 20 points, six assists, six rebounds, and two steals per game, for 15 seasons in a row like Clyde Drexler did and it all began in 1983 when he was drafted 14th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers.
He was also one of the few players in league history to stand toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan and almost defeat him during the 1991-92 NBA season in MVP voting. It was the same year he led the Trail Blazers to the NBA Finals where they almost stole a NBA title away from MJ and his Chicago Bulls.
It wouldn't be until he reached the Houston Rockets in the mid-90s that he would finally get his one and only NBA title.
13 Small Forward (1980s): Larry Bird
Everyone argues over who is the best player of all time and the names mentioned are usually Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. What about Larry Bird? Why doesn't he get mentioned more often in the discussions?
We aren't asking anyone to argue over who is the best player of all time. We are simply asking why Larry Bird does not get the same amount of recognition as the other three guys we named?
Larry is the only one in that group that averaged a double-double in points and rebounds, has the second most assists per game in his career, and is tied for first in blocks per game throughout his entire career, regular and post seasons combined. (Bird's per game averages were 24.3 points, 10 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks)
He helped the Boston Celtics win three NBA titles, winning the NBA Finals MVP twice, earned All-NBA honors 10 times, made the All-Star team in 12 of his 13 seasons in the NBA, and is a three-time league MVP. He also shot 37.6% from beyond the arc including both regular season and playoffs too.
We aren't condoning debating over who is the G.O.A.T. NBA player of all-time since it is a pointless ritual. But we wanted you to at least see just how special Larry Bird was when he dominated the league for over a decade.
12 Power Forward (1980s): Kevin McHale
If you haven't already realized it by now, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers owned the '80s. Between 1980 and 1990, those two teams combined for eight of the 11 NBA Championships with the Celtics winning three of them.
Besides Larry Bird, the Boston Celtics were built around another forward, Kevin McHale. He was a blue collar worker in the paint that would frustrate his opponents with his quickness, balance, and those extremely long arms that gave him the advantage over his defenders. He was one of the most fundamentally sound jump shooters the league has ever seen. He learned how to use his height to his advantage and it turned him into one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game.
He started off as a sixth man but very quickly became a starter and a huge assest to the Celtics domination throughout the '80s.
11 Center (1980s): Moses Malone
Before Shaquille O'Neal showed up and started changing the way basketball was played in the NBA, there was Moses Malone.
He played from 1974 to 1995 for nine different teams but during the '80s was when he was truly at his best. He averaged 20.3 points on 49% FG shooting, 12.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks. His best season remains the 1982-83 season when he helped carry the Philadelphia 76ers to a NBA championship while putting up 24.5 points, 15.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game during the regular season.
Although his numbers are impressive across the board, the thing that distinguished him as the best center in the '80s was when he won consecutive NBA MVP awards, for two different teams. It proved that it did not matter where he played, he was the best player in the league. He was the first person to ever win league MVP awards in back-to-back seasons for two different teams. In fact, he was the first person, in any of the four major sports in America (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL), to accomplish the feat.
10 Point Guard (1990s): John Stockton
Magic Johnson was electric and exciting to watch. He could score 40 points, grab 12 rebounds, and dish out 15 assists on any given night and make it fun to watch too. He was putting on a show for the crowd and he thrived on it. John Stockton, on the other hand, wasn't worried about all of that, he simply showed up and lead his team to win after win. He commanded his team like a general commands his troops.
Although he scored when he had to, his best weapon was his vision on the floor. John Stockton averaged over 11 assists per game over nine seasons. For most of the '90s, it was a Stockton-Malone show in Utah which turned them into the best dynasty in NBA history without a title. They were so good together but they just couldn't get over the hump and get that coveted NBA title.
9 Shooting Guard (1990s): Michael Jordan
It's tough to be called the greatest player of all time but if there was anyone in NBA history that could handle that pressure, it would be Michael Jordan. He was one-of-a-kind because not only was he talented, he was competitive too. But not just a little competitive, it was borderline insane how bad he had to win, at everything.
During the 1992 Summer Olympics, MJ played golf, gambled at the casinos, and made bets against his teammates to the point you would think he had a gambling problem, which he might have looking back on it. However, the Dream Team's head coach, Chuck Daly, was also a golfer and after he beat MJ one evening, that thrill didn't last. Michael showed up at his hotel room incredibly early the following day and wanted to play him again.
It sounds insane but that's what made Michael Jordan better than anyone else. He had to win, at everything, all the time. It made him better and it helped every single one of his teammates along the way, including Scottie Pippen.
8 Small Forward (1990s): Scottie Pippen
From an outsiders perspective (that just means anyone that is a casual NBA fan), Scottie Pippen only made it into the Hall of Fame because of Michael Jordan but that couldn't be any further from the truth. In fact, when Michael Jordan semi-retired for one and a half seasons to pursue a career in baseball, Scottie Pippen lead the Chicago Bulls to the Eastern Conference Semifinals followed by another Conference Semifinals the next season.
Without Michael Jordan, the 1993-94 and most of the 1994-95 seasons, Scottie averaged 21.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.9 steals, and 1 block per game. (He had even better numbers for the 1993-94 season, the only time he played an entire season in Chicago without MJ.)
Face it folks, Scottie Pippen might not have won six NBA titles without MJ, but he surely would have become the superstar he was during the '90s.
7 Power Forward (1990s): Karl Malone
Before Tim Duncan arrived and became one of the NBA's greatest power forwards, there was Karl Malone and his blue collar, hard-working, pick-and-roll style that angered his opponents but put smiles on all of the Utah Jazz fans for over a decade. He was the master of the pick but he was only one half of the most simple play in basketball that teams have seem to forgotten how to use these days.
