The NBA Time Machine: 1969

Published March 16, 2023

The NBA Time Machine:

End of an Era

Rise and Shine

Even when considering the fact that two expansion teams infiltrated the NBA in the prior season, the league refused to be complacent. Entering the mix were the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, two unique club choices with the goal of making professional basketball a nation-wide staple.

Milwaukee hadn’t hosted a team in fourteen years, with the last representative being the Milwaukee Hawks, who left for St. Louis in 1956. The Suns, on the other hand, were unfamiliar territory – Arizona had never seen a professional sports franchise at all, and the decision was heavily criticized. Many saw the recently growing Phoenix as too hot, irrelevant, and distant to be a reasonable location for expansion. Such concerns did not phase owners, as the promise of the city’s recent growth was too good to pass up.

The Bucks and Suns fit comfortably into the Eastern and Western Divisions, respectively.

The Superteam

Uncertainty hit the Philadelphia 76ers when storied coach Alex Hannum committed to coaching the Oakland Oaks of the ABA. The rival league’s influence was clearly growing, and NBA franchises grew weary.

Wilt Chamberlain was initially disappointed by the move – Hannum had coached him to two Finals appearances and a championship in his career, and the famed superstar was very active in questioning how the coaching search was going. Chamberlain eventually entertained the idea of being a player-coach, and there seemed to be some momentum building in determining their personnel.

Philadelphia was subsequently shocked when Chamberlain, fresh off a trip to the west coast, demanded to be traded. He wanted to join the Western Division – his preferred spots were the Los Angeles Lakers, Seattle Supersonics, or San Diego Rockets. The 76ers did not tolerate his request, only to be retaliated with claims that he’d otherwise move to the ABA’s Los Angeles Stars. Former league superstar Rick Barry’s mindset of “player freedom” had now caught on to other talents, and it was leaving managers in a tough situation.

Chamberlain was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for former All-Stars Archie Clark and Darrell Imhoff, as well as the young Jerry Chambers. The trade seemed blatantly lop-sided, but Philadelphia was not given much leverage – getting a few solid pieces was the best option possible. This was the first time a reigning M.V.P. was traded the season after.

Now paired with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, Chamberlain became the third of a monstrous “big three” in Los Angeles that seemed overwhelmingly favored to win an NBA championship. The league had not seen a roster of such proportions before, featuring three superstar players amidst their primes.


Throughout their more recent years in Missouri, the St. Louis Hawks began to run into problems with hosting. They were not fond of their arena selection – their current location, the Kiel Auditorium, was old and small, while the alternative St. Louis Arena had a size advantage but much worse maintenance.

Owner Ben Kerner was denied the request for a bigger arena, and as a result looked to sell the Hawks. They nearly moved to New Orleans, but talks dissipated and they were eventually sold to developers in Atlanta. They did not immediately have access to an area, so they utilized Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

While there was potential for high profit long-term the newfound Atlanta Hawks had a geographical dilemma – they were even further from their Western Division rivals now. The closest one – the Chicago Bulls – was 720 miles out. The next up in proximity was Phoenix at a whopping 1,815.

Youth is Power

Top two draft picks Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes had phenomenal seasons, both some of the best for rookies in a long time. Unseld led the Baltimore Bullets to a league-best fifty-seven wins, winning the M.V.P. award in the process – he was the first rookie to be honored with such since Wilt Chamberlain in 1960.

Hayes finished first in scoring average and led the San Diego Rockets to a twenty-two game improvement, earning them a playoff berth in just their second season of existence. His phenomenal defense also established them as a top three defensive team in the NBA.


To parallel the All-NBA Teams, the league introduced an “All-Defensive Team” as part of its regular season awards. Much like its counterpart, the teams were positionally comprised of two guards, two forwards, and a center.

Standout Players

Wes Unseld

Unseld had one of the best rookie seasons in NBA history. While not flashy on the box score, his impact as a defender and rebounder was remarkable. His efforts alongside teammate Earl Monroe helped Baltimore improve by twenty-one games, earning the franchise its first winning record.

