The NBA Time Machine: 1981

Published July 1, 2023

The NBA Time Machine:

Cowboy Season

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.

Pacific Exchange

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.

Standout Players

Julius Erving

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.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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.

Larry Bird

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.

Moses Malone

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.

Artis Gilmore

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

Team Standings

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

Eastern Conference
Atlantic DivisionWLCentral DivisionWL
Boston Celtics*6220Milwaukee Bucks*6022
Philadelphia 76ers*6220Chicago Bulls*4537
New York Knicks*5032Indiana Pacers*4438
Washington Bullets3943Atlanta Hawks3151
New Jersey Nets2458Cleveland Cavaliers2854
Detroit Pistons2161
Western Conference
Midwest DivisionWLPacific DivisionWL
San Antonio Spurs*5230Phoenix Suns*5725
Kansas City Kings*4042Los Angeles Lakers*5428
Houston Rockets*4042Portland Trail Blazers*4537
Denver Nuggets3745Golden State Warriors3943
Utah Jazz2854San Diego Clippers3646
Dallas Mavericks1567Seattle SuperSonics3448

Fun Facts

  • The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics tied for first place in the league, with sixty-two wins apiece.
    • Tiebreaker rules ultimately earned Boston leadership of the Atlantic Division.
  • Following the changes to the Midwest Division, it immediately became the weakest in the NBA.
    • Its only winning member was the San Antonio Spurs – no other team won over forty matches.
  • With Gus Williams holding out and injuries ravaging the roster, the Seattle SuperSonics worsened by twenty-two games and fell to the bottom of the Pacific Division.
  • The Milwaukee Bucks’ sixty wins was their most in eight years.
  • For the first time since joining the NBA, the Indiana Pacers achieved a winning record and became playoff eligible.
  • With David Thompson healthy, the Denver Nuggets posted the top-ranked offense in the league.
    • However, their defense was ranked at a pitiful twenty-second place, only above the expansion Dallas Mavericks team.

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

Golden State Warriors
Utah Jazz
Boston Celtics
Chicago Bulls
Denver Nuggets
New Jersey Nets
New Jersey Nets
Philadelphia 76ers
San Diego Clippers
Portland Trail Blazers
Joe Barry Carroll
Darrell Griffith
Kevin McHale
Kelvin Ransey
James Ray
Mike O’Koren
Mike Gminski
Andrew Toney
Michael Brooks
Ronnie Lester


June 4, 1980Paul WestphalPhoenix SunsTradedSeattle SuperSonics(21.9p/5.1a/1.5s)
June 4, 1980Dennis JohnsonSeattle SuperSonicsTradedPhoenix Suns(19p/5.1r/4.1a)
August 28, 1980Lloyd FreeSan Diego ClippersTradedGolden State Warriors(30.2p/3.5r/4.2a)

Other Personnel

May 20, 1980Coach Paul WestheadLos Angeles LakersHiredRecord: n/a
May 21, 1980Coach Paul SilasSan Diego ClippersHiredRecord: n/a
May 27, 1980Coach Dick MottaWashington BulletsResignedRecord: 39-43
May 27, 1980Coach Gene ShueWashington BulletsHiredRecord: n/a
June 2, 1980Coach Jack McKinneyIndiana PacersHiredRecord: n/a
June 5, 1980Coach Scotty RobertsonDetroit PistonsHiredRecord: n/a
June 11, 1980Coach Bill MusselmanCleveland CavaliersHiredRecord: n/a
July 16, 1980Coach Dick MottaDallas MavericksHiredRecord: n/a
December 17, 1980Coach Donnie WalshDenver NuggetsFiredRecord: 11-20
December 17, 1980Coach Doug MoeDenver NuggetsAppointed (Interim)Record: 26-25
December 22, 1980Coach Kevin LougheryNew Jersey NetsResignedRecord: 12-23
December 22, 1980Coach Bob MacKinnonNew Jersey NetsAppointed (Interim)Record: 12-35
March 13, 1981Coach Bill MusselmanCleveland CavaliersReassignedRecord: 25-46
March 13, 1981Coach Don DelaneyCleveland CavaliersHiredRecord: 3-8
March 18, 1981Coach Larry BrownNew Jersey NetsHiredRecord: n/a
March 26, 1981Coach Hubie BrownAtlanta HawksFiredRecord: 31-48
March 26, 1981Coach Mike FratelloAtlanta HawksAppointed (Interim)Record: 0-3


