Top Ten NBA Players of the 80s

The 1980s was a decade that revolutionized the game of basketball and the NBA in particular. The game became more exciting as a result of the merger between the NBA and the ABA that took place in 1976; the introduction of the three-point line opened up a game that used to be played close to the basket, fast-breaks and impressive dunks became the norm. During the 80s the popularity of the NBA increased dramatically, mostly because of the increased competition, due to the participation of impressive talents that used to play for the ABA, such as Dr. J. and The Iceman; the improved promotion, mainly due to the strategy of David Stern that became commissioner in 1984;  and the excitement skillful rookies such as Magic and Bird brought to the game, their rivalry renewed the Lakers-Celtics rivalry as well.

These two players, Magic and Bird, were in my view the top players of the 80s, they had the greatest impact on the game and set the foundations for the golden 90s. I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to watch Magic and Bird play the last 2-3 seasons of their careers, however I would like to have seen them at their prime. In the following lists I present the rankings according to research that I have done on the internet, mainly youtube and the statistics that I found using the always useful basketball-reference website. Enjoy and comment if you have a different view.

1. Earvin “Magic” Johnson







Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Career 19.5 7.2 11.2 1.9 0.4
1986-87 23.9 6.3 12.2 1.7 0.5
1980-1989 19.5 7.4 11.2 2.0 0.4

2. Larry Bird

larry bird shot








Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Career 24.3 10.0 6.3 1.7 0.8
1984-85 28.7 10.5 6.6 1.6 1.2
1980-1989 25.0 10.2 6.1 1.8 0.8

3. Moses Malone









  Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Career* 20.6 12.2 1.4 0.8 1.3
1981-82 31.1 14.7 1.8 0.9 1.5
1980-1989 24.5 13.2 1.5 0.9 1.4

4. Michael Jordan









Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Career 30.1 6.2 5.3 2.3 0.8
1988-89 32.5 8.0 8.0 2.9 0.8
1985-1989 32.7 6.2 5.9 2.8 1.2

5. Isiah Thomas









Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Career 19.1 3.5 9.2 1.9 0.3
1984-85 21.2 4.5 13.2 2.3 0.3
1982-1989 20.3 3.7 9.8 2.1 0.3

6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 









Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Career 24.6 11.2 3.6 0.9 2.6
1980-81 26.2 10.3 3.4 0.7 2.9
1980-1989 20.6 7.6 2.8 0.7 2.0

7. Julius Erving


Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Career* 24.2 8.5 4.2 2.0 1.7
1979-80 26.9 7.4 4.6 2.2 1.8
1980-1987 22.0 6.4 3.8 1.8 1.6

8. Kevin McHale








Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Career 17.9 7.3 1.7 0.4 1.7
1986-87 26.1 9.9 2.6 0.5 2.2
1981-1989 18.5 7.6 1.8 0.4 1.8

9. Dominique Wilkins









Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Career 24.8 6.7 2.5 1.3 0.6
1985-86 30.3 7.9 2.6 1.8 0.6
1983-89 26.0 6.8 2.4 1.5 0.7

10. Bernard King







Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Career 22.5 5.8 3.3 1.0 0.3
1984-85 32.9 5.8 3.7 1.3 0.3
1980-1989 22.6 5.3 3.2 0.9 0.2

* Includes ABA career numbers

17 responses to “Top Ten NBA Players of the 80s

  1. Naren

    1. Magic, 2. Bird, 3. Moses, 4. Jordan, 5. Olajuwon, 6. Kareem, 7. Erving, 8. Thomas, 9. Marques Johnson, 10. Drexler

    • I think you underestimate the brilliance of Isiah, even if he were literally a ‘bad boy’.

    • Schirmco

      I love this topic. I was not surprised, but very disappointed that Sidney Moncrief didn’t make the top ten. He was a fabulous guard, and defensive player of the year twice. He may have been the be 2 I’ve ever seen at posting up. In short, he was a matchup nightmare.

      • Moncrief was among my favorites too, but I placed him just below the top 10. I had him down as the 3rd best off guard of those days, after Jordan & Drexler, and ahead of Dumars and Gervin. He would probably be ranked higher if injury had not cut short his career, as happened also to McHale and Marques Johnson.

  2. Naren

    This continues my earlier comment. I enjoyed reading this post, and agreed with much of the ranking. Where I differ most is about the omission of Olajuwon. His best years, like Jordan’s, were in the 90s. But both were already great by the late 80s, by when Hakeem was in my opinion already better than Moses ever was, and a step better than Kareem was from 1982 on. Also, Marques Johnson is underrated because his career ended early due to injury; and this is partly because of his drug problems in 1983-4. But he returned in strength in 1984-6 until his injury. He was a much better defender than Dominique or Bernard King, and as varied in his offence.

