Looking back at the dawn of the rise of the NBA, it’s obvious that the 80’s played a pivotal role in how the current NBA is shaped.
Due to the rise in popularity during this time, the NBA went from having 23 teams at the beginning of 1980 (with the Dallas franchise starting this year) to having 30 franchises today. This soar in popularity was mostly due to the great players who were playing at the time.
Within this list, we will tell you who the best NBA players of the 80s. A couple of key factors to keep in mind.
All-NBA teams matter more than All-Star appearances. Although All-Star games are nice, even back then it was more of a popularity contest.
NBA titles are nice but are not the total equation. For example, Will Purdue owns four championship rings while Lebron James “only” has three. No one would ever say that Will Purdue is a better NBA player than Lebron James, and therefore this list will not be dictated by only championships.
With that in mind, here we go:
Best NBA Players of the 80s: By position
Here you’ll see a list of the best players ranked by position.
Best Centers of the 80s
#1 – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Lakers
Kareem played for all 10 years during the 1980s and was named to the All-NBA 1st Team in four different seasons.
He was also the MVP of the NBA during the 1980 season.
During the ten years he played, Kareem averaged over 20 Points per Game (PPG), averaged close to 9 Rebounds a game, and had a FG% close to 57%.
He was an integral part of the Lakers winning 5 NBA Championships during this 10-year span.
#2 – Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon – Rockets
Olajuwon averaged a double-double during his play during the 80s, coming in with 23 PPG and over 12 rebounds a game.
He also averaged 3 blocks a game, which helped him garner two different 1st NBA All-Defensive teams as a Center.
His efforts awarded him with three different 1st All-NBA team honors, which is bloody impressive being he only played in five seasons during the 80s.
This play in the 80s help set the foundation for him in the 90s, as if you were looking at a list for that decade, he would have to be considered as well.
Moses Malone – 76ers: Played all Ten seasons, averaged a double-double in points and rebounds, and was a two-time MVP in the 80’s.
Robert Parish – Celtics: Played all Ten seasons, averaged a double-double in points and rebounds, shot over 55% FG%, won three Championships.
Bill Laimbeer – Pistons: Played all Ten seasons, and although there was no award for an enforcer, he helped set the mental tone for the team which won the championship in 1989.
Best Power Forwards of the 80s
#1 – Charles Barkley – 76ers
Although he only played in the last 5 years of this decade, the stats he was able to produce are astounding. Barkley averaged a Double-Double in points (Just over 21 PPG) and Rebounds (Just under 12 a game).
Not only this but in his first five years, he was named to the All-NBA First team twice at the PF position.
Sir Charles’ play these first few years really set the tone for the rest of his career into the 90s.
#2 – Kevin McHale – Celtics
McHale played in all 10 seasons of the 80s, and during this time he accomplished great things.
He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team three separate times and was twice named the Sixth Man of the Year in the NBA.
He also averaged close to 19 PPG and 8 rebounds a game, all while shooting just over 56% FG%.
Bernard King – Knicks: He played all 10 years during this decade and led the league once while also being named to the First Team All-NBA on two different occasions. He averaged just under 22 PPG and just over five rebounds a game.
Karl Malone – Jazz: He only played in the last four years of this decade and didn’t really start making a great impact until he teamed up with Stockton. No doubt he would be considered for the best in the 90’s team.
Best Small Forwards of the 80s
#1 – Larry Bird – Celtics
Bird was a Transformative player within the NBA, as his rivalry with Magic Johnson propelled the league to a level of popularity it had never experienced before.
During this decade, Bird won the NBA MVP award three different times, was named rookie of the year over Magic Johnson and was on the 1st Team All-NBA Team an Astonishing 9 times!
He, along with Parish and McHale, formed the original “Big Three”, and together they won three NBA Championships in the 80s.
#2 – Julius “Dr. J” Erving
There were a lot of great SF’s in the 80s, as you will see in the Honorable Mention, but Erving deserves this 2nd spot due to his consistency throughout the decade.
