Basketball in the 1980s was on the verge of no longer existing after the dark ages that were the 1970s. The game was in desperate need of a makeover after a decade of scandal and out-of-control behavior on and off the court from its players. At the top of the decade that was the 1980s saw a few future superstars and all-time greats enter the league and gave it the 180-degree turn it needed. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s rivalry that carried over from college was the spark that ignited the turnaround, and soon after came the greatest player to ever play the game, Michael Jordan.
The superstars of the 1980s are well documented and noted by NBA fans and media alike. What about the other guys, though? What about the ones that rivaled these superstars and gave them the tough challenges they faced? There is an abundance of players who were denied championships and success because of the likes of Magic, Jordan, and Bird. There are even teammates of these guys that go unrecognized for their contributions to winning. Today, we try to shed some light on the players that go forgotten from this historic time in NBA history.
These are the 10 most underrated players of the 1980s.
10. Alvin Robertson
Career Stats: 14.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 5.0 APG, 2.7 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Career Achievements: 1x Defensive Player Of The Year, 4x All-Star, 1x All-NBA Team Selection, 6x All-Defensive Team Selection
Alvin Roberston was one of the premier perimeter defenders of the mid to late 80s, but his name rarely comes up in conversations as such. Robertson burst onto the scene with the San Antonio Spurs in 1985 and quickly showed why he was drafted 7th overall before the likes of Kevin Willis and John Stockton. Robertson was unable to crack the starting lineup his rookie year, appearing in 79 games mostly off of the bench. By the time his second season came around, the Spurs had no choice but to insert him into the starting lineup.
In the 1985-86 season, Robertson started all 82 games for the Spurs while averaging 17.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.5 APG, and led the league with 3.7 SPG. He was awarded the NBA’s first-ever Most Improved Player award for his incredible season, but the hardware didn’t stop there. He also took home the Defensive Player Of The Year Award and was named to the All-Defensive Second Team and All-NBA Second Team. He would lead the league in steals twice more during his career and recorded a streak of at least 1 steal in 105 straight games. He is one of four players in history to record a quadruple-double and the only one to do so with steals.
9. Terry Cummings
Career Stats: 16.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.5 BPG
Career Achievements: 1x Rookie Of The Year, 2x All-Star, 2x All-NBA Team Selection
From 1982-1992, Terry Cummings was one of the most dominant power forwards in the NBA. Cummings relished in going to battle with rivals such as Charles Oakley and Karl Malone. At 6’9 250 pounds, Cummings was a scoring machine from the moment he first stepped on the floor. He took home the Rookie Of The Year Award in 23.7 PPG, 10.6 RPG, and 1.8 SPG. The fun was only just getting started with Cummings’ career.
From 1982 to 1992, Cummings averaged 21.0 PPG and 8.7 RPG. He would sustain a knee injury at 31 years old which many people thought was going to be the end of his career. That was not the case as he became one of the league’s best role-playing big men. He was never able to return to the All-Star form he once was in, but he still extended his career by nearly a decade. He finished his career with 19,460 total points, most of which came during his dominant years in the 1980s.
8. Andrew Toney
Career Stats: 15.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 4.2 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Career Achievements: 2x All-Star
Andrew Toney wasn’t your typical player in the 1980s. He was fearless and unafraid of the competition set before him, whether they were role players or the league’s greatest stars. He initially shared the floor with the likes of Julius Erving and Moses Malone with the Sixers, and it didn’t seem to phase him at all. He often called out his teammates in practice or games and didn’t have a problem calling out his coach either. His career was headed towards the Hall Of Fame until the 1984-85 season, when stress fractures in his feet cut his career way too short.
Toney played a major role in the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers that won the NBA title. He made his first All-Star Game that season, and during the playoffs, he averaged 18.8 PPG and 4.9 APG to help his team reach the Finals. In the Finals, he averaged 22.0 PPG and 5.8 APG in the 4-game sweep of the Lakers. Larry Bird and Charles Barkley have said in the past that he was one of the best players they ever played against or with. With such high praise like that, you would think he’d be a little more appreciated.
