The NBA Time Machine: 1971

Published April 15, 2023

The NBA Time Machine:
1971


The NBA’s World

Conferences

After adding four expansion teams in the past five years, the NBA continued taking advantage of its opportunities to grow. Therefore came three new faces – the Buffalo Braves, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Portland Trail Blazers.

Cleveland had briefly experienced ties to the league in the inaugural season, with the Cleveland Rebels. That franchise folded immediately after, but this was a welcoming addition that gave the Cincinnati Royals an inter-state rival. Buffalo and Portland were entirely new destinations – they added depth to the already established northeast and rapidly growing west coast, respectively.

Due to the sheer amount of clubs filling the NBA, the standings format was re-imagined. Instead of simply having Eastern and Western Divisions, the league now adopted conferences.

  • The Eastern Conference included:
    • The Atlantic Division (i.e., Knicks), comprised of teams located in the northeast.
    • The Central Division (i.e., Bullets), comprised of eastern teams close to the Atlantic Ocean, but south of New England.
  • The Western Conference included:
    • The Midwest Division (i.e., Bulls), comprised of teams located in the “mid-west” region of the U.S., as well as the distant Phoenix Suns.
    • The Pacific Division (i.e., Rockets), comprised of teams located along the Pacific Ocean.

The playoff eligibility format also saw change – each conference still had four representatives, but it was simply the top two from each division. The advantage of this format was the increase in competitive rigor, but it incentivized mediocre teams in a bad division. For example, the Atlanta Hawks made the playoffs while finishing five games below .500.

Going All In

A messy season under new coach Bob Cousy – as well as complications regarding his financial future with the Cincinnati Royals – left Oscar Robertson eager to leave his hometown. Many attempts to move the superstar ensued, including a failed trade proposal to the Baltimore Bullets, denied by Robertson himself.

By April of 1970, it seemed almost definitive that his future destination was the budding Milwaukee Bucks. They boasted a solid infrastructure for such an inexperienced team, including three All-Stars in the past two seasons and an M.V.P. contender in Lew Alcindor. By the third week of April, transactions had brought Robertson over in exchange for star guard Flynn Robinson. A large influence on the success of this trade was former Royal Wayne Embry, who now held a front office role in Milwaukee.

The trade was considered one of the biggest blockbuster moves in league history, pairing a former M.V.P. with a potential future one – a new contender had arrived.


Standout Players

Lew Alcindor

In his sophomore season, Alcindor was already the best player in the NBA. He led everybody in scoring, finished top five in rebounds, and guided Milwaukee to a sixty-win effort. This won him an unsurprising first M.V.P. award.

Walt Frazier

While teammate Willis Reed was also great, Frazier drove the bus this year. He remained one of the best guards in the NBA, putting effort in on both ends to clinch the Knicks their third consecutive fifty-win season.

John Havlicek

After a rough down year, Havlicek made an undeniable jump into superstardom as the best forward in the league. Boston returned to the win column, and the sixth man-turned-cornerstone finished top four in both scoring and assists.

Bob Love

On a Bulls team sneakily loaded with talent, Love was the best player. He was a two-way force that was consistently available at high minutes, nearly always on the floor for the fifty-win club. His efforts helped Chicago snag the third-best record league-wide.

Jerry West

West enjoyed an excellent campaign for most of the season, leading Los Angeles to forty-four wins before going down with a season-ending knee injury. He totaled the highest assists average of his career, and would have finished second league-wide if not for the omitted time. The Lakers plummeted in his absence, posting a pitiful 4-9 record in his missed matches.


Around the League

Team Standings

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

Eastern Conference
Atlantic DivisionWLCentral DivisionWL
New York Knicks*5230Baltimore Bullets*4240
Philadelphia 76ers*4735Atlanta Hawks*3646
Boston Celtics4438Cincinnati Royals3349
Buffalo Braves2260Cleveland Cavaliers1567
Western Conference
Midwest DivisionWLPacific DivisionWL
Milwaukee Bucks*6616Los Angeles Lakers*4834
Chicago Bulls*5131San Francisco Warriors*4141
Phoenix Suns4834San Diego Rockets4042
Detroit Pistons4537Seattle SuperSonics3844
Portland Trail Blazers2953

