The Philadelphia 76ers’ Best Season: 1983

The 1983 Philadelphia 76ers have perhaps the greatest honor anyone can bestow upon a basketball team. Kurtis Blow, in his classic rap track “Basketball”, name-checks “Dr. J and Moses Malone” early on.

And considering that when Blow wrote the rap in question, it was during the 1983-84 NBA season, when Julius Erving, Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones (all four men Hall of Famers) and the rest of the ’83 Sixers were the defending champions, having swept Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Now, granted, Malone was probably always going to get name-checked because not a lot of basketball players have last names that rhyme with the syllable “phone”, but it gave the rap a bit more punch for listeners of the time.

The 1983 Sixers, at 65-17, were not the greatest team in franchise history in the regular season (that would be the 68-13 1967 edition of the team, which also won the title.) But their dominance in the playoffs and the stiffness of the competition in a league with 23 teams rather than ten (two of which were expansion teams) give the 1983 team the edge.

So let’s take a deep dive into a team whose contribution to the NBA was even greater than its contribution to the early evolution of urban poetry.

The On-Court Record

65-17 remains the third-best regular-season record in Sixers franchise history. I say “third best” because the 1950 Syracuse Nationals, who lost the Finals that year to the Minneapolis Lakers, went 51-13 in their inaugural NBA season after coming over from the NBL in the BAA-NBL merger that created the NBA as we know it.

51-13 is a .797 winning percentage; 65-17 is .793. And, of course, the 1967 Sixers went 68-13 in an 81-game season, close enough for government work for 82 games, but of course probability says they’d likely have gone 69-13 with that percentage over 82.

Where the ’83 Sixers pulled away from the pack was in the playoffs. Their boast “Fo’ Fo’ Fo’” (as in winning the at-the-time three playoff series required for the title in a sweep) turned out to be more like “Fo’ Fi’ Fo’”, as they beat the Milwaukee Bucks in five in the conference finals, but that’s still a one-loss playoff run, rarely matched in even the three-round, never mind four-round, history of the NBA playoffs.

That’s where Dr. J and friends truly shone. A fifth-ranked offense and fifth-ranked defense—good for tops in Net Rating as no other team that year was that solid on both sides of the ball—exploded to another level in the playoffs.

Philadelphia was even leading Game 4 of the Bucks series headed into the final frame before Milwaukee outscored them 29-21 in the fourth quarter to win 100-94. Back at the Spectrum for Game 5, Philly won 115-103 and removed all doubt of their dominance.

In fact, the team that gave them the most trouble was the Knicks in the first round; the Sixers won those four games by a combined 22 points. By the time they hit the Finals, they steamrolled the Lakers, with no margin less than six, two double-digit wins, and a total combined point differential of 40 points…an even 10 points per game.

Few teams in NBA history have gone to the championship round and just kicked the crap out of their opponent like that. Sweeps are rare enough. Sweeps that never come down to any real pressure in the final minute or two? Those are less so.

The Featured Players

Julius Erving was already on the downside of his career in 1983 after having risen to stardom in the ABA back in the 1970s. The 32-year-old posted 21.4 points per game and led the team with 5.2 VORP while also posting a monster .217 WS/48, but he wasn’t the leading scorer the way he’d been when he won three ABA scoring titles in 1973, ’74, and ’76.

Indeed, while 5.2 VORP is unquestionably a superstar season, it was a dropoff from his past three years when he posted 6.8, 6.9, and 6.8 VORP in 1980 through ’82 respectively, leading the NBA in that stat in 1981 to go with his three straight seasons leading the ABA in 1974 through 1976 (and probably ’73 as well—he led the ABA in PER—but the individual stats required for the formula didn’t exist yet.)

The true star of the show in terms of counting stats was Malone, who led the team in points (24.1) and rebounds (15.3, including 5.7 offensive boards) per game and posted a team-high .248 WS/48. His 4.2 VORP was tied for second on the team, but the guy whose name was alongside the eye-popping stats in the box score and whose presence in the low post was far more intimidating than his Biblical first name would suggest? That was all Moses, parting the lane like the Red Sea.

So who tied Malone? That’d be Maurice Cheeks, “Mo” to his friends, who quietly put up a 4.2 VORP season on 12.5 points and 6.9 assists per game. He hit 54.2 percent of his 9.4 attempts per game from the field, while his defense shone through the murk of mediocre counting stats to truly cement his value on that fifth-overall defense the team put up. All those Defensive Win Shares contributed to a third-on-the-team .183 WS/48.

Speaking of defense, Bobby Jones, the “Secretary of Defense” who made a career out of impressive defensive advanced stats, was fourth on the team in VORP with 2.7 in just 1,749 minutes off the bench as the sixth man. Indeed, Jones was Sixth Man of the Year that season, beating out Kevin McHale. McHale was about to blossom into one of the greatest sixth men of all time, posting 10.5 Win Shares in 1984 and 11.0 in 1985 to win the 6MOY award twice before earning his starting job for the 1986 season, but his 7.5 WS, .154 WS/48, and 2.1 VORP weren’t quite the equal of Jones. Jones posted 6.4 WS and .175 WS/48 and, more importantly, was on the better team. Plus, he’d been a five-time All-Star while McHale would have to wait a year for his first appearance in the February talent showcase.

