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In a Box: The 1970s
A snapshot look at the decade of the 1970s.
The 1970s “In a Box”
About two weeks ago, I took a snapshot look at the 1980s. Today, I’m going to examine the 1970s. Since the NBA season is split over two calendar years, I will use the year in which the champion was crowned as a separator. So for the purposes of this post, the decade of the 1970s will consist of the 1969-70 through 1970-79 seasons.
1970 — Buffalo Braves, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Portland Trail Blazers debuted
1971 — San Diego Rockets moved to Houston
1972 — Cincinnati Royals moved to Kansas City-Omaha (Kings)
1973 — Baltimore Bullets moved to Washington, D.C. (Capital Bullets)
1974 — Capital Bullets became the Washington Bullets
1974 — New Orleans Jazz debuted
1975 — Kansas City-Omaha Kings became the Kansas City Kings
1976 — Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, and San Antonio Spurs debuted (merger with ABA)
1977 — New York Nets became the New Jersey Nets
1978 — Buffalo Braves moved to San Diego (Clippers)
The NBA started the 1970s with 14 teams and ended it with 22, the biggest expansion over one decade in the league’s history.
Since they only played three NBA seasons in the 1970s, the Nuggets, Pacers, Nets, and Spurs will be omitted from any cumulative “best” or “worst” lists that appear below.
The NBA began tracking games started, turnovers (team only), and opponent statistics in the 1970-71 season.
Offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, steals, and blocks were first recorded in the 1973-74 season, while individual turnovers were tallied for the first time in 1977-78.
1970 — New York Knicks
1971 — Milwaukee Bucks
1972 — Los Angeles Lakers
1973 — New York Knicks
1974 — Boston Celtics
1975 — Golden State Warriors
1976 — Boston Celtics
1977 — Portland Trail Blazers
1978 — Washington Bullets
1979 — Seattle SuperSonics
Only five NBA champions have won fewer than 50 games in an 82-game season. Three of them did so in the 1970s:
1974-75 Warriors (48-34)
1976-77 Trail Blazers (49-33)
1977-78 Bullets (44-38)
The 1977-78 Bullets own the worst winning percentage of any title winner in league history (.537).
Most Championships: 2, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics
Eight different franchises won an NBA title in the 1970s, the most ever in a single decade. Every other full decade has seen at least one franchise win three or more championships.
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Best W-L Record, Season: 69-13, Los Angeles Lakers (1971-72)
The 1971-72 Lakers set an NBA single-season record for wins, a mark that was later eclipsed by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72) and 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73). They also won 33 consecutive games from Nov. 5, 1971 to Jan. 7, 1972, a streak that still stands as the longest in NBA history.
The Lakers went on to win their first title since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, beating the New York Knicks in five games in the NBA Finals. They had lost their previous eight appearances in the Finals, with seven of those losses coming to the Boston Celtics.
Best W-L Record, Decade: 492-328, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks traded superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar following the 1974-75 season. They went 342-150 (.695) in their six seasons with Abdul-Jabbar and 150-178 (.457) in their four seasons without him.
Milwaukee won at least 50 games five times, tying the Boston Celtics for the most such seasons in the decade. The 1970-71 Bucks recorded the largest schedule-adjusted point differential in NBA history (+11.9 PPG).
Worst W-L Record, Season: 9-73, Philadelphia 76ers (1972-73)
The 1972-73 Sixers set an NBA record for most losses in a season, a mark that still stands. They are one of only six teams in NBA history to record a 70-loss season, and Philadelphia is the only franchise with multiple such seasons (the 2015-16 squad lost 72 games).
The Sixers started the season by losing their first 15 games. From Dec. 7, 1972 through Feb. 11, 1973, they lost 34 out of 35 games, including a 20-game losing skid. The Sixers lost their final 13 games to close the season.
Worst W-L Record, Decade: 161-249, New Orleans Jazz
The Jazz played in just five of the 10 seasons that make up the decade. Among the 14 franchises who played every season in the 1970s, the Cincinnati Royals/Kansas City Kings put up the worst record (362-458).
