Decade Review: 1980s

We now turn to the 1980s, the first huge decade for the NBA in terms of popularity.  The decade is remembered as the time the Lakers and Celtics battled toe-to-toe for the title every year and Magic and Bird ran the show.  This isn’t an incorrect perception but is it really that simple?  Wasn’t there more to it?  Well…maybe.  Let’s take a closer look at the 1980s and see.

-Team of the Decade: While not as dominant as the Bulls in the 1990s, the Lakers do seem like the best of the 1980s, winning five titles and going to eight NBA Finals.  Boston, of course, isn’t far behind, as they won three titles and went to five Finals.  But the Celts had their share of competition, getting beat up by the 76ers in the early part of the decade and by the Pistons near the end of the decade.  In addition, the Bucks were fairly tough the entire decade too.  So, let’s take a look at the teams who made the most noise during the playoffs in the decade and their average wins during that time:

Average Wins Per Season

Boston 59.3 wins

L.A. Lakers 59.1 wins

Philadelphia 53.5 wins

Milwaukee 52.2 wins

Atlanta 44.9 wins

Detroit 42.3 wins

Houston 40.1 wins

Even with the injury plagued 1988-89 season, the Celts still nip the Lakers for most wins for the decade.  This raises an interesting point…how did the Lakers win more title if the Celts usually out won them?   The answer seems to lie in the above chart.  While the Celts battled with Philly, Milwaukee, and Detroit, the Lakers had their way with decent teams like Denver and Portland for the entire decade.  In fact, the Lakers weren’t tested much in the Western Conference.  In 1980-81 they were upset by Houston in a little three-game mini series and in the 1985-86 the Rockets upset them 4-2.   The Lakers did not lose a Western Conference playoff series the rest of the decade and only were taken to seven games twice (by Utah and Dallas in 1987-88).

By contrast, the Celts were constantly battling Philly, Milwaukee, and Detroit, all of whom were better than any of the contenders out West by a significant margin.  Does this East gauntlet plus the fact Boston won more games leave for the possibility that the Celts relative lack of playoff success versus L.A. was based upon a tougher playoff road?  In turn, can we argue that Boston might’ve actually been the better squad for the decade?  The argument is compelling but the glaring hole is the fact that the Lakers beat most of the East contenders in the Finals most of the time, even in 1987-88 when L.A. was tested heavily in the Western bracket.  So, I still think the Lakers are the team of the decade but it is really close.

As a quick aside, Houston and Detroit don’t rank in the top eight in wins for the decade but we put in their stats (as well as Atlanta’s) for some perspective as to how these teams with multiple significant playoffs runs fared in the regular season.

-All-Decade Team:

-PG, Magic Johnson: Obviously, this one is not particularly close.  Magic’s stats confirm the popular notion that he was the greatest point guard of the 1980s (and All-Time).  Just for fun, Magic’s per-48 minute stats for the 1980s: 25.3 pts, .530 FG%, 9.6 rebs, 14.6 assts.  Second place also is clearly Isiah Thomas’ realm, with John Stockton third (because he played over 200 fewer games than Isiah).  What really strikes me about the point guard position in the 1980s is that it lacks the electric scoring point guards that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s.  Think about, you have Isiah but not too many other points who could score.  Check out the number of point guards in the 1980s who broke 15 ppg (minimum 400 games played) versus the next two decades:


Isiah Thomas, 20.3 ppg

Magic Johnson, 19.5 ppg

Micheal Ray Richardson, 16.1 ppg

Norm Nixon, 15.8 ppg

Sleepy Floyd, 15.7 ppg

Dennis Johnson, 15.3 ppg


Tim Hardaway, 19.4 ppg

Kevin Johnson, 18.8 ppg

Gary Payton, 16.3 ppg

Michael Adams, 15.9 ppg

Rod Strickland, 15.7 ppg

Mark Price, 15.7 ppg

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, 15.2 ppg

Nick Van Exel, 15.1 ppg

Kenny Anderson, 15.1 ppg


Allen Iverson, 28.1 ppg

Gilbert Arenas, 22.8 ppg,

Stephon Marbury, 19.7 ppg

Steve Francis, 18.1 ppg

Sam Cassell, 17.1 ppg

Baron Davis, 16.9 ppg

Tony Parker, 16.7 ppg

Mike Bibby, 16.7 ppg

Gary Payton, 16.3 ppg

Steve Nash, 16.2 ppg

Jason Terry, 16.2 ppg

Chauncey Billups, 15.6 ppg

As one can see, the number of scoring points has grown from 6 to 9 to 12 over the last three decades.  It’s not clear if this means that points have improved or that offenses are just structured differently.  Purists are sure to point to the fact that in the 1980s there was less one-on-one play and more passing.  This may be true on some level but I get the sense that Isiah Thomas’ effectiveness showed teams what a quick scoring point could do for a team and that such a player is generally quite helpful for a team.

