Throughout history, we have experienced the brilliance of numerous superstar players. The traction that some of these players get can rise to a global scale, which makes them candidates for being named the face of the league. For example, when you think of the face of the NBA today, who do you think of?
You might think LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Steph Curry, but that door has been revolving for decades. Even dating back to the 1980s, the sport has had a face attached to the league. With success comes extra duties, so these players have not only had to lead their franchises to new heights, but also take on the duty of being crowned the most herald player in the league.
These players since 1980 have had the task of being named the face of the NBA. Let’s take a look at who those players are.
1980-1987: Magic Johnson And Larry Bird
During this span, Johnson led the Los Angeles Lakers to NBA championships in 1980, 1982, 1985, and 1987. The team owns the nickname “Showtime Lakers” because his teams put on a show during the 1980s. With three NBA Finals MVPs earned, how can you not say that Johnson was not the face of the league?
Who won the other three championships during this time? You guessed it. Bird led the Boston Celtics to titles in 1981, 1983, and 1986. If it wasn’t the Lakers, the Celtics were in the NBA Finals during this time. Not to mention, while this was going on, Bird won three straight MVP trophies from 1984-1986.
The rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics was astronomically big. The battles between Magic and Bird were highlighted every time these two teams battled. Between the two, there is not enough space in one room to fit all of their NBA awards.
1988-1993: Michael Jordan
Some might look at the start date and start questioning us, but let’s explain. First of all, the Lakers won in 1988, but James Worthy was named the NBA Finals MVP, not Magic Johnson. Second, Jordan was named the regular season MVP, won the NBA scoring title, and was the Defensive Player of the Year.
Others might question that Isaiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons had the Chicago Bulls’ number. That might be true, but Jordan was a scoring champion, the most electrifying player in the league, and everyone hated the Pistons. They didn’t get their nickname “The Bad Boys” out of chance.
Jordan won the regular-season MVP award in 1991 and 1992, as well as led the Bulls to championships from 1991-1993 in which he won Finals MVP. In his younger days, there was not a more beloved player than Michael Jordan because his play on the court was so entertaining.
1994-1995: Hakeem Olajuwon
When Michael Jordan retired for the first time, this allowed other players to finally have their moment. People didn’t realize how good Hakeem Olajuwon was because Jordan was stealing all the spotlight. When Jordan was gone, it was his show.
Olajuwon won the MVP in 1994 and led the Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships where he won Finals MVP. That also included winning Defensive Player of the Year in 1994 too.
The league needed a face when Jordan left. It was a sad time because it was right after the tragic murder of Jordan’s father, who he beloved. However, Olajuwon rose to fame and turned the Rockets into fan favorites. That was until Jordan returned anyway.
1996-1998: Michael Jordan
Jordan’s return in 1995 was marred with rust because he didn’t play a full NBA season. After losing in the playoffs in 1995, the competitiveness that made Jordan a legend was back in full throttle. These three seasons was a special time in Chicago, as the Bulls completed a second three-peat with Jordan at the front of the charge.
Three more Finals MVPs and three titles led to Jordan’s return into the global spotlight. Jordan won the MVP in 1996 and 1998. He survived the “Flu Game.” He hit the buzzer-beater in Game 6 in 1998. There wasn’t anything that he didn’t accomplish.
Many considered Jordan the greatest of all time back then. Flash forward to the present and there might be some that still consider the face of the league.
1999-2002: Shaquille O’Neal
When the Bulls were blown up, a new sheriff was in town. Diesel quickly took his opportunity to become the face of the league while Jordan was out. Shaq won the MVP in 2000 and jump-started the Lakers back to international fame.
From 2000-2002, the Lakers completed the three-peat with Shaq winning back-to-back-to-back NBA Finals MVP trophies. With Shaq’s large stature, there was nothing more invigorating than watching the big man throw down a monstrous dunk. During this timeframe, he did plenty of that because nobody could stop his size.
2003: Tim Duncan
From a brief moment, Tim Duncan was the man. When Duncan was younger, he paired with David Robinson to lead the Spurs to a championship in 1999. However, a much older Robinson was not the same player in 2003 despite still being a serviceable veteran.
