The NBA Time Machine: 1976

Published May 31, 2023

The NBA Time Machine:

The Big 30

South Cali Skyhooks

After the disastrous finish to the 1974-75 season, the Milwaukee Bucks had to handle Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s pending trade request immediately. They attempted to do everything in power to keep the star. It was even suggested that he live in New York full-time, with flight accommodations to Milwaukee as a compromise.

Ultimately, cultural comfortability was still his priority. The Bucks eventually honed in on the Los Angeles Lakers as a trade destination – they had the best combination of draft assets and young talent, which motivated a full rebuild around a youthful core.

In mid-June, Abdul-Jabbar – alongside teammate Walt Wesley – was traded to Los Angeles for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith, and Brian Winters. The first two were recently drafted, and Smith was a former blocks leader. It was highly doubted that any of these players could compare to the man they were traded for, but Milwaukee handled matters decently for being in such a disadvantageous situation.

Winters went on to represent the Bucks at the All-Star Game, and the team still managed to make the playoffs – something Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers could not do. Despite this, he was still voted as the league’s M.V.P. for the fourth time, making him the first in history to receive such an honor with no post-season presence.


On the league’s thirtieth anniversary, Larry O’Brien was appointed as its third commissioner. Succeeding the widely celebrated Walter Kennedy, he was viewed as a possible savior to the league’s stability – while it had seen tremendous growth in terms of size and popularity, its social reputation was shaky at best. Not only did it have a negative connotation due to the emerging drug and fighting culture around its players, but the rival ABA was peaking in popularity and talent. O’Brien was expected to rectify those problems.

His first decision in office was preventing the New York Knicks from signing ABA phenomenon George McGinnis. The reason why was because of contract issues between them and the Philadelphia 76ers, who drafted McGinnis in 1973 – Philadelphia agreed to send his rights to New York if he signed with them before a specified deadline, which did not happen. As a result, O’Brien removed the Knicks’ first-round pick and ordered them to reimburse the 76ers, clearly disappointed in their illegal means of transaction.

Out Of Omaha

The Kansas City-Omaha Kings officially claimed Kansas City as their sole home, removing the “Omaha” surname from their title. However, they continued to play a handful of games in Omaha as well as St. Louis, who had not claimed an NBA team since the St. Louis Hawks in 1968.

Old Customs

The league briefly attempted to revise the former playoff eligibility format, which had seen major criticism in the past. This time around, teams with a positive record were automatically favored – every one of them saw the post-season.

The two exceptions lied in the Midwest Division, which was so collectively weak that the top two seeds from it – the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons – were invited to the playoffs anyway.

Free For Two

For the first time since 1957, two different players – Rick Barry and Calvin Murphy – finished with a percentage of 90% or higher in free throw shooting. This was solid proof of the increase in shooting form quality over time – the set shot had seen its peak then, and overhand techniques were at their best now.

Standout Players

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

After joining the Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar saw career highs in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. He managed to improve the team by ten wins, an impact that made him the M.V.P. favorite despite missing the playoffs.

Rick Barry

Barry brought the Warriors their first league-wide one-seed in twenty years. The reigning Finals M.V.P. had a massive down year statistically, but that could not take away from his leadership in the fifty-nine-win Golden State run.

Bob McAdoo

For the third consecutive time, McAdoo led the NBA in scoring and finished top two in M.V.P. voting. He also averaged a career high four assists per game, a development that made his already potent offensive game even more complete.

George McGinnis

After leaving the rival ABA to join the team that drafted him in 1973, McGinnis revived the 76ers’ culture – they improved by twelve wins this season. He finished top six in both points and rebounds, and also fell slightly short of the steals record.

Slick Watts

The Seattle point guard took an enormous leap this season, leading the league in both assists and steals. His playmaking was a big part of the SuperSonics managing back-to-back winning seasons – the franchise had never done that before.

Dave Cowens

Yet another fifty-win compilation from the Celtics was led by Cowens, who remained as steady as ever in influencing their successes. Voters placed him third in M.V.P. voting.

