Top 10 1980s NBA Basketball Players

Top 10 1980s NBA Basketball Players

The 1980s was an amazing decade for the NBA, with some of the greatest players of all-time playing during this time. In fact, many basketball historians argue that the excellence of these players saved the NBA from its dwindling popularity. Below, the top ten 1980s NBA players are ranked and discussed.

Disclaimer: Note that the 1980s decade was considered to be from the 1979-80 season to the 1988-89 season, and any statistics mentioned encompass only those seasons. 


Who are the best NBA basketball players of the ‘80s?

  1. Magic Johnson
  2. Larry Bird
  3. Moses Malone
  4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  5. Michael Jordan
  6. Isiah Thomas
  7. Julius Erving
  8. Dominique Wilkins
  9. Kevin McHale
  10. Adrian Dantley

1. Magic Johnson

  • 2-time Regular Season MVP
  • 3-time Finals MVP
  • 9-time All-Star

One of the greatest players in NBA history, regardless of decade, Earvin “Magic” Johnson comes in at number one on this list. Johnson’s first season in the NBA was the 1979-80 season, and he played his entire career with the Los Angeles Lakers. Throughout the course of the 1980s, Johnson finished 1st in assists, 2nd in steals, 12th in points scored, and 14th in rebounds. In fact, Johnson led the NBA in assists four times and steals two times. As far as assists, not only was Magic number one, but he had almost 2,000 more than Isiah Thomas, who had the second most. 

In addition to his statistics, Magic won lots of awards in recognition of his great play. He made the All-Star team nine times, won the regular season Most Valuable Player (MVP) award twice, and was voted onto an All-NBA team eight times. Lastly, what really sets Magic apart was his postseason success. Of the ten championships in the 1980s, Magic and the Lakers won five of them, with Magic being a key contributor each time. In three of the championship instances, Johnson was named MVP of the NBA Finals (1980, 1982, 1987). After his career was complete, Magic was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.

2. Larry Bird

  • 3-time Regular Season MVP
  • 9-time All-Star
  • 2-time Finals MVP

Undoubtedly Magic Johnson’s greatest rival, Larry Bird is the number two ranked player on this list. Larry came into the NBA the same year as Magic (1979-80 season), and he played his entire career for the Boston Celtics, the archrival of the Lakers. During the 1980s, all ten NBA Finals either had Larry’s Celtics or Magic’s Lakers participating in them, and they matched up directly on three occasions, with the Lakers winning two of the three matchups

As for Bird’s statistics, he finished in the top ten of all players in points, rebounds, assists, and steals for the 1980s. These numbers led him to be named regular season MVP three times, making nine All-Star game appearances, and being voted onto nine All-NBA teams. Larry was also recognized for his defensive ability, being voted onto an All-Defensive team three times. Lastly, Larry’s Celtics won three NBA championships during the 1980s, and he was named MVP on two of those occasions. Bird was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998.

3. Moses Malone

  • Led all players in the 1980s in total rebounds
  • 2-time Regular Season MVP
  • 10-time All-Star

One of the greatest rebounders in NBA history, the number three ranked player of the ‘80s, is Moses Malone. During the 1980s, Malone played for the Houston Rockets (1979-1982), the Philadelphia 76ers (1982-1986), the Washington Bullets (1986-1988), and played the final season of the decade for the Atlanta Hawks. For the decade, Malone led all players in total rebounds (10,269), as well as finishing 2nd in total points and 14th in blocked shots. Moses was such an outstanding rebounder that in five of the ten 1980s seasons, he led the NBA in that category. 

All of these metrics led to being named to seven All-NBA teams, making ten All-Star games, and winning the regular season MVP award two times during the decade. Lastly, while Moses was with the 76ers, he helped to lead them to the NBA title in 1983 and was named Finals MVP. In recognition of his greatness, Malone was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. 

