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The NBA is in a perpetual state of evolution, and it has some of its biggest stars to thank.
Every so often, a living legend will pass through this league and leave an indelible mark on it.
While impact players are often characterized as game-changers, the following 10 megastars are league-changers. From on-court styles to off-court empowerment, these players permanently altered what we think is possible from superstar athletes.
To keep our study to a reasonable size, we’re only focusing on modern players, those who either arrived after the NBA-ABA merger or saw their league-changing contributions make a direct impact on the game at that point.
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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s gifts to the game of basketball fill an entire section of the NBA’s record books. No one has ever scored more points (38,387), won more MVP awards (six) or booked more All-Star trips (19). He won six titles and two Finals MVPs, securing the second as a 38-year-old. He even introduced the sport to the deadliest shot in basketball history, his famed skyhook, which was unguardable with his size and shooting touch.
For all the accolades, though, he proved even more influential away from the hardwood.
He struck a big victory for player empowerment when he helped orchestrate his 1975 trade from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Los Angeles Lakers. He also helped permanently stoke the fears of small-market franchise owners, as his hand-picked destinations were L.A. and New York.
“I’m not criticizing the people here. But Milwaukee is not what I’m all about,” he said at the time. “The things I relate to aren’t in Milwaukee.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s non-basketball interests perhaps left his greatest legacy since he showed future pros all the things a player could do with his platform. He spoke out on everything from social issues to pop culture, became a prolific writer, earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom and worked to end hunger and illiteracy.
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The NBA had a different kind of bounce once Julius Erving passed through its ranks.
He gave the game style and showed the artistry of basketball. He invented aerial acrobatics and was crowned king of the first slam dunk contest in the ABA. He continued captivating audiences with his above-the-rim sorcery after the merger and then wowed them again with down-to-earth modesty off the court.
“There have been some better people off the court—like a few mothers and the pope,” Pat Riley told Alexander Wolff for Sports Illustrated. “But there was only one Dr. J the player.”
Erving was an All-Star for the duration of his NBA (and ABA) career. He was NBA MVP in 1980-81 and an NBA champion in 1983. His signature slams still get regular rotation in highlight reels.
Away from the court, he was a pioneer in endorsements. As Darren Rovell noted for ESPN in 2016, Erving inked an “unprecedented” $20,000 shoe deal with Converse and was part of the first licensed video game with professional athletes, One on One: Dr. J vs Larry Bird.
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The modern NBA doesn’t look the same without Larry Bird.
Along with Magic Johnson, Bird helped the league’s popularity explode in the 1980s. He had legitimate star power, and fans flocked to it like never before. He helped reshape the Association’s commercial and broadcast identity, mercifully bringing basketball’s tape-delay era to a close.
A legendary trash-talker, his game spoke even louder and paved the path to today’s positionless versatility. He was a 6’9″, 220-pounder who broke in as a power forward, which would’ve restricted most players to a life on the low post. But he could shoot, handle and pass like a guard, and he elevated expectations about what a player with size could do.
While not a prolific three-point shooter by today’s standards, he had five of the nine highest three-point totals by a player 6’9″ or taller when he retired in 1992. He also had seven of the 13 highest assist averages by a non-guard through the 1991-92 season. He remains the only player in league history with career averages of 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
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Magic Johnson was the more gregarious half of the ’80s duo responsible for breathing badly needed new life into the NBA, if not saving it outright.
His wizardry with the basketball and flair for the dramatic made the “Showtime” Lakers the undisputed king of Hollywood. The sport just looked more entertaining when he ran the show, as he kept the gas pedal floored and kept jaws dropped with dazzling no-look dimes and a seemingly flawless skill set. (He didn’t have much of a jump shot, but that wasn’t a great concern back then.)
“The kind of ball-handling Magic displayed shouldn’t have been in the possession of someone who was 6’9″,” The Athletic’s Michael Lee wrote. “But that unique playmaking gift gave Johnson a decided advantage over the little guys who had to guard them. He could see over them but still had the speed to get past them.”
That Johnson became such a prolific passer—his 11.2 career assists per game are the highest in history—at his size shows the way he challenged our thinking on positional limits. There weren’t 6’9″ flashy floor generals before him, let alone point guards who could successfully hold down the center spot when needed.
Beyond basketball, he showed how successful athletes could be away from the sports world. His business and entertainment empire is valued at $1 billion.
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The NBA can trace its roots as a global power back to the historic flights of Air Jordan.
The image of basketball changed when Michael Jordan arrived. Shorts got longer and baggier, which tied back to his need for extra room to wear his University of North Carolina practice shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform. Pickup games saw people stick their tongues out on every move, a tic Jordan inherited from his father.
The Jordan brand and Jumpman logo lifted athlete endorsements to a different stratosphere. Even now, nearly 20 years removed from his last NBA game, he still sets the standard for NBA shoe deals.
Notice we haven’t mentioned his basketball accomplishments yet. They’re important and unbelievable—six championships, six Finals MVPs, 10 scoring titles, five MVPs, highest career player efficiency rating in history—but they’re uniquely his. His business blueprint has shown fellow hoopers how to make their earnings potential skyrocket.
The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington described MJ’s legacy in 2018:
“Jordan’s biggest impact came off the court as he empowered athletes, especially African-Americans, to obtain full economic participation in the billions generated by their labor. Starting with Air Jordan sneakers — which led to his own Jordan Brand, which led to him buying majority control of the Charlotte Hornets — Jordan blazed a trail for athletes to escape the plantation, buy the Big House and sit on the porch with their feet up, smoking a cigar.”
