The NBA’s coronavirus suspension has forced us to look in the rearview mirror more than ever, with classic games and The Last Dance serving as our lone form of basketball entertainment. And the lack of live action has revived some of the greatest debates in league history. Was Jordan better than LeBron? Should Duncan be placed above Shaq on the all-time list? There are few, if any, definitive answers.
As we roll through the third month of the league’s suspension, The Crossover hopes to provide some context for the last 40 years of professional basketball. We chose the NBA’s best player in each season from 1979-80 to 2019-20 (much like Complex did with rappers). Today, we’ll look back to the 1980s, which represented a seismic shift in both the NBA’s style and popularity. With the arrival of Magic and Larry, the league would never be the same.
1979-80: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t on the floor as the Lakers defeated the Sixers in Game 6 of the Finals–thanks to a masterful performance from rookie Magic Johnson–but Los Angeles’ big man still stood as the league’s best player in 1979-80. Abdul-Jabbar led the NBA in win shares and blocks, and he averaged 24.8 points per game on over 60% from the field. 1970-80 marked Abdul-Jabbar’s last season with over 3,000 minutes. He would only cross 2,000 points in a season one more time. Perhaps the legendary center was beginning his decline in 1979-80, but the best player of the 1970s still led the league in 1979-80.
Honorable Mentions – Julius Erving, George Gervin
Larry Bird hit the ground running as a rookie, averaging 21.3 points per game while shooting 47% from the floor and 40% from three (albeit on limited volume). But two ABA legends still held an edge over Bird in 1979-80. Julius Erving finished second in the MVP voting with his best scoring mark since 1975-76, and he averaged 25.5 points per game on 52.2% shooting in the Finals.
George Gervin’s numbers were ahead of his time in 1979-80. He led the NBA in scoring for the third straight year, finishing the season with a career-high 33.1 points per game. With an undermanned supporting cast, Gervin’s scoring brilliance carried San Antonio to the postseason. He deserves some recognition before Bird and Magic run the league.
1980-81: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Erving won the league’s MVP in 1980-81, though that may be more due to voter fatigue than Abdul-Jabbar’s performance. Kareem still led the league in win shares and PER, and he finished sixth in true shooting percentage. 26 points and 10 rebounds per game on 57% shooting is pretty unassailable. Abdul-Jabbar keeps the title by the slimmest of margins.
Honorable Mentions – Julius Erving, Larry Bird
Erving continued to shine in the early 1980s, with 1980-81 marking his final MVP award. And the MVP wasn’t solely due to nostalgia. Erving dropped just below 25 points per game, and he posted his (at the time) best career shooting percentage. After a second-place MVP finish in 1979-80, Erving was a reasonable choice to take home the award in 1980-81.
Bird continued to emerge as one of the league’s elite in the 1981 playoffs. Down 3–1 to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals, Bird ripped off 32 points in Game 5, then combined for 48 points in Game 6 and Game 7. The Celtics would be champions two weeks later, capped by a 27-point performance by Bird in Game 6 of the Finals. Larry Legend was already established as perhaps the league’s best player by the end of his second season.
1981-82: Moses Malone
The 1981 Finals wasn’t Moses Malone’s finest series. He shot just 40.3% in a six-game loss to Boston, including a 4-17 performance in Game 1 and an 11-30 effort in Game 5. Malone entered 1981-82 ready to exact vengeance.
Malone was the league’s best player in 1981-82 by nearly every metric. The Rockets’ forward led the league in minutes, rebounds and win shares, and he trailed only George Gervin (and his notorious usage rate) in scoring. The MVP voting bears out Malone’s dominance. He won 40 of the 70 first-place votes, doubling Bird’s total. A first-round exit to the Sonics presents a legitimate blemish, though Malone still averaged 24 points and 17 rebounds per game in the series. He would get to exact his revenge one year later.
Honorable Mentions – Larry Bird, Magic Johnson
Bird’s almost-mythical status leads to the assumption that he seized the mantle as the league’s best player by 1982, but the numbers don’t necessarily back up the narrative. Bird finished 10th in points per game and he ranked 13th in offensive win shares (compared to Malone’s second-place finish). Perhaps I’d be more inclined to side with Bird had Boston won back-to-back Finals. But considering a loss to Philly in the Eastern Conference finals–thanks to ‘The Boston Strangler’ Andrew Toney–we’ll give Malone the crown in 1981-82.
