The 1970s: The NBA’s Weirdest Decade

Since 1959, when Wilt Chamberlain showed up and, along with Bill Russell, took the NBA out of the Stone Age, every decade of the league’s history has followed the same broad pattern that makes life easier for basketball historians to easily define the league by era.

In the 1960s, the Celtics won nearly every year, and the Russell-Chamberlain rivalry defined those early days of the league as we know it today.

The 1980s gave us Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and even though it wasn’t quite Lakers-Celtics every single year, eight of the ten titles and 13 of the 20 available Finals appearances between 1980 and ’89 were occupied by those two titans of the hardwood.

The 1990s were all about Michael Jordan; even though the Rockets won two titles in 1994 and ’95, they will forever be known as the “Jordan was playing baseball” years, which while not quite an asterisk will stand for all time as “the reason Houston won.”

The 2000s were, ultimately, Kobe Bryant‘s decade, first with Shaquille O’Neal and later solo. The Lakers won four titles. Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs stamped their mark on history with three titles in the decade (plus one in 1999, if you’re the kind of person who’s less about strict chronology and more about “Jordan retired and then…”) Sure, Detroit, Miami, and Boston each got one, the Heat doing so with Shaq, and a kid in Cleveland showed us what the world would become, but it was the Decade of Kobe.

And the 2010s were as defined by LeBron James as the ’90s had been by His Airness. LeBron appeared in every Finals between 2011 and 2018, winning three titles, the third of which lifted the city of Cleveland out of sports hell (only to be busted right back there by MLB’s Indians blowing a 3-1 lead in the World Series by the Chicago Cubs, but this is a basketball site, not a baseball site.)

You notice I skipped a decade there? It was intentional.

Because the 1970s were the weirdest, most insane ten years in the history of professional basketball. The Forties were just putrid. The Fifties were borderline irrelevant until Russell’s debut in 1956-57.

But the Seventies? What a crazy, crazy, crazy decade.

For one thing, there was no decade-defining superstar to will his teams to all of the titles. The Knicks and Celtics won two rings each while six other teams—Milwaukee, the Lakers, Golden State, Portland, Washington, and Seattle—won one apiece.

Indeed, between 1975 and 1980, there were six different champions in six consecutive years, something that seems unlikely to ever happen again in this age of superteams catching fire and having dueling five-year runs. We came close between 2010 and 2015, but Miami won two rings with LeBron and besides, five of those six years had the same guy on one of the teams.

Furthermore, there was almost parity between 2004 and 2009, with the Pistons, Spurs, Heat, Spurs, Celtics, and Lakers winning titles in each of those six years, but the Spurs were dynastic and the Lakers played in three of those Finals.

There was nothing like that in the ’70s. Between 1974 and ’79, your Finals losers were Milwaukee, Washington, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Seattle, and then Washington again.

Yes, the Bullets, with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes each bound for the Hall of Fame, made three Finals in six years, but they only won one ring and only appeared in back-to-back Finals right at the end of the decade.

And those Sixers, who would later go on to be a thorn in the side of the Lakers in the early ’80s with three Hall of Famers of their own in “Dr. J” Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and Maurice Cheeks?

Their 1977 run was made possible only because of that other league with the red, white, and blue ball that had been diluting NBA talent between 1967 and 1976.

What makes the NBA’s parity in the early part of the decade even more insane is that as late as 1976, there were only 18 teams total in the league. Even with the ABA merger, 22 squads suited up for the next four seasons before the Dallas Mavericks played their first year in the league in 1980-81.

And yet they managed to crown eight different champions, including six different winners and five different runners-up in an era where absolutely nothing was carved in stone.

Imagine being a fan for that. It’d be like the Jordan titles (five different vanquished opponents in six year), only if six different teams came out of the East as well. Imagine the Pistons, Knicks, Pacers, Magic, Bulls, and Heat getting one ring each over a six-year stretch (or the Sonics, Suns, and Jazz grabbing one at the expense of three of the aforementioned) instead of Jordan terrorizing the league and winning all the titles for himself.

People often lament the competitive balance of today’s NBA…they’d be right at home with a big Afro, bell-bottoms, and truly ugly patterned shirts in the league’s forgotten decade.