Two eras stand out the most when discussing the greatest times in NBA history: the 1980s and 1990s. These two eras took professional basketball to a global scale because some of the greatest players ever dominated the NBA over those two decades. During the 1980s, the league still had an emphasis on defense and toughness while also allowing just enough offense to make the game exciting to watch. Of course, the 1990s took that to another level thanks to the presence of Michael Jordan.
The greatest players during the 1980s have to be Magic Johnson and Larry Bird because they singlehandedly transformed the way NBA fans looked at the game. Larry was the start, showcasing his extreme competitiveness on the floor and doing spectacular things against players who were more athletic than him. Magic stole fans’ hearts with his passing and on-court leadership, even winning Finals MVP in his rookie season.
Of course, the man most synonymous during the 1990s is none other than Michael Jordan. As soon as Michael became a professional player, he shocked fans with his play every night. The legendary shooting guard completely owned the 1990s, capturing 6 NBA titles and 6 Finals MVPs during the decade. Jordan also competed against other all-time greats including Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Clearly, the 1980s and 1990s delivered some of the greatest moments in NBA history thanks to all-time great players. But which era delivered the better players? It is time to create a best-of-7 series between all-time starting lineups of both decades, perhaps shedding light on which era had the better superstar players.
Isiah Thomas vs. John Stockton
Isiah Thomas is one of the greatest point guards ever, bringing competitiveness and leadership to his spot against another all-time guard. Thomas is a better scorer than Stockton and will relish any chances to go at the Jazz guard in one-on-one situations.
Stockton will not score as easily as Thomas, but he will lead his team in assists. By having MJ beside him and all-time great bigs in Malone and Olajuwon, Stockton will control the offense while also spacing the floor on offense.
Magic Johnson vs. Michael Jordan
Magic Johnson starts at shooting guard, although he will have no natural position. Magic will control the point guard spot a lot of the time but will be tasked with trying to slow down the great Michael Jordan. A 6’9” guard, Magic will lead his team in APG.
Meanwhile, Jordan will shine brightest in the series with 9 other Hall of Fame players. The legendary Bulls star will be the highest scorer in the series, averaging 31.5 PPG on 48.0% shooting from the field.
Larry Bird vs. Scottie Pippen
Larry Bird will be a major factor for the 80s team because he brings superstar all-around ability on the court. The Celtics legend will not only be the best shooter on his team but the best shooter in the series. Bird will average 27 PPG in the series on 40.0% 3-PT FG.
Scottie Pippen’s tasks are simple: handle Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as much as possible. Pippen is arguably the greatest defensive wing of all time, combining size and length with elite defensive IQ. Pippen will also form a dominant duo with Michael Jordan on the wings.
Moses Malone vs. Karl Malone
The 1980s will employ a twin-towers pairing starting with Moses Malone, a rebounding phenom with size and strength. Moses is arguably the best offensive rebounder ever, and can also score inside when he is in position.
Karl Malone is not as big as Moses, but he will stretch the floor a bit more due to his elite mid-range game. The Mailman is automatic from the floor whenever Stockton and MJ run the pick n’ roll, and will be efficient as he averages 23 PPG in the series.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
In the premier matchup, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar brings size and unstoppable offensive ability thanks to his skyhook. The legendary center also forms an all-time great duo with Magic Johnson, even though the presence of Moses Malone will clog the paint a little too much.
Hakeem is a talented scorer, but his true impact will come by defending Kareem as well as possible and also passing to the shooters. Olajuwon has a tremendous all-around impact, averaging 18 PPG, 10 RPG, 4 APG, and 2 BPG in the series.
Team 1980s Advantages
The 1980s have elite playmaking, even better than the 1990s team that is led by the all-time assist leader in John Stockton. Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas are two of the greatest playmakers in NBA history, dominating the point guard positions with ball-handling and basketball IQ.
Magic also brings size against a supremely dominant Michael Jordan, helping to control the talented scorer. Thomas is also an elite passer and point guard and will be able to control the pace of the game very well. Not to mention, Larry Bird might be the greatest passing forward ever alongside LeBron James.
Team 1990s Advantages
The 90s squad has elite offense because they cover every aspect of the offensive game. John Stockton is a better outside shooter than both Thomas and Magic, while Jordan can also space the floor at an elite level. With two shooters, the 90s can employ an inside-outside attack.
