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August 13, 2010
Best of the '90s
Ranking by WARP

by Kevin Pelton


Tonight's NBA Hall of Fame induction ceremony marks the end of an era. When Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen are inducted, they will cap off a three-year stretch that saw seven NBA players inducted in their first time on the ballot. Add in Charles Barkley (2006) and you have the definitive list of stars from the 1990s.

Looking ahead, Reggie Miller is the only NBA first-timer with a chance of making the Hall of Fame next year. Nobody from the Class of 2012 is worthy (the leading scorer from that group, per Basketball-Reference.com? Jim Jackson), and by the time Gary Payton is inducted in 2013, we'll be entering a stage where the eligible first-timers made their names almost as much in the new decade as in the '90s.

This seems like an ideal time, then, to rank the greats of the 1990s. My method is the same as in this breakdown of the best centers of the '90s, published right before Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon went into the Hall together two years ago. Borrowing from the The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, it uses a combination of career and peak value to rank players. Specifically, we're looking at three factors--total career WARP, WARP in best three individual seasons and best WARP over a five-year period. Here are the top 10 players whose careers primarily centered in the 1990s.

1. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls/Washington Wizards (score of 78.6)
What, you expected anyone else? Jordan rates relatively poorly in terms of career WARP because of the time he missed during his two retirements, ranking just fourth in the modern era (1980-present). Based on the projected stats we came up with for Jordan when using SCHOENE to fill in his full career, he would easily be the all-time leader. As it is, Jordan's superiority in terms of best three seasons and best five-season stretch (1987-88 through 1991-92) is so great that he still takes his rightful place at the top of this list.

2. John Stockton, Utah Jazz (score of 73.7)
This result, by contrast, was a tad more unexpected. Stockton benefits from the adjustment made in WARP2 that gives more credit to three-point shooters. I'm still a little wary of how well that change works in terms of rating players from the '90s, since it's based on how three-point shooters affect the game by spacing the floor today. Because of his longevity, and more importantly his consistency, Stockton is the all-time WARP leader in the modern era. He was pumping out double-figure WARP seasons right up until his retirement. Stockton still comes out well in terms of peak value, with seven season of 20 WARP or better.

3. David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs (score of 73.6)
As was discussed in the center breakdown a couple of years ago, Robinson has the largest gap between the perception of his career and the statistics he put up. Robinson was consistently better by the numbers in his prime than his peers (and he played against the best). The caveat, also from that article, is that these rankings are based strictly on regular-season performance and Robinson was not quite the same player in the postseason. How you balance the two is largely a matter of individual preference.

4. Charles Barkley, Philadelphia 76ers/Phoenix Suns/Houston Rockets (score of 70.3)
It's close enough that Kevin Garnett will almost certainly make up the difference this season, but right now Barkley rates as the best power forward of the modern era by this method. It's hard to match Barkley's efficiency during his early days with the 76ers. He led the league in True Shooting Percentage four years running, and did so while using nearly a quarter of his team's possessions. It's hard to imagine a modern superstar matching that feat. Amar'e Stoudemire is the only league leader in TS% in the 2000s who was also a go-to guy.

5. Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets/Toronto Raptors (score of 69.3)
There's an easy argument that Olajuwon actually belongs fourth on this list. He outscored Barkley in terms of career WARP and best three seasons. The only reason Barkley ranks ahead is he happened to string his best years together more consistently than Olajuwon, giving him a superior score in best five consecutive seasons. Depending on how much you value playoff performance, you could get Olajuwon all the way up to second on this list.

6. Karl Malone, Utah Jazz/Los Angeles Lakers (score of 67.7)
This one surprised me, quite honestly. Malone comes in just behind his former Utah teammate in terms of career WARP, but comes up short when peak value is considered. Malone had just three seasons with 20-plus WARP, and snuck over the bar each time. In the chicken-egg debate over which member of the Jazz's pick-and-roll duo was more valuable, WARP2 comes down squarely in Stockton's corner. Even before that adjustment, though, Malone rated behind Barkley and Garnett in terms of great modern power forwards, and Tim Duncan still has time to surpass him as well--Duncan needs another three seasons at his current pace.

7. Gary Payton, Seattle SuperSonics/Milwaukee Bucks/Los Angeles Lakers/Boston Celtics/Miami Heat (score of 56.1)
There's a huge gap between the first six guys on this list, all of them save Stockton MVPs, and the next four, who were a notch below. I'm one of Payton's most passionate fans, but this result did not come from putting my thumb on the scale. Payton was this good, as one of the greatest two-way point guards in league history. The one caveat is I'm not sure he belongs more in the 90s; while he played the entire decade, his best five-year stretch actually extends through 2001-02.

8. Clyde Drexler, Portland Trail Blazers/Houston Rockets (score of 55.0)
Drexler was actually the first true '90s star into the Hall of Fame, being inducted in 2004. He's a bit lacking in top-end value, without a single 20-WARP season on his resume (he topped out at 18.5 WARP in 1991-92), but was consistently the league's second-best shooting guard for much of the decade. Only Jordan has a superior career rating at the position right now, though a certain Lakers legend is sure to move past Drexler next season with plenty of his career still ahead.

9. Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls/Houston Rockets/Portland Trail Blazers (score of 52.1)
Alas, the numbers aren't especially kind to either of tonight's honorees from the '90s. I think Pippen fans (like friend of BBP M. Haubs at The Painted Area) would accept him behind the top six players on this list, but Payton and Drexler seem below his league. The biggest factor working against Pippen was his relatively short prime. It took him a while to find his place in the NBA after playing at tiny Central Arkansas, and by the time Pippen got to Portland he was no longer a star-caliber player. Add injuries and Pippen had just eight years with double-figure WARP. Contrast that to Stockton, who had 16, or even Drexler, who had 11.

10. Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks/Seattle SuperSonics/Orlando Magic (score of 50.6)
No matter how you slice the numbers--career value, peak value, offense, defense--Ewing is a tier below the other great centers of the '90s. He was still a deserving Hall of Famer. There's a clear drop-off among '90s players after Ewing. These are pretty clearly your 10 best players of the decade.


Player               Tot  Career   Top3   5Cons
Michael Jordan      78.6   264.4   80.4   126.8
John Stockton       73.7   301.8   66.0   107.8
David Robinson      73.6   247.4   76.3   117.1
Charles Barkley     70.3   261.5   68.2   107.2
Hakeem Olajuwon     69.3   267.4   68.3    99.2
Karl Malone         67.7   284.8   60.8    95.0
Gary Payton         56.1   184.4   58.4    91.1
Clyde Drexler       55.0   195.6   54.6    86.2
Scottie Pippen      52.1   173.9   54.5    82.7
Patrick Ewing       50.6   169.3   52.4    80.9

(The total score is career value divided by 10 plus top three seasons divided by three plus five best consecutive seasons divided by five.)

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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