Class of ’96, could be the best the NBA has ever seen. Courtesy: NBA.com
Two time NBA Most Valuable Player Steve Nash retired this weekend after a stellar eighteen seasons that ended with two injury riddled seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers in Southern California. His departure now leaves the 1996 draft class with two active players; Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, who isn’t currently on a roster but is still mulling over playing next season at age 40. As the well wishes and compliments flooded the twitter-verse, and national networks took time to reflect on Nash’s career, it also conjured up memories of his classmates and left me begging the question, “is the 1996 Class the best draft ever?”
Just look at the names. Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Stephon Marbury, Antoine Walker, Jermaine O’Neal, Marcus Camby, Peja Stojakovic, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Derek Fisher and the undrafted Ben Wallace.
The Class of 1984 is widely regarded as the best ever due to the exploits of Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. They even had their own NBA TV documentary and a book that explained how they changed the game forever. There are also some who give the nod to the Class of 2003 headlined by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Time will tell as that class is still pretty much in the prime of their careers.
While both ’84 and ’03 classes boast All-Time greats, I can argue that the ’96 group as a whole is just as accomplished, if not more.
Let’s start with the consensus best player in this draft, Kobe Bryant. The “Black Mamba” is currently third on the NBA All-Time scoring list with 32,482 points and counting. He’s won the most titles with five and been named NBA Finals MVP twice (2009, 2010). He’s the closest thing we’ve seen to his “Airness” and is viewed by many of his peers and predecessors as one of the top five players in history.
Magic Johnson has already called him “the Greatest Laker Ever” and that’s saying a lot considering most view him as the greatest player in Laker history, as well as the many Hall of Famers that have donned purple and gold.
Don’t forget, Kobe was also at the forefront of the “Redeem Team” that recaptured the Gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and repeated at the 2012 games in London. It was his insistence on playing for that team that turned Team USA around after the 2004 Team lead by Class of 2003 stars Lebron, D-Wade and Carmelo could only muster a bronze medal finish.
Allen Iverson, the first overall selection in 1996, is pound for pound the best scorer in NBA history. He has the sixth best per game scoring average of all time (26.7) and finished his 16 year career with 24,368 points. For a guy known specifically for his offense, his 1,983 steals is good for twelfth all-time. A.I. caused a cultural shift on and off the court. He ushered in the hip hop era sporting braids and tattoos that made it commercially acceptable in the living rooms of the masses. Iverson announced he didn’t want to be like Bird, Magic or Jordan and by being the “anti-Jordan”, it actually helped him become one of the games brightest stars. His cultural impact could even rival Jordan’s from a marketing perspective because he was the first to do it as he put it “his way” and not be a cookie cutter replica of the stars of the past.
His grit and toughness on the floor was a throwback in a league that was getting and now is soft. “The Answer” is fourth on the career list in minutes played per game (41.1) and he played through a laundry list of injuries that would cause today’s player to miss a week worth of games.
His greatest accomplishment may be having lead a outmanned Sixers team to the 2001 NBA Finals and a game one victory over a Lakers team that dismantled the Western Conference playoffs—the only game L.A. lost in the postseason that year.
As I mentioned earlier, Steve Nash has two NBA MVP trophies and is the only player 6’3″ and shorter to accomplish this feat. He is third on the All-Time assists list—behind John Stockton and Jason Kidd—with 10,335 and led the league in assists five times. When you look at the numbers and his impact on the open free flowing style of play adopted by many teams today, Nash has an argument for top 5 point guard ever.
He was also a sharp shooter with a career percentage of 49% in twos, 42.8% on threes, which is ninth all time and 90.4% from the free throw line which is tied for the best in history. Four times he cracked the exclusive 50-40-90 club a record 4 times (shoot 50+% from twos, 40+% from three and 90+% from the FT line).
Speaking of shooters, Ray Allen is arguably the best in the history of the game. “Mr. Shuttlesworth” has made more threes than anyone with 2,973. His eight threes made in game two of the 2010 NBA Finals is sill a record, seven of which were made in one half which is also a record.
He also has the most 4 point plays made in a single Finals game. His clutch shooting is the reason both the 2007 Boston Celtics and the 2013 Miami Heat won World Championships.
Ben Wallace wasn’t drafted out of Virginia Union University, but he is the epitome of persistence in a professional athlete. Wallace signed with the Washington Bullets/Wizards franchise where he struggled to consistently stay in the rotation, then when he finally broke through as a starter for the Orlando Magic, he was shipped to Detroit in the trade for Grant Hill that at the time was viewed as lopsided for Orlando.
Now he will be forever known as one of the best defensive players in history, winning a record four Defensive Player of the Year awards with the Pistons. He stellar rebounding, shot blocking and defensive leadership lead the 2004 Detroit Pistons to an unlikely NBA Title over a stacked Laker team headlined by Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
While the previous mentioned five guys are headed towards the Naismith Hall of Fame, there are several others notables that had significant roles on teams that were consistently in the title hunt.
Kerry Kittles (8th pick) was Jason Kidd’s backcourt mate in New Jersey when they made consecutive NBA Finals appearances in the early 2000’s. Shandon Anderson (54th pick) played key minutes on those Karl Malone, John Stockton Utah Jazz teams that challenged MJ’s Bulls in 1997 and 1998 for the title, and was a key reserve on the Miami Heat team that won the franchise’s first title in 2006. Zydrunus Ilgauskus (20th pick) was the starting center and LeBron James sidekick when the Cleveland Cavaliers made their first and only NBA Finals appearance in 2007. Malik Rose (44th pick) was a key reserve with the San Antonio Spurs as they won their first two titles. And you can’t forget Derek Fisher (24th Pick) who has five rings from hitting big shots playing alongside Shaq, Kobe and Pau Gasol.
Overall this class has captured:
20 Championship rings – Kobe 5, Fisher 5, Ray Allen 2, Malik Rose 2, Samaki Walker 1, Travis Knight 1, Shandon Anderson 1, Antoine Walker 1, Ben Wallace 1, Peja Stojakovic 1
4 MVPs – Iverson (2001), Nash (2005, 2006) and Kobe (2008)
8 – All-NBA Teamers which is a record for any draft class. [Iverson (3x 1st team, 3x 2nd Team, 1x 3rd Team), Marbury (2x 3rd Team), Allen (1x 2nd Team, 1x 3rd Team), Bryant (11x 1st Team, 2x 2nd Team, 2x 3rd Team), Stojakovic (1x 2nd Team), Nash (3x 1st Team, 2x 2nd Team, 2x 3rd Team), Jermaine O’neal (1x 2nd Team, 2x 3rd Team), Wallace (3x 2nd Team, 2x 3rd Team)]
11 – NBA All Stars
2 – Defensive Players of the Year; Marcus Camby (2007) and Ben Wallace (2002, 2003, 2005, 2006)
3 – All NBA Defensive Teamers (Kobe 9x 1st Team, 3x 2nd Team, Camby 2x 1st team & 2x 2nd Team, Wallace 5x 1st Team, 1x 2nd Team)
Many will disregard my premise and say, “but the 84 Class had MJ the G.O.A.T.” But I’m basing my opinion on the totality of the parts that equalled the whole. While the 84 Class changed the game on the court and globally, this talented group has proven they’re second to none, at worse they should be equal. Don’t be surprised to see their story documented in films and on bookshelves soon. I’m already working on my version.