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Legends of the NBA: 25 Best Players of the 80s

Peter EmerickSenior Writer IIJanuary 10, 2017

Legends of the NBA: 25 Best Players of the 80s

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    From the beginning of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler's illustrious careers to the dominance of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the 1980s was one of the most memorable decades in NBA history.

    In a decade filled with Hall of Famers and NBA legends, selecting the best 25 players is no easy task, but it's certainly possible.

    To be considered for this list, a player must have played at least five seasons during the 1980s—which are defined as the 1979-80 through the 1988-89 seasons.

    Ahead is a breakdown of the best 25 players to play during the 1980s. 

Players Who Just Missed the Cut

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    Clyde Drexler, SF, Portland Trail Blazers: 1984-1989 (Six Seasons)

    Clyde "the glide" Drexler barely missed the cut because the best days of his careers came well into the 1990s, when he was on his way to winning the 1995 NBA title and racking up NBA All-Star appearances like they were going out of style.

    Drexler's production during the 1980s of 19.9 points and 5.9 rebounds is certainly warranting of being on this list, but his production during the 1990s was more impressive because it included helping his team win not only games, but also a championship.

     

    Karl Malone, PF, Utah Jazz: 1986-1989 (Four Seasons) 

    Karl Malone didn't make the cut simply because he only played four seasons in the NBA during the 1980s.

    With that being said, it needs to be noted that he accumulated averages of 23.4 points and 10.5 rebounds, which is absolutely ridiculous considering they were during his first four years in the league.

     

    Artis Gilmore, C, San Antonio Spurs: 1980-1988 (Nine Seasons)

    Artis "A-train" Gilmore was a dominant, 7'2'' center for the Spurs during the 1980s. But after the 1985-86 season, his production took a major hit.

    The most productive days of his career came during the 1970s, and while he was still a solid center in the 1980s, there are just too many players who are more deserving of being on the list ahead of him. 

25. Mark Aguirre, G/F, Dallas Mavericks

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    1980's Stats: 23.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 44.1 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1982-1989 (eight seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: 1989 NBA Champion, three-time NBA All-Star

    Mark Aguirre was a very prolific scorer back in the day, but the only problem with his scoring  was that it came at a non-efficient rate.

    If Aguirre had developed more efficiency in his mid-range game, Aguirre could have helped the Mavericks, with Rolando Blackman, be a more dangerous team out in the Western Conference.

    There's no doubt that Aguirre was one of the most prolific scorers of the 1980s, but like a number of other players, his talents were best displayed individually and not in light of the success he brought to his team overall. Aguirre's lone NBA title came when he joined the Detroit Pistons in 1989, showing that he just couldn't get that elusive ring alone. 

24. Walter Davis, G/F, Phoenix Suns

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    1980's Stats: 18.6 PPG, 4.2 APG 50.7 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Four-time NBA All-Star

    Walter Davis is the Phoenix Suns' all-time scoring leader, with an impressive total of 15,666 points.

    While Davis was efficient at facilitating the ball to his teammates, the strongest part of his game was his absolutely pure stroke from anywhere inside the three-point line.

    Unfortunately, Davis' career was held back by issues with drugs that ultimately landed him in court, testifying against other Suns players in exchange for immunity from his charges. It's a shame that Davis' career took such a turn, because if it hadn't, there's no reason why he couldn't be a Hall-of-Fame player. 

23. Marques Johnson, G/F, Milwaukee Bucks

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    1980's Stats: 19.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 50.5 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1987 (eight seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Four-time NBA All-Star, Two-time All-NBA Second Team

    Marques Johnson is best known for being LeBron James before there was a LeBron James by playing the "point forward" position.

    Johnson was without a doubt one of the best "slash" forwards in the NBA during the 1980s, but his career met an untimely end due to a neck injury he sustained after he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers.

    Johnson consistently dominated larger forwards because of his athleticism and the versatility that defined his game. Unfortunately for Johnson, he never played with the kind of talent that could help take his career to the next level, and that's why he barely cracked the top 20 of this list. 

22. Ralph Sampson, C, Houston Rockets

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    1980's Stats: 17.3 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 47.1 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1984-1989 (six seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Four-time NBA All-Star, 1984 NBA Rookie of the Year

    Even with a near double-double average during the 1980s, Ralph Sampson never really reached his full potential in the NBA, and that was because he was never a great "team player."

