In a year of NBA trade surpluses, Moses Malone became the center of attention. Philadelphia deep-Sixered the opposition, though its 65 wins fell five short of the league record. "Fo', fo' and fo,' " Malone had boasted while predicting how many games it would take for his team to win each playoff series, and he showed great fo'sight as the Sixers dropped only one. Philly had adopted the slogan "We Owe You One" after blowing the 1976-77 NBA championship to Portland. After the Sixers blew out the Lakers in the final four, a poster appeared in Philly of Malone and Julius Erving that bore the inscription PAID IN FULL. Artis Gilmore left Chicago and sparked San Antonio to the Midwest title. In a trade that helped nobody, Boston sent a supposedly rejuvenated Dave Cowens to Milwaukee for guard Quinn Buckner. Neither was a factor—Cowens was hurt, Buckner was ineffective—when the Bucks swept the Celtics in the Eastern semifinals. Denver made the West semifinals by putting a lot of (Alex) English on the ball. Albert and Bernard King became the first brothers to make the playoffs in 34 years, but while the Nets' Albert raised a little Cain, it was the Knicks' Bernard who proved himself to be more able.
TO THE LOSER BELONG THE SPOILS
The NBA season was marked by notable comebacks and comedowns. Cowens came out of a two-year retirement to play for his old teammate Don Nelson in Milwaukee, but the 1973 MVP missed half the season with injuries and reretired. With the bone of contention in Walton's brittle left foot pronounced sound after reconstructive surgery, the San Diego center played a whole season—albeit appearing in only 33 games—for the first time since he was the MVP in 1978. But after losing 23 of their first 27 games, it was the Clippers that seemed in need of rebuilding. Comedowns prevailed in the NBA's lower echelon. Realizing that their loss was their gain, Houston and Indiana seemingly tried to out-inept each other for the draft rights to No. 1 pick apparent Ralph Sampson. Houston, which owned the top choice of the Eastern Conference doormat Cavaliers, stumbled from the starting gate, losing its first 10 games, and settled like sludge to the bottom of the Western Conference. When the Cavaliers did Houston one better by doing even worse—22 losses in their first 25 games—the Rockets seemed to be packed in Sampsonite. But then Cleveland inexplicably started winning, while Indiana, whose fans had formed a RALPH (Realistic Approach for Landing a Pacer Hero) club, put together a modest 12-game losing streak. Houston clinched last place in the West, but then prevented Cleveland from doing the same in the East by losing consecutive games to the Cavaliers. When Cleveland then beat Indiana twice in the final week to finish next to last, the Race for Ralph came down to a coin flip between the Rockets and Pacers. This time the Rockets won when it really counted. "Heads," they called and heads it was.
Johnson's magic in the Western finals made San Antonio's claim look Spurious.
Malone (left) won his first title and was MVP one Mo' time; Gilmore brought a personal Artistry to San Antonio.
Dr. J (above) performed a Lakerectomy by removing L.A. from the playoffs; Terry and Pat provided a preview of Cummings attractions.
Bill Walton (above) got off on the right foot for a change; Kareem played Abdulin' banjos and picked the Blazers clean.
Larry Bird (above left) had more assists than any other forward; Norm Nixon (above) took off in the playoffs; Craig Hodges was a flying Clipper.
Cowens began the season in Milwaukee and ended it in abeyance.