by @SixersHistory's Curtis Harris
A CROSSROADS TO THE PROMISED LAND
The summer of 1982 marked a crossroads for two franchises.
The Philadelphia 76ers had been dispatched from the NBA Finals after six hard fought games, just like they had been in 1977 and 1980. After three near-championships in six seasons, was it wise to essentially run back the same squad with minor changes, and try again?
Or, had the time arrived for major renovations - perhaps a full-on rebuild, even? The Sixers did have a roster full of worthy assets, and the Cleveland Cavaliers owed them a 1983 first-round pick.
Not a simple choice for Sixers management.
Down in Texas, the Houston Rockets faced a tough predicament as well.
For the 1982 season, their indomitable center, Moses Malone, was at the peak of his powers, averaging a career-high 31.1 points per game and a league-leading 14.7 rebounds per game. In recognition of his prodigious labor, Malone was voted MVP that season.
But even with Moses’ incredible efforts, Houston mustered only 46 wins and exited the playoffs in a first-round loss to the Seattle SuperSonics.
And, Malone was now a restricted free agent.
Despite the disappointing postseason finish, Houston was in no mood to let Moses simply walk away. His impact on the club’s fortunes had been immense.
During the franchise’s first nine seasons (1968-76), it had made the playoffs just twice, and its best record was a 41-41 finish in 1975.
With Moses on board starting in the 1977 season, Houston made the playoffs five times in six years, including a shocking appearance in the 1981 Finals. The run was thanks largely to the superhuman efforts of Malone.
So, the loss of their MVP center might well put the Rockets in mortal danger.
Therefore, Houston offered Malone a yearly salary between $1.5 million and $2 million, according to varying media reports at the time.
Back in Philadelphia, the Sixers concluded that a major upgrade – not a minor tweak on the edges – was needed to finally win the championship, and they hoped to pry Malone away from Houston. The contract offer was worth nearly $2.2 million annually over six years.
Financially beaten, the Rockets matched the Sixers’ offer, but accepted a sign-and-trade deal. Moses was Philly bound, while Caldwell Jones and the Sixers-owned 1983 Cavs first-round draft pick were sent to Houston.
Moses, of course, delivered the Sixers to the Promised Land of championship glory, and was gracious in the process.
His scoring average dropped from 31.1 points in 1982 to 24.5 points in 1983, but he was not the least bit bothered by that development. Speaking to reporters after his first game as a Sixer, Malone emphasized his approach for the season:
“I’m glad to do anything that helps the team win. They need someone on the boards, so that’s what I try to do. I’m not worried about my offense, or how many shots I get. Moses is here to win ball games – Moses I here to help the 76ers win ball games.”
Big Mo then highlighted the difference between his Herculean task in Houston and his scenario with the Sixers:
“In Philly I have players around me that I know what they can do – people like Doc and Toney. At Houston they went to me all the time and they looked for 30-36 points from me every night. But here, I don’t have to worry about that, and it’s more relaxing for me.”
The boards were indeed taken care of, as Malone again led the league in rebounding (15.3 per game), and was again voted NBA MVP, pushing the Sixers to a 65-17 record, which still stands as the third highest win percentage (.793) in franchise history.
And in the playoffs, the Sixers wrecked the competition with a 12-1 record (almost, but not quite Fo’ Fo’ Fo’) as that elusive title was finally delivered.
Naturally, after averaging 26 points and 18 rebound against the Lakers in a satisfying four-game sweep, Moses was voted Finals MVP.
As for the Rockets, the Malone sign-and-trade jump-started their franchise as well.
Losing their MVP, the Rockets unsurprisingly plummeted in the standings. They marshaled just 14 wins in 1983.
That woeful performance subsequently gave them the no. 1 overall pick in the draft, and they selected the phenomenal center Ralph Sampson. The Cleveland draft pick that conveyed to Houston from the Malone trade was used to select Rodney McCray.
For the 1984 season, Houston improved to 29 wins, but still managed the number one overall pick. This time they selected… phenomenal center Hakeem Olajuwon.
While attending the University of Houston, Hakeem the Dream played many legendary pickup games versus Moses Malone, which Olajuwon credited for helping build his own determination and endurance.
So even following Malone’s departure, his fingerprints were still on Houston’s impending success. By 1986, the Twin Tower pairing of Sampson and Olajuwon returned the Rockets to the Finals. And in the long run, Houston won two titles in the 1990s thanks to Olajuwon.
In the end, the crossroads of 1982 worked out well for Houston and Philadelphia alike, as each franchise effectively retooled.
And the Sixers-Rockets junction allowed for a unique stamp on NBA history.
Named MVP with Houston in 1982 and MVP with the Sixers in 1983, Malone remains the only player in league history to win back-to-back MVPs while playing for different teams.
Now that’s one grand, unbeatable hustle from Big Mo.