Ranking Each Decade of NBA Basketball, from the 1960s to Today
Throughout NBA history, we've experienced the purity of the 1960s, the creativity and growth of the '70s, the sheer competitive nature of the '80s, the on-court brilliance of the '90s, the raw athleticism of the '00s and the yet-to-be-determined, but certainly impressive, legacy of our current decade.
They all bring different elements to the table, but which one is the best of all time?
In order to put each of the six decades into their proper order, we've asked six writers to make a case for their favorite era, and we've also asked B/R's NBA writers and editors to rank them from best to worst in six different categories: entertainment value, competitive balance, athleticism, overall quality of play and star power.
Forty-five writers and editors participated in this voting, with an average age of 26.1.
Each category was weighted evenly, and the overall rankings were determined by the decades' standings in these six criteria. Receiving a 6.00 in a category was the best possible result, as that would indicate that each of the 45 NBA writers polled gave that decade the top spot. Conversely, a 1.00 in a category means that all 45 writers voted that decade last.
The scores for each category were summed to produce the overall ranking, with 30 being a perfect score.
You'll see our opinions here, but which decade was the greatest in your eyes, and why?
6. 1960s, Overall
B/R Team Ranking: Sixth (score: 8.55)
The NBA in the 1960s was rougher, tougher, smaller and less visible than just about every decade that followed. But it may have been the best basketball decade of them all.
While condensed in size and geographical scope, the league possessed some of the greatest players to ever set foot on the court.
And like the world around it, the NBA went through major changes during the 1960s.
1960s Entertainment Value
B/R Team Entertainment Value Ranking: Sixth (score: 1.58)
B/R Team Athleticism Ranking: Sixth (score: 1.22)
Back then, baseball ruled. My heroes were Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax, men who transcended their sport and lived in the mainstream consciousness. Chamberlain and Russell, despite their impact night in and night out, didn’t make the same headlines, and so I didn’t consider them superstars.
The NBA may have had great athletes, but when your sport is only televised once a week—Sundays on ABC—it’s hard to get any kind of notoriety.
This was pre-David Stern, pre-Nike and pre-superhuge television contracts. When Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors, only 4,124 fans witnessed it. And even then, it didn’t immediately translate into sponsorship dollars for the big man.
Imagine LeBron going off for 30, 11 and 10—you’ll know within minutes via your mobile app or by checking any mainstream sports website. But back in the day, as they say, you wouldn’t know until the next day’s morning newspaper.
1960s Competitive Balance
B/R Team Ranking: Sixth (score: 2.24)
Quite simply, there really wasn’t any competitive balance.
In fact, some consider the 1964-65 Celtics to be the best NBA team ever.
Sure, the Lakers played in the Finals seven times in 10 years, but it was hardly a two-team league, as the St. Louis Hawks, San Francisco Warriors, Baltimore Bullets and Cincinnati Royals also sported solid teams.
Yet, rather than fade away due to lack of competition, the NBA would flourish in ensuing years.
1960s Star Power
B/R Team Ranking: Sixth (score: 1.67)
It is doubtful that there is another era with as many great stars. Bob Cousy, Bill Bradley, Jerry Lucas, Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave Bing, Earl Monroe and John Havlicek stand out, but here are five that created NBA standards.
Put LeBron James and Magic Johnson together, and you get Oscar Robertson. At 6”5’, 220 pounds, the Big O was a big guard playing against smaller competitors and the only player to have averaged a triple-double for a season.
Wilt Chamberlain may have been the greatest athlete of his day. At 7’1”, 275 pounds, he had been a track star before turning the game of basketball on end with his dominance. In the 1961-62 season alone, he averaged an unprecedented 50.4 points per game, during which he had 100-, 78-, 73- and 67-point games.
Were it not for Bill Russell, it may have been Chamberlain holding the most NBA championships. But, Russell, at only 6’9”, understood the idea of team play and redefined the role of the NBA big man. Russell won 11 titles, including eight consecutively. He was a rebounding machine and averaged 22.5 rebounds per game, once taking down 51 in a single game.
Without Elgin Baylor, there would be no Dr. J, no Dominique Wilkins and perhaps no Michael Jordan. The high-flying small forward had ridiculous hang time, averaged a double-double most of his career and, during the 1961-62 season, put up 38.3 PPG, second only to Wilt in NBA history.
