50 Greatest NBA Players Of The 1980s

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Basketball: NBA Finals: Boston Celtics Larry Bird (33) in action, defense vs Los Angeles Lakers Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson (32) during game at Boston Garden. Game 1.
Boston, MA 5/27/1985
CREDIT: Manny Millan (Photo by Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
(Set Number: X31552 )

Coming out of the turbulent 1970s, the NBA was desperate for a shot in the arm. With a few teams playing in gigantic domes built for football rather than more intimate spaces built for basketball, there was a perception that no one was going to NBA games.

I mean, when the Detroit Pistons averaged 9,510 per game at the more than 80,000-seat Pontiac Silverdome, it didn’t exactly create a panic on the street over the availability of tickets.

One team, the Milwaukee Bucks, played to a full house every night. Only one other, the Portland Trail Blazers, played to more than 90 percent of capacity in the 1978-79 season.

Here are the attendance figures from 1979, taken from the fine folks at The Association for Professional Basketball Research.

Atlanta Hawks80261640048.9The Omni
Boston Celtics101931489068.5Boston Garden
Chicago Bulls89991867648.2Chicago Stadium
Cleveland Cavaliers79422027339.2Coliseum at Richfield
Denver Nuggets147161660088.7McNichols Arena
Detroit Pistons95108063811.8Pontiac Silverdome
Golden State Warriors104211502569.4Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena
Houston Rockets105951567667.6The Summit
Indiana Pacers89551653054.2Market Square Arena
Kansas City Kings107891750061.7Kemper Arena
Los Angeles Lakers117711750067.3The Forum
Milwaukee Bucks1082710783100.4MECCA Arena
New Jersey Nets4853800060.7Rutgers Athletic Center
New Orleans Jazz88835567516.0Louisiana Superdome
New York Knicks133101976367.3Madison Square Garden
Philadelphia 76ers123531816868.0The Spectrum
Phoenix Suns113421487076.3Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Portland Trail Blazers126661288898.3Memorial Coliseum
San Antonio Spurs119321605774.3HemisFair Arena
San Diego Clippers76051450052.4San Diego Sports Arena
Seattle SuperSonics182254000045.6Kingdome
Washington Bullets127891875668.2Capital Centre

Add to that some high-profile cocaine cases involving NBA players and the perception that the league was “too black” (we won’t even mention the nickname that was used publicly the first time the New York Knicks had an all-black roster in the late 1970s).

The television deal the NBA had with CBS provided for one—one—game per week from January through the end of the regular season. The NBA Finals were shown on tape delay after the late local news.

This was the NBA as the 1970s rolled over into the 1980s.

If ever a league was in need of something to turn the tide, it was the NBA.

And it got something, or two somethings.

Magic Johnson was the No.1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. Larry Bird had been taken sixth overall by the Boston Celtics in 1978 under a long-since-abolished rule that allowed teams to draft the rights to players whose original freshman class had graduated and gave them until the day before the next draft to sign them.

Bird signed with Boston in April 1979.

Those two players, more than any others, defined the 1980s in the NBA. Either Bird’s Celtics or Magic’s Lakers played in every single NBA Finals in the decade and won eight of the 10 titles from 1980-89.

The NBA came into the 1980s with 22 franchises and left it with 25—and two more on the way in 1989-90.

The decade began with a franchise relocation as the Jazz abandoned New Orleans after five seasons for Salt Lake City to become the greatest misnomer in sports—the Utah Jazz.

In 1980-81, the Dallas Mavericks became the NBA’s 23rd team.

The Clippers, who had been the Buffalo Braves from 1970-78, were on the move again in 1984, leaving San Diego after six seasons to share Los Angeles with the Lakers, and in 1985, the Kansas City Kings headed west to Sacramento.

As the decade came to a close, the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat came on board in 1988-89, with plans to add the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic a season later.

Perhaps the biggest change of the decade came in 1984, when David Stern succeeded Larry O’Brien as the NBA’s fourth commissioner.

The 1980s also brought us the salary cap, the “Stepien Rule” and “Bird rights.”

The NBA was the first major North American sports league to institute a salary cap when it took effect in 1985.

The so-called Stepien Rule is named for former Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien, who so completely stripped the Cavs of draft picks that a rule was passed prohibiting teams from trading first-rounders in consecutive years.

And of course, Bird rights came about as a salary-cap loophole that allows a team to offer one additional year to their own free agents, thus assuring that team the ability to be able to offer the longest contract.

But onto the 50 greatest players of the 1980s: To be considered, a player had to have played in at least 205 games in the decade (25 percent of the available 820 games per team).

The “decade” was defined as the seasons 1979-80 through 1988-89, inclusive, given that more than half of each season is played after the New Year.

Stats figured into the tabulation of course, but so did other things, such as awards and accolades like All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive selections.

As with any list, yours will be different, which is what makes this so much fun.

So as 1980s cyber icon Max Headroom might say: On, on-on-on-on with the sho-o-o-o-w:

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