The NBA Time Machine: 1978

Published June 15, 2023

The NBA Time Machine:

Busy in the Association

Little Brother

Following their pitiful end to the 1976-77 season – where they finished with the worst overall record and failed to sell tickets in Long Island – the New York Nets sought out change. Their ultimate decision was to return to northern New Jersey, a region they inhabited in their early ABA days. Thus came the New Jersey Nets.

Their financial feud with the New York Knicks persisted, as the latter attempted to block the move in belief it invaded their territorial rights. The Nets attempted to sue the Knicks, but an intervention from the state of New Jersey ended in them having to pay the large market team another four million dollars.

New Jersey hardly improved as a club, only winning two more games than last year. However, they had a bright future centered around the young All-Rookie Team member Bernard King, as well as assists leader Kevin Porter and the explosive scorer John Williamson.

Worried For Walton

The Portland Trail Blazers opened up matters as a defending champion was expected to. A red-hot 48-10 start to the season cemented them as the next big force in basketball, until Bill Walton broke his foot during a late February match against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Luckily for the club, such a strong first half of the year practically locked them into a playoff spot. For this reason, Walton was awarded the M.V.P. award – this made him the first to do so without playing at least eighty-percent of his team’s games.

Portland’s finishing stretch was accompanied by a 10-14 record, intensifying concerns about the possibility of a repeat championship. It simply seemed unfeasible without their superstar center, even with the NBA’s parity considered.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Kent Benson

On opening night, the Milwaukee Bucks played against the Los Angeles Lakers. Not even a few minutes into the game, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of Los Angeles delivered a sucker punch to Milwaukee’s Kent Benson after he was elbowed by the rookie in the groin area.

Abdul-Jabbar’s punch was thrown so forcefully that not only did Benson require stitches for his face, but the five-time M.V.P. broke his hand. He missed two months of play as a result and received the largest fine in league history, at a whopping five-thousand dollars. However, he was not suspended.

Without their superstar, the Lakers started off the season in mediocre fashion.

Kermit Washington vs. The Houston Rockets

An even more severe event occurred around Lakers power forward Kermit Washington during an early December contest against the Houston Rockets. A rebounding battle between him, Abdul-Jabbar, and Houston’s center Kevin Kunnert resulted in another brawl. Kunnert elbowed Washington in response to the latter grabbing at his pants, which then caused a reaction from Abdul-Jabbar. The Lakers star grabbed Kunnert to pull him away from the conflict, but this inadvertently set him up for a punch to the head from Washington.

With Kunnert now on the floor, Rockets star player Rudy Tomjanovich ran towards the scuffle to de-escalate the situation – he was widely known as one of the league’s most peaceful players. Unaware of Tomjanovich’s intentions, Washington punched him in the face. This resulted in facial fracture that sent Houston’s forward to the floor in a pool of blood, silencing the entire arena.

Tomjanovich, who could still move despite his disoriented state, was so confused by the severity of the injury that he assumed the scoreboard fell on him. He angrily confronted Washington in the locker room, which prompted security to get involved. His survival of the injury was ruled miraculous by doctors, who claimed it could have been fatal.

The punch became a talking point of the media for several weeks after its occurrence, and Washington was suspended for a record-breaking twenty-six games. He became a public enemy of society, suddenly the subject of racial attacks. There was even advisory from the police to avoid ordering room service in hotels, in fear of intentional food poisoning. His wife was shunned by many as well, being denied medical services in anticipation of her second child.

Los Angeles’ front office was not empathetic towards Washington, and he was shortly traded to the Boston Celtics a couple weeks after the fight. The power forward fell into a brief pit of depression, but eventually re-conditioned himself in preparation for his mid-February return date.

“New” York

In an unpredictable turn of events, the New York Knicks traded franchise great Walt Frazier to the Cleveland Cavaliers as compensation for signing free agent Jim Cleamons in free agency. Cleamons had previously spent five years with Cleveland, being an integral piece of the “Miracle at Richfield” team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 1976.

Frazier did not take the news well, thrown off by the smaller market and his reduced role of spot-up shooting. Knicks fans were not particularly happy either, but one thing was clear – New York valued success over culture. Such a goal was met, as they achieved their first winning season since 1974.

Race For the Title

George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs and David Thompson of the Denver Nuggets had been battling for the league’s scoring title all year long. The two were considered the best guards in the NBA, and winning this honor could solidify one as the favorite.