The Buffalo Braves and Cleveland Cavaliers led all franchises with five 50-loss seasons apiece in the decade. The Braves became the first franchise in NBA history to record three straight 60-loss seasons (1970-71 to 1972-73, their first three seasons in the league).
Home-Court Winning Percentage: .637
The best home record in a season was 34-2 by the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks, while the worst home mark was 5-26 by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. You may wonder why the Bucks and Sixers played fewer than 41 home games in those seasons. That’s because the NBA would schedule numerous neutral site games each season, a practice that ended following the 1973-74 campaign.
For the decade as a whole, the Los Angeles Lakers had the best home winning percentage (.735), while the Cleveland Cavaliers posted the worst home winning percentage (.531).
Largest Home-Court Advantage: New Orleans Jazz
The Jazz recorded a winning percentage of .571 at home versus .215 on the road in the decade, a difference of +.356. They played most of their home games in the cavernous Louisiana Superdome.
In an average season, the Jazz went 23-19 at home and 9-33 on the road. They had their most extreme season in 1978-79, going 22-19 (.537) at home and a horrid 4-37 (.098) on the road, a home-road differential of +.439.
Tallest Player: Four players, 7-feet-2-inches
The four players with a listed height of 7-feet-2-inches were:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (773 GP)
Tom Burleson (378)
Artis Gilmore (246)
Tom Payne (29)
Shortest Player: Monte Towe, 5-feet-7-inches
Towe’s NBA career lasted just 51 games, all of which he appeared in with the 1976-77 Denver Nuggets. Towe was the starting point guard for the 1973-74 NCAA champion North Carolina State Wolfpack.
Heaviest Player: Geoff Crompton, 280 lbs.
Crompton, a 6-foot-11-inch center, appeared in 20 games for the Denver Nuggets in 1978-79. He went to play for four more franchises in his relatively short 82-game career. Crompton reportedly weighed 325 pounds when he reported to the University of North Carolina as a freshman.
Lightest Player: Nate Archibald and Monte Towe, 150 lbs.
Standing 6-feet-1-inch and weighing 150 pounds, Archibald was nicknamed “Tiny” for a reason. In 1972-73, Archibald led the league in both points (2,719) and assists (910). The only other player in NBA history to accomplish this feat is Trae Young (2021-22). Archibald is still the only player to lead the league in both points per game and assists per game.
Best Player by Season:
1969-70 — Jerry West (Willis Reed, MVP)
1970-71 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1971-72 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1972-73 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Dave Cowens, MVP)
1973-74 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1974-75 — Bob McAdoo
1975-76 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1976-77 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1977-78 — George Gervin (Bill Walton, MVP)
1978-79 — Moses Malone
This is my subjective list, of course. Unless otherwise noted, these players also took home the league’s MVP Award.
The 1977-78 MVP race was odd in that the winner (Bill Walton) and fourth-place finisher (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) played just 58 and 62 games, respectively. Walton appeared in just 70.7% of his team’s games that season, by far the lowest such figure by an MVP Award winner. In fact, no other recipient has played less than 80% of his team’s games.
Best Season, Player: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1971-72)
Abdul-Jabbar won the second of his record six MVP Awards in 1971-72. He won the scoring title, averaging a career-high 34.8 PPG on 57.4% shooting from the field (second in the NBA). Abdul-Jabbar also averaged 16.6 RPG (third) and 4.6 APG. He missed just one game all season, averaging 44.2 minutes per contest (second).
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Best Offense, Season: Milwaukee Bucks (1970-71)
The 1970-71 Bucks averaged a league-high 118.4 PPG and became the first team in NBA history to shoot at least 50% from the field (50.9%). In fact, their field goal percentage was 3.3 percentage points higher than the second-ranked Los Angeles Lakers, still the the largest such difference in NBA history.
The NBA required 700 attempts to qualify for the league leaderboard in field goal percentage that season. Five of the top 11 players were Bucks:
57.7% — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2nd)
53.5% — Jon McGlocklin (4th)
51.1% — Greg Smith (6th)
50.9% — Bob Dandridge (7th)
49.6% — Oscar Robertson (11th)
Abdul-Jabbar led the league in scoring (31.7 PPG), while Robertson ranked third in assists (9.2 APG).