PlayerTeam(s)Notable Accomplishments
Rick BarryGolden State Warriors
Houston Rockets
1x Champion
1x Finals MVP
6x All-NBA
8x All-Star
1x All-Star Game MVP
1966 Rookie of the Year
1966 All-Rookie Team

1x Scoring Leader
1x Steals Leader
Walt FrazierNew York Knicks
Cleveland Cavaliers
2x Champion
6x All-NBA
7x All-Star
1x All-Star Game MVP
7x All-Defensive
1968 All-Rookie Team
Pete MaravichAtlanta Hawks
Utah Jazz
Boston Celtics
4x All-NBA
5x All-Star
1971 All-Rookie Team
1x Scoring Leader
Earl MonroeBaltimore Bullets
New York Knicks
1x Champion
1x All-NBA
4x All-Star
1968 Rookie of the Year
1968 All-Rookie Team
Charlie ScottPhoenix Suns
Boston Celtics

Los Angeles Lakers
Denver Nuggets
1x Champion
3x All-Star
Paul SilasAtlanta Hawks
Phoenix Suns
Boston Celtics

Denver Nuggets
Seattle SuperSonics
3x Champion
2x All-Star
5x All-Defensive

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)

PPGAdrian Dantley (30.6)
Moses Malone (27.8)
George Gervin (27.1)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (26.2)
David Thompson (25.5)
RPGMoses Malone (14.8)
Swen Nater (12.4)
Larry Smith (12.1)
Larry Bird (10.9)
Jack Sikma (10.4)
APGKevin Porter (9.1)
Norm Nixon (8.8)
Phil Ford (8.8)
Micheal Ray Richardson (7.9)
Tiny Archibald (7.7)
SPGMagic Johnson (3.4)
Micheal Ray Richardson (2.9)
Quinn Buckner (2.4)
Maurice Cheeks (2.4)
Ray Williams (2.3)
BPGGeorge Johnson (3.4)
Tree Rollins (2.9)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2.9)
Robert Parish (2.6)
Artis Gilmore (2.4)
FG%Artis Gilmore (67%)
Darryl Dawkins (60%)
Cedric Maxwell (58%)
Bernard King (58%)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (57%)
FT%Calvin Murphy (95%)
Ricky Sobers (93%)
Mike Newlin (88%)
Jim Spanarkel (88%)
Junior Bridgeman (88%)
3P%Brian Taylor (38%)
Freeman Williams (34%)
Joe Hassett (34%)
Mike Bratz (33%)
Henry Bibby (33%)


First Round

East / Chicago Bulls beat New York Knicks, 2-0
The guard-center tandem was predicted to be a significant selling point of this series. Reggie Theus vs. Micheal Ray Richardson, and Artis Gilmore vs. Bill Cartwright. This was also the first meeting between the two franchises, as Chicago was recently moved to the Eastern Conference.

An ugly scoring game was victorious for Chicago thanks to Ricky Sobers’ eighteen points off the bench. Cartwright seemed to be dealing with poor conditioning or a nagging injury, given his low minutes and usage. The New York center continued to struggle in Game 2, recording only nine points and five fouls in a one-point overtime loss. Conversely, Chicago’s Reggie Theus poured in thirty-seven points, eleven assists, and four steals to close out.
East / Philadelphia 76ers beat Indiana Pacers, 2-0
In Indiana’s first playoff appearance, they were faced with the tall ask of usurping the defending Eastern Conference Champions. It also proposed an interesting narrative of George McGinnis facing his former team for the first time in the playoffs.

The Pacers had no counter to Julius Erving’s bag of tricks, enabling him to average twenty-seven points in two blowout wins for the 76ers. Rookie Andrew Toney also had a phenomenal performance in Game 1, delivering fifteen points and eleven assists off the bench. Simply put, there was an unbreakable talent gap at play.
West / Houston Rockets beat Los Angeles Lakers, 2-1
On paper, this was easy pickings for Los Angeles. They were a deep, star-studded team that had outperformed Houston in the regular season. The Rockets may have had two great players in Moses Malone and Calvin Murphy, but that did not remotely compare to the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and more.

Unfazed by predictions, Houston pulled off a shocking upset loss on the road in which Malone dropped thirty-eight points. His heavy lifting – alongside some productive Murphy minutes – was enough to ward off a Lakers team with six double digit scorers. Los Angeles fought back with a road win of their own despite a near-perfect Malone game, only to flatten in Game 3.

