TOP 10 Best Players of the 80s

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From the beginning of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler’s illustrious careers to the dominance of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the 1980s was one of the most memorable decades in NBA history.

In a decade filled with Hall of Famers and NBA legends, selecting the best 10 players is no easy task, but it’s certainly possible.

To be considered for this list, a player must have played at least five seasons during the 1980s—which are defined as the 1979-80 through the 1988-89 seasons.

Ahead is a breakdown of the best 10 players to play during the 1980s.

10. Kevin McHale, PF, Boston Celtics

1980′s Stats: 18.7 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 56.2 FG%

Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

Notable Achievements in 1980s: Three-time NBA Champion, Five-time NBA All-Star, Two-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team

Kevin McHale is without a doubt one of the most intelligent players to ever play the game. He knew how to get in the head of his opponents, and he also knew how to control the paint like few other players in the game at his size.

Without McHale, Larry Bird wouldn’t have won the titles he did, and he wouldn’t have been nearly as dominant because McHale’s hard work and tenacity opened up the court for Bird more often than not.

What’s most impressive about McHale’s play is the efficiency that defined it. He worked extremely hard, but the energy he put forth was always used in an intelligent and well-managed way.

9. James Worthy, SF, L.A. Lakers

1980′s Stats: 17.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 55.8 FG%

Years Played in 1980s: 1983-1989 (Seven Seasons)

Notable Achievements in 1980s: Three-time NBA Champion, 1988 NBA Finals MVP, Four-time NBA All-Star

James Worthy was an integral piece to the L.A. Lakers dominance during the 1980s.

His athleticism on the wing helped Magic Johnson look like the creative genius that he was, and he forced defenses to key on him, leaving his teammates open with high-percentage opportunities.

The best part about Worthy’s game is just how smooth he made everything look. Much like Dr. J, Worthy flew up and down the court with ease and made transition offense look extremely simple. His play in the 1988 NBA Finals solidified himself as one of the best players not only of the 1980s, but of all-time as well.

8. Dominique Wilkins, SF, Atlanta Hawks

1980′s Stats: 26.1 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 46.9 FG%

Years Played in 1980s: 1983-1989 (Seven Seasons)

Notable Achievements in 1980s: Four-time NBA All-Star, 1986 NBA Scoring Champion, 1986 All-NBA First Team, 1985 NBA Slam Dunk Champion

Dominique Wilkins’ career was always plagued by one word—inefficiency—and the same is true for his years in the NBA in the 1980s.

His inefficiency at times kept him from being a more elite player, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a truly special talent. Wilkins relied on his athleticism and his mid-range jumper to earn his paycheck and he did just that.

His performance in 1986, beating out the likes of Micheal Jordan and Clyde Drexler for the 1986 scoring title, will go down in history as one of the greatest single season campaigns in NBA history. Wilkins was much more than a slam dunk master, and while he never won an NBA title, he’s still deserving of a top spot on this list.

7. Julius Erving, F, Philadelphia 76ers

1980′s Stats: 21.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 50.8 FG%

Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1987 (Eight Seasons)

Notable Achievements in 1980s: 1983 NBA Champion, 1981 NBA MVP, Eight-time NBA All-Star, Five-time All-NBA First Team

It’s not often that an NBA player dominates two decades of the game, but that’s exactly what Julius “Dr. J” Erving did during his NBA/ABA career.

After a productive ABA career, Dr. J entered the NBA in the late 1970s, and he didn’t miss a beat. While his production declined, he figured out how to help his team win, and that’s more valuable than filling the stat sheets.

Winning the 1983 NBA title is an achievement that capped off Dr. J’s illustrious career, and without it, he wouldn’t be as high on this list. But the fact that he was able to impact the game in such a dominant way at such a late point in his career speaks for itself and the legacy that he’s left.

6. Isiah Thomas, PG, Detroit Pistons

1980′s Stats: 20.2 PPG, 9.8 APG, 2.1 STLPG

Years Played in 1980s: 1981-1989 (Nine Seasons)

Notable Achievements in 1980s: 1989 NBA Champion, Eight-time NBA All-Star, Three-time All-NBA First Team

Isiah Thomas will always be one of the toughest, grittiest and dirtiest players to ever play the game.

That toughness that existed in his game is what makes him such a legendary player. At just 6’1” and 180 pounds, Thomas imposed his will on his opponents, and that’s why he ended his career with multiple NBA titles.

In the 1980s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more complete and offensively productive point guard than Thomas. Not only did he score in droves, he also kept his teammates involved, which is something a number of other players on this list struggled to do. Thomas’ determination is something that current NBA players could learn something from, and it’s what made him such a legendary player.

