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The 15 Best NBA Players Of The 1980s

When a person is reminiscing about the past, often they play no favorites to the particular decade they’re conversing about. This especially holds true in the area of sports as the past is always better than the present.

Today’s NBA fans contend this era is the best ever because it’s a young man’s game. However, the evolution of the sport began in the 1980s with the emergence of Bird and Magic onto the national scene. Basketball came out of the dark ages as their rivalry from the collegiate ranks continued at the pro level and captured everyone’s attention. CBS was forced to broadcast the NBA Finals live because the fans were tired of watching the best NBA players of the 80s on tape delay.

The decade gave us the league’s marquee matchup (Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers) meeting three times in the finals. Besides welcoming Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the debuts of Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon also took place in the 80s.

Without further adieu, let’s learn more about the 15 best NBA players of the 80s:

15. Sidney Moncreif (1979-80-1990-91)

Sidney Moncreif was one of the best two-way players of his era that you probably never of heard of before. Offensively, Moncreif drove to the basket with such ease, while making life difficult for the opposing team’s top scorer on the other end of the court. If a last-minute bucket or key defensive stop was needed for a Milwaukee Bucks win, it was Moncrief came through in the clutch. He averaged over 30 minutes and 16.7 points-per-game for the decade.

It’s not surprising that Moncreif was the first winner of the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. A degenerative knee condition took his explosiveness away as a scorer and forced him to retire without ever competing for an NBA title.

14. Bernard King (1977-78-1992-93)

The NBA loves to put the spotlight on players who can flat out score…and Bernard King was one of the best NBA players of the 80s for that sole purpose. King’s star shined brightest in his four seasons with the New York Knicks. He led the league (1984-85) in scoring with a 32.9 points-per-game average, and no Knicks fan will forget his 44-point performance with two dislocated middle fingers that eliminated the Detroit Pistons in a 1984 playoff road win. King averaged 34.8 points for that playoff run as no defender could cool him down.

A devastating knee injury forced King to miss close to two seasons and eventually cut short his career. King’s enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 confirmed a player’s individual success could translate into immortality despite falling short in their chase for a championship.

13. George Gervin (1972-73-1985-86)

George “Iceman” Gervin was the most effortless scorer to ever play in the 80s. He began his professional career in the ABA with the Virginia Squires before ending up with the San Antonio Spurs after the NBA merger. Gervin could score 30 points on a defender in his sleep. His finishing move to the basket was a “finger roll” layup for the score. Gervin was a two-time NBA scoring champion (1980 and 1982) as he averaged 26.0 points for the 80s.

Despite being a premier scorer, Gervin and the Spurs could never gain much traction come playoff time. His critics wished he exerted the same energy on the defensive side of the ball as he exhibited offensively.

12. Adrian Dantley (1976-77-1990-91)

Adrian Dantley was a tremendous low post player despite being only 6-5 in height. Often, his style of play drew fouls because Dantley could get a defender to commit after a couple of pump fakes. Plus, Dantley was smart enough to recognize a double-team coming and quickly step back to hit an outside jumper. This type of on-court sense allowed him to shoot 54 percent from the field for a career. Dantley split the majority of the decade between the Utah Jazz and Detroit Pistons. Often, he was the team’s primary scoring option, but Dantley did have chemistry issues with Isiah Thomas during his stay with the Pistons.

Both needed the basketball in their hands to be effective offensively, but Thomas convinced the coaching staff the offense was too stagnate with Dantley in the lineup. For the decade, Dantley averaged 26.5 points and scored (18,157) the third-most points in the 80s.

11. Hakeem Olajuwon (1984-85-2001-02)

Hakeem Olajuwon came into the NBA as a shot-blocking center who scored the majority of his points off of dunks. The intentions of the Houston Rockets when they drafted Olajuwon was to team him with Ralph Sampson as the local media dubbed them “The Twin Towers.” Together, they led the Rockets to a surprising 1986 NBA Finals appearance against the Boston Celtics. It took Olajuwon a few seasons to develop his tremendous footwork in the low post position. Once he gained the experience,

Olajuwon dominated other centers because they couldn’t match his speed and strength around the rim. He averaged (22 points and 13.5 rebounds) a double-double for the decade, but in the playoffs, Olajuwon upped his game average to 27.6 points and 12.4 rebounds. This provided a preview of what to expect in the 90s as Olajuwon led the Rockets to back-to-back NBA titles and awarded league MVP honors.