Around the League

Team Standings

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

Eastern Conference
Atlantic DivisionWLCentral DivisionWL
Boston Celtics*5428Cleveland Cavaliers*4933
Philadelphia 76ers*4636Washington Bullets*4834
Buffalo Braves*4636Houston Rockets4042
New York Knicks3844New Orleans Jazz3844
Atlanta Hawks2953
Western Conference
Midwest DivisionWLPacific DivisionWL
Milwaukee Bucks*3844Golden State Warriors*5923
Detroit Pistons*3646Seattle SuperSonics*4339
Kansas City Kings3151Phoenix Suns*4240
Chicago Bulls2458Los Angeles Lakers4042
Portland Trail Blazers3745

Fun Facts

  • After just having three fifty-win teams two years ago, the Midwest Division was now pitiful – not a single team in it possesseed a winning record.
  • For the first time since 1956, the Golden State Warriors finished with the best record league-wide.
  • The Cleveland Cavaliers enjoyed their first winning season in franchise history.
  • The Washington Bullets finished below first place in the Central Division for the first time since the format was introduced.
  • In the course of an off-season, the Milwaukee Bucks went from being among the upper half of teams in age to the second-youngest team in the NBA.
    • The youngest was the Seattle SuperSonics, with an average age of 24.5.
  • The Houston Rockets, despite their underwhelming record, boasted both the best offense and field goal percentage in the league.

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
s – steals
b – blocks

Top Draft Picks

Atlanta Hawks
Los Angeles Lakers
Atlanta Hawks
Phoenix Suns

Philadelphia 76ers
Portland Trail Blazers
New Orleans Jazz
Los Angeles Lakers
New York Knicks
Kansas City Kings
David Thompson+
Dave Meyers
Marvin Webster+
Alvan Adams

Darryl Dawkins
Lionel Hollins
Rich Kelley
Junior Bridgeman
Gene Short
Bill Robinzine


June 16, 1975Kareem Abdul-JabbarMilwaukee BucksTradedLos Angeles Lakers(30p/14r/3.3b)
July 10, 1975George McGinnisIndiana Pacers (ABA)SignedPhiladelphia 76ers(29.8p/14.3r/6.3a)
August 28, 1975Dave BingDetroit PistonsTradedWashington Bullets(19p/3.6r/7.7a)
August 28, 1975Kevin PorterWashington BulletsTradedDetroit Pistons(11.6p/8a/1.9s)
October 24, 1975Spencer HaywoodSeattle SuperSonicsTradedNew York Knicks(22.4p/9.3r/1.6b)

Other Personnel

January 26, 1976Coach Ray ScottDetroit PistonsFiredRecord: 17-25
January 26, 1976Coach Herb BrownDetroit PistonsHiredRecord: 19-21
March 30, 1976Coach Cotton FitzsimmonsAtlanta HawksFiredRecord: 28-46
March 30, 1976Coach Gene TormohlenAtlanta HawksAppointed (Interim)Record: 1-7
April 20, 1976Coach Johnny EganHouston RocketsFiredRecord: 40-42
April 20, 1976Coach Tom NissalkeHouston RocketsHiredRecord: n/a
May 3, 1976Coach Jack RamsayBuffalo BravesFiredRecord: 46-36
May 6, 1976Coach Tates LockeBuffalo BravesHiredRecord: n/a
May 7, 1976Coach K.C. JonesWashington BulletsFiredRecord: 48-34
May 28, 1976Coach Dick MottaChicago BullsResignedRecord: 24-58
May 28, 1976Coach Dick MottaWashington BulletsHiredRecord: n/a
June 1, 1976Coach Lenny WilkensPortland Trail BlazersFiredRecord: 37-45
June 1, 1976Coach Jack RamsayPortland Trail BlazersHiredRecord: n/a


PlayerTeam(s)Notable Accomplishments
Zelmo BeatyAtlanta Hawks
Los Angeles Lakers
2x All-Star
1963 All-Rookie Team
Walt BellamyBaltimore Bullets
New York Knicks

Detroit Pistons
Atlanta Hawks
New Orleans Jazz
4x All-Star
1962 Rookie of the Year
1962 All-Rookie Team
Bill BridgesAtlanta Hawks
Philadelphia 76ers
Los Angeles Lakers