-SG, Michael Jordan: In case you’re wondering, the logic of putting a minimum of 400 games for eligibility for the All-Decade team was based upon the fact that 400 games represents almost five full season, or half a decade and this seemed like a fair baseline.  Michael Jordan was just short of this limit at 345 games and would’ve made the cut had he not missed most of 1985-86 with a broken foot.  So, why do we still use MJ at guard?  He was so great in his shorter time that even missing six seasons of the decade isn’t enough to knock him out, rules be damned.  MJ scored so well (32.6 ppg) versus 26.5 for second place scorer Adrian Dantley at 26.5 ppg that you just can’t ignore it. In fact, if you assumed that MJ had played 55 more games to reach the 400 mark and scored no points in those 55 games, he would still average 28.2 ppg for the decade and still be the leader in scoring for the decade handily.

If you take MJ out of the equation, the best two guard is the perpetually underrated George Gervin.  Gervin is remembered as a no-defense fluff scorer from the ABA.  His defense might’ve been weak but he was a ridiculously great scorer and led the non-MJ division in points per-minute for the decade.  Gervin’s career actually has a lot of other forgotten facts:

-Gervin’s NBA career lasted only 10 years, as his first four years were in the ABA and he stopped playing at age-33.

-Gervin led some pretty good teams.  He went to three Conference Finals in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and were really close to a title in 1978-79 when they were knocked off in a tough Game 7 against the Bullets.

-He led the NBA in scoring four times.

-Gervin’s final year in the NBA was a starter for the Bulls in 1985-86 when Michael Jordan was out with that broken foot.  Gervin was still above average offensively (16.2 ppg in 25.2 mpg) but wasn’t quite the same player in other areas.  When MJ returned for the playoffs, Gervin was nailed to the bench, playing only 11 minutes in two games and missing his only shot against the Celts.

-Gervin went to Europe after 1985-86 but never returned to the NBA.

-In 1989-90, at the age of 37, Gervin tried a comeback in the CBA and scored 20.3 ppg for the Quad City.

-SF, Larry Bird: Small forward might’ve been the most interesting position of the 1980s.  Nearly every team featured some sort of scoring small forward and they all did it differently.  There were the post up guys (Dantley, Aguirre, King) and runners (English, Vandeweghe, Worthy), and some physical freaks (Dominique Wilkins and Julius Erving).  None of this really matters when compared to Bird.  He scored really well and passed, boarded, blocked shots, and even stole the ball better than any of these guys.  He’s as far ahead of the small forwards as Magic was to the points of the 1980s (actually Bird may have been farther ahead of his competition).  The only question for Bird is whether he’ll be eclipsed by LeBron James as the best small forward of All-Time.

-PF, Kevin McHale: At power, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone were great but both short of qualifying.  Barkley by 11 games and Malone by a more robust 75 games.  Barkley’s rate stats are better than McHale’s but McHale played nearly 700 games.  Throw in McHale’s shot blocking and scoring down low and he’s the power forward of the decade.  In the non-Barkley/Malone Division, the back power slot is pretty slim pickings.  Terry Cummings, Tom Chambers, and Buck Williams were all good show the lack of depth at this position.

-C, Moses Malone: Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated the position for most of the early 1980s until Hakeem Olajuwon came along.  He was better than both of them by 1985-86 as they aged and he began reaching his peak.  But Hakeem, like Barkley, just misses the 400-game mark (386 games).  Hakeem’s great years, however, weren’t better than the dominant years that the other two centers put up at the beginning of the decade.  Both Moses and Kareem had 400 more games played in the 1980s and still produced on the same level as Hakeem overall, even though they had some decline phase years at the end of the decade.  Here’s how the per-48 minute numbers for the big three look:

Player Games Pts FGs FGA FG% FTs FTA FT% Rebs Asts Stls Blks TO
Malone 778 31.5 10.8 22.1 0.491 9.9 12.7 0.775 17.0 2.0 1.2 1.8 4.4
Olajuwon 386 30.5 11.9 23.1 0.518 6.6 9.8 0.672 16.0 2.7 2.6 4.1 4.0
Abdul-Jabbar 787 30.4 12.5 21.9 0.572 5.3 7.2 0.743 11.2 4.2 1.1 3.0 3.8

Malone versus Abdul-Jabbar is an interesting question because their differences were so pronounced.  Moses was such a better rebounder and created more free throws but Kareem, shot better, passed better, and blocked shots much better.  This is a pretty close match but three factors work in Malone’s favor: (1) he was better at his 1980s peak, (2) he aged much better and was still an All-Star at the end of the decade while Kareem was just a bit player (even though Kareem was playing better for his age than Moses would be able to when he hit his late 30s in the next decade), and (3) the image of Moses dominating Kareem in the 1982-83 Finals when both were near their peaks was so vivid.  Overall, Kareem was the better ballplayer career-wise but Moses takes the title for the 1980s.

Decade Per Game Leaders (minimum 400 games)

Points Per Game

1.  Adrian Dantley, 26.5 ppg

2.  Dominque Wilkins, 26.0 ppg

3.  George Gervin, 26.0 ppg

4.  Alex English, 25.9 ppg

5.  Larry Bird, 25.0 ppg

In case you’re curious, had MJ been eligible (be was short by 55 games) he would’ve led this category handily at 32.6 ppg in the 1980s.

