The NBA Time Machine: 1979

Published June 20, 2023

The NBA Time Machine:

70’s Finale

San Diego

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.

Bill’s Doubts

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.

Standout Players

Moses Malone

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.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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.

Elvin Hayes

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.

George Gervin

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.

Paul Westphal

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.

Julius Erving

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

Team Standings

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

Eastern Conference
Atlantic DivisionWLCentral DivisionWL
Washington Bullets*5428San Antonio Spurs*4834
Philadelphia 76ers*4735Houston Rockets*4735
New Jersey Nets*3745Atlanta Hawks*4636
New York Knicks3151Detroit Pistons3052
Boston Celtics2953Cleveland Cavaliers3052
New Orleans Jazz2656
Western Conference
Midwest DivisionWLPacific DivisionWL
Kansas City Kings*4834Seattle SuperSonics*5230
Denver Nuggets*4735Phoenix Suns*5032
Milwaukee Bucks3844Los Angeles Lakers*4735
Indiana Pacers3844Portland Trail Blazers*4537
Chicago Bulls3151San Diego Clippers4339
Golden State Warriors3844

Fun Facts

  • Following injuries to Pete Maravich and the trade of Truck Robinson, the New Orleans Jazz only won a league-worst twenty-six games.
  • After three rough seasons, the Kansas City Kings returned to the win column – their first instance of doing so since abandoning Omaha.
    • They also clinched their first divisional championship.
  • The trend of high parity continued as only three teams won fifty or more matches.
  • Behind the play of All-Stars Moses Malone, Rudy Tomjanovich, and Calvin Murphy, the Houston Rockets improved by nineteen games.
  • The Indiana Pacers were the only NBA-ABA merger team to not make the playoffs this year.
    • They remained the only one of the four to still fall short of an NBA playoff berth.
  • Led by John Drew, the Atlanta Hawks had their first winning record since 1973.
  • The San Diego Clippers’ faster playing style and emphasis on offense was a surprise, given they were among the oldest teams 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

Portland Trail Blazers
Kansas City Kings
Indiana Pacers
New York Knicks
Golden State Warriors
Boston Celtics
Portland Trail Blazers
Boston Celtics
Chicago Bulls
Atlanta Hawks
Mychal Thompson
Phil Ford
Rick Robey
Micheal Ray Richardson
Purvis Short
Larry Bird+
Ron Brewer
Freeman Williams
Reggie Theus
Butch Lee


June 17, 1978Rick BarryGolden State WarriorsSignedHouston Rockets(23.1p/5.5r/5.4a)
August 4, 1978Tiny ArchibaldSan Diego ClippersTradedBoston Celtics(20.5p/7.5a/1.7s)
August 4, 1978Billy KnightSan Diego ClippersTradedBoston Celtics(22.9p/7.2r/3a)
August 16, 1978Bobby JonesDenver NuggetsTradedPhiladelphia 76ers(14.5p/8.5r/1.8s)
August 16, 1978George McGinnisPhiladelphia 76ersTradedDenver Nuggets(20.3p/10.4r/3.8a)
January 12, 1979Truck RobinsonNew Orleans JazzTradedPhoenix Suns(24.2p/13.4r/1.5b)
February 12, 1979Bob McAdooNew York KnicksTradedBoston Celtics(26.9p/9.5r/3.2a)
May 13, 1979Bill WaltonPortland Trail BlazersSignedSan Diego Clippers(18.9p/13.2r/5a)

Other Personnel

November 10, 1978Coach Willis ReedNew York KnicksFiredRecord: 6-8
November 10, 1978Coach Red HolzmanNew York KnicksHiredRecord: 25-43
November 14, 1978Coach Tom SandersBoston CelticsFiredRecord: 2-12
November 14, 1978Player-coach Dave CowensBoston CelticsHiredRecord: 27-41
February 1, 1979Coach Larry BrownDenver NuggetsResignedRecord: 28-25
February 1, 1979Coach Donnie WalshDenver NuggetsHiredRecord: 19-10
February 16, 1979Coach Larry CostelloChicago BullsFiredRecord: 20-36
February 16, 1979Coach Scotty RobertsonChicago BullsAppointed (Interim)Record: 11-15
April 8, 1979Player-coach Dave CowensBoston CelticsFiredRecord: 27-41
April 12, 1979Coach Elgin BaylorNew Orleans JazzFiredRecord: 26-56
April 28, 1979Coach Jerry SloanChicago BullsHiredRecord: n/a
May 21, 1979Coach Bill FitchCleveland CavaliersResignedRecord: 30-52
May 23, 1979Coach Bill FitchBoston CelticsHiredRecord: n/a


