Is 1996 best draft class ever?
Nash and Kobe's class has more rings than Jordan's '84 class, but is it better?
Updated: October 11, 2012, 1:20 PM ET
By Chris Palmer | ESPN the Magazine
Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash's 1996 draft class owns the most championship rings of any draft.
The Los Angeles Lakers' size and length will be a key factor and a significant advantage in their quest for a 17th NBA championship. After all, having big, talented bodies up front has been a formula that's served them well.
But another equally important weapon in their arsenal that few teams can match is experience and intelligence. The backcourt of Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant has a combined 32 years of NBA experience (2,313 games) and arguably has the highest basketball IQ of any guard duo in the league. That experience should serve them well late into the playoffs as they face younger, more athletic teams.
Both Bryant and Nash represent a bit of an odd trend that figures to shape the race to the 2013 title. Several members of the 1996 draft class -- heading into their 17th NBA seasons -- are expected to play significant roles and breathe life into several title contenders. Along with Bryant and Nash in L.A., Ray Allen, the league's all-time leading 3-point shooter, solidifies a Miami Heat bench that was less than reliable last season. Plus, the New York Knicks brought in former Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby to beef up their front line.
With remarkable longevity, the '96 draft class continues to have a major impact on the NBA. But where does it rank historically? With Bryant, Nash, Allen, Camby and a host of other highly decorated players who have already retired, is the '96 draft class the best ever?
Here's a breakdown of how the '96 draft class stacks up against other top draft classes, including 1984, 2003 and 1999.
1996: rings: 18 | MVPs: 4 | All-Stars: 10 | scoring titles: 6
Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images
Allen Iverson might have been the No. 1 pick, but Bryant is the head of the class.
The Lowdown: This talent-rich draft marked a significant shift in the NBA with regard to playing style, attitude and how the general public viewed the league. The swagger of prolific scorers like Allen Iverson, Antoine Walker and Kobe Bryant clashed with the old-school mindset of aging '80s stars who quickly lost their foothold to a brash new generation.
The '96 draft has produced two All-Stars at each position, and the 2002 All-Star Game featured a whopping nine players from the class. Additionally, three players (Bryant, Allen, Allen Iverson) are in the top 25 on the league's all-time scoring list. With four first-ballot Hall of Famers (Bryant, Nash, Allen, Iverson), this groundbreaking class will go down as one of the best ever.
Best Player: Kobe Bryant, 13th overall pick
With five NBA titles and just 2,809 points away from passing Michael Jordan for third on the NBA's all-time scoring list, Bryant has firmly established himself as one of the greatest players in history. With two more productive years, Bryant could eclipse Jordan in every statistical category as well as match his ring total, putting his name in every conversation about the NBA's greatest player ever.
Biggest Surprise: Steve Nash, 15th overall pick
The Suns took Nash on a flier hoping he could one day develop into a serviceable guard capable of managing a game and getting his own looks. His early production went hand in hand with the modest expectations, as he failed to average more than 5.5 assists in his first four years. However, the late-blooming point guard exploded midcareer, and went on to lead the league in assists five times. He'll finish his career with at least two MVP trophies and could very well end up second on the NBA's all-time assists list.
1984: rings: 12 | MVPs: 7 | All-Stars: 7 | scoring titles: 10
AP Photo/Bob Jordan
The 1984 draft featured Michael Jordan and two other Hall of Famers.
The Lowdown: This legendary class boasts no fewer than four Hall of Famers (Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton), three of whom were members of the original Dream Team at the '92 Olympics. The NBA record books are stamped with the impact of this class: Stockton is the league's all-time assists and steals leader; Olajuwon sits atop the blocked shots list; and Jordan ranks third all time in scoring and steals. Throw in Charles Barkley, who ranks in the top 20 in scoring and rebounds, and you've got a class for the ages. Remove Jordan from the equation and its overall impact takes a tumble -- MJ accounts for all 10 of the class' scoring titles -- but even without him, the 1984 class is still better than most.
Best Player: Michael Jordan, 3rd overall pick
Widely recognized as the greatest player ever, Jordan's giant résumé includes six championships, five MVP awards, 10 scoring titles and 14 All-Star appearances. Jordan's ability, work ethic and competitive drive were unparalleled in his playing days, and allowed him to master numerous phases of the game, from the midrange jumper to the baseline fadeaway. As he aged, Jordan consistently adapted his game with the same prolific results. Jordan's production was rivaled only by his impact on the game, as he helped turn the NBA into a global phenomenon. Simply put, Jordan is the standard all other greats are measured against.
