By David Arkow, Sreetej Digumarthi, Matthew Doctoroff, Jacob Gilligan, Mykalyster Homberg, Misha Nair, Alex Petty, Rohan Rajeev, Rebecca Solomon, Jesse Troyer, Mazal Zebak
In honor of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary, they released their 75th Anniversary Team with their selections for the best players of all-time. This sparked many interesting debates about the merits of those that were on or those that were left off the list. While HSAC is not 75 years old (founded in 2006), this inspired us to examine the best basketball players of all-time. As the NBA media is about to reveal their First, Second, and Third Team selections for this season, we at HSAC will declare our own. But not for the past year – the past 40. We set out to create an NBA All-Decade team for each decade since the 1980s using a statistical approach and quantifiable metrics to back up our picks.
With the availability of many statistics, we tried to create a “catch-all” metric showing how good each player was. Using z-scores, we compared where each player ranks in different widely available and “important” statistics separating by decade. Z-scores show how far a player’s individual stat is from the average of the group and adjust for variation in the data. For example, consider two point guards, one who averaged 25 points per game in the 1980s and the other who averaged 30 points per game in the 2010s. Both were leading scorers in their time, so if you were to compare the 80s point guard with the modern one, his scoring would seem less impressive. This is a hypothetical situation, but the z-score allows us to compare across decades since it adjusts for certain eras being skewed towards certain statistics. As the NBA has changed over time (much higher scoring environment today), using z-scores allows us to compare within and across decades who were the best players. We implemented a similar approach looking at the best NFL quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers of all-time.
We selected our teams similar to All-NBA and All-Star team selections with two backcourt players (guards) and three frontcourt players (forwards and centers). For the backcourt, we computed a standardized z-score and then rescaled them from 0-100 for seven statistics (per game): 1) points, 2) assists, 3) rebounds, 4) steals, 5) win shares (an advanced metric that measures how much a player contributes to winning, 6) assist/turnover ratio, 7) true shooting percentage (shooting efficiency metric taking into account field goals, three-pointers, and free-throws). The previous stats are the same used for frontcourt players except substituting blocks for steals. From these seven standardized scores on a scale of 0-100, we computed a weighted average putting more stock in the “primary stats” (points, assists, win shares, true shooting) than the secondary stats. We then ranked the players in each decade based on their weighted average scores to select a First, Second, and Third All-NBA team for each decade from 1980-2020.
While we took a holistic approach to selecting our teams, there are other methods that would result in a different list. The seven statistics we chose are widely understood, recognized, and available metrics. Today, there are more advanced ones and some that rely on tracking data such as RAPM, DARKO, RAPTOR WAR, and more. Additionally, we did have a weighted criteria but one might choose different weights believing steals should be worth more. Facing a similar problem as modern day analytics, it is hard to quantify a player’s defensive value and our statistical criteria focuses more on offensive than defensive production. Because we are using concrete statistical criteria, there will inevitably be players that rise higher on the list than expected due to putting up gaudy numbers in one area. This is not a “be-all and end-all” list for the best basketball players of all-time but using a holistic and objective criteria to analyze and recognize the accomplishments of the best basketball players of all-time. We hope you enjoy reading through our teams and enjoy constructing your own based on our analysis.
John Stockton (G) - 10x All-Star, 2x First Team
Regarded as one of the NBA’s greatest true point guards, John Stockton is known for his tenacity, elite passing ability, and leadership on the court. One thing that sets him apart from other legendary NBA point guards is his longevity. During his 19 seasons with the Utah Jazz, he only missed 22 games, and never lost his starting spot until he retired at 41 years old. Also, Stockton was the ultimate floor general, leading the league in assists for 9 consecutive seasons. In our analysis, he ranked 1st in assists and win shares, and 2nd in assist-to-turnover ratio (behind Muggsy Bogues). Today, he sits atop the NBA’s All-Time lists for both assists and steals, making him the only player who currently holds two records among the five main statistical categories.
