Discover more from Statitudes
In a Box: The 1980s
A snapshot look at the decade of the 1980s.
The 1980s “In a Box”
Since the NBA season is split over two calendar years, I will use the year in which the champion was crowned as a separator. So for the purposes of this post, the decade of the 1980s will consist of the 1979-80 through 1980-89 seasons.
1979 — New Orleans Jazz moved to Utah
1980 — Dallas Mavericks debuted
1984 — San Diego Clippers moved to Los Angeles
1985 — Kansas City Kings moved to Sacramento
1988 — Charlotte Hornets debuted
1988 — Miami Heat debuted
Since they only played one season in the 1980s, the Hornets and Heat will be omitted from any cumulative “best” or “worst” lists that appear below.
The 3-point shot was introduced at the start of the decade, so 3-point field goals made, 3-point field goals attempted, and 3-point field goal percentage became official statistics. This also led to the formulation of effective field goal percentage* (an unofficial statistic), an adjusted field goal percentage that takes into account the extra point provided by a made 3-point shot.
* Mike Dunleavy supposedly came up with the formula when he was negotiating his own contract in the early part of the decade.
1980 — Los Angeles Lakers
1981 — Boston Celtics
1982 — Los Angeles Lakers
1983 — Philadelphia 76ers
1984 — Boston Celtics
1985 — Los Angeles Lakers
1986 — Boston Celtics
1987 — Los Angeles Lakers
1988 — Los Angeles Lakers
1989 — Detroit Pistons
Only five different franchises reached the NBA Finals in the 1980s:
Los Angles Lakers (8 times)
Boston Celtics (5)
Philadelphia 76ers (3)
Houston Rockets (2)
Detroit Pistons (2)
That matches the 1960s for the fewest such franchises in a full decade. Note that seven different franchises have already reached the Finals just four seasons into the 2020s.
Most Championships: 5, Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers entered the decade with a reputation for choking in the Finals, having lost eight of their nine appearances since moving from Minneapolis (where they won five NBA titles) to Los Angeles prior to the start of the 1960-61 season. The 1980s Lakers are one of only three franchises to win at least five NBA titles in a decade; the others are the 1960s Boston Celtics (9) and 1990s Chicago Bulls (6).
This post is unlocked for all subscribers. Sign up for Statitudes using the special link below and you’ll get your first 30 days for free. If you’re not satisfied with what you see, just cancel before the free trial expires and you won’t be charged.
Best W-L Record, Season: 67-15, Boston Celtics (1985-86)
The Celtics ran roughshod over the NBA that season, recording the most wins and the largest schedule-adjusted point differential of the decade (+9.1 PPG). They were just as dominant in the postseason, going 15-3 on their way to claiming the franchise’s 16th championship.
Best W-L Record, Decade: 592-228, Boston Celtics
The Celtics made five NBA Finals appearances — winning three times — and had six of the decade’s top 13 win-loss records. In fact, the 1980s Celtics are the only franchise in NBA history to post six 60-win seasons in a decade.
The Celtics finished the decade with just one more regular season win than the Los Angeles Lakers. The 1980s Celtics and 1980s Lakers rank first and second, respectively, for most wins by a franchise in a decade, followed by the 2000s San Antonio Spurs (576) and 1960s Celtics (571).
Worst W-L Record, Season: 12-70, Los Angeles Clippers (1986-87)
The 1986-87 Clippers are one of only six teams in NBA history to lose at least 70 games in a season:
Philadelphia 76ers (1972-73)
Los Angeles Clippers (1986-87)
Dallas Mavericks (1992-93)
Denver Nuggets (1997-98)
New Jersey Nets (2009-10)
Philadelphia 76ers (2015-16)
They started the season by winning three of their first six games, then dropped 28 of their next 29 contests. They closed the season on a 14-game losing streak.
Worst W-L Record, Decade: 256-564, Los Angeles Clippers
No franchise has recorded more losses or more 50-loss seasons (8) in a decade than the 1980s Clippers. They finished with a losing record each season, never winning more than 36 games.
The Clippers are the only team to play the entire decade of the 1980s without making a playoff appearance. With the exception of the Heat and Hornets, every other team made at least two playoff appearances in the decade.
Home-Court Winning Percentage: .649
The average team went 27-14 at home. The Boston Celtics posted the two best home record of the 1980s, going 40-1 in 1985-86 and 39-2 in 1986-87. Three teams shared the mark for worst home record in a season at 9-32: 1981-82 Cleveland Cavaliers, 1982-83 Houston Rockets, and 1986-87 Los Angeles Clippers.
For the decade as a whole, the Celtics had the best home winning percentage (.861) while the Clippers had the worst home winning percentage (.444).
Largest Home-Court Advantage: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets posted a winning percentage of .724 at home versus .324 on the road in the decade, a difference of +.400. The Phoenix Suns ranked second with a home-road differential of +.387.
