B/R NBA All-Decade Teams: Who Ruled the '80s?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 6, 2019

B/R NBA All-Decade Teams: Who Ruled the '80s?

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    That creaking sound you just heard is the door opening to our NBA time machine.

    That's right, folks. We're going back Marty McFly-style to a period when the Association was exploding in popularity and jam-packed with stars.

    Speaking of those celestial ballers, we've cobbled together the best of the best here to form the All-'80s version of our All-Decade teams.

    While ultimately a subjective distinction, we're relying on more than feel, educated guesses and what we can remember from our old eye tests. We're evaluating players by statistics (both traditional and advanced), accomplishments (awards, championships) and less tangible measurements (impact on teams, the league and basketball at large) to find the best representatives of '80s ball.

    After running through a handful of honorable mentions, we'll break down our first and second teams under the traditional designations: two guards, two forwards and one center.

    So grab your hairspray, crank up that synthesizer and join us on a journey through this delectable decadethe 1979-80 campaign through 1988-89of basketball excellence.

    Nineteen-year NBA veteran Jamal Crawford returns to “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss his 51-point game, Dirk Nowitzki's last game, his Kevin Garnett fandom, the Phoenix Suns and Devin Booker, the Timberwolves and Andrew Wiggins, and retirement.

Honorable Mentions

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    Adrian Dantley

    Dantley attempted 41 threes and made seven of them over his 15-year career, and he still arguably became the Association's model for offensive efficiency.

    Between the 1980-81 and 1983-84 seasons, he averaged 30-plus points in each campaign despite never taking more than 20.3 shots per night. During each year of the run, he set a new NBA record for the fewest field-goal attempts needed to average 30 points, including the 18.2 in 1983-84 that remains the standard-setter today.

    Save for a three-ball, he had everything you'd want in a scoring arsenal: strength and grace, jump-shooting ability and explosiveness. He captured two scoring titles and made six All-Star teams in the '80s, although his seventh-place finish in the 1983-84 MVP voting was his only venture inside the top 10.


    Alex English

    How wild were the '80s? Well, the decade's leading scorer—by 1,936 points—only secured an honorable mention here.

    The 6'7" English was a statistical juggernaut. For the decade, he was good for 25.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per night. He shot 51.0 percent from the field and 83.8 percent from the line. He took home the 1982-83 scoring title, one of his six top-five finishes in points per game during this stretch.

    But his stats were padded a bit by the fact his Denver Nuggets squads played at some of the fastest paces in NBA history. And despite being playoff regulars, they only won five postseason series over this 10-year period. That lack of team success probably explains why he never made an All-NBA first team (three second-team selections) and never cracked the top five in MVP voting.


    Hakeem Olajuwon

    As the top pick in the 1984 draft, Olajuwon missed out on half the decade. But maybe he knew a list like this would someday be assembled, as he hooped like he was making up for lost time.

    Unguardable in the post at one end and impenetrable in the paint at the other, the Dream burst onto the scene with 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game as an NBA freshman. He was both an All-Star and an All-Defensive second-teamer.

    The production held steady or increased over the subsequent seasons, leaving his five-year sprint through the '80s with per-game averages of 23.0 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks.

    He was an All-NBA selection during each of the final four seasons of the decade (three first-team honors) and the best player on the 1985-86 Houston Rockets, who won a then-franchise record 51 games and made the NBA Finals. The one thing working against him here is the calendar, as a pair of fellow Hall of Fame centers enjoyed more success in our designated time period.


    Kevin McHale

    Of the five players listed here—each a Hall of Famer—McHale came closest to bumping up from an honorable mention to an All-Decade spot.

    The 6'10" forward did everything. He was the original super-sub, the first repeat Sixth Man of the Year winner in the award's history. He had some unstoppable force and immovable object to him, averaging 21-plus points four times and making five All-Defensive teams in the decade. He also contributed directly to the winning cause, as he played critical roles in all three of the Boston Celtics' championship runs in the '80s.

    He was as skilled a post scorer as you could find. He had moves, counter moves and counters to the counters, plus the length and shooting touch to drop in fadeaways or hook shots over his defender. He was long and agile, especially before ankle and foot injuries started getting the best of him.

