The 1970s has to be one of the oddest, yet most interesting decades in NBA history. Fights were a normal occurrence every night, jeopardizing league funding and sponsorships. Even the biggest games, such as the NBA Finals were on tape delay due to the uncertainty of what could happen next. The L.A Times outed the league, estimating that 75% of the league was on drugs and/or addicted, among many high-profile players reporting issues. Popularity and ratings were at an all-time low, and racial tension and prejudice were at an all-time high, calling into question just how long the league would last. Not everything was bad about the NBA in the 1970s, though.
The 1970s saw much more parity and competition across the league. There were 8 different champions during the decade, with only two teams winning more than 1 ring (Knicks and Lakers). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took home 5 MVP awards during the decade with no other repeat winners. The 1970s also saw the emergence of some players whose legacies fly under the radar in historical conversations. Today, we take a look back and discuss these players and their contributions to the game. Here are the 10 most underrated players from the 1970s.
10. Elvin Hayes
Career Stats: 21.0 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 2.6 BPG
Career Achievements: 12x All-Star, 6x All-NBA Team Selection, 2x All-Defensive Team Selection, Hall Of Fame
Elvin Hayes is one of the most talented power forwards to ever play the game. His defensive prowess and patented turnaround jumper earned him 12 straight All-Star appearances to begin his career. Hayes ranks 11th all-time in points scored with 27,313 and 4th in rebounds with 16,279. Along with co-star Wes Unseld, Hayes led the Washington Bullets to 3 Finals appearances and 1 title during the decade.
Hayes led the league in scoring during his rookie season in 1969 and is still the only rookie to win the scoring title. Hayes also led the league in rebounding twice in 1970 and 1974. In 1978, Hayes and the Washington Bullets took home the NBA championship behind 21.8 PPG and 13.3 RPG from Hayes on the entire playoff run. Hayes dominated the decade but, for some reason, is never mentioned among all-time great power forwards. This lands him at #10 on our list.
9. “Pistol” Pete Maravich
Career Stats: 24.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.3 BPG
Achievements: 5x All-Star, 4x All-NBA Team Selection, Hall Of Fame
Pete Maravich was well ahead of his time on the basketball court. His behind-the-back passes, between the legs layups, and seemingly 360-degree court vision, wowed audiences across the nation. Maravich is the all-time NCAA Divison 1 scorer with 3,667 points, good for an average of 44.2 PPG. What makes it even more impressive is he did it without the presence of the three-point line. He is one of the most creative and offensively gifted players to ever play the game, and it has translated well to the NBA.
Maravich came into the NBA and averaged at least 19.0 PPG for the first 8 seasons of his career. He also was quite efficient for his time, shooting 44.1 % from the field in his career. In 1977 with the New Orleans Jazz, Maravich took home the only scoring title he would ever capture. He averaged 31.1 PPG to go along with 5.4 APG and 5.1 RPG. I think I speak for many NBA fans when I say that we all wish we could see the damage Pistol Pete could do in today’s era.
8. Dave Cowens
Career Stats: 17.6 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.9 BPG
Achievements: 1x MVP, 73’ Rookie of the Year, 8x All-Star, 1x All-Star Game MVP, 3x All-NBA Team Selection, 3x All-Defensive Team Selection, Hall Of Fame
Dave Cowens was a relentless force to be reckoned with. He played 11 seasons in the NBA, 10 of which in Boston with the Celtics, whom he helped win 2 championships. Standing at 6’9”, 220 pounds, it is simply remarkable how well Cowens played, considering who his competition was. Guys like Willis Reed, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem were Cowens’ main competition, yet he still flourished. The most underrated part of Cowens's game had to be his ability to take away bigger defenders from the paint and knock down consistent mid-range jumpers.
In his 1972-1973 MVP season, Cowens averaged 20.5 PPG, 16.2 RPG, and 4.1 APG. It was the beginning of a stretch that saw him finish at least Top 4 in voting for the award in four consecutive seasons. His lack of size and endless energy at the center position paved the way for small-ball lineups. Analyst Nick Wright once called Dave Cowens “the worst league MVP of all time”, and that right there is the reason why Cowens falls at #8 on our list.
