The NBA Time Machine: 1982

Published July 15, 2023

The NBA Time Machine:

Butting Heads

Poison in the Lake

Coming off a bitter end to the 1980-81 season, the air was a tad toxic in the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room. This was a byproduct of disputes between coach Paul Westhead and star player Magic Johnson.

Affairs begun on a decent note, with the team going 7-3 through their first ten games. Following a narrow win against the Utah Jazz in early November, the basketball community was rushed with shocking news as Johnson requested a trade to another team. He was becoming increasingly frustrated with Westhead’s coaching philosophy.

The traditionalist coach preferred to run deliberate plays that involved a patient halfcourt offense designed to feed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson did not necessarily have any ill will towards his teammate and mentor, but his offensive ideologies could not have been more different. His vision involved embracing the fast break and demolishing opponent morale with speed and energy.

Given that Johnson could not realize his potential in this system, he reached a breaking point. It was now up to the front office to choose between their star or coach, and history favored the former. This situation was not exempt, as Westhead was fired less than twenty-four hours after news of the request materialized.

Pat Riley, who was an assistant, was ultimately nominated to take the lead role. His willingness to consider Johnson’s approach ultimately led to a fifty-seven-win season and a near-triple-double statistical average for the guard.

Pay Your Guard

In an era of growing player independence, Gus Williams was yet another talent complacent with dismissing his playing duties. The one-time champion sat out the entirety of the previous year, stripping the Seattle SuperSonics of a primary scoring option. They did manage to acquire the multiple-time All-Star Paul Westphal in a trade, but injury woes rendered that move a failure.

Williams’ primary motive for holding out was financial. The guard claimed he had personal reasons intensifying his choice, but they were not detailed. Seattle ultimately gave in, upgrading from a proposed five-hundred-thousand-dollar deal to a monumental one of three-million.

Due to managing his condition in missed time, Williams was far from rusty. He averaged career highs in scoring and assists, therefore receiving his first All-Star Game selection and the Comeback Player of the Year award. The SuperSonics also improved by eighteen games under his lead.

K.C. Kollapse

During the 1981 off-season, the Cleveland Cavaliers forwarded an offer sheet to Kansas City Kings star Otis Birdsong. The expectation was that the shooting guard would side with Cleveland, who had proposed a five-million-dollar agreement – unless the Kings matched the price or traded him, of course.

The reigning Western Conference Finalists were now met with a harsh ultimatum – fork up some significant funds, or lose the franchise’s best player of the last five years. They ultimately chose the latter in an exchange with the New Jersey Nets – Birdsong and a second-round draft pick were swapped for the young and promising power forward Cliff Robinson.

In further conflicts with Cleveland they also lost former All-Star Scott Wedman. While Kansas City did receive a first-round draft pick as compensation, this ripped apart their timeline – they were now working with a severely inexperienced roster that was unlikely to make any serious noise.

After trading Robinson mid-way through the season – to yes, you guessed it, the Cavaliers – Kansas City ultimately embraced a rebuilding period. They finished the season on a 14-18 run and clinched a bottom-five record in the NBA.

Just a Few Buckets

On March 6, the Milwaukee Bucks and San Antonio Spurs went head-to-head in what was an inconspicuous matchup. Both teams were very good, ensuring a quality show, but there were no particular implications at play.

What instead transpired was a historic moment – a triple-overtime showdown that resulted in the highest-scoring game in NBA history. San Antonio bested their adversaries with a 171-166 finish, witnessing ninety-five combined points from George Gervin and Mike Mitchell. Johnny Moore also dished out sixteen assists while only recording one turnover.

On the other end, Brian Winters and Junior Bridgeman recorded a jointed seventy-three points off the bench, nine of which came from three-point shots. Regardless, Milwaukee was bested and spiraled into a five-game losing streak due to exhaustion.

Calming the Thunder

Due to the established popularity of explosive dunks, the NBA was forced to consider the safety of their resources. They chose to implement breakaway rims – which were better-equipped for strong forces – to avoid ramifications such as player injury or shattered backboards. World-class dunkers, including Darryl Dawkins and David Thompson, were protected most by this decision.