Michael Jordan (G) - 5x MVP, 6x Champion, 6x Finals MVP, 14x All-Star, 10x First Team, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of The Year
In just the first five years of his career, Michael Jordan outperformed the field and earned his spot as one of the best backcourt players of the 80s. However, his official goat status was solidified in the 90s. By the numbers, it’s no surprise Jordan owns a spot on two All-Decade teams. In our analysis, he ranked first in scoring, second in win shares, and third in rebounds among all 90s backcourt players. This stretch of his career included not one, but two three-peats from ‘91-’93 and ‘96-’98. Jordan took a brief pause from basketball to play Minor League Baseball for the Birmingham Barons, the affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. His stint in baseball did not work out as he had a batting average of .202 in 13 months and never made it to the majors. In his first year back, Jordan won his fourth MVP and led the Bulls to the title. Jordan then briefly retired again in 1999 for three years before coming back to join the Washington Wizards in 2001. He struggled in his return putting up his two lowest scoring numbers of his career before retiring in 2003. The six championships for the Bulls franchise have all come during Jordan’s career as they have not even made it back to the Finals since his departure. Nevertheless, the Bulls are one of the most significant sports franchises of all-time thanks to Jordan as their dynasty and his legacy will live on forever.
Scottie Pippen (F) - 6x Champion, 7x All-Star, 3x First Team
Most memorable as Micahel Jordan’s right hand man, Pippen is still considered one of the best defenders and passers in NBA history and played a central role in the Bulls’ six championships. Pippen’s path to the NBA was an unlikely one: he stood at just 6’1’’ after high school and was not offered a college scholarship. Pippen walked on at the University of Central Arkansas where he grew to 6’8’’ and was then drafted 5th overall by the Seattle Supersonics. During his 599 games with the Bulls in the 90s, Pippen averaged 20.0 points, 6.0 assists, and 2.2 steals per game. In our analysis, he ranked first among frontcourt players in steals, second in assists and rebounds, and third in win shares. Despite his reputation as the best No. 2 of all-time, Pippen’s No. 1 potential was demonstrated when Jordan missed nearly two full seasons (1993 and 1994) playing minor league baseball. The Jordan-less Bulls won 55 games with Pippen as he averaged career highs in points (22), rebounds (8.7), and steals (2.9). Pippen also won All-Star Game MVP that year. His second year with the absence of Jordan, 1994-95, Pippen led the league in defensive rating, steals, and ranked 3rd in Value Over Replacement in what was a historically dominant defensive season. This leaves basketball fans wondering if Pippen could have been even greater had he not played Robin to the best player of all-time. The Last Dance explores this most interesting basketball dynamic duo of all-time.
Karl Malone (F) - 2x MVP, 14x All-Star, 11x First-Team
A dominant 6’9’’, 250-pound power forward, Malone was nicknamed “The Mailman” in reference to how consistent he was delivering on the court night after night. Malone’s string of strong seasons in the 1990s landed him first in win shares and second in points in our analysis for frontcourt players during the decade. Despite never winning a championship, Malone’s Jazz made two back-to-back championships (falling to Jordan’s Bulls in six both times) and never missed the playoffs during his time there. Similar to the Bulls with Jordan and Pippen, our 1990’s First Team features a Jazz guard and big man pairing in Malone and Stockton. Each duo ranks in the top two players of their franchise history by win shares. Throughout the 90s, Malone averaged an astounding 26.7 points and 10.6 rebounds per game through 785 contests. Speaking to his nickname, in his 19-year career, Malone only once missed more than two games in a season. Malone led the league in free throws made eight times in his career. Similar to fellow players on these 90’s teams, Malone is one of the greatest to have never won a championship despite making the playoffs every year of his career. Malone was just passed by LeBron this year and now sits third all-time in points and is fourth in Value Over Replacement, behind only LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and John Stockton.
Grant Hill (F) - 7x All-Star, 1x First Team, Co-Rookie of the Year
Hill demonstrated his versatility by logging many minutes as both a small forward and shooting guard throughout his career. This is evidenced by him ranking first in our assist score for frontcourt players averaging nearly 6 per game in the 90s. The third overall pick out of Duke, where he won two NCAA championships, took the NBA by storm, winning Co-Rookie of the Year (with Jason Kidd). Speaking to his versatility, Hill led the league in triple doubles in three consecutive seasons - 27 total. Considering the entire NBA only combined for 50 triple doubles per year at that time, Hill’s TD3 production during those years constituted an outstanding 18% of all NBA triple doubles recorded. Today, Hill adds to his versatility as a co-owner and executive of the Atlanta Hawks.