7. Lou Hudson
Career Stats: 20.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.3 BPG
Achievements: 6x All-Star, 1x All-NBA Team Selection
“Sweet’ Lou Hudson was a pure scorer and an accurate shooter in a time that didn’t utilize or appreciate it at the time. Hudson’s jump shot was pure art, but his numbers could have been so much more lethal. Lou retired one year before the implementation of the 3-point line, something that Hudson would have used to his full advantage. He shot 48.7 % overall and 79.5 % from the free-throw line.
During the 1969-1970 season, Hudson would be selected to his first and only All-NBA team selection. He averaged 25.4 PPG and 4.7 RPG in that season. He also averaged 2.5 SPG that year, the first year that steals were recorded. Who knows how much his defensive numbers would be improved had they started recording them earlier. Much like his Hawks teammate Pete Maravich, Hudson would have been fun to see in today’s era where his jump shot and touch around the basket would be emphasized.
6. Gail Goodrich
Career Stats: 18.6 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Achievements: 5x All-Star, 1x All-NBA Team Selection, Hall Of Fame
Gail Goodrich’s NBA career got off to a less than promising start. Drafted to the Lakers, Goodrich would be stuck on the bench behind Jerry West and Walt Hazzard. He shot poorly in his rookie season, averaged only 7.8 PPG, and would be buried on the bench once again the following season. Having been criticized for being a “shot chucker” and having no future, Goodrich responded in the best way possible.
The Lakers would lose Goodrich in an expansion draft but acquire him back again in 1970. In 1972, Goodrich would be named an All-Star, one of 4 consecutive selections. He averaged 25.9 PPG and 4.5 APG en route to an NBA championship. Goodrich was pretty much written off after his first 3 years, but coach Bill Sharman changed things around for him and his career in a big way. Goodrich would average over 20.0 PPG 4 times in his 8-year NBA career and has his jersey retired by the Lakers.
5. Dan Issel
Career Stats: 22.6 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.5 BPG
Achievements: 1x All-Star, Hall Of Fame
The lack of accolades from Dan Issel in his NBA career can only be explained by the fact that he spent the first 6 years of it in the ABA. Nevertheless, Issel shined with the Denver Nuggets. In his 10 seasons in Denver, Issel averaged 20.7 PPG and 8.3 RPG, outright great numbers for any player, but especially for Issel when you consider the era in which he played and his position. Issel only stood 6’9” yet still managed to average nearly a double-double in his Denver career.
His durability is the stuff of legend, only missing 24 games in 15 seasons which is how he earned the nickname “The Horse”. Issel didn’t dominate with strength or size but rather his IQ and agility. Issel possessed a smooth outside jump shot and an unorthodox yet effective head-fake/drive to the basket. More often than not, Issel was ahead of the pack down the floor and on fast break opportunities. When we speak on legends in Denver Nuggets history, Issel is often forgotten, but he certainly belongs in the conversations.
4. David Thompson
Career Stats: 22.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.9 BPG
Achievements: 1976 Rookie Of The Year, 4x All-Star, 2x All-Star Game MVP, 2x All-NBA Team Selection, Hall Of Fame
David Thompson changed the NBA from the moment he stepped out on the floor. Thompson had a high-flying style that was rarely seen at the time in the league. He would seemingly walk on air on his way to the basket, but what else can you expect from someone who rivaled the great Julius Erving. One thing that Thompson doesn't get recognized for was his insanely quick first step and ability to stop on a dime a pull up right in your face. Remember, this is the man who has one of the highest-scoring games in history with 73 points.
The only knock on Thompson was that we didn’t get enough time as fans. Thompson struggled very publicly off the court, and his career took a hit for it. When he was on his game, there was no one better. He was once the highest-paid player in the league, which made his fall from grace even harder to stomach. Regardless of his off-the-court issues, Thompson still performed at a high level when he was on his game. In his first 5 seasons, he averaged at least 21.0 PPG. Many former NBA legends have always praised Thompson as someone who could have gone down as one of the greatest players ever.
