Published May 19, 2023
The NBA Time Machine:
Criticism of the divisional format adopted during this decade led to some significant changes. The league no longer tied playoff appearances to divisional placement, instead rewarding the top four teams from each Conference. This allowed teams in competitive divisions to have a better chance, while others could not coast their way through a weak group of rivals.
This most notably benefited the Detroit Pistons, who had been absent from the post-season for over half a decade. Having two regular season juggernauts like the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls in their way made affairs tough, but their fifty-two-win crusade paid off this time around.
Wilt Chamberlain got involved in controversy with the Los Angeles Lakers due to contract miscommunications. The front office failed to contact him in a reasonable timeframe, which upset the center and prompted him to sign with the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA instead. He had intentions to be a player-coach in the rival league, awaiting six-hundred-thousand dollars – it was expected be the largest salary in professional basketball history.
The Lakers sued Chamberlain, as he still owed them another year of play due to specifications in his contract. He was still permitted to coach the Conquistadors, but could not suit up by any means – the idea of only doing the former bored him, and he left coaching duties to assistant Stan Albeck as a result. Dissatisfaction with the ABA’s poor attendance numbers and the overall frustration of the situation brought Chamberlain to a personal ultimatum – he would retire from basketball, after just experiencing back-to-back Finals appearances and a championship.
The NBA began to officially recognize two new statistics – steals and blocks. The former was achieved by taking the ball from the opponent, thus forcing a turnover – the latter’s registration stemmed from altering a player’s shot, therefore preventing it from entering the basket.
Many analysts had recorded these categories unofficially for years, but it took the league much longer to embrace the trend. The rival ABA may have influenced this choice, as it begun acknowledging the two figures a year prior.
Larry Steele of the Portland Trail Blazers became the first official steals leader, registering 2.7 per game. On the other hand, the Los Angeles Lakers’ starting center – Elmore Smith – led his contemporaries with a whopping 4.9 blocks a match.
Offensive rebounds were also officially recognized as a subset of rebounds. These were obtained by rebounding the ball on your team’s own offensive possession, therefore extending your opportunity to score. Defensive rebounds were gained through acquiring the ball on the opponent’s offensive possession. Washington’s Elvin Hayes dominated both categories.
The Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks had been carrying the NBA’s reputation, as two large-market teams that had formed a traceable rivalry. However, their dominance suddenly seemed a lot less insurable – the loss of Wilt Chamberlain was significant for Los Angeles, and Jerry West only totaled thirty-one games.
New York was also littered with injuries – Earl Monroe missed the first couple months of the season, and Willis Reed went out for nearly the entire year. Gail Goodrich and Walt Frazier each kept their clubs afloat, but championship aspirations seemed a tad optimistic for both sides.
Claiming the Capital
The Baltimore Bullets relocated to Landover, Maryland in the off-season. Such a shift led to them claiming a new moniker, the Capital Bullets.
While the Bucks did not reach sixty wins like the previous few seasons, they were still convincingly the best team in the NBA. Their leader, Abdul-Jabbar, finished top four in scoring, rebounding, and blocks, which encouraged the gifting of his third M.V.P. award.
The sophomore became the first true superstar to represent one of the ’71 expansion teams. Not only did McAdoo lead the league in scoring, but he finished top three in both rebounds and blocks. The Braves saw their first playoff berth behind his developments.
Detroit had not seen a winning record for a few years, but Lanier had an answer for that. His leadership and prowess on both ends of the ball resulted in a fifty-two-win campaign and the first Pistons playoff appearance since the late-60’s.
Not only did Hayes lead the league in rebounds, but he helped the newly-relocated Capital Bullets claim forty-seven victories. With teammate Wes Unseld dealing with nagging injury issues, Hayes provided a defensive continuity that saved the franchise’s year.
This was Havlicek’s worst statistical season of the decade, but he was still integral to Boston’s success. He led the squad in both scoring and assists, and hardly missed any games as per usual. It’s also worth mentioning that when he was out, they struggled.
The eventual Rookie of the Year had one of the league’s most impressive first-year runs in a long time. He led all players in assists, and it would be unwise to deny that his presence didn’t help the Buffalo Braves improve from the previous year.
Around the League
An asterisk (*) indicates that the team qualified for the playoffs.