The NBA Time Machine: 1980

Published June 26, 2023

The NBA Time Machine:

New Beginnings

Rookie Takeover

It had been years since the league received a duo of elite rookie prospects. The last time was perhaps in 1969, when Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld – who ironically won a championship together years later – were drafted by the San Diego Rockets and Baltimore Bullets.

This new era of the NBA was now slated to watch the uprising of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, two great college players that had coincidentally clashed in the NCAA championship game. Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, which set the tone for what could be a long-term superstar feud in the future. To make destiny feel even more clear, they were drafted to historic rivals in the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, respectively.

Larry Bird

Bird’s impact stunned the basketball world, as the Celtics transformed from being a bottom feeder to possessing the league’s best overall record. His combination of scoring prowess, crafty playmaking and good defense revitalized the team, most notably former superstars Dave Cowens and Tiny Archibald.

He was a runaway favorite for the Rookie of the Year award, joining Cowens and Tom Heinsohn as the only Celtics recipients. He also finished fourth in M.V.P. voting.

Magic Johnson

Expectations for Johnson were a bit different – projections casted him as a possible future cornerstone, but not the Lakers’ surefire leader. They still had a five-time M.V.P. in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and providing the superstar with another great piece was the goal of the draft.

His integration to the roster was absurd, continuing to play as a guard despite media declaring him as a forward. A backcourt duo of Norm Nixon and Johnson was a playmaking delight, and helped Abdul-Jabbar achieve the highest field goal percentage of his career.

However, Johnson’s impact may have been larger than the stat sheet implied. The late-70’s Lakers were characterized by sluggish, deliberate halfcourt play that was over-reliant on Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring. This made them incredibly efficient, but also predictable in playoff situations.

The rookie’s affinity for fast-paced ball movement and abusing the fast break made the team play with greater energy overall, becoming the top-ranked offense league-wide. Such a style also established them as must-watch television, a reputation the charismatic Johnson only solidified more.

Up in Utah

While the New Orleans Jazz were beloved by Louisianan citizens, their existence in the southern state was unsustainable due to financial concerns. Not only was their facility situation awful – with the Louisiana Superdome charging absurd prices for home games – but they could not withstand the atrocious amusement tax in the state either.

Bad decisions also plagued the organization. After signing Gail Goodrich in 1976, they sent draft capital to the Los Angeles Lakers as compensation. Part of this was their highest pick in the 1979 draft – the Lakers used that pick this season to select Magic Johnson, who was already an All-Star as a rookie. The Jazz had also given up the rights to Moses Malone in exchange for one of those draft picks, leaving them with few valuable assets. Malone was voted as the league’s M.V.P. in 1979 and blossomed into a legitimate superstar.

The front office eventually opted for a hard reset, moving to Salt Lake City and becoming the Utah Jazz. They could at least bank on the idea that the small market had a dedicated fanbase, considering the presence of the ABA’s Utah Stars not too long ago.

At the very least, Lakers forward Adrian Dantley was traded to the franchise and surprisingly developed into a lethal scorer. He finished top three in points per game, scoring twenty-eight on excellent shooting splits.

From Way Downtown!

The concept of an extra-valuable, long-distance field goal had existed since the mid-40’s. Colleges experimented with it in spurts for a very long time, and other professional leagues – including the American Basketball League, Eastern Professional Basketball League, and American Basketball Association – had incorporated it into their rulebook.

After witnessing the popularity of the three-point shot in the ABA, the NBA was eager to give it a chance. They adopted it on a one-year trial, initially met with significant friction. Many viewed the mechanic as a cheap gimmick to garner fan interest, but there was not enough resistance to denounce the decision entirely.

Three-pointers were seldom used, only accounting for about three of a team’s ninety field goals on average. It was also considered inefficient, with the league finishing at about twenty-eight percent overall.

Regardless, there were a few specialists. Fred Brown of the Seattle SuperSonics led the league on a blistering hot forty-four percent a game, and Rick Barry of the Houston Rockets finished first in three-point attempts on above-average efficiency as well.

The best overall three-point shooting team was the Boston Celtics by a large margin – Chris Ford and Larry Bird were both great from outside. The former also delivered the first ever recorded three-point field goal on opening night, helping Boston secure a win against the Houston Rockets.