3. Bob Dandridge
Career Stats: 18.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Achievements: 4x All-Star, 1x All-NBA Team Selection, 1x All-Defensive Team Selection, Hall Of Fame
Bob Dandridge is one of the greatest Milwaukee Bucks in history, and any real Bucks fan will agree. A lot was asked of Dandridge is his time in Milwaukee, including being a consistent scoring option while playing elite defense on the opposing team's best wing option. Dandridge was the type to elevate his play in big-time situations as well, usually seeing a spike in his numbers come playoff time. Dandridge’s contributions go highly unnoticed, but I guess that’s what happens when your 2 best teammates are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
In 1971, Dandridge would help the Bucks capture their 1st NBA championship in just his second season. He posted averages of 18.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG, and 3.5 APG for over 36 minutes per night. In 1978, at 30 years old, Dandridge would find championship glory once again, this time with the Washington Bullets. Dandridge would post 21.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, and 3.9 APG en route to the title. It took until 2015 for Dandridge to get the recognition he deserved when he was finally elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall Of Fame.
2. Nate "Tiny" Archibald
Championships: 18.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 7.4 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.1 BPG
Achievements: 6x All-Star, 1x All-Star Game MVP, 5x All-NBA Team Selection
Tiny Archibald should be considered a revolutionary throughout the annals of NBA history. Archibald’s elite playmaking ability and providing the opportunities for his teammates to be successful are what made him stand out. At 6’1” 160 pounds, Tiny laid the blueprint for a smaller player to succeed in the league. Up until Trae Young did it this past season, Archibald had been the only player to ever lead the league in both scoring and assists.
The year was 1973, Archibald’s 3rd season in the league. Playing for the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, he would post averages of 34.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG, and 11.4 APG. Somehow he would finish just 3rd in MVP voting behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and eventual winner Dave Cowens. In 8 of his 12 seasons, Tiny would average 7.0 APG or more, becoming one of the most decorated playmakers in league history to that point. Archibald would finally win a championship with Boston in 1981, averaging 15.6 PPG and 6.3 APG in the playoffs.
1. Spencer Haywood
Career Stats: 20.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 06 SPG, 0.9 BPG
Achievements: 1x MVP, 1970 Rookie of the Year, 5x All-Star, 4x All-NBA Team Selection
Considering the era, there should be no surprise that a big man sits atop our list today. Spencer Haywood is easily one of the most impactful players of the 70s on and off the floor. It should be noted that Haywood has done tremendous work for the league as an ambassador with the Hoop hall and various other player organizations. Haywood is credited as being the first player to effectively challenge the NBA’s eligibility guidelines. After his sophomore season of college, Haywood spent 1 season in the ABA, where he led the league in rebounding and scoring and won MVP before heading to the Seattle SuperSonics.
Haywood hit the ground running right away, averaging at least 20.0 PPG and 12.0 RPG every season of his 1st four. In 1973, Haywood had the best offensive season of his career, averaging 29.2 PPG and 12.9 RPG. Haywood also struggled mightily off the court, and even himself admitted that it would hinder the 2nd half of his career. Haywood did eventually win an NBA title in 1980, with the Lakers playing a very minimal role off the bench. Although not as long-lasting as we could have hoped, Haywood’s dominant 5-year stretch and lack of recognition for it land him at #1 on our list.
Yes, the 70s was riddled with controversy, tension, fights, and fear of losing everything for the NBA. It also was a decade of innovation, excitement, and great basketball. It merged two leagues that, quite frankly, should have come together sooner. The NBA was now more widespread after the NBA/ABA merger, reaching more than just the mainstream cities that it had before. Although it was on the brink of absolute collapse, the ’70s paved the way for the next decade on our list, the 1980s.
The emergence of stars like Magic, Bird, and Michael quite literally saved the league in the 1980s. We cannot lose sight of what came before that, though, which were bigger, faster, smarter, and stronger players being introduced by the day. The 70s is often viewed as a “black-eye” era, but behind all the turmoil are some of the most underrated players in league history.