Published June 20, 2023
The NBA Time Machine:
In the northeast, a problem arose as the Buffalo Braves’ stability was threatened. They struggled with the scheduling of home games, as the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium greatly favored business with the Canisius Golden Griffins and Buffalo Sabres of the NCAA and NHL, respectively.
Attempts were made to relocate the team to South Florida – a region the NBA had not yet experimented with – but failed and sold the franchise to John Y. Brown Jr. Brown, known for turning Kentucky Fried Chicken into a multimillion-dollar food chain, had some additional experience in basketball ventures – he also owned the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, who won a championship under him in 1975.
Brown gutted Buffalo, which destroyed attendance and put the organization at risk of implosion. He chose to swap franchise ownership with Irv Levin of the Boston Celtics – Levin, who was from California, then opted to relocate the Braves to San Diego.
The move was seen as incredibly risky, given basketball’s history of failure in the city. The Houston Rockets had to relocate from it after only four seasons, and the ABA’s San Diego Sails could only manage three-and-a-half unremarkable years of play. Regardless, Levin was persistent.
Thanks to his determination, professional basketball now had a re-imagined member in the San Diego Clippers. As chosen by locals, they were named after the sailing ships of the San Diego Bay. The only players from the Buffalo era to remain were Scott Lloyd, Swen Nater, and Randy Smith. Sparkplug scorer Lloyd Free was also acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers, adding some excitement to the team’s offense.
At the head of operations was former five-time All-Star Gene Shue, who had led both the Baltimore Bullets and 76ers to Finals appearances on separate occasions. His speedy, scoring-focused philosophy brought the franchise its first winning record since 1976.
With the cross-country move of the Buffalo Braves, the divisions were re-aligned yet again:
- The Washington Bullets moved from the Central Division to the Atlantic Division.
- The Detroit Pistons moved from the Midwest Division to the Central Division.
- The Braves moved from the Atlantic Division to the Pacific Division, now under the San Diego Clippers moniker.
Following the disastrous end to the Portland Trail Blazers’ 1977-78 season, Bill Walton grew increasingly angry with the organization. He felt as if their decision to put him on painkillers – something he already detested personally – to alleviate the pain of a broken foot was crossing the line.
After weeks of arguments, failed convincing from Blazers personnel, and self-reflection, Walton demanded to be traded. The superstar declared Portland’s medical staff and front office as unethical and amateur, and refused to play for them again. His preferred choices were the newly relocated San Diego Clippers, New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors, and semi-rival Philadelphia 76ers. Portland did not honor his request, a decision he responded to with a season-long holdout in anticipation of his free agency.
With Walton gone, the Blazers worsened by thirteen games and barely made the playoffs. A franchise that had just celebrated a championship a couple years ago was now in a much darker place, forced to determine what path of building they would explore for the future.
The Losing Formula
The previous year had been a disappointment for the Boston Celtics, but their front office was vigorous. Operations begun with the drafting of the young prospect Larry Bird, who played at Indiana State. Bird refused to play with the team without finishing his college career, a choice the Celtics reluctantly accepted – they knew that his stock would raise by the 1979 draft, and did not want to let go of a potential core player’s right. As a result, they underwent contract negotiations with Bird throughout the year.
In other news, attempts were made to acquire some game-changing pieces to re-establish a winning culture. At the start of the season, they received former All-Stars Tiny Archibald and Billy Knight from the San Diego Clippers.
Both players were incredibly disappointing – Archibald averaged career lows in points and assists at 11.0 and 4.7 a game, and Knight’s scoring average declined by a steep nine digits. The latter was traded to the Indiana Pacers mid-season, and the Celtics brought in former M.V.P. Bob McAdoo from the New York Knicks in February. His contributions were quite empty as well, with the team going 4-16 in his presence.
These struggles were only amplified by the hiring of Dave Cowens as a player-coach, which had absolutely no positive implications. The franchise reached a nadir, achieving their lowest winning percentage since 1950. Boston was also without an All-Star representative for the first time since the event’s conception.
Now healthy and energetic, Malone took an enormous leap into superstardom. He had his first scoring average over twenty points, led all players in rebounds, and helped Houston improve by nineteen wins. This explosive improvement ended with his first M.V.P. selection.
While Abdul-Jabbar averaged career lows in multiple statistics – including points and rebounds – his impact remained at a high, now able to lead a better team with a young core. The Lakers stayed afloat in a relatively stacked Pacific Division and made the playoffs yet again.
With all the hype around Washington with their recent title run, Elvin Hayes continued his streak of dominant play. He led the Bullets in scoring, rebounds, and blocks, which contributed to their first fifty-win season since 1975.
For the second straight time, Gervin led the league in scoring and the Spurs sat atop the Central Division. His points average of 29.6 was the largest in his career to date, ABA or NBA.
Alongside teammate Walter Davis, Paul Westphal organized the first fifty-win campaign in Phoenix Suns history. His offensive impact was monstrous, not only serving as his team’s primary playmaker but best scorer as well.
Despite being one of the NBA’s best franchises of the past few years, expectations around the Philadelphia 76ers had largely faltered. Dr. J’s play remained consistent, though – his scoring average of 23.1 was the highest in his NBA career. This was also in spite of two of his best teammates – George McGinnis and Doug Collins – being traded and injured, respectively.
Around the League
An asterisk (*) indicates that the team qualified for the playoffs.