Nearing the end of the season, Thompson’s Nuggets were locked into a playoff berth. As a result, coach Larry Brown asked if he was interested in chasing the title in their final game against the Detroit Pistons. The Denver star was not particularly eager, given his lack of concern about individual accomplishments.

Regardless, Thompson was in for a heater. He shot twenty-eight-of-thirty-eight from the field and scored seventy-three points, which was the second most in a non-overtime game.

Gervin was alerted of his contemporary’s performance, and knew he needed at least fifty-eight points to finish in first place. The Iceman proceeded to pour in sixty-three, narrowly winning him the scoring title. He also broke Thompson’s single-quarter scoring record of thirty-two points, just set seven hours earlier.

Both Thompson and Gervin finished top three in M.V.P. voting that year.


In other statistical news, Kevin Porter of the New Jersey Nets joined Oscar Robertson, Guy Rodgers, Norm Van Lier, and Tiny Archibald as the only players to average over ten assists per game in a season.

Green Team Tumble

The Boston Celtics, who were widely regarded as the greatest NBA franchise, saw their worst all-around run in a long time. This was the first season since 1950 in which none of their players were named to an All-NBA team, and it was only their second losing season in the past twenty-nine years.

Storied coach and Celtics great Tom Heinsohn was also fired after the club started with an 11-23 record. His coaching tenure with the team was accomplished – winning two championships – but it was clear Boston needed a new voice in the locker room. They opted for Tom Sanders, who was an assistant coach and former eight-time champion with Boston.

Standout Players

Bill Walton

Despite missing twenty-four games, the reigning Finals M.V.P. had a monstrous season. Portland was 48-10 in the games he played, which practically locked them into a first seed before his absence. For these efforts, Walton was awarded his first M.V.P. award.

George Gervin

The Spurs legend not only led all players in scoring, but helped San Antonio earn its first fifty-win NBA season. He was a narrow second place finish for the M.V.P. award, and could reasonably be considered the best guard in the league.

David Thompson

Denver’s starting shooting guard put together another great run to ensure they finished with consecutive first seeds. Thompson narrowly fell behind in the scoring title race, but was still one of the most dangerous offensive engines around.

Julius Erving

The Doctor continued to decline production-wise – he delivered career lows in every statistic, with or without the ABA considered. His impact on games was still undeniable, though – Philadelphia finished with fifty-five wins, the second best league-wide.

Bob McAdoo

In his first full season with New York, McAdoo underwent a great under-the-radar year. He was firmly the best player on a forty-three win Knicks team that made the playoffs for the first time since 1975.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

During the opening game of the season, a punch to opposing rookie Kent Benson broke Abdul-Jabbar’s hand and sent him out for twenty games. The Lakers were a measly 8-12 in those games, but turned things around upon his return. He finished top ten in scoring, rebounds, and blocks.

Around the League

Team Standings

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

Eastern Conference
Atlantic DivisionWLCentral DivisionWL
Philadelphia 76ers*5527San Antonio Spurs*5230
New York Knicks*4339Washington Bullets*4438
Boston Celtics3250Cleveland Cavaliers*4339
Buffalo Braves2755Atlanta Hawks*4141
New Jersey Nets2458New Orleans Jazz3943
Houston Rockets2854
Western Conference
Midwest DivisionWLPacific DivisionWL
Denver Nuggets*4834Portland Trail Blazers*5824
Milwaukee Bucks*4438Phoenix Suns*4933
Chicago Bulls4042Seattle SuperSonics*4735
Detroit Pistons3844Los Angeles Lakers*4537
Kansas City Kings3151Golden State Warriors4339
Indiana Pacers3151

Fun Facts

  • The Boston Celtics saw their first losing season since 1970.
  • Since the divisional system’s implementation, this was only the second time every team in a division – in this case, the Pacific Division – finished with a positive record.
    • The last instance was in the 1970-71 season, in which the Midwest Division accomplished the same.
  • Injuries influenced the Houston Rockets’ massive decline, which was by a whopping twenty-one games.
  • The Philadelphia 76ers were the only team in the league to hold back-to-back fifty-win seasons.
  • Led by George Gervin, the San Antonio Spurs arguably had the most effective offense in the NBA.
    • While ranked second behind the Philadelphia 76ers, they were the only team to shoot fifty-percent from the field as a collective.