Best Offense, Decade: Houston Rockets
The Rockets’ decade did not get off to a good start, but once Calvin Murphy became a regular starter in 1973-74 the team’s offense began to hum. From that season through the end of the decade, the Rockets fielded a top-three offense* five times in six seasons, including four first-place finishes.
* Based on points scored per 100 possessions.
Worst Offense, Season: Chicago Bulls (1975-76)
The 1975-76 Bulls averaged 95.9 PPG, almost six points per game lower than any other team and the lowest scoring average of the decade. They averaged 95.2 points per 100 possessions, another league-low figure.
Chicago shot just 41.4% from the field, the worst such figure of the decade. Their field goal percentage was 3.2 percentage points worse than the next-closest team, the largest such gap in NBA history.
Worst Offense, Decade: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers averaged 102.7 points per game, the lowest scoring average of the decade. They finished in the bottom four in field goal percentage seven times in their nine seasons, including one last-place finish and four next-to-last-place finishes.
Dishonorable mention goes to the New York/New Jersey Nets. Although I chose to omit the former ABA franchises from these best/worst lists, the Nets posted the league’s worst defensive rating each of the last three seasons of the decade.
All Offense/No Defense, Team: Houston Rockets (1976-77)
The 1976-77 Rockets averaged 104.5 points per 100 possessions, the league’s best mark, and allowed 102.9 points per 100 possessions, the league’s worst figure. They finished the regular season as Central Division champions with a record of 49-33, then fell to the Philadelphia 76ers in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
All Offense/No Defense, Player: Calvin Murphy
The diminutive Murphy — he stood 5-feet-9-inches tall and weighed 165 pounds — was a dynamic offensive player whose size proved to be a liability on the defensive end of the floor.
Murphy averaged 19.0 PPG and 4.9 APG for the decade, shooting 48.6% from the field and 88.4% from the free throw line. From 1973-74 through 1978-79, Murphy’s Houston Rockets finished with a top-three offense five times (ranking first four times) and a bottom-three defense five times (ranking last three times).
Best Defense, Season: Washington Bullets (1974-75)
The 1974-75 Bullets — who won a franchise-record 60 games — posted a defensive rating of 93.1, the best such figure in the league by more than three points per 100 possessions. Washington also ranked first in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage; second in turnovers forced and steals; and third in blocks.
The defense was anchored by Elvin Hayes, an All-Defensive Second Team selection who finished third in the league in defensive rebounds (783), fourth in blocks (187), and eighth in steals (158).
Best Defense, Decade: Milwaukee Bucks
As I mentioned earlier, the NBA began recording opponent statistics in 1970-71. The Bucks led the league in opponent field goal percentage the first four seasons it was tracked, ranked second in 1974-75, and ranked third in 1975-76 (their first season after the Abdul-Jabbar trade).
Although opponent statistics were not tracked in 1969-70, I have field goals made and attempted for about 98% of all games that season. I’m 99.9% confident the Bucks would have led the NBA in opponent field goal percentage that season, which would have given them a run of five consecutive seasons with the league’s top shot defense.
Worst Defense, Season: Houston Rockets (1977-78)
The 1977-78 Rockets’ defensive rating was 106.1, the worst in the NBA by 2.3 points per 100 possessions. In the seasons in which the data are available, only three teams have finished further from the next-closest team:
1992-93 Dallas Mavericks (2.9 higher)
1990-91 Denver Nuggets (2.6)
2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers (2.5)
Houston forced just 17.2 turnovers per game, the lowest such rate in the league. They also owned the NBA’s second-worst shot defense (48.2%) and recorded the second-fewest blocks (319).
Worst Defense, Decade: Houston Rockets
The Rockets finished with a bottom-five defense (based on points allowed per 100 possessions) in each of the last six seasons of the decade. They finished dead last in three of those seasons: 1975-76, 1976-77, and 1977-78 (see above).