Fun Facts

  • The Milwaukee Bucks joined the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, and Philadelphia 76ers as the only teams to win over sixty games in a season.
    • They were also the first expansion team to accomplish such.
    • Their win percentage of .805 was the third-highest in NBA history, behind the ’67 Philadelphia 76ers and ’47 Washington Capitols.
  • Not only was this the Chicago Bulls’ first season above fifty wins, but their first winning record since the franchise’s emergence.
  • The Milwaukee Bucks ranked first in both offense and defense, something no NBA team had ever done.
    • They were also the first team to shoot over fifty-percent from the field for the entire season.
  • After an identity crisis following Bill Russell’s retirement, the Boston Celtics returned to form with a top three defense.
    • This can be attributed to the gritty, high-energy playstyle encouraged by coach Tom Heinsohn.
  • The new divisional playoff format created some eligibility oddities:
    • The Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, and Detroit Pistons missed the playoffs despite having a winning record.
    • The Atlanta Hawks made the playoffs despite having a losing record.
  • The Cleveland Cavaliers’ fifteen wins tied for the second-lowest total of all-time, next to the ’68 San Diego Rockets.
    • First was the now-defunct Denver Nuggets, who only picked up eleven in the 1949-50 season.

Notable Movement

Key

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

Top Draft Picks

#TeamPlayer
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
Detroit Pistons
San Diego Rockets
Atlanta Hawks
Boston Celtics
Cincinnati Royals
Seattle SuperSonics
Cleveland Cavaliers
Portland Trail Blazers
Baltimore Bullets
Phoenix Suns
Bob Lanier
Rudy Tomjanovich
Pete Maravich
Dave Cowens
Sam Lacey
Jim Ard+
John Johnson
Geoff Petrie
George Johnson
Greg Howard

Players

DatePlayerTeamActionDestinationStats
April 21, 1970Oscar RobertsonCincinnati RoyalsTradedMilwaukee Bucks(25.3p/6.1r/8.1a)
April 21, 1970Flynn RobinsonMilwaukee BucksTradedCincinnati Royals(21.8p/3.2r/5.5a)
May 20, 1970Gail GoodrichPhoenix SunsTradedLos Angeles Lakers(20p/4.2r/7.5a)
December 30, 1970Spencer Haywoodn/a (ABA free agency)SignedSeattle SuperSonics(30p/19.5r/2.3a)

Other Personnel

DatePersonTeamActionStats
March 19, 1970Coach Bill FitchCleveland CavaliersHired
Record: n/a
March 31, 1970Coach Dolph SchayesBuffalo BravesHiredRecord: n/a
April 21, 1970Coach Rolland ToddPortland Trail BlazersHiredRecord: n/a
April 8, 1971Coach Alex HannumSan Diego RocketsResignedRecord: 40-42

Retirements

PlayerTeam(s)Notable Accomplishments
Joe Caldwell
(jumped to ABA)
Detroit Pistons
Atlanta Hawks
2x All-Star
1x All-Defensive
1965 All-Rookie Team
Bob Cousy
(re-retirement)
Boston Celtics
Cincinnati Royals
6x Champion
1x MVP
12x All-NBA
13x All-Star
2x All-Star Game MVP
8x Assists Leader
Richie Guerin
(re-retirement)
New York Knicks
Atlanta Hawks
3x All-NBA
6x All-Star
Don OhlDetroit Pistons
Baltimore Bullets
Atlanta Hawks
5x All-Star
Guy RodgersSan Francisco Warriors
Chicago Bulls
Cincinnati Royals

Milwaukee Bucks
4x All-Star
2x Assists Leader

League Leaders

If a stat is not listed, it was not recorded at the time. As time goes on, this section will begin to include steals per game, blocks per game, etc.

Key

PPG – points per game
RPG – rebounds per game
APG – assists per game
FG% – field goal percentage (percentage of shots that hit)
FT% – free throw percentage (percentage of foul shots that hit)

StatLeaders
PPGLew Alcindor (31.7)
John Havlicek (28.9)
Elvin Hayes (28.7)
Dave Bing (27)
Lou Hudson (26.8)
RPGWilt Chamberlain (18.2)
Wes Unseld (16.9)
Elvin Hayes (16.6)
Lew Alcindor (16)
Jerry Lucas (15.8)
APGNorm Van Lier (10.1)
Lenny Wilkens (9.2)
Oscar Robertson (8.2)
John Havlicek (7.5)
Walt Frazier (6.7)
FG%Johnny Green (58%)
Lew Alcindor (57%)
Wilt Chamberlain (54%)
Jon McGlocklin (53%)
Dick Snyder (53%)
FT%Chet Walker (85%)
Oscar Robertson (85%)
Ron Williams (84%)
Jeff Mullins (84%)
Dick Snyder (83%)

Playoffs

Semifinals

East / Baltimore Bullets beat Philadelphia 76ers, 4-3
Both of these teams, while successful in the regular season, had seen some mediocrity in the playoffs for some time. The 76ers had not left the first round since Wilt Chamberlain’s departure, and Baltimore’s last – and only – playoff series win was six years ago. They both had a chance for a Conference Finals appearance.

