Eastern champions Boston Celtics
Western champions Los Angeles Lakers
Start date 1968
Number of teams 14
|TV partner(s) ABC|
Eastern runners-up New York Knicks
Champion Boston Celtics
Number of games 82
Finals champion Boston Celtics
|League National Basketball Association|
Season MVP Wes Unseld (Washington Wizards)
Top scorer Elvin Hayes (Houston Rockets)
The 1968–69 NBA season was the 23rd season of the National Basketball Association. The season ended with the Boston Celtics winning the NBA Championship, beating the Los Angeles Lakers 4 games to 3 in the NBA Finals.
The Philadelphia 76ers, champions two seasons ago and the favorites last year, lost two key leaders before the season. Coach Alex Hannum jumped to the ABA for more money. Wilt Chamberlain, who absorbed criticism after their loss to Boston last year just days after the King murder, demanded a trade out of his hometown. Hollywood was calling. So he would make major waves by joining Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers. Never before had three such highly rated NBA stars become teammates. It put Chamberlain's team in the favorite role for the third straight year.
Four NBA teams won 50 or more games this year. While Russell and Chamberlain remained the subject of much discussion, the team of the year was the Baltimore Bullets. Just 36–46 a year ago, the Bullets rallied around 6' 7 250-pound rookie Wes Unseld and won a league-high 57 of 82 NBA games. Unseld was fifth in the league in rebounds and showed remarkable strength under the boards. Unseld also thrilled with his tremendous outlet passes, which drew comparisons to Russell and Chamberlain. A boycotter of the Mexico City Olympics, Unseld found new life and fans in Baltimore. Guard Earl Monroe, himself a major fan draw with his collection of offensive moves, followed up on his Rookie of the Year trophy from a year ago to finish second in the NBA in scoring. Teammate Kevin Loughery added 22.6 games as well. Coach Gene Shue's eight-man rotation sank more field goals than any other team. But Gus Johnson's knee injury was a dark cloud for the coming playoffs.
Right behind the Bullets in the NBA's East Division were the resurgent 76ers. Jack Ramsay, a legendary local product himself, was now the coach. With Wilt gone, Ramsay turned to Billy Cunningham as a team leader. Cunningham was third in the NBA in scoring and tenth in rebounds. An aggressive defender, Cunningham also led the NBA in personal fouls. Guard Hal Greer also picked up some of the slack. The 32-year-old speedster added 23.1 points per game and five assists to help the NBA's highest scoring offense. The team had gained some bench depth with the Wilt trade from the Lakers, but also lost big man Luke Jackson to injury after 25 games. Like the Bullets, they would be hampered at playoff time.
The Los Angeles Lakers also won 55 games and the NBA's West Division. Coach Butch Van Breda Kolff, who led the runners-up a year ago, was admittedly not a Wilt fan. But even he could not fault a player who scored 20.6 points per game while passing up numerous shots, led the NBA in rebounds at over 20 a game, led the league in shooting accuracy at 58.3% and added 4.5 assists per game. The ball was not in Wilt's hands as much now, but the giant was still the best center in basketball. Wilt again used a league-high 857 free throw tries to help offset his foul line percentage. Jerry West, whose silhouette was part of the league logo, battled injuries again while averaging 26 points and seven assists per game. Elgin Baylor would pick up some of the slack at LA's third 20-point scorer while adding ten rebounds per game and 5.4 assists at age 34. The legend knew he now had a chance at the elusive title he and West had chased all decade. Despite the trade to Philadelphia that had sent away some key reserves, the Lakers had enough on the bench to surely contend in the playoffs.
The New York Knicks also made waves this year by winning 54 games to be a strong third in the East. A major trade had boosted this club as well. Dave DeBusschere, the tough defender and rebounder in Detroit who had been a steady star and even the coach there for his hometown team, was brought over by coach Red Holzman in trade for star center Walt Bellamy and point guard Howie Komives, which some felt was a steep price at the time. But DeBusschere complemented center Willis Reed perfectly. Strong guard play, led by Walt Frazier, and a solid bench made the Knicks a contender. They also had the top-rated defense in the league.
Just off the radar were two 48-game winners, the Boston Celtics and the new Atlanta Hawks. 34-year-old player/coach Bill Russell was fighting through a knee injury, and the club he led to a title a year ago did not appear to be a convincing champion. Six Celtics did average over ten points a game, but Russell was not one of them. He was again third in rebounds and was still an effective shot blocker. John Havlicek and Bailey Howell both took on bigger roles for the club, which was still strong defensively and unselfish with the ball.
The Atlanta Hawks were the former St. Louis Hawks, of course. Rich Guerin was still the coach and the roster was still largely the same, led by scorers Zelmo Beaty and Lou Hudson. Six scorers over ten points per game and a strong bench showed that Hawks were looking to improve on their fold in the playoffs a year ago.