1960s Purist's Perspective
B/R Team Ranking: Sixth (score: 1.84)
Nine. That’s how many times Jerry West had his nose broken as he ventured into the key for a layup. Today’s freewheeling guards would have thought twice about going inside against the likes of Wilt, Russell, Nate “The Great” Thurmond and Jerry Lucas.
The era preceded the three-point shot, so inside-big-man toughness coupled with excellent fundamental play make the 1960s the decade to contend with.
The '60s were also a time of radical change as players such as Walt Frazier, Dave Bing and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe brought an inventive flair to the court. By the end of decade, the offense extended its play to the perimeter, ball-handlers proliferated and the NBA never looked back.
5. 1970s, Overall
B/R Team Ranking: Fifth (score: 13.04)
The 1970s opened on the yawning chasm created by Bill Russell's retirement.
And the NBA had a pesky competitor in the ABA, which was not so much a professional basketball league as a petri dish for the fusion of street-ball-honed agility with Harlem Globetrotter-esque showmanship.
As the movie Semi-Pro suggests, the ABA was a fly-by-night operation for some; several teams were imbued with a lunacy only equaled by Bill Veeck. Quirky halftime shows were as familiar as attempts to lure stars away from the NBA, with Rick Barry becoming the most notable turncoat.
The fledgling ABA gradually gained notoriety and actually began beating the senior league consistently in their head-to-head exhibition games. In 1976, the NBA finally accepted its red-white-and-blue stepchild as part of the family.
Thus, '70s basketball became acid jazz meets track and field.
1970s Entertainment Value
B/R Team Entertainment Value Ranking: Fifth (score: 2.40)
B/R Team Athleticism Ranking: Fifth (score: 2.04)
This was the first decade when players other than just the gargantuan centers began to dunk with regularity. Back when he was Lew Alcindor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar prompted the NCAA to ban dunking for 10 years, but he brought that style right into the NBA.
Of course, the cavalier ABA spawned various innovations in such airy flair. Not only was George "The Iceman" Gervin's finger roll poetry in motion, but both Julius Erving and David Thompson turned dunking into an art form. They weren't known as "Dr. J" and "Skywalker" for nothing.
Dr. J essentially invented the free-throw-line slam dunk at the 1976 ABA All-Star festivities, the genesis of the NBA's dunk contest. Erving etched himself into collective basketball memory with those effortlessly loping leaps.
These ABA dunkers paved the way for the backboard-breaking Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins (from the planet Lovetron). The ABA also helped cement the three-point shot into rule, so Stephen Curry and Ray Allen owe the bygone league a fruit basket.
1970s Competitive Balance
B/R Team Ranking: First (score: 4.22)
In 10 years, eight different teams won the NBA title. Only the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics won more than one, and neither won back-to-back titles. The Knicks' Hall of Famers won two titles in the decade's first four years, announcing the end to the Celtics' reign of terror.
But no clear heir to the throne stepped forth, bringing some much-needed parity to the sport.
The NBA absorbed the four best teams from the ABA—the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs—helping to augment the competitive balance in pro basketball.
But the old NBA franchises still dominated, just in greater numbers.
The Washington Bullets became a powerhouse; the '77 Portland Trail Blazers formed a ragtag band of underdog champs; even the Golden State Warriors and Seattle SuperSonics each won a title.
1970s Star Power
B/R Team Ranking: Fifth (score: 1.98)
Many superstars wound their careers down in the '70s: Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, who got their only championships, as well as Elgin Baylor, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, John Havlicek, Lenny Wilkens, Nate Thurmond and Jerry Lucas.
Wilt Chamberlain passed the big-man torch to Kareem, and the stage was set.
Tiny Archibald and Bob McAdoo dazzled fans from both ends of the height spectrum, while Bill Walton and Artis Gilmore enthralled with their tremendous tresses. There were wild cards like Darnell Hillman and World B. Free, and anomalies like the spectacularly bearded Gar Heard, who stood 6'6" but blocked shots like he was 7'6".
Also on the scene were Hall of Famers Dave Bing, Bill Bradley, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, who were joined by Dave Cowens, "Pistol" Pete Maravich, Dennis Johnson, plus near-HOFers Bob Dandridge and Spencer Haywood.