    • Akeem, as he was in the 80s, may have been really good during the 80s and I thought about including him to the top-10. However, Moses, among other accomplishments, had 31ppg. and 15rpg with Houston in 1982 and the next season led the Sixers to the title with 25ppg. and 15rpg. He was a different type of center than Akeem but he was dominant and efficient. I think I should reconsider Kareem’s ranking as I do not think it should be that high. I do not Marques Johnson’s case that well. I am sure he was really good but better than Dominique or Bernard…I am not sure.

  3. Sean

    There is a player who accomplished all of the following in the 80s despite missing essentially a complete season to injury: led the NBA in Win Shares… led the NBA in MVPs… Led the NBA in All NBA 1st Team honors… Was 1st or 2nd in MVP voting SIX straight years—-only Bill Russell ever did that… won Rookie of the Year in a landslide the same year Magic was eligible… finished no worse than 4th in MVP in any season he player more than 6 games…

    His name is Larry Bird.

    He won 3 MVPs before Magic won any. He was 1st Team All NBA 3 times before Magic even did it once. Bird was 1st Team All NBA every year except 1988-89 when he missed 76 games. Magic wasn’t All NBA 2nd Team until his 3rd year and he wasn’t All NBA 1st Team until his 4th season.

    The Lakers were the best TEAM. Jabbar actually led the Lakers in Win Shares for the 80s through the decade’s 1st seven seasons. And Kareem was the league MVP during Magic’s Rookie year. Conversely, Bird joined a 29-53 team that his center, Dave Cowens retired from after 1 year. Kareem was clearly going to be Finals MVP in 1980 as he was destroying the Sixers. Check the aggregate boxscore. Magic had an awesome Game 6 in Philly with Jabbar out—-but had no shot at MVP unless Jabbar didn’t play. Jabbar could have limped around and done nothing in Game 6 and would still have deserved MVP for the series—-he was that dominant in Games 1-5.

    My top 4 is Bird, Magic, Moses Malone and then probably Kareem in that order.

    • El Roz

      I agree with you. Bird’s excellence can be seen in MVP votes, PER averages, etc. In the 1980s Magic had one season where he was better than Bird – 1987.

      Look at Bird’s 2 seasons after he won his last MVP in 1986: he put up even better or as good numbers in 1987 and 1988, that is, he didn’t slide down. If you listen to the game talk during NBA (1986 all star game, for example) to the sportscasters narrating the game, you’ll hear them say that Bird might be the best they have ever seen, and this is in 1985 and 1986, when Magic was playing, having come into the league the same year as Bird.

      Also, Bird was #2 in MVP voting in 1981, 1982, 1983, #3 in 1987, and #2 in 1988 when he lost out to a monster season by Jordan; Magic was 3rd. That is scary consistency from Bird that you cannot find in ANY player during the 1980s. Not Magic, not anybody. Bird ranked higher in MVP votes than Magic every season in the 80s except 1987, when he was 3rd and Magic won the MVP. Next year Bird ranked higher again.

      Bird also had higher PER averages than Magic during the 1980s.

      I would rank Magic close 2nd to Bird in the level of excellence and consistency showed across the 1979-1988 period. Magic had better 1989, 90, and 91 seasons for sure, but in the 80s Bird was tops.

  4. Sean, Much of what you say is true. But that’s mostly because Bird (23) was older than Magic (20) when they entered the league in 1979. As a result, Bird’s best years (1983-6, when he got his three regular season MVP’s) came earlier than Magic’s (1986-90, when he had his three MVP’s). But Magic was greater at his best than Bird was at his best. He could carry his team to victory and shred the opposing team’s defence that much better. Magic was the best at his position most years he was in the league (1980-91), while Bird was the best small forward only from 1983. Erving was greater than Bird until 1981, and Marques Johnson, who outplayed Bird in the conferences semis in 1983, fell out of this race only because of drugs and then injury. Also, Magic was the best ever at his position, while Lebron is a greater 3 than Bird. Only Jordan was greater than Magic among players of the past 40 years. But at least three players other than Jordan and Magic were better than Bird – LeBron, Kareem, and Hakeem; and two others were about as good – Duncan and Kobe.

    • I think I am going to agree with Narendra. I believe that Bird was an exceptional player, but what Magic did was more than just being the best player in the league; he actually changed the game – Point Forwards like Pippen, Grant Hill and LeBron are, in my view, the result of Magic’s approach to the game. Magic showed to the world that a 6’9 guy can also be the play-maker.