5. Michael Jordan, G, Chicago Bulls

1980′s Stats: 31.1 PPG, 5.5 APG, 5.8 RPG, 50.5 FG%

Years Played in 1980s: 1985-1989 (Five Seasons)

Notable Achievements in 1980s: 1988 NBA MVP, Five-time NBA All-Star, 1985 NBA Rookie of the Year, Three-time NBA Scoring Champion, 1988 NBA Defensive Player of the Year

An NBA MVP, five All-Star appearances and three scoring titles in the first five years of a career? Yeah, that’s absolutely ridiculous.

The only reason why Jordan isn’t higher on this list is because the best days of his career came in the 1990s when he helped establish the Bulls as one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.

Averaging 37.1 points per game during his third year in the NBA solidifies Jordan as a great in the 1980s, even though he only played five seasons during those years. Jordan will go down as the best to ever play the game, and while his championships didn’t being until the 1990s, some of his best days were in the decade before.

4. Moses Malone, C, Philadelphia 76ers

1980′s Stats: 24.5 PPG, 12.3 RPG

Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

Notable Achievements in 1980s: 1983 NBA Champion, 1983 NBA Finals MVP, Two-time NBA MVP, 10-time NBA All-Star

Once Moses Malone found his way to the Philadelphia 76ers, he finally realized his full potential. While he has Dr. J to thank for a large part of that, there’s no doubt that Malone was an integral piece of the 76ers’ 1983 title run.

Malone’s greatest strength was his pure athletic ability. With Dr. J running the floor beside him, Malone was a nearly unstoppable force, and his play in the 1983 NBA Finals is something that legends are made of.

If his averages during the 1980s aren’t impressive enough, the fact that he did exactly what the 76ers needed him to do to win the 1983 title should do the job of solidifying him as one of the greatest to play during the 1980s.

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, C, L.A. Lakers

1980′s Stats: 20.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.0 BLKPG, 56.6 FG%

Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

Notable Achievements in 1980s: Five-time NBA Champion, 1985 NBA Finals MVP, 1980 NBA MVP, 10-time NBA All-Star, Four-time All-NBA First Team

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar absolutely dominated the game for two entire decades, and the craziest part is that his career improved the older he got.

When he joined the L.A. Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar became a player who was defined by efficiency, intelligence and hard work. While having Magic Johnson and James Worthy alongside him certainly helped him during the 1980s, there’s no doubt that he could’ve carried the Lakers by himself.

Abdul-Jabbar will go down in history as one of the most cerebral players to play in the NBA, and as he aged, his intelligence continued to dominate the game.

2. Larry Bird, SF, Boston Celtics

1980′s Stats: 24.5 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 6.0 APG, 49.9 FG%

Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

Notable Achievements in 1980s: Three-time NBA Champion, Two-time NBA Finals MVP, Three-time NBA MVP, Nine-time NBA All-Star, Nine-time All-NBA First Team, 1980 Rookie of the Year

The 1980s were dominated by two players—Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The same two players that headlined the 1979 NCAA National Championship game.

While both players had their moments of brilliance, there’s no doubt that Bird was the more prolific scorer of the two players. He could score from almost anywhere on the court, and he played the game with a toughness that is now taken for granted.

Bird nearly averaged a double-double over a 10-year span, and what often goes unnoticed is the fact that he was also proficient at facilitating the game to his teammates. Bird’s tenacity on both sides of the ball is something that very few players have, and it’s at the foundation of why he was able to dominate the NBA during its “golden age.”

1. Magic Johnson, PG, L.A. Lakers

1980′s Stats: 19.6 PPG, 11.1 APG, 7.4 RPG, 53.2 FG%

Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

Notable Achievements in 1980s: Five-time NBA Champion, Three-time NBA Finals MVP, Two-Time NBA MVP, Seven-time All-NBA First Team, Nine-time NBA All-Star

Just like he always did, Magic Johnson beats out Larry Bird for the to spot on this list. During the 1980s, he won more championships, more NBA Finals MVPs and he also played at a more efficient rate.

What made Magic such a special player is the fact that he was versatile enough to play any position on the court—as evidenced by his rookie-year dominance in the 1980 NBA Finals at the center position.

Magic consistently involved his teammates in the game more often than any other point guard in the 1980s, and he also managed to score and rebound the ball at an impressively-productive rate. Magic’s versatility is something that comes once in a generation, and that’s why his production during the 1980s is so memorable.

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