PlayerTeam(s)Notable Accomplishments
Dave BingDetroit Pistons
Washington Bullets
Boston Celtics
3x All-NBA
7x All-Star
1x All-Star Game MVP
1967 Rookie of the Year
1967 All-Rookie Team
1x Scoring Leader
John HavlicekBoston Celtics8x Champion
1x Finals MVP
11x All-NBA
13x All-Star
8x All-Defensive
1963 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 (29.6)
Lloyd Free (28.8)
Marques Johnson (25.6)
Bob McAdoo (24.8)
Moses Malone (24.8)
RPGMoses Malone (17.6)
Rich Kelley (12.8)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (12.8)
Artis Gilmore (12.7)
Jack Sikma (12.4)
APGKevin Porter (13.4)
John Lucas (9.3)
Norm Nixon (9)
Phil Ford (8.6)
Paul Westphal (6.5)
SPGM.L. Carr (2.5)
Eddie Jordan (2.5)
Norm Nixon (2.5)
Foots Walker (2.4)
Phil Ford (2.2)
BPGKareem Abdul-Jabbar (4)
George Johnson (3.2)
Tree Rollins (3.1)
Robert Parish (2.9)
Terry Tyler (2.5)
FG%Cedric Maxwell (58%)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (57%)
Wes Unseld (57%)
Artis Gilmore (57%)
Swen Nater (56%)
FT%Rick Barry (94%)
Calvin Murphy (92%)
Fred Brown (88%)
Robert Smith (88%)
Ricky Sobers (88%)


First Round

East / Atlanta Hawks beat Houston Rockets, 2-0
These teams were within a similar skill level – Houston had the advantage of top-end talent, but Atlanta was deeper and far more defensively sound. However, it was tough to bet against the league M.V.P. Moses Malone, who could take over games at any given moment.

Behind Dan Roundfield, the Hawks took a surprising win on the road in Game 1, which set the stage for a sweep shortly after. The Rockets’ “big three” of Malone, Calvin Murphy, and Rudy Tomjanovich were awful, combining for only forty-six points on eighteen-for-fifty shooting.
East / Philadelphia 76ers beat New Jersey Nets, 2-0
The 76ers had an easy path to the Semifinals, scheduled for a battle with the out-of-place Nets. New Jersey had a cushioned losing record, and only snuck into the post-season through a historically weak Eastern Conference.

Not even thirty-eight points from John Williamson in the opener could buy the Nets a victory, a trend that followed them into the next match. A potent stat-line of 24/21/2/2/2 from Caldwell Jones guaranteed a 76ers advance, leaving their divisional rivals in the mud.
West / Los Angeles Lakers beat Denver Nuggets, 2-1
Denver’s spirits were low at this point, to say the least. Not only did they finish the season with a franchise-worst NBA record, but they lost George McGinnis to injury in March. This stripped the small market of their secondary scoring option, which could lead to exhaustion for David Thompson and Dan Issel.

The series was split 1-1 after Thompson experienced no setbacks. Both him and Issel were excellent in Game 3, but fell short to Los Angeles by one point. Aside from witnessing a borderline triple-double from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they also struggled to contain Adrian Dantley. The Lakers forward poured in twenty-six points from the bench, which crushed Denver’s optimism.
West / Phoenix Suns beat Portland Trail Blazers, 2-1
With Bill Walton indefinitely out, the Trail Blazers were no longer favorites by any margin. Phoenix had also just completed a fifty-win run, with momentum likely to aid their playoff aspirations.

After dropping Game 1, Portland saved their season thanks to twenty points and seventeen rebounds from rookie Mychal Thompson. The Suns ultimately pulled away in the tiebreaker, citing forty-nine combined points from Paul Westphal and Walter Davis as their primary influence.


East / San Antonio Spurs beat Philadelphia 76ers, 4-3
On paper, this was the most exciting Semifinals duel. The battle between scoring forwards Julius Erving and George Gervin was must-see television.

The Spurs jumped to a 3-1 lead, with Gervin significantly outplaying his counterpart. He was subsequently held to thirteen points as the 76ers won by twenty-three, refusing to see the series end. A game winning shot from Maurice Cheeks then forced Game 7, which went down to the wire.

Erving and Gervin had thirty-four and thirty-three points respectively, but the latter’s supporting cast was of more assistance. San Antonio managed to hold on by a mere three points, sending them to their first NBA Conference Finals.
East / Washington Bullets beat Atlanta Hawks, 4-3
Atlanta’s chances against the reigning champions seemed unlikely. The matchup became more interesting after the first two matches were split, but a pathetic Hawks performance in Game 3 – in which none of their players exceeded thirteen points – made Washington comfortable enough to take a notable lead.

Two Hawks wins followed, which confirmed the young squad as a competitive one. Game 7 was close, but thirty-nine points from Elvin Hayes – as well as a near-triple-double from Bob Dandridge – gave the Bullets another opportunity to defend their world championship.
West / Phoenix Suns beat Kansas City Kings, 4-1
Thanks to their surprising divisional title, the Kings waited for Phoenix in the Semifinals. However, it was generally believed that the Suns were a superior team that only held a “disadvantage” from being in the brutal Pacific.

Such claims were confirmed by the Suns taking three of the first four games, powered by Paul Westphal and Walter Davis. Thirty-two points from Westphal in Game 5 sealed the deal, as Phoenix grabbed a blowout victory and completed another task on their post-season checklist.
West / Seattle SuperSonics beat Los Angeles Lakers, 4-1
For the second straight season, the SuperSonics and Lakers faced off. The former was rendered victorious in 1978, but things could change this time around – Abdul-Jabbar was always a dominant force, and this was his best supporting cast since joining Los Angeles.

