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NBA All-Time Greats: Kareem is far ahead of the pack in the 70s

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The 70s are probably the strangest decade in NBA history.

From the start of the 1969-70 season through the 1978-79 campaign, eight different teams won the NBA championship. That still stands as the most teams to win the title over a single decade in NBA history.

Games were aired on TV on tape delay. A myriad of issues persisted. An executive even said, on the record, that the league was “too Black.”

The NBA and ABA competed for fans, and the leagues merged in August 1976. The talent pool grew, as the number of teams grew to 17 before the start of the 1970-71 season. The league fielded just 12 teams three seasons prior.

The game got a lot flashier in the 70s. Players arrived at games dressed to impress. “Wow” plays began to happen at a higher rate. The ABA let the ball fly with the introduction of the 3-point line, and the upstart league let its best athletes soar with the introduction of the dunk contest.

Determining the best players of the 1970s, after No. 1, is a little difficult. You’re taking two leagues into consideration. Do you include stars who played less than half the decade but were great? What about a player who was on track to be an all-timer before an injury cut his peak drastically short.

Coming up with the best players of the 1960s was fairly cut and dry.

The 70s? Let’s see where we land.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem in 1969 walked into the league as its best player. Cap won at every level, claiming multiple high school and college championships. He led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA title in his second year in the league, and the team’s third. Jabbar won league MVP in his second year, joining Bob Pettit and Bill Russell as the only players in League history to take the association’s highest honor so early in their careers. Kareem would win four more MVPs in the 70s — 1972, 1974, 1976 and 1977. Jabbar finished in the top five of the MVP voting every year of the 70s. He finished no lower than third in the voting seven times. Kareem in the 70s earned All-NBA honors nine times, including six first-team nods. He was named to the league’s All-Defense team eight times. The big man averaged no less than 12.8 rebounds per game every season in the 70s. Jabbar only led the league in scoring twice in the decade, but he averaged 30.4 points per game in his first six years in Milwaukee. He also introduced the world to the most unstopped offensive play in League history. Kareem, like a lot of greats, was much more than a basketball player. As a 20-year-old college kid, Jabbar in 1967 participated in the Cleveland Summit, a response to Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. Kareem would have been the star of the 1968 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team, but he sat out the games to protest the unjust treatment of Black people in America. Years after his retirement, Jabbar began showing his writing chops as an opinion writer. And at the turn of the decade, he became a movie star. Through the 70s, though, Jabbar developed into the best basketball player ever, stealing the mantle from Bill Russell. His career continued for another decade, when he won five more titles with a guy who might be mentioned later in this series.


Julius Erving

Dr. J is quite possibly the coolest basketball player of all time. His voice. His demeanor. His style. His play. Dr. J was so cool that another high flyer in a lot of ways mimicked a lot of what Erving did. Dr. J played his first five pro seasons with the Virginia Squires and New York Nets in the ABA. Erving earned ABA MVP honors in each of his last three seasons in the league. Dr. J in the ABA also won three scoring titles and two championships. He also starred in the very first dunk contest. Erving joined the NBA in interesting fashion: he was sold to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976 for $3 million in cash. Philly instantly signed the high-flying Doctor to a six-year, $3.5 million deal that made him the highest-paid player in the NBA. Erving instantly became the NBA’s biggest attraction. Dr. J that first season led the 76ers to the 1977 NBA Finals, where they led 2-0 before falling to the Portland Trail Blazers. Erving in that first NBA season finished fifth in the MVP voting. He’d win his only NBA MVP four years later. Dr. J would lead Philly to two more NBA Finals in 1980 and 1982, with the Sixers falling to the Lakers both times. In what is a history-long trend, Erving would win his lone NBA title in 1983, but only once he had reinforcements. Young center Moses Malone led the way for Philly in 1983, as the team went 12-1 in the playoffs. Erving was named an All-Star in each of his 16 professional seasons. He earned 12 All-League honors, including nine first-team nods. Erving was a star in two leagues. Like Elgin Baylor, Erving set the stage for the future of the league with his gravity-defying antics. 

John Havlicek

Pop quiz! Who’s the all-time leading scorer for the Boston Celtics? Not Bird. Not Pierce. Not Russell. Hondo in 16 years racked up 26,395 points. He’s more than 2,000 points ahead of Paul Pierce and almost 5,000 points in front of Larry Bird. Drafted in 1962, Havlicek did much of his winning as a role player of the great Bill Russell-led teams. By the end of the 60s, though, Hondo came into his own. Havlicek in the 1970s made seven All-NBA teams, including four straight first-team honors. That means Hondo was one of the five best players in the world for four straight years. He never won a league MVP and finished in the top five of the voting just twice, but Havlicek impacted the game in a number of ways, exhibited by his seven straight All-Defensive nods. The Celtics struggled for a bit in the post-Russell years. After Boston won its 11th title in 13 years in 1969, the Celtics missed the playoffs in 1970 and 1971, and didn’t get back to the Finals until 1974. The Celtics beat Kareem’s Bucks and Havlicek was named Finals MVP. Hondo’s eighth and final championship would come in 1976, when Boston bested the Phoenix Suns in a series that features one of the best games in league playoff history. Oh, and he’s the subject of one of the greatest calls in league history. It happened in the 60s, but it’s too iconic to not mention.