Elvin Hayes

The first overall pick lived up to the hype, leading the NBA in scoring and lifting the Rockets to a twenty-two game improvement. Such play brought them to the post-season in only their second year – a rare accomplishment for an expansion franchise.

Willis Reed

Reed was undeniably a superstar at this point. His leadership helped New York see its first ever fifty-win season, and he was a quiet runner-up for the M.V.P. award. Being separated from Walt Bellamy also brought him back to his natural center position, resulting in career highs for scoring and efficiency.

Wilt Chamberlain

The Big Dipper was clouded in controversy this year, due to the dramatic circumstances of his trade demand. He was seen as a locker room cancer and frequently butt heads with coach Butch van Breda Kolff, leaving him with a sour reputation that left him off many seasonal accolades. Regardless, he was effectively their best player during the regular season, leading the league in rebounds and efficiency once again.

Billy Cunningham

Cunningham was the leader of an unexpected 76ers fifty-win season. Many expected them to decline heavily after trading Wilt Chamberlain, but they only worsened by seven games. “The Kangaroo Kid” having his first All-Star season created that reality, alongside the play of teammate Hal Greer.

Oscar Robertson

While Robertson regressed a bit offensively, he still led the league in assists and finished top five in scoring average. The Royals also finished as the top-ranked offense for the first time since 1965, but it was unfortunately still not enough for a playoff berth.

Around the League

Team Standings

An asterisk (*) indicates that the team qualified for the playoffs.

Eastern DivisionWLWestern DivisionWL
Baltimore Bullets*5725Los Angeles Lakers*5527
Philadelphia 76ers*5527Atlanta Hawks*4834
New York Knicks*5428San Francisco Warriors*4141
Boston Celtics*4834San Diego Rockets*3745
Cincinnati Royals4141Chicago Bulls3349
Detroit Pistons3250Seattle SuperSonics3052
Milwaukee Bucks2755Phoenix Suns1666

Fun Facts

  • This season was historic for the Baltimore Bullets, including:
    • The first winning record in franchise history.
    • Their first time as the first seed of any division.
  • The New York Knicks won their first fifty-win season behind the heroics of Willis Reed and Walt Frazier.
  • The Boston Celtics finished under fifty wins for the first time since 1958, as well as under the second seed in the Eastern Division for the first time since 1955.
  • The Cincinnati Royals bathed in mediocrity for the third season straight, leaving them incapable of seeing the post-season yet again.
    • Their defense was ranked as the worst in the NBA for the second consecutive year, placing below both expansion teams and the undisciplined Detroit Pistons.
  • With a whopping four expansion teams, the Western Division continued to be in a terrible state competitively.
    • The third seed – the San Francisco Warriors – would have finished second-to-last in the Eastern Division.
    • Even the Atlanta Hawks, who boasted a winning record, would have finished fifth in the East – not even adequate for playoff contention.

Notable Movement


The player stats listed are based on their last tenure, whether it be with their former team or the previous season.
Name(s) under the “Top Draft Picks” section with a plus (+) opted to play in another league instead of the NBA this season.

p – points
r – rebounds
a – assists

Top Draft Picks

San Diego Rockets
Baltimore Bullets
Seattle SuperSonics
Chicago Bulls
Cincinnati Royals
Detroit Pistons
Milwaukee Bucks
Phoenix Suns
San Francisco Warriors
New York Knicks
Elvin Hayes
Wes Unseld
Bob Kauffman
Tom Boerwinkle
Don Smith
Otto Moore
Charlie Paulk
Gary Gregor
Ron Williams
Bill Hosket