    Sampson was a soaring 7'4'', yet he only weighed 224 pounds. That lack of size hurt Sampson and his durability down the stretch of his career. While Sampson certainly put up impressive numbers, he relied too much on his size and not enough on developing into a true leader for his team.

    The three-time Naismith College Player of the Year had lofty expectations that he never reached, and the fact that he's still in the list of the top 25 players of the 1980s shows just how high those expectations were. 

21. Bill Laimbeer, C, Detroit Pistons

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    1980's Stats: 13.3 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 50.8 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1981-1989 (nine seasons) 

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: 1989 NBA Champion, Four-time NBA All-Star

    The first word that comes to mind when you hear the name Bill Laimbeer should be tenacious because that's exactly the kind of player he was every minute of every game he ever played.

    Laimbeer didn't set the NBA world on fire with his explosive athleticism, but he showed the world that you can make a living in the NBA by outworking everyone around you and playing the game in an intelligent and balanced way.

    Laimbeer's success on the court has led to a successful coaching career in the NBA, and that just shows how intelligent of a player he was during his days holding down the frontcourt for the Detroit Pistons. Without Laimbeer, the Pistons and Isiah Thomas would have never claimed the 1989 NBA title because his physicality was at the foundation of their identity in a very competitive Eastern Conference. 

20. Dennis Johnson, G, Boston Celtics

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    1980's Stats: 15.2 PPG, 5.6 APG, 45.7 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Two-time NBA Champion, Four-time NBA All-Star, 1981 All-NBA First Team, Five-time NBA All-Defensive First Team

    Dennis Johnson is the definition of a team player. No matter what the Celtics asked of him, he was always ready to do it.

    If it meant locking down the opponent's best player or controlling the pace of the game, Johnson was constantly willing to lay down his individual success for the betterment of his team, and that's what made him such a successful player.

    While his production might not be as impressive as other players on this list, the fact that he's a five-time NBA all-defensive first team member speaks for itself when it comes to the focus and intensity that he brought to the court day in and day out.

    Johnson was a special player. A player that any coach would love to have on their team. 

19. Michael Ray Richardson, G/F, New Jersey Nets

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    1980's Stats: 16.1 PPG, 7.6 APG, 5.8 RPG

    Years Played in the 1980s: 1980-1986 (Seven Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Four-time NBA All-Star, Two-time NBA All-Defensive First Team

    Michael Ray Richardson was one of the most complete players back in the day. He was efficient on offense, and at the same time, he was also an extremely hard-nosed and focused defender.

    One of the reasons why Richardson's career didn't reach another level was because of the lack of talent that existed around him. If Richardson had some help he could have been an elite player, but he was stuck on a Nets team that didn't have much top-tier talent.

    Even in this decade, Richardson's balanced production would earn him a spot in the top 25 because he was a physical guard in an era where the physicality of the game was unmatched. 

18. Bernard King, F, New York Knicks

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    1980's Stats: 21.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 53.1 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Three-time NBA All-Star, 1985 NBA Scoring Champion, Two-time All-NBA First Team

    Bernard King did some incredible things during his career, like averaging 32.9 points per game during a season and shooting above 50 percent for his career. Yet shockingly enough, Bernard King is not a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

    The reason why King isn't in the Hall of Fame is the same reason why he's not higher on this list, and it's because his individual success never translated into team success.

    King was a great player in his own right, but to achieve that next level of success and enter the realm of the truly elite, a player must be able to make players around him better and that wasn't King's strength. His strength was showing his own skill on the court, and that was about it. 

17. Sydney Moncrief, G, Milwaukee Bucks: 1980-1989

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    1980's Stats: 16.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.9 APG, 49.9 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons) 

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Five-time NBA All-Star, 1983 All-NBA First Team

    Sydney Moncrief quietly dominated the 1980s, and he did so on both sides of the ball. On offense, he was an efficient slashing guard, and on the defensive side of the ball, he was an absolute force to be reckoned with.

    Moncrief was an above-average player on offense and a tenacious defender. He's certainly deserving of being right in the middle of this list, but his lack of explosive offensive production keeps him right there. 

