A Decade of Parity
The 1970s saw eight different NBA champions - the most of any decade - and no back-to-back winners
Close your eyes and think of the 1970s. Not the Bee Gees. Not bell bottoms. Not even mirrored disco balls. Just think of NBA basketball (Let your mind wander).
Willis Reed (Here comes Willis … And the crowd is going wild!).
The Los Angeles Lakers (Jerry West … 33 consecutive victories … Gail Goodrich … Wilt Chamberlain).
Bill Walton (Mountain Man … Rebound, outlet pass, layup … Pony Tail Jump hook with either hand … Jerry Garcia).
The Washington Bullets (Wes Unseld … The Big E … Bobby D).
The vintage ’73 Milwaukee Bucks (Kareem … Oscar).
The American Basketball Association folds and four teams and a lot of great players join the NBA (Dr. J … Maurice Lucas … Moses Malone … George Gervin ... David Thompson … Dan Issel).
There is, however, no one memory that juts out more than any other. The ‘70s were the most enigmatic decade in the NBA’s first half-century.
Every other decade has a signature team or teams. The league had only three champions in the ‘40s, but the last was the Minneapolis Lakers, who won in 1949, then captured five more titles in the ‘50s. The ‘60s had the Celtics. The ‘80s had Boston and Los Angeles. The ‘90s, well, they’re Bulls territory.
But the 1970s can’t be pigeonholed by one team. More than any other time, the era could best be noted for its parity.
“It was almost impossible for teams to win 70 games in a season because teams were so evenly matched,” said Miami assistant coach Bob McAdoo, who led the league in scoring three straight seasons in the mid-1970s. “I remember one year in Buffalo, we had the third-best record in the league with only 49 wins. The parity was there.”
When the 1970s began, the league was a two-division, 14-team league coming off a Boston Celtics monopoly of 10 championships in 11 years. For many fans, the NBA wasn’t just dominated by the Celtics, it was the Celtics.
But times changed and by decade’s end, the league had ballooned to 22 teams in four divisions and had engulfed the ABA. During the transition, the ‘70s reversed the preceding decade. They were dominated by no one; challenged, it seemed, by everyone. The championship trophy could count on a new holder each year.
There were eight different champions in the ‘70s, the most in any 10-year period of the NBA. Only six times did the team with the league’s best regular-season record earn a trip to the NBA Finals. And not a single team defended its title.
But ask 10 experts why this was, and you’ll likely get 10 answers.
“We didn’t have quite as many teams, and players didn’t move around as much, so it made it a little easier for everybody to compete,” said Willis Reed, who provided one of the decade’s most memorable moments by inspiring the Knicks to a title in the 1970 NBA Finals when he came out for Game 7, started and scored two baskets despite a severe leg injury.
“We had less teams in the league at that time and the teams were really stacked with superior talent,” said current Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who started his NBA career in 1967 and played till 1980, winning the 1973 championship with New York along the way. “The league was down in numbers and that just meant a lot of play between each team. You know, we played each team three times.”
“The competition level was so high that once one team got (to the championship), everybody was trying to knock them off the mountain,” said Rudy Tomjanovich, who knows a little about repeating, having coached the Houston Rockets to consecutive championships in 1994 and ’95 after an 11-year playing career with the Rockets from 1970-81. “We were conditioned to believe that it was too hard to repeat.”
Added former Celtics and Clippers assistant Dennis Johnson, who led the Sonics to a seventh game in the 1978 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Bullets, and then the championship in 1979: “Seattle had the best chance to repeat if we would have won the first one. But I don’t know why nobody did.”
“The real great teams of that particular time had gotten older and had retired,” said current Miami coach Pat Riley, who played on the 1972 NBA champion Lakers and later won four titles as coach. “There was a changing of the guard.”
West believes that because the expansion of the league in the 1970s included “teams that were smaller in number … it should have been expected for teams to be closer matched.”
Ironically, the decade produced the most uneven matchups, with two series sweeps and three more getting settled in only five games.
“There’s no way to explain it,” McAdoo said. “I remember one year the Golden State Warriors, who had the fourth-best record in the league, swept the powerful Washington Bullets. You just can’t explain it.”
One undeniable truth is that times have changed. The interest, the media, the money, the technology, the players and the game – on and off the court – have all evolved.
“In the 1970s teams were not constrained by salary caps when they were considering trades for that final piece of the puzzle,” said current NBA broadcaster Doug Collins, a four-time All-Star who played some of his best basketball in the 1976-77 playoffs when his Philadelphia 76ers lost to the Blazers in the NBA Finals. “They could make the trade to get that one player to push them over the top. The league, as a whole, was much stronger and more competitive and I don’t know if we will ever have that type of parity again.”
It was also a period that preceded the time when the spectacular play became a regular part of NBA games. The league had its share of players who played in rare air – notably Elgin Baylor. But there was not the great number of leapers and fliers that entered the league later. Erving arrived in ’76, but he was one of a kind. “You had a lot of great players from that era who weren’t really flamboyant,” McAdoo said. “They just got the job done with great numbers in scoring and rebounding. The Boston Celtics teams were always seven or eight players deep. You don’t see that now but you saw that in the ‘70s.”
It’s the different style that Johnson thinks contributed to the lack of player notoriety.
“We had a lot more motion-oriented offenses then,” noted Johnson. “The guys who are playing now play the game at a higher pace, a higher style, more athletically. But all that has become because of television. I think in the ‘70s, if the television was as hot as it is now, everybody then would have played that way.”
Perhaps because of the lack of a singular marquee team, the decade has not commanded the same respect as the 1960s and the 1980s.
Yet the case could be made that some of the ‘70s teams deserve to be ranked among the greatest in NBA history – the Lakers of 1972, Knicks of ’73 and Blazers of ’77.
Portland’s 1977-78 squad might have had the decade’s best chance of establishing a mini-dynasty with a repeat title, but a rash of injuries subverted a 50-10 start.
“Eventually that team just broke apart when Walton got hurt and wasn’t able to play as effectively ever again,” said Jack Ramsay, who coached four NBA teams in 21 years and guided Portland to the 1977 title. “I think that was a big factor there. We would have had back-to-backs.”
“I know the team that I was on in Seattle could match up with any team that won games in my 1980s or Michael Jordan’s ‘80s or anybody’s ‘90s,” said Johnson. “I think with me and Gus Johnson in the backcourt, we could have matched up with anybody. We had a ton of people but our style was all team play.”
The multitude of great teams has made it hard to categorize the time as either this or that. Instead, it has become a melting pot of images and personalities.
“I think we helped determine the growth of the league,” West said, “and I think we left a lot of memories that are now just being discovered.”
Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, who won NBA titles as a player in 1967 and as coach in 1983, might have given the best endorsement for the 1970s. “Looking back on the era I played in, and I’ve been involved in the league 30 years, I wouldn’t give up that era for anything.”
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