Defining the decade: The best team, player and moments from the 1970s

Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West
Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West (Getty Images)

It's decades week here on and each day we're paying our dues to the defining players, teams and moments of every decade.

"You can't tell the story of X without Y."

How many times have you heard that phrase in some way, shape or form? And how many times have you then heard anyone try to tell those stories?

Well that's exactly what we're doing, picking a different decade each day and telling the story of each 10-year run through the lens of the five defining moments... and only five!

THE FIVE MOMENTS THAT MATTERED: 2010s | 2000s | 1990s | 1980s

We'll also pick out the best player, team and game along with some statistical superlatives.

Onto the 1970s...

The five moments that mattered

The NBA/ABA merger: It's impossible to undersell the ABA's influence on the NBA for it was far more than merely four teams - the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets - joining the league.

The flair. The 3-point line. The dunk contest. The personality.

The introduction of high-wire aerial perimeter stars forever changed the game. Sure, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated the decade from start to finish but Julius Erving, George Gervin, Connie Hawkins and David Thompson all changed the balance of power and began the slow techtonic shift from the paint to the perimeter that's taken hold over the last two decades. Above all else, the NBA prides itself on the premium blend of sport and entertainment. Basketball itself enthralls as an art and in no small part thanks to the ways the ABA forever influenced the NBA.

The NBA didn't adopt the 3-point line until the 1979-80 season and while the ABA wasn't the first to implement - that honour belongs to the American Basketball League which lasted all of 1.5 seasons - it did drive widespread popularity.

ABA commissioner and NBA legend George Mikan articulated the simple reasoning eloquently in the book Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association.

"We called it the home run, because the 3-pointer was exactly that. It brought fans out of their seats."

Now in 2020, it's impossible to imagine basketball without the 3-point line. It's impossible to know whether the 3-point line would have taken hold had it not been for the ABA. Maybe the NBA gets there eventually. Maybe it doesn't. But that misses the point.

The ABA didn't do it for spacing or to open up the game or for the sake of efficiency. It did it to incite excitement. It did it for the fans. It did it to help further advance the entertainment value of an already great game.

That "fans first" mentality which now courses through the NBA's veins from top to bottom is perhaps the ABA's greatest gift of all as it fundamentally changed the foundation from which everything else expands.

Kareem's dominance: On January 2, 1970, the Milwaukee Bucks hosted the New York Knicks in what was their first game after the calendar officially flipped from the 60s to the 70s.

A 22-year-old rookie named Lew Alcindor eviscerated the Knicks and their trio of Hall-of-Famers to the tune of 41 points and 16 rebounds. Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere didn't stand a chance, a sign of things to come for the rest of the league as nobody stood a chance for the entire decade against the towering, sky-hooking centre from UCLA.

Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the day after the Bucks won the 1971 NBA title, won five of his record six MVPs during the 70s and finished the decade with patently ridiculous averages of 28.6 points, 14.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. It's not a stretch to suggest that Abdul-Jabbar reigned supreme as the peerless superstar, someone who towered literally and figuratively over the rest of the competition as he finished the decade with nearly twice as many win shares as any other player.

Lakers win 33 straight games: The longest win streak in NBA history still stands.

"33" remains one of those numbers that within NBA circles needs no context and lives on as one of the league's iconic records. One month after the Lakers finished that streak, the Milwaukee Bucks - the defending champs who finally beat the Lakers to end the win streak - reeled off 20 in a row, sending a signal that perhaps the Lakers' win streak wouldn't stand the test of time.

Only three teams have strung together 20 straight since with nobody coming within five. The closest any team has come within a single season is 27 by the 2012-13 Miami Heat.

The 1971-72 Lakers team starring Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain went on to finish an NBA-best 69-13 and ended with West finally winning that elusive title after coming up short in each of his first seven trips.

Knicks win last NBA title: When the Knicks won their second title in four years in 1973, nobody could have imagined that 47 years later they'd still be waiting to win another one. They started five Hall-of-Famers - 27-year-old Walt Frazier, 28-year-old Earl Monroe, 29-year-old Bill Bradley, 30-year-old Willis Reed and 32-year-old Dave DeBusschere - with fellow future Hall-of-Famers Jerry Lucas and Phil Jackson coming off the bench.

The Knicks were loaded.

And yet ever since the summer of 1973, they've been waiting to hang banner number three from the rafters of Madison Square Garden. From Bernard King to Patrick Ewing to Carmelo Anthony, winning in New York has proved elusive and become the ultimate Herculean task, a daunting challenge that dangles in the forefront of every superstar free agency decision.

