By David Arkow, Sreetej Digumarthi, Matthew Doctoroff, Jacob Gilligan, Mykalyster Homberg, Misha Nair, Alex Petty, Rohan Rajeev, Rebecca Solomon, Jesse Troyer, Mazal Zebak
In honor of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary, they released their 75th Anniversary Team with their selections for the best players of all-time. This sparked many interesting debates about the merits of those that were on or those that were left off the list. While HSAC is not 75 years old (founded in 2006), this inspired us to examine the best basketball players of all-time. As the NBA media is about to reveal their First, Second, and Third Team selections for this season, we at HSAC will declare our own. But not for the past year – the past 40. We set out to create an NBA All-Decade team for each decade since the 1980s using a statistical approach and quantifiable metrics to back up our picks.
With the availability of many statistics, we tried to create a “catch-all” metric showing how good each player was. Using z-scores, we compared where each player ranks in different widely available and “important” statistics separating by decade. Z-scores show how far a player’s individual stat is from the average of the group and adjust for variation in the data. For example, consider two point guards, one who averaged 25 points per game in the 1980s and the other who averaged 30 points per game in the 2010s. Both were leading scorers in their time, so if you were to compare the 80s point guard with the modern one, his scoring would seem less impressive. This is a hypothetical situation, but the z-score allows us to compare across decades since it adjusts for certain eras being skewed towards certain statistics. As the NBA has changed over time (much higher scoring environment today), using z-scores allows us to compare within and across decades who were the best players. We implemented a similar approach looking at the best NFL quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers of all-time.
We selected our teams similar to All-NBA and All-Star team selections with two backcourt players (guards) and three frontcourt players (forwards and centers). For the backcourt, we computed a standardized z-score and then rescaled them from 0-100 for seven statistics (per game): 1) points, 2) assists, 3) rebounds, 4) steals, 5) win shares (an advanced metric that measures how much a player contributes to winning, 6) assist/turnover ratio, 7) true shooting percentage (shooting efficiency metric taking into account field goals, three-pointers, and free-throws). The previous stats are the same used for frontcourt players except substituting blocks for steals. From these seven standardized scores on a scale of 0-100, we computed a weighted average putting more stock in the “primary stats” (points, assists, win shares, true shooting) than the secondary stats. We then ranked the players in each decade based on their weighted average scores to select a First, Second, and Third All-NBA team for each decade from 1980-2020.
While we took a holistic approach to selecting our teams, there are other methods that would result in a different list. The seven statistics we chose are widely understood, recognized, and available metrics. Today, there are more advanced ones and some that rely on tracking data such as RAPM, DARKO, RAPTOR WAR, and more. Additionally, we did have a weighted criteria but one might choose different weights believing steals should be worth more. Facing a similar problem as modern day analytics, it is hard to quantify a player’s defensive value and our statistical criteria focuses more on offensive than defensive production. Because we are using concrete statistical criteria, there will inevitably be players that rise higher on the list than expected due to putting up gaudy numbers in one area. This is not a “be-all and end-all” list for the best basketball players of all-time but using a holistic and objective criteria to analyze and recognize the accomplishments of the best basketball players of all-time. We hope you enjoy reading through our teams and enjoy constructing your own based on our analysis.
Magic Johnson (G) - 3x MVP, 5x Champion, 3x Finals MVP, 12x All-Star, 9x First Team
The leading point guard of the dynastic 1980’s Los Angeles Lakers transcended the game of basketball making each game he played in an exciting piece of Hollywood entertainment. Some were skeptical of Johnson entering the league as 6’9’’ point guard in a game dominated by big post players. The No. 1 draft pick and NCAA Champion out of Michigan State proved them all wrong and is arguably the greatest point guard and passer of all-time. He averaged 11.2 assists per game over his career, the highest in history. In our analysis, he ranked first in win shares, points, and assists and second in true shooting percentage (behind Reggie Miller). Magic guided the “Showtime” Lakers to five of their 17 league-tying (with Celtics) NBA championships. The 1980’s Lakers captivated NBA fans then and they still do today, with HBO’s “Winning Time: Rise of the Showtime Lakers” based around Johnson’s rise to fame. Today, Johnson is an activist, businessman, part team owner (Los Angeles Dodgers), but none of that will surpass his accomplishment as the greatest Laker and greatest point guard of all-time.
