Published July 1, 2023
The NBA Time Machine:
Done Deal, Dallas
The NBA had hit a point of significant growth, welcoming thirteen teams in the past fifteen years. Yet another owner was interested in expanding the league’s horizon – businessman Don Carter pitched a request to establish a franchise in Dallas, Texas. The primary inspiration for this decision was his wife, who loved basketball and encouraged the idea.
Voters officially admitted the Dallas Mavericks during the 1980 All-Star Game, preparing for a debut in the 1980-81 season. The name derived from the 50’s television series Maverick, which starred the successful actor – and now ownership member of the team – James Garner.
Kiki Vandeweghe, who led the UCLA Bruins to the 1980 NCAA Division I Finals, was selected by Dallas with the eleventh pick. The rookie refused to play for the team, largely influenced by his father’s disapproval of joining an non-established organization. As a result, he was traded to the Denver Nuggets a month into the season in return for a couple first-round draft picks.
The team, as expected, was largely awful in its inaugural run. Frequent losing – including fifteen straight dropped games from January to February – characterized their identity. Their sixty-seven losses was tied for the second-most in league history, only behind the pitiful 1973 Philadelphia 76ers.
Due to the introduction of the Mavericks, the NBA reconsidered the construction of both conferences. Ultimately, the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs joined their new inter-state rival in the Midwest Division of the Western Conference.
Conversely, the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls joined nearby teams – such as the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers – in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference.
Not So Magic
After a strong start to the season – in which the Los Angeles Lakers went 15-5 – Magic Johnson tore the cartilage in his left knee and was sidelined for the majority of the season. This caused the sophomore to miss the All-Star Game and entirely stripped him of All-NBA eligibility, despite his all-around statistical improvements.
The guard returned in time for the last month of the season, in which his quality play continued. He managed to check into enough games to qualify for the steals title, which he won with a whopping 3.4 a game. However, Johnson’s reinstation frustrated some of his teammates – the spotlight was immediately on him again, and their labor over his three-month absence went unrecognized.
Regardless, the Lakers finished on an 11-6 run and clinched a playoff berth yet again.
In surprising fashion, two inter-divisional rivals traded their franchise cornerstones for each other. The Seattle SuperSonics sent former Finals M.V.P. Dennis Johnson to the Phoenix Suns, receiving four-time All-Star Paul Westphal in return.
On paper, the deal was quality – Seattle would gain a premier scorer to bolster their offense, and Phoenix’s backcourt would see an immense improvement on defense. However, only the Suns truly benefited – Johnson helped them win a franchise record fifty-seven games, also seeing their first divisional championship.
On the contrary, Westphal missed forty-six matches to injuries and posted his worst production since joining the Suns five years ago. Seattle also missed the playoffs entirely, seemingly ending a brief reign that included three straight Conference Finals appearances and a championship.
The NBA introduced the Comeback Player of the Year award, which was designated to a talent who showed out after a subpar season. It became the third seasonal award, and was inaugurally presented to Bernard King.
Trouble had accompanied the former first-round pick during his one-year stint with the Utah Jazz – he was arrested and suspended by the league for cocaine possession, missing sixty-three games. He was then followed by sexual assault charges off-the-court, entirely tearing apart his reputation. His combination of improvement in character and returning to quality play influenced his receival of the honor.
While Erving’s statistical season wasn’t any different than usual, the 76ers broke the sixty-win barrier for the first time since the days of Wilt Chamberlain. The Doctor was there every step of the way, playing all eighty-two games in preparation for his first league M.V.P. award.
Despite Magic Johnson missing over half of the year, Abdul-Jabbar maintained his composure. The reigning M.V.P. snatched his highest scoring average since 1977, and the Lakers still won fifty-eight games.
A sophomore slump was not part of Bird’s plans. The Celtics superstar increased his assists average, stole the ball twice a game, and manifested a sixty-two win run. He finished in a narrow second place for the M.V.P. award.
Micheal Ray Richardson
Now in the media’s eye, Richardson continued fixing the damaged nature of New York City. Alongside Bill Cartwright, he brought the Knicks their first fifty-win campaign since 1973. The guard also led all players in steals once more.
While the Rockets were subpar, Malone had the best statistical output of his career. He reached highs in scoring and blocks while also earning the rebounds title. Regardless of his supporting cast, the big man was unstoppable.
Gilmore’s production regressed, but in good faith – he adjusted his role to make way for the breakout of teammate Reggie Theus. Gilmore’s sixty-seven percent from the field was the highest in the NBA, and he was still a top-tier shot blocker to boot. This contributed to Chicago’s first winning season and playoff berth in four years.
Around the League
An asterisk (*) indicates that the team qualified for the playoffs.