The term “redefined the game” is one of the most clichéd phrases in all of sports. As individuals in all professions will tell you, revolutions usually come in small tweaks and not sweeping changes.
Yet in basketball, there have been those rare, once-in-a-lifetime basketball players who force teams to start making those small changes or rethink the way they do business on and off the court. Here are the five players who have had a lasting impact on the NBA.
Boston Celtics (1956-69)
The first African American superstar in NBA history, Russell proved to the league that defense wins championships, as the Celtics won 11 titles during his 13-year career. Russell snagged more than 20 rebounds a game and Boston sported one of the top defenses in the league throughout his entire career (Unfortunately, blocked shots were not recorded until 1973 so there is no definitive record of how many he batted away. Many anecdotal news reports often mentioned him blocking six to eight shots in a game.). With his 6-foot-10, 220-pound frame, it is unclear whether Russell would be a power forward or center in today’s game, but his play back then prompted teams to transition from the run-and-gun style of the 1950s and ‘60s to a slower-paced, more physical game in the ‘70s.
Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors (1959-65)
Philadelphia 76ers (1965-68)
Los Angeles Lakers (1968-73)
Bill Russell’s archrival makes this list not because of his 100-point game or seasons where he averaged more than 40 and 50 points a game, but because of his influence on the NBA rulebook. The NBA widened the lane from 12 to 16 feet and outlawed goaltending because the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain had an unfair advantage over the opposition. The league also banned inbounding the ball over the basket, thus making it easier for big men to snag it and score, as well as slam dunking free throws. With today’s players, can you imagine an NBA without these rules in place?
Chicago Bulls (1984-93, ’95-98)
Washington Wizards (2001-03)
While Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are credited with rescuing the NBA from the doldrums of mediocrity and increasing its popularity, Jordan is credited with turning it into worldwide phenomenon. He is arguably the greatest player of all time and definitely the most marketed. Air Jordan was the centerpiece of ad campaigns with Gatorade, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Wheaties and, of course, Nike, as the Bulls won six titles in front of record television audiences. The 1998 NBA Finals – the last one Jordan played in – remains the most watched Finals in history, averaging an 18.7 rating / 33 share and 29.04 million viewers a game. No player before or since has garnered that type of popularity, though players are still benefiting from his influence.
Orlando Magic (1992-96)
Los Angeles Lakers (1996-2004)
Miami Heat (2004-08)
Phoenix Suns (2008-09)
Cleveland Cavaliers (2009-10)
Boston Celtics (2010-11)
The history of NBA centers reached its apex in 1992, when the greatest athlete to ever play the position joined the league. Forget the movies, rap albums and one-liners, Shaq was 7-foot-1, weighed 325 pounds and was as agile as most power forwards. His dominant play meant any team with a strong supporting cast had a chance to win at all as his playoff success shows. Since teams could not beat him in the middle, they moved to the outside and imported excellent shooters with great fundamentals from Europe. Although there are exceptions like Dwight Howard, today’s centers join their teams in shooting more frequently from the outside thanks to Shaq.
Minnesota Timberwolves (1995-2007, ’15-16)
Boston Celtics (2007-13)
Brooklyn Nets (2013-15)
In 1975, the NBA drafted two players – Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby – straight out of high school. Neither lived up to expectations and the experiment of drafting high school players was quickly scrapped. (Some players would go into the NBA if they were not able to play in college, but that was a last resort.). Then in 1995, Garnett, USA Today’s National High School Player of the Year, announced his intentions to forgo college and enter the draft. At the time the time, the decision seemed like it had disaster written all over it and he was even stricken with the curse of the Sports Illustrated cover a week before the draft. Yet Garnett proved the experts wrong and had a great 21-year career. He was drafted fifth overall by the Timberwolves and led them to eight consecutive playoff appearances.
During his career, he was named the 2004 MVP, made the All-Star Game 15 times and won a title with the Celtics in 2008. His immediate success prompted more teams to draft players straight out of high school. There were some failures, but there were many – pardon the pun – slam dunks, including Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and LeBron James. However, not everyone is ready to play in the NBA straight out of high school so in 2005, the league set the minimum age for players at 19. Now superstars play a year of college before entering the NBA. For better or for worse, “The Big Ticket” ushered in today’s era of younger professional basketball players.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.