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Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Kevin Garnett was just two seasons into his career when he inked the largest contract in NBA history, a six-year, $126 million pact. That might not even qualify as one of the 10 most interesting things about him and his career.
Prior to getting that deal, he made the preps-to-pros pathway mainstream. He entered the league as a 6’11” perimeter player with an impossible combination of size and skill. He was must-see TV almost immediately and earned his first of 15 All-Star selections as a sophomore.
While we haven’t exactly seen a rash of KGs since, his evolution was a glimpse into the future of basketball. In terms of versatility, his game was probably 15 years ahead of his time. Yet he was so skilled, he dominated his era anyway. He’s one of only two players ever to tally 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists and 2,000 blocks.
To kick-start the second half of his career, he helped usher in the NBA’s Big Three era by joining Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the Boston Celtics ahead of the 2007-08 campaign. The Shamrocks were champions that same season, which allowed KG to deliver maybe the most memorable post-championship interview of all time.
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Chris Szagola/Associated Press
The Allen Iverson experience was nothing if not authentic.
The 6’0″, 165-pound scoring guard wore his heart on his (shooting) sleeve, and you knew everything you were getting from him was the real AI. He was either your favorite player or your favorite player’s favorite player.
“I’ve always said Allen Iverson had the biggest effect on the culture of the NBA out of any player,” Chris Paul said in 2016, per Clippers.com’s Rowan Kavner. “He started a culture. He started the arm sleeve, the tattoos, all that stuff. He’s the biggest influence in the NBA out of anybody.”
He had drip before the word entered the lexicon, and players and fans mimicked everything from his hairstyle to his hesitation crossovers to his style. If Iverson doesn’t bring hip-hop culture to the league, the NBA never puts a dress code in place, and maybe the pregame fashion shows we’re used to seeing now never happen.
He freed players to be themselves, and the heart he displayed endeared him to an entire generation. He was an 11-time All-Star, a four-time scoring champion and MVP of the 2000-01 season. His career average of 26.66 points ranks seventh-highest in NBA history.
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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
A word of caution to all future basketball prodigies: You can thank King James for setting the bar so impossibly high.
Expectations were, by all measures, absurd and outlandish for LeBron James when he arrived as a preps-to-pros leaper and the first overall pick in a loaded 2003 draft. Those same expectations have since been shattered as he has put himself into (or at the front of) the GOAT debate with a legendary career that features 16 All-Star honors, four MVP awards, three championships and three Finals MVPs.
While we’ll never see a LeBron 2.0, we will witness generations of hoopers who have felt his influence, starting with the freedom to chart the course of their careers. Leverage in free agency permanently changed when he teamed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat in 2010.
No matter your stance on “The Decision,” it helped athletes gain control of their own stories, which James furthered through the Uninterrupted platform. He has also helped amplify athletes’ voices by speaking out against social injustice and doubling down on those efforts with philanthropic work, like the I Promise School he founded in Akron, Ohio.
“I do it because I’m passionate about it,” James told The Undefeated’s Jerry Bembry in 2018. “The hardest thing in the world for me personally is raising two African American boys and an African American daughter in today’s society. It’s hard. I do this because this is bigger than me personally.”
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M. Spencer Green/Associated Press
Normal development periods went out the window with Derrick Rose, and so did the normal wait times for young superstars to get paid.
The point guard’s pre-injury version was hyper-explosive, and he hit the ground sprinting at Olympic-level speeds. He easily captured Rookie of the Year honors, made his All-Star debut in his second season and became the league’s youngest MVP ever in his third.
When he was ready to sign his first non-rookie contract, the league added a provision in the collective bargaining agreement dubbed the Derrick Rose Rule to reward young players who rapidly reach stardom. Young players could now be eligible for 30 percent of a team’s salary cap (up from 25) if they had twice been voted an All-Star starter, made two All-NBA teams or won an MVP.
“It’s unbelievable,” Rose said to CSN Chicago of the rule change in 2011 (via ESPN). “But the rule, I guess, it fits me for what I’ve achieved at a young age and hopefully there will be a couple more people like me.”
Rose’s rapid rise was unfortunately followed by a serious of debilitating injuries that permanently remapped his career trajectory. But his impact will be felt long after he hangs it up.
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Defenders had to ditch conventional wisdom the second Stephen Curry got his ankle injuries under control. From that point on, basketball has never been the same.
Jump-shooting teams weren’t supposed to be capable of contending. Curry’s Golden State Warriors enjoyed one of the most dominant, dynastic runs in NBA history on the strength of their shooting, winning three titles in four years (and an NBA-record 73 regular-season games in the other).
Pull-up triples and deep three-balls were supposed to be shots defenses were comfortable allowing. The Chef used them to cook up a pair of MVP campaigns, including the first (and only) unanimous honor ever awarded (earned with a scoring title and an absurd 50.4/45.4/90.8 shooting slash). The NBA hadn’t seen a 300-triple season before; he zipped past that mark all the way to 402 in 2015-16.
The fact that he requires a defensive escort the moment he crosses half court has changed the way we view offensive spacing (and the value of it). Now, entire offenses are built around ball-dominant, slick-handling pull-up shooters, and the acceptable range of a three-point attempt is perpetually expanding. That all comes back to Curry, who’s already an all-time great and arguably the biggest influence on modern basketball.
As Warriors coach (and Michael Jordan’s former teammate) Steve Kerr told The TK Show in 2017 (via NBC Sports Bay Area):
“I’ve never seen a player who elicited so much of a defensive schematic response because of his ability to shoot from 30 feet and dribble around everybody. … Even Michael Jordan — people had the Jordan rules — but nothing has ever been as dramatic as what I’ve seen from opponents’ defensive schemes as how they have to deal with Steph.”
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.
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