The game of professional basketball has always been fluid and malleable, with different strategies and playstyles passing in and out of vogue. That’s perhaps never been truer than the last 15 years when heightened analytics have pushed developments like the importance of the three-point shot, and the de-emphasis of traditional big-man roles. However, even in changing times, the best of the best always find ways to adapt and make themselves valuable.
Of course, not all eras of the NBA are created equal. The game in any given decade has always been defined by its stars, who set the trends for everyone else to follow. Inevitably, the players who can use their particular skill sets to make the most difference on the court will be the most dominant presences in the game.
While the sport has moved toward a more positionless model in recent years, that dominant spot has often been associated with a particular position on the floor. But because of the changing nature of the game, different positions have thrived more or less at different times through NBA history. So what was the golden era for each of the five traditional positions? Which players took their role to its highest peak, and how do other eras stack up?
Best Era: 2010s
Starting out at the one position, it’s a tough call. The point guard has always been in contention for basketball’s most important position as the de facto floor general and playmaker, which means that every era of the game has seen true superstars break out in the role. For that same reason, the point guard has also seen some of the most drastic evolution over the years.
Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West are just a few names who made indelible marks on the early game as point guards, and greats like John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce and Tony Parker cemented their status in the 1990s and 2000s. Ultimately though, no decade has been better for point guards than the one we just left, when they won four of ten regular-season MVP awards.
The perimeter scoring revolution of the 2010s added a valuable skill to the point guard arsenal, without minimizing the impact of explosive drivers or traditional play-callers. Every kind of point guard excelled in the 2010s at the highest level: floor generals like Chris Paul, sharpshooters like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard, and stunning finishers like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, and Kyrie Irving.
Of course, a particular tribute must also be paid to the 1980s for two main reasons: Isiah Thomas, and more importantly, Magic Johnson. While the decade on the whole might not have been as strong for the position, the impact of both Thomas and Magic is undeniable. Despite every development that’s come along since, Magic remains the greatest point guard to ever do it.
Best Era 2000s
Runners-Up: 2010s, 1990s
Let’s get one thing straight right away: Michael Jordan, obviously, is the greatest shooting guard to ever live. And it just so happens that the greatest shooting guard to ever live dominated in the 1990s, winning six of the decade’s ten championships. For some, that’s enough of an argument that the ‘90s was the best time for the position. But was it really? Or was it just the best time for Michael Jordan?
It is specifically because of Jordan, his impact, and his legacy, that the 2000s became the greatest shooting guard era in the history of the game. Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade alone could be enough to make the case, but the decade was also home to all-time greats like Manu Ginobli, Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady, and Allen Iverson (who, in fairness, played his share of point guard too).
The sheer number of Hall-of-Fame-level shooting guards from the 2000s, and the fact that nearly every championship team of the decade featured one of them in a key role, places it firmly as the best era for the position. The ‘90s remain a defining time for two guards as well, mostly because of Jordan, but also because of a few other notable names like Clyde Drexler.
The three-point revolution has also made huge strides for shooting guards in the 2010s, as their perimeter potential adds more and more to the modern game. James Harden and Klay Thompson obviously top the list of preeminent two guards for the past decade, but the role has become much more pivotal for all teams across the board. With young stars like Donovan Mitchell, Jamal Murray and Devin Booker popping off this season, and veterans like Bradley Beal, Paul George and CJ McCollum still in their prime, the 2020s could be the position’s best era yet.
Best Era: 1980s
Like Jordan in the ‘90s, the past 15 years of basketball have been ruled by one small forward. The last decade especially has seen LeBron dominate on multiple teams, in everything from passing to posting up, from driving to perimeter shooting, to defense. We all know what a phenom LeBron is, and we’ve seen other All-Stars rise up at the small forward in his wake, like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum.
But for all that, the 2010s cannot be basketball’s greatest small forward era. That title belongs to the 1980s when a staggering number of the position’s all-time best competed with each other at the highest level. The list is extensive: Dominique Wilkins, Julius Erving, James Worthy, George Gervin and Bernard King, just to name a few. And of course, at the front of the pack, the incomparable Larry Bird.
The ‘80s shift from center-domination to the rapid pace and high-octane scoring set the stage for this incredibly deep cast of All-Stars to dominate the game, and dominate they did. Jordan started making waves of course, and the Lakers had an exceptional decade in large part due to Magic and Kareem’s continued excellence, but even they had Worthy. Small forwards also took four of ten MVP awards through the decade, with Dr. J taking it in ’81, and Bird winning it later for three years in a row.
Best Era: 2000s
Imagine the greatest power forwards ever. Your list almost certainly has these five players: Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, Dirk Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, and Kevin Garnett. For nearly 20 years, those five players dominated in the position, winning seven MVP awards between 1993 and 2007. That’s nearly half, in an age where Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Steve Nash all hit their peaks.
In some ways, it feels wrong to divorce the first half of that reign from the second. Malone still played at a high level at the beginning of the 2000s, and Duncan won his first championship in 1999. But for the sake of keeping with the rest of this list, the 2000s were the definitive years for the four because of two main reasons: power forwards actually won in the 2000s. Duncan dominated, KG won in ’08, and Pau Gasol was the key number-two on Kobe’s fourth and fifth title runs.
While Dirk didn’t claim a championship until 2011, his peak years all led up that moment. It’s true that the ‘90s had a slew of other dominant fours, like Shawn Kemp, Dennis Rodman, and Horace Grant. But it’s also true that Duncan and Dirk were better than all of them, and that even Malone, when put next to Duncan, can’t quite stack up.
It would also be remiss to ignore the 2010s, which saw greats like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, and the superstar trio of Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’ve won three of the past seven MVPs and three of the past four NBA championships. AD and KD’s distinct styles of play exemplify the evolution and modern variance of the power forward position, and Giannis has kept the torch burning for more traditional fours. It remains to be seen though if Davis can win without LeBron, and if Giannis can even reach the Finals.
Best Era: 1970s
This is one of the more contentious positions to call. In one corner, the 1990s: Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Shaquille O’Neal. In the other corner, the 1970s: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, Wes Unseld, and Dave Cowens.
In terms of talent, the two seem relatively comparable. In terms of results though, they are far less so. In seven of ten seasons in the 1970s, one of those centers won the championship. In nine of those ten seasons, they won the MVP – six times by Kareem, and once each by Moses, Walton, and Cowens. While Hakeem’s two titles, Shaq and Robinson’s one apiece, and the three MVPs between them are certainly impressive, they don’t measure up against a decade that was completely dominated by the NBA’s greatest bigs.
Of course, there’s one major name missing from this summation, and that’s Bill Russell – five MVPs, and more championship rings than you can fit on two hands. The early days of the NBA were dominated by Russell in a way no player has dominated since. Not even Jordan. And his rivalry with Chamberlain through the 1960s set the stage for decades of amazing basketball rivalries to come.
It would be absurd not to acknowledge the utter monopoly Russell and Chamberlain had on basketball in the 1960s. Like MJ, their greatness primed the world for the future, when so many different centers brought fire and intensity to the game. With the direction the NBA has recently taken, it is unlikely we will ever see anyone near their like at the five position again.