Standout Players

Moses Malone

For the third time in the past four seasons, Malone led the NBA in rebounding. The Rockets’ forty-six wins was the third-highest total in franchise history, and he was awarded his second M.V.P. award for dragging a rather bleak supporting cast to the playoffs.

Larry Bird

The superstar forward reached another stage of offensive excellence, averaging career highs in scoring and assists. He also shot over fifty-percent from the field for the first time. Boston’s sixty-three win total became the second-highest the team had ever seen.

Julius Erving

It was yet another business year for the Doctor, who scored on blistering efficiency to keep Philadelphia in firm contention. Despite the gap between him and the next-highest scorer being eight points, the 76ers were a top-five ranked offense – a clear indicator of his impact, if there ever was one.

Magic Johnson

Despite being the proprietor of tension in the locker room, the Los Angeles Lakers had effectively handed the keys to Johnson. He was their best performer, only being half a rebound and assist short of averaging a triple double for the season. The guard also led the league in steals once again.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

This was not Abdul-Jabbar’s prettiest statistical showing – he averaged career lows in all major statistics, and finished with a single-digit rebound average for the first time. This was all by design, though – the improvement of Magic Johnson allowed the Captain to take a backseat in responsibility.

George Gervin

The Iceman won his fourth scoring title amidst yet another Spurs divisional title. This was the club’s fourth in the past five years. They also finished with a top-three offense behind Gervin’s tricks, setting the stage for what could be a competitive playoff run.

Around the League

Team Standings

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

Eastern Conference
Atlantic DivisionWLCentral DivisionWL
Boston Celtics*6319Milwaukee Bucks*5527
Philadelphia 76ers*5824Atlanta Hawks*4240
New Jersey Nets*4438Detroit Pistons3943
Washington Bullets*4339Indiana Pacers3547
New York Knicks3349Chicago Bulls3448
Cleveland Cavaliers1567
Western Conference
Midwest DivisionWLPacific DivisionWL
San Antonio Spurs*4834Los Angeles Lakers*5725
Denver Nuggets*4636Seattle SuperSonics*5230
Houston Rockets*4636Phoenix Suns*4636
Kansas City Kings3052Golden State Warriors4537
Dallas Mavericks2854Portland Trail Blazers4240
Utah Jazz2557San Diego Clippers1765

Fun Facts

  • The New Jersey Nets earned their first winning season since joining the NBA.
  • Despite finishing with winning records, the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers could not secure a playoff berth in the uber-competitive Pacific Division.
  • The twenty-five game gap separating the Portland Trail Blazers and San Diego Clippers was the largest between two divisional rivals since the format was implemented.
  • This was the Phoenix Suns’ first finish below fifty wins since 1978.
  • With four rotational pieces at thirty years of age or higher, the Houston Rockets were the clear-cut oldest squad around.
    • This was finalized by the acquiring of multiple-time All-Star Elvin Hayes, who was the oldest player in the NBA.
  • Alex English’s breakout was the catalyst for a Denver Nuggets bounce-back campaign.
    • Behind him, they sported a generational scoring arsenal – their average of 126.5 points per game was more than enough to boast the league’s top-ranked offense.
      • This was neutralized by their horrific defensive tendencies, giving up 126 points per game as well.

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

Dallas Mavericks
Detroit Pistons
New Jersey Nets
Atlanta Hawks
Seattle SuperSonics
Chicago Bulls
Kansas City Kings
San Diego Clippers
Dallas Mavericks
New Jersey Nets
Mark Aguirre
Isiah Thomas
Buck Williams
Al Wood
Danny Vranes
Orlando Woolridge
Steve Johnson
Tom Chambers
Rolando Blackman
Albert King


June 8, 1981Scott WedmanKansas City KingsSignedCleveland Cavaliers(19p/5.3r/2.8a)
June 8, 1981Otis BirdsongKansas City KingsTradedNew Jersey Nets(24.6p/3.6r/3.3a)
June 18, 1981Gus WilliamsSeattle SuperSonicsSigned (from holdout)Seattle SuperSonics(22.1p/4.8a/2.2s)
December 23, 1981Mike MitchellCleveland CavaliersTradedSan Antonio Spurs(19.6p/5.2r/1s)
February 12, 1982Paul WestphalSeattle SuperSonicsSignedNew York Knicks(16.7p/4.1a/1.3s)