    Moncrief couldn't get his Milwaukee Bucks to that next level, and that's also a major reason why he's not higher on this list. If Moncrief had some more help on his team, his legacy in the NBA could have been different. But where he stands now, he's one of greatest Bucks to ever play the game and he's also one of the best players of the 1980s.

16. Jack Sikma, C, Seattle Supersonics: 1980-1989

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    1980's Stats: 16.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Six-time NBA All-Star, 1982 NBA All-Defensive Second Team

    While Jack Sikma might be beest known for his blonde hair, he was one of the most efficient and productive centers to play the game during the 1980s.

    Aside from being consistent on both ends of the ball, Sikma also happened to be the only seven footer in NBA history to lead the league in free-throw percentage (92.2 percent) back in 1988.

    His pure stroke didn't end there, though. Sikma also was a proficient three-point shooter, shooting 32.8 percent for his career with more than 200 attempts. Sikma is without a doubt the best NBA center you've never heard of, and he just so happened to dominate during the 1980s, when there were a number of franchise centers holding their own. 

15. Charles Barkley, PF, Philadelphia 76ers

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    1980's Stats: 21.4 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 57.5 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1985-1989 (Five Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Three-time NBA All-Star, Two-time All-NBA First Team

    Charles Barkley's statistics were certainly off the charts during his first five seasons in the NBA, but unfortunately, that won't help him crack the top 10 in this list.

    What Barkley lacked during his early years in the league was an ability to make everyone around him better, and that's what held him back from being the best player the he could possibly be.

    With that being said, Barkley was still an absolutely dominant player. Anyone who averages a double-double and above 50-percent shooting over a five year span is deserving of not only being in the Hall of Fame, but also being one of the best players to ever play the game. 

14. Alex English, SF, Denver Nuggets

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    1980's Stats: 26.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 50.9 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Eight-time NBA All-Star, 1983 NBA Scoring Champion  

    Much like another player on this list—George "Iceman" Gervin—Alex English knew how to do one thing extremely well, and that was scoring the ball.

    English never really excelled defensively, but neither did the team he played for—the Denver Nuggets—and that's why they fit so well together.

    He certainly benefited from playing in the Nuggets' fast-paced offense, where he was able to run in transition and score seemingly at will.. If English had improved his defense or found a team that believed in defense, he might be higher on this list because with his explosive offense, he certainly would have been able to help another team win an NBA title. 

13. George Gervin, G/F, San Antonio Spurs

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    1980's Stats: 26.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 49.7 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1986 (Seven Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Six-time NBA All-Star, Two-time NBA Scoring Champion, Three-time All-NBA First Team

    George "The Iceman" Gervin is heralded as being one of the greatest pure shooting guards in NBA history. That honor is solidified by his two scoring titles and his ridiculous 26 points-per-game average during the 1980s.

    Unfortunately, Gervin could never get the Spurs over the hump and into the elite of the elite in the NBA, and that's why he isn't higher on this list.

    Gervin was a great scorer, but his lack of defensive intensity certainly was a major reason why he never reached an NBA championship series. One thing is for sure, though, and that is that Gervin certainly had ice running through his veins when it came to taking, and making, clutch-time shots. 

12. Adrian Dantley, G/F, Detroit Pistons:

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    1980's Stats: 26.7 PPG, 54.9 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Six-time NBA All-Star, Two-time NBA Scoring Champion

    Adrian Dantley was the definition of a pure scorer. He averaged 30-plus points per game for two seasons, which is an accomplishment that not many NBA players ever achieve.

    What Dantley lacked, though, was a focus on defense and an ability to make his teammates around him better.

    There's no doubting that Dantley was one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the game, but he could have added more to his legacy if he had been a more complete player. Either way, the way that Dantley scored the ball was mesmerizing to watch. The elite scorer that he was is something that most NBA players today will only ever dream of being. 

11. Hakeem Olajuwon, C, Houston Rockets

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    1980's Stats: 23.0 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 3.0 BLKPG

    Years Played in 1980s: 1985-1989 (Five Seasons) 

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Five-time NBA All-Star, Three-time All-NBA First Team, Two-time NBA All-Defensive First Team

    Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon came into the NBA firing on all cylinders. Not only did he average a double-double during the first five years of his career, but he also managed to dominate on the defensive side of the ball.