In an average season, the Nuggets went 30-11 at home and 13-28 on the road. They had their most extreme season in 1988-89, going 35-6 (.854) at home and 9-32 (.220) on the road, a home-road differential of +.634.
Tallest Player: Manute Bol, 7-feet-7-inches
Bol and Gheorghe Muresan (also 7-feet-7-inches) share the honor of being the tallest players in NBA history. Since the NBA began tracking blocks in 1973-74, Bol is the only player to average at least 10 blocks per 100 opponent 2-point attempts in a season, all of which occurred in the 1980s:
10.8 — 1988-89
10.8 — 1986-87
10.6 — 1985-86
Shortest Player: Muggsy Bogues, 5-feet-3-inches
Bogues is also the shortest player in NBA history. Bogues and Bol both played for the 1987-88 Washington Bullets, who went 40-42 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Detroit Pistons.
Heaviest Player: Geoff Crompton, 280 lbs.
Crompton, a 6-foot-11-inch center, played for five franchises during his relatively short 82-game career. Crompton reportedly weighed 325 pounds when he reported to the University of North Carolina as a freshman.
Lightest Player: Spud Webb, 133 lbs.
Webb and Earl Boykins are the lightest players in NBA history. Webb had a solid NBA career, averaging 9.9 PPG and 5.3 APG in 814 games. He’s best known for winning the Slam Dunk Contest in 1986.
Best Player by Season:
1979-80 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1980-81 — Julius Erving
1981-82 — Moses Malone
1982-83 — Moses Malone
1983-84 — Larry Bird
1984-85 — Larry Bird
1985-86 — Larry Bird
1986-87 — Michael Jordan (Magic Johnson, MVP)
1987-88 — Michael Jordan
1988-89 — Michael Jordan (Magic Johnson, MVP)
This is my subjective list, of course. Unless otherwise noted, these players also took home the league’s MVP Award.
Best Season, Player: Michael Jordan (1987-88)
Jordan’s first MVP season was a doozy. He averaged 35.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, and 3.2 SPG, shooting 53.5% from the field and 84.1% from the free throw line. Jordan also won the Defensive Player of the Year Award, making him one of only three players to be named MVP and DPOY in the same season.
Best Offense, Season: Los Angeles Lakers (1986-87)
The 1986-87 Lakers averaged 115.6 points per 100 possessions, the highest such figure of the decade and, until the 2018-19 season, the highest such figure in NBA history. They finished second in the NBA in field goal percentage (51.6%), first in 3-point field goal percentage (36.7%), and fourth in free throw percentage (78.9%).
The Lakers won an NBA-high 65 games during the regular season, then went on a 15-3 playoff run to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Their offense was somehow even better in the postseason, recording an offensive rating of 119.9.
Best Offense, Decade: Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers averaged 111.9 points per 100 possessions in the decade, one point higher than the Boston Celtics. They finished with the league’s top offense six times and were runner-up in two other seasons.
The five-highest team field goal percentages in NBA history were all recorded by the 1980s Lakers:
54.5% — 1984-85
53.2% — 1983-84
52.9% — 1979-80
52.8% — 1982-83
52.2% — 1985-86
The Lakers shot at least 50% from the field every season from 1978-79 through 1988-89, the longest such streak in NBA history by a ridiculous seven seasons.
Worst Offense, Season: Houston Rockets (1982-83)
The 1982-83 Rockets averaged just 97.0 points per 100 possessions, the worst such figure of the decade. They lost 68 games, the most in franchise history and the second-highest total of the decade. The Rockets were rewarded for their (lack of) effort with the first overall pick in the 1983 NBA Draft, where they selected Ralph Sampson.
Worst Offense, Decade: New Jersey Nets
Although the Nets did not finish with the worst offense in any one season, they finished next-to-last in points per 100 possessions four times, and were ranked in the bottom five seven times. For the decade, they averaged 103.6 points per 100 possessions, the lowest such figure among all franchises.
All Offense/No Defense, Team: Denver Nuggets (1981-82)
The Nuggets set a still-standing NBA record by scoring 126.5 PPG, but gave up an average of 126.0 PPG, the second-highest figure in history. They ranked first in the league in points scored per 100 possessions (114.3) and last in points allowed per 100 possessions (113.9).
The Nuggets fell to 31-30 after losing to the Atlanta Hawks on March 9, 1982, then reeled off 12 straights wins in which they scored at least 120 points in each game, the longest such streak in NBA history. Denver finished the regular season with a record of 46-36, but lost in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs to the Phoenix Suns.
All Offense/No Defense, Player: Adrian Dantley
One of the most efficient volume scorers in NBA history, Dantley averaged 26.5 PPG on 55.0% shooting from the field and 82.0% accuracy from the free throw line in the 1980s. However, the 6-foot-5-inch Dantley was a liability on defense, where his size (among other things) made it difficult for him to guard other forwards. I have him rated as 74.9 wins above average on offense and 10.5 wins below average on defense for the decade.