Johnson will have to wait one more year to truly enter the conversation for the league’s top player. He didn’t cross double-digit assists per game until 1982-83, and he finished eighth in the MVP voting. This isn’t a slight to Johnson. But he’s still more of a co-star than a leading man in 1981-82.
1982-83: Moses Malone
We could focus on Malone’s dominant MVP showing in 1982-83 (in which he won 69 of 75 first-place votes) or his league-leading 14.5 win shares. But 1982-83 will always be defined by ‘Fo Fo and Fo.’ Malone predicted the Sixers would sweep through the postseason before the playoffs began, and his vision nearly came to fruition. Milwaukee snagged one game in the East finals, but the loss was the lone blemish on Philly’s playoff resume. Malone averaged 25.8 points and 18 rebounds per game in the Finals, a four-game sweep of the Lakers as the Sixers captured their first championship in nearly 20 years.
Honorable Mentions – Larry Bird, Magic Johnson
Who has the better argument as the league’s second-best player? Johnson deserves the nod here. Los Angeles’ point guard led the NBA in assists in 1982-83, and he surpassed Abdul-Jabbar in win shares. No disrespect to Bird, who was better in 1982-83 than he was in his third season. Yet it’s difficult not to recognize Johnson’s leap toward the top of the league.
1983-84: Larry Bird
Magic has a legitimate argument as the league’s top player in 1983-94, but Bird’s case is pretty ironclad. Boston won 62 games in the regular season before defeating the Lakers in the Finals, and Bird trailed only Adrian Dantley in PER while finishing second in defensive rating. Bird won 52 of 76 first-place MVP votes, then won Finals MVP. It’s hard to argue he was anything but the league’s best player in 1983-84.
Honorable Mentions – Magic Johnson, Bernard King
Johnson was pretty dominant in his own right in 1983-84, posting career highs in assists and field goal percentage. He’ll get plenty of love throughout this exercise. Let’s focus on Bernard King’s superb season. He finished the season with 26.3 points per game on 57% shooting, including a pair of 50-point performances. King was better the next season–one in which he led the league in scoring and dropped 60 points on Christmas–but a certain player arrived in Chicago in 1984-85. Let’s celebrate King’s accomplishments here.
1984-85: Magic Johnson
Bird snags his second MVP in 1984-85, and we’re once again in toss-up territory as Johnson and the Lakers seize their third championship since 1979-80. Johnson’s playoff performance gives him the slight edge here. He tallied 26 points and 17 assists in Game 5 of the Finals vs. Boston, and he turned in another double-double in Game 6 as Los Angeles closed out the Celtics on their home floor. Johnson’s team success leads to him entering 1985-86 as the best player alive.
Honorable Mentions – Larry Bird, Michael Jordan
We noted Bird won the MVP in 1984-95, and he comes close to a 50-40-90 season in 1984-85 along with 28.7 points per game. Put Bird over Johnson here, and there’s little argument from the peanut gallery.
Perhaps having Jordan leapfrog King is a touch blasphemous, especially as the Knicks guard led the NBA in scoring. But dive deeper into the context. New York was an atrocious 24–58 in 1984-85, while Jordan carried the Bulls to the playoffs as a rookie. And the statistical disparity isn’t as great as it originally appears. Jordan averaged 30.1 points and 6.6 assists per game in his final 40 contests, and he scored 30-plus points in 14 of his last 30 games. Jordan’s greatness was evident midway through his first season in Chicago.
1985-86: Larry Bird
The 1985-86 Celtics are among the top teams in NBA history, going 40–1 at home en route to a 67–15 regular-season record. Boston went 11–1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs before defeating the Rockets in six games to win the Finals, a postseason run punctuated by a 29-point effort from Bird in Game 6. And Bird’s regular-season resume certainly matches his playoff brilliance. Bird won 73 of 78 first-place MVP votes, averaging 25.8 points per game on 49.6% shooting. ‘The Hick From French Lick’ even canned 42.3% of triples on significant volume, leading the NBA in both made and attempted threes. 1985-86 was arguably Bird’s best season. He had little competition for best player alive.