    Olajuwon solidified himself as one of the all-time greats with his dominance during the early parts of his career. Most players need a year or two to catch up to the speed and strength of the NBA, but not Olajuwon. He came in and dominated from the moment he stepped on the court.

    Shockingly enough, his best days would still be ahead of him. He was at his best during the 1990s, when he was helping the Rockets win NBA titles and earning himself MVPs. 

10. Kevin McHale, PF, Boston Celtics

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    1980's Stats: 18.7 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 56.2 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Three-time NBA Champion, Five-time NBA All-Star, Two-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team

    Kevin McHale is without a doubt one of the most intelligent players to ever play the game. He knew how to get in the head of his opponents, and he also knew how to control the paint like few other players in the game at his size.

    Without McHale, Larry Bird wouldn't have won the titles he did, and he wouldn't have been nearly as dominant because McHale's hard work and tenacity opened up the court for Bird more often than not.

    What's most impressive about McHale's play is the efficiency that defined it. He worked extremely hard, but the energy he put forth was always used in an intelligent and well-managed way. 

9. James Worthy, SF, L.A. Lakers

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    1980's Stats: 17.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 55.8 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1983-1989 (Seven Seasons) 

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Three-time NBA Champion, 1988 NBA Finals MVP, Four-time NBA All-Star

    James Worthy was an integral piece to the L.A. Lakers dominance during the 1980s.

    His athleticism on the wing helped Magic Johnson look like the creative genius that he was, and he forced defenses to key on him, leaving his teammates open with high-percentage opportunities.

    The best part about Worthy's game is just how smooth he made everything look. Much like Dr. J, Worthy flew up and down the court with ease and made transition offense look extremely simple. His play in the 1988 NBA Finals solidified himself as one of the best players not only of the 1980s, but of all-time as well. 

8. Dominique Wilkins, SF, Atlanta Hawks

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    1980's Stats: 26.1 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 46.9 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1983-1989 (Seven Seasons) 

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Four-time NBA All-Star, 1986 NBA Scoring Champion, 1986 All-NBA First Team, 1985 NBA Slam Dunk Champion

    Dominique Wilkins' career was always plagued by one word—inefficiency—and the same is true for his years in the NBA in the 1980s.

    His inefficiency at times kept him from being a more elite player, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a truly special talent. Wilkins relied on his athleticism and his mid-range jumper to earn his paycheck and he did just that.

    His performance in 1986, beating out the likes of Micheal Jordan and Clyde Drexler for the 1986 scoring title, will go down in history as one of the greatest single season campaigns in NBA history. Wilkins was much more than a slam dunk master, and while he never won an NBA title, he's still deserving of a top spot on this list. 

7. Julius Erving, F, Philadelphia 76ers

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    1980's Stats: 21.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 50.8 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1987 (Eight Seasons) 

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: 1983 NBA Champion, 1981 NBA MVP, Eight-time NBA All-Star, Five-time All-NBA First Team

    It's not often that an NBA player dominates two decades of the game, but that's exactly what Julius "Dr. J" Erving did during his NBA/ABA career.

    After a productive ABA career, Dr. J entered the NBA in the late 1970s, and he didn't miss a beat. While his production declined, he figured out how to help his team win, and that's more valuable than filling the stat sheets.

    Winning the 1983 NBA title is an achievement that capped off Dr. J's illustrious career, and without it, he wouldn't be as high on this list. But the fact that he was able to impact the game in such a dominant way at such a late point in his career speaks for itself and the legacy that he's left. 

6. Isiah Thomas, PG, Detroit Pistons

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    1980's Stats: 20.2 PPG, 9.8 APG, 2.1 STLPG

    Years Played in 1980s: 1981-1989 (Nine Seasons) 

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: 1989 NBA Champion, Eight-time NBA All-Star, Three-time All-NBA First Team

    Isiah Thomas will always be one of the toughest, grittiest and dirtiest players to ever play the game. 

    That toughness that existed in his game is what makes him such a legendary player. At just 6'1'' and 180 pounds, Thomas imposed his will on his opponents, and that's why he ended his career with multiple NBA titles.

