Saying Goodbye: The Legacies of the NBA’s Stars of the 90s
by TRINI ANDREW
Time and tide wait for no man.
Despite modern medicine prolonging the careers of many professional athletes, every player must come face to face with their sports mortality. The NBA has been blessed with long careers of their most iconic players and we have also been spoilt with the longevity and effectiveness of so many NBA players who came into the league in the 1990’s. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett retired last season and took their combined 11 NBA Championships, 4 MVP’s and 48 All Star Selections, 39 All NBA Team Selections and 27 All Defensive Teams selections. They should be joined next year with the likely retirements of Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Vince Carter who are ostensibly on retirement tours. With the NBA season almost a quarter done it’s remarkable to see how much they league has changed and the lasting effects of their influence on the game of basketball.
The big fundamental. Tim Duncan is widely regarded as the best PF of all time and may still be underrated. The best NBA player to come from the Caribbean (Sorry Patrick Ewing and Mychal Thompson), he was the definition of consistency.
Tim Duncan averaged about 20 points and 11 rebounds a game per 36 minutes for his entire career. His age 36 season was more efficient than his age 29 season. He was the ultimate teammate and he anchored the defense and offense without interrupting the flow of the game. He never attempted 20 shots per game in a season. He averaged more blocks than fouls in a season five time in his career. He averaged 2 BPG at age 38.
Tim Duncan excelled at defending without stat padding or fouling. That might have reduced his overall rebound and block totals but helped his team win more games over the course of his career. Although he played with the San Antonio Spurs and coach his entire career, Greg Popovich, he played in a variety of systems from the Twin Towers post heavy scheme to the pace and space system later in his career. He never missed the playoffs and although he won 5 championships in his career, there is an argument that his teams underachieved in the playoffs with four really bad 1st round exits.
He was the rare (only?) NBA superstar who truly trusted his franchise. This gave him the freedom to simply focus on his game. He never complained about roster decisions, coaching styles or game outcomes. He took less money in the last 4 years of his career to ensure that he had the best supporting cast and was promptly rewarded with 2 NBA finals appearances and one last title. Even though he was quiet on the court, few could match his intensity. It is only fitting that the Spurs seem to be continuing his legacy by winning this season with the most stoic of current NBA players, Kawhi Leonard who seems destined to win multiple titles and also retire a San Antonio Spur.
The black mamba or vino. The would be heir to Michael Jordan’s throne. Kobe’s legacy is complicated to put it mildly. Nobody can dispute his greatness but his career should really be divided into two parts: the MJ protégé and the unrepentant gunner. Kobe Bryant wanted to be the best player of all time but he wanted to do it on his terms which ultimately reduced his accomplishments. He considered Michael Jordan to be the best NBA player of all time so he replicated the good parts of his game and the worst parts of his character.
Bryant is arguably the best scorer in NBA history and possibly also the worse teammate. He averaged close to 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists but he also missed the playoffs 4 times and lost in the 1st round 3 times. Kobe was always about control from dictating where he was drafted. He successfully avoided going to the New Jersey Nets by ensuring he was drafted by the Hornets and then traded to the Lakers. His first decade with the Lakers was wonderful. He was made for the spotlight.
He was young and became one of the best Shooting Guards in the league pretty quickly. It’s easy to forget that this was in an era where the 3-point shot was not really a thing yet and it was very dangerous to drive into the paint and flagrant fouls were considered regular fouls. Kobe lived in the midrange and used his superior handle and finishing to score almost at will at the rim. He quickly learned how to become a superstar on the court increase his scoring averages each season to 28 PPG in his 4th season and off the court he was refining his clean cut and marketable image to distance himself from the tattoos and cornrows that were permeating the NBA at that time. A common argument at that time was who was better between Allen Iverson and Kobe. You had to be a fan of one or the other as they were polar opposite in image and background and they each personified their city. Kobe with the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles and Iverson with the rough and tumble-ness of Philadelphia.