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

Milwaukee Bucks
Kansas City Kings
Milwaukee Bucks
Washington Bullets
Phoenix Suns
Los Angeles Lakers
New Jersey Nets
Seattle SuperSonics
Denver Nuggets
New York Knicks
Kent Benson
Otis Birdsong
Marques Johnson
Greg Ballard
Walter Davis
Kenny Carr
Bernard King
Jack Sikma
Tom LaGarde
Ray Williams


September 1, 1977Tiny ArchibaldNew Jersey NetsTradedBuffalo Braves(20.5p/7.5a/1.7s)
September 1, 1977Billy KnightIndiana PacersTradedBuffalo Braves(26.6p/7.5r/3.3a)
September 6, 1977Don BuseIndiana PacersTradedPhoenix Suns(8p/8.5a/3.5s)
October 10, 1977Walt FrazierNew York KnicksTradedCleveland Cavaliers(17.4p/5.3a/1.7s)

Other Personnel

August 5, 1977Coach Cotton FitzsimmonsBuffalo BravesHiredRecord: 3-4
November 4, 1977Coach Gene ShuePhiladelphia 76ersFiredRecord: 2-4
November 4, 1977Coach Billy CunninghamPhiladelphia 76ersHiredRecord: 53-23
November 30, 1977Coach Bob HopkinsSeattle SupersonicsFiredRecord: 5-17
November 30, 1977Coach Lenny WilkensSeattle SupersonicsHiredRecord: 42-18
December 15, 1977Coach Herb BrownDetroit PistonsFiredRecord: 9-15
December 15, 1977Coach Bob KauffmanDetroit PistonsAppointed (Interim)Record: 29-29
January 3, 1978Coach Tom HeinsohnBoston CelticsFiredRecord: 11-23
January 3, 1978Coach Tom SandersBoston CelticsAppointed (Interim)Record: 21-27
January 8, 1978Coach Phil JohnsonKansas City KingsFiredRecord: 13-24
May 1, 1978Coach Herb BrownDetroit PistonsHiredRecord: n/a
May 10, 1978Coach Cotton FitzsimmonsKansas City KingsHiredRecord: n/a
June 6, 1978Coach Larry CostelloChicago BullsHiredRecord: n/a


PlayerTeam(s)Notable Accomplishments
Bob LoveCincinnati Royals
Milwaukee Bucks
Chicago Bulls

New Jersey Nets
Seattle SuperSonics
2x All-NBA
3x All-Star
3x All-Defensive
Jack MarinBaltimore Bullets
Houston Rockets
Buffalo Braves
Chicago Bulls
2x All-Star
1967 All-Rookie Team
Nate ThurmondGolden State Warriors
Chicago Bulls
Cleveland Cavaliers
7x All-Star
5x All-Defensive
1964 All-Rookie Team
Dick Van ArsdaleNew York Knicks
Phoenix Suns
3x All-Star
1x All-Defensive
1966 All-Rookie Team
Tom Van ArsdaleDetroit Pistons
Kansas City-Omaha Kings
Philadelphia 76ers
Atlanta Hawks

Phoenix Suns
3x All-Star
1966 All-Rookie Team

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)

PPGGeorge Gervin (27.2)
David Thompson (27.1)
Bob McAdoo (26.5)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (25.8)
Calvin Murphy (25.6)
RPGTruck Robinson (15.7)
Moses Malone (15)
Dave Cowens (14)
Elvin Hayes (13.3)
Swen Nater (13.2)
APGKevin Porter (10.2)
John Lucas (9.4)
Ricky Sobers (7.4)
Norm Nixon (6.8)
Norm Van Lier (6.8)
SPGRon Lee (2.7)
Gus Williams (2.3)
Quinn Buckner (2.3)
Mike Gale (2.3)
Don Buse (2.3)
BPGGeorge Johnson (3.4)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (3)
Tree Rollins (2.7)
Bill Walton (2.5)
Billy Paultz (2.4)
FG%Bobby Jones (57%)
Darryl Dawkins (57%)
Artis Gilmore (55%)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (55%)
Alex English (54%)
FT%Rick Barry (92%)
Calvin Murphy (91%)
Fred Brown (89%)
Mike Newlin (87%)
Scott Wedman (87%)


First Round

East / New York Knicks beat Cleveland Cavaliers, 2-0
New York’s return to intense competition was against the Cavaliers, a new foe. Both teams had lukewarm seasons, yet with more to prove – Cleveland wanted to return to the Eastern Conference Finals like they did a couple years ago, and the Knicks sought after success with this new core built around Bob McAdoo.

