The New York Knicks are in the present era of NBA history regarded as a joke of a franchise, a waste of a good media market with one of the worst owners in sports in James Dolan.
But once upon a time, Madison Square Garden played host to a team that went to three NBA Finals in four years, captured four titles, and not only had four Hall of Fame players on the roster but had another guy who later went on to become a Hall of Fame coach.
The 1970 Knicks not only won the franchise’s first championship in 24 seasons since they were a founding member of the Basketball Association of America, precursor to the NBA, they were in their own right one of the greatest teams the NBA has ever seen take the floor. They also gave the world one of the greatest Finals highlights in the history of the championship round—more on that later.
Let’s dive into the best combination of regular-season and postseason success the Knicks were able to put together and see what made this team so spectacular.
The On-Court Record
The Knicks also won 60 games in 1970, setting the benchmark that would be tied but never broken by any squad since.
And like the 1993 Knicks, the 1970 edition did it with a stifling defense, allowing just 92.4 points per 100 possessions and leading the league in that stat. They combined that with a decent (5th out of 14 teams) offense to produce the league’s best Net Rating and finishing four games above the Milwaukee Bucks—who would win the title a year later—for best record in the league.
When the playoffs rolled around, New York took advantage. They took the Baltimore Bullets seven games in the first round, took out the Bucks in five games in the East finals, then beat the Lakers in seven in the NBA Finals.
For the Lakers, it was particularly heart-wrenching, because it was their first chance after Bill Russell retired to get the franchise a championship. But Jerry West, who dropped to 0-8 in the Finals for his career, had to wait two years to finally win it all.
Likewise, history would also be kind to the other two teams the Knicks beat in that title run. Milwaukee got their title in 1971 and had another Finals appearance in 1974. Baltimore, moving to Washington later in the decade, went to four NBA Finals in the 1970s, winning the franchise’s only championship in 1978.
But 1970 was New York’s year, and they summited the mountain.
The Featured Players
Every time a player comes out of the tunnel to play when he was presumed to be out with an injury, even when he’s only in the game for a few minutes before sitting the rest of the way, the media trots out the classic clip of Willis Reed taking the floor in Game 7 of the Finals, hitting the Knicks’ first two shots and inspiring the team to the win. Reed had just four points in that Game 7, but they were game-changing.
Reed’s legacy is tied up in that one moment even as he was a seven-time All-Star, five-time All-Defensive, two-time Finals MVP, and the MVP of the 1970 season. Of all the high-scoring, high-flying games Reed put up while averaging 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game in his career, it was a game where he had four points and three rebounds in 26 minutes that everyone remembers.
Alongside Reed on the Knicks was Walt Frazier, better known as “Clyde” to Knicks fans. Frazier, after his playing career, found new life as a broadcaster alongside Mike Breen—yes, the same Mike Breen who is on ESPN nationally—on MSG Network in New York. If you’ve got League Pass and your team is playing the Knicks, listen to the Knicks’ audio feed. It’s the best local broadcast team in sports (sorry Chris Denari and Quinn Buckner, I’m a huge Pacers fan, but Breen and Frazier are on another level.)
Frazier scored 20.9 points per game, pulled down 6.0 rebounds, and averaged 8.2 assists per contest, all while hitting 51.8 percent of his shots in an era before the 3-pointer existed. Frazier only had 23 career triple-doubles, with a career high of eight in 1969, but he was always a threat to go off for one on any given night.
Speaking of the eventual arrival of the 3-pointer, Frazier’s last season was 1979-80, the year the NBA introduced the 3-point arc. Frazier attempted one that season. He missed it. Frazier is one of 148 players in history to be exactly 0-for-1 from 3-point land in his career. Most of the other guys to do it only played in a couple of games in their whole career on a ten-day contract in one lost season for a bad team. Frazier has by far the most career Win Shares (113.5) on the list; Doug Collins is second at 38.0 and Omer Asik, fifth overall on the list, has the most career WS of any guy to play his entire career in the 3-point era and miss his one and only 3-pointer at 20.9.
See? We’ve got all kinds of fun trivia.
Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley are the other two Hall of Famers on the 1970 Knicks, and they averaged 14.6 and 14.5 points per game respectively, with DeBusschere also pulling down 10.0 rebounds per contest.
