NBA Finals: A series 39 years in the making
By Matt Zemek
In the lead-up to the 2015 NBA Finals, you’re going to see (and hear) plenty of discussion about the 1975 NBA champion Golden State Warriors, now in their second NBA Finals. However, don’t forget the Cleveland Cavaliers team from the mid-1970s that very nearly created a Cavs-Warriors Finals in 1976.
The story of the 1976 Cavs is special in and of itself, but that story can be connected to the history of the NBA in the 1970s as well. Near the end of an NBA season in which recent dynasties (Spurs, Heat) were knocked from their perches and franchises unfamiliar with the spotlight reached the conference finals, it’s striking that the 2015 NBA season has acquired a very 1970s-like feel. Therefore, if you’re going to mention the 1975 Warriors, you also need to appreciate the journey of the 1976 Cavs.
It is obvious that as soon as the 2014-2015 Cavs acquired LeBron James, they were going to contend for a title. Nevertheless, Cleveland has gone from being an also-ran to a power player in the span of one year. This was the path traveled by the 1975-1976 team, one which failed to make the playoffs in 1975 but then put all the pieces together the next year.
This is how the Cavaliers reached their first conference final, in their first-ever playoff season. Dick Snyder hit the game-winner in the final five seconds, and Cleveland locked down on defense to dethrone the defending Eastern Conference champion Washington Bullets, who lost to the Golden State Warriors in the previous year’s NBA Finals.
The Cavaliers did wind up losing to the NBA’s most storied and successful franchise, the Boston Celtics, in the 1976 Eastern Conference Finals. However, a detail that gets lost in history — lost in the memory of the spellbinding fifth game of the 1976 NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Phoenix Suns — is that Cleveland’s starting center, Jim Chones, suffered a broken foot just before the East finals began. Had Chones not suffered that injury — a reminder of this season’s playoff injury woes throughout the league — Cleveland stood a very good chance of winning that series. As it was, the undermanned Cavs still pushed Boston to six games.
The Celtics were formidable in the latter years of John Havlicek’s career, with Dave Cowens serving as the backbone of the team in his prime. However, the Celtics were not the annual juggernaut they were in either the 1960s or the mid-1980s. The Celtics enjoyed a few breakthrough seasons in the 1970s, which generally describes the balance of the decade for its several champions.
In the NBA, the 1970s are most centrally remembered as a dark time in the league’s history, a time when the public took a dim view of professional basketball players and television coverage was minimal. However, when focusing only on the balance of power in the Association during that decade, something stands out about the ’70s, which really isn’t apparent in other decades from NBA history: There wasn’t a single heavyweight team which cast a long shadow over the rest of the decade.
The Celtics were that team in the 1960s. The Lakers were that team in the 1980s, though the Celtics, Sixers and Pistons had their moments. The Bulls were that team in the 1990s. The Lakers and Spurs shared that distinction in the 2000s. The Heat became that team in the first half of the current decade.
The 1970s, though, were different.
The Lakers and Knicks ruled the first few years of the decade, but in 1974, parity — a rare thing in the NBA — entered the league. From 1974 through 1978, not a single repeat match-up occurred in the Finals, and not a single team even managed to repeat as conference champions. The Washington Bullets were the most consistent Eastern Conference team in the latter half of the 1970s, and they did win a world title in 1978. Yet, they didn’t repeat as champions; the 1970s were the “mixed” decade in NBA history, a period of time when Goliath went on hiatus.
Given that this 2015 Finals series between Golden State and Cleveland will:
A) produce either a champion for the first time since the 1970s, or a brand-new champion;
this season’s overall progression — like its Finals match-up — is cut from 1970s' cloth.
The kicker, as we pivot back to the 1976 Cavs and their near-rendezvous with the Golden State Warriors in that year’s Finals, is that they nearly climbed the mountain with a player who had become such a core part of the Warriors for many years.
Nate Thurmond was a seven-time NBA All-Star who spent 11 seasons with the Warriors, most of them when the franchise was located in San Francisco and played games at the famous Cow Palace, an arena that — for those interested in world history more than basketball — is best known as the site of the 1964 Republican Convention.
In the 1971-72 season, the San Francisco NBA club was renamed the Golden State Warriors. Later in the decade, the team would move to Oakland. Thurmond was a beloved figure and a Hall of Fame-level performer. In his last full season with Golden State, Thurmond made his seventh and last All-Star team. However, he was nearing the end of the line, and before the 1974-75 season, the Warriors sent him to Chicago, where Thurmond would find himself in the uncomfortable position of facing the Warriors in the 1975 Western Conference Finals.
(Yes, the Bulls were in the West, and the San Antonio Spurs were in the East — ah, the 1970s.)
Thurmond played 13 games for the Bulls in the autumn of 1975, but then the Cleveland Cavaliers picked him up, viewing him as a player who could back up Jim Chones in the low post and give the Cavs quality depth at every spot on the floor. Cleveland coach Bill Fitch also wanted Thurmond to be a veteran voice of wisdom in the locker room and on the court. Clearly, that decision by Fitch — who was Larry Bird’s first NBA coach in Boston and then faced the Celtics in the 1986 Finals as the head coach of the Houston Rockets — knew what he was doing.
The 1976 Cleveland Cavaliers were in an odd position when that year’s playoffs began. They were a loaded team, but they were also a team that hadn’t made a deep playoff journey together. Moreover, they hadn’t made any kind of playoff journey together, as a group. In that sense, the ’76 Cavs really were — and are — an older version of the 2015 team that’s about to take the court in the NBA Finals against Golden State.
The fact that a famous member of the Warriors franchise helped the ’76 Cleveland team become a championship contender only adds to the romance of that 1976 season … a season which very nearly produced a Cavs-Warriors Finals.
Well, that Finals match-up — 39 years delayed — has not been denied us. Spare a thought for the 1976 Cleveland Cavaliers when the ball is tipped next Thursday night in Oakland.
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