Today is the first entry in our third NBA Tuesday miniseries: the best teams in franchise history, respectively. We’re starting at the bottom of the alphabet, too, instead from the top like our kindred NHL Saturday miniseries. Don’t ask us how we will order our NFL Thursday miniseries of the same ilk! Anyway, we’re going back to the 1950 season as a marker for the modern era, so that’s how deep we will go (for future reference). As for the current Washington Wizards, well … Michael Jordan didn’t even rate here!
They started out in the 1961-62 as the Chicago Packers. If you knew that, you get $1 from our editors. Then they were the Chicago Zephyrs before moving east to Baltimore and becoming the Bullets (1963-1973). And then after one year as the Capitol Bullets, the team became the Washington Bullets. The team has been known as the Wizards since 1997, and the only championship in franchise history came in 1978 despite 30 overall playoff appearances in 61 total seasons. Enjoy this trip down Memory Lane!
No. 5: 1975-76 Washington Bullets
These Bullets finished 48-34 to place second in the Central Division with Head Coach K.C. Jones in charge. They were 13th in scoring and 3rd in scoring defense, to finish 4th overall in the SRS. Still two years away from its lone NBA title, though, Washington was ousted in the first round of the postseason—in this case, the Eastern Conference semifinals—by the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games, losing by 2 points on the road after leading by 2 points at the end of three quarters.
Center Wes Unseld (9.5 WS) was the team’s best player, at age 29. He was ably supported on the floor by both shooting guard Phil Chenier (8.8) and power forward Elvin Hayes (8.1). The latter two players were the dominant scorers, while Unseld and Hayes were the defensive stars. The Bullets actually outscored the Cavs in the playoff series, by a mere 0.6 ppg, but they lost three games to Cleveland by a combined 4 points in the matchup, and that ended the Washington season earlier than expected, perhaps.
No. 4: 1972-73 Baltimore Bullets
Finishing first in the Central Division with a 52-30 record put these Bullets in a good playoff position. But perhaps they didn’t deserve that, as the team finished just 7th in the SRS—based on the 12th-best scoring offense and the 4th-best scoring defense. In the postseason, Baltimore drew the defending champs, too: The New York Knicks meant business in the playoffs as they dropped the Bullets in a five-game series. The 8.2-ppg scoring edge the Knicks earned was quite telling, obviously.
Small forward Mike Riordan (11.1 WS) topped the team in value, although Unseld (10.7) was close behind. Hayes (7.6) had an “off” year, but he was still the third important cog in this machine. The team actually had five players averaging between 12.5 and 21.2 ppg, but it was the defensive effort that pushed this team to the division title. That strength was turned inside out in the playoff series, however, as the Bullets went from giving up 101.6 points in the regular season to 103.8 ppg in the postseason.
No. 3: 1968-69 Baltimore Bullets
It’s odd that these three teams so far all lost in the first round of the postseason, but then again, maybe it’s not surprising. Either way, this team won 57 games to finish first in the Eastern Division before getting swept in four games by the Knicks in the first round. Baltimore was No. 2 in scoring and No. 7 in defense, contributing to a No. 4 finish in the SRS. But New York torched the Bullets, outscoring them by 9.5 ppg in the shocking sweep.
This was a four-headed monster roster: Unseld (10.8 WS), SG Earl Monroe (8.8), SF Jack Marin (8.5), and point guard Kevin Loughery (8.0) were very good together. The backcourt partners combined for 48.4 ppg as well, and with Unseld down low, the team was formidable. But all that seemed to disappear in the postseason: The Bullets scored about dozen points per game fewer in the playoffs than they did in the regular season, and that’s no recipe for success on the road to a potential NBA title.
No. 2: 1978-79 Washington Bullets
This team played the season as the defending champions, and these Bullets won 54 games to top the Atlantic Division. They finished No. 3 in scoring and No. 9 in defense, and overall, they were No. 2 in the SRS. Not a bad way to defend a title, eh? But the Eastern Conference playoffs turned into a grind for them: Washington beat Atlanta in 7 games to open the postseason, and then the Bullets needed 7 games to beat the San Antonio Spurs, too. That left them empty for the Finals against Seattle (see below).
Hayes (9.4 WS) and Unseld (8.7) were joined atop the team value list by SF Bob Dandridge (8.7) as this was a deep roster with 9 fully contributing players. That depth should have been a bonus in the postseason, but again, the Bullets were worn down by their pathway to repeating. Washington won Game 1 of the Finals, and then it lost the next four straight to the SuperSonics. Games 2 and 3 were double-digit losses, and while the Bullets only lost Games 4 and 5 by a combined 6 points, they were clearly tired.
No. 1: 1974-75 Washington Bullets
The one title-winning team in franchise history didn’t rate well at all here, but this team also made its own run to the NBA Finals before losing. With 60 victories, the Bullets won the Central Division—finishing fifth in offense and second on defense to rate out as the No. 1 team in the SRS. Washington escaped the Buffalo Braves in the first round via Game 7, and then the Bullets beat the Boston Celtics in six games to reach the Finals. Alas, they were swept there by the Golden State Warriors, and the dream died.
Hayes (12.5 WS), Unseld (10.6), and Chenier (8.8) topped this roster, in a rotation that went 8-deep. The 7 games against Buffalo were hard on Washington, though—even though the Bullets had 4.1-ppg edge on the Braves. And then beating the Celtics? That was never an easy thing to do in this era, and Washington once again reached the Finals with low levels of gas in the tank. The Bullets lost every game by single digits, too, including one-point losses in Games 2 and 4. It just wasn’t meant to be … yet.