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The 1980s were the NBA's best decade

With Magic, Bird and Michael Jordan, the best basketball the NBA ever produced was played during the 1980s.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

What you like when you were growing up will survive in your memory long after everyone else has exposed its flaws and written its obituary. That's why I will always unironically defend '80s metal and claim King's X as the genre's forgotten geniuses. (Gretchen Goes to Nebraska was deep, dammit.) I will continue to waive the flag for Kix, Cinderella and the Cult and flash the horns for Maiden, Motorhead and early Metallica. (Not the later stuff, because that sucked.)

I realize that liking metal makes me a tad bit ridiculous but I also don't really care. I could attempt to enhance my reputation by talking up my later love of punk, Stax and 60s garage, but that music exists for me strictly as a learned experience. Nostalgia doesn't discriminate and it doesn't play favorites. It gets all of us eventually, even those who continue to claim that Space Jam has some kind of artistic merit.

Nostalgia runs deep among the basketball Internet (witness this series), but as covering the league obsessively continues to be a young person's game, the clock has already turned from the '90s (where I suspect many of colleagues are based) all the way to the Aughts. Soon, it will be the Teens. Those who never saw Michael Jordan play are now in the same place as those of us who never witnessed Bill Russell or the '70s Knicks. With the exception of Bob Ryan and a handful of others, we're all just guessing here.

Yet on the subject of NBA basketball, I have absolutely no qualms about claiming the '80s as the greatest decade. This is not a bold stance. History has been kind to the Magic/Bird era, which famously rejuvenated the league out of its late '70s funk by rekindling the sport's best rivalry and introducing us to the wondrous talents of Michael Jordan. (To say nothing of Isiah, Sir Charles, The Mailman, Stockton, Patrick, The Admiral and The Dream.) I will further stipulate that the CBS theme song was far superior to anything John Tesh could ever produce and I'll gladly take Brent Musberger's stemwinding intros over anything Bob Costas gave us.

The game was faster and more fluid in the '80s before hand-checking, control-freak coaches and brutalization in the name of tough defense brought things to a crawl. Off the court, the '80s also brought us the draft lottery, iconic shoe commercials, the marketing orgy that is All-Star Weekend and the beginnings of the salary cap. It even gave us slightly longer shorts by the end of the decade.

What the league didn't have back then was the kind of exposure it enjoys now. National games on Sunday generally involved either the Lakers or Celtics or both, so if you were a fan of say, the Phoenix Suns, you really had to be there to watch your team play. Cable arrived in the mid '80s (check out the exceptionally ridiculous early TBS promos), which brought greater recognition to a handful of teams and players. But my dominant childhood memory of following the league is reading the box scores in the local paper. You never knew when Sleepy Floyd would go off.

What gave the '80s its sheen was the holy trinity of Magic, Bird and MJ, but what still gives it an air of mystery were those forgotten teams and players who have been relegated to the digital wasteland of broken links on Page 8 of a Google search. Take the Milwaukee Bucks, for example. The Bucks won 50 or more games for seven straight season and reached the conference finals four times during that stretch. Their lineups included such all-timers as Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson, Terry Cummings and Paul Pressey. For comic relief, there was Randy Breuer.

The Bucks are one of the greatest teams to never win a championship, but what makes them even more tragic is they never even reached the Finals. Playing in an era when the 76ers and Celtics were fielding some of the best teams of all time will do that to a franchise. Now, consider their achievements and tortured history against the endearingly doomed squads of the '90s: The Sonics, Jazz and Knicks. There are no 30-for-30s about the Bucks, or theme weeks where we give them their long overdue due.

Then there are the Dallas Mavericks, the '80s answer to Oklahoma City. Between 1981 and 1986, the Mavs drafted Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Dale Ellis, Derek Harper, Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf and Roy Tarpley. By 1987, they had become an offensive juggernaut, averaging almost 115 points per 100 possessions, per basketball-reference. (One hundred and fifteen!)

They drew the Sonics in the first round of the playoffs and expected to cruise to an anticipated showdown with the Lakers in the conference finals. After all, Dallas had won all five games against Seattle during the regular season by an average of 18.5 points and proceeded to put up 151 in the opener. They lost the next three after former Maverick Dale Ellis torched his old team. The Mavs had no room for Ellis in their rotation, proving yet again that drafting well is no guarantee and you can't keep everyone happy.

The run ended the following season with a breakthrough trip to the conference finals, where they lost to the Lakers in seven games. Aguirre was traded to Detroit, where he helped the Pistons win a pair of championships. Tarpley battled drug problems for the remainder of his career, Schrempf was traded in another ill-conceived deal and Perkins jumped to the Lakers in free agency. By the early '90s, the seeds of a great team had been scattered to the NBA winds.

It took the Mavericks 15 years, several coaches and Dirk Nowitzki to get back to that level. On that score they were not alone. The Hawks, Blazers and Nuggets all had good teams that never made it and their rosters were also full of All-Stars. Only the Sixers and Pistons were able to break through the Laker-Celtic axis, and that was at the beginning and end of the decade, respectively.

There were so many players who flourished in this decade that it would be impossible to list them all. We've gone this far and haven't even talked about Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Larry Nance, James Worthy or Alex English. Personal favorites of this era include Buck Williams, Purvis Short, Jeff Malone, Fat Lever and Kenny ‘the Snake' Norman, many of whom I knew mainly from their numbers in agate type.

I could go on, but you really had to be there.