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HomeBasketballNBANBA All-Time Greats: Magic and Bird stand tall in the 80s

NBA All-Time Greats: Magic and Bird stand tall in the 80s

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The 1980s are the most significant decade in NBA history.

The league was able to secure a solid national TV deal, broadening its reach across the country.

The problems of the 70s slowly began to dissipate. 

The NBA continued to grow, jumping to 23 teams in 1980 from 17 in 1970. The league at the start of the 1979-80 season made a massive change, introducing the 3-point line. That year, the entire league took 5,003 shots from 3. Two teams last season, the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, combined for nearly 7,000 3-point attempts.

And a new crop of greats came on the scene and changed the game forever.

The 80s saw a shift in the League. The first 30-plus years were dominated by big men. There were forceful centers in the 80s, sure, but the game over the course of the decade would become more perimeter oriented.

I started this exercise understanding it would get tougher each decade to find the best players from those 10-year periods. That still holds true.

It’s clear who the two best players of the 80s are. Some tough choices have to be made after that.

Magic Johnson

Magic is easily the best point guard of all time, despite attempts to give that mantle to other players. Ironically, Magic didn’t run the point full-time until his fifth year in LA. Norm Nixon held down the lead guard spot. The 6-foot-9 Magic, though, still averaged nearly 9 assists a game in those four years. In those four years, Magic won two titles. In his rookie year, Magic famously played all five positions in a title-clinching game-six win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 NBA Finals. Magic had it all. The big smile. The confidence. The swagger. There had been nothing like Magic when he was selected first overall in 1979. He brought youthful exuberance to the League at a time when it was seen as too brooding. Magic was tailor made for LA. Ironically, he could have ended up in a completely opposite setting. Magic was named an All-Star nine times in the 80s, only missing out on the 1981 game because of a cartilage injury in his knee that caused him to miss 45 games. Magic earned All-NBA honors eight times in the 80s, including seven straight first-team selections. Magic’s Lakers won five titles in the 80s and made three other Finals trips. Magic earned league MVP honors in 1987 and 1989, and added another in 1990. Magic for seven straight years in the 80s finished no worse than third in the MVP voting. Magic could have averaged 30 points a game if he wanted to, but he always focused on making sure everybody else was involved. Magic is still The Man. He’s gone on to be a successful businessman and team owner. Magic still being around is amazing, considering what we all thought about HIV and AIDS when he in November 1991. Just like on the court, Magic won that battle too.


Larry Bird

Bird and Magic entered the League the same year. They’re linked in a lot of ways. Less than a year before their pro debuts, the two squared off in the 1979 NCAA men’s basketball championship game — a game that remains the most-watched college basketball game of all time. Magic’s Michigan State Spartans (GO GREEN, BABY!) bested Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in that game. Their rivalry would last from that late winter day in 1979 until Johnson retired in 1991. Like Magic, Bird brought new dimensions to the game. Bird was a three-level scorer who could get whatever shot he wanted. Bird for the first five years of his career played power forward. He averaged better than 10 rebounds a game in all five of those seasons. Bird in the early years was a true two-way player. Young Bird was a ferocious defender, exhibited by the three All-Defensive second-team nods he earned from 1982 to 1984. Bird would eventually slide to small forward to make room for Kevin McHale, who with Robert Parish formed the best frontcourt of all time. Bird and Magic both saw team success early. Bird’s Celtics beat the Houston Rockets to win the 1981 championship. Bird’s Celtics would beat the Lakers in the 1984 Finals, and again beat the Rockets in the 1986 championship series. Magic would get the last laugh, though, as the Lakers knocked off the Celtics in the 1985 and 1987 NBA Finals. Before those two LA wins, Boston had gone 8-0 against the Lakers in the Finals. Individually, Bird and Magic both won three MVP awards. Bird’s all came consecutively, from 1984 to 1986. Bird joins Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in history to win three straight MVPs. Even though Bird had his skeptics, and that skepticism could be justified, those awards are legit. Like Magic, Bird’s career was cut short. “The Hick from French Lick” was done in because he was a good son. Bird in 1985 decided to build a new driveway for his mom. It took a few years for the pain to have last effects, but it still feels like Bird should have played more than 13 years. Who was there, in a Celtics jersey, at Bird’s jersey retirement in 1993? maMagic, of course.


