Sixers: Top-10 teams in franchise history

10. 1989-90

Reg. Season record: 53-29

Lost in Conf. Semis to the Bulls

This is one of the most underrated (yet hard to forget) squads in Sixers history. They had a young, electric backcourt duo of Johnny Dawkins and the sharpshooting Hersey Hawkins, which made for a unique pairing with the hulking front court of Mike Gminski and Rich Mahorn—both of whom played with a hustle and physicality that wore teams out fast.

Of course those four pieces perfectly complemented Sir Charles Barkley, who combined the skill level of Dawkins/Hawkins with the toughness of Mahorn/Gminski. 1990 should have been Barkley’s first MVP season had it not been for a biased media thirsty to snub Chuck (& Jordan) in favor of Magic—Barkley had the most 1st place votes, but Johnson accumulated more 2nd and 3rd places and as a result won the award.

To the surprise of many, this Sixers team coached by Jim Lynam had the second highest offensive rating in the NBA, and Barkley was a man amongst boys as he lead the league with a staggering 63.2% shooting inside the arc—getting to the rim and finishing at-will all year long. Both Hawkins and Dawkins were legitimate go-to scoring options; Gminski was a skilled-big with a soft touch; and sixth-man Ron Anderson was a real weapon on both ends of the floor off the bench.

This group could put up points with the best of them, and except for Mahorn, every rotation player on this roster profiles better in today’s NBA than they did in the 90s. Call me crazy, but a small-ball lineup of Dawkins, Hawkins, Anderson, Barkley, and Gminski would be able to score at a ridiculous pace in the modern NBA.

With that said, they’re likely best remembered for their brawl with the Bad Boy Pistons. If you’re disappointed with how rarely athletes connect on punches, this should satisfy you:

9. 2018-19

Reg. Season record: 51-31

Lost in Conf. Semis to Raptors 4-3

As time passes I’m not sure how our perception of this team will change, but it’s the best Sixers squad since ‘01.

We’ll obviously never know how the Embiid-Simmons-Butler-Redick group would have meshed in a second or third year, but they essentially threw away the Toronto series when they blew Game 4 at Wells Fargo and failed to close out multiple leads in Game 7. We don’t know if they would have beaten Golden State (they would have walked the Bucks), but if you want to say they were a break or two away from being NBA Champions I won’t stop you.

The 2019 Sixers defense was as good as any on this list, and Embiid and Simmons have the DNA that makes you think their names will be in the rafters some day, but something about this team never quite clicked.

8. 2000-01

Reg. Season record: 56-26

Lost in Finals to the Lakers 4-1

This may not be the best Sixers team but it was arguably the most fun. It was basically a bunch of rugged defensive specialists surrounding the one-man offense that was Allen Iverson. Averaging 31.1 points on the way to league MVP, this was peak AI. And while this may be the least talented overall roster on this list, you could argue ‘01 Iverson is the best individual season by a Sixer on this list.

Despite losing 4-1 in the Finals to a Lakers franchise in the midst of a three-peat, the Sixers Game 1 win over LA—their only loss in the entire postseason—lives on as one of the greatest wins in team history. That single win over a team who clearly out-gunned them across the board exemplified the sort of grit and guts that defined AI and that ‘01 Sixers squad.

7. 1979-80

Reg. Season record: 59-23

Lost in Finals to Lakers 4-2

A defense led by Bobby Jones and Caldwell Jones posted the lowest defensive rating in the NBA, and is largely the reason for the teams success in ‘80. With an offense led by MVP-runner-up Julius Erving—who finally came into his own as an undisputed top-five player—the Sixers took advantage of a very weak Eastern Conference on the way to the Finals (Boston was in-between eras, with McHale yet to be drafted, Parish signed the following offseason, and Larry Bird just a rookie).

Despite being given decent odds against the Lakers, a rookie Magic Johnson stepped up in the absence of league MVP Kareem Abdul Jabaar (injured midway through Game 5) and dominated a Sixers team in the Spectrum to the tune of 42-15-7 in Game 6. His domination in the paint over those final two games foreshadowed problems that would similarly keep the team from breaking through in ‘81 and ‘82.

6. 1984-85

Reg. Season record: 58-24

Lost in Eastern Conf. Finals to Celtics 4-1

On paper this team had it all: Dr. J, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Mo Cheeks, and Andrew Toney were all still playing well, and a young Charles Barkley could’ve been the piece to help that aging nucleus take a load off.

Instead, they ran out of gas and into the buzzsaw Celtics dynasty, losing the ECF in five games that saw Dr. J and Moses Malone combine to shoot 56/153 (36%) from the field. It goes without saying that a team with prime Dr. J, Moses, Barkley, Cheeks, and Bobby Jones would beat the brakes off most anyone, but each of these Hall of Famers was either a tad past their prime or a little bit before it.

That series against the Celtics more or less marked the end of an era of rivalry between the two teams dating back to the late-70s, and be the last time the Sixers would reach the conference finals until 2001.

5. 1976-77

Reg. Season record: 50-32

Lost in Finals to the Trail Blazers 4-2

The ‘76 offseason started a run of success that would eventually lead to the championship in ‘83, as the team signed Julius Erving during the ABA-NBA merger, and traded for Pacers star George MgInnis. This gave the team two bona fide superstars to add to their already strong cast of players.