Gary Payton (G) - 1x Champion, 9x All-Star, 2x All-NBA First Team, Defensive Player Of The Year
Up until this year, Gary “The Glove” Payton was the only point guard to ever win Defensive Player of the Year in the 39 years since the award was first introduced (Marcus Smart now joins the club). He had a score of 85 in our steals metric and ranks fifth all-time. In terms of accolades, his lucky number must have been 9 because that’s how many times that he received All-Defensive, All-NBA, and All-Star honors. Beyond his defensive prowess, Payton is known for his competitive spirit and constant trash talking, traits that made him even more of a pesky opponent. In his 13-year stretch with the Seattle Supersonics, he became the franchise’s all-time leader in games, minutes, field goals, assists, and steals. After the franchise relocated to become the Oklahoma City Thunder, Payton still leads in win shares. By the end of his hall-of-fame career, Payton had only missed a total of 25 games over 17 years, topping it all off with a championship ring in 2006 with the Miami Heat. His son, Gary Payton II, takes after his father and is one of the Golden State Warriors best defenders.
Clyde Drexler (G) - 1x Champion, 10x All-Star, 1x First Team
Drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in 1983, Clyde “The Glide” Drexler is known as one the most elite shooting guards of his generation. Despite falling short in two Finals appearances with the Blazers, he set franchise records for scoring, steals, and triple doubles. Following the 1991-92 season, Drexler finished second in MVP votes behind Michael Jordan. As a Houston native and University of Houston star, it is only fitting that Drexler eventually became an NBA champion in a Houston Rockets jersey in 1995. Drexler is still the greatest player in Trail Blazers history by win shares but that could be at threat of falling to Damian Lillard depending on Dame’s future with the franchise.
Charles Barkley (F) - 1x MVP, 11x All-Star, 5x First Team
After leading Auburn to their first March Madness tournament in program history, Barkley was selected 5th overall in 1984 by the Philadelphia 76ers. Standing at just 6’6” as a power forward, Barkley was still able to carve out a role with his strength as a dominant frontcourt player. Barkley had a strong ability to get to the free throw line, holding the NBA playoff record for most free throws made in a half at 19. In our analysis, he posts high scores in points (75) and true shooting (89). Barkley was also an impressive rebounder, and his rebounding skills earned him the nickname “The Round Mound of Rebound.” He holds NBA records for most offensive rebounds in a quarter (11) and a half (13) and was the shortest player to ever lead the league in rebounding. Similar to how his persona exceeded his actual size on the court, Barkley is now an NBA commentator known as the “soul” of Inside the NBA.
David Robinson (C) - 1x MVP, 2x Champion, 10x All-Star, 4x First Team, 1x Defensive Player Of The Year, Rookie of the Year
After being named the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year during his senior year at Navy, Robinson was selected first overall in the 1987 draft by the Spurs. However, Robinson didn’t debut until 1989, having to serve in the military for two years, but nevertheless won the Rookie of the Year Award. A 7-footer with a dominant mid-range and post game, “The Admiral” was unstoppable on the offensive end, averaging 29.8 ppg in a season to earn a scoring title and recording a career high of 71 points. In our analysis, Robinson ranked 2nd in points and 4th in true shooting with scores of 83 and 89 respectively. The Admiral’s dominance extended to the defensive end, where he was named to an All-Defensive team 8 times and won Defensive Player of the Year in 1992. He is also one of four players in NBA history to record a quadruple-double. In our analysis, he is tied for first in blocks, with a score of 89, and leads his peers in Win Shares, with a score of 91. Robinson’s offensive and defensive prowess helped lead the Spurs to two NBA Championships with frontcourt partner Tim Duncan.
Detlef Schrempf (F) - 3x All-Star, 2x Sixth Man of The Year
One of the most underrated players of the 90s, Detlef Schrempf was a talented offensive forward and played an important role on several successful Seattle Supersonics teams. Born in Germany, Schrempf played 3 seasons at the University of Washington, where he led the Huskies to the Sweet 16, before being selected 8th overall by the Dallas Mavericks in 1985. He began to emerge as a key contributor on the offensive end after being traded to the Indiana Pacers in 1989, where he won two Sixth Man of the Year Awards. As a 6-10 forward, Schrempf was a sharpshooter, shooting 39% from 3 and 81.3% from the free throw line in the 90s. Through the decade, he averaged 16.8 ppg and 7.4 rebounds per game. In our analysis, he stands out among his peers for his efficiency, recording a true shooting score of 93.