Dr. J was named to the All-NBA Team 5 times during the decade (voters made sure to vote for Forwards, rather than PF and SF in order to get both Erving and Bird onto the ballot).
Erving was also the MVP of the league in 1981 and won the championship in 1983.
James Worthy – Lakers: Worthy was an Excellent player in the 80s, acting as a great role player next to Magic and Kareem.
Due to this, his individual stats didn’t shine through as well, but he still managed to average almost 18 PPG and almost 6 rebounds a game, while helping the Lakers win 3 of those 5 championships in the 80s.
Dominque Wilkens – Hawks: his season in 1986 is still looked at as one of the best seasons by an individual player ever. This year, he led the league in scoring, while also winning the MVP of the league.
This one year helped propel his numbers to show that he scored just over 26 PPG and just under 7 rebounds a game. However, his FG% was a pedestrian 47% during this time.
Clyde Drexler – Trail Blazers: Although he played in six seasons during this decade, Drexler was a late bloomer and didn’t really start becoming a dominant force until the 90s.
During the 80s, he averaged almost 20 PPG and just under 6 rebounds a game, but with a FG % which hovered around 48.5%.
Best Shooting Guards of the 80s
#1 – Michael Jordan – Bulls
Jordan is the top shooting guard by default in this era, as there weren’t nearly as many guards who shot the ball as often during this era of the NBA as there are today.
Jordan played for five seasons in this decade, and he was named rookie of the year in 1985 while also averaging over 30 PPG during this five-year stretch.
MJ was also the top scorer in the league on three different occasions and was named the NBA defensive player of the year in 1988, the same year he won his 1st MVP of the league.
The Bulls did not win any Championships in the 80s, but the foundation was set for their dominance in the 90s.
#2 – George “The Iceman” Gervin – Spurs
The Iceman played in seven seasons during this decade, which were his final seven seasons in the league, and during these years he averaged close to 26 PPG, even though he shot less than 50% from the field.
Before Jordan came along, he was the top scorer in the league in two different league seasons and was still named to the 1st team All-NBA as a Shooting Guard three different times.
These Spurs never won a Championship with Gervin, which is why Gervin is not as high on a lot of other lists.
Adrian Dantley – Pistons: Averaged over 26 points a game at an almost 55% FG%, played for all ten seasons and won the League Scoring Title two different seasons.
Dennis Johnson – Celtics – Johnson was a player who wanted to help others score, which shows in his almost 6 assists a game average during the ten seasons he played in the 80s. He was also known for his defense, landing him 5 different All-Defensive first team awards during this 10-year span.
Sydney Moncrief – Bucks – Played all ten seasons, while averaging close to 17 PPG, 5 Rebounds a game and almost four assists a game. Was awarded the NBA Defensive Player of the year trophy after two different seasons.
Best Point Guards of the 80s
#1 – Magic Johnson – Lakers
Always in the discussion of not only the best player of this decade but perhaps ever, Johnson was one of the two players who truly led the revolution of basketball.
His rivalry with Larry Bird, which started in college, transformed itself through the 80s with Johnson winning the battle. The Lakers defeated the Celtics in 2 out of 3 Championships and also held the upper hand in regular-season battles.
Johnson as an individual player averaged a double-double in points and assists, while also averaging over seven rebounds a game and shot over 53% FG%.
He won the MVP award twice in this decade and was named to the All-NBA First Team on seven different occasions!
#2 – Isiah Thomas – Pistons
If not for the presence of Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas might be considered one of the best, if not the best, PG to ever play the game.
During the nine seasons he played in this decade, Thomas came very close to averaging a double-double, with just over 20 PPG and just under 10 assists a game.
During the three seasons that Magic was not the All-NBA First team for PG, Thomas was named onto the team all three seasons.
The Pistons finally did pull off a Championship in 1989 by sweeping Johnson and Lakers in 4 games.
John Stockton – Jazz: There is such a huge gap between Stockton and the two listed above, it doesn’t even really seem fair to compare them.
Stockton played for 5 seasons, but only as a starter for the last 2. He led the league in assists for those two seasons, while averaging 17 PPG.