  5. Roy Hobbs

    Larry Bird led the 80s in Win Shares. Larry Bird led the 80s in MVPs.
    Larry Bird led the 80s in All-NBA 1st Team honors. Bird won the 1980 Rookie of the Year in a landslide and finished 4th in MVP. Bird was 1st Team All-NBA his 1st 9 years. Only Bob Pettitt and Oscar Robertson did that. Magic wasn’t 1st Team All NBA until his 4th year. Magic also didn’t lead the Lakers in Win Shares for the decade through the 1st seven seasons—when the Lakers won 3 of their titles—Jabbar did. Bird won 3 straight MVPs (only Russell and Chamberlain did this). Bird was 1st or 2nd in MVP voting six straight years (only Russell did this). Bird’s teams averaged nearly 62 wins per 82 games he played in the 80s. The Celtics won 29 games without him in 1979. They won 61 games with him as the only new starter in 1980. The 1979 Celtics plus the 1980-89 Celtics averaged 37 wins per 82 games when Bird did NOT play. Michael Jordan, in 5 postseasons in the 1980s (1985-89), won 14 games and lost 23. Bird won 50 playoff games from 1985-88. Bird was 20-3 vs Jordan from 1985-88 before Bird got hurt and missed 76 games in 1989. Larry Bird was the greatest player of the 80s.

  6. With all due respect:
    Nothing Magic did in the 90s is relevant to this topic.
    This topic deals with the NBA period 1979-80 thru 1988-89.
    If Magic was the best at his position more often than Bird, why was Bird All-NBA 1st Team 9 years in the decade (1980-88) to Magic’s 7 years (1983-89)?
    Regardless of position, Bird finished higher than Magic in MVP voting 8 out of 10 years in the 80s.
    Players from other eras (LeBron, Duncan, etc.), regardless of your opinion of them, have no relevancy to this topic. This is specifically about the 1980s.
    Picking a player (Magic) who had less win shares for the decade, less MVPs for the decade, less All-NBA honors for the decade, inferior MVP finishes 8 of 10 years for the decade OVER the player (Bird) who was #1 in all of these areas just makes no sense. Not to mention Magic lost (in a landslide) to Bird for the Rookie of the Year in 1980.
    Bird was superior for the period 1980-1988. Magic was superior after that (1989-1991 and 1996)—-but most of that period is in the 90s. The 90s are not relevant to this topic.

  7. It seems to me that Roy and Sean have a point in picking Larry over Magic. I have a different approach and usually do not pay so much attention to statistics; I rather choose to look at the overall impact of a player, including next generations or in terms of revolutionizing the game, while winning. I believe that in this sense, what Magic did as a player during the 80s (it is what he did during his whole career, which means mostly the 80s) was much bigger than what Bird did. On the other hand, I have to agree that all that you are saying about Bird is true and in that sense he was the best of the 80s. I think in my eyes the best player does not have to be always and at the same time the player that has won the most or the player with the best stats. Whether stats or winning are the objective way to look at it, is debatable. Anyway, I think that Bird, as you argue, was the best player when it comes to accomplishments, but Magic was the best player of the 80s because he combined winning and accomplishments (definitely less than Bird’s accomplishments in the same period) with a unique type of play and skillset that impacted the game of the next generations that idolized Magic’s game in the 80s. I will always (and I might be wrong in that) pick a player that combines winning with taking the game to another level (as Magic did in the 80s). In short, I agree with you that Bird was the most accomplished player of the 80s, but I still think that what Magic did during the 80s changed the 80s game and shaped in many ways how basketball is being played today and that makes him the best of the 80s. I believe that In identifying the value and importance of historical figures such as Magic and Bird, it is necessary to measure (to the point is possible) their impact in changing the game; it is not possible to think of an era of basketball in isolation, without thinking its connections with the previous or the next as this is how the game evolves. Anyway that is already too long of an answer, I really enjoy these conversations and I admit that defining who the best is, is a difficult and complex thing.

    • Sean

      I really appreciate your well thought-out reply. I wouldn’t try to tell you you have it wrong. Your viewpoint is certainly valid. I will build on your point about changing and shaping the game and mention that the NBA adopted the 3-pointer in Magic & Larry’s rookie year. Bird became a prototype of sorts for stretch 3s and stretch 4s decades ago. He was a player who could get 10-11 rebounds per game while popping out beyond the arc and drilling 3s at a >40% rate. Look how much a staple of NBA offenses today is 3-point shooting. As great as had was, Magic never really possessed that element. When Bird came along, we started using the term “point forward”. I don’t know if Magic begat Pippen and LeBron more than Bird did from an offensive standpoint.
      I think Magic is the greatest open court passer I’ve ever seen. I think Bird might be the best half court passer I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if one of those has shaped the way the game is played today more than the other. I think stars in today’s league are the more prolific scorers. Bird was an elite scorer. You had to pick him up at half court. He may have had the best range of any player, ever. He could score from anywhere. The league today doesn’t have anyone who is as proficient at scoring from as many spots on the floor as Bird—-but boy, every team in it would loved to. And Bird’s evolution always interested me. He is so infamous for his deep 3s that were daggers and hid All Star Weekend 3-pt Contest exploits—–but when he was in college, the was no 3-pointer. In college or the NBA. So he didn’t work on making 24-footers all that time in college or prior. It wasn’t until he was a pro that he even worked on that element. And what did he do? He started the 50/90/40 club (Fg%, FT%, 3pt%). Imagine if he grew up working on a 3-pt shot like the kids today. Imagine what he would have done with the college 3-pt line. What is it, 19’9″? Anyway, I believe that the type of player Bird was in the 80s has shaped what the NBA wants to be today—as much as anyone.