Biggest Surprise: John Stockton, 16th overall pick
Much like the Suns with Nash, Utah drafted Stockton with the idea that he would become a serviceable guard who could possibly develop into a starter, despite the many questions about his game. Stockton went on to shatter expectations, becoming the NBA's all-time assists leader (15,806 assists), nearly 4,000 ahead of second place. Stockton remains one of the most productive and iconic little men to ever play the game. Not bad for an unknown player from a small college (Gonzaga) who supposedly didn't have the tools to play at the NBA level.
2003: rings: 11 | MVPs: 3 | All-Stars: 8 | scoring titles: 2
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images
James is well on his way to his own "era" in the NBA.
The Lowdown: For the purpose of our comparison, the class of 2003 is at the biggest disadvantage as they've had only nine years of NBA experience. However, the youngest class on this list can easily go toe-to-toe with our other titan drafts. While relatively top-heavy in talent -- there's a significant drop-off after pick No. 5 -- the 2003 crop has claimed nearly every possible award and put its stamp on the game like no recent draft class. And with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade on the same team, the '03 class could eventually pile up more rings than any other class.
Best Player: LeBron James, 1st overall pick
After nine seasons, James' résumé has already secured him a place in Springfield. This year, he joined Jordan as the second player ever to win an NBA championship, MVP, Finals MVP and an Olympic gold medal in the same year. In nine seasons, James has used his never-before-seen combination of size, speed and strength to push the boundaries of what a basketball player is capable of. And at 27 years old, he's the youngest player ever to win three MVPs, and could double that total by the time he retires. Ultimately though, James' place in history will be determined by how many rings he collects.
Biggest Surprise: Mo Williams, 47th overall pick
Every team hopes to draft a gem in the second round. That's exactly what Utah did by drafting Williams in 2003, though they traded him to the Bucks before they even knew what they had. Williams developed into an excellent shooter and started all but 48 games he played in from 2004-11. He averaged at least 17 ppg three times; meanwhile, 18 players drafted in the first round in 2003 failed to average 17 ppg in any season. He was the second-best player behind James on a Finals contender in Cleveland for several years, and made the All-Star game as an alternate in 2009.
1999: rings: 15 | MVPs: Zero | All-Stars: 9 | scoring titles: Zero
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Did anyone know that Manu Ginobili would be this good in 1999?
The Lowdown: In the run-up to the '99 draft, analysts bemoaned the lack of star power and were hard-pressed to pick a future All-Star from the bunch. But 13 years later, this class has proved to be one of the deepest of all time. Baron Davis and Steve Francis helped usher in the era of big, strong and athletic scoring point guards who have become a staple in today's game.
Known more for its quality role players who filled key gaps on championship teams than its superstars, the '99 draft class has experienced terrific longevity and continues to be a factor today. Additionally, the class boosts its standing with the unique distinction of being the only draft with three Sixth Man Award winners: Manu Ginobili, Jason Terry and Lamar Odom.
Best Player: Elton Brand, 1st overall pick
Several players could make the claim to being the top player in this class. Francis probably had the most pure talent, Odom was the most versatile, and Davis was positively fearless. Terry looks like he'll have the most longevity. But Brand, who has two All-Star appearances, has been the most consistent and leads the class with six seasons of a double-double average. However, the fact that he's never advanced past the second round of the playoffs hurts his rep and relegates the class to the fourth spot in this comparison.
Biggest surprise: Manu Ginobili, 57th overall pick
The Spurs have become experts of the draft-and-stash game, and their first serious Euro experiment, Ginobili, has been their most successful. The second-to-last pick in the '99 draft has gone on to become no less than one of the defining international imports of the last 20 years. Only one other player (Bill Bradley) can boast to having won an NBA title, a Euro league championship and an Olympic gold medal. Ginobili will likely finish his career as arguably one of the top three Spurs ever, after Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
While the class of 1996 is deeper and has more total rings and All-Stars than the 1984 class, it pales in comparison to Jordan & Co., whose class remains the best draft in history. With three members of the original Dream Team, the 1984 group has impacted the record books like no other class in history.
But the impact of 1984 goes beyond stats and ring count, as it played a key role in the global expansion of the game thanks in part to a level of artistry and creativity that appealed to both hard-core fans and casual observers. Jordan's production was rivaled only by his impact on the game, as his brilliance helped turn the NBA into a global phenomenon.
Jordan, Barkley and Olajuwon also changed the way the game was played by revolutionizing their positions. Olajuwon proved that a center could be fast, fluid and mobile with footwork most guards envied. Jordan showed us that a back-to-the-basket game could be just as effective for guards. And Barkley's coast-to-coast forays helped ignite an age when power forwards are now expected to handle the ball.
There's an excellent chance the '96 class will add to its ring total this season, and Bryant and Nash with continue to climb the all-time scoring and assist charts. And a Lakers-Heat Finals could be 1996's crowning moment. But as of now, it falls short to the revolutionary genius of '84.