1980s: Review

Teams in the Finals

The 1980s for the NBA was a top-heavy decade. Only five different teams appeared in a championship series, and only four different teams won a title. The Los Angeles Lakers were by far the most successful franchise, having won 5 out of the 8 NBA Finals they appeared in. Their domination of the Western Conference in the ’80s could almost make up for the shortcomings in the 1960s.

The Boston Celtics were the second most successful team of the ’80s, having won 3 out of the 5 NBA Finals they appeared in. Their run from 1984-1987 of four straight NBA Finals was the last time a team would reach the championship series four straight years until the 2011-2014 Miami Heat.

The Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons both took large steps for their franchises by winning the 1983 and 1989 NBA Finals respectively. Their reigns atop the Eastern Conference bookended the Celtics’ streak of Finals appearances in the mid-’80s. Philadelphia would fall off towards the end of the ’80s, but Detroit would remain competitive in the early ’90s.

The Houston Rockets were the fifth and final team to appear in the NBA Finals in the 1980s, losing in both the 1981 and 1986 championship series to the Boston Celtics. Despite their shortcomings, the franchise would remain competitive in the early ’90s, but the roster would look very different.

Teams on the Rise

Several different teams announced their arrival on the NBA scene in the 1980s, but the Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls looked like the most championship-ready by the end of the decade. The Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers, despite not reaching the Conference Finals, also looked like they would be championship contenders during the next decade.

As for the younger teams in the league, the New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors took great strides by winning playoff series in the late ’80s. Their rosters appeared to be at least a couple years away, but a wealth of young talent made the teams worthy of recognition.

Teams that Missed their Shot

No teams were more disappointed by failure in the 1980s than the Milwaukee Bucks and San Antonio Spurs. These two franchises combined for five Conference Finals appearances, but neither could get over the hump and reach the NBA Finals.

The decade was also a disappointment for the Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trailblazers, and Seattle SuperSonics. All four of these franchises were mainstays in the playoffs but failed to take great strides. These teams also lacked the young talent that allowed other teams to contend on the biggest stage.

Players of Recognition

The best two players of the 1980s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, fought through one of the best rivalries in NBA history. The two players combined to win eight NBA titles, five NBA Finals MVPs, and five regular season MVPs. Though both ended the decade with injuries, the league was hopeful that their collective dominance would continue into the 1990s.

Players whose greatness appeared to fade in the 1980s include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Julius Erving, and Moses Malone. Kareem retired at the end of the decade, Dr. J left after the ’87 season, Wilkes retired after the ’86 season, and Moses never made another All-Star team after the ’89 season. These legends combined to win six of the ten championships of the decade.

Young players that looked to be the future of the NBA include Chicago’s Michael Jordan, Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, New York’s Patrick Ewing, Detroit’s Isiah Thomas, Portland’s Clyde Drexler, Utah’s Karl Malone, and Philadelphia’s Charles Barkley, and Phoenix’s Kevin Johnson.

Other players of note of the 1980s include Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins, Boston’s Kevin McHale, Cedric Maxwell, Dennis Johnson, and Robert Parish, Chicago’s Artis Gilmore, Denver’s Alex English, Detroit’s Bill Laimbeer and Joe Dumars, Los Angeles’ James Worthy, Norm Nixon, and Michael Cooper, Milwaukee’s Sydney Moncrief and Terry Cummings, New Jersey’s Michael Ray Richardson, New York’s Bernard King, Seattle’s Dale Ellis, and Utah’s John Stockton.


The NBA experienced a rejuvenation of popularity thanks to the success of teams like the Lakers and Celtics. The game, as a whole, had expanded in strategy and playing style. Fastbreak offense allowed for more exciting plays and higher scoring, and player athleticism was increasing. Slam dunks and three-point field goals were now mainstays in the NBA game, and an influx of young talent was taking the league by storm. The 1990s were shaping up to be one of the most exciting decades in NBA history.

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