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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: Rick Barry Is Superman

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 seventh 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.

Rick Barry Is Superman

While the drafting of Moses Malone attracted headlines, the story of the 1974-1975 season was unquestionably the stunning individual brilliance of Rick Barry. The cover of the April issue of Sport declared, "Rick Barry is Superman." His coach Al Attles said, "…right now I’m telling you he could be the best who ever played. He brings something new each night." Opposing coaches were no less effusive. "Right now he is playing as well as anyone who has ever played this game," Pistons Coach Ray Scott raved. After Barry went over, around, and through Knicks' forward Hawthorne Wingo to the tune of 44 points and four assists in an early season Warriors' victory, Wingo stated simply, "On every play, no matter who scores, he handles the ball at least one time. He makes them happen." Barry led the league in free throw percentage (90.4 percent) and steals (2.85 steals per game), ranked second in scoring (30.6 points per game) and finished sixth in assists (6.2 assists per game), a remarkable statistic for a high scoring forward. Golden State won the Pacific Division with a 48-34 record, best in the Western Conference.

Interestingly, Barry did not win the MVP. The award instead went to Bob McAdoo, who also had an outstanding season, leading the league in scoring (34.5 points per game), while ranking fourth in rebounding (14.1 rebounds per game), fifth in field goal percentage (51.2 percent) and sixth in blocked shots (2.12 blocked shots per game). While McAdoo was clearly a worthy recipient of the honor, Barry did not finish a close second but rather a distant fourth in the balloting. This can be explained in large part because the MVP voting was done by the league's players at this time and it is no secret that Barry, who did not hesitate to criticize teammates, opponents, referees or anyone else, was not particularly popular. Since 1980-1981, the official NBA MVP voting has been conducted among media members instead of the players.

The Boston Celtics and Washington (previously Capital) Bullets paced the Eastern Conference with 60 wins each. Both teams padded their victory totals at the expense of the expansion New Orleans Jazz, the newest member of the Eastern Conference's Central Division. The Jazz attempted to fill the stands by acquiring Pete Maravich--who played collegiately at Louisiana State--from the Hawks. Maravich averaged 21.5 points per game and 6.2 assists per game (fifth in the league) but the Jazz finished with the worst record in the league (23-59).

The NBA expanded the playoffs by one round, adding one more team from each conference to postseason play. New York and Detroit, owners of identical 40-42 records, were the first beneficiaries of the change. The Rockets eliminated the Knicks in three games, while the Sonics made the most of the franchise’s first postseason appearance, beating the Pistons by the same score.

Boston easily shot down the Rockets (4-1) in one Eastern Conference Semifinal but McAdoo and the Braves took the Bullets to the limit before Washington won a game seven rout at home, 115-96. In the West, the Bulls defeated Nate Archibald and the improving Kings four games to two, while the Warriors knocked off the Sonics by the same margin. The Bullets beat the Celtics in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals and eventually closed out the series in six games, while Barry and the Warriors narrowly escaped the clutches of a determined Bulls team with an 83-79 game seven win.

The Bullets were heavy favorites over Golden State in the Finals but the Warriors produced one of the most stunning upsets in playoff history, sweeping Washington. Due to scheduling conflicts, the Bullets played game one at home and then the next two on the road, instead of starting the series with two games in Washington; after Golden State won the first game the Bullets were already behind the eight ball, heading west for two games. The Bullets were also without the services of ABA free agent guard Jimmy Jones, a key contributor who injured his knee in the Boston series and was unable to play in the Finals. Several other factors contributed to the unlikely Golden State triumph: undersized rookie Jackson Keith (later known as Jamaal) Wilkes did a remarkable defensive job against perennial All-Star Elvin Hayes, holding him to 29 points in the first three games, the unheralded Clifford Ray provided steady play at center and an attitude of togetherness permeated the entire roster; whenever the Warriors' starters faltered, the reserves came in and outperformed their opposing counterparts. However, none of this would have been enough without the heroics of Rick Barry, who averaged 28.2 points per game and 6.1 assists per game in the playoffs and was awarded the Finals MVP.

Such a perfect ending would be hard to top and the 31 year old Barry actually considered retirement: "It had been the perfect season, perfect in its drama, perfect in its outcome, and one of the first thoughts that went through my head was I want to quit, I want this to be my last memory of my last game, I don't ever want to play another basketball game because it would have to be anti-climactic." Barry eventually decided to continue his career, playing for several more years, but never duplicating the individual or team success of that magical 1974-1975 season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:23 AM

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