Rebounds Per Game

1.  Moses Malone, 13.2 rpg

2.  Buck Williams, 11.9 rpg

3.  Bill Laimbeer, 10.8 rpg

4.  Larry Smith, 10.4

Robert Parish, 10.4

Assists Per Game

1.  Magic Johnson, 11.2 apg

2.  Isiah Thomas, 9.8 apg

3.  John Stockton, 9.6 apg

4.  Norm Nixon, 8.4 apg

5.  Johnny Moore, 8.1 apg

Steals Per Game

1.  Micheal Ray Richardson, 2.8 spg

2.  John Stockton, 2.3 spg

Fat Lever, 2.3 spg

Clyde Drexler, 2.3

Maurice Cheeks, 2.3

One of the great what ifs involves if Sugar Ray Richardson had stayed in clean and in the NBA.  There’s a lot of legend around Richardson as a player and he was pretty good but he was not quite Hall of Fame level.  In fact, only his 1984-85 season was really good (20.1 ppg, 8.2 apg) and even that wasn’t dominant.  By the time Richardson was finally kicked out of the NBA, he was already 30 and had probably already hit his peak.  This is not to suggest that a sober Richardson might not have been even better or that it wasn’t sad to see him playout his career abroad but we did see much more of Richardson than we did of other several other players with similar problems.

Block Per Game

1.  Mark Eaton, 4.2 bpg

2.  Tree Rollins, 2.6 bpg

3.  Larry Nance, 2.1 bpg

4.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 2.0 bpg

5.  Alton Lister, 1.9 bpg

Turnovers Per Game

1.  Magic Johnson, 3.9 topg

2.  Isiah Thomas, 3.8 topg

3.  Micheal Ray Richardson, 3.5 topg

4.  Reggie Theus, 3.4 topg

Moses Malone, 3.4 topg

Decade Totals Leaders


1.  Alex English, 21,018

2.  Moses Malone, 19,082

3.  Adrian Dantley, 18,157

4.  Larry Bird, 17,899

5.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 16,246


1.  Moses Malone, 10,269

2.  Robert Parish, 8,195

3.  Jack Sikma, 8,192

4.  Bill Laimbeer, 7,957

5.  Buck Williams, 7,576


1.  Magic Johnson, 8,025

2.  Isiah Thomas, 6,220

3.  Maurice Cheeks, 5,781

4.  Reggie Theus, 5,239

5.  Norm Nixon, 5,096


1.  Maurice Cheeks, 1,768

2.  Magic Johnson, 1,464

3.  Micheal Ray Richardson, 1,363

4.  Isiah Thomas, 1,338

5.  Larry Bird, 1,300


1.  Mark Eaton, 2,391

2.  Tree Rollins, 1,849

3.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1,594

4.  Robert Parish, 1,346

5.  Wayne Cooper, 1,308


1.  Magic Johnson, 2,800

2.  Reggie Theus, 2,712

3.  Moses Malone, 2,659

4.  Isiah Thomas, 2,437

5.  A1ex English, 2,294

Decade Per-48 Minutes Leaders (minimum 400 games)

Points Per 48

1.  George Gervin, 37.7 p/48

2.  Adrian Dantley, 34.6 p/48

3.  Alex English, 34.5 p/48

4.  Mark Aguirre, 34.4 p/48

5.  Dominique Wilkins, 33.8 p/48

Rebounds Per 48

1.  Larry Smith, 17.2 r/48

2.  Moses Malone, 17.0 r/48

3.  LaSalle Thompson, 16.2 r/48

4.  Bill Laimbeer, 15.8 r/48

5.  Buck Williams, 15.7 r/48

Assists Per 48

1.  John Stockton, 16.7 a/48

2.  Magic Johnson, 14.6 a/48

3.  Johnny Moore, 14.1 a/48

4.  Isiah Thomas, 12.8 a/48

5.  John Lucas, 12.6 a/48

Even from the start, no one racked up assists better than Stockton.

Steals Per 48

1.  Dudley Bradley, 4.4 s/48

2.  John Stockton, 4.0 s/48

3.  Micheal Ray Richardson, 3.8 s/48

4.  Quinn Buckner, 3.7 s/48

Johnny Moore, 3.7 s/48

Blocks Per 48

1.  Mark Eaton, 6.7 b/48

2.  Tree Rollins, 5.0 b/48

3.  Harvey Catchings, 4.4 b/48

4.  Alton Lister, 4.0 b/48

5.  Wayne Cooper, 3.6 b/48

Eaton was ridiculously dominant in this category versus players of the 1990s and 2000s.  The real story here is that Manute Bol blows away Eaton.  Bol, in 317 games, averaged 9.2 block per 48-minutes in the 1990s.  Eaton was a better because he was somewhat better in other areas of the game than Manute but man could Bol block shots.

Turnovers Per 48

1.  Andrew Toney, 5.3 to/48

2.  Steve Johnson, 5.2 to/48

Ray Williams, 5.2 to/48

4.  Magic Johnson, 5.1 to/48

Rich Kelley, 5.1 to/48

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