Every decade in American history has some sort of defining characteristic. The 1930s, for example, almost always conjures thoughts of the Great Depression, while the '50s are known for the Cold War and huge communism scare.
Likewise, each NBA decade was defined by certain players, moments and teams. But it is the players first and foremost that leave their mark on different eras. The athletes drive the NBA.
So, when I decided to rank every decade the NBA has seen. I went with talent as my criteria more so than anything else.
The following is that list, counting down from worst to best.
I included the 40s with the 50s since the NBA’s first year ended during 1947. This decade suffered from the fact that the NBA was just starting up. It was not yet popular enough to attract the big-time athletes of America. When the league first started, it featured 11 different teams, but by the time the 50s came to an end, only eight remained.
The three biggest names from this era were the league’s first three real superstars: George Mikan, Bob Cousy and Bob Pettit. Without these three, the league may have not survived. Besides this trio, some notable names from the era included Dolph Schayes, Bill Sharman, Paul Arizin, Joe Fulks and Neil Johnston.
After an encouraging 1960s in which the NBA’s talent pool drew dramatically and greatly increased the league’s popularity, the '70s nearly sunk it. The only true mega-stars of the NBA were John Havlicek, who led Boston to two titles, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won five MVPs in the decade.
Besides them, there were some other really big names like Moses Malone, Bill Walton and Julius Erving, but Malone and Erving spent their time in the ABA until the '76-'77 season, and Walton just couldn’t stay healthy.
The combination of the ABA, drug problems and a lack of equal talent from the '60s almost derailed the NBA in the '70s, but the league held strong. Other stars from this decade include Earl Monroe, Dave Cowens, Rick Barry, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld.
This decade had a little bit of a dry run in the early years that spilled over from the late nineties. Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan owned the league, with Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter trying to play catch-up.
The middle and end of the decade, however, brought in one of the greatest young talent crops ever seen. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Kevin Love, among others, have already made their mark early and are poised to make 2010-2019 one of the best decades ever.
The '60s is definitely the most underrated decade. I was this close to putting them No. 2, and I even briefly considered placing them on top. Just look at the all-time legends who dominated the '60s: Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek, Willis Reed, Sam Jones and Jerry Lucas.
This decade also saw the ends of Cousy’s and Pettit’s careers, when they were not too far off from their primes of the '50s. Also, the beginning of Rick Barry’s, when he, in consecutive years, won rookie of the year and led the league in scoring before leaving for the ABA for a few seasons.
And that’s before you even get to Dave Debusschere and Nate Thurmond. This was truly a special time for the NBA, but our culture is one that frequently forgets the past. Had we just witnessed the '60s, the decade would be held in a much higher regard.
Well, this decade featured the best player ever in his absolute prime, so the '90s automatically get bonus points for that. It also marked the turning point of the best generation ever, when they matured from young phenoms to NBA legends (that generation is the mid-'80s through the late '90s: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing and essentially David Robinson).
Had the '90s continued this kind of talent run throughout the decade, I would have put them at No. 1. But, the generation of mid-'90s through the mid-2000s was one of the weakest ones in league history. There was basically just Shaq, Chris Webber, Gary Payton, Grant Hill and Jason Kidd, and that’s not too strong of a list.
After it looked like the league was heading downhill fast during a not-so-great 1970s, the '80s saved the NBA. Some top-tier talent from the '70s carried over, like Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Gervin. Then Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joined the league in the very early '80s and combined to win eight championships in the first nine seasons of the decade.
Combine all the greats that joined in the mid-'80s listed above and many others who dominated despite playing in such a talent-heavy era, like Dominique Wilkins, Isiah Thomas, Bernard King, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, James Worthy, Andrian Dantley and Alex English, and you’ve got not just the best NBA decade ever, but one of the best in all of sports. From start to finish, the league was overflowing with talent in the '80s.