Other Personnel

November 19, 1981Coach Paul WestheadLos Angeles LakersFiredRecord: 7-4
November 19, 1981Coach Pat RileyLos Angeles LakersHiredRecord: 50-21
December 3, 1981Coach Don DelaneyCleveland CavaliersFiredRecord: 4-11
December 3, 1981Coach Bob KloppenburgCleveland CavaliersAppointed (Interim)Record: 0-3
December 4, 1981Coach Chuck DalyCleveland CavaliersHiredRecord: n/a
December 10, 1981Coach Tom NissalkeUtah JazzFiredRecord: 8-12
December 10, 1981Coach Frank LaydenUtah JazzHiredRecord: 17-45
February 17, 1982Coach Jerry SloanChicago BullsFiredRecord: 19-32
February 17, 1982Coach Phil JohnsonChicago BullsAppointed (Interim)Record: 0-1
March 8, 1982Coach Chuck DalyCleveland CavaliersFiredRecord: 9-32
March 8, 1982Coach Bill MusselmanCleveland CavaliersAppointed (Interim)Record: 2-21
May 14, 1982Coach Red HolzmanNew York KnicksRetiredRecord: 33-49
May 20, 1982Coach Hubie BrownNew York KnicksHiredRecord: n/a


PlayerTeam(s)Notable Accomplishments
Phil ChenierWashington Bullets
Indiana Pacers

Golden State Warriors
1x Champion
1x All-NBA
3x All-Star
1972 All-Rookie Team
Doug CollinsPhiladelphia 76ers4x All-Star
Rudy TomjanovichHouston Rockets5x All-Star
Wes UnseldWashington Bullets1x Champion
1x Finals MVP
1x MVP
1x All-NBA
5x All-Star
1969 Rookie of the Year
1969 All-Rookie Team
1x Rebounds Leader
Jo Jo WhiteBoston Celtics
Golden State Warriors
Kansas City Kings
2x Champion
1x Finals MVP
2x All-NBA
7x All-Star
1970 All-Rookie Team
Sidney WicksPortland Trail Blazers
Boston Celtics
San Diego Clippers
4x All-Star
1972 Rookie of the Year
1972 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)
3P% – three-point field goal percentage (percentage of three-point shots that hit)

PPGGeorge Gervin (32.3)
Moses Malone (31.1)
Adrian Dantley (30.3)
Alex English (25.4)
Julius Erving (24.4)
RPGMoses Malone (14.7)
Jack Sikma (12.7)
Buck Williams (12.3)
Mychal Thompson (11.7)
Maurice Lucas (11.3)
APGJohnny Moore (9.6)
Magic Johnson (9.5)
Maurice Cheeks (8.4)
Tiny Archibald (8)
Norm Nixon (8)
SPGMagic Johnson (2.7)
Maurice Cheeks (2.6)
Micheal Ray Richardson (2.6)
Quinn Buckner (2.5)
Ray Williams (2.4)
BPGGeorge Johnson (3.1)
Tree Rollins (2.8)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2.7)
Artis Gilmore (2.7)
Robert Parish (2.4)
FG%Artis Gilmore (65%)
Steve Johnson (61%)
Buck Williams (58%)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (57%)
Calvin Natt (57%)
FT%Kyle Macy (89%)
Charlie Criss (88%)
John Long (86%)
George Gervin (86%)
Larry Bird (86%)
3P%Campy Russell (43%)
Andrew Toney (42%)
Kyle Macy (39%)
Brian Winters (38%)
Don Buse (38%)


First Round

East / Philadelphia 76ers beat Atlanta Hawks, 2-0
After a strange down year that involved a playoff absence, the Hawks returned to form and looked to upset the fiery 76ers. Chances were slim, but anything was possible for a team known to defy odds.

Atlanta entered flat, giving Philadelphia a free lane to win. The latter took Game 1 by a staggering thirty-five points, an effort that commenced after Darryl Dawkins set the tone. The center had twenty-seven points, nine rebounds, and eight blocks.