Golden State Warriors
1x Champion
3x All-Star
2x All-Defensive
Bob KauffmanSeattle SuperSonics
Chicago Bulls
Buffalo Braves
Atlanta Hawks
3x All-Star
Don KojisBaltimore Bullets
Detroit Pistons
Chicago Bulls
San Diego Rockets

Seattle SuperSonics
Kansas City-Omaha Kings
2x All-Star
Chet WalkerPhiladelphia 76ers
Chicago Bulls
1x Champion
7x All-Star
1963 All-Rookie Team
Lenny WilkensSt. Louis Hawks
Seattle SuperSonics
Cleveland Cavaliers
Portland Trail Blazers
9x All-Star
1x All-Star Game MVP
1x Assists Leader

League Leaders


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

PPGBob McAdoo (31.1)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (27.7)
Pete Maravich (25.9)
Tiny Archibald (24.8)
Fred Brown (23.1)
RPGKareem Abdul-Jabbar (16.9)
Dave Cowens (16)
Wes Unseld (13.3)
Paul Silas (12.7)
Sam Lacey (12.6)
APGSlick Watts (8.1)
Tiny Archibald (7.9)
Calvin Murphy (7.3)
Norm Van Lier (6.6)
Rick Barry (6.1)
SPGSlick Watts (3.2)
Paul Westphal (2.6)
George McGinnis (2.6)
Rick Barry (2.5)
Chris Ford (2.2)
BPGKareem Abdul-Jabbar (4.1)
Elmore Smith (3.1)
Elvin Hayes (2.5)
Harvey Catchings (2.2)
George Johnson (2.1)
FG%Wes Unseld (56%)
John Shumate (56%)
Jim McMillian (53%)
Bob Lanier (53%)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (52%)
FT%Rick Barry (92%)
Calvin Murphy (90%)
Cazzie Russell (89%)
Bill Bradley (87%)
Fred Brown (86%)


First Round

East / Buffalo Braves beat Philadelphia 76ers, 2-1
The Braves and 76ers were incredibly even on paper – they finished with the same regular season record, although Philadelphia had the upper hand in their earlier matchups. Both teams had two definitive stars, one of each being an M.V.P. candidate – it was expected to be incredibly competitive for a first round series.

Predictions were indeed correct, as the two split wins behind big games from Bob McAdoo and George McGinnis, respectively. The tiebreaker was an overtime must-see, where McAdoo dropped thirty-four points and pulled down twenty-two rebounds – his counterpart McGinnis had a much worse outing, fouling out with fifteen points on the board.

The Braves eventually won by one point, securing yet another Semifinals appearance.
West / Detroit Pistons beat Milwaukee Bucks, 2-1
These two young midwestern teams had low expectations, but high aspirations – Detroit was chasing their first Conference Finals berth in fourteen seasons, and Milwaukee wanted to assert themselves as a legitimate force without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Both games were high-scoring wins for the home teams, with Bob Lanier putting on a show in Game 2 with thirty-five points. Game 3 was back in Milwaukee, but such an environment was irrelevant to Detroit – they upset the Bucks behind Lanier and Curtis Rowe, which confirmed a Semifinals matchup against the dominant Golden State Warriors.


East / Boston Celtics beat Buffalo Braves, 4-2
This was the second meeting in three years between these two clubs – the last was during Boston’s 1974 championship run. The Celtics’ main focus was to contain McAdoo better than they had last time – they did an okay job, as the former M.V.P. scored sixteen and forty points in the first two matches, respectively.

His inconsistencies continued, but the Braves eventually went back to Boston Garden tied in spite of a Dave Cowens 29/26/8 performance. They had a horrible outing on both ends in Game 5, as Cowens and Paul Silas thoroughly controlled the pace. A toasty thirty-one points from Charlie Scott was the final barricade in Buffalo’s path to the Conference Finals.
East / Cleveland Cavaliers beat Washington Bullets, 4-3
Cleveland was a new face in the playoff race, and it was difficult to assess how menacing they truly were. Cavaliers personnel had cruised through the regular season, but they had zero post-season experience. Meanwhile, the Bullets, while partially known for folding under pressure, had a more talented and seasoned squad.