July 9, 1968Wilt ChamberlainPhiladelphia 76ersTradedLos Angeles Lakers(24.3p/23.8r/8.6a)
July 9, 1968Archie ClarkLos Angeles LakersTradedPhiladelphia 76ers(19.9p/4.2r/4.4a)
October 12, 1968Walt HazzardSeattle SuperSonicsTradedAtlanta Hawks(24p/4.2r/6.2a)
October 12, 1968Lenny WilkensAtlanta HawksTradedSeattle SuperSonics(20p/5.3r/8.3a)
December 19, 1968Dave DeBusschereDetroit PistonsTradedNew York Knicks(16.3p/12.2r/2.2a)

Other Personnel

April 24, 1968Coach Red KerrChicago BullsResignedRecord: 29-53
April 24, 1968Coach Red KerrPhoenix SunsHiredRecord: n/a
May 1968Coach Bill SharmanSan Francisco WarriorsResignedRecord: 43-39
May 14, 1968Coach George LeeSan Francisco WarriorsHiredRecord: n/a
December 2, 1968Coach Donnie ButcherDetroit PistonsFiredRecord: 10-12
December 2, 1968Coach Paul SeymourDetroit PistonsHiredRecord: 22-38


PlayerTeam(s)Notable Accomplishments
Larry CostelloPhiladelphia Warriors
Philadelphia 76ers
1x Champion
1x All-NBA
6x All-Star

League Leaders

If a stat is not listed, it was not recorded at the time. As time goes on, this section will begin to include steals per game, blocks per game, etc.


PPG – points per game
RPG – rebounds per game
APG – assists per game
FG% – field goal percentage (percentage of shots that hit)
FT% – free throw percentage (percentage of foul shots that hit)

PPGElvin Hayes (28.4)
Earl Monroe (25.8)
Billy Cunningham (24.8)
Elgin Baylor (24.8)
Oscar Robertson (24.7)
RPGWilt Chamberlain (21.1)
Nate Thurmond (19.7)
Bill Russell (19.3)
Jerry Lucas (18.4)
Wes Unseld (18.2)
APGOscar Robertson (9.8)
Lenny Wilkens (8.2)
Walt Frazier (7.9)
Dave Bing (7.1)
Guy Rodgers (6.9)
FG%Wilt Chamberlain (58%)
Jerry Lucas (55%)
Willis Reed (52%)
Terry Dischinger (51%)
Walt Bellamy (51%)
FT%Larry Siegfried (86%)
Jeff Mullins (84%)
Jon McGlocklin (84%)
Flynn Robinson (83%)
Oscar Robertson (83%)



East / Boston Celtics beat Philadelphia 76ers, 4-1
For the fifth straight season, the Celtics and 76ers met in the playoffs. The stark difference in this year’s duel was the absence of Wilt Chamberlain – now on the Los Angeles Lakers, the reigning MV.P. left Philadelphia with a bit of a different makeup.

With Boston declining in the regular season, it was questioned whether they would have the same firepower as usual entering the post-season. They finished seven games worse than their rival, but still possessed the overwhelming advantage of experience. It was clearly a strong enough factor to win some games, as they opened the series with a 3-0 lead.

The 76ers’ biggest issue was Hal Greer’s scoring struggles – it was not until the fourth match, where he finally managed a solid combination of production and efficiency, that they could snatch a victory. That was good enough to avoid a sweep, but the Celtics pulled away on the road to earn a Division Finals appearance.
East / New York Knicks beat Baltimore Bullets, 4-0
After leading the NBA in winning percentage, expectations of Baltimore were high. Anything short of a solid playoff run would be a disappointment, especially given their roster – multiple All-Stars, one of which was the M.V.P., and a slew of talented role players. The only major concern was the lack of star forward Gus Johnson, who had been out with injury since February.

The Knicks were not shy by any means. They only finished three games worse in the regular season, and proved their worth with an efficient statement win on the road in Game 1. Game 2 was an even greater blowout win thanks to the Walt Frazier-Dick Barnett backcourt, who combined for fifty points.

