The 1980s NBA In a Box

My favorite contemporary writer, the incomparable Bill James, has used the “In a Box” concept in several of his books. Basically what James does is choose a topic (e.g., a baseball manager) and then makes an idiosyncratic list of the topic’s defining features. I think the format works well for a blog post, so today I would like to put the the 1980s NBA “In a Box”.


* Includes the 1979-80 through 1988-89 seasons.

Attendance: 111 million (110,789,364)

Highest Lowest
1987-88 Detroit Pistons 1,066,505 1982-83 San Diego Clippers 158,887
Los Angeles Lakers 6,414,692 Los Angeles/SD Clippers 3,000,479

The Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets actually had the lowest total attendance figures, but they were expansion teams that debuted in the 1988-89 season. They will also be omitted from any cumulative “bests” or “worsts” that appear below.

Franchise Shifts:

New Orleans Jazz to Utah, 1979-80
San Diego Clippers to Los Angeles, 1984-85
Kansas City Kings to Sacramento, 1985-86

Best W-L Record by Team:

Team W-L Pct
1985-86 Boston Celtics 67-15 .817
Boston Celtics 592-228 .722

The Celtics made five appearances in the NBA Finals — winning three titles — and had six of the decade’s top 13 win-loss records.

Worst W-L Record by Team:

Team W-L Pct
1986-87 Los Angeles Clippers 12-70 .146
LA/SD Clippers 256-564 .312

The Clippers were the only team to play the entire decade without making a playoff appearance.

Having Their Best Decade:

Team W-L Pct
Boston Celtics 592-228 .722
Philadelphia 76ers 535-285 .652
Milwaukee Bucks 522-298 .637

Having Their Worst Decade:

Team W-L Pct
LA/SD Clippers 256-564 .312
Indiana Pacers 317-503 .387
Cleveland Cavaliers 326-494 .398
San Antonio Spurs 387-433 .472

Home-Court Winning Percentage: .649

This represents the second highest home-court winning percentage in a decade in NBA history, trailing only the 1950s.

Largest Home-Court Advantage: Denver Nuggets, +.400

In an average season, the Nuggets were 30-11 at home and 13-28 on the road.

Tallest Player: Manute Bol, 7’7″

Bol and Gheorghe Muresan (also 7’7″) are the tallest players in NBA history.

Shortest Player: Muggsy Bogues, 5’3″

Bogues is the shortest player in NBA history.

Heaviest Player: Geoff Crompton, 280 lbs.

Crompton reportedly weighed 325 pounds when he he reported to the University of North Carolina as a freshman.

Lightest Player: Spud Webb, 133 lbs.

Webb is the lightest player in NBA history.

Best Players by Season:

Season Player
1979-80 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1980-81 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1981-82 Moses Malone
1982-83 Moses Malone
1983-84 Larry Bird
1984-85 Larry Bird
1985-86 Larry Bird
1986-87 Michael Jordan
1987-88 Michael Jordan
1988-89 Michael Jordan

Most Win Shares:

Player WS
Michael Jordan, 1987-88 21.2
Larry Bird 124.2

Jordan had the top three single season win share figures in the decade. In addition to the season listed above, he had 19.8 win shares in 1988-89 and 16.9 in 1986-87.

Bird’s total is closely followed by Magic Johnson (120.3) and Moses Malone (115.7).

Best Offense by Team:

Team ORtg
1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers 115.6
Los Angeles Lakers 111.9

The Lakers appear five times on a list of the decade’s nine most efficient offenses.

Worst Offense by Team:

Team ORtg
1982-83 Houston Rockets 97.0
New Jersey Nets 103.6.

The 1982-83 Rockets were one of the worst teams in NBA history, finishing 14-68 with an adjusted margin of victory of -11.1 points per game.

All Offense/No Defense (Team): 1981-82 Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets finished first in points scored per 100 possessions (114.3) and last in points allowed per 100 possessions (113.9).

Best Defense by Team:

Team DRtg
1982-83 New Jersey Nets 98.9
Milwaukee Bucks 103.8

From 1980-81 through 1986-87, the Bucks finished in the top four in points allowed per 100 possessions in all but one season (1982-83, when they finished sixth).

Worst Defense by Team:

Team DRtg
1981-82 Denver Nuggets 113.9
LA/SD Clippers 110.5

Starting with the 1980-81 season, the Nuggets had either the worst or second-worst defensive rating three times in four seasons (they were fourth worst in 1982-83).

All Defense/No Offense (Team): 1982-83 Washington Bullets

The Bullets finished second in points allowed per 100 possessions (99.3) and next-to-last in points scored per 100 possessions (99.1).

Best Backcourt: 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers

Point guard Magic Johnson averaged a career high 23.9 points per game and won his first MVP award, shooting guard Byron Scott averaged 17.4 points per game and was fourth in the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage, and sixth man Michael Cooper had the second-best offensive season of his career and was named Defensive Player of the Year.

Best Frontcourt: 1985-86 Boston Celtics

All three frontcourt starters — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish — made the All-Star team, with Bird winning the MVP award, while super-sub Bill Walton was named Sixth Man of the Year.

All-Decade Team:

Totals in seasonal notation, based on 82 games.

Pos Player Yrs MP PPG RPG APG WS WS/48
PG Magic Johnson 8.7 3025 19.5 7.4 11.2 13.8 .219
SG Michael Jordan 4.2 3195 32.6 6.2 5.9 17.5 .262
SF Larry Bird 8.7 3152 25.0 10.2 6.1 14.2 .216
PF Charles Barkley 4.7 3014 22.1 12.0 3.5 13.3 .212
C Moses Malone 9.5 3061 24.5 13.2 1.5 12.2 .191

The selections of Jordan over Sidney Moncrief and Barkley over Kevin McHale were difficult, but in the end the peak seasons of Jordan and Barkley could not be ignored. Based on win shares, Jordan had the top three seasons of the decade (1986-87, 1987-88, 1988-89), followed by two of Barkley’s seasons (1987-88, 1988-89).

Coach of the Decade: Pat Riley, Los Angeles Lakers

Riley had an average win-loss record of 60-22 during the regular season, and in the postseason he piloted the Lakers to four championships.

All-Defensive Team:

Pos Player
PG Dennis Johnson
SG Sidney Moncrief
SF Paul Pressey
PF Bobby Jones
C Mark Eaton

All Offense/No Defense (Player): Kiki Vandeweghe

VanDeWeghe had 65.1 win shares for the decade, with 90.7 percent of them coming at the offensive end. No other player with at least 25 win shares had a higher percentage of their win shares generated on offense.

All Defense/No Offense (Player): Mark Eaton

For the decade, Eaton had 28.2 win shares, with 123.4 percent of them coming at the offensive end. Wait a second, that has to be a typo, right? No, it’s not: Easton finished the decade with 34.8 defensive win shares and -6.6 offensive win shares.

New Statistics: The 3-point shot was introduced at the start of the decade, so 3-point field goals made and 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.

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