The 1983 Sixers Were the First Super Team in NBA History
This team is unfairly overlooked when talking about the greatest teams in history.
Since the Boston Celtics were crowned champions in 2008, the super teams’ fashion has become the norm in the NBA. The success of the Miami Three Amigos led by LeBron James in 2012 and 2013 has convinced NBA franchise owners that it was now essential to have a Big Three to win the supreme title.
Boston Celtics had Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Miami Heat had LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. San San Antonio Spurs, who won the NBA title in 2014, had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard. More recently, Golden State Warriors crushed the NBA with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
This trend toward building super teams has been criticized by some of today’s NBA fans. I hear a lot of people saying that NBA franchises used to rely on two All-Stars at most. I don’t think these criticisms are really relevant.
In this story, I would like to take you back to the 1983 Philadelphia Sixers, which I believe was the first Super Team in NBA history.
It All Started in 1976 With the ABA — NBA Merger
In the late 60s, the NBA wasn’t the powerful league you know today. At that time, the NBA was challenged by different professional basketball leagues, among which the most famous was probably the ABA.
Created in 1967, the ABA existed for about ten years. It has seen a large number of players pass through its ranks who then became NBA stars whose names will tell you something right away: Rick Barry, Spencer Haywood, Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, Moses Malone, or Julius Erving.
When the ABA decided to merge with the NBA in 1976, Julius Erving was clearly its biggest star.
“Dr. J.”, as he was already known, played for the New York Nets who had just finished second in the regular season in the ABA. Top scorer in the ABA with 29.3 points per game, Julius Erving was also a fierce rebounder with an average of 11.0 rebounds per game. He added 5.0 assists per game while leading his New York Nets to the ABA championship title.
At the time of the merger, the Nets found themselves under attack by the Knicks, who were demanding $4.8 million because the Nets were invading their territory, namely New York.
Obviously, the Nets were not in a position to pay that amount. The Nets were forced to trade Julius Erving to the Philadelphia Sixers for $3 million.
By the time Julius Erving arrived at the Sixers, the team was led by Doug Collins and George McGinnis, who were also ABA stars in the past. The team had just finished the season with 46 wins, but was then easily eliminated in the first round of the 1976 playoffs.
During the 1976–1977 season, the Sixers improved their regular season record to 50 wins. The biggest difference came in the playoffs where Julius Erving’s presence made all the difference. In the 1977 NBA playoffs, Julius Erving surpassed himself.
He turned in 27.3 points, while ensuring a big defense every night on the opposing forwards. The Sixers reached the NBA Finals where they were beaten only by the Blazers of the legendary Bill Walton.
The following year, the Sixers dominated the regular season, still led by their trio. The team won 55 games but could not repeat its performance of the following season. They lost in the Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Bullets.
Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones Joined Julius Erving in 1978
The core of the team is good, but adjustments need to be made to really qualify for the NBA title. The owners of the Sixers then decide to get the second piece of their future super team.
The Sixers trade George McGinnis for Bobby Jones who is an All-Star and a great defender. The choice is clearly the right one because George McGinnis’ career will then experience a rapid decline while Bobby Jones will continue to be elected in the best defensive team of the NBA year after year.
At the same time, the Sixers are using their second round draft pick to select Maurice Cheeks in 36th position. A graduate of West Texas A&M University, Maurice Cheeks is a point guard with a solid defensive reputation. With this choice, the Sixers continue to strengthen their position in this sector, which is always key to winning titles.
The loss of George McGinnis made things a little more complicated for the Sixers in the 1978–1979 season.
Nevertheless, the owners remain confident as they build for their future with these choices. The elimination of the Sixers in the Eastern Conference semifinals after a regular season with 47 wins remains anecdotal. It will have mainly served to give experience to the core of the team.
The players returned their confidence to their owners during the 1979–1980 season. The team wins 59 games, and Julius Erving finishes second in the MVP election. He had what was then his best NBA season at this time with 26.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists.
The Sixers reached the NBA Finals for the second time in the Julius Erving era. Unfortunately, they meet the Lakers of an exceptional rookie named Magic Johnson. For his first NBA Finals, Magic Johnson is clearly unplayable. He will even play center in the sixth game that consecrates the Lakers.
His 42 points and 15 rebounds remain one of the best performances in NBA Finals for a rookie.
Andrew Toney Completes the Roster in 1980
Julius Erving’s Sixers have once again come close to winning the NBA title. However, they’re still missing something. In the 1980 draft, the owners had the first round pick of the Indiana Pacers, which they had acquired by trading Mel Bennett in 1976 just before Julius Erving’s arrival.
The Pacers’ average season allows them to choose at the 8th place in the draft. They then select the shooting guard Andrey Toney who has earned a solid reputation as a scorer at the college level.
With a stronger and more experienced roster, these players continue to try bringing the Sixers back to the top of the league. The team finished just behind the Boston Celtics in the regular season with a record of 62 wins for just 20 losses. Julius Erving is individually crowned with a well-deserved MVP title.
Unfortunately, the Sixers must once again lose in the playoffs in the Eastern Conference final. This time it is against Larry Bird’s Celtics.
The series is tight and goes to 7 games, but the Sixers come out the losers.
The following year is no different. Julius Erving continues to dominate the NBA at the individual level. Around him, Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, and Maurice Cheeks continue to grow and improve. The Sixers have a season with 58 wins. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Sixers defeated Larry Bird’s Celtics in a tight 7-game series.
In the NBA Finals, the Sixers again faced the Lakers in what was clearly a rematch of the 1980 Finals. Andrew Toney raises his level of play over the regular season by turning 26.0 points with almost 8 assists per game. Julius Erving also shines with 25.0 points per game.