Big Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks had already secured a gem of a player in Marques Johnson, who was entering his third year. However, a mid-season trade brought Bob Lanier of the Detroit Pistons to the team, which had exciting implications.

Milwaukee had a 20-6 record after acquiring Lanier, which translated to a sixty-win pace. Their overall points per game increased by eight in this stretch, confirming the big man’s ability to impact any roster.


The Madison Square Garden Network had televised a handful of NBA events, including the 1969 playoffs and some New York Knicks games. The league signed a deal with the network – which rebranded as The USA Network in April of 1980 – to earn its first ever cable television partnership.

Standout Players

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

While averaging a career high in efficiency – at a whopping sixty percent from the floor – Abdul-Jabbar was selected for his sixth M.V.P. award. This broke Bill Russell’s previous record of M.V.P. selections at five. Los Angeles also had their first sixty win season since 1973, long before the Captain arrived in Los Angeles.

Larry Bird

The 1978 top ten draft pick finally arrived to play for the Boston Celtics, compiling one of the greatest rookie seasons of all-time. The team improved by a staggering thirty-two games, and he led them in scoring, rebounding, and steals.

Julius Erving

While Dr. J had always been a superstar in the late-70’s, his play this year resembled his ABA days more. He averaged NBA career highs in scoring, steals, blocks, and field goal percentage. Philadelphia’s final record of fifty-nine wins was also their highest since 1968.

Micheal Ray Richardson

The Knicks sophomore had an enormous breakout year after being elected as a starter. Richardson led all players in assists and steals, and the Knicks improved by eight games. They won enough to be playoff-eligible, but lost the record tiebreaker to the Washington Bullets.

Gus Williams

Averaging career highs in every major statistic besides blocks, the Seattle guard was entering his prime. He was firmly the best offensive talent on the SuperSonics, and their fifty-six win finish was the best in franchise history.

Moses Malone

While not quite an M.V.P. favorite this time around, Malone still had a great year. He finished top five in scoring and only second to Swen Nater in rebounding. The Rockets were unfortunately much less imposing this season, but still boasted an elite offense under his lead.

Around the League

Team Standings

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

Eastern Conference
Atlantic DivisionWLCentral DivisionWL
Boston Celtics*6121Atlanta Hawks*5032
Philadelphia 76ers*5923Houston Rockets*4141
Washington Bullets*3943San Antonio Spurs*4141
New York Knicks3943Indiana Pacers3745
New Jersey Nets3448Cleveland Cavaliers3745
Detroit Pistons1666
Western Conference
Midwest DivisionWLPacific DivisionWL
Milwaukee Bucks*4933Los Angeles Lakers*6022
Kansas City Kings*4735Seattle SuperSonics*5626
Denver Nuggets3052Phoenix Suns*5527
Chicago Bulls3052Portland Trail Blazers*3844
Utah Jazz2458San Diego Clippers3547
Golden State Warriors2458

Fun Facts

  • The Boston Celtics executed the best single-season turnaround in NBA history, improving by thirty-two wins behind the play of Larry Bird.
  • The Detroit Pistons’ sixteen wins was among the lowest totals ever, and was the least by a team since the nine-win Philadelphia 76ers in 1973.
  • Swarmed by injuries and sudden roster changes, the Denver Nuggets managed their first losing season since joining the NBA.
  • This was the Atlanta Hawks’ first fifty-win campaign since leaving St. Louis.
  • This was the first time an NBA team reached sixty wins in a season since 1975.
    • Both the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers boasted this achievement.
  • Defense continued to be the motto of the young Kansas City Kings, who tied the Philadelphia 76ers for the top-ranked defense league-wide.
  • This was the Washington Bullets’ first losing season in the Wes Unseld-Elvin Hayes era.