One three peat later and there were no more valid comparisons between Kobe and any other Shooting Guard. All good things must come to an end so after 8 years together Kobe said goodbye to the fun loving, first half of his career and became the unrepentant gunner who basically forget about all of the other aspects of playing basketball besides scoring. Unable to coexist with Shaquille O’Neal he issued an ultimatum to the Lakers front office and became emboldened when they traded Shaq to appease him. He was then Kobe Bryant, defacto CEO of the Lakers and held the team basically hostage for the rest of his career as he tried to win more championships than Jordan. He got close with 2 more championships before his body began to fail him but he never stopped coming back from injury and focused on scoring at the detriment of his team’s success. Kobe Bryant mercifully retired last year as it was evident that his body could no longer keep up with his basketball skills. He took 50 shots in 42 minutes in his last game in the most Kobeiest of games. For all of his detractors, Kobe showed the rest of the NBA the power the elite players possess. LeBron has been his successor off the court with his influence on roster decisions and business acumen but Russell Westbrook is his ideal successor as the flawed but unstoppable superstar who refused to accommodate or change for anyone.
The Kid and then the Big Ticket. Kevin Garnett truly was a player ahead of his time and as such he was incorrectly utilized for the beginning of his career. He was drafted out of high school as a 7-foot small forward and the Timberwolves really did not know what to do with him. After gaining the required strength to compete in the post, he single-handedly changed what was expected from a big man in the NBA.
Kevin Garnett was the polar opposite of Tim Duncan. While Duncan resided in the system, Garnett took the system and kicked it out of the house. He did everything for the Timberwolves as a PF. He led the team in minutes, scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He did everything in an unorthodox manner and he shouted at everyone while he was doing it. He was loud, he was brash but he was too good. He covered the entire court on offense and defense and was capable of scoring in the post or running the fast break. He was the first modern do it all forward.
Sadly, his true legacy as an NBA player was being too loyal to his team. The Minnesota Timberwolves were a laughing stock of a franchise before they drafted him and went out of their way to waste his prime years. Unable to appreciate the nuances of his game, they refused to improve the roster by adding shooters or even scorers but insisted on dedicating essential cap space to redundant big men ( Rasho Nesterovic, Michael Olowokandi and Joe Smith) who offered next to nothing when paired with Garnett. To make matters even worse, they were caught trying to do an under the table deal with Joe Smith which resulted in a laughably extreme punishment; the loss of 5 consecutive 1st round draft picks! They got one more pick restored by the league, presumably because the rest of the league felt sorry for Garnett as the Timberwolves promptly resigned Joe Smith for 6 more years after this fiasco. To date the Timberwolves have only made the playoffs 8 times in their franchise history (all with Garnett) and none in Kevin Garnett’s last 3 years with the team.
Garnett was finally rewarded with a trade to the Celtics where he belated won a title and became almost exclusively a jump shooting center. His stats were not eye popping but he quarterbacked the conservative defensive system of the Celtics with his encyclopedic knowledge of opposing teams plays. His legacy is forever defined as ushering in the high school era to the NBA (1995-2005) as well as being the highest career earner in the NBA with $343 million in salary.
While most people would think his successor currently plays for the Timberwolves it’s actually the “unicorn” in New York Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis also came into the league to countless detractors, has quickly become the best player on his team and sadly seems to have his career growth stunted by an organization that seems disinterested in molding the team to accentuate his strengths.
Dirk Diggler. The best European player in NBA history. Dirk Nowtizki’s career is a testimonial to sport science as his jump shot was created in 1995 in a German Lab by Holger Geschwindner who determined from his calculations that 60 degrees was the optimal angle in which to shoot. Dirk improved on his training by creating a one footed fade away jumper which he has been using to great effect for the last 18 years.
It might be hard to remember for some readers but big men did not always shoot 3-pointers until Dirk Nowitzki came into the league. He was not just a 3-point shooter however. Dirk Nowitzki for most of his career has been a safety valve. If all else fails you could give him the ball in the triple threat position, normally reserved for smaller guards. The possibility of his fade away jumper opened up the floor for him to drive with his exceptional pump fake or pass to an open man or cutter. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is the tenet he’s lived by his entire career and Dirk has used the same admittedly boring moves to score over 20PPG for twelve consecutive seasons.
He was not known for his defense but he was an exceptional defensive rebounder and was a decent man to man defender in the post. His popularized the trailing 3-pointer on a fast break and is the tallest member of the 50, 40, 90 club. Another all-time great who has spent their entire career with one team, he has suffered from the roster tinkering of the Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban. Since letting Steve Nash leave the team in free agency, Dirk has seen significant roster change each season. He never complained and was rewarded with a NBA championship in 2011 and promptly saw that team dismantled.
