Published March 16, 2023
The NBA Time Machine:
End of an Era
Rise and Shine
Even when considering the fact that two expansion teams infiltrated the NBA in the prior season, the league refused to be complacent. Entering the mix were the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, two unique club choices with the goal of making professional basketball a nation-wide staple.
Milwaukee hadn’t hosted a team in fourteen years, with the last representative being the Milwaukee Hawks, who left for St. Louis in 1956. The Suns, on the other hand, were unfamiliar territory – Arizona had never seen a professional sports franchise at all, and the decision was heavily criticized. Many saw the recently growing Phoenix as too hot, irrelevant, and distant to be a reasonable location for expansion. Such concerns did not phase owners, as the promise of the city’s recent growth was too good to pass up.
The Bucks and Suns fit comfortably into the Eastern and Western Divisions, respectively.
Uncertainty hit the Philadelphia 76ers when storied coach Alex Hannum committed to coaching the Oakland Oaks of the ABA. The rival league’s influence was clearly growing, and NBA franchises grew weary.
Wilt Chamberlain was initially disappointed by the move – Hannum had coached him to two Finals appearances and a championship in his career, and the famed superstar was very active in questioning how the coaching search was going. Chamberlain eventually entertained the idea of being a player-coach, and there seemed to be some momentum building in determining their personnel.
Philadelphia was subsequently shocked when Chamberlain, fresh off a trip to the west coast, demanded to be traded. He wanted to join the Western Division – his preferred spots were the Los Angeles Lakers, Seattle Supersonics, or San Diego Rockets. The 76ers did not tolerate his request, only to be retaliated with claims that he’d otherwise move to the ABA’s Los Angeles Stars. Former league superstar Rick Barry’s mindset of “player freedom” had now caught on to other talents, and it was leaving managers in a tough situation.
Chamberlain was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for former All-Stars Archie Clark and Darrell Imhoff, as well as the young Jerry Chambers. The trade seemed blatantly lop-sided, but Philadelphia was not given much leverage – getting a few solid pieces was the best option possible. This was the first time a reigning M.V.P. was traded the season after.
Now paired with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, Chamberlain became the third of a monstrous “big three” in Los Angeles that seemed overwhelmingly favored to win an NBA championship. The league had not seen a roster of such proportions before, featuring three superstar players amidst their primes.
Throughout their more recent years in Missouri, the St. Louis Hawks began to run into problems with hosting. They were not fond of their arena selection – their current location, the Kiel Auditorium, was old and small, while the alternative St. Louis Arena had a size advantage but much worse maintenance.
Owner Ben Kerner was denied the request for a bigger arena, and as a result looked to sell the Hawks. They nearly moved to New Orleans, but talks dissipated and they were eventually sold to developers in Atlanta. They did not immediately have access to an area, so they utilized Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
While there was potential for high profit long-term the newfound Atlanta Hawks had a geographical dilemma – they were even further from their Western Division rivals now. The closest one – the Chicago Bulls – was 720 miles out. The next up in proximity was Phoenix at a whopping 1,815.
Youth is Power
Top two draft picks Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes had phenomenal seasons, both some of the best for rookies in a long time. Unseld led the Baltimore Bullets to a league-best fifty-seven wins, winning the M.V.P. award in the process – he was the first rookie to be honored with such since Wilt Chamberlain in 1960.
Hayes finished first in scoring average and led the San Diego Rockets to a twenty-two game improvement, earning them a playoff berth in just their second season of existence. His phenomenal defense also established them as a top three defensive team in the NBA.
To parallel the All-NBA Teams, the league introduced an “All-Defensive Team” as part of its regular season awards. Much like its counterpart, the teams were positionally comprised of two guards, two forwards, and a center.
Unseld had one of the best rookie seasons in NBA history. While not flashy on the box score, his impact as a defender and rebounder was remarkable. His efforts alongside teammate Earl Monroe helped Baltimore improve by twenty-one games, earning the franchise its first winning record.
The first overall pick lived up to the hype, leading the NBA in scoring and lifting the Rockets to a twenty-two game improvement. Such play brought them to the post-season in only their second year – a rare accomplishment for an expansion franchise.
Reed was undeniably a superstar at this point. His leadership helped New York see its first ever fifty-win season, and he was a quiet runner-up for the M.V.P. award. Being separated from Walt Bellamy also brought him back to his natural center position, resulting in career highs for scoring and efficiency.
The Big Dipper was clouded in controversy this year, due to the dramatic circumstances of his trade demand. He was seen as a locker room cancer and frequently butt heads with coach Butch van Breda Kolff, leaving him with a sour reputation that left him off many seasonal accolades. Regardless, he was effectively their best player during the regular season, leading the league in rebounds and efficiency once again.
Cunningham was the leader of an unexpected 76ers fifty-win season. Many expected them to decline heavily after trading Wilt Chamberlain, but they only worsened by seven games. “The Kangaroo Kid” having his first All-Star season created that reality, alongside the play of teammate Hal Greer.
While Robertson regressed a bit offensively, he still led the league in assists and finished top five in scoring average. The Royals also finished as the top-ranked offense for the first time since 1965, but it was unfortunately still not enough for a playoff berth.
Around the League
An asterisk (*) indicates that the team qualified for the playoffs.