Michael Jordan (G) - 5x MVP, 6x Champion, 6x Finals MVP, 14x All-Star, 10x First Team, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year
It’s hard to imagine that arguably two of the Top 5 five players of all-time are on the same team in the same position group and have the same initials. Jordan, synonymous as MJ, GOAT, Black Cat, Air Jordan, joins the 1980’s first team even though he was just a rookie (of the year) in 1985. Jordan is considered the greatest because he is one of the best all-around players in history. With the analytics age, the debate over the best NBA players today usually boils down to volume and efficiency. Jordan epitomizes this perfect player. Jordan had a score of 70 or higher in five of our statistical categories, ranking the highest in points, steals, and blocks (speaking to his defensive prowess). The only areas where Jordan comes in below average for our sample is in assists and his assist to turnover ratio. Jordan was not a true point guard although he did handle the ball a lot he was usually the one putting it in the basket. Turnovers are often greater in the earlier years of a player’s career (he averaged 3.3 per game in the 80s and then 2.4 in the 90s). Jordan never made it to an NBA championship in the first third of his career losing to the Detroit Pistons three consecutive times (1988-1990). Nevertheless, Jordan showed why he was the greatest player of all-time and would go on to win six NBA championships leading arguably the greatest basketball dynasty of all time. Similar to the other player with initials MJ on this list, off the court Jordan has made a career in Hollywood (Space Jam and The Last Dance) and owning a professional team (Charlotte Hornets).
Larry Bird (F) - 3x MVP, 3x Champion, 2x Finals MVP, 12x All-Star, 9x First Team, Rookie of the Year
After getting drafted sixth overall in 1978, Bird started cementing himself as arguably the best Celtic of all-time winning Rookie of the Year. Besides an injured season in ‘88-’89, he was selected to the All-Star team in every season of his legendary 13-year career. Bird brought three titles to Boston and ignited the legendary Celtics-Lakers rivalry whom they faced three times in the finals. He also had a personal rivalry with Magic Johnson who was drafted higher than him and defeated Bird and Indiana State in the NCAA championship. He will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest shooters of all time with a career field goal percentage of about 50% and a free throw percentage of 89%. However, it is not just his 24 points that sets him apart from the other all-star frontcourt players. Standing at 6’9’’, Bird went on to average ten rebounds, six assists, and close to two steals over the span of his career as one of the best point forwards of all-time.
Charles Barkley (F) - MVP, 11x All-Star, 5x First Team
Charles Barkley, Sir Charles, The Chuckster, The Prince of Pizza. It does not matter what nickname he may go by, The Leaning Tower of Pizza was likely the most dominant big man of the 1980s. Although he was drafted halfway through the decade – 5th overall in 1984 out of Auburn – he immediately made his impact in a star-studded era. As All-Rookie, he was selected to 4 All-Star games in the 80s because of his supreme defensive and rebounding capabilities (league-high of 14.6 TRB in 86-87). He could also block shots with ease, possessed great dribbling abilities for his size, and shot the league high two-point percentages from ‘86 to ‘90, never falling below 63% inside the arc during that span. Barkley is one of the greatest players to never win a championship. He has a career playoff record of 62-61 and only failed to make the playoffs in two years of his career with the 76ers, Suns, and Rockets. Barkley remains a major figure in the basketball world due to his humorous off-court presence on TNT: Inside the NBA.
Hakeem Olajuwon (C) - MVP, 2x Champion, 2x Finals MVP, 12x All-Star, 6x First Team, 2x Defensive Player of the Year
Drafted first overall in the legendary 1984 draft class (which also included Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton), the Nigerian legend will be known as one of the greatest big men of all-time, not just the 80s. Olajuwon is arguably one of the greatest defensive players of all-time. He led the league in both rebounds and blocked shots in 1989 and has a 97 rebound score and 85 block score in our metric. His rebounding and blocking skills are evident. But even for a seven footer, he could score at a consistently high rate – 23.2 points per game in the 80s (score of 76). He managed to win back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 in an era dominated by Michael Jordan, the only two in Rockets franchise history.