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

Los Angeles Lakers
Chicago Bulls
New York Knicks
Detroit Pistons
Milwaukee Bucks
Seattle SuperSonics
Seattle SuperSonics
New Jersey Nets
New York Knicks
Detroit Pistons
Magic Johnson
David Greenwood
Bill Cartwright
Greg Kelser
Sidney Moncrief
James Bailey
Vinnie Johnson

Calvin Natt
Larry Demic
Roy Hamilton


July 12, 1979Kevin PorterDetroit PistonsSignedWashington Bullets(15.4p/13.4a/1.9s)
July 24, 1979M.L. CarrDetroit PistonsSignedBoston Celtics(18.7p/7.4r/2.5s)
January 17, 1980Pete MaravichUtah JazzSignedBoston Celtics(17.1p/2.4r/3.2a)
February 1, 1980George McGinnisDenver NuggetsTradedIndiana Pacers(15.6p/10.3r/4.9a)
February 4, 1980Bob LanierDetroit PistonsTradedMilwaukee Bucks(21.7p/10.1r/3.3a)
February 8, 1980Maurice LucasPortland Trail BlazersTradedNew Jersey Nets(14.3p/7.9r/3a)

Other Personnel

June 18, 1979Coach Tom NissalkeHouston RocketsResignedRecord: 47-34
June 18, 1979Coach Del HarrisHouston RocketsHiredRecord: n/a
June 19, 1979Coach Tom NissalkeUtah JazzHiredRecord: n/a
June 30, 1979Coach Jack McKinneyLos Angeles LakersHiredRecord: n/a
July 23, 1979Coach Stan AlbeckCleveland CavaliersHiredRecord: n/a
November 8, 1979Coach Dick VitaleDetroit PistonsFiredRecord: 4-8
November 8, 1979Coach Richie AdubatoDetroit PistonsAppointed (Interim)Record: 12-58
November 8, 1979Coach Paul WestheadLos Angeles LakersAppointed (Interim)Record: 50-18
March 1, 1980Coach Doug MoeSan Antonio SpursFiredRecord: 33-33
March 1, 1980Coach Bob BassSan Antonio SpursAppointed (Interim)Record: 8-8
May 1, 1980Coach Gene ShueSan Diego ClippersResignedRecord: 35-47


PlayerTeam(s)Notable Accomplishments
Gail GoodrichLos Angeles Lakers
Phoenix Suns
New Orleans Jazz
1x Champion
1x All-NBA
5x All-Star
Lou HudsonAtlanta Hawks
Los Angeles Lakers
1x All-NBA
6x All-Star
1967 All-Rookie Team
Norm Van LierCincinnati Royals
Chicago Bulls
Milwaukee Bucks
1x All-NBA
3x All-Star
8x All-Defensive
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)
3P% – three-point field goal percentage (percentage of three-point shots that hit)

PPGGeorge Gervin (33.1)
Lloyd Free (30.2)
Adrian Dantley (28)
Julius Erving (26.9)
Moses Malone (25.8)
RPGSwen Nater (15)
Moses Malone (14.5)
Wes Unseld (13.3)
Caldwell Jones (11.9)
Jack Sikma (11.1)
APGMicheal Ray Richardson (10.1)
Tiny Archibald (8.4)
Foots Walker (8)
Norm Nixon (7.8)
John Lucas (7.5)
SPGMicheal Ray Richardson (3.2)
Eddie Jordan (2.7)
Dudley Bradley (2.6)
Gus Williams (2.4)
Magic Johnson (2.4)
BPGKareem Abdul-Jabbar (3.4)
George Johnson (3.2)
Tree Rollins (3)
Terry Tyler (2.7)
Elvin Hayes (2.3)
FG%Cedric Maxwell (60%)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (60%)
Artis Gilmore (59%)
Adrian Dantley (57%)
Tom Boswell (56%)
FT%Rick Barry (93%)
Calvin Murphy (89%)
Ron Boone (89%)
James Silas (88%)
Mike Newlin (88%)
3P%Fred Brown (44%)
Chris Ford (42%)
Larry Bird (40%)
John Roche (38%)
Brian Taylor (37%)


First Round

East / Houston Rockets beat San Antonio Spurs, 2-1
This was the first instance of the two Texan teams facing off in the post-season, and both were incredibly average this year. Given they split their season series, the Rockets gained homecourt advantage because of a better record within their division.

Game 1 was ugly on both ends, but Calvin Murphy’s shot creation brought the Rockets over the edge. A scorching forty-four points from George Gervin saved the Spurs’ season, but it was not enough. Houston blew out San Antonio by twenty-one points in the tiebreaker, thanks to seventy combined points from Murphy and Moses Malone.
East / Philadelphia 76ers beat Washington Bullets, 2-0
The defending Eastern Conference Champions had hit a low point, struggling to win without star forward Bob Dandridge. He was still unavailable for the playoffs, which deprived Washington of scoring opportunities and a reliable defender for Julius Erving.