All Defense/No Offense, Team: New Jersey Nets (1978-79)
The 1978-79 Nets owned the NBA’s third-best defense (101.8 points allowed per 100 possessions), but ranked dead last in offense (98.0 points scored per 100 possessions). They forced more turnovers than any other team (23.4 per game), but basically gave it all back by leading the league in errors committed (22.7).
Even though they finished with a sub-.500 record (37-45), the Nets qualified for the NBA Playoffs for the first time. They lost in the first round to the Philadelphia 76ers, two games to none.
All Defense/No Offense, Player: Nate Thurmond
The 6-foot-11-inch Thurmond was a four-time All-Defensive selection in the decade (one First Team, three Second Team), but was an incredibly inefficient scorer, particularly for a post player.
Thurmond was one of 30 players to attempt at least 5,000 field goals and 2,500 free throws in the decade, recording shooting percentages of 42.8% and 70.1%, respectively. Only one of those 30 players finished with a lower field goal percentage than Thurmond (Norm Van Lier, 41.4%), while just four recorded a lower free throw percentage.
Since we’re talking about Thurmond, I should note that on Oct. 18, 1974 he became the first player in NBA history to officially record a quadruple-double, compiling 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, and 12 blocks as his Chicago Bulls defeated the Atlanta Hawks 120-115 in their season opener.
Best Backcourt, Season: Los Angeles Lakers (1971-72)
Jerry West (25.8 PPG, 9.7 APG) and Gail Goodrich (25.9 PPG, 4.5 APG) were both All-Star selections, with West also earning All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team honors. Combo guard Flynn Robinson came off the bench to average 9.9 PPG, shooting 49.0% from the field and 86.1% from the free throw line.
Best Frontcourt, Season: Milwaukee Bucks (1970-71)
Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (31.7 PPG, 16.0 RPG) led the league in scoring and was named MVP in just his second season in the NBA; small forward Bob Dandridge (18.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 3.5 APG) finished second on the team in rebounds and third in both points and assists; power forward Greg Smith (11.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG) finished sixth in the league in field goal percentage (51.2%); and forward Bob Boozer (9.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG) was a solid contributor coming off the bench.
G — Walt Frazier (668 GP, 20.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 6.1 APG)
G — Jerry West (320 GP, 26.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 8.7 APG)
F — John Havlicek (719 GP, 21.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.8 APG)
F — Elvin Hayes (815 GP, 23.2 PPG, 14.2 RPG, 2.1 APG)
C — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (773 GP, 28.6 PPG, 14.8 RPG, 4.5 APG)
There really weren’t any tough choices in this group. Although West only played half the decade, he was named to the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams in each of the first four seasons of the 1970s. That more than makes up for his lack of longevity, in my opinion.
I guess the closest call was probably Havlicek over Bob Dandridge, who was one of the decade’s most underrated stars. Dandridge was a four-time All-Star selection who played on three teams that advanced to the NBA Finals, winning twice. However, Havlicek was clearly the better player.
Player of the Decade: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers)
Abdul-Jabbar won five MVP Awards in the 1970s — the most by any player in a single decade — and could have won two or three more. He averaged a decade-high 28.6 PPG on 55.1% shooting from the field, also chipping in with 14.8 RPG and 4.5 APG.
Abdul-Jabbar’s decade lows were 23.8 PPG, 12.8 RPG, and 51.3 FG%. He averaged at least 25 PPG and 12 RPG in each of his first nine seasons. No other player in NBA history has recorded more than seven such seasons in a row (Wilt Chamberlain).
Coach of the Decade: Dick Motta (Chicago Bulls, Washington Bullets)
Eight different head coaches won a championship in the 1970s, with Tom Heinsohn (Boston Celtics) and Red Holzman (New York Knicks) each taking home two titles. However, I’m going with Motta, who won 40 more games than any other coach in the decade (regular season plus postseason):
514 — Dick Motta
474 — Tom Heinsohn
459 — Jack Ramsay
456 — Al Attles
455 — Red Holzman
Motta’s teams made nine playoff appearances in 10 seasons. He led the Washington Bullets to consecutive NBA Finals in 1977-78 and 1978-79, winning a title in the former season. Motta also led the Chicago Bulls to back-to-back Western Conference Finals appearances in 1973-74 and 1974-75.