Nevertheless, the Sixers are dominated in the paint by the Lakers who rely heavily on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to take advantage of their size advantage. In the end, the Sixers lost to the Lakers again in 6 games.
Moses Malone Is the Last Missing Piece of the Sixers Super Team
At the end of the 1982 season, Julius Erving’s Sixers have reached 3 NBA Finals in the last six seasons. The Sixers are a great team but they fall at the beginning of the era of Celtics and Lakers domination.
The Sixers have their work cut out for them, and they’re still a little short of the NBA title.
The 1982 NBA Finals made it clear that the Sixers had a weakness in the paint. Furthermore, their window to win a title with the core of this team is about to close. Indeed, Julius Erving is already 32 years old, and he won’t be able to maintain his level of play for much longer.
Owners must therefore act quickly if they want to win the title with this core group of players. That’s when the owners of the Sixers set up an exceptional trade with the Rockets. They sent their center Caldwell Jones and a future first round draft pick to Houston against Moses Malone.
It was a great move because Moses Malone was probably the best player in the NBA at the time. He has just been elected MVP by turning in 31.1 points and 14.7 rebounds per game. He’s practically walking on the NBA, and he’s right in his prime at 27.
Moses Malone is also looking to win his first NBA title after failing to reach the Final in 1981 against Larry Bird’s Celtics.
When Moses Malone joined the Sixers at the beginning of the 1982–83 season, the Sixers had five All-Star players in their ranks with Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, and Bobby Jones. In addition, the team has the last two MVP of the regular season in the NBA.
At the time, never before a team had so many star players in its ranks. The Sixers are the first super team in NBA history.
The Sixers’ 1982–1983 Season Will Forever Be Remembered as One of the Best in History
It works immediately between Moses Malone and Julius Erving. “Dr. J.” is determined to win an NBA title, and he gives the keys of the team to Moses Malone without hesitation.
The Sixers play well, and defend very strongly. With defensive specialists like Maurice Cheeks, Julius Erving, Bobby Jones, and Moses Malone, their opponents have a lot to do when they meet the Sixers.
Dominating the regular season, the Sixers finished with the best NBA record. They have 65 wins for only 17 losses.
Moses Malone is logically elected MVP of the regular season with statistics that show his dominance: 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds per game.
By the time the 1983 playoffs began, the Sixers were the clear favorites. However, the truth of the regular season is not always the truth of the NBA playoffs. And that is indeed what will happen this time around.
The Sixers dominated the regular season, but in the playoffs, they’re going to walk all over their opponents in a run that will go down in history.
The New York Knicks are sweeped 4–0 in the first round. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks were able to snatch a game as the Sixers led 3–0 in the series and then eased off slightly. Nevertheless, this moment of slackness is quickly repaired.
In the NBA Finals, the Sixers meet the Lakers in a rematch of the 1982 Finals won by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
This time, everything is different for the Sixers. Their weakness in the paint has been transformed into a real force with the arrival of Moses Malone. And that’s just in the paint where the Sixers are gonna dominating the Lakers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is 36 years old, and he can’t defend against a prime Moses Malone.
Over the course of these NBA Finals, one statistic shows just how huge Moses Malone’s dominance of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was: Moses Malone has taken 72 rebounds in four games against just 30 for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Lakers are swept 4–0 by the Sixers who are finally touching their Holy Grail. The team built piece by piece since 1976 finally becomes NBA champion.
With 25.8 points and 18.0 rebounds per game, Moses Malone is the natural MVP of the NBA Finals.
In his wake, Julius Erving won his first NBA title. His happiness could not have been more complete. Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, and Maurice Cheeks are also on top with this NBA title.
The Beginning of the End for the 1983 Sixers
The 1983 title was the pinnacle for these Sixers. Having won their first league title, these players felt less hungry the following season. They finished the season with 52 wins, but a first-round elimination in the play-offs was a major setback for a defending champion.
The arrival of Charles Barkley after the 1984 NBA draft revived the team for a time. Moses Malone immediately took him under his wing. With an aging Julius Erving, the Sixers managed to win 58 games, but most importantly, they reached the Eastern Conference Final. Alas, the Celtics ended their dream of a second NBA title.
An early elimination during the 1985–86 playoffs ended Moses Malone’s adventure with the Sixers. Julius Erving retired the following season at the age of 36.
Of the 1983 Sixers team, there were only Maurice Cheeks and Andrey Toney left, who tried to accompany Charles Barkley’s rise to prominence as best they could. However, that was not enough for the Sixers who never had the joy of returning to the NBA Finals in the following years.
The magic of the 1983 Sixers was well and truly over.
When we talk about the greatest teams in NBA history, many people will tell you about Michael Jordan’s Bulls who managed 72 wins in the 1995–96 season. Probably the oldest will tell you about the 1971–72 Lakers, who went on to win a record 33 straight wins before finishing the season with 69 wins.
Younger fans will tell you about the Warriors and their 2016 season in which they lost only 9 games. Unfortunately, too few people will tell you about the 1983 Sixers.
Led by Moses Malone and Julius Erving, the last two reigning NBA MVP, this team was the first NBA super team. Throughout the season, they exuded a sense of power with an oppressive defense.
The Sixers’ greatest accomplishment of 1983 came in the NBA Finals where Moses Malone and his gang crushed the Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
If there is a moral in the 1983 Sixers’ history, I think it would be that great teams take time to build themselves. This is precisely what happened with this team, whose building began as early as 1976 with the arrival of Julius Erving before the next pieces of the puzzle were put together year after year.
A tribute to the patience that the owners of today’s NBA teams would do well to emulate.