A vintage Hal Greer performance opened up affairs, but the Bullets quickly took charge with a 3-1 lead. Earl Monroe led the effort alongside Jack Marin and Kevin Loughery, while Wes Unseld played a vital defensive role.

Facing elimination, Philadelphia’s Billy Cunningham and Archie Clark combined for sixty-three points to grab a one-point win. Cunningham continued his dominance in Game 6, which forced a tiebreaker – the Bullets were now in trouble.

A battle between Marin and Clark defined the seventh match, but Baltimore’s depth won them the series. Backup guard Fred Carter delivered an efficient eighteen points, which was instrumental in such a close contest.
East / New York Knicks beat Atlanta Hawks, 4-1
Not much was expected of this series – the defending champions were facing a losing team, guaranteeing a relatively easy advance. Surprisingly enough, the two teams split wins in New York – consider that a result of Lou Hudson’s perseverance in Game 2.

The Knicks quickly put together a gentleman’s sweep in the remaining three matches. Atlanta had good performances from many of its players, but never all in tandem. For example, a twenty-nine-point outing from Walt Bellamy was accompanied by slow night from Hudson – and when the latter would put things together, Pete Maravich treaded inefficient territory.

Post-loss, the Hawks had one question – what needed to be done to win? With an aging team, the chance at a championship seemed slimmer every day.
West / Los Angeles Lakers beat Chicago Bulls, 4-3
Typically, Los Angeles would be favored to win this series. However, the absence of Jerry West was a gut punch to their offense – Chicago finished with a better record, and was aiming for their first series win.

An ugly start for the Bulls resulted in an 0-2 deficit, with only Bob Love looking competent. Love eventually received much-needed help once back in Chicago, leading back-to-back home victories to tie the series. Matters eventually entered strange territory, as the two teams traded blowout wins on their home courts en route to a Game 7.

Los Angeles made efforts to begin the decisive contest with energy, assembling a slight lead at the half. They held on thanks to twenty-point outings from three players – Gail Goodrich, Happy Hairston, and Wilt Chamberlain. It was especially refreshing to see the latter’s aggression, considering his general apathy towards scoring in the previous games. L.A.’s hopes for a fourth consecutive Finals appearance were not out of the equation.
West / Milwaukee Bucks beat San Francisco Warriors, 4-1
Perhaps the most lopsided Semifinals duel, the dominant Bucks were slated to face a blatantly average Warriors team. The most interesting narrative was the battle of big men, featuring Lew Alcindor and Nate Thurmond.

Milwaukee took the first three matches behind good individual performances from Alcindor and Oscar Robertson on different nights. Thurmond’s offensive impact was greatly dampened by Alcindor, and Jerry Lucas looked awful on the road. San Francisco managed to take Game 4 – largely thanks to a Lucas comeback – but their efforts were pointless. The Bucks handed them a pathetic fifty-point loss to advance, with Jon McGlocklin as the star of the show.

Conference Finals

East / Baltimore Bullets beat New York Knicks, 4-3
Baltimore’s first Conference Finals appearance was a revenge tour, to say the least – they had bowed out to the Knicks in both of the past two post-seasons, building a light rivalry. The matchups to look out for were Earl Monroe vs. Walt Frazier, which would be a shootout – and Wes Unseld vs. Willis Reed, considering the former’s defensive aptitude.

The first game went down to the wire, only seeing a Knicks win by a mere point. New York won another home game thanks to a big step-up from their backcourt, but Unseld did an excellent job on Reed once more. Back-to-back blowout wins from the Bullets followed, thanks to their swallowing defense – no Knicks player exceeded seventeen points during either night. The two teams proceeded to exchange home wins once more, but Baltimore’s was another blowout – they gave up some tough losses to their adversary, but held a marginal point differential in their wins.