Reggie Miller (G) - 5x All-Star
In his 18-year career with the Indiana Pacers, Reggie Miller established himself as a legendary shooter, retiring atop the NBA’s all-time made 3-pointers list. Since then, he’s only been surpassed by Ray Allen and Stephen Curry, leaving his sharp-shooting legacy in great company. It’s no surprise his true shooting score of 99 tops the list. Miller is also known for his clutch gameplay down the stretch, which was dubbed “Miller Time.” Perhaps his most notable clutch performance was against the New York Knicks in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals. Miller famously went off, scoring 8 points in a span of 9 seconds to seal the comeback win earning him the reputation as one of the most feared and hated players to enter Madison Square Garden. Miller is one of the handful of players to join the 50-40-90 club (field goal, three point, free throw percentages) in his 1993 season.
Tim Hardaway (G) - 5x NBA All-Star, 1x First Team
One of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about Tim Hardaway’s legacy is his killer crossover, which was dubbed the “UTEP two-step” in his college years. Hardaway took his crafty ball handling skills to the Golden State Warriors who selected him with the 14th pick in 1989. In Oakland, he reached 5,000 points and 2,500 assists faster than any other NBA player besides Oscar Robertson. A knee injury would send him to the Heat where he played out his prime years, finishing 4th in MVP votes in 1997. After short stints with the Mavericks, Nuggets, and Pacers, Hardaway retired and later served as an assistant coach for the Pistons from 2014 to 2018. His son, Tim Hardaway Jr. is currently an integral part of the Mavericks offense, making them the first father-son combo in Mavericks history.
Hakeem Olajuwon (C) - 1x MVP, 2x Champion, 2x Finals MVP, 12x All-Star, 6x First-Team, 2x Defensive Player Of The Year
After two NCAA championship game losses at Houston, Olajuwon was selected first overall in 1984 draft by the Houston Rockets. On the offensive end, Hakeem utilized his signature “Dream Shake” to freeze defenders and get easy shots at the rim. He averaged 21.8 ppg for his career, including 27.8 in the 1995 season, and ranks third in points among his peers in our analysis with a score of 81. Olajuwon was also a prolific shot-blocker on the other end of the court, and one of the greatest defenders of his era. As the only player with over 200 blocks and 200 steals in a season, Hakeem averaged 1.75 steals and 3 blocks per game during his career, including 4.6 blocks per game in the 1989-1990 season. Through his offensive and defensive skills, Olajuwon led the Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995 in the two years of Jordan’s absence, winning Finals MVP both years.
Chris Webber (F/C) - 5x All-Star, 1x First Team, Rookie of The Year
Although most known for his years with the Sacramento Kings in the early 2000s, Chris Webber established himself as a skilled offensive power forward in his first seasons in the league. A member of Michigan’s famous “Fab Five,” Webber played in two straight NCAA championship games before being drafted 1st overall in 1993 by the Warriors, where he won Rookie of the Year and forced himself out after only one season. In the 90s, Webber averaged a double-double, with 20 ppg on 50.8% shooting from the field along with 10 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. In our analysis, Webber stands out for his contributions on the offensive end, recording a score of 71 in points and 66 in assists.
Shaquille O’Neal (C) - 1x MVP, 4x Champion, 3x Finals MVP, 15x All-Star, 8x First Team, Rookie of The Year
An explosive 7-footer weighing over 300 pounds, Shaquille O’Neal was perhaps the most powerful and electric center of all time. His two backboard-breaking dunks during the 1992-1993 season even led the NBA to increase the strength of the basket the following year. After winning college player of the year at LSU, Shaq was selected first overall by the Orlando Magic in 1992, where he won Rookie of the Year and spent four seasons before joining the Los Angeles Lakers. On the offensive end, Shaq averaged 27.1 ppg on 57.8% shooting from the field during the 1990s and won the scoring title during the 1994-1995 season, with 29.3 ppg. In our analysis, he ranks first in points among his peers with a score of 100 and ranks high in true shooting percentage with a score of 87. Shaq is one of the most larger-than-life (literally and figuratively) figures in NBA history and stars alongside fellow 90’s team selection Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA.
Kevin Johnson (G), Rod Strickland (G), Patrick Ewing (F), Chris Mullin (F), Horace Grant (F)
Check out our 1980s, 2000s, and 2010s teams