Eight of the NBA's now-fourteen teams finished .500 or better this year, a fact helped very much by the expansion teams in recent years that made up the bulk of the West Division.
Four teams in each division made the playoffs. Once again, the NBA had the division winners play the third place teams, while the second place clubs got the easier fourth place teams as first round opponents. The Cincinnati Royals, victims of the strong East Division all decade long, won half their games this year, again behind the stellar play of Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas. But the 37–45 San Diego Rockets, led by super-rookie Elvin Hayes and Don Kojis, were going to the playoffs while the Royals stayed home. With the rise of other clubs in the East, and ownership's inability to build around their two stars, it was now apparent that the Royals would have to go a whole new direction to build a winner.
Ballyhooed Baltimore may have wanted to face Boston instead of New York in the playoffs, but it hardly mattered. The season's darlings were swept in four embarrassing games. Unseld and his guards played well, but the loss of Johnson and a poor bench were no match for the balanced, well-organized New Yorkers.
Injury also affected the Philadelphia – Boston series. Darrall Imhoff was thrust into the starting center spot and played well for the 76ers. But balanced Boston won the first three straight behind seven ten-point scorers to beat Philadelphia's strong starting five and win the series. The top two teams in the East were now gone in the very first round of the playoffs.
The Lakers beat their big California rival, the San Francisco Warriors, four games to two. San Fran had gotten another huge year from center Nate Thurmond, which much help from Rudy LaRusso and Jeff Mullins, all 20-point scorers. But Warriors scoring was much quieter in this series, and the league's top rebounding club was up against Chamberlain. After going down 0–2, the Lakers won four straight keyed by Van Breda Kolff's fiery coaching. Bay Area fans could only wonder about their team as Rick Barry was leading Oakland, coached by Alex Hannum, to the ABA title across the Bay.
The deeper Atlanta Hawks also beat San Diego 4-2, winning Game Six by only a basket. San Diego's John Block missed that game with a broken wrist, likely a deciding factor.
In round two, Boston now faced upstart New York in a battle of veterans against rising kids. The Knicks lost the first two, including the opener in Madison Square Garden, before winning at home in Game Three. Before a large television audience, Boston won at home in Game Four 97-96 to go up three games to one. New York won Game Five, but Red Auerbach and Bill Russell were looking ahead to Game Six in Boston Garden. In another nail-biter that foreshadowed future matchups, New York again lost 106–105 to the wily veterans. Boston, with the fourth-best East record, was in the NBA Finals.
In the West, the Lakers were edging the Hawks by just two points in each of the first two games, both in Los Angeles. The Hawks again were primarily playing their starters, while the Lakers rotated their four forwards. A big win in Atlanta behind Jerry West led to a 4–1 series win. They confidently waited while Boston barely survived New York. The Lakers certainly looked like favorites as another Boston-LA series started.
The Lakers got a big start by winning two close games at home to start the series. Los Angeles fans sensed their victory coming after years of frustration. But Boston won their two home games next, including an 89–88 nailbiter in Game Four, keyed by a last-second basket by Sam Jones, before a strong television audience. The two teams then exchanged home wins again to force Game Seven in Los Angeles, where a Laker victory was eagerly expected by fans.
Five of Boston's top players in minutes played were over age 30, but they ran hard to pull out to a 17-point fourth quarter lead. With just over five minutes to play, and the Lakers down by 9, the 32-year-old Chamberlain came down awkwardly after a rebound try and limped to the bench in pain. Replaced by seven-foot back-up Mel Counts, the Lakers cut the margin to one, but stalled despite having several chances to take the lead. In the final minutes, Chamberlain had recovered enough to return and signaled to Van Breda Kolff to put him back in. But the Laker coach ignored him, thinking Counts could outlast the Celtic charge. He was wrong, and the Celtics reasserted command following a key shot by Don Nelson with a minute to play. Boston, winner of eleven out of the last thirteen NBA titles, gave Bill Russell his eleventh championship ring while Wilt watched from the bench, 108-106.
Van Breda Kolff's blunder also meant a whole new round of criticism for Chamberlain, who was also blasted in the press by Russell, who retired after the series. Chamberlain had chosen not to shoot in the playoffs, averaging just 14 points per game, while concentrating on defense and rebounding. The quiet, well-mannered West was also outraged with his coach, his outstanding 31 points and 7.5 assist averages in the playoffs again good only for second place.
The Celtics were again paced by the outstanding all-around game of John Havlicek, just as they had been a year ago. But it was Russell, the retiring player/coach, who commanded center stage, retiring as the peerless NBA winner.
x – clinched playoff spot
Note: Prior to the 1969–70 season, league leaders in points, rebounds, and assists were determined by totals rather than averages.