7. Michael Cooper
Career Stats: 8.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Career Achievements: 1x Defensive Player Of The Year, 8x All-Defensive Team Selection
While Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got all of the credit for the Showtime Lakers’ success in the 80s, without Michael Cooper, they may not have been so great. Cooper is the original prototype for the 3 and D player that every team desperately searches for to put their team over the top. He was a career 34.0% shooter from three-point range and one of the best lockdown defenders in the NBA during the 1980s. He did it all and was never afraid to challenge an opponent at the rim for a block or disrupt passing lanes to take away possessions.
He wasn’t all three-point shots on offense either. He was a consistent lob threat as well, especially in an offense that liked to get out and run. With Cooper’s speed, he had no problem keeping up and making an impact. He was named the league’s Defensive Player Of The Year in 1987, averaging 1.0 SPG and 0.5 BPG. During his 12-year career, Cooper made 5 All-Defensive First Teams and 3 All-Defensive Second Teams. His efforts on the defensive side of the ball and taking on the toughest challenges helped the Lakers claim 5 championships while he was with the team.
6. Marques Johnson
Career Stats: 20.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.8 BPG
Career Achievements: 1x Comeback Player Of The Year, 5x All-Star, 3x All-NBA Team Selection
Marques Johnson is hardly recognized enough in Bucks' history, let alone the history of the entire league. From the moment Johnson debuted with the Bucks, he showed he could hoop, averaging 19.5 PPG on 52.5% shooting from the field. Johnson was a devastating force in the paint. He beat his defenders with off-the-dribble moves and a sweet shooting stroke from mid-range. His scoring was his bread and butter, but he also impacted the game on the boards, too, averaging 7.0 RPG for his career. His defense played a major role in the Bucks’ success as well.
In his 7 seasons with Milwaukee, Johnson averaged 21.0 PPG and 7.5 RPG on 53.0% shooting from the field. He peaked scoring-wise in 1979 when he averaged 25.6 PPG in 77 appearances. From 1980 through 1984, he averaged 20.2 PPG and 6.9 RPG. He took on not just scoring duties but ball-handling, playmaking, and defensive duties as well, and he thrived in Don Nelson’s system because of those abilities. Johnson’s impact on the game can still be felt today as one of the original point-forwards in the game.
5. Adrian Dantley
Career Stats: 24.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Career Achievements: 1x Rookie Of The Year, 1x Comeback Player Of The Year, 6x All-Star, 2x All-NBA Team Selection
Adrian Dantley made his mark on the NBA in the 1980s as one of the more prolific scorers of the decade. He is one of only six players in NBA history to average 30.0 PPG in a season four times. He is one of only four to do it 4 years in a row. Dantley was as aggressive as anyone in the decade, often using his skillset to create an open shot or get himself to the foul line. Even though he faced a height disadvantage, Dantley loved to operate and score from the paint, speaking volumes about his skill as a player.
In 7 seasons from 1980 through 1986, Dantley averaged 29.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 1.1 SPG. He took home 2 scoring titles and averaged 30.0 PPG or more 4 years in a row during that stretch. He was named to the All-NBA Second Team Twice in his career. In 1981, he made it for the first time averaging 30.7 PPG and 6.4 RPG in 80 games played. He would take home the honor again in 1984 when he averaged 30.6 PPG and 5.7 RPG. Although Dantley was never able to secure a championship, his play in the 80s warrants a bit more respect than he is shown.
4. Mark Eaton
Career Stats: 6.0 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.5 SPG, 2.8 BPG
Career Achievements: 2x Defensive Player Of The Year, 1x All-Star, 5x All-Defensive Team Selection
Mark Eaton established himself as one of the game’s greatest shot-blockers in the 1980s. Opponents knew they were going to have a tough night in the paint every time they were scheduled to play the Utah Jazz as long as Eaton was suiting up. His incredible length at 7’4 made him the Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz before Rudy Gobet even existed. Eaton sports a career defensive rating of 100.0 and ranks 5th all-time in total blocks with 3,064.
During the 80s, Eaton led the league in blocks 4 different times. He did it back-to-back seasons in 1984 and 1985 and went back-to-back again in 1987 and 1988. He averaged over 3.5 BPG in a season in 7 out of his 11 years in the NBA. Eaton was rewarded with two Defensive Player Of The Year Awards in 1985 and 1989, and 1989 happened to be the lone All-Star selection of his career. Despite never being able to crack 10.0 PPG, there is no denying the impact that Mark Eaton had on the court every night.