So if Jones was the sixth man, who were the other two starters? One was Andrew Toney, who racked up 19.7 points per game as the third scorer on his way to 1.8 VORP.

And the other…well, nobody ever confused Marc Iavaroni for an All-Star at any point in his seven-year career, but as a rookie he was the only Sixer who flat-out stunk. 5.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game in 20.2 minutes, a grab-your-barf-bag 7.3 PER, a paltry .045 WS/48 driven entirely by his solid defense (2.1 DWS, minus-0.6 OWS), and a “tell me again why Jones didn’t start?” minus-0.4 VORP doomed Iavaroni’s career from the start.

The Coach

Billy Cunningham was the ringmaster of the flying circus in Philadelphia from the 1978 through the 1985 seasons, and even though he entered coaching as a 34-year-old wunderkind and was just 41 when he resigned after going 58-24 and coaching the team to the ECF in ’85, he never coached in the NBA again. He is a Hall of Famer from his playing days with the Sixers during those 1960s glory days, including having played for the 1967 champs. He gained some fame as a broadcaster on CBS after his coaching days were done, and he would later be an early minority owner of the Miami Heat, selling his stake in 1994.

Cunningham is 78 years old, still alive in 2021, and left behind the ultimate proof that a coach’s record is as much a function of his players as his coaching ability, joining the Sixers sideline in time for the Dr. J Era and leaving the coaching ranks after having coached an aging Erving and a rookie Charles Barkley in 1985.

For Philadelphia, Cunningham’s last season coaching would be the last time they got past the second round of the playoffs until they made the Finals in 2001; indeed, Cunningham has as many trips to the NBA Finals (three) under his belt as a coach than the Sixers have playoff series wins since the summer of 2003. There are people in Philadelphia old enough to vote who have only been alive for as many playoff series wins by the franchise as the 1983 Sixers won in one year.

And it ain’t like Doc Rivers is going to be the guy to match that feat.

Honorable Mentions

The 1967 Sixers absolutely deserve mention; that team, led by Hall of Famers Cunningham, Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, and Chet Walker and featuring six-time All-Star and Hall of Fame candidate in his own right Larry Costello, steamrolled the league. And speaking of guys name-checked by Kurtis Blow, “Tell me, were you in the joint the night Wilt scored a hundred points?” Sure, that wasn’t in ’67, but it is a curious bookend to Dr. J and Moses Malone.

If you’re looking for a deep cut from the NBA Stone Age, there’s one of those as well, in the form of the 1955 Syracuse Nationals. Dolph Schayes, one of the caveman superstars of that proto-basketball era before Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain showed up to change the game, got his ring that year after twice falling short in the Finals in 1950 and 1954.

The whole franchise from ages long past deserves a sort of lifetime achievement award. It wasn’t until the franchise’s 23rd season, in 1971-72, that they finally missed the playoffs. That team was…well, when you consider that the 10-72 “Process” Sixers in 2016 were only the second-worst team in franchise history? Yep. 9-73 in 1973, the only team in NBA history to win fewer than 10 games in a full 82-game season, and the second-lowest winning percentage (ahead of only the 7-59 2012 Charlotte Bobcats) in league history. Four years later, Philly was back in the NBA Finals (losing to Portland in ’77.) How’s that for a rebuild?

And, of course, there’s that 2001 team, the only team since 1985 to advance past the conference semis, who powered through a pathetic post-Jordan Eastern Conference and got blasted to bits by the Lakers in the NBA Finals, denying the 2001 Lakers a run-the-table playoff run only by Allen Iverson‘s 48 points in Game 1.

But the zenith? Yeah, you can argue that I snubbed the ’67 team, but it’s just so hard to truly craft narratives for teams from before 1974 because of the amount of estimations and reconstructed newspaper box scores required to get a grasp on the stats. A team has to truly do something to light up the history books—like the ’71 Bucks and ’72 Lakers—or be a franchise so snakebitten that their last successes were in your grandmother’s time (the ’70 and ’73 Knicks) for a writer in 2021 to truly be able to understand them.

And the ’67 legend is not strong enough to overcome the very much tangible excellence of the culmination of seven years of chasing the ring for one of the best teams ever to suit up over multiple seasons. They got their rings in ’83, they lost just one playoff game, that’s good enough for me.

NEXT: Phoenix Suns. Oh, how close they came to making this choice easy…but instead, we’ll be talking about 1976 and 1993 and trying to decide whether 2021 was enough to push this year’s Finals runner-up into a better position than the Finals bridesmaids of generations past.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!