4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  • 6-time All-NBA team selection
  • 3-time All-Defensive team selection
  • 10-time All-Star

A player who would assuredly check-in at number one on a list of the greatest ‘70s basketball players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still ranks number four on this '80s list. Kareem spent the entirety of the 1980s decade playing alongside Magic Johnson on the Lakers. While he was well into the second half of his career at this point (he was drafted in 1969), Kareem still managed to put up some incredible numbers. Kareem ranks 5th in total points, 3rd in blocked shots, and 9th in total rebounds for the 1980s. In 1980, Kareem led the NBA in blocked shots for the season. 

As for his awards, Kareem made the All-Star team in all ten seasons and was voted onto six All-NBA teams and three All-Defensive teams. Since he was with Magic and the Lakers for the entire decade, Kareem won five championships in the '80s and was named MVP of the finals in 1985. In 1989, Kareem retired at the conclusion of the decade and was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.

5. Michael Jordan

  • Averaged 32.6 points per game during the '80s
  • 1988 Regular Season MVP and Defensive Player of the Year
  • 4-time All-NBA team selection

Just as Kareem would be number on a list of the greatest ‘70s players, Michael Jordan would certainly come in at number one on a list of greatest ‘90s players. On this list, despite not being in the NBA for half of the ‘80s decade, Jordan still comes in at number. MJ was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984, with whom he played until 1998. While Jordan did not play enough to crack the top 25 in any statistical category for the decade except steals (18th), he still put up some incredible numbers when he played. In his five seasons, Jordan averaged 32.6 points, 2.8 steals, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.9 assists. Those 32.6 points per game would by far have been the highest of any scorer in the ‘80s if he had played the whole decade, and his 2.8 steals ranked second among all players on a per-game basis. 

Jordan racked up some impressive awards during this time, winning the regular season MVP and defensive player of the year awards in 1988, making five All-Star teams, four All-NBA teams, and two All-Defensive teams. While Jordan would go on to make his name in the ‘90s as far as postseason success, some of his best statistical seasons took place in the '80s. After his career, Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.

6. Isiah Thomas

  • 8-time All-Star
  • 5-time All-NBA team selection
  • Led NBA in assists in 1985

Often being in the shadow of Magic Johnson due to them playing the same position, Isiah Thomas is this list’s number six ranked player. Thomas was drafted in 1981 by the Detroit Pistons and spent his entire career there. Despite not being in the NBA for the first two seasons of the decade, Thomas still finished 2nd in assists, 4th in steals, and 18th in total points. In the 1984-85 season, Thomas led the entire league in assists. 

Thomas managed to make eight All-Star games, five All-NBA teams, and was a member of the All-Rookie team during his first season. Finally, Isiah helped to lead the Pistons to the first of back-to-back championships in the final season of the decade in 1989, defeating Magic and the Lakers in the finals. While he did not win the Finals MVP award in 1989, Isaiah was still a key contributor, and when the team won again in 1990, he was named Finals MVP. After he retired, Isiah made the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000. 

7. Julius Erving

  • 8-time All-Star
  • 5-time All-NBA team selection
  • 1981 NBA Regular Season MVP

Another player who would be on a list of the greatest ‘70s players, Julius Erving comes in at number seven on this '80s list. Nicknamed “Dr. J,” Erving played with the Philadelphia 76ers for his entire NBA career before retiring following the 1986-87 season. Despite being retired for the final two seasons of the decade, Dr. J still managed to finish the '80s in the top 15 in both points scored and steals. 

His talent helped him to make the All-Star team all eight seasons he played; he was voted to five All-NBA teams and was voted MVP of the regular season after the 1980-81 season. Lastly, while he was teamed up with the aforementioned Moses Malone, Erving helped to lead the 76ers to an NBA championship in 1983. Dr. J was an integral part of the team's championship run. In 1993, he was enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

8. Dominique Wilkins

  • 4-time All-Star
  • 4-time All-NBA team selection
  • Led NBA in scoring for the 1985-86 season

Dominique Wilkins was always in the shadow of Michael Jordan, as they played the same position. Despite this fact, Dominique still is the number eight ranked player on this list. Wilkins was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 1982 and played in Atlanta for the rest of the '80s. His greatness was recognized early on when he was named to the All-Rookie team following his first season in 1983. Even though he only played seven of the ten seasons, Dominique was still the 7th highest scorer in this time frame. During the 1985-86 season, he led the entire league in scoring. 

