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Thursday, December 09, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: Sonic Boom

I wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the 2005 anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond. This is the 11th of 12 installments reprinting that chapter in its entirety.

I have removed the footnotes that accompanied the original text; direct quotations are now acknowledged in the body of the work and I will post a bibliography at the end of the final installment. I hope that you enjoy my take on one of the most fascinating and eventful decades in NBA history.

Sonic Boom

The 1978 off-season featured plenty of action. Free agent Rick Barry left the Warriors for Houston but some of the impact of this move was lessened when the Warriors were awarded point guard John Lucas as compensation. Philadelphia traded George McGinnis to Denver for Bobby Jones--perhaps the best defensive forward in the league--and guard Ralph Simpson, a former ABA All-Star. Pat Williams later wrote about how the Sixers' perceived McGinnis at the time: "For the third year in a row, George--a productive player in regular season--had let us down in the playoffs. In a strange way, it boiled down to the fact that George was not all that enamored with the game of basketball. He had great agility, strength, and skills and the game had been good to him--but he wasn't intense in his approach to the game. He didn't have a good work ethic, and he hardly ever touched a basketball in the off-season. George's mind was just not in the game."

Undoubtedly, the strangest transaction occurred when Buffalo owner John Brown and Boston owner Irv Levin swapped franchises. Levin wanted to relocate to the West Coast and knew that he could not transplant the storied Celtics. Instead, after completing the deal with Brown he moved the Braves to San Diego and renamed them the Clippers. Brown and Levin also traded some players in the process but Boston's Red Auerbach wisely refused to give up the rights to Boston's top draft pick, a junior eligible by the name of Larry Bird. Meanwhile, Bill Walton's sad saga continued. After doctors informed Walton that he would have to miss the entire season due to his foot injury, he blasted the medical treatment that he received from the Blazers and announced that he would not return to the team when his contract expired; in 1979, Walton signed with the Clippers but he only played 14 games in the 1979-1980 season due to his continuing injury problems.

While the Bullets and Sonics were surprising visitors to the Finals in 1978, they were favorites in 1979. Washington marched to a league best 54-28 record, and the Sonics nipped right at their heels at 52-30. Portland dropped to fourth place in the Pacific Division without Walton, barely nabbing the last playoff spot with 47 wins. The surprising Kansas City Kings won the Midwest Division at 48-34, one game better than the Nuggets. The Kings featured star guards Otis Birdsong and Phil Ford. Birdsong led the team with 21.7 points per game, while Ford scored 15.9 points per game, ranked fourth in the league with 8.6 assists per game, and finished fifth in steals (2.2 steals per game). Ford won Rookie of the Year and All-NBA Second Team honors. The Suns and Lakers earned the other two playoff spots in the West.

George Gervin and the Spurs (48 wins) narrowly beat the Rockets (47) and Hawks (46) for their second consecutive Central Division title. The Atlantic Division was not nearly as close. The Sixers had become more defensive minded and team oriented but a midseason injury to Doug Collins (19.5 points per game) left the team seriously bereft of scoring. Julius Erving raised his average to 23.1 points per game but he also battled lingering injuries. With Collins out, the Sixers could have used World B. Free, who had been dealt to the Clippers for a first round pick just before the start of the season. Free, who always complained about his lack of playing time while he was with the talent laden Sixers, finished second in the league in scoring (28.8 points per game) to Gervin (29.6 points per game). Philadelphia slumped to 47 wins and did not have the best record in the conference for the first time since Erving joined the team. The Nets, led by guard "Super" John Williamson (22.2 points per game) and second year forward Bernard King (21.6 points per game), snared the last Eastern playoff berth with 37 wins.

Both Eastern Conference Semifinals featured great drama. The Bullets took a three to one lead against the Hawks but stumbled badly in the next two contests and barely survived game seven at home, 100-94. In the other bracket, Gervin's Spurs won the first two against Erving's Sixers and led three to one after a 115-112 win in Philadelphia in game four. The Sixers responded by blowing out the Spurs in San Antonio in game five and narrowly winning game six at home, 92-90. The series shifted back to Texas for game seven and the Spurs outlasted the Sixers, 111-108. In the Eastern Finals the Bullets jumped to a three to one lead versus the Spurs only to again end up in a do or die seventh game. This time Washington escaped by two points, 107-105.

The Western Conference Semifinals were not nearly as close. The Sonics eliminated the Lakers four to one, although two of the games went to overtime. Phoenix wiped out Kansas City by the same margin. The Seattle-Phoenix encounter was much more competitive, although it did not seem that way at first when the Sonics comfortably won the first two games at home. The Suns tied the series by taking games three and four in Phoenix and then grabbed the lead by winning game five in Seattle. The Sonics narrowly avoided elimination with a 106-105 victory in Phoenix and closed out the Suns with a 114-110 win in Seattle.

The Bullets stormed to an 18 point lead against the Sonics in game one of the Finals, but Seattle came all the way back only to lose when Dennis Johnson fouled Larry Wright during a shot attempt as time expired. The Sonics derived a great amount of confidence from their ability to come back from such a deficit against the defending champions. Seattle promptly stole home court advantage with a 92-83 win in game two and then took the lead in the series after a 105-95 victory in game three. The next two games were close, but Seattle won both of them to claim the title in five games. Versatile guard Johnson avenged his horrible game seven performance from the previous year, winning Finals MVP honors. The Sonics are one of the few teams in NBA history to win a championship without the services of at least one player from the 1996 50 Greatest Players in NBA History list.

Speaking of great players, the Pro Basketball Writers Association of America selected Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the Player of the Decade for the 1970s, the Knicks' Red Holzman as Coach of the Decade and the following quintet as the Team of the Decade: Abdul-Jabbar at center, Erving and John Havlicek at forward and Walt Frazier and Jerry West at guard.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:38 AM

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