As a result, it was not bizarre to expect a Bullets victory in Game 7. It would be a tough feat, considering they were targets in the heart of New York City – however, they fought against the odds. Great overall defense and a quality 17/20 night from Unseld kept things in control for the ball club, lifting them to their first Finals appearance in franchise history.
West / Milwaukee Bucks beat Los Angeles Lakers, 4-1
An exciting aspect of this series was the head-to-head battle between Lew Alcindor and Wilt Chamberlain. It had “passing of the torch” potential – would the seasoned veteran prove it was still his playground, or would crowds flock towards the new and exciting sophomore?

Back-to-back Milwaukee wins to open the series favored the latter narrative, but not all was lost. Chamberlain played very well, especially defensively – while not officially recorded, it is assumed that he averaged over five blocks in these games. L.A.’s loss of forward Keith Erickson in Game 2 motivated The Big Dipper to increase his aggression, aware of the club’s underdog status while littered with injuries.

The Lakers looked all-around effective in a Game 3 victory, with Chamberlain holding Alcindor to a sub-par amount of field goal attempts and multiple rotational players stepping up. Milwaukee responded with an angry blowout win afterwards, where Alcindor overwhelmed his competition with thirty-one points and twenty rebounds. After such a victory, the Bucks never looked back – Chamberlain outplayed their center once more, but the depth of the sixty-win squad was simply too impactful.

Finals

Milwaukee Bucks beat Baltimore Bullets, 4-0
The 1971 Finals had a lot of unique qualities. It was the first since 1956 to include neither Bill Russell nor Wilt Chamberlain, as well as the first to feature two expansion franchises. It marked what was certainly the beginning of a new era, featuring two young M.V.P.-winning centers in Lew Alcindor and Wes Unseld.

Fun facts aside, the Bucks were overwhelmingly favored. They had a much better regular season, deeper personnel, and most of all, Alcindor. Wes Unseld was no slouch on defense, but having to combat a player half a foot taller than him was a tall ask.

Alcindor immediately dismantled Baltimore in the opening two games, providing on offense and helping anchor a swarming Bucks defense. The Bullets appreciated a big game from Earl Monroe in the opening match, but his feats proved unsustainable as he disappeared in Game 2.

Even with backup guard Kevin Loughery delivering nineteen points in Game 3, Baltimore failed to get over the hump. They lost three straight with miserable defense on display, a flaw Bucks sophomore Bob Dandridge abused. Thanks to a big thirty-point outing from Oscar Robertson in the fourth match, Milwaukee completed a series sweep. It was only the second in league history, and first in twelve seasons.

This achievement not only guaranteed Lew Alcindor a Hall of Fame career, but helped Robertson snatch the one missing piece on his accolades list – a world title.
The Milwaukee Bucks win the 1971 NBA championship!
Lew Alcindor was named the Finals Most Valuable Player.

Awards

Notes
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
Geoff Petrie
Dave Cowens
Lew AlcindorLew AlcindorDick Motta

All-NBA

All-NBA First TeamAll-NBA Second Team
Dave Bing
Jerry West
John Havlicek
Billy Cunningham
Lew Alcindor
Walt Frazier
Oscar Robertson
Gus Johnson
Bob Love
Willis Reed

All-Defensive

All-Defensive First TeamAll-Defensive Second Team
Walt Frazier
Jerry West
Dave DeBusschere
Gus Johnson
Nate Thurmond
Norm Van Lier
Jerry Sloan

John Havlicek
Paul Silas
Lew Alcindor

All-Stars

Eastern All-StarsWestern All-Stars
Billy Cunningham
Dave DeBusschere
Walt Frazier
Johnny Green
John Havlicek
Lou Hudson
Gus Johnson

John Johnson
Bob Kauffman

Earl Monroe
Willis Reed
Wes Unseld
Tom Van Arsdale
Jo Jo White
Lew Alcindor
Dave Bing

Wilt Chamberlain
Connie Hawkins
Elvin Hayes
Bob Love
Jerry Lucas
Jeff Mullins
Geoff Petrie
Oscar Robertson

Dick Van Arsdale
Chet Walker
Jerry West
Lenny Wilkens*
West beats East, 108-107

All-Rookie

All-Rookie Team
Dave Cowens
Bob Lanier
Pete Maravich
Calvin Murphy
Geoff Petrie

All-Time Championship Leaderboard

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

TeamCountYears
Celtics111957, 1959
1960, 1961
1962, 1963
1964, 1965
1966, 1967
1969
Lakers51949, 1950
1952, 1953
1954
Warriors21947, 1956
76ers21955, 1967
Royals11951
Hawks11958
Knicks11970
Bucks11971