Washington ran away with a road victory in Game 1, but a game winning jumpshot from Bingo Smith tied the series 1-1. Game 3 was an ugly slugfest, with nobody scoring over seventeen points – Cleveland took that match as well, only to fall short to the Bullets afterwards thanks to a flaming hot night from sixth man Clem Haskins. The Cavaliers’ Jim Cleamons was terrible in the fifth match, but remained clutch as he tipped in the final shot for the game winner – the feisty Cleveland team now led 3-2, and could close out the series with force.

Fifty-two combined points from Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier prevented that possibility, setting the stage for a thrilling Game 7. In what was described as the defining moment in the “Miracle at Richfield” – which fans retrospectively named this Cavaliers season – Dick Snyder of Cleveland hit a shot with four seconds left. This was the dagger that manifested a trip to the Conference Finals in their first ever post-season run.

Such a competitive series garnered the interest of many Ohio locals, which cemented the Cavaliers as a must-see local team. Meanwhile, Washington had some serious decisions to make – they had now been swept in the Finals and embarrassed in the first round for back-to-back respective years, and questions arose about whether they could seriously contend with that core.
West / Golden State Warriors beat Detroit Pistons, 4-2
The Warriors and Pistons had some light, largely undocumented history. The two franchises had not met in the post-season since 1956, where Golden State – then based in Philadelphia – gentleman’s swept the Fort Wayne Pistons in the Finals. Several cores, ups, and downs later, they were now scheduled for what was perceived as a lop-sided Semifinals duel.

The teams won one game each on their respective homecourts, largely bolstered by the play of Phil Smith and Bob Lanier. Detroit could not muster a road win in Game 5 – their starting lineup was absolutely pathetic, with all three of their top scorers coming off of the bench. Perhaps even more problematic was their inability to force a tiebreaker at home in Game 6 – Golden State’s Phil Smith delivered thirty-seven points and seven assists, upholding his crew’s dreams of a repeat championship run.
West / Phoenix Suns beat Seattle SuperSonics, 4-2
This full-on west coast series was expected to be seriously competitive, as neither team was considered better than slightly above-average. Fred Brown was absolutely nuclear in the first two games, averaging thirty-nine points over that span and leading Seattle to one victory. His barrages continued, but the SuperSonics ended up down 1-3 a week later.

It was imperative that they stave off elimination with a victory at home, a request they fulfilled. The entire starting lineup filled the stat sheet to force a Game 6, now looking to repeat that effort in Phoenix. A balanced team performance from the Suns – including a near triple-double from Alvan Adams – overpowered Seattle as they completed the first playoff series win in franchise history.

Conference Finals

East / Boston Celtics beat Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-2
The Cavaliers’ miracle run continued, with their next roadblock being the powerhouse Celtics. This would be no easy battle for them – the Bullets’ lack of composure was exploitable, but Boston had proven championship DNA. That was on full display in the first two games, as they dismantled Cleveland en route to a 2-0 lead. In the comfort of their turf, the Cavaliers put together two defensive masterclasses to tie the series – their grit could not be underestimated.

Dave Cowens ensured the Celtics had a lead heading into the Game 6 at Richfield, where his teammates joined him in a definitive series closer. Cleveland deserved significant praise for the heart they put on display – that didn’t change the fact that Boston was now headed to their second Finals in three years, though.
West / Phoenix Suns beat Golden State Warriors, 4-3
Golden State was overwhelmingly favored in this series – not only did they hold a significant regular season edge over Phoenix, but they were the defending champions with homecourt advantage. The Suns were arguably a tad deeper, but had no stars on the level of Rick Barry.

Neither team could hold a lead, ending matters 2-2 by the fifth game. The Warriors delivered a statement win at home in a sixteen-point blowout – Phoenix’s bench was significantly better than that of their opponent, but Gar Heard and Ricky Sobers played terribly. A one-point win made up for their mistakes in Game 6, surprisingly forcing a tiebreaker.

It had seemed that the Suns had the same unwavering will to win that defined the Warriors during their title run a year ago.

Only a few minutes into Game 7, tensions arose as Barry was repeatedly punched by Sobers, leading to the Golden State star being jumped by multiple Suns players. After reviewing film and seeing that none of his teammates even attempted to help him, Barry was livid – he proceeded to ice himself out for the majority of the game, blatantly refusing to shoot in favorable situations.

