The NBA is preparing for its 75th season, and as part of its anniversary celebrations, the league will update the list of its greatest players ever.
The last time the NBA put together such a list was in 1996 when the 50 Greatest Players were announced for the league's 50th anniversary.
The new list will be made from scratch and while multiple legendary names will be repeated, it will also include new names, likely including active players like LeBron James, who continues adding to his legacy going into his 19th season.
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When putting together the 50 Greatest Players list, 11 players were active during the 1996-97 season. Among them were the likes of Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Robert Parish, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and John Stockton.
Of the above 11, only Parish retired at the end of that season, meaning the legacy of that group at that time was not as we know it today.
What situation were they in back in October 1996? Let's get on the time machine and travel back 25 years to review it.
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The Chicago Bulls were coming off the winningest season in NBA history, capping off a 72-win regular season with the championship. They began the 1996-97 season with three players from the NBA's 50 Greatest Player list.
Jordan, the reigning league MVP and Finals MVP, was the league's scoring champion in 1995-96 with a scoring average of 30.4. He was 34 years old but still the best player in the league. Next to him, Pippen, who was a member of the All-NBA (First Team in 1996, Second Team in 1997) and All-Defensive First Team in 1995-96 and 1996-97.
The third was Parish, a lesser-known Bull at the time. A legend with the Boston Celtics in the 1980s, Parish got his fourth NBA ring with the Bulls just before his 44th birthday, in what would be the final season of his career. He started 34 games for the Charlotte Hornets in the 1995-96 season, however, for the Bulls, he only played 406 minutes in the regular season and 18 in the playoffs.
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While the curtains temporarily came down on his career after the 1997-98 season, Jordan went on to win another title, three MVP trophies (league, All-Star, Finals), and receive All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive Team in his last year as a Bull. Three years later, he returned from his retirement to spend two seasons with the Washington Wizards.
Pippen, on the other hand, would begin to decline after the 1996-97 season. He didn't make another All-Star game and only earned one more All-NBA selection in 1998, his final season with the Bulls. With the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, Pippen was more of a defensive specialist who would help lead those teams to playoff appearances without any significant success.
Another team from that 1996-97 season that also consisted of three players from NBA's 50 Greatest Players was the Rockets. The NBA champions from 1994 and 1995, the franchise was attempting to contend once again by adding Barkley (coming off an All-NBA selection in 1995-96) to their duo of Olajuwon and Drexler.
This trio failed to make it to the Finals against the Bulls, robbing us of a Jordan-Olajuwon duel in the playoffs.
The first of the trio to retire was Drexler, who in 1996 and 1997 was still chosen as an All-Star at 33 and 34 years old. He maintained a good level of production, averaging 18.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists over his last three seasons, but he was not the same Drexler from Portland who nearly won the MVP over Jordan in 1992 with averages of 25.0 points and 6.7 assists per game.
He left the game in 1998 with his legacy not very different from the one he had in 1996.
Sir Charles, about the same age as Drexler, also earned just one more All-Star selection after being named among the 50 Greatest. Injuries became a major problem for him when he arrived in Texas, and although he had a great first year with the Rockets in which he averaged 19.2 points and 13.5 rebounds, he wasn't named to an All-NBA team.
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Olajuwon would stretch his playing career, retiring at the age of 39 in Toronto after making the 2002 playoffs with the Raptors. He was part of the All-NBA First Team in 1996-97 and Third Team in 1998-99, a campaign in which he would also attract some MVP votes with averages of 18.9 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.5 blocks.
The following year, without Barkley and Pippen, Olajuwon's production fell sharply with rookie Steve Francis as his main teammate. Olajuwon's production decreased to the point that he finished that season in a reserve role.
For Patrick Ewing, another center born in the early 60s, his prime would end in the 1997-98 campaign - the last of nine straight seasons in which he averaged at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. One season earlier, he had been All-NBA, All-Star and Player of the Week for the final time in a season where it seemed as though the Knicks were set for a Conference Finals face-off with the Bulls. Instead, they gave up a 3-1 lead to the Miami Heat in the Conference Semifinals.
The Knicks would reach the Finals in 1999, but they would do so without Ewing as the center was injured in the Conference Finals. The 1999-00 season would be Ewing's last with the Knicks, a year they advanced to the Conference Finals. Ewing was unable to add to his legacy as his career came to a close with the Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic.
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Robinson, however, was able to add to his legacy.
The Admiral spent the 1996-97 season injured but in the following year, he would share the limelight with Tim Duncan. Robinson became a champion in 1999 and 2003 as a starter, was selected to the 1998, 2000 and 2001 All-Star Games, and received All-NBA nominations in each of those three seasons as well as an All-Defensive Team nod in 1998.
Robinson knew how to focus more on being a defensive leader while Duncan handled the scoring. After turning 38, Robinson retired a champion, averaging 10.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the 2003 Finals.
John Stockton and Karl Malone failed to become NBA champions, but at least after entering the NBA's 50 Greatest they were able to experience the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998.
Malone, who would later also reach the Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004, would add five All-NBA nominations, two All-Defensive, five All-Star selections and two MVP awards after the NBA's top 50 list was announced. Stockton retired without a ring like Malone, but in addition to reaching the Finals, he would add two All-NBA selections, two All-Star nods and one more All-Defensive Team selection.
Shaquille O'Neal's case was special. He received almost all of his accolades after 1996 - three Finals MVPs, three All-Star game MVPs, one regular-season MVP, 11 All-Star selections, 11 All-NBA and three All-Defensive nods, in addition to four championships in five NBA Finals trips.
O'Neal, the greatest center of the 2000s, retired at the age of 39 in 2011.
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