Published June 15, 2023
The NBA Time Machine:
Busy in the Association
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
An asterisk (*) indicates that the team qualified for the playoffs.