Game 3 was in the Bullets’ favor entering the fourth quarter, but they gave up a small lead to go down 3-0. The issue was not so much on offense as it was defense at this point – Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld, and Kevin Loughery scored decently, but nobody could contain the Knicks’ wild arsenal of scorers. A sweep ensued thanks to forty-three points and seventeen rebounds from Willis Reed in the fourth matchup, sending Baltimore home in disappointment.
West / Atlanta Hawks beat San Diego Rockets, 4-2
Even without Lenny Wilkens, the Hawks were a respectable club. They had two All-Stars in Lou Hudson and Joe Caldwell, as well as multiple quality rotational players that helped solidify a top five-ranked offense. On the contrary, the Rockets were a horrid scoring squad, but had a great defensive identity.

That seemed to dissipate when Lou Hudson scored thirty-nine in the first game on sixty-three-percent shooting, followed by a strong 31/13/2 outing from Zelmo Beaty a couple nights later. San Diego’s defense returned to form in their first home game, marking what would be one of two consecutive wins to tie the series at two apiece.

Closing wins from the Hawks were no surprise, given their simply better personnel. The efforts of Elvin Hayes were not enough to net the Rockets a playoff series win, but the rookie still showed out – dragging a young expansion franchise to two post-season victories is no easy feat.
West / Los Angeles Lakers beat San Francisco Warriors, 4-2
The Warriors surprised fans with back-to-back victories to open the battle of California’s two best teams. Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain struggled in both, with Nate Thurmond routinely outplaying the latter. Chamberlain upped his aggression in a 22/28/5 effort on the Warriors’ floor, building some much-needed momentum.

Him and Baylor were nearly invisible offensively in the remaining matches, but the Lakers still managed to win four straight to snatch the series. Chamberlain’s defense was integral to their success, as Thurmond slowly worsened over time – The Bay’s center averaged only twelve points in the last three games, a surefire way to flush San Francisco’s aspirations down the drain.

Division Finals

East / Boston Celtics beat New York Knicks, 4-2
A rematch of last year’s first-round matchup was looking more intense than ever. The Knicks improved greatly, but it was unwise to doubt Boston’s toughness – they were fresh off an upset against the 2nd-seeded 76ers.

The Celtics won both of their road games, depending on team play and defense for results. New York took the third thanks to Walt Frazier’s first playoffs triple-double, but made the mistake of dropping the next by one point. Bill Russell dominated that effort, having only his second twenty-point game of the year and bringing twenty-three rebounds along with it.

Frazier was one assist short of another triple-double in a Game 5 victory, which was aided by teammate Willis Reed – twenty-four points was his biggest contribution. The Knicks were looking to force a Game 7 on the floor of their foe, but John Havlicek went absolutely ballistic. He scored twenty-eight points, pulled down thirteen rebounds, piled up five dimes, and hit one game-winning shot. The Celtics had now beat two higher-seeded opponents to reach the Finals yet again.
West / Los Angeles Lakers beat Atlanta Hawks, 4-1
These franchises went head-to-head for the first time since 1966, with Los Angeles clearly favored. The series was incredibly defensive, with only one game exceeding two-hundred total points. Atlanta would see some great individual scoring performances from their players, but nothing could exceed L.A.’s game-changing depth.

The Lakers saw a horrible outing from their “big three” in Game 3, only totaling thirty-nine points on horrible all-around efficiency. Chamberlain flipped a switch in Game 4, scoring twenty-five points and missing no field goals. An Elgin Baylor triple-double proceeded to close the series in the decisive fifth match, setting the stage for yet another Finals war between Los Angeles and their long-term nemesis Boston.


Boston Celtics beat Los Angeles Lakers, 4-3
Narratives implied this would be the greatest NBA Finals of all-time. The Celtics were underdogs on their last legs – Sam Jones planned to retire after this season, Bill Russell looked interested in doing the same, and John Havlicek wanted to cement his place as a legitimate superstar.

The Lakers had now lost to Boston in all six of their Finals matchups, and were desperate to get over that hump. The acquisition of Wilt Chamberlain was built for this moment – they finally had a Russell neutralizer, and depended on their star power to emerge victorious.