Scottie Pippen is also capable of relieving Stockton in playmaking, while also defending the likes of Magic and Bird at times. The inside duo of Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon will be a massive nuisance because they can score anytime they want and also allow the shooters to do damage from the outside.
Who Wins A Best-Of-7 Series?
Game 1 goes to the 1990s squad, in an absolute nail-biter. The first half ends 55-55, with Jordan and Magic dominating the court across each other. By the fourth quarter, Jordan has 30 points and Magic has 22 of his own. Both teams go toe-to-toe in the quarter, with the score tied 94-94 in a 2-possession game. The 1980s squad has the ball, as Magic drives and nails a running hook with 30 seconds left. The 1990s team respond with an MJ jumper, but Thomas acts too aggressive and fouls the guard. Michael drains the free throw, leaving Moses Malone with 1 second to attempt an inbound tip-in that rims out.
Game 2 is slightly more lopsided, as Larry Bird is the player of the game with a 32 point performance on 5-7 shooting from three and 8-8 from the free-throw line. Larry had his rhythm going from the start of the game, making his first two jumpers. Michael scores 25, but the best performers for the 1990s are John Stockton and Karl Malone who combine for 38 points. The game ends 104-92 for the 1980s team.
Once again, the 1980s fire on all cylinders. Kareem has his best game, dropping 29 points and grabbing 17 rebounds. Moses adds in another 15 boards, and the 1990s squad gets outrebounded massively on both ends of the floor. With Magic controlling the pace and feeding the bigs, the 1980s shoot 49% from the field as a team and win the game 110-95.
After two blowouts, the 1990s stars come to play in Game 4. They trailed 68-60 in the first half, with the lead going as high as 90-80 at the start of the fourth quarter. But Michael Jordan and Karl Malone spark a comeback, as both players combine for 20 points in the quarter alone. With the score tied 105-105, the 1990s stars have the ball. Jordan drives and kicks to John Stockton in the corner, who nails a three-pointer for his only points of the game. Game 4 ends 108-105 in favor of the 90s stars.
Game 5 is another nail-biter because it will effectively determine which team is under the most pressure over the rest of the series. The key performers for the 1980s are Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, while Jordan and Olajuwon lead the 1990s. Bird and Magic both drop triple-doubles, as Bird nails a buzzer-beater to send the game to overtime. Jordan has 24 points on 55% shooting by the time overtime comes, and he adds another 4 points on 2-2 shooting in overtime. Olajuwon proves to be the difference in the extra period, coming up with a massive block on an Isiah Thomas drive, and lobbing a pass to Scottie Pippen on the break who ices the game. Bird tries to make another buzzer-beater, but Pippen does enough to force a miss.
Game 6 is a must-win for the 1980s stars, and they certainly respond. Every player comes to play, as all 5 starters have a positive plus-minus. The game ends 110-100 in a convincing victor for the 1980s superteam, and literally, every player shows up. Thomas drops 20 and 8, Magic drops another triple-double, and Bird goes 5-6 from three. The bigs once again dominate the paint and blitz the 1990s team with a 70-55 first-half lead that lasts until the end of the game.
It all comes down to a critical Game 7, as both sides are fighting each other’s momentum. The 1980s team start the game hot, making their first 7 shots with Magic coming up with 5 assists mid-way through the first quarter. After a timeout, Jordan and Malone carry the offense into the second quarter. The first half ends 58-57 in favor of the 1990s team. In the 3rd quarter, Kareem comes alive with 12 points and 6 rebounds, potentially leading his team to victory singlehandedly. At the start of the 4th quarter, the 1980s stars lead 85-78. Another comeback is needed by the 1990s stars, and they respond.
Jordan drops 11 points in the fourth and adds another 3 assists, feeding Malone and Stockton for good looks in crucial possessions. Larry Bird tries his best to fend off the rising momentum from the 90s stars, going 3-3 from three in the 4th. Even Bird’s hot shooting does not prove to be enough, because Michael dominates the fourth including a stepback jumper to give his side a 4-point lead that sticks. The game ends 108-104 in favor of the 1990s team, and they win an all-time great series.
Final Result: 1990s Superteam vs. 1980s Superteam 4-3
Finals MVP: Michael Jordan