Pro Basketball Teams of the DecadeA slightly different version of this article was originally published in the November 2001 issue of Basketball Digest.
Each decade immediately conjures up specific images for basketball fans: Mikan's Lakers of the '50s, Chamberlain vs. Russell in the '60s, Kareem's skyhook and Dr. J.'s skywalking in the '70s, Bird vs. Magic in the '80s and Air Jordan soaring above everyone in the '90s. In most cases these stars played for the signature teams of each decade. The raw numbers (wins, championships, Finals appearances) confirm the status of these teams, but those numbers also bring to light some fine teams that should not be forgotten.
In 1949-50, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and National Basketball League (NBL) merged to form the NBA. That season the league consisted of 17 teams in three divisions. Logistical problems led to an unbalanced schedule in which most teams played 68 games, while others played only 64 or 62. The NBA went through many changes in the '50s, one of the most notable being the introduction of the 24 second shot clock in the 1954-55 season. By the end of the decade the league had eight teams in two divisions and all teams played a 72 game schedule. The unstoppable George Mikan and his Minneapolis Lakers (the franchise relocated to Los Angeles before the 1960-61 season) were the main drawing card during the NBA's struggling formative years. Mikan partnered with three Hall of Fame teammates (Vern Mikkelson, Jim Pollard and Slater Martin) and a Hall of Fame coach (John Kundla) to lead the Lakers to four championships in the early '50s. The Lakers declined dramatically after Mikan retired and then made it back to the Finals in 1959 behind the stellar play of rookie Elgin Baylor.
While the Lakers claimed the most titles and most Finals appearances in the '50s, they did not win the most games, finishing the decade with 388. The Celtics won 408 games, although they did not became a championship team until after Bill Russell arrived, winning two titles toward the end of the '50s. Amazingly, the Celtics did not have a single losing season from the hiring of Red Auerbach as coach in 1950-51 until 1969-70, the first season after Russell retired as player-coach. Dolph Schayes' Syracuse Nationals (the franchise which became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963-64) won 404 games and appeared in three Finals, winning the championship in 1954-55. The Knicks won 388 games and made it to three straight Finals (1951-53) behind bruising rebounders Harry Gallatin and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and star guards Carl Braun and Dick McGuire.
The NBA began the '60s with eight teams in two divisions playing a 75 game schedule but by 1969 the league had expanded to 14 teams and employed the current 82 game schedule. The rival American Basketball Association was founded in 1967-68 with 11 teams in two divisions. The new league featured a 78 game schedule (later expanded to 84) and a free-wheeling style of play highlighted by the three point shot (first used in the short lived ABL in 1961-62), 30 second shot clock and red, white and blue ball. The Celtics dominated the NBA in the '60s, winning nine championships and 571 games. Celtics Hall of Famers from those teams include Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek. The next closest team, the Nats/76ers, won 486 games and one championship. It is worth noting that the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers team that prevented the Celtics from making a clean sweep of the decade won a then-record 68 games and is still considered one of the best single-season squads in league history; that 76ers roster boasted Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, and Billy Cunningham. The Elgin Baylor-Jerry West Lakers posted the third best record in the '60s, winning 447 games and losing to the Celtics in the Finals six times.
In the '70s the rivalry between the NBA and ABA led to a salary explosion as the two leagues battled fiercely for the services of star players such as Cunningham and Rick Barry. The ABA opened a new front in the war by signing players before their college classes had graduated, a practice which was contested in court when Spencer Haywood jumped from the ABA after one season and signed with the Seattle Supersonics. This landmark case eventually went to the Supreme Court and Haywood's victory led to the institution of a "hardship" rule whereby an underclassman could declare financial hardship and turn pro before his college class had graduated. This paved the way for the early entry of such players as Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and current stars Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, to name just a few.
The movement of players between teams and leagues and the influx of young talent into the sport made it much more difficult for teams to maintain elite status. No NBA team won repeat championships from 1969 until 1988 (the Indiana Pacers captured consecutive titles in '72 and '73 in the ABA). Eight franchises won NBA titles in the '70s, the most in any decade in NBA history, while four teams claimed championships in the seven ABA seasons during the decade. The New York Knicks and Boston Celtics each won two NBA titles, while the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Bullets and Seattle Supersonics captured one apiece; the Pacers led the ABA with three championships, followed by the New York Nets (two), Utah Stars (one) and Kentucky Colonels (one). While the NFL and AFL champions squared off in four Super Bowls before the leagues merged, the NBA and ABA never staged an ultimate championship series, leaving basketball fans to wonder if ABA stars Roger Brown, Artis Gilmore or Dr. J could have played the role of AFL legend Joe Namath.
During the '70s, the Milwaukee Bucks won the most games (492), followed by the Los Angeles Lakers (485), Baltimore/Washington Bullets (483), Boston Celtics (477) and New York Knicks (458). In 1976, the ABA's Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs joined the NBA, while the players from the remaining ABA teams went into a dispersal draft. Of the four ABA teams that survived the decade, the Nuggets won the most games (469; the Nuggets played in seven 84 game ABA seasons and three 82 game NBA seasons, so their actual winning percentage is virtually identical with the Knicks).
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived in the NBA for the 1979-80 season and their teams dominated the league for the next decade. Magic's Lakers appeared in eight Finals, won five championships and totaled 591 wins, while Bird's Celtics made it to five Finals, winning three titles and 592 games. Philadelphia finished third in wins (535), while notching three trips to the Finals and one championship in 1983. The '83 championship team sent four players to the All-Star Game (Maurice Cheeks, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney) and set a record by going 12-1 in the postseason. Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons won the '89 championship by sweeping the Lakers. The Houston Rockets are the only other team to appear in the Finals in the decade, losing to Boston in '81 and '86. The Milwaukee Bucks won 522 games but found the path to the Finals blocked by Boston and Philadelphia. By 1989, the NBA had 25 teams in four divisions. During the '80s the NBA added ABA flavor to All-Star Weekend by bringing back the three point field goal and the Slam Dunk Contest.
Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Coach Phil Jackson were the three constants on the Chicago Bulls teams that won six titles in the '90s. Not surprisingly, the Bulls won the most games in the decade (558), followed by the Utah Jazz (542), Seattle Supersonics (511), Phoenix Suns (503), San Antonio Spurs (496) and Portland Trail Blazers (495). Before the Bulls' title run, the Pistons won the '90 championship against the Trail Blazers. Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets captured the two championships sandwiched between the Chicago "three-peats." After a lockout limited the '99 season to 50 games, the Spurs romped through the '99 playoffs with a 15-2 record to claim the last championship of the decade.
The Lakers and Spurs are tied with three championships each in the '00s, so the upcoming playoffs could prove to be the tiebreaker to determine the team of this decade.
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posted by David Friedman @ 12:10 AM