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Top 10 NBA Players of the 1980s: Bird, Magic, or Jordan at Number one?

Ranking the top 10 players of the 1980s!
Publish Date: 02/23/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

To me, the 1980s was the greatest decade in basketball history. In the NBA, you had great rivalries like the Celtics/Lakers and Sixers/Celtics. In the mid-80s, you had the arrival of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, etc… Today, we will look at the top 10 players of the greatest decade in NBA History.


What you did in the NBA in the 1980s only matters if you want to be on this list. Winning NBA Championships helps, Stats and awards are a big deal, and the ability to play a complete game on both sides of the court.


10) Hakeem Olajuwon

Olajuwon puts himself on this list and only played half of the decade. Olajuwon was dominant from day 1 in the NBA and, for the decade, averaged a double-double. He helped lead the 1986 upset of the Los Angeles Lakers that advanced the Rockets to the NBA Finals. For five years, he played as a five-time NBA All-Star, three-time All-NBA First Team, and Two-time NBA All-Defensive First Team.

In the 1990s Olajuwon became one of the greatest Centers in NBA history and would lead the Rockets to back-to-back NBA Championships.

Video: Hakeem Olajuwon CRAZY Full Game 6 Highlights vs SuperSonics 1987 WCSF - 49 Pts 25 Reb 6 Blk

Hakeem Olajuwon CRAZY Full Game 6 Highlights vs SuperSonics 1987 WCSF – 49 Pts 25 Reb 6 Blk

9) Kevin McHale

McHale was a high-energy, cerebral player who was the unsung hero of the Celtics dynasty of the 1980s. His ability to move his body was unmatched, and that, combined with his massive reach, made him impossible to guard.

McHale was undefendable in the low post and an excellent defender. Outside of Bird, he was the most important player on the Celtics dynasty of the 1980s. Much like Bird McHale’s injury issues, it hurt the end of his career.

Video: Kevin McHale Full Highlights 1985.03.03 vs Pistons - Career HiGH 56 Pts!

Kevin McHale Full Highlights 1985.03.03 vs Pistons – Career HiGH 56 Pts!

8) James Worthy

Worthy was known as Big Game James, and in the 1988 Finals, he solidified that nickname by single-handily dragging the Pistons across the finish line in a close game 7 to beat the Detroit Pistons. Worthy was the perfect compliment on the wing to Magic Johnson in the Lakers showtime offense.

Big Game James is an underrated legend. Worthy played one of the greatest game 7s in NBA Finals history in 1988 as he led the Lakers over the Pistons, which is how he got his nickname of Big Game James!


“Big Game James” – Worthy’s Early NBA Years

7) Julius Erving

1983 NBA Champion, 1981 NBA MVP, Eight-time NBA All-Star, Five-time All-NBA First Team, Erving was on the downside of his career in the 80s and was still a dominant force. The stats were not what they were in the 1970s, but the important thing was how he figured out how to help his team win.

Erving’s best years were in the 1970s, but he was still one of the greatest players of the 1980s, and the 76ers in 1983 would win it all, with Erving playing a big part in winning it all.

Video: 1980: Dr.J Baseline Scoop

1980: Dr.J Baseline Scoop

6) Michael Jordan

1988 NBA MVP, Five-time NBA All-Star, 1985 NBA Rookie of the Year, Three-time NBA Scoring Champion, 1988 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Jordan is only this low because he only played half of the decade his dominance became more pronounced in the 1990s.

Jordan may have been a better individual player in the late 80s, but he was a better player in the 90s as he developed an outside shot in the early 90s that would end up putting him in the conversation for being the greatest NBA player of all time! Check out our 1980s NBA All-Decade Team!

Video: Best Of Michael Jordan Early Years | The Jordan Vault

Best Of Michael Jordan Early Years | The Jordan Vault

5) Isiah Thomas

Thomas had the ability to impose his will on his opponents, and he was just a little over 6′ and 180lbs! When Thomas arrived in Detroit, the Pistons organization was a mess, and just a few years later, they had become a contender, and by the end of the decade, they were back-to-back world champions. Thomas’s numbers for the decade were more than impressive, averaging a double-double for the decade.