Abdul-Jabbar, despite his high scoring, was inefficient and turnover-prone – Magic Johnson also had a terrible night, scoring ten points on two-for-fourteen shooting. What makes matters even more absurd is that the Rockets were just as putrid offensively – their win was truly because of Los Angeles’ complacency.

This was the biggest upset the post-season had seen in quite some time, and immediately opened up the Western Conference race.
West / Kansas City Kings beat Portland Trail Blazers, 2-1
Competition was tense from the start, with Game 1 going to overtime and ending in a one-point Kansas City victory. Otis Birdsong’s twenty-nine points was the catalyst for success, giving the Kings a promising advantage.

The second match saw yet another overtime, in which the Blazers rode Mychal Thompson’s forty-point outing. Portland’s offense was much less explosive in the tiebreaker – it was only sophomore Billy Ray Bates with a performance to remember, while the Kings benefited from five double-digit scorers.


East / Boston Celtics beat Chicago Bulls, 4-0
During their Eastern Conference conquest, the Bulls were up against the juggernaut Celtics next. They were outmatched in terms of depth, but Reggie Theus and Artis Gilmore entered the post-season with the right mentality to win.

Unfortunately, that bode out poorly for them. The Celtics demolished Chicago entirely, winning every match comfortably. They were simply too talented, and Larry Bird was unreal – he delivered a gaudy 24/17/10 stat-line in Game 3, and thirty-five points in the closing fourth match.
East / Philadelphia 76ers beat Milwaukee Bucks, 4-3
Two sixty-win teams guaranteed a fierce matchup. The 76ers and Bucks immediately ran to a 2-2 series tie, largely led by franchise stars Julius Erving and Marques Johnson. The latter was particularly lethal, averaging twenty-eight points per game in this stretch.

Philadelphia dished out a convincing blowout win in Game 5, and things finally looked to be in their favor. However, Mickey Johnson and Bob Lanier rooted Milwaukee in further success to prolong their year.

Despite Marques, Lanier, and Sidney Moncrief combining for seventy-nine points in Game 7, they still fell short to the 76ers. Twenty-eight points from Erving and twenty-one from Bobby Jones solidified their fourth Conference Finals appearance in the last five seasons.
West / Houston Rockets beat San Antonio Spurs, 4-3
In back-to-back years, San Antonio had to face their inter-state rival to advance in the playoffs. They seemed much more advantaged this time, coming off a great regular season – however, this Rockets team was clearly resilient. They had just knocked out the defending champions in the first round, and had an intoxicating amount of control over games.

The first four games were split even, with Game 2 featuring an uncanny duel between Houston’s Calvin Murphy and the Spurs’ Mark Olberding. Moses Malone was the more inconsistent of superstars between him and George Gervin – however, his thirty-four points and thirteen rebounds gave the Rockets a 3-2 series lead. San Antonio fought back in spite of his heroics in Game 6, which set up a seventh match.

Murphy was the star of the show, dropping forty-two efficient points to uphold Houston. They had now pulled off consecutive upsets, and it was beginning to look like they could take on anybody.
West / Kansas City Kings beat Phoenix Suns, 4-3
Coming off the best season in franchise history, Phoenix seemed primed for an easy series win. Kansas City was a good defensive team with some solid pieces all-around, but lacked the personnel quality of their foes.

Phoenix won Game 1 convincingly, profiting from an injury to Otis Birdsong that immediately dampened the Kings’ chances. However, they proceeded to drop three straight matches in baffling fashion as they fell to a 3-1 deficit. It was now up to them to compile an improbable comeback, which they inched towards with back-to-back wins.

Game 7 was anybody’s to take – Kansas City had proven their ability to win, but were also playing on the road. They took advantage of the Suns’ lifeless offense, jumping to a twelve-point lead by the fourth quarter. Dennis Johnson attempted to will his teammates into a late-game comeback, but they had already tapped out. The Kings closed out the series without their best player, setting up an unpredictable Conference Finals featuring them and the Houston Rockets.

Conference Finals

East / Boston Celtics beat Philadelphia 76ers, 4-3
In a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the historic rivals were both looking to exploit a potentially weak Finals matchup. Both of the Western teams were sturdy, but flawed – this could be their greatest shot at a championship.

After splitting the first two meetings, the 76ers jumped to a 3-1 lead in preparation for another Finals appearance. However, Larry Bird had other ideas – in the face of defeat, he scored fifty-seven points over the next two matches to force Game 7.