Philadelphia embarrassed the Bullets in Game 1, and their shallow wing depth showed in the second. Erving scored thirty-one points in that match, granting the 76ers a quick first round sweep.
West / Phoenix Suns beat Kansas City Kings, 2-1
After bowing out to Phoenix in an anticlimactic five games last year, the Kings looked to rectify their mistakes. They lacked homecourt advantage and were facing an even better Suns roster, but always had a chance behind their stiff defense.

The teams split the first couple matches, with Otis Birdsong and Scott Wedman securing a Game 2 victory for Kansas City. However, the Kings struggled mightily in the third game – they shot terribly from the floor and lacked bench production, which sent them home early for the second consecutive season.
West / Seattle SuperSonics beat Portland Trail Blazers, 2-1
The infamous northwest matchup returned early this time around, with neither club eligible for a “bye” round. The SuperSonics were expected to dismantle Portland as defending champions, especially given the Blazers had a very mediocre season.

Seattle lost in surprisng fashion during Game 2’s overtime period, with Blazers players Calvin Natt and Ron Brewer leading the charge. However, a powerful offensive showing from the SuperSonics – including seventeen Fred Brown points – kept them in the tournament.


East / Boston Celtics beat Houston Rockets, 4-0
Houston may have escaped the first round, but were slated for a grueling matchup against the Celtics. Boston had prowess on both ends of the ball and the interior defenders necessary to disrupt Moses Malone.

Practically every game ended in blowout fashion – the Rockets could not keep up with the balance of Boston’s offense, and Malone wasn’t getting enough help from his supporting cast. It didn’t help that Larry Bird delivered a 34/10/7 stat-line in Game 4, sealing the lossless run on the road.
East / Philadelphia 76ers beat Atlanta Hawks, 4-1
The Hawks were a well-rounded scoring team with good depth, but there were doubts regarding their ability to match Philadelphia’s top-end talent. The 76ers won both of the first two games convincingly, largely thanks to big games from Bobby Jones off the bench. Twenty points and thirteen rebounds from Atlanta’s Steve Hawes saved their season, but to no avail.

Jones’ scorching sixth man performances continued to uplift Philadelphia in Game 4, giving the team a cushioned lead. Sixty combined points from Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins ended business, bringing the 76ers back to the Conference Finals.
West / Los Angeles Lakers beat Phoenix Suns, 4-1
Phoenix and Los Angeles, despite their relative closeness, had not met in the playoffs since 1970. In that series, the Lakers completed a rare 3-1 comeback to advance. Neither roster was the same, meaning the resentment from that altercation was long gone – however, the potential for a new generation of west coast battles was there.

Los Angeles shredded the Suns en route to a 3-0 lead, fully comfortable with over-utilizing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring. Phoenix lacked the personnel to contain him, and he averaged thirty-three points over that stretch.

The Suns played desperately in their Game 4 victory, improving their defense on Abdul-Jabbar and limiting Magic Johnson to only four field goal attempts. A home victory from the Lakers destroyed any chance of a comeback though, setting up their first Conference Finals appearance since 1977.
West / Seattle SuperSonics beat Milwaukee Bucks, 4-3
The intensity of this series was shocking from the jump. Game 1 ended in unbelievable fashion when Dennis Johnson recorded the first ever three-point game winning shot, giving Seattle a one point lead at the end of overtime. The second match reached an overtime period as well, with Milwaukee tying the series.

Both clubs continued to trade victories, which excited fans. Game 5 broke the NBA record for in-game attendance, with over 40,000 Seattle fans witnessing their team lose at home. A one-point victory from the SuperSonics in Game 6 forced a tiebreaker, which was bound to be intense.

Gus Williams translated his regular season dominance to the playoffs, dropping thirty-three points to run away with the series. This resulted in Seattle’s third consecutive final four appearance, keeping their hopes alive for a title repeat.

Conference Finals

East / Philadelphia 76ers beat Boston Celtics, 4-1
This was expected to be the most competitive playoff duel yet, as both teams were loaded with talent and split their regular season series. Boston held a significant advantage offensively, but the 76ers’ experience and defense was undeniable.