1970s Purist's Perspective
B/R Team Ranking: Fifth (score: 2.40)
Both despite and because of all the expansion, cocaine, salary inflation, free agency, left-wing politics and competitive parity, the '70s were a watershed for basketball.
There were ugly moments to be sure, like Kermit Washington's devastating on-court knockout of Rudy Tomjanovich.
But, ultimately, the beautiful evolution of the game won out in history. It was a decade of modernization just as much as tumult, of style as much as substance.
4. 2000s, Overall
B/R Team Ranking: Fourth (score: 18.55)
The first 10 years of the 21st century were famous (and infamous) for Lakers and Spurs dominance, 81 points scored by one player and the Malice in the Palace. A few teams—the Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and Cleveland Cavaliers—all had brief flirtations with fame.
The 2000s also produced some of the most dramatic moments in NBA history, individual plays that will stand out for decades to come.
2000s Entertainment Value
B/R Team Entertainment Value Ranking: Fourth (score: 3.29)
B/R Team Athleticism Ranking: Second (score: 4.73)
If you were a fan of the Lakers living in Los Angeles during this decade, you were in basketball heaven. In spite of the ongoing Kobe-Shaq feuds, the Lakers were the darlings of the local sports world.
Their home, Staples Center, first opened in October 1999, instantly becoming an entertainment icon and the place to be and be seen. Big games on big stages became commonplace, and spring in Los Angeles usually meant Lakers postseason exploits on the hardwood once more.
2000s Competitive Balance
B/R Team Ranking: Third (score: 3.84)
The aughts were marked by the sheer dominance of two distinctly unique franchises: the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers.
The Spurs gave hope to small-market teams by winning three championships from 2000-09, while the Lakers went to the Finals six times under Phil Jackson and won four of them.
The Spurs were built from the ground up and continue to be one of the most stable franchises due to the game's best head coach, Gregg Popovich.
The Lakers were the creation of general manager Jerry West, the mastermind who orchestrated the signings of both Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal, and the brilliant trade with Charlotte that sent Vlade Divac to the Hornets for its No. 13 pick in the 1996 draft, a young kid named Kobe Bean Bryant.
Except for one year (when Dallas made it), the NBA Finals featured either the Lakers or Spurs from the Western Conference.
2000s Star Power
B/R Team Ranking: Fourth (score: 3.38)
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal grabbed most of the headlines and are locks for the Hall of Fame. But there were other greats who lit up the scoreboard or passed their way to fame during the decade.
Nash and Kidd are two of the best passers ever, while Nowitzki may be the best pure-shooting big man in the history of the game. Ray Allen has more three-pointers than anyone (via ESPN.com), and Bryant was lighting up scoreboards (81 points in 2006) and winning championship rings with and without the formidable O'Neal.
2000s Purist's Perspective
B/R Team Ranking: Fourth (score: 3.31)
To win during this decade, a team needed two or three superstars and a strong bench. Individual talent was probably better than it had ever been, but some of the weaker teams just couldn't seem to get on track.
Unlike the NFL, the NBA has never been about team parity. Still, it is safe to say this decade produced some of the best teams, top players and most exciting moments the league has ever been witness to.
The most improbable moment? There were many, but for me, it had to be Derek Fisher's catch, turn and shoot miracle with four-tenths of a second on the clock to beat the Spurs in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals. That will never happen again.
3. 2010s, Overall
B/R Team Ranking: Third (score: 20.95)
We’re only three years into the NBA’s newest decade, but there’s already plenty of evidence to suggest that the league is heading toward a new summit.
The regular season is as entertaining as it’s been in some time, with recent postseason play redefining the standard of excellence we expect to be treated to on a nightly basis.
With a revolution occurring before our very eyes, this decade will set historic standards for what fans should expect from future generations.
2010s Entertainment Value
B/R Team Entertainment Value Ranking: Third (score: 3.87)
B/R Team Athleticism Ranking: First (score: 5.71)
Has there ever been a more fun time to watch NBA basketball? The athletes who grace our screens every night are simply breathtaking to watch, and they’ve committed themselves to playing ferociously on both ends of the floor.
In addition, an overlooked aspect of the NBA’s entertainment value during this decade is the ubiquity with which the game is available to fans. Platforms like League Pass have allowed consumers to become more knowledgeable than ever, while social-media sites like Twitter have allowed us to engage in conversation and debate with other fans, players and pundits.