    Ultimately, while his willingness to execute his role helped the Shamrocks immensely, it probably cost him an All-Decade spot here. Since his numbers weren't quite as gaudy as those produced by other candidates, he only made one All-NBA appearance and had a single top-12 finish in MVP voting (fourth in 1986-87).


    Sidney Moncrief

    While his stat lines stopped short of ridiculous, Moncrief made his presence felt in every aspect. He had a jumper, a post game, hops, handles, a nose for the glass and the vision to find open teammates.

    Oh, and he took home the first two Defensive Player of the Year honors ever awarded...as a 6'3", 180-pound combo guard. And he did all of this while playing with a degenerative knee condition that eventually cut his career short.

    Defense and versatility were his top calling cards, and he maximized both by playing full-tilt at all times. He also helped mold the Milwaukee Bucks into annual playoff participants, and his impact was recognized via five All-Star nods, five All-NBA selections (one first-team) and five All-Defensive honors (four first-team).

    As good as guard play was in this decade, he would've had a shot at a second- or first-team spot here if not for those knee problems.

Second Team

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    Guard: Isiah Thomas

    The Detroit Pistons went 37-127 in the two seasons prior to Thomas' arrival as the second overall pick in the 1981 draft. By the time the decade ended, the Pistons had claimed their first title in franchise history and were about to earn their second at the beginning of the '90s. 

    Granted, the success wasn't all about Thomas. But the fearless point guard had the biggest say in it.

    He rolled into the league as a 17-point scorer averaging nearly eight assists. By Year 3, those numbers had jumped to 21.3 and 11.1, respectively. The rest of the decade was more of the same.

    Thomas was an All-Star for all eight seasons he played in the '80s. Despite the abbreviated time frame, he still had the decade's second-most assists and fourth-most steals. He made five All-NBA teams, earned All-Star MVP honors twice and had four top-10 finishes in MVP voting.

    It seems impossible he wouldn't make the first team until you see the two guards who did.


    Guard: George Gervin

    It's a bit mind-boggling that Gervin even makes this list, let alone scores a second-team spot. He had played seven professional seasons before the decade opened, and he'd call it quits after the next seven.

    But the Iceman was still ice cold during his playing portion of the '80s. He twice averaged better than 32 points, taking home the scoring crown each time. He also shot 50-plus percent in each of those seasons and 49.8 percent for the decade. He was so skilled he made the game look easy, as if everyone could average 25-plus points for five straight years, as he did to open the '80s.

    Truth be told, his effortless style may have cost him some deserved spotlight time since he didn't quite have the flash of Julius Erving or Michael Jordan. But NBA observers appreciated Gervin's many gifts, as his seven seasons in the decade included six All-Star selections, four All-NBA distinctions and three top-six finishes in the MVP race.


    Forward: Dominique Wilkins

    Aptly dubbed the Human Highlight Film, Wilkins was a hoops showman of the highest order. No matter how high he raised the bar for aerial artistry, he always seemed to one-up himself, evidenced in part by the two Slam Dunk Contest titles he earned in 1985 and 1990.

    But his selection isn't about electricity. Whether he was soaring through the air, pulling up off the dribble or kissing a finger roll off the glass, he was always piling on the points. Dunks alone didn't give him the 1985-86 scoring title (30.3 points per game) or the 26.0 points he averaged across seven seasons in the decade.

    With four All-Star selections, four All-NBA honors and a silver medal in the 1985-86 MVP race, Wilkins can make a compelling first-team argument here. With so many elites sharing the decade, though, the gaps are razor-thin between some of these superstars.


    Forward: Charles Barkley

    Barkley tied for the 195th-most games played in the '80s. That he still forced his way onto the decade's second-team roster speaks to his incredible talent and absurd production.

    Generously listed at 6'6", he somehow controlled the glass, then raced up the court to hammer one home or dime an open teammate. He had a jump shot, an ability to ditch defenders off the dribble, a deep bag of scoring tricks and a knack for generating steals and blocks. He was a relentless rebounder (NBA-best 14.6 boards per game in 1986-87) and deadly inside the arc (highest two-point percentage the last three years of the '80s.).

