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The 5 Best Moves In the NBA
Here's our countdown of the funkiest feints, shiftiest spins and most dynamite dribbles in the game
by Phil Taylor
Posted: Wed March 11, 1998
If you are old enough to remember when Michael Jordan had hair, you probably recall the day in 1986 when he went one-on-one against the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird in a playoff game. Jordan dribbled between his legs once, then again. He faked a baseline drive and Bird swiped at the ball, but Jordan pulled it back. He seemed to throw a different move at Bird with every part of his anatomy. His head bobbed, his shoulders twitched, even his eyebrows seemed to dance. When he finally went up for a jump shot, he was wide open, because Bird was still lunging at the spot Jordan had vacated an instant earlier.
The great move, the hip-shaking, head-faking piece of showmanship, leaves a defender looking as if he's roller-skating on marbles. There's scarcely a player in the NBA who hasn't frozen an opponent in his tracks one time or another, but only a few own a maneuver that is instantly identifiable as their own. "There are no new moves," says Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who nonetheless seems to create one almost every night. "Anything players do now, players did before." That's not exactly true. Every move may be a variation of something that already has been done, but great moves are unique because of the personal twists that their creators add. No one executes a spin move quite the way Earl Monroe did. There has never been another player who could swoop to the basket like Julius Erving, with the ball resting at the end of his fully extended arm like a nest on the tip of a branch. In any generation only a few moves are so distinctive that they seem to be the sole property of their owner, and we have chosen the five current ones we think best fit that description and still meet these guidelines.
A move can include a shot, but it can't be only a shot. Houston forward-center Kevin Willis's jump hook, for instance, is an efficient piece of business, as automatic as the sunrise, but it doesn't qualify as a move because there is nothing special about the way Willis frees himself for it. The same goes for some of the classic shots of the past, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook or George Gervin's finger roll. But San Antonio point guard Avery Johnson has a sleight-of-hand trick on the fast break in which he deceives defenders by wrapping the ball behind him as if to throw a behind-the-back pass and then brings it back and lays it in. Now that's a move!
A great move has to lead to points. It's true that the basket may not be remembered nearly as long as the move, but it has to be there or the move is like a sentence without a period. Jordan's fabulous drive against the Lakers in Game 2 of the 1991 Finals, when he went up with his right hand, switched to his left and tossed in a layup as he fell to the ground, wouldn't be replayed constantly if the shot had rolled off the rim.
A great move, Magic Johnson once said, "should make you want to grab the guy sitting next to you and go, 'Oh, my goodness, did you see that?'" In other words, to make our fab five, a move must feature exceptional grace, quickness, power or deceptionor some combination thereof. When Washington Wizards forward Chris Webber or Cleveland Cavaliers forward Shawn Kemp frees himself for a vicious dunk by executing a low-post spin move so fast that his opponent looks stiffer than Al Gore, it ranks high on the "Oh my goodness!" scale. But when New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing takes big, awkward strides into the lane for a fadeaway jump shot, the needle doesn't budge.
The test of a move is whether it's still effective after every scout in the league has alerted his team to it. "If the defender knows it's coming but still can't stop it," says guard World B. Free, who played in the league for 13 years, "that's when you know you have a move."
With that in mind, here are the five best signature moves in the NBA.
Issue date: March 16, 1998
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