Doug Collins was in the midst of four-consecutive All-Star nods, both Henry Bibby and defensive stalwart Caldwell Jones were entering their primes, and World B. Free was having a breakout season at 23 years old. Throw in contributions from a 20 year old Darryl Dawkins, and “The Mayor” Steve Mix and this is one of the deeper Sixers teams of all-time.

However, despite jumping out to a 2-0 Finals lead against Portland, a twin towers of rookie Mo Lucas and pre-major-injury Bill Walton—who averaged 16.5 points (57% FG), 19.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 4.5 blocks over the final four games—carried the Blazers to a reverse sweep to win the series 4-2.

4. 1981-82

Reg. Seasons record: 58-24

Lost in Finals to Lakers 4-2

You could make the argument that my 3 and 4 should be switched, but I’ll argue that in the next section. 1982 saw essentially the same two squads face-off as the year prior, but a less difficult path to the ECF and the injury of Celtics playmaker Tiny Archibald in Game 3 was enough to give the Sixers the edge this time around.

Despite being able to matchup on the wing and run in transition with the Showtime Lakers squad, the Sixers lacked the presence inside on either side of the floor to hang with the likes of Kareem (and Magic) in the half court. A second Finals loss to Los Angeles in three seasons made clear that it was time for a small shakeup of this Sixers roster.

3. 1980-81

Reg. Season record: 62-20

Lost in Eastern Conf. Finals to Celtics 4-3

I understand the ‘81 team is sandwiched between a pair of teams (‘80 & ‘82) that lost in the Finals, but there’s a strong argument to be made that this was the best version of the team pre-Moses Malone.

With the Western Conference Finals pitting a pair of teams with losing records (both 40-42), the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and Sixers was considered the “de-facto-Finals.” Boston and Philly both went 62-20, but with the Celtics owning the tie-breaker the Sixers were forced to endure a grueling path to the ECF.

They dispatched the Pacers in round one (Boston had a bye in the first round, yes, that used to be a thing), and then the Sixers took 7 games to beat a 60-win Bucks team in the semis—while Boston handily swept the 45-win Bulls.

Despite being the more fatigued team, the Sixers raced out to a 3-1 series lead, winning Game 1 in The Garden then holding court in 3 & 4 at the Spectrum. With a 3-1 lead and home-court advantage, they were widely assumed to be on the fast track to a championship considering Boston’s 11 game losing streak in the Spectrum. But three straight last-second losses decided by a total of five points—a three game run that essentially kicked-off the Legend of Larry Bird—ended any championship hopes for a team that was closer to winning it all than we remember.

The ‘81 team had a fresh mix of guards that was simply better than in ‘80. Over the offseason the team moved on from Henry Bibby, and Doug Collins had his year ended early by injury, paving the way for electric rookie Andrew Toney to take the reins at shooting guard, and allowing Lionel Hollins to play his natural position backing up Cheeks at PG.

That, combined with it being Julius Erving’s lone NBA MVP season, and Daryl Dawkins’ newfound efficiency on offense makes the overall roster in ‘81 far more daunting than the years prior.

2. 1966-67

Reg. Season record: 68-13

NBA Champions

The Sixers had been unable to get past Bill Russell’s Celtics two years in a row, and ‘67 was the year they finally broke through on the back of Wilt Chamberlain. Though Wilt gets most of the play, fellow Hall of Famers Hal Greer and Chet Walker were just as vital to the team’s success, and second year player Billy Cunningham—who would go on to coach the ‘83 championship team—was the quintessential final piece.

First year head coach Alex Hannum got revenge on the same Warriors organization that fired him less than a year prior; and first year general manager (and Philly/NBA legend) Dr. Jack Ramsey would win a championship with the team he would beat a decade later in the Finals as head coach of the Trail Blazers.

I know I could have included the ‘68 team in this list somewhere, but nobody wants to read about basically the same team from the 60s twice.

1. 1982-83

Reg. Season record: 65-17

NBA Champions

Harold Katz bought the Sixers in the summer of ‘81, and after falling short in the ‘82 Finals he made waves with a trade for All-NBA center Moses Malone—considered the final piece to put the Sixers over the top.

Moses Malone, Julius Erving, and an elite supporting cast of Bobby Jones, Mo Cheeks, and Andrew Toney quickly formed the best five-man end-of-game lineup in basketball. After posting the best record in the NBA, Malone famously predicted a “fo-fo-fo” sweep of the playoffs, with the team instead going “fo-fi-fo” with the lone blemish coming in the ECF against the Bucks.

While a sweep of the playoffs would have been emphatic, a sweep of the defending champion Lakers is enough to cement the ‘83 Sixers as one of the best single individual teams of all time, and the best team in franchise history.

1 comment

  1. Good piece on the Sixers’ teams. I remember them all well. The ‘68 team does indeed belong on this list. It had a grueling series against the Celtics after losing Billy Cunningham, who had suffered a broken wrist, and lost despite a valiant effort. I don’t get your comment about another team from the 60’s. The Wilt era was a great one. I’d have made the ‘67 team #1. It dominated Bill Russell and the Celtics (winning in 5) before beating the Warriors to take the title. I’d add that Billy Cunningham was the best coach in franchise history.

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