Rick Barry

Nobody likes Rick Barry. I’m not making that up. People talked about his attitude. They called him a ballhog. Then there’s the “watermelon grin” incident. Barry is a forgotten star. He made first-team All-NBA as a rookie. In his second year, Barry led the San Francisco Warriors to the 1967 NBA Finals, where they fell to a historically great 76ers team. Barry in those Finals showed out, though, averaging nearly 41 points and 9 rebounds a game in the six-game series. Barry then sat out the next season in protest of the NBA reserve clause that forced players to remain with a team for one year after their contract expired. Barry that following year suited up for the Oakland Oaks of the ABA, where he played for his father-in-law. Barry played four seasons in the ABA with three teams, earning first-team All-ABA honors every year. He returned to the Warriors prior to the start of the 1972-73 season. Barry that year earned second-team All-NBA honors. His crowning achievement would come in 1975 when Barry would lead the Warriors to the NBA title. Barry in a sweep over the Washington Bullets averaged 29.5 points and 5 assists on his way to earning Finals MVP. Barry should have a stronger reputation among fans as an all-time great. It’s his fault he doesn’t.

Artis Gilmore

Like Barry, Artis Gilmore is another forgotten great. Gilmore spent his first five years as a pro with the ABA’S Kentucky Colonels. Those were some all-time great basketball teams. The Colonels in Gilmore’s first year won an ABA record 68 games. Gilmore was a catalyst on that team, along with eventual Hall of Famer Dan Issel and Louie Dampier. Gilmore as a rookie posted averages of 23.8 points and 17.8 rebounds a game. That earned him Rookie of the Year and ABA MVP honors. Gilmore and Spencer Haywood are the only rookies to win the ABA MVP award. Only two players, Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld, have won NBA MVP as a rookie. Gilmore was named first-team All-ABA in all five of his seasons with the Colonels. In his last year in the league, Gilmore led the Colonels to the ABA championship. In 15 playoff games in 1975, Gilmore put up 24.1 points and 17.6 rebounds a game. Gilmore remained a productive player in the NBA, but was stuck on some bad teams in Chicago and San Antonio. His best chance at an NBA title came with the Boston Celtics in his last pro season, but Boston would fall to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. Gilmore is one of a handful of ABA greats enshrined in the basketball Hall of Fame. Only 17 ABA players and three coaches have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Only Dr. J and Moses Malone were first-ballot Hall of Famers, and they’re two of the 20 best players of all time. Gilmore waited 23 years to be enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts. To contrast, Reggie Miller made the Hall in his second year of eligibility. Miller was never the best player on a team that made the Finals. Miller made the same number of All-NBA teams (three) as Joe Dumars, who actually won a Finals MVP. Yet Reggie has a shorter wait to get into the Hall because he had a couple of big moments in Madison Square Garden. What would Reggie’s career be had those playoff series been against the Cavs or Bucks? Sorry. I’m ranting now.

Honorable mention

Elvin Hayes: The Washington Bullets made four Finals trips in the 1970s, winning the title in 1978. Hayes, who played at least 80 games in all 16 of his pro seasons, and Wes Unseld led those teams. Washington won 60 games in 1975, Hayes’ first year with the club. The Bullets won 54 games in 1979 with Hayes and Unseld. Washington hasn’t won 50 games since.

Bob McAdoo: McAdoo with the Buffalo Braves led the NBA in scoring three straight years from 1974 to 1976. He won Rookie of the Year in 1973 and MVP in 1975.

Bill Walton: From the start of the 1976-77 season until he broke his foot in 1978, Walton was the best player in the world. Walton could score on the block. He was a great defensive player, and he was quite possibly the best passing big man of all time until a few years ago. Walton in the 1977 NBA Finals pulled Portland out of an 0-2 hole against Erving’s 76ers to give the Blazers their lone title. He won MVP in 1978 having only played 58 games before a broken foot completely derailed his career. Despite the short peak, Walton remains one of the best players of all time.

Tiny Archibald: At 6-foot-1, Archibald led the NBA in scoring and assists in his third year in the league. Archibald made All-NBA five times in the decade, but only made one playoff trip in the 70s. Archibald’s individual brilliance is too great to go unrecognized, though.

Walt Frazier: The engine of the great early 70s Knicks teams, Frazier is underrated. Frazier, who’s probably just as cool as Dr. J, in the 70s earned six All-NBA and All-Defense nods in the decade. The guard was actually the real star of the Willis Reed game. Frazier in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals poured in 36 points, 19 assists, and 7 rebounds. 

Dan Issel: I promise this has nothing to do with the fact that I chat with Dan once a week. Issel is another ABA legend. Issel in his first year with the Kentucky Colonels in 1971 put up 29.9 points and 13.2 rebounds per game. Issel led the ABA in scoring as a rookie. That season saw Issel win ABA Rookie of the Year, earn first-team All-Rookie honors, and a second-team All-ABA nod. His second year, Issel upped his scoring to 30.6 points per game. Issel in the ABA would earn four more all-league honors. He finished second in the 1972 ABA MVP vote, behind his teammate Gilmore. Issel after the merger played nine years with the Denver Nuggets, where he was a catalyst on some of the most fun teams of all time. NBA championships change narratives. In 1977 and 1978, Nuggets teams led by Issel, David Thompson and Bobby Jones had a real shot to win a title. Off-the-court issues for one standout played a role in the team’s ultimate demise. Durability and reliability were never issues for Issel, though, who played in an average of 81 games a season over his 15-year career. Issel is still No. 12 on the all-time NBA-ABA combined scoring list 38 years after he retired. Issel was enshrined in the basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

Willis Reed: The Knicks center played only half of the decade, and missed a lot of time in two of those five seasons. His impact was felt, though. Reed was named league MVP in 1970, beating out Jerry West and Jabbar for the award. Reed earned Finals MVP honors in 1970 and 1973, leading New York to its only two championships.

Dave Cowens: Drafted in 1970, Cowens was next in a long line of great Celtics. Cowens was named Rookie of the Year in 1971 and won league MVP in 1973, besting Jabbar for the award. Cowens, along with John Havlicek and JoJo White, led Boston to titles in 1974 and 1976.

Tomorrow: The 80s.

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