A primetime Duncan won the regular season MVP, led the Spurs to the championship, and clinched the title with the Finals MVP. With Michael Jordan aged, and the Los Angeles Lakers dealing with the drama between Kobe Bryant and Shaq, Duncan quietly rose to the top.
2004: Kevin Garnett And Tracy McGrady
Both of these players stole the hearts of NBA fans in 2004. Kevin Garnett helped the Minnesota Timberwolves go from irrelevant to championship contenders. The MVP led the Timberwolves to the Western Conference Finals and the No. 1 overall seed in the West. Given that the Timberwolves were a typical first-round exit, their rise to fame grew along with Garnett’s rise in the league.
T-Mac was the most entertaining scorer in the league at the time. In his final season with the Magic, McGrady led the league in scoring with 28.0 points per game. Unfortunately, the Magic didn’t make the playoffs, which led to him leaving for the Houston Rockets.
2005: Tim Duncan And Allen Iverson
After a year off, Duncan rose back to being the face of the league after he led the Spurs back to an NBA championship. It was the third and final time that Duncan would win Finals MVP. With the Lakers breaking up, the Pistons all over the place, and the Spurs winning, it makes sense that Duncan was the face of the league.
However, he would have to share that title with Allen Iverson. It was the fourth and final time that Iverson led the league in scoring. Iverson averaged 30.7 points and a career-high 7.9 assists. There was something about Iverson’s playmaking that got the world’s attention. It might have had everything to do with his height.
2006-2010: Kobe Bryant
When Shaq won an NBA title in 2006 with the Heat, all eyes were on Kobe Bryant because there were analysts that believed Bryant couldn’t win a title on his own. After all, Shaq won all three Finals MVPs during the team’s three-peat from 2000-2002.
After Shaq won the title, we saw a reinvented Kobe. He scored 81 points in 2006. He won the All-Star Game MVP in 2007, the regular-season MVP in 2008, and then his two lustrous Finals MVPs in 2009 and 2010. We saw a man that wanted to win every game possible. Kids started shooting at trash cans and yelling “Kobe.” That doesn’t happen unless you are the face of the league.
2011-2015: LeBron James
When LeBron left for the Miami Heat in 2010, he was the league’s villain. However, it didn’t stop the fact that he was the face of the league. When LeBron left the Cavaliers, it was because he grew tired of leading the Cavaliers on his own and failing at winning a championship. By teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, gave him the best opportunity.
It wasn’t like LeBron didn’t do anything in Miami. He won the MVP in 2012 and 2013, as well as two championships. The combination of LeBron and Wade had vibes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Even though the Heat didn’t win seven championships as LeBron promised, he was the most polarizing player in the league positively and negatively.
2016-Present: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant
LeBron’s return to the Cleveland Cavaliers was the biggest 180-degree turn when it came to love from the fans. The idea of LeBron “coming home” to lead his town to a championship was a national storyline. In four years, LeBron led the Cavaliers to four NBA Finals appearances, as well as the 2016 championship.
Then, LeBron left for the Lakers and led the franchise to a championship last year in the same year when franchise icon Kobe Bryant died. Make no mistake, even at the age of 36 years old, LeBron remains one of the faces of the league.
LeBron doesn't hold that title on his own though. When LeBron was leading the Cavaliers to appearances in the Finals, he was run down by the dynasty that was the Golden State Warriors. Steph Curry was an MVP in 2015 and the unanimous choice in 2016. He won three championships and recently won the NBA scoring title. He has not shown that he is slowing down either.
As for Durant, his showing in the NBA playoffs proved that he is still one of the most lethal scorers in the league. Durant did win two NBA Finals MVPs in 2017 and 2018, but his transition to Brooklyn has brought the attention of many to his direction. We wonder if Durant can lead a franchise to a title “on his own.” That means not joining a team that had won 73 games the year before.
All three players are in their mid-30s. There is no telling of how much gas is left in the tank in the near future. A new face of the league will be coming soon. Who do you think it will be?