By Lorenzo Tanos
Remember the 1968-69 Celtics and 1974-75 Warriors, both of whom won the NBA Finals despite middling 48-34 records? The Washington Bullets of 1977-78 had an even more so-so regular season record at 44-38, and they ended up winning the 1978 Finals, defeating the 47-35 Seattle SuperSonics. It was indeed a case of giant-killing at work, as the Sonics would go through the lower-seeded L.A. Lakers, then the odds-on favorite Portland Trail Blazers, then another strong team, the Denver Nuggets, before reaching the Finals.
The Bullets, on the other hand, disposed of the lower-ranked Atlanta Hawks first, then upset the San Antonio Spurs and Philadelphia 76ers, and would eventually defeat the Sonics with a lineup that featured a more "restrained" Elvin Hayes (19.7 ppg, 13.3 rpg), ex-Milwaukee Buck Bob Dandridge and former Rookie of the Year/MVP Wes Unseld. 1977-78 was also a season that featured the closest race for the scoring title thus far, one that was literally decided in the last game of the season.
NBA Champions – Washington Bullets (d. Seattle SuperSonics, 4-3)
MVP – Bill Walton (Portland Trail Blazers, 18.9 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 5.0 apg)
Rookie of the Year – Walter Davis (Phoenix Suns, 24.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.4 apg)
LEAGUE LEADERS – George Gervin (San Antonio Spurs, 27.2 ppg), Truck Robinson (New Orleans Jazz, 15.7 rpg), Kevin Porter (Detroit Pistons/New Jersey Nets, 10.2 apg), Ron Lee (Phoenix Suns, 2.7 spg), George Johnson (New Jersey Nets, 3.4 bpg), Bobby Jones (Denver Nuggets, 57.8% FG), Rick Barry (Golden State Warriors, 92.4% FT), Lonnie Shelton (New York Knicks, 350 fouls)
BATTLE OF THE SUPER SCORERS (AND FREE THROW ATM MACHINES) – In the last game of the 1977-78 regular season, George Gervin had a slim lead in the scoring race with 26.78 ppg for the San Antonio Spurs. The Denver Nuggets' David Thompson was averaging 26.57. With his back against the wall, the "Skywalker" scored 73 points in the Nuggets' final game, but would end up thwarted as the Spurs' "Iceman" retaliated later in the day with 63.
When the scores were added up, Gervin still emerged as scoring champ, averaging 27.21 ppg to Thompson's 27.15 – a difference of just six percentage points. Another close race would take place in free throw shooting, as Rick Barry of the Golden State Warriors (92.4%) edged diminutive Houston Rockets playmaker Calvin Murphy (91.8%), also by six percentage points.
AN UNLIKELY TRIP TO THE FINALS – Early in the season, the Seattle SuperSonics had barely any chance of making the Finals, with a 5-17 record under coach Bob Hopkins. He would be replaced by the team's former playing coach, Lenny Wilkens, now retired as a player, and the Sonics would go 42-18 the rest of the way, behind the backcourt of Gus Williams and "Downtown" Freddie Brown, defensive ace Dennis Johnson as the first guard off the bench, rookie pivotman Jack Sikma and the Human Eraser, Marvin Webster (14.0 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 2.0 bpg).
This, however, would be one of only two truly successful seasons for Webster, a 7'1" center picked third in the 1975 Draft who, like top pick David Thompson, would choose the ABA over the NBA in the league's final season.
A LOOK AT THE TITLE WINNERS – You simply don't expect a 44-38 team to go all the way to the NBA Finals, much less win it all. But that's what the 1977-78 Washington Bullets did, behind the play of Elvin Hayes (19.7 ppg, 13.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg), Bobby Dandridge (19.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.8 apg) and Wes Unseld (7.6 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 4.1 apg). Also worthy of mention as key contributors were Unseld's successor-in-waiting at center Mitch Kupchak (15.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and shooting guard Kevin Grevey (15.5 ppg), both quality young talents.
With defensive-minded head coach Dick Motta piloting the Bullets, the team upset the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals, en route to an interesting 7-game showdown versus the Seattle SuperSonics, who, as mentioned above, were underdogs in their own right.
A LOOK AT THE LEAGUE LEADERS – The Portland Trail Blazers (58-24) continued to give opponents fits in 1977-78, with Bill Walton (18.9 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.5 bpg) enjoying an MVP season and Maurice Lucas (16.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg), Lionel Hollins (15.9 ppg , 4.7 apg, 1.9 spg), and Bob Gross (12.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.5 apg) providing support. Additionally, young guard Johnny Davis (10.7 ppg) was emerging as a reliable source of offense off the bench, and Tom Owens (10.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg) joined the Blazers as one of the NBA's best backup centers.
But with Walton's injuries starting to manifest, the Blazers were at the opposing end of a 4-2 upset at the hands of the Seattle SuperSonics, and were gone after the Western Conference semis.
A LOOK AT THE CELLAR DWELLERS – More playground-style excitement, more trades, more losses. After an abysmal NBA debut, the New York Nets moved to New Jersey for the 1977-78, but they would only win two additional games despite the addition of highly-regarded rookie Bernard King (24.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and point guard Kevin Porter (16.2 ppg, 10.8 apg). In addition to those two, the Nets had "Super" John Williamson (29.5 ppg with Nets) for the first half of the season, and Darnell Hillman (13.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and the disappointing former Villanova standout Howard Porter (12.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) as a couple other key players.
Ex-Golden State Warrior George Johnson (8.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 3.4 bpg) came over to provide some defense at center, and rookie Eddie Jordan (10.0 ppg, 2.2 spg) did the same from the backcourt, but the Nets continued to suffer on the defensive end, giving up 112.5 ppg, third-most in the league.
We'd love to hear your comments and/or opinions. If you submit them here, other visitors can read them, rate them and comment on them. An e-mail address is not required.