    With only half the decade to make his case, he did his best to earn first-team consideration. Four of the five seasons included All-NBA selections, including first-team honors in 1987-88 and 1988-89. His 8.1 box plus/minus trailed only Michael Jordan's 10.2. A lack of longevity was Barkley's only issue, and he almost worked his way around it.


    Center: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

    There are ageless wonders, and then there's Abdul-Jabbar, who arguably came as close as anyone ever has to defeating Father Time. He celebrated his 32nd birthday before the decade opened and still made a furious push for the first-team center spot.

    He played all 10 seasons, was an All-Star in each and punctuated five with NBA titles, earning Finals MVP honors in 1984-85. He wasn't at top speed when the '80s rolled in, lost velocity as they went on and still provided the fifth-most points, ninth-most rebounds, third-most blocks and fifth-most win shares.

    With an MVP (1979-80) and six All-NBA selections to his credit, his resume might be the most impressive of all the non-first-teamers. But outside of the rings count, he comes up just shy against our No. 1 center.

First Team Guard: Magic Johnson

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    Great point guards are master manipulators of time and speed. Magic Johnson seemingly manipulated the laws of physics.

    "There have been times when he has thrown passes and I wasn't sure where he was going," former teammate Michael Cooper said, per NBA.com. "Then one of our guys catches the ball and scores, and I run back up the floor convinced that he must've thrown it through somebody."

    Despite the name, Johnson couldn't pull off actual magic during games, but he'd come close. He could spot a passing lane multiple steps before it opened, then thread a needle finer than the world's greatest sewing machine. Oh, and he probably wouldn't be watching any of this happen, but rather looking the opposite direction and maybe flashing his million-dollar smile.

    He had the flash and flair you'd expect from someone steering the Los Angeles Lakers through the Showtime era, but they were built on a rock-solid foundation of fundamentals. Every pass was on target. Every movement had a purpose.

    Watching Johnson felt like watching Pablo Picasso filling up a blank canvass. There was an artistry to the excellence and an excellence in the artistry.

    Johnson's impact on the popularity of the league is perhaps worthy of a first-team spot on its own, but he's a no-doubter for basketball reasons, too. In the '80s alone, he won five rings, two MVP awards and three Finals MVPs. He also had the decade's most assists (by nearly 2,000), 12th-most points and second-most win shares.

First Team Guard: Michael Jordan

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    The name Michael Jordan might be synonymous with NBA championships today, but the ring-less version of His Airness delivered his own kind of dominance. The third pick in the 1984 draft, he didn't benefit from the first half of our sample size, had his sophomore season nearly erased by a broken foot and still stands out as an automatic first-teamer.

    He was a 28-point scorer and an All-Star as a rookie. By Year 3, he was a scoring champ (with a face-melting 37.1 points per night) and an All-NBA first-teamer. Come Year 4, he paced the entire Association in points, steals and minutes while capturing his first MVP and the only Defensive Player of the Year award of his career.

    "Michael Jordan is from another planet," then-Chicago Bulls assistant coach Phil Jackson quipped in 1988, per Ira Berkow of the New York Times.

    Or, as Larry Bird put it two years prior, "I think he's God disguised as Michael Jordan," per Bob Sakamoto of the Chicago Tribune.

    Jordan's explosiveness was unrivaled. If his initial look wasn't open, he'd wait out his defender, knowing they couldn't log the same air time as him.

    The soaring alone was jaw-dropping, but the finishes were the real show-stoppers. Sometimes he'd rock the rim like he was unloading a week's worth of frustrations. On others, he'd uncork the kind of creative flush that made you second-guess what you'd seen. Quietly, his layups might have been the sweetest of all, as his double-clutches or 360-degree turns would guide him through traffic and to a bucket.

    That was the thing with MJ; his athleticism wowed everyone, but his technique took him to the sport's pinnacle. He was still learning the craft in the '80s, and his numbers were already hard to fathom. Over the final three seasons of the decade, he averaged 34.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 3.0 steals. His 29.6 player efficiency rating for the decade put him 5.2 points clear of everyone else.

First Team Forward: Larry Bird

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    Larry Bird meant more to winning than any of his peers from the decade. At least, that's how the win shares metric sees it, as his 124.2 paced the '80s.

