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A Competitive Era (1969-77)

The preceding season saw the end of the amazing Celtic Dynasty, who had won the NBA championship 9 times in the previous 11 years, including a phenomenal eight straight championships.  Now entering the 1969-70 season, the NBA was now without legendary Bill Russell who had retired as player-coach of the Celtics. 

The new team to beat in the East was the New York Knicks, who served notice by winning 18 straight games (a league record) early in the season.  With a core nucleus including Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier, the Knicks played ferociously as a team on both ends of the floor, with no one player dominating the spotlight.  Also, the season saw the entrance of Milwaukee’s 7-2 rookie, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) who came out of UCLA with much fanfare after leading that team to 3 straight NCAA titles, who immediately turned that franchise around as a force to be reckon with.  He won the Rookie of the Year for his outstanding and dominating play. 

New York (60-22) won the Eastern division, while the Atlanta Hawks (where the St. Louis Hawks relocated too) (48-34) just edged out Los Angeles for the Western Division title, thanks to a late season injury to Wilt Chamberlain.  The Lakers, Jerry West, had an outstanding season, leading the league in scoring 31.2 ppg.  In the playoffs, New York was able to easily oust Alcindor’s Bucks to advance to the finals.  While Los Angeles, with Wilt back in the lineup, was able to beat Atlanta to meet New York in what proved to be one of the most dramatic finals in NBA history.    

The first six games were classic battles, with each team see-sawing back to set up a Game 7.  Willis Reed, the captain and heart of the team, had outplayed the injury-slowed Chamberlain, until he tripped and tore a leg muscle in Game 5.  In the final Game 7, one of the most memorable moments in the NBA’ s history, had Reed hobbling down through the tunnel of Madison Square Gardens to join his team.  The fans erupted, and Reed provided an emotional lift for his team, and the inspired Knicks went on to a 113-99 victory.  Reed would be named the MVP of the season, as well as the NBA finals MVP, the first time it was awarded. 

The 1970-71 began with the addition of three additional franchises – the Buffalo Braves, Portland Trailblazers, and Cleveland Cavaliers – to make the NBA a 17 team league, and the realignment of the league into 4 divisions, two in each Conference (East & West).  The story of the season was the Milwaukee Bucks, led by the ever-consistent veteran, Oscar Robertson (who was acquired from Cincinnati in a trade prior to the season) and young Kareen Abdul-Jabbar (who had changed his name from Lew Alcindor midway through the season).  In only his second year, Abdul-Jabbar was virtually unstoppable with his patented skyhook.  He led the league in scoring (31.7 ppg) and won his first the MVP Award, as the Bucks (66-16) cruised to the best record in the league. 

Milwaukee brushed by San Francisco (41-41) and Los Angeles (48-34) in five games each, as they won the Western Conference, and prepared for the finals against Baltimore (42-40).  Led by C-Wes Unseld and G-Gus Johnson, Baltimore surprised many by defeating defending champions, New York (52-30) in a slugfest seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals.  However, injuries to Unseld and Johnson led to an easy victory for the Bucks as they swept the Bullets.  Abdul-Jabbar was named MVP of the finals.  

Los Angeles’ Elgin Baylor retirement, at age 37, and without a NBA championship, headlined the beginning of the 1971-72 season, leaving the Lakers in the hands of the aging Jerry West (33) and Walt Chamberlain (35).  The Lakers picked up key addition F-Gail Goodrich, which ignited them into a memorable season.  The Lakers went on a league-record 33-game winning streak that stretched from November 5 to January 7, and the Lakers posted a league-best 69-13 record, the best one-season record in NBA history.  Abdul-Jabbar led the league in scoring (34.8 ppg) and won his second MVP, as his Bucks (66-16), had their own impressive season.

In the playoffs, the Lakers swept Chicago four straight to set up a much-hyped meeting with Milwaukee in the Western Conference Final, which saw Chamberlain out-dueling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the Lakers captured the series in 6 games.  In the East, New York (48-34) defeated the surprising Boston Celtics (56-26) in the Eastern finals.  But without Willis Reed in the Finals, New York proved no match for the Lakers, who won the title in 5 games, and finally got their Championship, after being runner-up 7 times.  Chamberlain won the finals MVP. 