This was the fourth Game 7 of this year’s post-season, and was expected to be a rigid slugfest that would come down to the wire. Both teams’ superstars delivered, with Bird and Julius Erving dropping twenty-three points each. Boston rallied in the late stages of the game, fueled by Bird’s jump shooting and tough defense from him, Cedric Maxwell, and Robert Parish. After Maurice Cheeks missed a vital free throw, the 76ers failed to execute a late-game play and settled with a one-point loss.

In a fashion reminiscent of the 1968 Eastern Division Finals, the Celtics had overcome a 3-1 deficit to defeat Philadelphia and continue their search for a title.
West / Houston Rockets beat Kansas City Kings, 4-1
For the first time since 1957, two teams with losing records faced off in the final four. The outcome of this series was unforeseeable – the Rockets had upset two divisional champions, but Kansas City displayed the ability to win in spite of their biggest star’s absence.

The first two games were split, but Houston caught some much-needed victories to take a sizable lead. Moses Malone totaled forty-two points and twenty-three rebounds in Game 4, which was an offensive masterclass the Kings could not mirror. A healthy Birdsong was dearly missed, and it showed.

In Game 5, Malone served a thirty-six-point whooping to send Houston to their very first NBA Finals. The former M.V.P. was achieving the impossible, left with only one more adversary in his way.


Boston Celtics beat Houston Rockets, 4-2
The Celtics and Rockets had met in the past, but only in Semifinals rounds – as Houston was now a Western Conference team, this was the first Finals meet between the two. Boston was heavily favored, given their all-around better roster and interior presence. That could spell trouble for Moses Malone, who would have to fight especially hard to reach his typical production.

A near triple-double from Larry Bird opened up the series as Boston secured Game 1. Thirty-one Malone points tied the series, forcing the Celtics to respond on the road. Bird was quite awful offensively – only managing to score eight points – but a balanced team effort saved the green team. Houston refused to give up, backpacking off Mike Dunleavy’s twenty-eight points to establish a 2-2 tie.

Game 5 was all about Cedric Maxwell, who masked yet another mediocre exhibit from Bird with twenty-eight points and fifteen rebounds of his own. Houston could stay in the race with a win at home, which they failed to accomplish. Fifty combined points from Robert Reid and Malone was not enough to spoil Bird’s resurgence – the Celtics forward bounced back with twenty-seven points and thirteen rebounds, sealing the championship run in clutch fashion.

Maxwell was rendered as the Finals MVP favorite, stepping up big in moments where Bird failed to deliver. His scoring average of nineteen in Boston’s wins outshined Bird’s sixteen, which influenced voters.

Regardless of media awards, though, one thing was true – the Celtics’ historical dominance was unparalleled, managing their fourteenth championship in thirty-five years of existence.
The Boston Celtics win the 1981 NBA championship!
Cedric Maxwell 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 MVP
Darrell GriffithJulius ErvingCedric Maxwell
Coach of the YearComeback Player of the Year
Jack McKinneyBernard King


All-NBA First TeamAll-NBA Second Team
Dennis Johnson
George Gervin
Julius Erving
Larry Bird
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Tiny Archibald
Otis Birdsong
Adrian Dantley
Marques Johnson
Moses Malone


All-Defensive First TeamAll-Defensive Second Team
Dennis Johnson
Micheal Ray Richardson
Bobby Jones

Caldwell Jones
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Quinn Buckner
Dudley Bradley
Michael Cooper
Dan Roundfield

Kermit Washington
George Johnson


Eastern All-StarsWestern All-Stars
Tiny Archibald*
Larry Bird
Julius Erving
Artis Gilmore
Eddie Johnson
Marques Johnson
Bobby Jones
Mike Mitchell
Robert Parish
Micheal Ray Richardson
Dan Roundfield
Reggie Theus
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Otis Birdsong
Adrian Dantley
Walter Davis

George Gervin
Dennis Johnson
Moses Malone
Truck Robinson
Jack Sikma
Paul Westphal
Jamaal Wilkes
East beats West, 123-120


All-Rookie Team
Joe Barry Carroll
Darrell Griffith
Kevin McHale
Kelvin Ransey
Larry Smith

All-Time Championship Leaderboard

The Baltimore Bullets (1947-1954) won the championship in 1948, but are defunct. As a result, they are not listed.

Celtics141957, 1959
1960, 1961
1962, 1963
1964, 1965
1966, 1967
1969, 1974

1976, 1981
Lakers71949, 1950
1952, 1953
1954, 1972

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

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