2010s Competitive Balance
B/R Team Ranking: Fourth (score: 3.51)
Although we appear to be shifting to an era where super-teams like the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers are the norm, the breadth and depth of talent across the NBA is astounding.
And, as the Heat and Lakers each proved to us in their first seasons together, super-teams aren’t blessed with immunity to seemingly "inferior" squads just because of the hype they receive.
Despite the apparent dominance of big-market franchises, the brilliance displayed by several small-market general managers throughout the decade has provided the league with competitive balance.
Success stories like those of the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers are proving that intelligent front offices can build teams that are prosperous in the long run.
2010s Star Power
B/R Team Ranking: Third (score: 4.04)
The obvious starting point here is LeBron James, who, according to Basketball-Reference’s Hall of Fame probability calculator, is a shoo-in with a rating of 0.9987. Already possessing one NBA title, a Finals MVP and three regular-season MVP awards at the age of 28, LeBron will define the current era just like Michael Jordan did in the 1990s.
However, aside from LeBron, there are several players who will peak during the 2010s, with studs like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose all capable of playing at historically elite levels. You could even make the argument that Dwyane Wade’s been playing the best ball of his career since turning 30 in 2012.
2010s Purist's Perspective
B/R Team Ranking: Third (score: 3.82)
With such a deep pool of talent, it’s no surprise that the NBA’s current decade has been characterized by an extremely high level of play.
Players like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook continue to redefine conventional positions and squash the stereotypes that accompany them. So while the league may be in a transition phase, the expansive skill sets we see displayed on a nightly basis are simply breathtaking.
Enjoy it while it lasts, folks.
2. 1980s, Overall
B/R Team Ranking: Second (21.08 overall)
Imagine your car breaking down in Bethel, N.Y., outside Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, on Aug. 15, 1969.
You see the crowd, you hear the music...and you suddenly realize something big is happening, and you are fortunate, blessed even, to be in the right place at the right time.
That’s what it was to be an NBA fan in the 1980s.
1980s Entertainment Value
B/R Team Entertainment Value Ranking: Second (score: 4.56)
B/R Team Athleticism Ranking: Fourth (score: 3.07)
The decade was unquestionably defined by the league’s greatest all-time rivalry: Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers versus Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.
“But we had Lakers-Celtics with Chamberlain and Russell,” you older readers might say.
True. The difference is: This time, everybody was watching.
The ‘80s were the decade where, because of Bird and Magic, the league came into its own, became a part of the cultural zeitgeist and was must-see TV long before the brain trust at NBC thought of the phrase.
After the tough times of Vietnam, Watergate, OPEC and recession, weary audiences wanted less news and more entertainment. This mood gave rise to sound bites, music videos and—thanks to ESPN, which debuted in 1979—sports-highlight shows.
The NBA’s quick, incredible vignettes were the perfect tonic for the day.
Those factors, plus the transcendent popularity of Bird and Johnson, converged to take the little-watched NBA from airing tape-delayed NBA Finals games in 1981 to more than doubling ratings by the 1988 Finals.
1980s Competitive Balance
B/R Team Ranking: Second (score: 4.18)
The Lakers and Celtics owned the '80s, even though the Detroit Pistons slowly ascended to finally dethrone both champions by the decade’s end.
The Philadelphia 76ers won a long-deserved championship in 1983. The Houston Rockets had the original Twin Towers. The next tier included the Atlanta Hawks, the New York Knicks and the team of the future, the Chicago Bulls.
In truth, though, the decade was devoid of parity. But we didn’t want parity. We wanted—and got—Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics in the Finals.
1980s Star Power
B/R Team Ranking: Second (score: 4.60)
Magic and Bird were the superstars. They, not David Stern, took the NBA from a fringe sport to a juggernaut.
Julius “Dr. J” Erving, the NBA’s face of the ‘70s, bridged the gap between the old guard and the Bird-Johnson era. His famous NBA Finals shot from 1980 would make Isaac Newton question himself.
Dominique Wilkins, the Human Highlight Film, lived up to his name every night.
Bernard King scored like a pinball machine.
Superstars like Charles Barkley, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, Karl Malone and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler were all in their prime. The next tier of stars—Ralph Sampson, Buck Williams, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Sidney Moncrief and George “Iceman” Gervin—were no slouches, either.