In the 1972-73 season, the Celtics led by the veteran, F-John Havlicek and youngster, C-Dave Cowens went on to a league-best 68-14 season.  Cowens would be awarded the MVP for his amazing season.  Milwaukee (60-22) and Los Angeles (60-22) unsurprisingly had excellent seasons.  However it was the New York Knicks (57-25) that had the deepest team in the league.  Willis Reed returned to the Knicks after injuries had limited him to 11 games the previous season.  Earl Monroe, was obtained from Baltimore to man a dynamic backcourt with Walt Frazier, as was Jerry Lucas (from Cincinnati) who would share the center spot with Reed.  Cincinnati, in financial trouble, had relocated and split half their home games in Kansas City and Omaha.  In an otherwise forgettable season, the team saw the emergence of 6-0 point guard, Nate ”Tiny” Archibald, who in his third season led the league in scoring  (34.0 ppg), and assists (11.4). The Philadelphia 76ers entered the record-books with their notoriously forgettable 9-73 season.   

In the playoffs, New York and Boston had a classic Eastern Finals battle, with the younger Celtics succumbing to the more experienced and versatile Knicks team.  Los Angeles met the Golden State (changed from San Francisco) team in the Western Finals, whom had upset Abdul Jabbar’s Milwaukee.  The Lakers easily defeated the Warriors in five games forcing a Lakers-Knicks matchup in the Finals, for the third time in four years.  After the Lakers edged New York in Game 1, the Knicks won four straight closely contested games to bring a second NBA title to New York.  Willis Reed was named the Finals MVP.  

The 1973-74 marked a changing of the guard in the league.  NBA luminaries such as Wilt Chamberlain had retired after more than 31,000 points and 23,000 rebounds signaled a change in the league.  This season would also be the last for NY’s Willis Reed, LA’s Jerry West, and Milwaukee’s Oscar Robertson.  The Celtics had however remained as an elite team throughout all the changes.  With Red Auerback running the team as President and General Manager, had always been able to keep the team competitive with smart drafting and acquisitions, and effective coaching by Tom Heinsohn who continued the Celtic tradition of strong team-play.  

The Celtics (56-26), led by C-Dave Cowans, had the best record in the East and Abdul Jabbar’s Milwaukee (59-23) had the best in the West and league.  Abdul Jabbar was named MVP for the season for his third time.  Both teams easily made it in to the Finals, setting up a matchup between the two best centers in the league – Cowans and Abdul-Jabbar.  Each man helped his team to wins as the teams split six games, including a pair of overtime Milwaukee victories.  But in Game 7, the Celtics altered their strategy and double- and triple-teamed Abdul-Jabbar, and Cowens, thus freed on defense, scored 28 points and helped Boston to a 102-87 win.  John Havlicek, the veteran leader on the team, who had also played in the Russell-led Celtics team, was named Finals MVP.    

The retirements of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson left respective Los Angeles and Milwaukee team weakened, as each fell to the bottom of their division in the 1974-75 season.  This allowed opportunity for hungry young teams like the Golden State Warriors to advance.  The Warriors were a deep team led by high-scoring forward, Rick Barry.  The Warriors (48-34) used its trademark hustle and tenacious defense to win the Western Final over a more talented Chicago Bulls (47-35) team in seven games to reach the NBA Finals.  In the West, the Washington Bullets (60-22), relocated from Baltimore, had a fine season behind F-Elvin Hayes and C-Wes Unseld.  They met with, and overcame, perennial powerhouses, Boston (60-22), in the Eastern Final, becoming the highly touted favorites to win the NBA finals over the smaller Golden State Warriors.  It was not to be, as Golden State stunned the basketball world by winning four straight close games to post only the third sweep in the 29-year history of the NBA Finals, where Rick Barry was named MVP. 

Just as the 1975-76 season was about to begin, the ABA’s two strongest teams, the New York Nets and Denver Nuggets, had applied to join the NBA, signaling the beginning of the end for the upstart league.  A new commissioner, Larry O’Brien, was named to facilitate a future merger of the two leagues.  A gargantuan trade was announced mid-season as the most dominant player in the league, Milwaukee’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went to the Los Angeles Lakers for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman and Dave Meyers.  Although Abdul-Jabbar played exceptional and won the MVP again, his Lakers missed the playoffs. 