    In the 1980s, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more complete and offensively productive point guard than Thomas. Not only did he score in droves, he also kept his teammates involved, which is something a number of other players on this list struggled to do. Thomas' determination is something that current NBA players could learn something from, and it's what made him such a legendary player. 

5. Michael Jordan, G, Chicago Bulls

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    1980's Stats: 31.1 PPG, 5.5 APG, 5.8 RPG, 50.5 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1985-1989 (Five Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: 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

    An NBA MVP, five All-Star appearances and three scoring titles in the first five years of a career? Yeah, that's absolutely ridiculous.

    The only reason why Jordan isn't higher on this list is because the best days of his career came in the 1990s when he helped establish the Bulls as one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.

    Averaging 37.1 points per game during his third year in the NBA solidifies Jordan as a great in the 1980s, even though he only played five seasons during those years. Jordan will go down as the best to ever play the game, and while his championships didn't being until the 1990s, some of his best days were in the decade before. 

4. Moses Malone, C, Philadelphia 76ers

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    1980's Stats: 24.5 PPG, 12.3 RPG

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons) 

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: 1983 NBA Champion, 1983 NBA Finals MVP, Two-time NBA MVP, 10-time NBA All-Star

    Once Moses Malone found his way to the Philadelphia 76ers, he finally realized his full potential. While he has Dr. J to thank for a large part of that, there's no doubt that Malone was an integral piece of the 76ers' 1983 title run.

    Malone's greatest strength was his pure athletic ability. With Dr. J running the floor beside him, Malone was a nearly unstoppable force, and his play in the 1983 NBA Finals is something that legends are made of.

    If his averages during the 1980s aren't impressive enough, the fact that he did exactly what the 76ers needed him to do to win the 1983 title should do the job of solidifying him as one of the greatest to play during the 1980s. 

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, C, L.A. Lakers

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    1980's Stats: 20.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.0 BLKPG, 56.6 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Five-time NBA Champion, 1985 NBA Finals MVP, 1980 NBA MVP, 10-time NBA All-Star, Four-time All-NBA First Team 

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar absolutely dominated the game for two entire decades, and the craziest part is that his career improved the older he got.

    When he joined the L.A. Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar became a player who was defined by efficiency, intelligence and hard work. While having Magic Johnson and James Worthy alongside him certainly helped him during the 1980s, there's no doubt that he could've carried the Lakers by himself.

    Abdul-Jabbar will go down in history as one of the most cerebral players to play in the NBA, and as he aged, his intelligence continued to dominate the game.

2. Larry Bird, SF, Boston Celtics

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    1980's Stats: 24.5 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 6.0 APG, 49.9 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons) 

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: 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

    The 1980s were dominated by two players—Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The same two players that headlined the 1979 NCAA National Championship game.

    While both players had their moments of brilliance, there's no doubt that Bird was the more prolific scorer of the two players. He could score from almost anywhere on the court, and he played the game with a toughness that is now taken for granted.

    Bird nearly averaged a double-double over a 10-year span, and what often goes unnoticed is the fact that he was also proficient at facilitating the game to his teammates. Bird's tenacity on both sides of the ball is something that very few players have, and it's at the foundation of why he was able to dominate the NBA during its "golden age."

1. Magic Johnson, PG, L.A. Lakers

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    1980's Stats: 19.6 PPG, 11.1 APG, 7.4 RPG, 53.2 FG%

    Years Played in 1980s: 1980-1989 (10 Seasons)

    Notable Achievements in 1980s: Five-time NBA Champion, Three-time NBA Finals MVP, Two-Time NBA MVP, Seven-time All-NBA First Team, Nine-time NBA All-Star

    Just like he always did, Magic Johnson beats out Larry Bird for the to spot on this list. During the 1980s, he won more championships, more NBA Finals MVPs and he also played at a more efficient rate.

    What made Magic such a special player is the fact that he was versatile enough to play any position on the court—as evidenced by his rookie-year dominance in the 1980 NBA Finals at the center position.

    Magic consistently involved his teammates in the game more often than any other point guard in the 1980s, and he also managed to score and rebound the ball at an impressively-productive rate. Magic's versatility is something that comes once in a generation, and that's why his production during the 1980s is so memorable. 

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