Dirk’s legacy will probably be the most relaxed NBA superstar in NBA history. He’s one of the few players to truly understand his role on the team (shoot and rebound) and to not worry about anything else. A professional scorer whose prowess was never due to athleticism. He played long enough to see the entire league change to fit his style. He was the first stretch 4 of the modern NBA (Larry Bird does not count as he started his career as a PF before becoming a 3-point shooting Small Forward). There’s no true successor to Dirk Nowitzki but his closest comparison has to Stephen Curry who has redefined what shooting range means in the NBA now. There’s no 3-pointer that is too far for Curry and his game is also not reliant and athleticism and will age very well. It’s unlikely that Curry will play for another team in his career as well.
The Truth. Paul Pierce defined toughness and clutch scoring throughout his career. This was a player who got stabbed 11 times a month before the season started and did not miss a game. He vacillated between SG and SF for most of his career and you could always count on him for 20 PPG 6RPG and 4APG in his first decade during the league.
He’s the second leading scorer for the Celtics with 22,591points and would likely be the leading scorer if he wasn’t traded to the Brooklyn Nets. Truthfully, there is nothing that really set Pierce apart from his contemporaries during the season but he was a completely different person in the playoffs. When he was paired with the “Big Three” of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, he produced some of the most memorable multiple playoff duels against Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. They won a NBA title their first year and might have had more if not for an untimely injury to Kevin Garnett.
It’s so difficult to point to any of his clutch moments as there are so many.
Paul Pierce’s greatest legacy to the NBA has already been erased. He perfected the rip-through move in which got his defender in the air via a pump fake. He would then jump into the defender and simulating shooting which would earn him a trip to the free throw line. It was a simple but devastating combination, easy points and getting his opponents in foul trouble. This move no longer results in free throws. His true successor can only be James Harden. They have similarly stocky builds and their games are built on craftiness and might not be appealing to every fan. Their dedication to the craft of scoring in unorthodox methods while keeping defenses on their toes are really difficult to perfect and true NBA fans will appreciate their “gaming” of the system.
Vinsanity, Air Canada, Half-Man Half-Amazing. A 39-year-old Vince Carter scored 20 points off the bench in a game this season for the Memphis Grizzlies. The only person in this article who will not win an NBA title but he did win an Olympic Gold and literally killed Frederic Weis’ career with the dunk of death. Vince Carter was a NBA shooting guard paradox; a silky smooth, finesse 3-point shooter who lived to dunk on people. There was no in-between. We’ve seen player who can shoot and players who can dunk. Vince was the first player to do both.
His true value to the league was not so much winning games but bringing excitement to the league. When he was drafted, there were two Canadian NBA teams, the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors. Unable to sustain interest of win games, the Grizzlies moved to Memphis after 6 years of existence. Meanwhile in Toronto, the Raptors were among the leading Arenas in attendance and one of the most popular teams in the world. This was all due to Air Canada. Vince Carter came into the league a fully formed NBA player after 3 season at North Carolina. His terrorized the rim at will and used the space his defenders gave him to shoot 3-pointers at a career 37% clip. He also brought back the NBA Slam Dunk contest in 2000 annihilating fellow All-Stars Steve Francis and his cousin Tracy McGrady. There has yet to be another slam dunk contest featuring multiple All Stars as they fear the damage it can do to their careers.
He was blessed with such natural ability that he can still get above the rim damn near 40 which is incredible considering his career peaked at age 24. He averaged over 20 PPG until he turned 32 and has been trudging along as a role player ever since. Vince Carter might have been the biggest star in the NBA during his rookie contract and while it might not have burned as bright, it has burned long. His natural successor can only be Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin also took the NBA by storm during his rookie contract and while he looks unlikely to regain his early career status and performance it does not diminish what he still manages to accomplish while changing his game to me more in the mid-range.
The NBA is saying goodbye to the 1990’s and we are already getting close to saying goodbye to the 2000’s player like Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol are all on the back end of their careers and it would not be that surprising if they were all retired by 2020. They’re carrying on a legacy brought on by the players of the 90’s. Players who created the marriage of NBA and social media before social media was a thing. Soon the NBA will be turned over to the stars of the 2010’s and they will be singing their praises to the 2000’s.