Every NBA player and fan thinks that their generation of basketball was the best. They all believe that their competition and idols were faster, stronger, and more talented than any other those in other eras. These different opinions make determining which decade of NBA basketball was the best practically impossible. This bares another question; it is even possible to answer such a difficult question?
Maybe not, but we sure are going to try to and before we dive into who is better than whom, we first must establish who we are talking about and how we will rank them.
The NBA was created in 1947, but we are going to skip over the 1950’s for a couple reasons. The league was still in its early stages and teams were moving in and out of the league frequently. Not to mention that there were other leagues such as the American Basketball League (ABL) and the National Basketball League (NBL) that were drawing players to different places, so we will not be able to accurately judge the NBA in the 50’s (sorry George Mikan, you still hold a special place in our basketball hearts).
When we are determining the best generation of the NBA, we will go decade by decade starting with the 1960’s, up until the 2010’s. We now need to establish what these different generations of basketball will be judged by.
Obviously, talent and competition will be the main factors. The number of great players and overall level of play is the main component in judging any sport. However, more specifically to the game of basketball, style and versatility are huge factors as well. This means we will also have to look at how basketball was played in that era and how players would do in different generations. After looking at all of these, we will be able to evaluate an overall grade for the decade and how it would stack up against other eras of the NBA.
Let’s get started.
The 1960s NBA
The 60’s provided the first decade for a fully established NBA and it started to pave the way for the league’s popularity it has today. It boasted stars that we still rave about today, including Jerry “The Logo” West, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, and Bill Russell. These Hall of Famers were the first stars of the game and were great ones. Russell and his legendary Boston Celtics squad, Chamberlain’s 76ers, West and Baylor’s Lakers, and Robertson’s Cincinnati Royals, pitting stars against one another all the time.
Overall competition is an area where the 60’s suffers in relation to other eras of the NBA. Despite all of the stars in the league at the time, there was no relative competition when it came to winning. Of the 11 season that began and/or ended in 60’s, the Boston Celtics won 9 championships, completely dominating the decade in a fashion we still haven’t seen to this day. Those Celtics teams had household names in Russell, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, and were a force to be reckoned with. The Lakers and 76ers/Warriors always gave them a handful, usually pushing the series to 6 or 7 games, but were only able to prevail a combined one time. The NBA in the 60’s had many great players, but most of them played on the same teams.
The 60’s also flounders in terms of style of play, but not by their own doing. Big men like Chamberlain and Russell dominated, so the game was played slow and methodically. Also, the three-point line was not established until the 1979-80 season, so it is hard to judge whether they would be able to shoot with the distance players do in different generations. Due to this, the 60’s are awarded no style points in this debate.
The versatility of the NBA in the 1960’s goes hand-in-hand with its style. Besides not knowing how players could stretch the floor like they do today, the overall athleticism is also a question mark. Basketball in the 60’s was not a very popular sport and we did not always have the cream of the crop players. While this era of players were no slouches, it is hard to say that they would be able to match up well with later generations when talking about versatility.
Overall: Not Bad, but Not Great
This may be the hardest era of NBA basketball to accurately judge. The decade has some incredible players and good teams, but with how different the game would become in terms of the rules and the way it’s played, it is not an easy measurement. Overall, the NBA in the 60’s was good, but I find it hard to say it was the best decade of NBA basketball.
The 1970s NBA
Now we are on the to 70’s. The NBA in the 1970’s was much, much different than its predecessor in all of these categories. The 70’s were still blessed with some incredible players, like the all-time leader in points and rebounds in Lew Alcindor aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, John Havlicheck, “Pistol” Pete Maravich, and Willis Reed, but obviously there are other decades that boasted better stars. Still, those guys are no slouches. Despite playing more than 40 years ago, Kareem, Pistol Pete, and Dr. J still impact the game and its’ players today.
Also unlike the 60’s, the NBA in the 70’s was the most even across the board in the leagues’ history. The NBA champion changed almost every year due to the fact there still weren’t a ton of teams and it was harder for players to move around from team to team. While this was good for the league in having competitive games, it also makes the 70’s not that memorable. It seems that over the course of the NBA’s history that the league is best when there are several good teams at the top, something that the 70’s cannot say it had.
The 70’s did begin to show signs of a more modern NBA. Kareem and others showed how single players can dominate games and win them for their team, similar to how stars in later generations would do. The 3-point line was still not created until the beginning of the next decade, so it is another era that’s unable to be judged by perimeter shooting. However, it also attests to how players like Kareem and Dr. J could still score despite not having a 3-point shot available.