3. Sidney Moncrief
Career Stats: 15.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Career Achievements: 2x Defensive Player Of The Year, 5x All-Star, 5x All-NBA Team Selection, 5x All-Defensive Team Selection
As much as Sidney Moncrief was a legitimate offensive weapon, he made a name for himself with his swarming and unrelenting defense. He wasn’t your typical guard at the time, as he loved to post-up defenders on offense and used his strength to his advantage. Guards at the time were more prone to set up the offense rather than be the offense, but in his prime, Moncrief was the best two-way player in basketball. He was a versatile scorer with a smooth jump shot from within the three-point line that did significant damage.
From 1982 through 1986, Moncrief was selected to 5 straight All-Star Games., He averaged 21.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.7 APG, and 1.5 SPG on that stretch. Also, during that time, he took home the NBA’s first 2 Defensive Player Of The Year Awards in 1983 and 1984. He is well known for his defensive accomplishments but was never recognized enough as being the Bucks' best scorer for a significant scratch during the 1980s. Hopefully, fans will start opening their eyes to his skills sooner rather than later.
2. Fat Lever
Career Stats: 13.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 6.2 APG, 2.2 SPG, 0.3 BPG
Career Achievements: 2x All-Star, 1x All-NBA Team Selection, 1x All-Defensive Team Selection
Fat Lever was one of the most well-rounded point guards in basketball during the 1980s. He could do it all on the floor, and we cannot forget just how complete he was in his prime. Lever ranks 7th all-time on the NBA’s triple-double list, displaying his versatility alongside backcourt teammate Alex English every night. He was one of the league’s best rebounding guards as well as one of the game’s best facilitators. It is amazing how special Lever was for the Nuggets with little to no recognition to show for it.
From 1985 through 1990 was when Lever’s full game was on display. He averaged 17.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 7.5 APG, and 2.5 SPG during those 6 years. He was named to the All-NBA Second Team in 1987 when he averaged 18.9 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 8.0 APG, and 2.5 SPG, but the Nuggets only won 37 games that year. He was named to the All-Defensive Team the following season when he averaged 2.7 SPG on the year. He averaged 2.0 SPG for 6 straight years from 1985 through 1990, showing just how critical his two-way play was to the Denver Nuggets.
1. Alex English
Career Stats: 21.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.6 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.7 BPG
Career Achievements: 8x All-Star, 3x All-NBA Team Selection
In recent years, NBA fans have started coming around to just how good Alex English was during the 1980s. Even with the recent recognition, the love just simply isn't good enough, but we are getting there. English was the most prolific scorer of the decade and finished his career with 25,613 points in his career. His amazing offensive ability helped the Nuggets make 9 straight playoff appearances in the 80s, enjoying the most team success debatably that they ever have.
English was the first player in NBA history to score 2,000 or more total points in 8 straight seasons. He scored the most total points of the entire 80s decade. Yes, even more than Bird, Magic, and Michael. He made 8 straight All-Star appearances for Denver while averaging more than 23.0 PPG 9 years in a row. From 1981 through 189, English averaged 26.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.9 APG, and 1.1 SPG while taking home 1 scoring title in the process. When we speak about the game’s all-time greatest scorers, Alex English’s name needs to be mentioned way more often.
The 1980s Most Underrated
The players you see before you are not the players that ever shared the spotlight with the likes of the game’s superstars during the 80s. They rarely saw the television coverage or the newspaper coverage that guys like Magic and Bird did. They weren’t flashy, they weren’t boisterous. They simply went out there and did their job on a nightly basis and did it at a very high level.
These players have never publicly demanded their recognition as some of the game’s greatest players. So, let me do it for them. These guys are the players that make the league go at times. They are pertinent to team success in every way, shape, or form. Unfortunately, not everyone can set aside their recency bias to properly appreciate what the players of the past have done for the game of basketball. Here at Fadeaway World, we will continue to do our best to highlight the skillsets and legacies of the players, such as the 10 listed above. If we won’t, then who will?