His scoring prowess led to him making four All-Star games and four All-NBA teams in his seven seasons in the ‘80s. Moreover, Dominique was almost always available to play for the Hawks, playing in 97% (559 out of 574) of the Hawks’ regular season games from 1982-1989. Once his career was complete, Wilkins was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

9. Kevin McHale

  • 5-time All-Defensive team selection
  • 5-time All-Star
  • 3-time NBA Champion

One of Larry Bird’s most important teammates, Kevin McHale, checks in as the number nine ranked player. McHale played his entire career for the Boston Celtics after being drafted by them in 1980. For the decade, McHale finished in the top 20 in rebounds and points scored as well as 6th in blocked shots. A big contributor on the defensive end of the court, McHale was voted onto an All-Defensive team five times. Moreover, he made five All-Star teams and the All-NBA First team for the 1986-87 season. 

Early in his career, the Celtics used McHale as a key weapon off of their bench, and this helped him to win two 6th Man of the Year awards. The 6th Man of the Year is given annually to the best player who does not usually start games and instead comes off the bench. Lastly, McHale was a key contributor to the three championships the Celtics won during the '80s, and after his career was over, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

10. Adrian Dantley

  • 6-time All-Star
  • Led league in scoring two times in the decade
  • 2-time All-NBA team selection

The final member of this list is one of the '80s best scorers, Adrian Dantley. Dantley began the '80s playing for the Utah Jazz (1979-1986), then he joined Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons (1986-1989), and lastly, he was traded midway through the 1988-89 season, so he finished the decade with the Dallas Mavericks. Dantley ended the '80s with the 3rd most points scored, and he averaged the most points per game of the top 25 scorers at 26.5 points per game. With all of the scoring he did, it should be no surprise that Dantley twice led the league in that category in 1981 and 1984. Dantley was a participant in six All-Star games and made two All-NBA teams. Unfortunately, Dantley was never able to win an NBA championship (he would have won with the Pistons in 1989 if he had not been traded), but his scoring ability was outstanding enough to get him on this list. He made it into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

Honorable Mentions

  • Mark Aguirre
  • Charles Barkley
  • Walter Davis
  • Darryl Dawkins
  • Clyde Drexler
  • Alex English
  • Patrick Ewing
  • George Gervin
  • Marques Johnson
  • Dennis Johnson
  • Bernard King
  • Bill Laimbeer
  • Karl Malone
  • Sydney Moncrief
  • Hakeem Olajuwon
  • Mark Price
  • Michael Richardson Ray
  • Ralph Sampson
  • Jack Sikma
  • Buck Williams

FAQ

Who was the best basketball player of the ‘80s?

Most would argue that the best basketball player of the '80s was Magic Johnson. Magic finished in the top 15 in points scored, assists (#1), steals, and rebounds out of all players for the decade, so he certainly filled up the stat sheet. Moreover, his five championships really help to stand out in addition to his statistics. What really helps to put Magic above Bird in most people’s minds is the fact that in their three NBA finals matchups, Magic came out on top twice.

Who scored the most points in the ‘80s?

During the 1980s, Alex English scored the most points, with 21,018 points scored. While he did make the honorable mention list, it goes to show just how good basketball was in the 1980s that the player who scored the most points didn’t make a top ten players list. English benefited from playing on a team that played at a really fast pace, allowing him to score more points. Out of the top 25 scorers in the decade, Adrian Dantley scored the most on a per-game basis at 26.5.

Who was the last NBA player from the ‘80s still playing?

The last two players who were drafted in the 1980s to play in the NBA were Kevin Willis (drafted in 1984) and Clifford Robinson (drafted in 1989). Both of them played their final game in 2007, Willis on April 18th and Robinson on April 29th. Kevin Willis' 21 seasons played is tied for the 2nd most all-time, only behind Vince Carter’s 22. Willis is tied with Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, and Robert Parish in that regard.