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Who Were the Best Basketball Players in the 1980s?

A tribute to the best NBA basketball players of the 1980s including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson.

Scroll through social media nowadays using any old NBA hashtag and you’ll find highlight reel after highlight reel showcasing player highlights. Rewind 40 years and you had to watch highlights on the sports segment of your local news or watch on ESPN if you had cable. Most read had to read about last night's great plays in the newspaper.

While it was a simpler time to consume sports, we still enjoyed some of the best players that the NBA had to offer. Here we pay tribute with a look at the best basketball players of the 1980s.

Number 5: Michael Jordan

When you think about Michael Jordan most people will associate him with the '90s as he and the Chicago Bulls really grabbed hold of the NBA. He actually played a fair chunk of the ball in the previous decade so he’s made the cut for our list of the best basketball players of the 1980s. His breakout campaign came in 84/85 as he made a joint league-high of 82 starts winning the NBA Rookie of the Year prize after putting up 28.2 points per game.


1986 was a write-off year but in the next three seasons, Jordan barely missed a game and his ascent toward GOAT status was well on the way. The titles came later but, arguably, MJ played his best stuff in the latter eighties with career bests in points per game, steals, assists, and rebounds all coming in that period. He won the 1988 MVP award as well!

Number 4: Moses Malone

In reality, there is a really strong argument that says Jordan should rank above Malone. We’re opting to rank Malone higher for one reason though and that’s because Malone was active throughout the decade. During that time he put up some impressive numbers too with 24.5 points per game and a pretty hefty 12.3 rebounds! That latter stat is perhaps an indication of the explosive athleticism Malone possessed, which was his best quality.

Malone wasn’t all about himself though. During the eighties he joined the All-Star ranks every year – despite representing four different teams - won two league MVP awards and in 1983 won the only NBA Championship of his career with the 76ers; Malone was named Finals MVP.

Number 3: Larry Bird

Let’s get controversial! A lot of people will have Larry Bird higher up their lists with three NBA Championships and three MVP awards he won in the decade. Back in the '80s, Larry was one of the reasons the Boston Celtics were high up in the NBA odds, no doubt.

For us though, we’re content with his bronze medal positioning. Yet with that note, we can’t exactly do anything but wax nostalgic about Bird. He was an unstoppable machine throughout the decade with the Boston Celtics, who just lost out in the 2022 Championship finals.

We’ve touched on a couple of the standout highlights already. In terms of his output, he shot 50% from the field racking up 24.5 points per game whilst a rebound average of 9.8 and 6.0 assists is hardly something to be sniffed at either. Oh, and there was just the small matter of Bird being a nine time NBA All-Star and named Rookie of the Year in 1980.

Number 2: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is guaranteed of his legendary status in the NBA after a career that spanned a total of 20 years. Deciding which decade he played in was the best is a tough decision to make. During the seventies, Abdul-Jabbar earned a rather crazy five NBA MVP awards. That continued into the eighties with the big man scooping the 1980 award as well. In contrasting fortunes, the '80s saw Abdul-Jabbar lift five Championships - he only won one in the seventies.

As for stats 8.9 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 20.6 points per game are good returns. His shooting efficiency was strong too with 57% from the two-point range. The fact he featured as an All-Star in every single season throughout the decade is further proof of his quality and consistency.

Number 1: Magic Johnson

Topping our list of the best basketball players of the 1980s is Magic Johnson; we suspect very few will disagree with that sentiment. Johnson first arrived in the NBA in 1979 but the golden years unquestionably came in the next 10 years. Johnson spent the entirety of the '80s with the LA Lakers and they were sensational for the vast majority of it; the Lakers won five titles between 1980 and 1988 with Johnson as the key man in several of those triumphs.

He won three MVP awards, three Finals MVP awards, and was named an All-Star in all 10 seasons. He dominated the league in several key stats. In 1981 and 82 he recorded more steals than anyone else in the league and in four different years he also led the league in assists. All that combines makes him the perfect choice for the top spot and he’ll unquestionably go down as one of the greatest players ever.


Photos courtesy Depositphotos
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