And of course, there was some new kid named Michael Jordan.
1980s Purist's Perspective
B/R Team Ranking: Second (score: 4.67)
Fouls could get downright brutal in the ‘80s; when those guys hit the deck, nobody was flopping.
But that meant defense was still allowed. As a result, most games were well-played and strategic, with perfectly executed give-and-gos and pick-and-rolls.
There was plenty of high-flying action, too, reminiscent of the recently absorbed ABA. For the most part, though, ‘80s play was about both fundamentals and being able to take the punishment—a combination I like to call "real basketball."
1. 1990s, Overall
B/R Team Ranking: First (score: 22.82)
The 1990s were noteworthy primarily for two things, Michael Jordan and the greatest collection of big men who ever played the game.
Perhaps this is what makes the decade so incredibly interesting. Jordan slew the giants. In an era of bigs like the league had never seen, it was a perimeter player who dominated the league and forever changed the game.
Because of Jordan, and the marketing success the NBA had with him, the league changed the rules to make it more of a perimeter-oriented league. Because of his success against so many great big men, teams were trying to find that player who could do what Jordan did.
As a result, in terms of the rules, marketing, philosophy and sheer aesthetic value of the game, the '90s were transitional, morphing the game from the powerful, center-dominated league of the past into the athletic, perimeter-player-dominated league of the present.
1990s Entertainment Value
B/R Team Entertainment Value Ranking: First (score: 5.31)
B/R Team Athleticism Ranking: Third (score: 4.22)
The ‘90s were a compelling decade for the entertainment value of the game. If you need proof, look no further than the television ratings and the television contracts.
The highest-rated Finals in NBA history was the 1998 showdown between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, which rendered an 18.7 rating. Five of the highest six Finals ratings came in the decade.
When the decade started, the NBA was receiving about $56 million a year in national broadcasting rights. When those 10 years ended, that number had swollen to more than $620 million a year.
If we measure entertainment by being entertained, it seems the ‘90s were a pretty entertaining decade.
1990s Competitive Balance
B/R Team Ranking: Fifth (score: 3.00)
Even though the decade was dominated by the Chicago Bulls, who won six NBA championships, there were plenty of other teams who took turns rising up to challenge the Bulls. Because of that, it was still highly competitive.
In all, there were 11 different teams who made it to the Finals during the decade and another two who made it to the conference finals. That’s nearly half the league that made it to the conference finals and over a third of the league that played for a title.
Much of the decade was playing for the right to lose to Jordan, er, the Bulls, but it was a highly competitive time.
1990s Star Power
B/R Team Ranking: First (score: 5.33)
The best part of watching the NBA during the ‘90s was the sheer volume of stars.
Then there was Michael Jordan.
It saw the birth of the careers of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.
In all, there were 21 players who played at least 150 games in the ‘90s who are already in the HOF. There are several more, such as Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Duncan, who are inevitably going to get in.
It’s a safe bet you could put together an All-Star team from the ‘90s that would be the greatest team ever assembled.
Of course, I only say that because they did, and it was. The original Dream Team is all you need to know (with the exception of O’Neal getting passed over for Christian Laettner).
1990s Purist's Perspective
B/R Team Ranking: First (score: 4.96)
The irony of the ‘90s is, when the decade started, the conversation surrounding the NBA focused on what was going to happen without Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Instead, it became the transitional era, where the NBA surpassed baseball as the second-most-popular sport and grew in popularity like it never had before.
The beauty of the era wasn’t just the multitude of stars; it was the types of stars there were. There were the acrobatic, gravity-defying stunts of Michael Jordan.
There was the perfect pick-and-roll action from John Stockton to Karl Malone.
There was the brute greatness of Charles Barkley, who seemed to defy the logic that height mattered and, at an exaggerated 6’6”, became one of the greatest rebounders and power forwards of all time.
Shawn Kemp was in his prime and dunking like no one else who came before him and no one else since, save for Blake Griffin.
It was the last great era of centers, with four of the greatest to ever play the position—Robinson, Olajuwon, Ewing and O’Neal—making it to the Finals during the decade. All but Ewing won a ring.
It says something that the rules were changed after the decade ended, maintaining the way it was played. The ‘90s, in my mind, will always be the decade where the NBA truly found itself.
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