The Golden Age: the Best NBA Players of the 1980s

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The 1980s are known as “The Golden Age” for the National Basketball Association. It is the greatest decade in the history of the association without question. The 80s saw the arrival of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. “Magic” and Bird instantly developed a bitter rivalry that the NBA capitalized on and it propelled the league’s popularity to heights that it had never come close to reaching before. This was the turning point of the NBAs existence, and subsequently the game would never be the same.

The NBA was everywhere now. “Magic”, Jordan and Bird were in countless commercials, billboards and magazines. Every kid in the United States wanted to emulate at least one them. The NBA was evolving (on and off the court) right before everyone’s eyes. It was exciting! Players and teams had a genuine disdain toward one another (unlike today’s game where all of the players are friends off of the court and hang out in the off-season). It seemed like every foul was hard and every game was physical. Shorts became inappropriately small, but the game became unimaginably big. These are the Top 5 NBA Players of the 1980s:

5 Isiah Thomas

Thomas epitomized toughness in the 80s. He was a 6’1, 180 pound point guard who was arguably the roughest player in the 80s pound-for-pound. His Pistons teams were known for tough defense, hard-nosed ball and heavy fouls and Thomas was in the middle of it all despite his stature. He was the leader the team and seemed to always come through when his team needed him to. Thomas averaged 20 points, 10 assists and two steals per game in the decade. His Pistons won the NBA championship in 1989 and he was also an eight-time all-star.

4 Michael Jordan

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There are two simple reasons Jordan is not higher on this list. He was not drafted until 1984 and he did not win a championship in the 80s. But Jordan changed the game forever, much like “Magic” and Bird did before him. Jordan was an almost inhuman talent when he entered the league. His game was way ahead of its time could simply not be guarded! Not even by whole teams! In game two of the 1986 first round playoffs Jordan scored a playoff-record 63 points against the eventual NBA Champion Celtics; a team that was known for its stifling defense. In his five seasons in the 80s Jordan averaged 31.1 points, 5.5 assists, 5.8 rebounds and shot 50.5 %. He was the 1988 NBA MVP, 1985 Rookie of the Year, three-time NBA scoring champion, 1988 defensive player of the year and a five-time all-star (every year he was in the league during the decade).

3 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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It is incredible to think that Abdul-Jabbar dominated the 70s and 80s. That is two whole decades! He was very fortunate to have “Magic” in the 80s because it lessened the work load and added years to his career. He was surrounded by talent in Los Angeles — we are talking about the “Showtime” Lakers here! Regardless if “Magic” did alleviate some of the pressure, Abdul-Jabbar still made as big an impact as ever. He averaged 20.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, two blocks and shot 56.6%. During the decade he was a five-time NBA Champion, 1985 NBA Finals MVP, 1980 NBA MVP and was an all-star every season.

2 Larry Bird

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Bird was the last Caucasian to dominate the game, respect that! During a time when the game was starting to transition to a style that is played above the rim, Bird dominated with smart play, toughness, fundamentals and an unstoppable jumper. Bird and “Magic” completely dominated the 80s and captivated NBA fans with their respective styles of play. Bird was the most competitive player ever to step on the court. His heart, grit and determination were (and still are) second to none. And he had the skills to back that up! He is the greatest pure shooter in NBA history. Bird even won the first three NBA three-point contests. And before his third win he famously walked around the locker room and asked, “Who’s finishing second?” He was THAT good. Bird averaged 24.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 6 assists and shot 49.9%. During the decade Bird was a three-time NBA Champion, two-time NBA Finals MVP, three-time NBA MVP, 1980 Rookie of the Year and a nine-time all-star. His legacy will forever be intertwined with Johnson’s. Whenever you think about basketball in the 80s you think “Magic” and Bird.

1 Earvin “Magic” Johnson

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The Lakers selected “Magic” with the first pick in the 1979 draft and to this day it was the greatest pick in franchise history (rivaled only by Kobe Bryant being chosen with the 13th pick in the 1996 draft). His rookie season will be remembered by two monumental moments. In the first game of his career he leaped into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s arms after a last second victory. Kareem famously had to remind “Magic” that it was only the first game of the season. But that was “Magic”, and he would never change. He always played with passion, enthusiasm and he was constantly flashing his trademark smile. The second memorable moment of his rookie campaign occurred in game six of the NBA Finals. “Magic” stepped up and filled the void left by injured center Abdul-Jabbar. “Magic” played every position on the floor at different points in the game and scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out seven assists en route to eliminating the Philadelphia 76ers 123-107. “Magic” averaged close to a triple-double during the 80s with 19.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 7.4 rebounds per game while shooting 53.2%. During the decade he was a five-time NBA Champion, three-time Finals MVP, two-time NBA MVP and a nine-time all-star. On top of all of those impressive accolades he made an immeasurable impact on the game and changed the face of the NBA forever. That fact will not pop up in any stat you find. But it will be remembered every time “Magic” flashes that dazzling smile.

The NBA’s current stars have the players listed above to thank for their hefty contracts. Those “max-money” contracts that are now dished out regularly would not exist if it was not for the infusion of talent and excitement that arrived in the NBA in the 80s. Every major sport has a specific era that catapulted its popularity, and the 80s was definitely that era for the NBA. These are the Top 5 NBA Players of the 1980s. Wouldn’t you agree?

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