Honestly, I really do like the versatility I believe the stars of the 70’s would be able to bring to all other eras. Kareem dominated in the 70’s and into the 80’s and would be the best big man in the game today. The 70’s also had the grit the middle generations did, along with the talent and finesse the later generations have. Obviously, we will never know the truth, but I do believe those great players would be able to play in any era. On the flip side, I believe that the generation overall is weak and only those Hall of Famers would be able to do so.
I hate, and I mean hate, to have to rank any era of NBA basketball as “lackluster.” Every era has its strengths, which is not untrue for the 70’s in the NBA. They had incredible, versatile players and changed the direction of the NBA. The problem really lies in two things: the lack of modern NBA rules and regulations (aka 3-point line), as well as the overall depth. NBA teams in the 70’s weren’t great and that is not due to a Hall of Famer being on every team, it is because there just were not as many talented players up and down the rosters. The 70’s were good, I do not deny that, but when compared to the other generations, the 70’s fall short.
The 1980s NBA
The 1980’s era of the NBA had no shortage of star power, headlined by two of the greatest players in the leagues’ history: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The Magic/Bird rivalry originated in college and created the best head-to-head matchup the league has ever seen. Many people know all about this duo and all they accomplished, which includes nearly 20 All-Star appearances, 8 NBA Championships, and 6 MVP awards. What I want to add is that these were not the only two stars of NBA in the 80’s. Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas, Moses Malone, Dominque Wilkins, and others dominated as well. Not to mention the 80’s also included the front-end of some incredible careers that Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and some others (to be named later). Star power is something the NBA had plenty of in the 1980’s.
It would be easy to say that the overall competition of the NBA in the 1980’s was lopsided if you only look at who won the championships. The Lakers and Celtics combined to win 8 out of 11 of them, making it seem like there were no other contenders in the decade. On the contrary, there were several teams that rose to be strong challengers. Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, and Philadelphia 76ers proved to be worthy early in the decade, where they reached three Finals appearances and won the championship in 1983. Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson helped build a future contender in the Houston Rockets despite only reaching the Finals once in the decade. The end of the 80’s belonged to the Isiah Thomas led “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons, who reached the Finals in each of the last three seasons and won the last two championships of the decade. Despite only two teams winning a majority of the championships, the 80’s provided many more incredible teams than they let on.
The style of basketball in the 80’s was very different than any others. Great teams consisted of dominating players who made the players around them better. Players like Magic, Bird, and Thomas all were also incredible playmakers along with being great scorers. This is the type of game that those teams showed as a whole: they played smart, team basketball. On the defensive side of the ball, players played hard and sometimes just down-right mean. Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, and Charles Barkley used strength and grit to impose their force. The NBA style of the 80’s is something to marvel at.
Here is a (the only) place I am not so high on this decade of the NBA. They had incredible players and teams, but I also see each of those having problems in later eras. Magic was an incredible scorer and playmaker but was only a lifetime 30% three-point shooter, something that would have made him a liability in today’s game. Bird could seemingly do it all, but also had athleticism and durability problems that may have been more exposed as players began to become more athletic. Having an offensive game is a must in today’s game, so guys like Laimbeer and Rodman would have had some real work to do. I am not saying these Hall of Famers for sure could not make the transition to other generations of basketball, but it is fair to question their versatility.
Overall: Incredible. Just, Incredible.
The 80’s NBA is a time in the league usually regarded very highly in the minds of players and fans. It had awesome star players, great teams, outstanding rivalries, and the game had incredible offensive skills to go along with tough defense. It truly was one of the best generations of basketball that the NBA has to offer and was undoubtedly the time when basketball became a prominent sport in the United States. Without the 80’s NBA we might not have gotten the chance to talk so much and so highly about the next few generations of basketball.
The 1990s NBA
The NBA in the 1990’s can be described in two words. Actually, two letters: M-J. Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls rallied off not one, but two three-peats in the decade alone. However, what I am not going to do is harp on MJ’s star power and what he did for the league because I think we all are already aware of his greatness. Rather, I want to give credit to the many other stars that a part of the era. Jordan’s teammate Scottie Pippen is one of the most underrated players of all-time due to MJ’s presence. Jazz teammates and Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone basically made the pick-and-roll essential to basketball success. Olajuwon solidified himself as one of the best players of all-time. Penny Hardaway and a young man named Shaquille O’Neal were also members of this era. While Jordan was the biggest and best star of the 90’s, there were plenty more guys to make it an extremely solid class of talent.