10. Dominique Wilkins (1982-83-1998-99)

Arguably, Dominique Wilkins had the best nickname in the 80s: “The Human Highlight Film,” which saluted his incredible athleticism on the basketball court. Often, when Wilkins attempted a dunk, it appeared that he would jump out of the building before reaching the rim. Wilkins was drafted as the third overall pick in the 1982 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz. He was the main piece of a draft-day deal that sent him to the Atlanta Hawks.

Long-time NBA fans fondly remember Wilkins coming into the league as a one-dimensional talent, who then transformed himself into a more complete player. Wilkins averaged 26.0 points in the regular season and 26.8 points in the playoffs for the 80s.He may have never contended for an NBA title, but his legendary playoff battles with Larry Bird are well remembered.

9. Kevin McHale (1980-81-1992-93)

One Kevin McHale’s great attribute’s as an NBA player was his long arms. The extended length made him a difficult assignment to defend around the basket. Often on missed shot attempts, McHale easily tipped the ball to himself for an easy bucket. Plus, his wingspan allowed him to share the responsibility of defending opposing scoring centers with Robert Parish.

McHale was known for his smart play as he always made the right pass, took the right shot and set the right pick that cleared a path to the basket for his teammates. He was effective coming off-the-bench or in the starting lineup as he won (1984-85) two Sixth Man Awards in his career. This type of versatility was a key to the Boston Celtics to winning three NBA titles in the 80s.

8. James Worthy (1982-83-1993-94)

The Forum faithful in Los Angeles dubbed James Worthy as “Big Play James” because he was a complete basketball player. Worthy could score, rebound on both ends of the court and play shutdown defense in tight games. Often, Worthy played under the shadow of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar who gained more attention from the opposition, press, and fans. However, no player better defined the small forward position in the 80s.

Worthy’s athleticism made him the perfect wing option on the Showtime Lakers fastbreak. Usually, the play ended with Magic’s patent no-look pass to Worthy trailing who then proceeded to the basket for a non-descriptive dunk. For the decade, Worthy averaged 17.9 points in the regular season, but that number upped to 21.2 points during the postseason. He was a key contributor to three (1985, 87 and 88) Lakers championship teams in the 80s.

7. Michael Jordan (1984-85-2002-03)

In the 80s, the majority of college basketball commentators would suggest the only person that could effectively guard Michael Jordan was his North Carolina coach Dean Smith. It’s hard to imagine that Jordan was the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. The only reason why MJ isn’t higher on this list is the 80s was his apprenticeship before the era of his dominance in the 90s. Yes, he won Rookie of the Year by averaging 28.0 points for his first professional season. But, Year Two was the beginning stages of his Airness as Jordan only played 18 regular-season contests after breaking his foot in the third game of the season.

However, in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Jordan scored 63 points on Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and everyone took notice to the next phenom in the NBA. His playoff battles with the Detroit Pistons develop that “Take No Prisoners” mentality that won six NBA titles in the 90s. However, the 80s is where MJ displayed his scoring prowess as he averaged 32.6 points for the decade. He went on to win three scoring titles and one NBA MVP Award in 1988.

6. Julius Erving (1971-72-1986-87)

Julius Erving is a rare breed of basketball player as he dominated the sport (1970s and 80s) for two decades. It was unfortunate that the first decade took place in the ABA, which had a limited following. If there was no Dr. J, there would be no Dominique Wilkins or Vince Carter, who have thrilled NBA fans for decades themselves.

Heck, Erving even fought Larry Bird in a memorable 1984 fight. Some believe the Good Doctor became a better all-around player in the 80s as Erving averaged 22.0 points for the decade and won an NBA title with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983. It’s rare when a player from a distant era is still impacting his sport, Julius Erving’s presence is being felt in the NBA today.

5. Isiah Thomas (1981-82-1990-91)

It’s funny to think that young basketball fans identify Isiah Thomas more as a failed NBA executive than as a Hall-of-Fame player. But, take the time to learn the lesson of why he was one of the best NBA players of the 80s. At 6-1, Thomas was rarely the tallest player on the court, but no one had more compassion to succeed than him. His opponents felt Thomas had a heart of a stone-cold killer, and he needed that type of personality to lead the Detroit Pistons to two NBA titles.