The Golden State Warriors, whom many considered their championship season a fluke, refuted doubters by winning a league-high 59 games.  Boston won 54 games to top the Eastern Conference.  During the playoffs, the Celtics cruised by Buffalo and Cleveland to reach the finals.  In the East, the surprisingly motivated Phoenix Suns (42-40), led by Rookie of the Year Alvan Adams, upsetted Golden State in the Western Finals to meet Boston in the NBA Finals.  Boston won its second title in three years and 13th overall in a six-game Finals that is most remembered for a remarkable triple-overtime Game 5 which Boston captured, 128-126.  The Celtics JoJo White was named Finals MVP. 

Prior to the 1976-77 season, four teams ABA teams - the New York Nets, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs -were admitted as NBA franchises for a fee of $3.2 million, as the ABA closed down.  Remaining ABA players were distributed throughout the league in a dispersal draft.  The NBA was now a 22-team league, and the playoffs were restructured so that 12 teams qualified and each of the four division winners received a bye through the opening round.  ABA players, most notably F-Julius Erving, now had a chance to shine on the larger NBA stage.  Erving, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, turned the team around, leading them to a 50-32 record, the best in the East.  The LA Lakers (53-29) and Denver Nuggets (50-32) won their respective divisions in the West.  The Laker’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was named MVP for his fifth time.  

The story of the playoffs however, was the Portland Trailblazers (49-33).  Portland had their first winning season under coach Jack Ramsay, and let by C-Bill Walton.  Walton had been a highly-touted player coming out of UCLA, where he won two championships, but had been ineffectual in his first two pro seasons due to injuries.  Walton stayed healthy this season, and with a solid supporting cast, the Trailblazers defeated Denver and Los Angeles Lakers to win the West.  Walton now faced Erving’s 76ers in the NBA Finals.  After losing the first 2 games, the Blazers went on to win 4 straight to capture the NBA title.  Walton won the Finals MVP.  This marked the end for Portland’s magical season where ’Blazermania’ had gripped the nation. 

The 1977-78 season was marred by two separate violent incidents involving Los Angeles (47-35).  The first saw C-Abdul-Jabbar breaking his hand after throwing a punch at Milwaukee rookie C-Kent Benson, drawing a $5,000 fine from Commissioner O’Brien, and missing 20 games due to injury.  The second was more serious: In a game against Houston, the Rocket’s star forward, Rudy Tomjanovich suffering a fractured cheek, jaw, and broken nose after the Laker’s powerful F-Kermit Washington punched him in the face.  Washington was fined and suspended for two months.  Tomjanovich recovered, and was awarded over $3-million in damages from Los Angeles.

The Portland Trailblazers (58-24), continued from their championship season by having the best record in the league.  Bill Walton was magnificent throughout the season, winning the MVP.  However, his late-season injury, along with injuries to other key players, was too much to overcome in the playoffs.  The Seattle Supersonics (47-35) defeated the Blazers in the Western Conference semi-finals.  The Sonics had a remarkable story of their own.  After a horrendous 5-13 beginning, Lenny Wilkens took over head coaching duties, and the team embarked on a turnaround season leading to the NBA Finals.  In the East, the Washington Bullets (44-38) improbably reached the NBA Finals, defeating divisional champions, San Antonio (52-30) and Philadelphia (55-27). 

The NBA finals featured the big and bruising, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, Washington Bullets against the small, quick, and deep Seattle team, led by Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma.  The series went to the final 7th game, as Washington won 105-99.  Wes Unseld was named Finals MVP.

The 1978-79 season saw a rematch of last year’s final.  Defending champions, Washington (54-28), had the best record in the East; and Seattle (52-30) was best in the West.  A young C-Moses Malone, of the Houston Rockets (28-54), was named MVP.  San Antonio’s George Gervin won his second consecutive scoring title (29.6 ppg).  In the NBA Finals, Washington won the first game.  It would prove to be their only win, as Seattle went on to win the next 4 games, capturing their first, and only NBA Championship.  The outstanding play of PG-Dennis Johnson awarded him Finals MVP.