Rounding out the double-digit scorers for New York were Dave Barnett (14.9 a game) and Cazzie Russell (11.5.)
You may note the absence of Phil Jackson from this rundown; he was under contract in 1970 but missed the entire season with a back injury. He’s the “later went on to be a Hall of Fame coach” mentioned in the top of this article.
Red Holzman stands as proof of two things.
One, that we need more guys named “Red” in today’s world. Red Skelton was a funny guy way back in the black-and-white movie days. Red Green is a Canadian national treasure. And “That 70s Show” patriarch Red Forman remains Kurtwood Smith’s most enduring contribution to American pop culture.
And two, that if you wanted to be a truly great NBA coach in the 1960s or ’70s, you would do well to be named Red; one need think only of Red Auerbach and his success with the Boston Celtics.
Holzman, a Hall of Fame coach, had an inauspicious beginning to his career. He coached first the Milwaukee and then the St. Louis Hawks from 1953 to 1957, but he was fired on January 7, 1957 with the Hawks at just 14-19, 3.5 games out of first and just half a game up on Minneapolis for the worst record in the league.
St. Louis went to the NBA Finals with Alex Hannum coaching them and would win the title the following year.
Holzman didn’t get another chance to coach until midway through the 1968 season. The Knicks had eight straight losing seasons from 1960 to 1967. They made the playoffs just twice in 11 years after the 1956 season.
Two days after Christmas 1967, the 15-23 Knicks fired Dick McGuire, who had coached all eight of those losing seasons and managed to keep his job.
Holzman went 28-16 the rest of the way, made the playoffs, then had the Knicks at 54-28 in 1969 and in a championship parade in 1970.
Was that a case of a guy getting the right roster at the right time to move to the next level? Possibly. Frazier, Bradley, and Jackson were all rookies in the 1967-68 season after the Knicks had the mother of all offseasons in 1967. Frazier was drafted fifth overall; Jackson was the 17th pick. Bradley, who had been the second overall pick in 1965, finally joined the Knicks after first graduating from Princeton and then playing overseas for a year while he was also a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.
Whether Bradley was the smartest professional athlete who ever lived is up for debate; he certainly has a case.
At any rate, Holzman got a huge infusion of talent and developed them into champions. Rare indeed is the coach who can do that well even today; Sixers fans gnashing their teeth at Brett Brown’s inability to develop Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz into shooters can take solace knowing it’s harder than it looks.
But Holzman was a master at it.
The 1993 team deserves mention for matching the 60-22 regular-season record. The ’94 outfit, which was one monumental John Starks choke job in the Finals away from winning the title and completing an MSG clean sweep of indoor sports along with the New York Rangers of the NHL, posted one of the best defenses relative to league average of all time. Patrick Ewing and friends have a storied history of their own—they just ran face-first into first His Airness and then Hakeem Olajuwon at the height of their powers.
The 2013 team gets a bit of a Bronx cheer for being the only Knicks team since 2000 to win a playoff series. The Knicks have only gone to the playoffs six times in the last 21 years. Carmelo Anthony, Jason Kidd, and Tyson Chandler first drove the final nail into the Pierce/Garnett/Rondo Celtics’ coffin before falling in six to the Pacers in the second round, a bit of nostalgia for both Indiana and New York faithful.
And the Knicks of 1951 through 1953 made three straight NBA Finals. They lost all three, first to the Rochester Royals and then twice to the Minneapolis Lakers, but they made it. Those teams featured Hall of Famers Harry Gallatin, Dick McGuire, and Nat Clifton as players and also featured Alfred McGuire, who would enter the Hall as a coach. Of interest, Carl Braun, who himself would be inducted into the Hall as a player, missed the Finals runs in 1951 and ’52 because he was off fighting in the Korean War.
And yes, that’s the same Dick McGuire who would yield the coach’s seat to Holzman just in time for the Knicks to get good. Dick and Alfred were also brothers, in a rare case of siblings going into the Hall together in any sport.
1951 to ’53 was a heck of a run…but it ultimately paled in comparison to the squads from the early ’70s, who peaked in 1970 and put together the best season in Knicks history.
NEXT: Oklahoma City Thunder. And no, the Sonics don’t count. Seattle has an arena and an NHL team—the NBA needs to bring the Sonics back to their true home.
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!