Despite balanced scoring efforts from the Cavaliers, they lacked the proper defense to contain McAdoo and Spencer Haywood. A late-game comeback from the Knicks in Game 2 – led by Haywood – sealed the deal for a quick first round sweep.
East / Washington Bullets beat Atlanta Hawks, 2-0
Washington may have had their worst record since 1972, but there was still a clear talent and experience gap between these teams. Atlanta was young and over-achieving, perhaps too clearly primed for a rude awakening.

The hero of these games was Kevin Grevey, who scored forty-one points in the overtime thriller Game 2 with Bob Dandridge absent. The Hawks failed to get scoring production from anyone besides John Drew, which ultimately left them win-less by the end of mid-April.
West / Milwaukee Bucks beat Phoenix Suns, 2-0
Both Milwaukee and Phoenix were young teams that played with pace. The marquee matchup was between Paul Westphal of the Suns and Marques Johnson of the Bucks – different positions, but equal scoring talents.

Three Milwaukee players – Johnson, Brian Winters, and Dave Meyers – scored over twenty points apiece in Game 1 while shooting over sixty-percent from the field. Westphal and Walter Davis both played well, but an empty night from Don Buse hurt Phoenix’s chances at success. The former All-Star only managed to get two rebounds, one assist, and one steal in thirty four minutes of play.

The second match was more competitive, but a rough night for Walter Davis – consisting of nineteen inefficient points – resulted in the Suns heading home.
West / Seattle SuperSonics beat Los Angeles Lakers, 2-1
While Seattle had been slightly better throughout the year, the majority of fans had a hard time doubting a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led team that had just been in the Western Conference Finals. However, the strength of the SuperSonics was revealed in similar fashion to Portland in that WCF series – they were deep, balanced their scoring, and had an organized defense.

This was a tough fight for Los Angeles, who were comparatively over-reliant on Abdul-Jabbar to win. Adrian Dantley also played well, but it was ultimately in vain as the Lakers went home in three matches.


East / Philadelphia 76ers beat New York Knicks, 4-0
While New York was amidst an exciting run, they would have to play nearly perfect basketball to usurp the 76ers. Philadelphia won fifty-five games and had multiple All-Stars, a staggering advantage.

The 76ers won Game 1 by a jaw-dropping forty points, having eight (!) players score in double digits. They also held McAdoo to merely twelve, a defensive decision that would prove valuable throughout the entire series. The Knicks center broke out of his slump in the third match, but it was still not enough – Philadelphia was lossless, making this the fourth sweep of the post-season thus far.
East / Washington Bullets beat San Antonio Spurs, 4-2
San Antonio was expected to outshoot the Bullets, which would be enough to hide their otherwise average defense. It worked well in the opening game – as they shot over fifty-percent from the field and George Gervin delivered thirty-five points – but Washington pulled away to a 3-1 lead. They could not contain the Iceman, but knew limiting the consistency of his teammates would be a sufficient winning formula.

The Spurs made things interesting with a balanced team effort and win in Game 5, but the Bullets shut any comeback hopes down shortly after. Forty-five combined points from Elvin Hayes and Charles Johnson brought Washington to their first Eastern Conference Finals since 1975.
West / Denver Nuggets beat Milwaukee Bucks, 4-3
For the second straight round, the Bucks were slated against a youthful, fast-paced team – just how they liked to play. Denver had narrowly edged them out for first place in the Midwest Division, and they sought out a role reversal of sorts.

Behind their “big three” of David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Bobby Jones, the Nuggets jumped forward to a 3-1 lead. History did not favor Milwaukee, as only two teams had ever come back from that sort of deficit. Regardless, they pushed forward behind some well-coached sequences to force Game 7.

While the Bucks had a great scoring night in the tiebreaker, they were out-shot by Denver. Thompson scored thirty-seven points and swatted five shots – a superstar showing good enough for a series advance.
West / Seattle SuperSonics beat Portland Trail Blazers, 4-2
Portland let out a sigh of relief when it was confirmed Bill Walton could return for the playoffs. The star center was drugged up on painkillers behind closed doors, but that was good enough for the medical staff – they needed to get him on the floor at all costs.

After an upset on the road from Seattle, Walton went down with another injury in Game 2. Screenings revealed his ankle was broken, only adding to the nagging foot pain that plagued his career. The Blazers managed to win by a few points, but quickly fell into a deficit.

