The Washington Wizards’ Best Season: 1978

The Washington Wizards haven’t had much success since they dropped the name “Bullets” after the 1997 season. In point of fact, the Bullets/Wizards haven’t been any good since Wes Unseld—now the coach of the 2022 Wiz—retired in 1981.

But during Unseld’s 13-year career, the Bullets were one of the NBA’s best teams throughout the 1970s, making four NBA Finals in nine years between 1971 and ’79.

Trouble was, three of those Finals appearances resulted in losing to teams that peaked at the right time—two of those opponents, the 1971 Bucks and 1979 SuperSonics, had their best seasons in franchise history. The 1975 Warriors were part of a sports renaissance in Oakland that also included a Super Bowl win for the NFL’s Raiders in the 1976 season and three straight World Series wins for the Oakland A’s between 1972 and ’74.

But the Bullets got a title of their own in 1978, beating that same Seattle team they would lose the rematch to a year later, and even though their 44-38 regular-season record was nowhere near the lofty 62-20 heights of 1975 (still the franchise record for wins), the ’78 squad won the chip.

Let’s look at how a mediocre regular-season nonetheless culminated in a championship, shall we?

The On-Court Record

The wildest part of the Bullets’ run in the ’70s might just be that they were almost never all that good. They won even 50 regular-season games only five times in Unseld’s 13-year career. Of those five 50-win seasons, only two involved Finals appearances; the other three ended in first-round playoff losses (1969, 1970) or a lost Finals rematch (1979.)

That’s not to say the team wasn’t actually good. They were just “a bit above average” in 1978. Their 44-38 record came as you’d expect. They were 10th out of 22 teams in Offensive Rating and ninth on defense, good for just a plus-0.9 regular-season Net Rating, seventh overall.

1978 was a bit of a transition year for the Eastern Conference. Boston had fallen from grace after the titles in 1974 and ’76 and wouldn’t be good again until Larry Bird showed up for the 1979-80 season. Philadelphia was the class of the league with Dr. J and friends, having made the Finals the previous year, but going 55-27 isn’t exactly tearing up the league.

San Antonio, still in the East after the ABA merger—they wouldn’t be put in the West until the realignment of 1980-81 that accompanied the expansion team Dallas Mavericks’ arrival—actually won the Central Division. But 52-30, again, won’t set the world on fire.

Indeed, only three teams won even 50 games in 1978. The third, the Portland Trail Blazers, were all but guaranteed to repeat as champions until Bill Walton‘s foot exploded and that was that, opening the door for a 47-35 Sonics team to sneak into quite possibly the worst post-merger Finals matchup in NBA history. 91 regular-season wins combined for two teams playing for a championship? Yikes. Contrast 2010, when the Oklahoma City Thunder won 50 games…and were the 8 seed.

As for the playoffs, the Bullets drew into the NFL-esque six-teams-per-conference format, winning a best-of-three wild-card series over Atlanta 2-0, then taking down the Spurs and Sixers in six games each before winning a Game 7 in Seattle 105-99 to take home the title. Unseld was Finals MVP despite scoring only nine points per game, which might be the lowest scoring average of a Finals MVP in modern league history as well.

What a bizarre lost season for a league that looked like it was at risk of dying out—much ink has been spilled elsewhere about cocaine, turned-off white fans watching a black league, the US’s economic malaise in the late ’70s, and all that, but the simple fact remains that 1978 might well have been the NBA’s worst season even without the social ills plaguing its ability to draw fans. It just wasn’t good basketball. This might get its own article at some point.

The Featured Players

Unseld wasn’t the only Hall of Famer on the ’78 Bullets. Elvin Hayes, who probably should’ve been Finals MVP, averaged 20.7 points and 11.9 rebounds in the Finals and 19.7/13.3 in the regular season. He went into the Hall in 1990.

Bob Dandridge is in the Hall as well; we talked about him with the ’71 Bucks. He played on the ’74 Finals team in Milwaukee and the ’79 runners-up in Washington as well, earning a Hall nod despite just three All-Star appearances in his career. That’s what two rings and two other Finals appearances buys you with Hall voters.

As one would expect from a 44-win team, this wasn’t exactly a squad that lit up the advanced stats. Unseld led the team in VORP at 3.3; Dandridge and Hayes clocked in at 2.2 and 2.1 respectively, and the three men combined for 21.9 Win Shares, or about half of the team’s overall win expectation.

But the rest of the team was a solid cast of role players, the kinds of players you need to win titles on a Big Three-driven squad.

Nine Bullets played 900 minutes or more. From 4 through 9 in descending order of VORP:

Mitch Kupchak (0.9), Kevin Grevey (0.8 in his breakout season as a third-year player), Tom Henderson (0.7), Larry Wright (0.5), Greg Ballard (0.5), and Phil Chenier (0.4.)

None of those guys set the league on fire. But Kupchak was the sixth man, backing up Hayes and scoring 15.9 points a game. Unseld averaged just 7.6 points per game during the regular season but his defense and his rebounding explain the 3.3 VORP. The big veteran grabbed 11.9 rebounds per contest and took good care of the ball, turning it over just 2.2 times.

Grevey and Chenier averaged 15.5 and 14.1 points per game respectively as they shared wing roles in a way that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in 2021.

That was the ’78 Bullets. They weren’t overpowering, they weren’t dominant; what they were was a combination of savvy veterans—three Hall of Famers, all past 30—and young, up-and-coming role players. And that got them a title.

The Coach

Dick Motta made his only two Finals appearances in the late ’70s, but the man had a distinguished career both before his arrival in Washington and after his departure.

He coached the Chicago Bulls to respectability in the early ’70s, making the playoffs six times in six years between 1970 and ’75 before the bottom fell out in ’76, the Bulls went 24-58, and Motta decamped to DC.

He coached the Dallas Mavericks to respectability in the mid-’80s, winning two playoff series in four years between ’84 and ’87. The Mavs team Motta left behind after going 55-27 in 1987 would be in the Western Conference Finals a year later.

Motta bounced around a bunch of bad teams in the ’90s, ultimately finishing his coaching career with a losing record thanks to the garbage fires in Sacramento, Dallas, and Denver that he never could get to the playoffs, and that might keep him out of the Hall of Fame as a coach, but older fans in Chicago, Washington, and even Dallas will always remember him for the ability he had to elevate a franchise and get the most out of them in his younger days.

Honorable Mentions

The Bullets/Wizards’ best season without Unseld on the team came in 2017, when they went 49-33 and lost a Game 7 against Boston in the second round.

They have never won 50 games outside of Unseld’s career. Indeed, the Bullets/Wizards have consistently been among the league’s worst franchises; from 1989 to 2004, they made the playoffs only once, losing a sweep to Chicago in the first round in 1997.

There is no honor here. Nothing worthy of mention. Just a shadow of the ’70s and one glorious year where everything went right in the playoffs.

Unseld is coaching the Wizards in 2021-22. The season tips off tonight. Enjoy 30 teams trying to top their best season in franchise history, from the dregs of society like the Timberwolves and Hornets to the class of the league in Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Pace and Space will be talking hoops all season long, so stay tuned and thanks for reading!