Best of the best: All-NBA team of the ’80s
How good is a 15-man team with no room for Julius Erving? Yeah. That was the NBA of the ’80s. You wonder why so many refer to the ’80s as the NBA’s golden age, that’s as good a response as any. No room for Dr. J.
In putting together first, second and third five-man teams from the ’80s, the notion of the league’s star quality during the decade is reinforced. And no position was better stocked than small forward, where Larry Bird dominated but at least another handful of Hall of Famers behind him were at their peak either early or late in the ’80s.
Dr. J really was more a player of the ’70s, though he played through the 1986-87 season and continued to play at a very high level for at least the first half of the decade. But in a 10-year snapshot, others would move him to the periphery – where he would have extremely good company, by the way. Among the other small forwards we couldn’t squeeze into our three five-man units: Bernard King, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Mark Aguirre and Kelly Tripucka.
I made a few simple rules for consideration. The teams are picked keeping their ability to play together in mind, so I picked by position. The only debatable choice was to place Hakeem Olajuwon on the second team as a power forward, which he certainly had the versatility to do. Players had to have played at least five seasons out of the decade – meaning drafted by 1984, which eliminated the great 1985 draft class that included Joe Dumars, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone – and be recognized at some point in the decade as a dominant player at his position.
A few players on the list – Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler – might have had as much or more success in the ’90s, but they all played at least five seasons in the ’80s and there’s no disputing that they were elite players for all or most of their seasons during the decade. And one player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was a more dominant presence in the ’70s than the ’80s, but he still was All-NBA first team a remarkable five times in the decade and played in every All-Star game. You can’t leave Kareem off this list.
So here goes:
Magic Johnson – The dominant player on the team that won five NBA titles in the decade. First team All-NBA every season from 1983 on. The overwhelming choice as point guard on the NBA’s all-time team, so an easy choice as point guard of the ’80s.
Michael Jordan – He won all of his six NBA titles in the ’90s, so he’d be on that team, too. But Jordan was the dominant player at his position in the ’80s, as well. He was second team All-NBA as a rookie, missed all but 18 games of his second season, then was first team the final three seasons of the decade. Like Magic, he’s an easy choice for all-time first team.
Moses Malone – They got squeezed by the Lakers and Celtics or otherwise the early ’80s 76ers could have had a dynastic run. And Moses was the biggest reason. He was a relentless force. Moses’ typical season in the ’80s was 24.5 points and 13.2 rebounds a game. He led the league in rebounding six times.
Kevin McHale – Has there ever been a more efficient post scorer? In both 1986-87 and 1987-88, McHale shot better than 60 percent. Was his efficiency enhanced by the presence of Larry Bird, not to mention Robert Parish? Perhaps. But their presence also tamped down McHale’s numbers. Anybody who watched the NBA in the ’80s knows McHale was the league’s top power forward. Overlooked: He was a five-time All-Defense honoree.
Larry Bird – Bird’s case for the NBA’s all-time best small forward might not be as overwhelming as Magic’s at point guard or Jordan’s at shooting guard, but there’s not much doubt he’d win a runoff election against anyone else. He was first team All-NBA his first eight years – again, remember the quality of the competition.
Isiah Thomas – The victim of timing here, because Isiah would have been a first-teamer in any other decade. Even with Magic taking votes from him, Isiah was All-NBA first or second team five times in the decade, and no one played a bigger role in leading the Pistons to NBA elite status in its most competitive era ever.
Sidney Moncrief – No bigger Hall of Fame snub going than Moncrief. He was five times first or second team All-NBA during the ’80s for a Milwaukee team that averaged 55 wins a season over the first seven years of the decade with Moncrief as the key. But he played in a small market in an era of Bird and Magic and Michael. Moncrief was also an all-Defensive staple.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – The decade began with Magic’s arrival in Los Angeles, which both made Kareem’s life easier but also took the spotlight off of him. He wasn’t quite as likely to put up 30 and 20 as he was in the ’70s, but there was no surer thing in the league when a bucket was needed than dumping it to Kareem on either block.
Hakeem Olajuwon – He closed the decade with four straight first team All-NBA honors. The league’s never seen a more athletic 7-footer. His timing was exquisite. And the grace and touch of his turnaround jumper – “The Dream Shake” – was a thing of beauty.
Dominique Wilkins – Even with Bird putting small forward on lockdown for the decade, ’Nique was an All-NBA first teamer once and four other times was second team in the ’80s. By the midpoint of the decade, it looked like Atlanta would be Boston’s biggest challenger in the East – before the Pistons, and then the Bulls, pushed them back.
Mo Cheeks – John Stockton is eligible – he was a 1984 draftee – but Cheeks was the more influential presence in the ’80s than Stockton, whose career gathered steam only late in the decade. Cheeks is another whose absence from the Hall of Fame is curious. He was the orchestrator for the Moses Malone-Dr. J 76ers and a four-time All-Defense first teamer.
Clyde Drexler – Drexler’s best moments came in the ’90s, but over the last half of the ’80s there’s no doubt he had blossomed into an elite NBA player. Drexler averaged at least 27 points a game in the final two years of the decade as Portland was rising in the West.
Robert Parish – Bill Laimbeer got consideration here, but it’s hard to argue with Parish, who anchored Boston’s frontcourt during three NBA titles during a Hall of Fame career that included seven All-Star appearances during the decade.
Charles Barkley – Barkley averaged a double-double all five seasons he played during the ’80s and in the last four of those seasons he was All-NBA first team twice and twice more second team. A truly unique player, Barkley’s rebounding prowess and ballhandling ability made him as difficult a matchup as anyone.
James Worthy – Although Worthy didn’t make All-NBA during the decade – he was a third teamer in the first two seasons of the ’90s – he played in four straight All-Star games to close the decade and was MVP of the 1988 NBA Finals, earning the nickname “Big Game James” in the process. Playing alongside Magic and Kareem thrust Worthy into the national spotlight, but might have diminished his legacy in the minds of some.