Portland stayed alive in Game 5 behind thirty-one points from backup center Tom Owens, but the SuperSonics took care of business in six matches. This sent them to their first Conference Finals in franchise history.

Conference Finals

East / Washington Bullets beat Philadelphia 76ers, 4-2
These clubs had not met in years, last facing off in the 1971 Semifinals. Wes Unseld still led the team then, but his adversaries were all new faces – the 76ers were defending Conference Champions led by stars such as Julius Erving, Doug Collins, and George McGinnis, making them a formidable foe.

Philadelphia had some good offensive outings, but their defense was horrid – Washington averaged 117.5 points over the first four matches, winning three of them. Erving and Collins kept their hopes alive in Game 5, but Bob Dandridge crushed them with twenty-eight points a couple nights later. This spelled Finals appearance number three for the Bullets.
West / Seattle SuperSonics beat Denver Nuggets, 4-2
Neither organization had seen the Conference Finals before, so fans were in for a new Western Conference representative regardless of the outcome. What made things even more exciting was how even they were – Denver had the slightly better record, but Seattle bested them 3-1 during the regular season. Now it was time to see the dynamic at the highest level.

The Nuggets took the lead quickly, but were brutally met with an intensified SuperSonics defense that won three games in a row. The Mile High City now found itself in the same situation Portland did, but desperately wanted a different outcome.

David Thompson’s thirty-five points delivered a Game 5 victory, but Seattle cut the cord immediately. Fifty combined from Gus Williams and Fred Brown – two explosive scorers – earned the SuperSonics a trip to the championship stage that few expected.


Washington Bullets beat Seattle SuperSonics, 4-3
This was the first Finals since 1958 – in which the season was seventy-two games – where neither team had fifty wins in the regular season. It was an indicator of the league’s increased parity and unpredictable nature, a shift that many appreciated.

Generally, there was more pressure on Washington to deliver. A lot of Seattle’s core players were young, meanwhile both Bullets leaders – Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes – were in their early-30’s. This is also without mentioning that the franchise was 0-8 in the Finals, a pathetic record that needed rectification.

Washington fell into bad habits quickly as they blew a huge lead in Game 1 – Seattle’s Fred Brown dropped sixteen of his thirty points in the fourth quarter. Eventually, the teams evened out to a 2-2 tie with a Seattle flight on the calendar. The SuperSonics unsurprisingly took the lead behind another stellar performance from Brown – Washington responded with a blowout win in Game 6, with their bench scoring a whopping sixty-three points to stay alive.

The final step for the Bullets was winning Game 7 on the road. Only two teams had ever overcome adversity this way – both were Boston Celtics teams, in 1969 and 1974. Washington took a 79-66 lead by the fourth quarter, looking primed to beat the odds. Only a couple minutes into the quarter, Hayes fouled out of the game with twelve underwhelming points. Veteran forward Bob Dandridge is who stepped up and helped close out the series victory – he was even initially elected for the Finals MVP honors, but it was later awarded to Unseld.

Relief was in the Washington air – after six long years together, the Unseld-Hayes duo had finally won a championship.
The Washington Bullets win the 1978 NBA championship!
Wes Unseld 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
Walter DavisBill WaltonWes UnseldHubie Brown


All-NBA First TeamAll-NBA Second Team
David Thompson
George Gervin
Julius Erving
Truck Robinson
Bill Walton
Paul Westphal
Pete Maravich

Walter Davis
Maurice Lucas
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


All-Defensive First TeamAll-Defensive Second Team
Lionel Hollins
Don Buse
Bobby Jones
Maurice Lucas
Bill Walton
Norm Van Lier
Quinn Buckner
Bob Gross
E.C. Coleman
Artis Gilmore
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


Eastern All-StarsWestern All-Stars
Doug Collins
Dave Cowens

Julius Erving
George Gervin

John Havlicek (IR)
Elvin Hayes (IR)
Larry Kenon
Billy Knight
Moses Malone
Pete Maravich
Bob McAdoo
Truck Robinson
Randy Smith
Rick Barry
Walter Davis
Artis Gilmore
Lionel Hollins
Bobby Jones
Bob Lanier
Maurice Lucas
David Thompson
Bill Walton
Paul Westphal

Brian Winters
West beats East, 133-125


All-Rookie Team
Walter Davis
Marques Johnson
Bernard King
Norm Nixon
Jack Sikma

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
Trail Blazers11977

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