Honorable Mentions – Magic Johnson, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar
Jordan played just 18 games in his second season, eliminating him from consideration. Johnson was terrific again in 1986-87, tallying a career-high 23.9 points per game as he led the league in assists. As for the third player on our list, 1986-87 marked effectively a last hurrah for Abdul Jabbar. He scored 23.4 points per game on 56.4% shooting, and he still finished eighth in win shares. Perhaps Dominique Wilkins deserves consideration, as do Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley. But in his last great run, let’s give the greatest center in NBA history the nod.
1986-87: Magic Johnson
We get one more year before Jordan officially takes over the league, and at 37.1 points per game, perhaps it’s a touch foolish to give the award to someone else. But Johnson’s leadership of a dominant Lakers’ team deserves recognition. Magic actually led the league in both offensive rating and offensive win shares in 1986-87, and the Lakers scored 115.6 points per 100 possessions. Johnson averaged 19.5 points per game on 58.2% shooting in the first two rounds of the playoffs. He dished out 20 assists in Game 2 of the Finals, then added 19 more in a 13-point win over the Celtics in Game 6. Magic snagged his fourth Larry O’Brien Trophy in 1986-87, the last year in which he was the league’s best player.
Honorable Mentions –Larry Bird, Michael Jordan
You can become numb to Bird’s sheer efficiency given his string of elite years, but his numbers in 1986-87 are absolutely absurd. He shot 52.5% from the field and 40% from three, finally joining the 50-40-90 club with a 91% mark from the line. Bird would have one more great season before back injuries derailed his career. His longevity limits his place on the all-time list, but at his peak, few (if any) matched Bird’s brilliance.
As for Jordan, 37.1 points per game is incredibly impressive regardless of the era. And Jordan’s performance matches the dominant stat line. He scored 50-plus eight times in the regular season (seven of which were Bulls wins) and he still averaged nearly 36 PPG against the Celtics in an early playoff exit. With a second-place finish in the MVP, Jordan had fully arrived by the end of his third season.
1987-88: Michael Jordan
Are you ready for Jordan’s run atop this list? It may last a while. MJ was recognized for his greatness with his first MVP award in 1987-88, and the competition wasn’t necessarily close. Jordan led the league in minutes, points and steals, and he tallied an astounding 21.2 win shares. Save for a Finals win, it’s hard to imagine a better season than Jordan’s in 1987-88.
Honorable Mentions – Larry Bird, Charles Barkley
Bird’s injury woes are a real shame, especially considering how lethal he still was in his ninth season. 1987-88 marked another 50-40-90 year for Bird, and still finished in the top 10 in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage. It may not have been Jordan-esque, but Bird was certainly excellent in his final fully-healthy season.
Johnson’s performance dipped in 1987-88 as he lost the assist title and dropped below 50% from the field for the first time in his career. So who fills the void? Let’s go with the Round Mound of Rebound. Barkley was a revolutionary offensive player with Philadelphia, and he’s frankly underrated historically by those of a younger generation. 1987-88 may have been Barkley’s peak. He averaged a career-high 28.3 points per game, and he led the NBA in effective field goal percentage. Barkley was a menace in transition and a bully on the block. Trailing only Jordan in win shares (and only Jordan and Bird in PER), Barkley rightfully earned his spot in the top three.
1988-89: Michael Jordan
Jordan’s excellence is unquestioned at this point, at least in the regular season. He led the NBA in scoring, PER and win shares in 1988-89. Only John Stockton had more steals. Oh, and the 1989 playoffs featured Jordan’s legendary game winner over Craig Ehlo. The Pistons had the Jordan Rules, but the other 23 teams had no answer for His Airness as we closed the 1980s.
Honorable Mentions – Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon
Bird played just six games in 1988-89 as Johnson re-established himself as one of the league’s top stars. He posted his highest assist total since 1983-84, and he finished above 22 points per game for just the second time in his career. Voters rewarded Johnson with another MVP award, and while he wasn’t the league’s best player, he still earned his spot on the All-NBA first team.
With Bird out of the picture, there’s no clear choice for the league’s third best player. Barkley remained an offensive dynamo in Philly, and Karl Malone began his ascent as one of the top scorers in NBA history. But let’s head south to the Lone Star State to finish up the 1980s. Not only did Hakeem Olajuwon lead the NBA in rebounding in 1988-89. He became the first (and only) player in NBA history to tally 200 blocks and 200 steals in the same season. Such defensive dominance places Olajuwon on our list for the first of several future appearances.