Thomas started the decade in Detroit as a first-round pick on the worst team in the NBA. He ended that decade on the same team winning an NBA Championship! For my money, Thomas is the second-greatest point guard to play the game.

Video: HD Highlights of Isiah Thomas

HD Highlights of Isiah Thomas

4) Moses Malone

Could he be above Jabbar? Let me ask you this? If Malone was a Laker, could he have won 5 titles? I would say easily he could have. Malone took a .500 team all the way to the Finals in 1981 and beat Kareem’s Lakers along the way. He was traded to the Sixers in 1983 and put the Sixers over the top right away. The Sixers went 12-1 in the postseason, and for the decade of the 80s, Malone’s achievements were significant 1983 NBA Champion, 1983 NBA Finals MVP, two-time NBA MVP, and 10-time NBA All-Star.

Malone also took a Houston Rockets team all the way to the NBA Finals in 1981; he had an innate ability to put a team on his back and drag them across the finish line.

Video: Moses Malone’s DOMINANT 1983 Season With The Philadelphia 76ers!

Moses Malone’s DOMINANT 1983 Season With The Philadelphia 76ers!

3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Five-time NBA Champion, 1985 NBA Finals MVP, 1980 NBA MVP, 10-time NBA All-Star, Four-time All-NBA First Team not too bad! Kareem dominated the NBA for two decades and was as smart as any big man ever playing the game.

Jabbar’s prime was in the 1970s, but he was still a monster into the 80s. He had the most unguardable shot in NBA history.

Video: How Good Was Kareem Abdul Jabbar ???

How Good Was Kareem Abdul Jabbar ???

2) Magic Johnson

The Lakers had Kareem when Magic arrived, but before Magic, they always came up short of the finals; with Magic, they seemed to be in the finals every year. Johnson was a five-time NBA Champion, three-time NBA Finals MVP, Two-Time NBA MVP, Seven-time All-NBA First Team, and Nine-time NBA All-Star. Magic could play any position on the court, and Bird and Magic should be number 1 and 1A.

Johnson was a great team leader and was the reason for the Lakers showtime offense. Johnson is still the greatest point guard in NBA history.

Video: Rookie Magic Johnson Full Game 6 Highlights vs 76ers (1980 NBA Finals) - 42 Pts, 15 Reb, FINALS MVP!

Rookie Magic Johnson Full Game 6 Highlights vs 76ers (1980 NBA Finals) – 42 Pts, 15 Reb, FINALS MVP!

1) Larry Bird

Three-time NBA Champion, two-time NBA Finals MVP, Three-time NBA MVP, Nine-time NBA All-Star, Nine-time All-NBA First Team, 1980 Rookie of the Year. Bird is almost always left out of the GOAT conversation, which is ludicrous as Bird, with the help of Magic Johnson, helped the game explode globally. He facilitated the game to everyone around him and made everybody on his team a better player. Bird averaged close to a triple-double for the entire decade.

Bird was easily the top player of this decade as he competed in every season and almost all of his awards were won in this decade, his career would end early in the 90s because of a back injury.

Video: 1980 Rookie Larry Bird

1980 Rookie Larry Bird

Honorable Mentions

Adrian Dantley

Dantley was a scorer in the purest sense. However, he was a liability on defense, and he did not make the players around him any better. But, he was nearly undefendable in the low post.

Alex English

English averaged 26 points per game during the decade, and while he did benefit from the Nuggets fast-paced offense, he was a great scorer, and for the decade, English shot better than 50 percent from the field.

George Gervin

Gervin’s lack of defence is why he ranks so low on this list, but damn, he could score! Winning two scoring titles in the 1980s and averaging 26 points per game for the decade. He made the finger roll a thing back in the day and was one of the smoothest scores in NBA history!

Sidney Moncrief

Moncrief was great on both ends of the floor, and he is one of the most underrated players in NBA history. Moncrief was so good that some people thought he should be picked at number one in the draft over Magic Johnson.

Dominique Wilkins

Wilkins’s performance in 1986 will go down in history as one of the greatest single-season campaigns in NBA history. Of the 78 games Wilkins played, he averaged 30.3 points per game, narrowly edging out the Denver Nuggets, Alex English (29.8 points in 81 games), and Adrian Dantley (29.8 points in 76 games).




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