He still led the team in scoring, but his nineteen field goal attempts fell far below his average for the series. While quick to deny allegations that he threw the game, the shift in energy was very obvious. Phoenix capitalized on a stagnant Warriors offense in the second half, clinching their very first Finals appearance.

Such a shameless act of pettiness from Barry did nothing to help his already poor reputation – this was very much Golden State’s game to lose.


Boston Celtics beat Phoenix Suns, 4-2
An interesting story defined this year’s Finals – the Celtics were fighting for Banner Thirteen, while Phoenix wanted to chase their very first title. Most understandably favored the Celtics to win, given their combination of experience, depth, and star power.

Much like every other series they played this year, wins were split in the first four games. Afterwards came what was undeniably the greatest game in NBA history.

To start things off, John Havlicek returned to the Celtics’ starting lineup after reprising his sixth man role with injury woes. Such a triumphant announcement energized fans in Boston Garden, beginning the loudest night of the year. Boston broke an all-time playoff record by scoring thirty-six points in the first quarter, eventually leading by sixteen at halftime. The environment was largely in their control, but the Suns ramped up their intensity on both ends to mount a comeback. Havlicek was held scoreless for the majority of the second half, and Phoenix outscored their foes 50-34 in that period to force an overtime.

Controversy followed the officials, as Boston’s Paul Silas called a timeout with none left. Referee Richie Powers seemed to purposely ignore his request, saving the team from a technical foul. This could have given the Suns an immediate advantage, but they were instead propelled beyond regulation.

Neither team could build a lead in the overtime period, and another questionable moment occurred as the game clock did not start counting down during Havlicek’s failed attempt at a game winner. This gave him an unnecessary amount of time to shoot. In the second overtime, Paul Westphal made a clutch steal that eventually put Phoenix up one point. Havlicek responded with a running, one-handed bank shot that seemingly won Boston the game, but the clock was once again incorrectly managed. Fans rushed onto the floor in excitement, but responded in fury once they realized their team
wasn’t done yet – one Celtics fan attacked a referee, and Paul Westphal frantically requested a timeout his team did not have. The technical foul was assessed this time around, putting Boston up two points.

In shocking fashion, Phoenix’s Gar Heard hit a fadeaway jump shot to send the game into a third overtime. The Celtics managed to ultimately pull away, taking a 3-2 series lead after the most electrifying match basketball had ever seen. Game 6 was far less interesting, with Dave Cowens dropping twenty-one points and grabbing seventeen rebounds to finish the NBA’s thirtieth season.

Number thirteen for the green team.
The Boston Celtics win the 1976 NBA championship!
Jo Jo White 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
Alvan AdamsKareem Abdul-JabbarJo Jo WhiteBill Fitch


All-NBA First TeamAll-NBA Second Team
Tiny Archibald
Pete Maravich
Rick Barry

George McGinnis
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Randy Smith
Phil Smith
John Havlicek

Elvin Hayes
Dave Cowens


All-Defensive First TeamAll-Defensive Second Team
Slick Watts
Norm Van Lier
John Havlicek
Paul Silas
Dave Cowens
Jim Cleamons
Phil Smith
Jamaal Wilkes

Jim Brewer
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


Eastern All-StarsWestern All-Stars
Dave Bing*
Doug Collins
Dave Cowens

John Drew
Walt Frazier
John Havlicek
Elvin Hayes
Bob McAdoo
George McGinnis
Randy Smith
Rudy Tomjanovich

Jo Jo White
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Alvan Adams
Tiny Archibald
Rick Barry

Fred Brown
Bob Dandridge

Curtis Rowe
Phil Smith
Norm Van Lier
Scott Wedman
Jamaal Wilkes
Brian Winters
East beats West, 123-109


All-Rookie Team
Alvan Adams
Lionel Hollins
Joe Meriweather
John Shumate
Gus Williams

All-Time Championship Leaderboard

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

Celtics131957, 1959
1960, 1961
1962, 1963
1964, 1965
1966, 1967
1969, 1974

Lakers61949, 1950
1952, 1953
1954, 1972
Warriors31947, 1956
76ers21955, 1967
Knicks21970, 1973

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