Best Defense, Season: New Jersey Nets (1982-83)
The 1982-83 Nets allowed an average of 98.9 points per 100 possessions, the best defensive rating of the decade. They were led by power forward Buck Williams, an All-Defensive Second Team selection who finished second in the NBA in rebounds (1,027) and rebounds per game (12.5) that season.
The Nets went 49-33 in the regular season, but were swept out of the playoffs by the New York Knicks. Their regular season ended in controversy, as head coach Larry Brown left the team with six games remaining to take the same position at the University of Kansas. Brown was replaced by assistant coach Bill Blair, who also served as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves for a little more than one season in the 1990s.
Best Defense, Decade: Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks allowed an average of 103.8 points per 100 possessions, the top such figure of the decade. Although they finished with the league’s top defense in just one season (1981-82), they ranked in the top six eight times, including three runner-up finishes. Their defensive stalwart was guard Sidney Moncrief, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year Award winner.
Worst Defense, Season: Denver Nuggets (1981-82), Los Angeles Clippers (1981-82)
For all intents and purposes, these two teams finished in a statistical tie, both allowing almost 114 points per 100 possessions (113.86 for the Nuggets, 113.85 for the Clippers). The Nuggets at least had a history-making offense (see above), but the Clippers atrocious defense coupled with their middling offense (11th out of 23 teams in offensive rating) led to a conference-worst 17-65 record.
Worst Defense, Decade: Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers gave up an average of 110.5 points per 100 possessions, the decade’s worst defensive rating. They finished in the bottom three in defensive rating seven times, including last twice and next-to-last three times.
The Clippers allowed an opponent field goal percentage of 50.4%, the highest such figure of the decade. They finished in the bottom four of the NBA in opponent field goal percentage seven times, including three league-worst performances.
All Defense/No Offense, Team: Washington Bullets (1982-83)
The Bullets had the second-stingiest defense in the NBA, allowing an average of 99.3 points per 100 possessions. However, the Bullets played offense as if they were being guarded by themselves, scoring just 99.1 points per 100 possessions, the league’s second-worst offensive rating. As would be expected based on their points scored and allowed, the Bullets were basically a .500 team that season (42-40) and failed to qualify for the playoffs.
All Defense/No Offense, Player: Mark Eaton
The 7-foot-4-inch Eaton was a force in the paint defensively (18.3 wins above average), but he was rather poor — albeit rarely used — on offense (31.7 wins below average). In a nice twist, the decade’s most extreme defensive player spent several seasons in the Utah Jazz’s starting lineup with the decade’s most extreme offensive player, Adrian Dantley.
Best Backcourt, Season: Los Angeles Lakers (1986-87)
Point guard Magic Johnson averaged a career-high 23.9 PPG and league-high 12.2 APG as he won the first of his three MVP Awards; shooting guard Byron Scott averaged 17.4 PPG and shot a career-high 43.6% from 3-point range; and sixth man Michael Cooper recorded the second-highest scoring average of his career (10.5 PPG) and was named Defensive Player of the Year.
Best Frontcourt, Season: Boston Celtics (1985-86)
All three frontcourt starters — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish — made the Eastern Conference All-Star team, while super-sub Bill Walton was named Sixth Man of the Year. Bird earned All-NBA First Team honors and won his third straight MVP Award, while McHale was named to the All-Defensive First Team.
G — Magic Johnson (716 GP, 19.5 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 11.2 APG)
G — Michael Jordan (345 GP, 32.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.9 APG)
F — Larry Bird (717 GP, 25.0 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 6.1 APG)
F — Kevin McHale (694 GP, 18.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 56.5 FG%)
C — Moses Malone (778 GP, 24.5 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 1.4 BPG)
The selection of McHale over Charles Barkley was somewhat difficult, as I would argue that, stacked up, Barkley had four of the top five individual seasons. In the end, though, I went with McHale’s longevity (nine seasons versus five for Barkley) and postseason success (three championships).
Player of the Decade: Larry Bird (Boston Celtics)
Bird was named Rookie of the Year in 1979-80, won three consecutive MVP Awards (he’s one of only three players to do so), claimed two Finals MVP Awards, and received All-NBA First Team recognition nine times. The only time Bird failed to win All-NBA First Team honors during the decade was 1988-89, when he played just six games after having bone spurs surgically removed from both heels.
Bird averaged 25.0 PPG, 10.2 RPG, and 6.1 APG in the 1980s. He’s the only player in NBA history to average at least 20 PPG, 10 RPG, and 5 APG over a full calendar decade.
Coach of the Decade: Pat Riley (Los Angeles Lakers)
Riley compiled a record of 470-175 (.729) during the regular season, and in the postseason he piloted the Lakers to seven NBA Finals appearances and four championships.
Honorable mention goes to K.C. Jones, who led the Boston Celtics to a 308-102 (.751) record in the regular season and won two titles in four NBA Finals appearances in the postseason.