      • Thanks for the reply Sean, What you say is definitely true and is intriguing to think what any of these guys of previous generations would be able to do under the current training as well as social circumstances (black players of previous generations also had to overcome racism and discrimination on every level). However, I think when we get to the point of ranking players and talents like Magic and Bird we all fall into what I understand as ‘the trap of ranking.’ What I mean by that is that when we compare players that have accomplished and offered so much to the game we will always reach a point when we simply decide according to personal preference. It is not a coincidence that people that have seen Russell and Chamberlain play have the same issue; there are some that say Russell was the best others that prefer Wilt. Who was better? It is truly difficult to say; the former won 11 titles as a player, while the latter was arguably the most dominant scorer ever played. Many say that Russell had better teammates, others say that Russell beat Wilt in their battles, while the statistics say otherwise. That is why I think that in the end it will always come to personal preference. It would be really interesting and this is something that I would like to do at some point, to identify all the parameters that could define the greatness of a player, while at the same time be able to measure them accurately; for example what is the level of accuracy that we are able to measure the impact of a player on the league? One would say that MJ had the biggest impact, but is this true? Don’t we have to take into account that MJ played in an era where there was a larger exposure to the game through the media? There are so many things that we need to consider and I am not aware of a work by anybody on this issue; for example, what is the approach of Bill Simmons’ book on basketball on this issue, how does he rank his NBA best? I am just referring to his book as an example as I have heard is about 700 pages!!! Anyway, my point is that when it comes to that high level of greatness we end up deciding on personal preference as I don’t think there is (I might be wrong) an accurate or objective way of ranking players of that high level (I do not see statistics as the answer to this). What is your opinion on this issue; can you certainly say that Bird was better than Magic? I can’t say for sure and I think in the end I choose Magic over Bird because I believe that his game had a bigger impact on the game, but then again this is just how I see it. I think there is a bigger issue here and that is to accurately define basketball greatness (a very difficult task).

  8. Thank you for the comments you left on my site. Unfortunately, I only noticed them now when editing the page. I’ve left these comments on my page, and reproduce them here in case you don’t get a notice that I’ve replied your note there.

    I am uncertain where to place LeBron, between Nos. 2 and 6 all-time. But I definitely place him in that lot, and ahead of Bird, the next greatest small forward in my view. I don’t think we can place too much weight on the number of titles won, although that is certainly a consideration. LeBron was on a team that should have won another championship only in Miami, not in Cleveland. The Heat were still coming together when they lost to the Mavs. Although they had more stars, the Spurs were the better team that jelled better as a group. Despite this, the Heat beat the Spurs once and lost to them once. And in the Warriors, they lost to the better team. In 2016, I think LeBron hugely overachieved in leading the Cavs beyond the Warriors. I don’t think the supporting cast is that strong in Cleveland now – Kyrie can’t play defence that well, Love is on and off, and the rest of the cast is good but not great.

    Bird was the greater outside shooter, passer, offensive rebounder, and team defender. LeBron has been the greater inside force, overall and defensive rebounder, and one-on-one defender. I think he won the third team with a weaker team than Bird had on any of his championships, including the first one in which Maxwell was the better player by a bit. It’s also difficult to ignore that LeBron has been good for much longer, though injuries were the main reason why Bird declined after 1987. Of the other great offensive players, I place LeBron above Chamberlain because Chamberlain’s shooting range was very limited and he was less successful in winning titles while playing on stronger teams for longer; and above Olajuwon because Olajuwon wasn’t as dominant as an offensive force. I would say though that there were many players I emotionally preferred to LeBron – including Kareem, Magic, Hakeem, Duncan, Moses, and the Doctor.

    • Roy Hobbs

      Larry Bird was a better rebounder than LeBron. Not the other was around. And what makes LeBron more of an inside force than Bird? LeBron hardly ever plays the post even when his team needs him to.

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