The Philadelphia 76ers were close but could never get over the hump. They reached the NBA Finals three times in the last six seasons, losing each series in six games. That all changed when they signed veteran center Moses Malone before the 1982-83 season.
In Malone’s first year as the starting center, the 76ers avenged a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1982 NBA Finals. Not only did they beat LA, but they also swept them, leaving former Sixers GM Pat Williams to say, “Now, we’re back to being Goliath.”
Moses Malone was the difference between contender and pretender
The 76ers were kings of the Eastern Conference but had nothing to show for it. They reached the championship round in 1977 but lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in six games. Philly went back in 1980 and 1982 and came up short against the Lakers both times.
In 1981, the Sixers won 62 games and held a 3-1 series lead over the Boston Celtics in the conference finals. Boston battled back, winning three straight and knocking off the Malone-led Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals.
Malone played six seasons with the Rockets, averaging 24.0 points and 15.0 rebounds. He was named the league’s MVP in 1979 and 1982. The Rockets traded Malone to the 76ers right before the 1982-83 season, and he immediately proved to be a difference-maker.
Malone won his third MVP award in his first year with the 76ers. In 78 games, he averaged 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds. It was the third straight year he led the NBA in rebounds and fourth in five seasons. For his career, he was tops in that category six times.
The biggest question mark the Sixers had bringing Malone on board was if he could co-exist with Julius Erving. Would one basketball be enough for the two stars? The humble Malone answered that right away.
“I don’t wanna be the best player,” he said in November 1982, per Sports Illustrated. “There are better players on the team than me. They win 55, 60 games every year. I just want to help them win a few more.”
Malone brought the 76ers ‘back to being Goliath’
In the 1981-82 season, the Celtics, coming off their ’81 title, finished with 63 wins and appeared to be taking over as the clear frontrunner in the East. The Sixers, however, knocked off the Celtics in the conference finals before losing in the championship round.
In the offseason, they made the move to acquire Malone, and that, according to Williams, put Philadelphia back in the driver’s seat in the East.
“In last spring’s series against Boston, we were the downtrodden team, David against Goliath,” Williams said. “The whole nation was sympathetic to us. Now we’re back to being Goliath.”
Malone, who died in 2015 at age 60, was the best center of his era, but he never wanted to be the center of attention. He was one of the hardest workers in the league, and it didn’t go unnoticed. He just went about his business and let his stats and wins speak for themselves.
“I can do so many things that people don’t recognize yet,” Malone said in 1982. “If people want to find something bad about Moses this year, they won’t be able to find it. I’m not gonna fool anybody, not gonna promote myself to people. I just want them to respect me.”