It is a shame to watch games on television and see lazy screens that don't even make contact with the defenders. That is not how it worked during the '90s. Karl Malone would line up in the low post and John Stockton would give him the call and he would shoot straight up to him, turning his body into a steel wall that caused defenders to constantly look over their shoulders in anticipation of the screen.
Sometimes he would improvise because the defenders would jump out to cover the pick and roll. But that was where he was at his best and he could hit a jump shot from all over the court.
6 Center (1990s): Hakeem Olajuwon
There has never been a more exciting Center in Houston Rockets franchise history, or even in the NBA since Hakeem Olajuwon. He was a machine in the post and even better on the defensive end of the court, owning just about everyone that came his way. He finished his career with a 3.1 blocks per game average, which isthird all-time. His 3,830 blocks are an NBA record for most career blocks.
His defense was impressive but it was his ability to score that turned him into a Hall of Famer with two NBA Championships. He averaged 21.8 points per game for his career while he peaked at 27.8 per game during his best seasons. He did it without shooting three-pointers, just free throws and jump shots. Oh, and don't forget that amazing pump fake that sent players like Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley, and Shawn Kemp flying into the stands.
5 Point Guard (2000s): Allen Iverson
The one thing that hurt Allen Iverson's reputation was Allen Iverson. He did some stupid things during his NBA career, including that infamous press conference where he couldn't beleive a reporter would ask him about practice. But that should not be the man you all remember. He was more than the bad rep that followed him around, he was a great scorer and one of the league's best point guards.
Only one other point guard in NBA history had a better statistical season than Allen Iverson did in 2005 when he averaged 33 points, 7.4 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. It was Tiny Archibald and that was back in the 1972-73 season when he averaged 34 points and 11.4 assists per game.
For being known as a selfish scorer that jacked up more shots than anyone on the floor, it's astounding to see that he averaged 6.2 assists per game for his career, which is another incredible feat that he shares with one other point guard, Jerry West.
Honorable Mentions: Jason Kidd, Steve Nash
4 Shooting Guard (2000s): Kobe Bryant
To be great means to do things that almost no one else on the planet has the ability to do. It means to become the first person to make 12 three-point shots in one game, or to be selected to 11 All-NBA First Teams, or to make nine All-Defensive First Teams. It means winning five NBA titles over your 20-year career, all with the same franchise.
We could continue but you get the point. Kobe Bryant did things that still resonates in our minds. You can ask anyone that loves basketball to tell you a story about something you saw Kobe Bryant do that simply blew your mind away. The majority of those people will be able to tell you something, and they could almost all be something different. He has done so many great things, it is hard to pinpoint one of them.
Just make sure to mention that at 37 years old, in his final NBA game of his career, Kobe Bryant scored 60 points while shooting 44% from the field including six three-pt shots, four assists, and four rebounds, in a win.
3 Small Forward (2000s): LeBron James
Is it too early to consider LeBron James a freak of an athlete? What more does he have to prove in order for NBA fans to see just how truly valuable this man is out there?
We could explain that winning three NBA titles, regardless of who your teammates are, is incredible. But you would say MJ won six. Or maybe you would talk about how LeBron James took the easy way out and he partnered with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami so he could win himself his first NBA title. But you forget to realize that Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, and that is an amazing trio to have simply because Phil Jackson invented an offense no one had ever seen before and it took the NBA several years to slow it down. Just ask the Golden State Warriors what happens when you create an offense that no one can stop, it makes you unbeatable.
Even with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers are only NBA champions because of LeBron James. They were down 3-1 games last year during the NBA Finals and he led them back to win it all becoming the first team ever to do so. And he did it while leading the team in every statistical category, something that no one has ever done in NBA Finals history.
Lastly, keep in mind that he averages 27.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, and 1.7 steals in his career. Only two other players have done that, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson.
2 Power Forward (2000s): Tim Duncan
To win an NBA title requires an understanding of the game, or an appreciation for the fundamentals of playing defense and using a backboard correctly when shooting jumpshots.
Tim Duncan did more damage in the low post than almost anyone in the NBA since Bill Russell because he knew how to defend, rebound, score, and play with others. He was never selfish with the basketball and was always looking for an open teammate before scoring. It was almost like he had no choice but to put the ball in the hoop sometimes, and he did it easily too averaging 19 points per game over his entire career.
Many people forget that he got to the San Antonio Spurs when they still had David Robinson and the two of them dominated the paint for five seasons, winning two NBA titles along the way before adding another three on his own to finish with five NBA Championships, winning three of them between 2000 and 2010.
1 Center (2000s): Shaquille O'Neal
We hate to keep throwing out numbers but some times, it is the quickest way to prove what we are trying to tell you, that these 15 guys are really the best in the NBA at their positions during their respective decades.
Shaquille O'Neal averaged 28.3 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game during the 1997-98 NBA season, his first with the Lakers. The ability to score more than 28 points, 11 rebounds, and two blocks per game in a single season is a rare feat that has only occurred on ten separate occasions by four different men. Bob McAdoo did it three times, Anthony Davis just recently did it for his first time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it once, and Shaquille O'Neal did it five times, in five different seasons making him one of the most dangerous centers in NBA history.
Not only could he dominate the game, he was the closest thing to Optimus Prime that any of us had ever seen. He was 7'1," 325 pounds and he just cut his way through the paint like cutting butter with a knife. He made it look so easy the other teams had to start the "Hack-a-Shaq" movement which slowed him down but did not stop him.
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