Moses Malone

Bird’s Celtics knocked off Malone’s Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals. When you look at the Houston roster, it’s amazing the Rockets even got that far. Moses Malone is one of the most underrated basketball players of all time. He’s the fourth-best center ever, but he’s behind three titans in Kareem, Russell and Wilt. Moses was drafted into the ABA straight out of Petersburg High School in Virginia. Malone was a solid player in the ABA, but his career took off when he joined the NBA’s Houston Rockets in 1976. Malone made the All-Star team every year from 1978 to 1989. He led the NBA in rebounding six times in seven years, and is quite possibly the best offensive rebounder of all time. Moses won MVPs in 1979 and 1982 with Houston. After signing with the 76ers as a free agent in 1982, Malone won MVP again in 1983 and led Philly to its second NBA title. That postseason run spawned a famous Malone quote too. Moses in the 80s made seven All-NBA teams. He averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds a game every year of the decade. Moses over the decade finished second in points and first in rebounds. Another all-time great, Charles Barkley, credits Malone with his development as a player and as a man. With a name like Moses, he couldn’t help but to be a leader.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

We have our first two-time honoree! Kareem in the 80s had a level of team success that rivals the individual accolades he earned in the 70s. Side-by-side with Magic, Kareem’s Lakers won five NBA titles and made three other trips to the Finals. Kareem’s last MVP award came in 1980, when he put up 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and a league-leading 3.4 blocks per game. Jabbar earned Finals MVP in 1985 — the Lakers first win over Boston in a championship series. Kareem was an All-Star every year of the decade. Jabbar in the 80s made six All-NBA teams and two All-Defensive teams. At 38 years old, Kareem put up 23.4 points per game and played in 79 games. The 80s secured Kareem’s place as the best basketball player of all time.


Michael Jordan

This could have been a tie between Jordan and Isiah Thomas. Some could argue Thomas deserves this spot if for no other reason that his Pistons knocked Jordan’s Bulls out of the playoffs two straight seasons in the 80s. Jordan was also under .500 against Thomas-led teams. But was Isiah really better than Mike? Jordan as a rookie showed he was one of the top players in the league, putting up 28.2 points per game in his first year in Chicago. Jordan earned second-team All-NBA honors as a rookie. Jordan made four All-League teams in five years of play in the 80s. It would have been a clean sweep if not for a foot injury that sidelined Jordan for 64 games. Jordan in 1988 became the first player to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. That year, Jordan notched 35 points per game, and recorded totals of 259 steals and 131 blocks. Jordan in 1988 also was named All-Star Game MVP. Jordan was unreal. At 6-foot-6 he became the best offensive player and best defensive player in the League. His scoring outbursts are the stuff of legends. In 1987, Jordan joined Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor as the only players to ever eclipse 37 points per game. Jordan became the pitchman for the greatest shoe line of all time. You could see greatness in Jordan from the jump. I don’t know if anyone could have predicted just how iconic he would become. 

Honorable mention

Isiah Thomas: Thomas should get more love from fans as one of the best point guards of all time. His performance on a broken ankle in game six of the 1988 NBA Finals is one of the most impressive we’ve ever seen. Had Detroit come out on top in that series, the Pistons with their 1989 and 1990 wins likely would have won three straight titles. Thomas surprisingly never finished higher than fifth in the league MVP voting. He earned five straight All-League honors from 1983 to 1987. And he was the leader of the team that kept Michael Jordan at bay for as long as it could.

Julius Erving: Another two-time honoree in our list. Dr. J was an All-Star every year he played in the 1980s. Erving earned league MVP honors in 1981 — a season that saw his 76ers tie Boston for the league lead in wins at 62. Dr. J earned five straight All-League honors from 1980 to 1984, including four first-team selections. 

Alex English: English in Denver was a prolific scorer. In the 1982-83 season, he led the league in scoring at 28.4 points per game. English scored a league-high 21,018 points in the decade. English made eight straight All-Star teams from 1982 to 1989. 

Dominique Wilkins: Nique didn’t have the team success he would have liked. His Hawks in the 80s were never good enough to get to the Conference Finals. But he was special. The Human Highlight Film dunked with a ferocity not seen before. He dunked like the rim owed him money. Wilkins, who made four All-NBA teams in the 80s, won the 1985 dunk contest. There are people who argue he should have come out on top in the 1988 duel with Jordan. Wilkins finished second to Bird in the 1986 MVP vote. He also led the league in scoring (30.3 ppg) that season. 

Kevin McHale: McHale didn’t become a full-time starter until his sixth year in Boston. McHale, who has some of the craftiest low post moves in history, won Sixth Man of the Year honors in 1984 and 1985. In his second year as a starter in the 1986-87 season, McHale put up 26.1 points and 9.9 rebounds a game. He finished fourth in the MVP vote that year, behind Johnson, Jordan and Bird.

Hakeem Olajuwon: Olajuwon was the No. 1 pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, two places ahead of Jordan. No one has ever questioned Houston for taking Dream. Olajuwon made five All-Star teams in the 80s and earned four All-NBA honors, including three straight first-team nods. His performance in game six of the 1987 West semifinals isn’t fawned over enough. Olajuwon blossomed into one of the five best centers of all time.

Monday: The 90s

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