All of the first four games were won by their home team. Jerry West and John Havlicek were the clear attractions, averaging thirty-nine and thirty-three points respectively in that stretch. Sam Jones also hit a vital buzzer beater in the fourth game, helping the Celtics avoid a 3-1 deficit.

The Lakers’ victory in Game 5 was due to Hondo cooling off, whereas West continued to dominate. Chamberlain and Russell had been trading superior performances to the other every night, but the latter only grabbing thirteen boards definitely hurt the Celtics’ chances in that match. He took advantage of a non-aggressive Chamberlain shortly after, willing his teammates to force a tiebreaker.

After being up 2-0, L.A. was now required to stand their ground against a Boston team that just refused to go away. The Lakers ownership and fandom were incredibly arrogant, decorating the Forum as if they had won already and detailing interview plans of the stars after victory. These acts of egotism enraged the Celtics, particularly player-coach Russell – he used it as motivation to fight for an upset, and ordered the Celtics to abuse a worn-down L.A. squad with fast break offense.

After three quarters, the Celtics held a 91-76 lead. Their defense was a dense demotivator to the opposition, and Sam Jones was incredibly efficient from the field. However, he – alongside Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain – was in foul trouble, and eventually fouled out in the fourth quarter after biting on a Jerry West pump fake. He received a warm standing ovation from Lakers fans respecting the final outing of their rival.

Mid-way through the fourth quarter, Chamberlain seemingly twisted his knee – he was taken out of the game immediately and the Lakers subbed in backup Mel Counts, whose energy willed them to a late-game comeback while the Celtics struggled from the field. Boston persevered – largely thanks to a clutch mid-range bucket from Don Nelson that put them ahead with little time left – and they had now won against all odds.

The Celtics had now won eleven championships in thirteen years, sent Sam Jones off as a champion, and spoiled L.A.’s ill-advised party. It seemed impossible to stop Bill Russell’s dynasty at this point – if bringing three superstars together couldn’t change the odds, what possibly could?
The Boston Celtics win the 1969 NBA championship!
Jerry West was named the Finals Most Valuable Player.


Name(s) under the “All-Stars” section with an asterisk (*) were listed as the MVP of the All-Star Game that year. Those with “(IR)” next to their name were chosen to replace an injured star.

Major Awards

Rookie of the YearMVPFinals MVPCoach of the Year
Wes UnseldWes UnseldJerry WestGene Shue


All-NBA First TeamAll-NBA Second Team
Oscar Robertson
Earl Monroe
Elgin Baylor
Billy Cunningham
Wes Unseld
Jerry West
Hal Greer
John Havlicek
Dave DeBusschere
Willis Reed


All-Defensive First TeamAll-Defensive Second Team
Walt Frazier
Jerry Sloan
Dave DeBusschere
Nate Thurmond
Bill Russell
Jerry West
John Havlicek
Tom Sanders
Bill Bridges
Rudy LaRusso


Eastern All-StarsWestern All-Stars
Dave Bing
Billy Cunningham
Hal Greer
John Havlicek
Gus Johnson
Jerry Lucas
Jon McGlocklin
Earl Monroe
Willis Reed
Oscar Robertson*
Bill Russell
Wes Unseld
Elgin Baylor
Joe Caldwell
Wilt Chamberlain
Gail Goodrich (IR)
Elvin Hayes
Lou Hudson
Don Kojis
Rudy LaRusso
Jeff Mullins
Jerry Sloan
Dick Van Arsdale
Jerry West
Lenny Wilkens
East beats West, 123-112


All-Rookie Team
Gary Gregor
Art Harris
Elvin Hayes
Bill Hewitt
Wes Unseld

All-Time Championship Leaderboard

The Baltimore Bullets (1947-1954) won the championship in 1948, but are defunct. As a result, they are not listed.

Celtics111957, 1959
1960, 1961
1962, 1963
1964, 1965
1966, 1968

Lakers51949, 1950
1952, 1953
Warriors21947, 1956
76ers21955, 1967

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