    It's hard to tell his story in numbers. He had a see-him-to-believe-him quality, from his ferocious tenacity to his willingness to take risks because he knew they weren't really risks for him.

    That said, the stats do a decent job of capturing his unique skills. His decade averages were 25.0 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists. For context, no one has posted a 25/10/6 line for his career.

    "He is as nearly perfect as you can get in almost every phase of basketball," then-Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West told Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum in 1986.

    Bird was the first of his kind.

    He came into the NBA the same year the three-point shot did (1979-80) and quickly established himself as a top-shelf sniper. He splashed the second-most triples for the decade (455) and did so at a 37.7 percent clip. Those were great numbers then for any shooter, but they were unheard of for a player his size (6'9"). The second-most prolific shooter his height or taller in the '80s had 134 threes; the 10th had 41.

    Bird's playmaking told a similar tale. There weren't other 6'9"-plus non-guards creating nearly this many shots. He had 4,396 assists for the decade; the second member of that group had 2,721.

    Oh, and good luck finding another perimeter scorer who also happened to snag double-digit rebounds each night.

    He was amazing, and his '80s accomplishments say as much: nine All-Star selections, nine All-NBA honors (all first-team), three MVP awards (all in a row), three championships and two Finals MVPs.

First Team Forward: Julius Erving

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    This was the hardest position to pin down.

    None of the careers perfectly lined up with the time frame. Julius Erving was still the Doc to start the decade, but he'd be out of the Association two seasons before it ended. Barkley only played half of the 10 seasons. Wilkins missed out on three, and his team never advanced beyond the second round. McHale had longevity and team success, but he was a sidekick and arguably had the most help around him.

    Any of the four could make an argument. Erving earned our vote for a couple of reasons.

    He's the only one to take home an MVP in this decade, capturing 1980-81's top individual prize with per-game averages of 24.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.1 steals. He shot 52.1 percent that season and 51.1 percent for the decade.

    He had as many All-NBA first-team selections as Barkley, Wilkins and McHale combined (four). Erving was also an All-Star starter during each of his eight seasons and a 20-plus-point scorer in six. He was the second-leading scorer and rebounder on the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers, who won 65 games and posted a 12-1 playoff record en route to the title (just falling short of Moses Malone's famous "Fo', fo', fo'" prediction).

    In case Erving needed another nudge, his impact on the NBA was like few others. He was an aerial artist and an ambassador for the league, and he aced both roles.

    "Before, when you thought of the NBA, you thought Dr. J," Michael Jordan said in 1987, per Sakamoto. "He was like a founding father."

    This isn't a lifetime achievement award, but Erving's influence was so profound that it could have been the tiebreaker if he needed one.

First Team Center: Moses Malone

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    The late, great Moses Malone might have been born with a hard hat. And who knows, maybe those signature goggles, too.

    The original prep-to-pro leaper was all mass, muscle and a fully revved motor. He didn't finish over players; he went right through them. No one could keep him off the glass, and he took so many free throws that you might've thought it was Hack-a-Moses. (It wasn't; he was a 76.0 percent foul shooter for his career.)

    That's not meant to diminish his skills. It takes more than hustle and hard work to compile 29,580 career points and 17,834 rebounds over a 21-year career that started in the ABA and took him to seven different NBA teams.

    But he understood that doggedness was a skill in its own right, and he made it the sharpest weapon in his toolbox.

    "Moses had an ugly shot, and he dribbled inefficiently" retired NBA center Danny Schayes, son of Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes, told NBC Sports Philadelphia contributor Gordie Jones in 2015. "... But he was just everywhere. He was relentless. And he was effective as hell, doing whatever he was doing."

    What Malone was usually doing was racking up production at a rapid rate. During the '80s, he averaged 24.5 points and 13.2 rebounds. No one grabbed more boards during the decade (or came within 2,000 of his total), and only Alex English scored more points.

    In that decade alone, Malone was a two-time MVP, a champion, a Finals MVP, a 10-time All-Star, a seven-time All-NBA honoree (three first-team nods) and an All-Defensive first-teamer.

    Plus, he's our All-Decade first-team center, which surely trumps the rest.


    All stats, unless otherwise noted, used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.