John Stockton (G) - 10x All-Star, 2x First Team
Of all NBA records, John Stockton’s 15,806 assists is the least likely to ever fall. He ranks more than 3,000 ahead of second place Jason Kidd. The only active player remotely close, Chris Paul, has nearly 11,000. Paul would have to play 6 more full seasons averaging nearly 10 assists per game if he wanted to pass Stockton. At sixth on the list, Magic Johnson actually averaged more assists per game (11.2) than Stockton (10.5) but had a much shorter career (906 vs. 1504 games). One of Stockton’s defining traits was his longevity and durability. He ranks fifth all-time in games played and in his first 13 seasons he only missed four games. In today’s NBA landscape of “load management”, Stockton would be a unicorn. Stockton embodied peak efficiency posting high marks in assists (87), steals (82), true shooting (90), and assist to turnover ratio (95). The only knock on Stockton is that he was not an elite scorer (24). Stockton is the greatest Gonzaga player of all-time but they were not as dominant back in his day having never made the NCAA tournament in his time there. Stockton played all 20 years of his career with the Utah Jazz but is one of the greatest never to win a championship as he lost in the finals in back-to-back years to his first team contemporary, Michael Jordan.
Maurice Cheeks (G) - 1x Champion, 4x All-Star
Maurice Cheeks is probably the biggest surprise name to make this list. We know our criteria and methodology is not bulletproof so there are bound to be players that rise and others that fall more than expected. Nevertheless, Cheeks was an elite point guard. The reason why he rises on this list over Isaiah Thomas comes down to volume. Most would agree Thomas is the better point guard yet Cheeks’s True Shooting score of 67 and Thomas’s score of 25 likely put him over the edge. Although Thomas still has the higher score in points per game (54 vs 28), he was not as efficient. Cheeks only attempted around 9 field goals per game for most of the decade while Thomas averaged nearly double that (17) throughout the 80’s. Cheeks, the current assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls, won his sole championship in 1983 with the 76ers in a sweep over the Lakers.
Moses Malone (F/C) - 3x MVP, 1x Champion, 1x Finals MVP, 13x All-Star, 4x First Team
Moses Malone was a defining piece of the 80s, as he only missed the All-Star game one year in the decade. His main attribute: rebounding. For five years straight in the 80s, Malone was the rebounding champ for the NBA. During that span, he averaged 14.3 rebounds. However, he was not just a glass cleaner as he also averaged 23.8 points, while nearly posting a 50% field goal percentage. Malone likely could be placed on the 1980s first team, but Hakeem’s overload of defensive accolades and championship seasons beats him out. Nevertheless, Malone will go down as one of the most iconic faces of the decade who was fearless and could secure the ball with ease.
Kevin McHale (F) - 3x Champion, 7x All-Star, 1x First Team, 2x Sixth-Man
One of three Celtics front-court players to make the 1980’s teams, Kevin McHale was a major contributor to the ‘81, ‘84, and ‘86 championship runs. McHale was a huge piece, averaging 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks. A main reason why McHale has been named to the second team is his overall winning success. He has the 3rd best win shares for front court players, only behind teammate Larry Bird and fellow second team member Moses Malone. Additionally, Herman Munster was extremely efficient in the paint with a field goal percentage of 56.3%, while also posting an assist to turnover ratio of below 1. McHale would later coach the Timberwolves and the Rockets but could not capture the same postseason success that he had as a player.
Robert Parish (C) - 4x Champion, 9x All-Star
The all-time leader in games played at 1,611, Robert Parish formed the most dominant front court in the 80’s alongside Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, During this decade with the C’s, Parish averaged 17.7 points, 16.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, and had a 56% field goal percentage. Even though he is likely not the best Celtics big man of all-time (Bill Russel), he still holds many franchise records in blocked shots (1703), offensive rebounds (3450), and defensive rebounds (7601). He has been labeled as one of the league's most dominant centers who had an “emotionless persona”, which added to his winning mentality. Parish’s game record might be in danger of falling to LeBron who trails him by 245. LeBron would have to play three entire seasons without missing a game so it will be close to call if Parish’s record will stand.
Isiah Thomas (G) - 2x Champion, Finals MVP, 12x All-Star, 3x First Team
Isiah Thomas is a midwest product. Originally from Chicago, Thomas attended Indiana University leading the Hoosiers to an NCAA championship in 1981. After being selected second overall by the Detroit Pistons, he spent his entire career with them to become their all-time leader in points, assists, steals, and games played. Nicknamed Zeke and Baby-Faced Assassin, Thomas was known for guiding the Pistons through an assertive brand of basketball earning them the nickname “Bad Boys.” They made the playoffs consistently throughout the 80s, and won two NBA titles (1989 and 1990). In our analysis, he ranks third in assists per game earning a score of 81.This speaks to his ability to set up his teammates and his continued success as a leader in getting his team to the playoffs. Thomas is also known for his brief coaching stints with the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks, as well as being the first GM of the Toronto Raptors. Today, he is a broadcaster, analyst, and still a pivotal figure in Detroit Basketball as another aspiring point guard and last year’s first overall draft selection, Cade Cunningham, tries to fill his shoes.
