The sharp and complete transition between two eras in the NBA doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it’s downright jarring, like a major geopolitical shift after a war rather than a passing of the torch where the next generation asserts itself as the older generation declines.
I don’t mean something like Michael Jordan‘s retirement in 1998 either. That was not ultimately an instant sea change. It was if you’re a Bulls fan, but legends drafted in the mid-80s still had their rivalries going—the Pacers and Knicks in the East, the Jazz, Rockets, Spurs, Trail Blazers, and Suns in the West, with a young Tim Duncan not yet the focal point of the franchise. It was still David Robinson‘s team.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1996 and ’97 draft classes came of age as a midpoint between the old and the new that the stage was ultimately set for an era that would be powered primarily by the class of 2003. You can trace a line. If it were music, it’d be a clear chord progression, a melody walking up a scale to transition to the next chord, a catchy melody you could sing along to in the key of NBA.
If you want to look at a transition that was less melody walking up a scale and more marching band walking off a cliff, you have two points to choose from.
One is 1969, after Bill Russell retired. This isn’t about that, though.
This is about the complete rearrangement of the NBA, pretty much all at once, between the spring of 1990 and the summer of 1992.
Larry Bird retired. Kevin McHale hung on for one more season in 1993 but he’d been functionally done for as long as Bird had. Magic Johnson tested positive for HIV. Isiah Thomas ruptured his Achilles tendon, career over. Bernard King had one final flash of greatness in Washington and disappeared. The Lakers, Pistons, Celtics, even perpetual fringe contenders like the Mavericks and Bucks, the fast-paced mad lads in Denver, all kaput, off a cliff, franchises blown up in that extended coda to the ’80s that was 1990 to 1992.
All of pop culture transitioned in one big shock move. Terminator 2 was an absolute masterpiece, Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his powers…and he’d never make a movie that good, or even anything close to that good, ever again. Metallica and Guns N’ Roses finally put together the ultimate mega-tour as everyone fell in love with Seattle, albums like Nevermind and Ten and Badmotorfinger completely changing what rock music meant, seemingly all at once in November of 1991.
The upshot of all this chaos was one of the most utterly baffling, head-scratching, non-competitive, what-were-they-thinking-with-the-rosters All-Star Games in NBA history, and it was absolutely the worst iteration of the game of all time.
Let’s start with the score. It was 153-113 in favor of the West, as the defenders on the East didn’t want to come within breathing distance of Magic Johnson, who won All-Star MVP. The way they avoided him is the way you avoid catching a coronavirus, not HIV.
But beyond the score is one of the absolute worst All-Star rosters below the fan vote in the history of the game.
The fans didn’t screw up. The top vote-getters in each conference were solid:
Sure, Bird was old and in his last season, but can’t blame the fans for that.
But then you look at the reserves, and dear gods, what a complete and utter horror show, especially in the East.
In the West, it was Otis Thorpe‘s only All-Star appearance, fans and coaches alike sensibly deciding he wasn’t an All-Star in every other season before and after.
Willis was an injury replacement for Dominique Wilkins at forward. The only plausible reason Willis and not, say, Detlef Schrempf or Grant or any of about a dozen other forwards (Chuck Person, Larry Johnson, Derrick Coleman, and Dale Ellis all got more votes than did Willis in the fan balloting) got into the game was because he was on the Atlanta Hawks too.
Bird was replaced by Michael Adams of the Washington Bullets. Not Reggie Miller, not Mark Jackson, a guy who—surprise!—made the only All-Star appearance of his career and was out of the league four years later.
The West shot 64-of-98 from the field, led by Johnson’s 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting (easy to shoot when you get a bunch of open looks thanks to terrified defenders!) and nine assists. That’s good. That’s what you want in an All-Star Game, a team making a lot of shots—bricklaying has a place and the February classic ain’t it.
The East? They shot 51-of-117, that bench previously mentioned combining to make just 19 out of 52 attempts (36.5 percent!)
Not surprising when you consider the East bench was a bunch of guys who had no business getting into an All-Star Game unless they were in the seats as a ticket-buying fan!
The East had a total of three guys (Reggie Lewis was the other, although that’s not fair to him since he died after the 1993 season) making their only All-Star appearance. Dennis Rodman made his second game…out of only two he made in his entire career.
Meanwhile, the West had two guys—Thorpe and Jeff Hornacek—making what would be their only All-Star appearances. The rest of their bench was guys like Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, James Worthy (in his last of seven straight), Dan Majerle (his first of what would be three in four years), Tim Hardaway, Dikembe Mutombo (as a rookie!), y’know, actual All-Star caliber players.
Never before or since has an All-Star roster exhibited such a gross mismatch between the two teams.
And don’t tell me it’s because the West had all the talent. That was certainly broadly true, but the West and East split the eight games between 1985 and 1992, so it wasn’t like the East couldn’t put up a decent squad if they actually picked the best guys in their talent pool. The West would eventually thoroughly dominate the East year in and year out, winning six of seven between 2011 and 2017 before the NBA put a permanent stop to that nonsense by adopting the “playground” format in 2018—and just having “Team LeBron” dominate, winning four straight.
The 1992 game, especially for the East, was just putrescent. It wasn’t competitive, it wasn’t entertaining, it didn’t feature the 12 best players in each conference (again, especially in the East), and when the final buzzer sounded in a 40-point snoozer, the league just tucked its tail between its legs and refocused on the emerging complete change of blood from the 80s era to the 90s.
Michael Jordan was the bellwether, but whole new up-and-coming squads in places like Indiana, Seattle, Phoenix, New York, and Houston—Olajuwon may have been around awhile but he got a fresh supporting cast for the interregnum titles—ensured that the old days were over.
And the mere fact that nobody could find enough All-Stars in the East to field a decent team all but proved it.