Dan Roundfield of the Hawks made the second match much more competitive, even going to overtime. However, the 76ers squeezed through by a narrow three-point margin to secure a playoff advance.
East / Washington Bullets beat New Jersey Nets, 2-0
Only separated by one game in the win column, either club could conceivably advance to the Semifinals. Both were known for their defensive aptitude, with New Jersey particularly standing out in that regard – however, their personnel situation was much less enticing. Otis Birdsong, their newest acquisition, was out to injury which damaged their depth.

Washington took both matches comfortably, with the former being powered by eighteen points and twenty rebounds from Jeff Ruland off the bench. The Nets simply failed to find an offensive rhythm, something the presence of Birdsong would have rectified.
West / Phoenix Suns beat Denver Nuggets, 2-1
These Western Conference representatives had never met in the post-season before, despite being mutual contenders for a number of years. Their philosophies were antithetical – the Suns won games with draining defense and depth, while Denver was a top-heavy roster that wanted to run-and-gun at all times.

Home games were split, causing an arrangement for Game 3. A strong third quarter from Phoenix – as well as thirty points from Walter Davis off the bench – was enough to get by and maintain the franchise’s four-year streak of Semifinals appearances.
West / Seattle SuperSonics beat Houston Rockets, 2-1
The Rockets may have been defending Conference Champions, but Seattle’s re-emergence as a powerhouse was concerning. The presence of Gus Williams was enough to change a team’s pace and effectiveness, something Houston was required to monitor.

Williams and Moses Malone swapped big performances in wins for their clubs, indicating a tiebreaker was imminent. Despite a decent outing from Malone, the Rockets’ putrid depth was a sight to see for the SuperSonics. Jack Sikma’s thirty points and seventeen rebounds led the team to a series win.


East / Boston Celtics beat Washington Bullets, 4-1
Boston and Washington had not met in the post-season since the 1975 Eastern Conference Finals. These were entirely different cores now, led by Larry Bird and Greg Ballard as opposed to Dave Cowens and Elvin Hayes.

Game 1 was a solid Celtics win, and the second match was looking to be the same – Frank Johnson of the Bullets thought otherwise, hitting a three-pointer to put his club up with three seconds left. Following this 1-1 series tie, Boston took a hefty lead behind big showings from Robert Parish.

The fifth game was down to the wire, with Jeff Ruland hitting a couple free throws at the end to force overtime. No progress was made as it eventually went to a second period, where the Celtics finally pulled away. Parish recorded thirty-three points, thirteen rebounds, three assists, and six blocks in the series-clinching victory.
East / Philadelphia 76ers beat Milwaukee Bucks, 4-2
Milwaukee and Philadelphia returned right where they left off last year – in the Semifinals. Both teams were still just about as even as possible, although the Bucks had a 4-2 advantage in the regular season series.

Cream City’s club struggled to effectively close out games – the 76ers jumped to a 3-1 lead in no time, and the singular loss stemmed from a Sidney Moncrief walk-off buzzer beater. Six double-digit Milwaukee scorers earned the ownership of Game 5, but the entire team – sans Mickey Johnson – shriveled in the must-win sixth match.
West / Los Angeles Lakers beat Phoenix Suns, 4-0
Historically speaking, the Lakers simply had Phoenix’s number. They just gentleman’s swept them a couple years prior, and their chances seemed even prettier this time around.

Consecutive Magic Johnson triple-doubles in blowout wins killed the Suns’ morale immediately. The superstar continued to thoroughly pick apart his opponent in the following outings, eventually leading Los Angeles to a full-power sweep.

Offense bolstered the Lakers – four of the series’ top-five scorers were on their side.
West / San Antonio Spurs beat Seattle SuperSonics, 4-1
A game winner from George Gervin was the first taste fans experienced in this duel, giving the Spurs a quick 1-0 lead. Gus Williams’ determination was enough to keep Seattle in the mix – his thirty-four points and nine assists tied up affairs.

Uninterested in losing their edge, San Antonio pulled off three straight wins behind balanced team performances to advance in five games. Williams was absolutely nuclear offensively but did not receive enough help from his supporting cast, sending the SuperSonics into an anticlimactic defeat.

Conference Finals

East / Philadelphia 76ers beat Boston Celtics, 4-3
For the third consecutive season, the Eastern Conference’s two best teams met in the Conference Finals. This series was perhaps the most important of these teams to date – not only would it break a 1-1 tie, but could open up the gates for a Celtics repeat or long-coveted 76ers title.