Just like the 80’s, the overall competition was great despite there only being a few champions. The Bulls won the majority of the Finals, but each the Eastern and Western conference had their fair share of talent. Chicago had to go through one of the best teams to never win a championship in Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks. Another seldom talked about team because of the Bulls were Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers would get to the Eastern Conference Finals four times in the 90 ’s, but would never win the championship. They finally made a Finals appearance in 2000. It was a fight every year in the West to get a spot in the Finals, with 8 different teams making it there. Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers made it to the Finals in 1990 and 1992 but were never able to win the championship. As previously mentioned, Olajuwon and the Rockets were able to win back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995 by capitalizing on Jordan’s absence while he was playing baseball. Next up was Stockton, Malone, and the Utah Jazz, who fell in the Finals to the Bulls in 1997 and 1998. Chicago was the dynasty of the decade, but there were challenged every year by many different competitors.
The 1990’s created the up-tempo style and pace of basketball we see today. Guards like Jordan, Stockton, Hardaway, and Gary Payton pushed the ball in transition in order create easier buckets. Phil Jackson’s triangle offense changed basketball by giving MJ the chance to create for himself, a system that would work in the next decade for a different team. The Stockton/Malone pick-and-roll was so sweet, teams are still trying to replicate it to this day. The 1990’s offensive style was one of the defining factors in basketball history. However, I will have to call the defense a little suspect. Yes, it was still physical when it came to guys like Ewing and Rodman, but the defense of the 90’s is a little lopsided. MJ, Payton, and Scottie Pippen were all premier defenders, but it does seem like the defense had not caught up with the offensive firepower of the decade.
The 90’s and its stars would have been some of the most versatile players we had ever seen. Olajuwon’s footwork and finesse are unmatched by any big man in NBA history. Jordan was scoring against athletes in the 80’s and 90’s, imagine if he was playing against those in the two prior decades, or if he would have had the hand-checking fouls that the later generations’ scorers had: he would have been unguardable. The stars of the 90’s in the NBA would have been able to easily transition into any other era.
Overall: Amazing, Game-Changing, and Every Other Word in the Book.
I know I have downplayed how great Michael Jordan was to show what else the era had to offer, but he was really, really good. He changed the game forever with his play and brand, something no other player in history can match (there may be a couple competitors for this spot, but never mind that for now). Him, the other superstars, and great teams made NBA basketball what is today in almost every way, on and off the court. To sum it up, when it comes to a decade of the NBA best for players and fans, it is hard to say any other is the better than the 1990’s.
The 2000s NBA
The 2000’s NBA provided another rivalry between two star-studded teams, this time in the same conference. Headlined by young #8 Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, the Los Angeles Lakers pulled off a three-peat to start the decade and then #24 Kobe would later lead Pau Gasol and L.A to two more at the end of the 2000’s. While the Lakers dominated the era, they had to go toe-to-toe with future and current Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and the rest of the talented San Antonio Spurs team. That Spurs team would challenge the Lakers to come out of the West year in and year out and win three championships of their own in the decade. One different aspect of the 2000’s star players was that there were several incredible guards who did not find much post-season success. Allen Iverson was one of most prolific scorers of all-time, but his 76ers team never did better than losing the Finals (which only happened once). Due to injuries and lackluster teams, another great scorer in Tracy McGrady never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. The 2000’s were filled with incredible big-men around the league in Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki, although they would all only have mild success in the post-season as well. While there were many great stars in the 2000’s, it does seem like most played on the same teams or were spread out around the league.
Besides the two powerhouses in the Lakers and Spurs of the era, there were several other very good teams in the 2000’s. The Detroit Pistons, consisting of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben and Rasheed Wallace, went to six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals and won it all in 2004. Jason Kidd’s New Jersey Nets went to back-to-back Finals in 02’ and 03’. Hall of Famers Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joined Paul Pierce in Boston at the end of the 2000’s, winning one and losing one championship in the Finals. Back-to-back MVP winner Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns got to Finals in 04 and 05, only to be defeated. Not a lot of great teams, but the decade did sport a couple elite and a few contender teams.
Scorers like Kobe, McGrady, Iverson, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony really embody the style and mentality of the NBA in the 2000s; that scoring matters most. This is the first era the hand-checking rule was instilled, so players were able to get easier baskets and get to the foul line more often. Offenses were able to be run through isolation plays, something coach Phil Jackson let Kobe dominate in his triangle offense that Jordan had used the previous decade. This style of basketball may have been around in the 80’s and 90’s, but with new rules and new types of players, the 2000’s NBA players were able to perfect it.
