GeoNBA: Texas's Eastern Sojourn
Or how the Dallas Mavericks righted the NBA's crazy geography
Ed. Note: “GeoNBA” should be pronounced as Gee-own-bee-ay!
After previously looking at the absurdity of the Baltimore Bullets playing in the West and the Atlanta Hawks playing in the West, we finally get to see a ridiculous situation where two western teams were playing in the East.
Specifically, the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs calling the Eastern Conference home.
The Rockets wisely began in the West because they actually began in San Diego. Apparently San Diego built lots of rockets back in the 1950s and 1960s, so the name serendipitously fit the city of Houston when the franchise moved to that NASA hot spot in 1971.
For their first Houston season, the Rockets remained in the Pacific Division (and thus the Western Conference). However, for the 1972-73 season, they were bumped on over to the Central Division in the Eastern Conference. Thus began a decade of East Coast trauma for Houston.
Before going any further let’s take a look at the NBA’s Central Division and the Midwest Division for that ‘73 season to see maximum confusion.
For those of you geographically-challenged like the NBA, the cities of Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit are all demonstrably further east than the city of Houston, yet were all in the Western Conference. Kansas City (and Omaha) are further east than Houston, but barely so. They get a pass.
Now in partial defense of the NBA, its franchises were lopsided toward the East coast and Houston was the fish out of water at this moment.
Those teams in the Midwest Division did fit a legit conception of “the Midwest.”
And the Atlantic Division was mostly fine with the Celtics, Knicks, and 76ers teamed with the Buffalo Braves. Makes more sense to have Baltimore in there than Buffalo, but whatever. The Pacific Division (composed of the Lakers, Warriors, Suns, SuperSonics, and Trail Blazers) was the only perfect setup the league had going.
The Central Division was the delinquent division full of scrap parts that didn’t quite fit in with the other divisions. Houston and Atlanta (and potentially Baltimore) fit together if you were doing a Southeast Division. But then comes Cleveland to muck it up.
Likewise: Cleveland, Baltimore, and Atlanta work for a second division in the East, but Houston obviously mucks that up.
So, the NBA limped along with this format until the 1974-75 season when the New Orleans Jazz entered the league and changed…. nothing, absolutely nothing. They got dumped into the Central Division and things kept-a-movin’.
Finally for the 1976-77 season there was realignment because the ABA merged with the NBA bringing in four new teams: the Indiana Pacers, the Denver Nuggets, the New York Nets, and the San Antonio Spurs.
This now created a new spectacle where the Indiana Pacers were dumped into the Midwest Division, which was in the West; while the Spurs were dumped into the Central Division, which was in the East.
However, let’s leave aside the conferences for a moment and just look at the actual divisions. Surprisingly, they made a lot of damn sense.
The “Central Division” was essentially a Southeast Division now, with the exception of oddball Cleveland shoe-horned in. And the Midwest Division actually looked like a collection of Midwestern cities plus the appendage of Denver.
Maybe at this point the NBA should have just abolished conferences, ran with this four-division lineup, and called it a geographic day.
Or maybe the league could have allowed in the Kentucky Colonels during the merger. After all, they were a perennially strong franchise and pillar of the ABA.
Kentucky goes to the Central (“Southeast”) Division; which would bump Cleveland into the Midwest Division; which would bump Denver into the Pacific Division.
There you go. You’re just about perfect on divisions.
Instead, the NBA snuffed out the Colonels with the willing hand of team owner John Y. Brown. The former owner of the Colonels then bought the Buffalo Braves later on in 1976. In 1978, Brown conducted the weirdest trade in league history. He swapped his ownership stake in the Braves for Irv Levin’s ownership stake in the Boston Celtics. This allowed Levin to move that franchise to San Diego. You can’t move the Celtics, but you can decamp the Braves.
Even with that crazy ass move bringing San Diego back in as an NBA city, Houston and San Antonio remained stuck in the East.
Oh yeah… this was supposed to be an article about Texas… back to that!
For the 1978-79 season, the Spurs and Rockets finished first and second respectively in their division. The Spurs made it to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost 107-105 to the Washington Bullets in Game 7.
Nothing would look weirder in NBA history than a Texas team repping the East in the Finals. But that nearly happened before already back in 1977. The Rockets lost in six extremely tough games versus the 76ers that season.
In 1979-80, the two Texas clubs finally met in the East playoffs after they sported identical 41-41 records.
George Gervin cooly scored 33 PPG in the best-of-three mini-series, but Moses Malone was not f-cking around. The center averaged 27 PPG and 18 RPG as he trampled all over the Spurs. Calvin Murphy also helped out with a nice 25 PPG.
In the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, though, Houston was now steamrolled by the Boston Celtics in a four-game sweep.
The Rockets’ margins of defeat in the series: 17 points, 18 points, 19 points, 20 points. What an ass-kickin’ by Boston.
The Rockets would meet these exact two opponents again in the 1980-81 playoffs, but something miraculous happened: Houston and San Antonio would finally be in the West!
ENTER THE MAVERICKS
The NBA expanded to Dallas for the 1980-81 season and this finally set off the major realignment as the “Midwest” Division (once upon a time actually in the Midwest) was now the way-station for Texas, Kansas City, and the Rocky Mountains.
Meanwhile, the “Central” Division was more Midwestern than ever, but the NBA couldn’t denote this Eastern Conference division with a name that evoked the Western Conference.
Hence for the next quarter-century you had a Midwest Division that slowly made less and less sense to the point that in 1996, it included the Vancouver Grizzlies.
But back to 1981…
The Rockets finished a literally-just-below-average 40-42. The Spurs meanwhile hopped up to 52 wins. Didn’t matter. Moses and Murphy kicked their ass again in the playoffs.
This time however it took seven games. Malone was unusually shoddy from the field in the seventh game (6-19, 21 points), but Murphy was on fire going for 42 points on 19-28 FGs. The outburst from Calvin helped push Houston to a 105-100 Game 7 victory.
After dispatching the KC Kings in the Western Conference Finals, Houston met the Boston Celtics. The Celtics won this series, but instead of pummeling Houston by about 18 points every game, the Celtics only had two blowout victories. And the Rockets even won two games!
But overall, Boston basically punked Houston. It was a six-game series that was not as close as the six-game series tag would indicate.
Anyways, Houston begrudingly must thank Dallas for showing up that season because the Rockets’ 40-42 record got them into the Western Conference playoffs by one game over the 39-win Warriors.
Meanwhile in the East, 40 wins would have left Houston out of the postseason since the Indiana Pacers claimed the final spot there with 44 wins.
But ya know what? After nearly a decade stupidly playing in the East, Houston deserved that lucky break.