The first two games were split one apiece, but Philadelphia pushed to a 3-1 lead behind some phenomenal play from Julius Erving. A comeback was not unfathomable, but Boston was in a bad position – this next home game was imperative to their success.

Lionel Hollins and Bobby Jones were the unsung heroes of Game 5, helping the 76ers gentleman’s sweep their rivals and head back to the Finals stage. Philadelphia’s defense on Larry Bird was also magnificent, holding him to twelve points on five-for-nineteen shooting.
West / Los Angeles Lakers beat Seattle SuperSonics, 4-1
Los Angeles had a lot to prove here – could they dethrone Seattle and fight at the Finals stage for the first time in seven years? The possibility was there, but a one-point loss in Game 1 at home didn’t exactly look promising.

The Lakers responded aggressively, winning the next four games straight to dismantle the defending champions. The SuperSonics were largely hurt by a lack of typical homecourt advantage – neither of their usual arenas were available, and they were instead forced to play at the small Hec Edmundson Pavilion.

As expected, absolutely nothing could stop Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His status as the best player in the world was uncontested, and the Eastern Conference Finals winner needed to gameplan immaculately to even have a chance.


Los Angeles Lakers beat Philadelphia 76ers, 4-2
A Lakers-76ers Finals matchup was rare for the league, but exciting given the big market pull. The last time these franchises met this late in the playoffs was 1954 – back then, they were based in Minneapolis and Syracuse, respectively.

Philadelphia was clueless guarding Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but managed to grab a road win in Game 2 to keep the record even. Their defense on the reigning M.V.P. improved, eventually paving the way for a 2-2 series tie. Darryl Dawkins delivered a statement twenty-six points to win the fourth match, and fans at the Spectrum witnessed Julius Erving perform an unbelievable up-and-under layup from behind the backboard. This move was regarded as an instant classic highlight, truly summarizing the magical scoring of Dr. J.

An electric third quarter from Los Angeles in Game 5 gave them a strong lead that the 76ers could not dissolve. Abdul-Jabbar’s determination was inspiring, dropping forty points and a clutch end-game dunk on a bad ankle to confirm the win.

Game 6 could have been a predictable loss for the Lakers, who were now without their superstar center – however, Magic Johnson had other plans. The rookie decided to start the game at the center position, which was an unbelievable display of versatility from the typical shooting guard. He dropped forty-two points, fifteen rebounds, seven assists, and three steals to will Los Angeles to a series-clinching victory.

Johnson’s performance was immediately regarded as one of the greatest in NBA history, especially when considering his poise for a first-year player. Despite Abdul-Jabbar generally being better throughout the series, the twenty-year-old’s showing won him the Finals MVP award. He became the first rookie to receive it, which certainly made up for losing the Rookie of the Year race.
The Los Angeles Lakers win the 1980 NBA championship!
Magic 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
Larry BirdKareem Abdul-JabbarMagic JohnsonBill Fitch


All-NBA First TeamAll-NBA Second Team
Paul Westphal
George Gervin

Julius Erving
Larry Bird
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Gus Williams
Dennis Johnson

Marques Johnson
Dan Roundfield
Moses Malone


All-Defensive First TeamAll-Defensive Second Team
Don Buse
Dennis Johnson

Micheal Ray Richardson
Bobby Jones

Dan Roundfield
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Quinn Buckner
Eddie Johnson
Scott Wedman
Kermit Washington
Dave Cowens


Eastern All-StarsWestern All-Stars
Tiny Archibald
Larry Bird
Bill Cartwright
Dave Cowens
John Drew
Julius Erving
George Gervin
Elvin Hayes
Eddie Johnson
Moses Malone
Micheal Ray Richardson
Dan Roundfield
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Otis Birdsong
Adrian Dantley
Walter Davis
Lloyd Free
Dennis Johnson
Marques Johnson
Magic Johnson
Jack Sikma
Kermit Washington
Scott Wedman
Paul Westphal
East beats West, 144-136


All-Rookie Team
Larry Bird
Bill Cartwright
Dave Greenwood
Magic Johnson
Calvin Natt

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

Lakers71949, 1950
1952, 1953
1954, 1972

Warriors31947, 1956
76ers21955, 1967
Knicks21970, 1973
Trail Blazers11977

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