That collected group was the “Bad Boys” of the NBA as each game was filled with hard elbows and fouls in-between baskets scored by Thomas. In the decade, Thomas averaged 20.3 points in regular-season contests but averaged 22.0 points in the playoffs. He re-defined the point guard position, which has allowed Chris Paul to shine this past decade.

4. Moses Malone (1974-75-1994-95)

Moses Malone was the first player to come straight out of high school and compete at the pro level. His dominance was immediately felt, as no other center could match his ability to rebound, especially under his own basket. A young Malone led an under .500 (40-42) Houston Rockets to an unpredictable NBA Finals appearance against the eventual champions, the Boston Celtics. Plus, no other NBA star could match his famous quote of the decade as “Fo, Fo, Fo” was his prediction for the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers playoff run.

Malone wasn’t too far off as the Sixers only lost one game on their way to an NBA title. For the 80s, Malone averaged 24.5 points and 13.2 rebounds, and more importantly, he was second in the decade in points (19,082) scored. Finally, Malone was the only player in the 80s to grab more than 10,000 boards. It was 10,269, to be exact.

3. Kareem Abdul Jabbar (1969-70-1988-89)

When the name Kareem Abdul Jabbar is brought up in conversation, the image of his “Skyhook” immediately comes to mind. No opposing player could defend the shot. Many felt Kareem had dominated the 70s, but his star was fading heading into the 80s. Thankfully, Kareem’s career was rejuvenated by the emergence of Magic Johnson into the Los Angeles Lakers lineup at the start of the decade. He seemed to get better with age, and by the end, Kareem had become the game’s all-time leading scorer with 38, 387 points. No longer did he have to carry the Lakers franchise on his shoulders to the playoffs.

The drafting of Magic and later James Worthy completed the “Showtime” lineup that won five NBA titles in the decade. Kareem averaged 20.6 points, earned a league MVP in 1980 and NBA Finals MVP in 1985. He finished fifth (16, 246) in all-time scoring for the decade. Rarely is he applauded for his defensive skills, but Kareem was an elite rim protector for the 80s.

2. Larry Bird (1979-80-1991-92)

Larry Bird was never considered the fastest player on the court nor could jump worth a spit, but he was one of the best passers of his era and could score anywhere on the court for the victory. No question, Bird is one of the best NBA players of the 80s. Fans remember his unbelievable shooting range, especially in tight games. Or, his knack to steal the basketball off an inbound pass that preserved a win for the Boston Celtics. Bird wasn’t a terrific defender, but his anticipation of where an incoming pass was heading was off-the-charts.

He had 1,300 steals in the decade, which placed Bird fifth all-time for the 80s. His career stats speak for themselves: Bird earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1980, three consecutive league MVPs (1984, 85 and 86), and two NBA Finals MVPs (1984 and 86). He averaged 25.0 points and 10.2 rebounds for the decade and led the Celtics to three NBA titles (1981, 84, and 86), And you could probably count the players who had two famous nicknames throughout their NBA career.

Bird came into the league as the “Hick From French Lick” and left as “Larry Legend.” The NBA in the 80s is defined by three words: Bird and Magic. Their first encounter was in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, and their rivalry continued throughout the next decade.

1. Magic Johnson (1979-80-1990-91, 1995-96)

As you can surmise, Magic Johnson was the best NBA player of the 80s. No question, he’s the greatest passer ever to play the point guard position, and at 6-9, Magic was the most versatile player to ever play in the NBA. If you have any doubt, then check out his performance (42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) at the center position in place of Kareem Abdul Jabbar that clinched an NBA title for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 finals.

Sadly, his career was cut short after contracting HIV in 1991. Johnson’s career resume is impressive as won three league MVPs (1987, 1989 and 1990), three NBA Finals MVPs (1980, 1982 and 1987), averaged 19.5 points and 11.2 assists for the decade. And more importantly, Magic was first (8,021) in assists for the 80s. Plus, in his decade-long battle with Larry Bird, Magic earned more (5-3) NBA titles than Larry Legend.

Stats provided by Basketball Reference


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