Teams in the Finals
If the 1980s had been a top-heavy decade, the 1990s was even heavier based on the teams that won championships. The Chicago Bulls won an incredible six NBA championships, a feat only beaten by the Celtics’ nine championships in the ’60s. Michael Jordan’s Bulls established themselves as the premier franchise of the ’90s.
Just behind the Bulls is the Houston Rockets. Reaching the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons from 1994-1995, the Rockets finally claimed their long coveted goal of winning the NBA championship, even more impressive by doing it in consecutive seasons, and Olajuwon was finally vindicated for his loss in 1986.
The Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs bookended the decade with individual championships of their own. For the Pistons, it came as a repeat championship following their 1989 victory, and for the Spurs it appeared as though a new time had finally arrived as a contender.
Other teams that would reach the NBA Finals but lose include the New York Knicks (twice), Utah Jazz (twice), Portland Trailblazers (twice), Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic, and Seattle SuperSonics. These teams would all remain competitive heading into the 2000s.
Teams on the Rise
Despite losing early in the decade, the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trailblazers returned to contention with made-over rosters at the end of the ’90s. The Indiana Pacers had lost in four Eastern Conference Finals and were chomping at the bit to reach the NBA Finals, and the Miami Heat had knocked on the doorstep with their 1997-1999 seasons.
Featuring a slew of young talent, the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Milwaukee Bucks appeared prime to take the league by storm. Led by young superstars Kevin Garnett and Vince Carter, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors appeared to be just a few pieces away from contention.
Teams that Missed their Shot
Of the teams that had entered the decade with high expectations, the Cleveland Cavaliers were certainly the most disappointed. They only reached the Conference Finals once and faded into obscurity at the end of the ’90s.
The Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, and Detroit Pistons were three other teams that reached the playoffs but could never quite make any noise. However, all three had a host of talent that ought to have assured that they would remain relevant as they entered into the 2000s.
Players of Recognition
The best two players by far in the 1990s were Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. These two hall-of-famers combined for eight NBA championships and Finals MVPs, and it would have been a fitting showdown if their teams had met in the 1994 NBA Finals, unfortunately the first season of Jordan’s brief retirement.
Players whose greatness appeared to fade in the 1990s include Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy. All four players retired early into the decade, and none would achieve similar success to what had transpired in the 1980s. Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing were two other players who were limited by injuries late in the decade.
Players that looked to be the future of the NBA included Los Angeles’ Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, Toronto’s Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter, Phoenix’s Jason Kidd, Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett, Milwaukee’s Ray Allen, Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson, Miami’s Alonzo Mourning, Detroit’s Grant Hill and Sacramento’s Chris Webber.
Other players of note of the 1990s included Atlanta’s Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Smith, New York’s Allan Houston and Larry Johnson, Indiana’s Reggie Miller, Orlando’s Penny Hardaway, Phoenix’s Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle, Portland’s Clyde Drexler, San Antonio’s David Robinson, Seattle’s Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, and Utah’s John Stockton and Karl Malone.
The Bulls’ domination of the 1990s increased the popularity of the league thanks to the constant success of Michael Jordan. With his second retirement in 1999, the scope shifted to recognize the up-and-coming young players around the NBA. The style of play appeared to be an even split between teams that looked to run up-tempo and half-court offenses, and three-pointers and high-flying dunks were even more so in vogue than ever. A great selection of talented big men around the league were all eager to win the NBA championship like youngster Tim Duncan.