The best scoring race in NBA history: David Thompson and George Gervin took one-upsmanship to the next level on the final day of the regular season.

April 9, 1978.

Entering the day, Thompson and Gervin are neck and neck for the scoring title. Thompson's Nuggets are up first in Detroit. He comes out firing, scoring an NBA-record 32 points in the first quarter and finishing with 73, at the time the second-most in any game in NBA history. Following that historic performance, Gervin needed 58 to take back the lead.

Playing in New Orleans, Gervin drops 63 on 49 shots to win the scoring title, finishing the season with an average of 27.22 points per game, just ahead of Thompson's 27.15. It remains to this day the closest scoring race in NBA history.

Best team: 1971-72 Lakers

Honourable mention: 1970-71 Bucks

Honestly, this is splitting hairs.

Both teams finished the regular season with an average scoring margin of +12.3 points per game which remains tied for the best in NBA history. When the 1995-96 Bulls went an NBA-record 72-10, they finished with a scoring margin of +12.2.

The 73-9 Warriors? +10.8.

Both teams won the NBA title.

Both teams featured iconic duos with Alcindor and Oscar Robertson on the Bucks, West and Chamberlain on the Lakers. Los Angeles could have been even better had Elgin Baylor decided not to retire nine games into the season. The HOF forward played his final game on October 31 in a loss to the Warriors. The very next game the Lakers beat the Bullets for the first of what would be 33 straight wins.

Ultimately, that win streak is the deciding factor when picking between two teams that are among the five best in the history of the sport.

Best player: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Honourable mention: Rick Barry, Walt Frazier

It's Abdul-Jabbar and then it's everyone else.

About the only mark against him - if you can even call it that - is much of his dominance came when half of the best players starred in the ABA. Four of his five MVPs came during the leagues' co-existence although he did manage to earn the first MVP award following the merger.

Barry and Frazier are champions and certifiably legitimate legends of the game. Neither are Kareem.

Best game: Triple-OT in Game 5 of 1976 NBA Finals

Honourable mention: Willis Reed's Game 7 in 1970 Finals; Jerry West's 60-footer in Game 3 of 1970 Finals

The 1970 Finals included two iconic games. Jerry West's 60-footer to force overtime in Game 3 followed by Willis Reed's inspiring return to the court for Game 7 on an injured leg.

Neither holds a candle to Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals tied 2-2 between the Celtics and Suns, considered by many to be the greatest game in NBA history. On the call, Hall of Famer Rick Barry called it "the most exciting basketball game I've ever seen" and it featured enough plot twists to warrant it's own 10-part documentary.

The most ridiculous part? After Boston's John Havlicek hit a go-ahead shot with one second left to put the Celtics up one, there's a delay for several minutes as players, coaches and fans think the game is over. With one second left and no timeouts, the Suns face the near impossible task of needing to score while inbounding the ball from underneath their own basket.

That when Suns guard and future Suns head coach Paul Westphal purposely asks for a timeout knowing they don't have one. The result? A technical free throw for the Celtics to go up two with the Suns now inbounding the ball from midcourt leaving them with a much better chance to score. All of that set up the game-tying jumper by Gar Heard to force triple OT.

With three starters fouled out, seldom-used reserve Glenn McDonald played the role of hero for Boston, scoring six points in the final OT period to secure the 128-126 win. Boston would then go on to win Game 6 and the NBA title.

Best stat standouts

Which players stuffed the stat sheet like no other? We've got you covered! Below are the statistical leaders for the regular season only, spanning the 1969-70 through 1978-79 seasons.

It's worth mentioning that blocks and steals did not become official until the 1973-74 season.

1969-70 through 1978-79
Wins Paul Silas 516
Points Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 22,141
Rebounds Elvin Hayes 11,565
Assists Norm Van Lier 5,217
Blocks Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1,595
Steals Rick Barry 1,024
Triple-doubles John Havlicek 28
Win Shares Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 176.0
Player Efficiency Rating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 26.9

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs

More from

Preview: Raptors host LaMelo Ball, Hornets
Kyle Irving
Four questions: How does AD's return affect the Lakers?
Kyle Irving
What's up with Luka? Mavs star in worst shooting slump of career
Gilbert McGregor
Hidden Gems: Bane teaching a course on how to create space
Stephen Noh
Tracking Raptors' path to 2022 NBA Playoffs
Kyle Irving
The Sporting News is officially the home of in Canada
Welcome to's new official home in Canada
Micah Adams
More News