However, Seattle’s offensive brilliance was on its own plane. In four of the five games of this series, every single one of their starters scored in double digits – the sole exception was in the finishing Game 5, where Gus Williams delivered thirty points as compensation.

The Lakers’ offense was not necessarily an issue, but they lacked the well-rounded composition and defensive makeup to contain their foe. This marked yet another early exit for the storied franchise – it was back to the drawing board.

Conference Finals

East / Washington Bullets beat San Antonio Spurs, 4-3
Another year, another battle with the Bullets for San Antonio. That was simply the mountain they had to climb for a Finals appearance, and this was probably their best chance to date. Although Washington dominated them historically, they were coming from a seven-game series that applied some fatigue to the defending champions. It was up to George Gervin and his Spurs to capitalize.

Split games in Washington were succeeded by two San Antonio victories, which gave the Texas team a fiery advantage. Gervin dropped forty-two in Game 4 to create this reality, clearly ready to go to war for his franchise. As seasoned veterans would, the Bullets maintained composure and won two straight to force Game 7 – Elvin Hayes averaged twenty-four points and eighteen rebounds in these contests.

The tiebreaker was largely controlled by San Antonio, who entered the fourth quarter up six points. The Bullets then rallied in front of their fans to complete a comeback, largely led by Bob Dandridge. The All-NBA forward hit a game-winning shot to seal the deal, and Washington had suddenly became the third team in league history to overcome a 3-1 deficit. This equated to their second consecutive Finals, and fourth of the decade.
West / Seattle SuperSonics beat Phoenix Suns, 4-3
The West’s two fifty-win teams entered the final four in a predictable manner. Neither could buy a road win in the first four games, which essentially sent the series into a best-of-three situation. Paul Westphal’s twenty-seven points then gave Phoenix a surprising 3-2 lead – the SuperSonics were in danger of losing their Conference title, and needed to band together.

In Game 6, a late comeback from the Suns brought the score to 106-105 with less than a minute to go. A turnover from Phoenix’s Walter Davis gave Seattle a chance to score, but their shot missed. The Suns followed with a bad field goal attempt of their own, only to retain possession after a SuperSonics player tapped the rebound out of bounds. Gar Heard – who was infamous for his heroics in the 1976 Finals – missed his game-winning attempt, which meant the Western Conference Finals would see seven games as well.

Twenty seconds remained as the SuperSonics were up 112-104 in the seventh match. The Suns managed to go on a lightning-speed 6-0 run to keep matters close, and a foul on Paul Westphal sent him to the free throw line with large implications. The guard intentionally missed the free throw with intentions to grab the offensive rebound, but failed – Jack Sikma had secured it, which ultimately won Seattle another trip to the last stage.


Seattle SuperSonics beat Washington Bullets, 4-3
For the first time since 1973, there was a repeat matchup in the NBA Finals. The Bullets were looking to extend their reign, but Seattle themselves had something to prove as the underdogs.

The “Larry Wright Game” opened up the series, with the sixth man scoring a team-high twenty-six points – and the game-winning free throws – to grab Washington their first win. The SuperSonics responded with back-to-back victories on the back of Gus Williams, sending them to Game 4 with both a lead and homecourt advantage.

The fourth match went to overtime, with neither team willing to give up. Washington provided a satisfying group effort, while Seattle’s stars were taking over – Williams, Dennis Johnson, and Jack Sikma combined for eighty-eight points, thirty-six rebounds, and twenty assists. Their club proved victorious again after the defensively gifted Johnson blocked Kevin Grevey’s game-winner attempt.

Now with a strong lead, it was up to Seattle to secure their championship in the Capital Centre. A signature all-around offensive performance from the team – in which six players scored in double digits – was the final step towards a gentleman’s sweep, bringing the northwestern franchise their very first league title.
The Seattle SuperSonics win the 1979 NBA championship!
Dennis Johnson 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
Phil FordMoses MaloneDennis JohnsonCotton Fitzsimmons


All-NBA First TeamAll-NBA Second Team
Paul Westphal
George Gervin
Marques Johnson
Elvin Hayes
Moses Malone
Phil Ford
Lloyd Free
Walter Davis
Bob Dandridge
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


All-Defensive First TeamAll-Defensive Second Team
Don Buse
Dennis Johnson
Bobby Jones
Bob Dandridge
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Lionel Hollins
Eddie Johnson
M.L. Carr
Maurice Lucas
Moses Malone


Eastern All-StarsWestern All-Stars
Doug Collins
Bob Dandridge
Julius Erving
George Gervin

Elvin Hayes
Larry Kenon
Bob Lanier (IR)
Moses Malone
Pete Maravich
Calvin Murphy
Campy Russell
Rudy Tomjanovich
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Otis Birdsong
Walter Davis
Artis Gilmore

Dennis Johnson
Marques Johnson
Maurice Lucas

George McGinnis
Jack Sikma
David Thompson
Paul Westphal
West beats East, 134-129


All-Rookie Team
Ron Brewer
Phil Ford
Reggie Theus
Mychal Thompson
Terry Tyler

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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