Here is where playing with hand-checking hurts the decade. Could someone as small as Iverson be as dominant if he had been able to get pushed around more? While this argument is futile for any scorer of the generation, it does bring up the question of if the 2000’s guards were as “tough” as previous generations. While that may be true, I believe that the big men of the 2000’s would have flourished in any generation. Shaq, KG, and Howard had the quickness to go along with strength in the low-post and would have given centers in any generation problems. Dirk and Stoudemire’s shooting range would have drawn slower big guys out to the perimeter, where they could have blown by them. The versatility of the era is a wash in my mind since I believe the guards of the 2000’s would have struggled while the big men would have held their own.
Overall: Flashy and Fun, but not Elite.
The 2000’s era of the NBA definitely had something for everyone in it. It had prolific scoring guards, dominant centers, a great rivalry in the West between the Lakers and Spurs, and several other excellent players and teams. However, I just do not think it stacks up to the premier decades of NBA when it comes to the purest eras of basketball. Other eras had more stars, more great teams, (maybe) tougher defenses, and played the game differently. The 2000’s might be one of the best decades of the NBA to the casual fan or to someone who group up watching it, but there were other times in the leagues’ history where the game was better.
The 2010s NBA
Now onto the current era of the NBA. The 2010’s, while not finished yet, have had its fair share of star power already. Headlining those stars is none other than LeBron James, the only player who can challenge Jordan’s presence on and off the court. While he was drafted in 2003 and dominated the previous era statistically, it wouldn’t be until this decade would he find overall success. LeBron has been to every Final since 2011 and may be headed there again this post-season. He has also taken home three MVP awards and is Top-5 in MVP voting every single year. When it comes to all-around players, LeBron is the whole package. However, there are several other stars in the era that deserve recognition. Kevin Durant will go down as one of the best small forwards ever, falling short of only LeBron and Larry Bird. Durant’s teammate Steph Curry has revolutionized the game of basketball with his style of play, one that earned him back-to-back MVP awards in 2015 and 2016. Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul (who is still killing it in the NBA) all dominated in this era and are all perennial Hall of Famers, while others like James Harden and Russell Westbrook are looking to fill their resumes for that same honor.
Oddly, the overall competition of the NBA in the 2010’s looks better on paper than it really is. LeBron led Wade, Chris Bosh, and Miami Heat to the Finals four straight years (picking up two championships) before going back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have represented the East every year since 2015 and won it all in 2014. Those two Lebron-ran teams have not had great competition, facing five different teams in seven years. The West is essentially the same, except with Kevin Durant. While with Westbrook and Harden playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant went to at least the Western Conference Finals four times between 2011 and 2016. After Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green beat OKC and Durant to go to back-to-back Finals appearances in 15’ and 16’, Durant joined the team and helped them win it all in 2017. While there have been four or five good teams in the decade, it almost only mattered which team LeBron and Durant were on.
“Splash Brothers” Steph Curry and Klay Thompson represent the style of basketball in the NBA today, where perimeter shooting is something every great player and a good team must have. Teams up and down the league are looking for shooters all the time because of how they space the floor and make room for other players. Even LeBron developed a better jump shot over time so that he could become the most complete player in the world. 7-footers like Durant, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins all have capable three-point shots despite their height. Speaking of big men, the bruiser center position of previous decades has all but become extinct at this point, mostly due to shooting and how they are referred. The style of the NBA in the 2010’s completely moved out of the paint and beyond the 3-point line.
I love the versatility most of the 2010’s has to offer. To start with, there is no decade LeBron James would not excel in. He has the talent, strength, and basketball IQ to play in the 60s, 70, and 80s, along with the skill, touch, and finesse to a player in any more recent decade. Durant would be such an anomaly in other areas that defenses would have no idea how to guard him. Other big guys like Davis, Cousins, and Joel Embiid would be able to play tougher interior defense and stretch out slower centers on offense because of their shooting ability. The only part of the decade I see having a problem is the smaller guards like Curry and Paul. With hand-checking and a more physical style of play, they would have had a tougher time getting their own shot and finishing at the rim. I still believe they could be successful in other decades, they would just have a tougher time. Overall, the 2010’s has great versatility through the history of the NBA.
Overall: Incomplete, but Shaping up to be Pretty Good.
While the decade is not over, it looks like the 2010’s will one of the better eras. It has LeBron and other great stars that would do very well in any part of NBA history. The style of the NBA, which it is more centered around shooting, will be trendsetting for years to come in the league. The only part of this generation that really is not good is how there were only a couple good teams because of only a few incredible players. Overall, it is a good decade that is only going to get better.
My Best NBA Decade Rankings