On what has been dubbed the “Mother’s Day Massacre”, Boston opened the series with a vicious forty-point blowout led by Larry Bird’s triple-double. Philadelphia responded maturely, securing the next three games behind Andrew Toney’s blistering twenty-eight-point scoring average. The young guard had begun to develop a reputation of being a Celtic killer, earning the nickname “The Boston Strangler”.

Now down 3-1, the green team was in a familiar position. They had overcome this sort of deficit just a season ago, and seemed prepared to replicate that after winning two matches to force Game 7. Thirty-four points from Toney prevented history from repeating, though – he helped Philadelphia enjoy a cushioned win that confirmed their third Finals appearance in the past six years.

Despite the series loss, Boston fans still had life in them – as they watched their players concede defeat, “Beat LA!” chants were heard across the Garden to motivate the lesser of two rivals.
West / Los Angeles Lakers beat San Antonio Spurs, 4-0
Now in the Conference Finals again for the first time since 1979, the Spurs had a large task awaiting them. Dismantling Los Angeles, who had just about all factors in their favor, would not be easy.

Simply put, San Antonio did not have the roster construction to outplay the Lakers. The latter ran too deep in their rotation while also giving minutes to multiple superstars. George Gervin averaged a strong thirty-two points per game for the series, but one man could not defeat an army.


Los Angeles Lakers beat Philadelphia 76ers, 4-2
After losing in six games to the Lakers in 1980, Philadelphia had redemption in their sights. They had still yet to win a title in the Julius Erving era, instead riding the coattails of the historic 1967 championship run.

Both teams won a game apiece to open up matters, enjoying the benefit of having multiple double-digit scorers. Despite motivating showings from Andrew Toney, the 76ers dropped both road matches and ended up down 3-1 on the plane ride home. They blew Los Angeles out in Game 5 behind Toney’s thirty-one points and eight assists, but had to enter the sixth contest with a different mentality than what was displayed a couple years ago.

Los Angeles thoroughly controlled the pace – offensive rebounds were not their ex-factor this time around, but instead ball movement. Magic Johnson compiled an absurd 13/13/13 stat-line with four steals – he only attempted three shots total, but managed to have an irreplaceable impact on the club’s success. Such manipulation on team morale was unheard of.

Also enormous in this match were Bob McAdoo and Michael Cooper, who combined for thirty-two points off the bench. Not even Toney and Julius Erving’s determination could nullify the makings of such a complete adversary – they had been sent home empty-handed once more, paving the way for the Lakers’ eighth NBA championship.
The Los Angeles Lakers win the 1982 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 MVP
Buck WilliamsMoses MaloneMagic Johnson
Coach of the YearComeback Player of the Year
Gene ShueGus Williams


All-NBA First TeamAll-NBA Second Team
Gus Williams
George Gervin
Julius Erving
Larry Bird
Moses Malone
Magic Johnson
Sidney Moncrief
Bernard King
Alex English
Robert Parish


All-Defensive First TeamAll-Defensive Second Team
Dennis Johnson
Michael Cooper
Dan Roundfield

Bobby Jones
Caldwell Jones
Quinn Buckner
Sidney Moncrief
Lonnie Shelton
Larry Bird
Jack Sikma


Eastern All-StarsWestern All-Stars
Tiny Archibald
Larry Bird
Julius Erving
Artis Gilmore
Bobby Jones
Bob Lanier
Sidney Moncrief
Robert Parish
Micheal Ray Richardson
Dan Roundfield
Isiah Thomas
Kelly Tripucka (IR)
Buck Williams
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Adrian Dantley

Alex English
George Gervin
Dennis Johnson
Magic Johnson
Bernard King
Moses Malone

Norm Nixon
Lonnie Shelton
Jack Sikma

Gus Williams
East beats West, 120-118


All-Rookie Team
Jeff Ruland
Isiah Thomas
Kelly Tripucka
Jay Vincent
Buck Williams

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
Lakers81949, 1950
1952, 1953
1954, 1972

1980, 1982
Warriors31947, 1956
76ers21955, 1967
Knicks21970, 1973
Trail Blazers11977
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