Clyde Drexler (G) - 1x Champion, 10x All-Star, 1x First Team)
Clyde Drexler was part of one of the most fun, acrobatic, and notable college basketball fraternities nicknamed Phi Slamma Jamma at the University of Houston with fellow 1st team selection Hakeem Olajuwon. Drexler led the Trail Blazers to their first NBA finals appearance losing to his back court running-mate Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons. He later was traded to the Rockets and reunited with Olajuwon where he won his first NBA championship (1995). Drexler excelled at the “hustle stats” ranking top 5 in steals (78), blocks (64), and rebounds (78) for backcourt players. Speaking to his nickname, “Clyde the Glide” participated in several dunk contests. Now, Drexler is a commissioner of the Big 3-on-3 basketball league and runs a family restaurant,“Drexler's World Famous BBQ & Grill”.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar (C) - 6x MVP, 6x Champion, 2x Finals MVP, 19x All-Star, 10x First Team, Rookie of the Year
It is surprising to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the third team rather than first team. Had we expanded our analysis to include a 1970s team, he would have been an easy selection for the 1st team. While Kareem was solid across the board, he didn’t score above 65 in any of our seven metrics as his career was starting to decline in the latter half of the 80s. For example, he averaged nearly 24 points per game in the first three years of the decade while only 14 points in the last three years of his career. Born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., which he later changed to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he converted to Islam, Kareem was known in the junior basketball circuits for his astonishing height at 6’ 8” which he already reached in eighth grade. At UCLA, he grew to his final height of 7’ 2”, and had an illustrious career winning three national players of the year and three NCAA Championships. Kareem was drafted 1st overall by the Milwaukee Bucks, and he already made an impact winning Rookie of the Year and leading a trip to the playoffs for a two year old team. After acquiring All-Star guard Oscar Robertson, the Bucks won their first (and only up until last year) championship in 1971. Kareem won both six NBA championships and six regular season MVPs, the most of any player. Throughout his career, he was known for his signature skyhook. Kareem currently holds the record for most regular-season points (38,387) but that is under threat of falling to LeBron James, continuing the Laker dominance in the record books. Of the Top 10 All-time leading scorers, seven have played for the Lakers (Kareem, LeBron, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Carmelo Anthony). Early on his career he received some criticism for being aloof due to his introverted nature towards the media and fans, but later on his fitness regime including yoga and his winning mentality were resounding. Now, he is known for being an activist and writer on issues about race and religion and a cultural ambassador.
Alex English (F) - 8x All-Star
The current all-time leading scorer for the Denver Nuggets, Alex English, led them to nine consecutive playoff appearances. English, who played at the University of South Carolina, was a steal in the draft not selected until the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks. In our analysis, he ranked highly in win shares with a score of 61 showing his ability to lead his team to the playoffs as he brought the Nuggets past the first round more times than in the 30 seasons after he retired. Most famously, English was known for his finesse and his ability to cut, earning him the nickname “The Blade”, which is further supported by his high score in the points category of 87. When he retired, he was the holder for most points, assists, games, and minutes of any player in a Nuggets uniform. While some of his Nuggets records might be at the threat of falling to Nikola Jokic, there is no doubt that English is one of the greatest Nuggets ever.
Larry Nance (F) - 3x All-Star
Larry Nance was catapulted into fame by being the first winner of the NBA Dunk Contest in 1984 playing for the Phoenix Suns. He was already known for his ability to play both ends of the court by being the lead shot blocker of any player other than a center when he retired. Our analysis confirms Nance’s ability to be versatile as he received medium to high scores in most categories and only dipped below 50 (league average) in assists. Nance was a huge part of the late 80s and early 90s competitive Cavaliers team whom his son Larry Nance Jr. used to play for.
Fat Lever (G), Sidney Moncrief (G), Julius Erving (F), Adrian Dantley (F), Jack Sikma (C)
Check out our 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s teams