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Guard: Gary Payton
Payton was a pest. He was constantly in his opponents’ airspace, bothering them with size (6’4″), great hands and seemingly inexhaustible supplies of toughness and tenacity.
Drafted second overall in 1990, The Glove played nine seasons during the decade and punctuated six with All-Defensive first-team honors. He was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1995-96, and he remains the only point guard to capture that hardware.
While defense formed the foundation of Payton’s identity, he eventually surged into stardom at both ends. Over the decade’s final five seasons, he averaged 20.4 points on 47.4 percent shooting and 7.7 assists. He made six All-NBA appearances in the ’90s, including first-team honors in 1997-98.
He might’ve been the most talented player at the position during the decade. His impact was just as incredible, as the Sonics surged to prominence under his watch. In 1995-96, the Chicago Bulls lost just 13 times all season, including the playoffs, and three of those defeats came against Seattle.
Payton could make a strong case for the first team, but he wasn’t quite as dominant for quite as long as the two guards who made the cut.
Guard: Clyde Drexler
While Father Time would catch Drexler before the decade ended, he bounced into it like he had a pair of moon boots on his feet. He was gliding as effortlessly as ever and piling up production by the busload.
Drexler played 608 regular-season games during the ’90s—most of them during his 30s—and used them to deliver per-night contributions of 20.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
He had size, handles, flashy footwork and an outside shot that was there when he needed it. Although he fell short of a title in Portland, he pushed the Blazers to a pair of Finals berths. A midseason move to Houston at the 1994-95 deadline finally put a championship ring on his finger, and he finished first or second on the Rockets in points, assists, rebounds and steals during that playoff run.
If he didn’t peak at the same time as Michael Jordan, Drexler’s career might be received differently. But even as it stands, he was one of the decade’s greats as a seven-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA selection (once on the first team) and the silver medalist in the 1991-92 MVP race.
Forward: Grant Hill
This might be the most contested spot of all. Kemp came close to claiming it. Dominique Wilkins, Dennis Rodman, Chris Mullin and Tim Duncan can all make their own arguments. Hill’s case is compelling, but it’s far from airtight, since he didn’t come on the scene until the decade was already half-finished.
Once he arrived, though, he made a splash like few others in history. While he shared the Rookie of the Year honors with Jason Kidd, Hill’s buzz was on a different level. His Pistons jersey was seen on courts from coast to coast. His All-Star support was almost Beatles-like. He paced everyone in votes as a rookie in 1994-95 and then did the same in 1995-96, Michael Jordan’s first full season back from his baseball break.
Before injuries got the best of him, Hill was otherworldly. His ’90s arsenal included everything but an outside shot. His ’90s numbers included per-game averages of 20.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 1.6 steals. For context, only three other players—Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Russell Westbrook—have matched that production for an entire season.
While Hill couldn’t match the longevity of our first-team forwards, neither of them were ever identified as Jordan’s heir apparent the way he was.
Forward: Charles Barkley
The calendar didn’t cooperate with Chuck. He didn’t see enough of the ’80s to snag a first-team spot for that decade, and he didn’t put enough of his peak into this decade to justify one here. But given the levels he maintained in the ’90s, it’s wild to think they weren’t all his prime years.
Barkley combined skill, strength and tenacity into an often unstoppable package. He could bully defenders down on the low block, outrun them in the open court, take them off the bounce or finish right through them. Generously listed at 6’6″, he still tracked down the decade’s sixth-most rebounds. He also scored the ninth-most points and even dished the 33rd-most dimes.
Barkley posted the decade’s fifth-most win shares and had the fourth-highest box plus/minus. He made eight All-Star appearances, earned seven All-NBA selections (three on the first team) and took home the 1992-93 MVP award. He’s closer to jumping to the first team than falling to an honorable mention, but some injury-riddled seasons to close out the decade sabotaged his chances.
Center: David Robinson
Impossibly athletic for his size (7’1″ and 235 pounds), Robinson was a cheat code from the start.
As a rookie, he became the second player to sweep the Rookie of the Month awards, made his first of many All-Star appearances, claimed an All-NBA third-team spot, landed on the All-Defensive second team and averaged 24.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.9 blocks, 2.0 assists and 1.7 steals.
That was just the beginning.
He claimed a rebounding title in year two and a blocks title the following season. In 1993-94, his fifth year in the league, he snagged the scoring crown with 29.8 points per game and became the second player ever to average 29 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks, a distinction he still shares with only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Objectively speaking, Robinson has the strongest resume among all of the non-first-teamers. He was an MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year and a champion, all in this decade. He was an eight-time All-Star and an eight-time All-NBA honoree, making four appearances on the first team. He contributed the second-most win shares of anyone. But he was never the best player on a championship team, and our first-team center was—twice.