The 1977-78 Indiana Pacers
In 2016-17, the Indiana Pacers finished their 50th season as a franchise (9 ABA seasons and 41 with the NBA). A few years ago, I reached out to the Pacers in the hopes of working with the team on a season-by-season book about their history. After some back-and-forth, the Pacers passed. But since I already completed the work on one season, I’ve included it below. Hope you enjoy!
31-51 (6th in the NBA Midwest Division)
Bob ‘Slick’ Leonard - 10th season (454-367)
Ricky Sobers (1,436 - 18.2 Average)
Dan Roundfield (802 - 10.2 average)
Ricky Sobers (584 - 7.4 average)
Ricky Sobers (3,019 - 38.2 average)
Field Goal Percentage:
Dan Roundfield (48.9%)
Free Throw Percentage:
Ricky Sobers (82.5%)
Pacers’ Award Winners:
Despite the success of the July telethon, Pacers owners still needed to cut costs. They succeeded. The team the Pacers put on the floor for the 1977-78 season was the second youngest in the NBA and also the lowest-paid. As part of their cost-cutting effort, the team made two big preseason trades, sending All-Star forward Billy Knight to the Buffalo Braves and scrappy fan-favorite Don Buse to the Phoenix Suns. But despite the fact that they lost the league’s second-highest scorer (Knight) and leading assist and steals man (Buse) from the previous season, the Pacers received talented players in return. From the Braves, they acquired two forwards – Mike Bantom and reigning Rookie of the Year Adrian Dantley – while the Suns swapped them strong scoring guard Ricky Sobers.
With a starting five consisting of John Williamson and Sobers at guard, Dantley and Dan Roundfield (pictured above) at forward, and Dave Robisch at center, they appeared competitive. “I think we have the capabilities to make the playoffs,” Robisch told the Indianapolis Star’s Bill Benner. “I’m sure it’s an outside chance, but I think we can win 45 games if we play together well and everything goes all right.”
Despite Robisch’s optimism, the Pacers got off to a slow start and stood at 10-14 a quarter of the way through the season. Their lone bright spot was Dantley, whose 26.5 points per game average was good enough to place him second in the league at the time, trailing only New Orleans guard Pete Maravich. But Dantley had problems fitting in on a team in which Williamson and Sobers controlled the basketball and liked to take a lot of shots themselves. “Am I getting the ball?” Dantley asked a reporter rhetorically. “Well let’s say I’m getting it, but not nearly as much as I want it.”
When Dantley (pictured above) did get the ball, the six-foot-five inch forward drove the ball relentlessly to the basket. Despite his undersized frame, Dantley was able to effectively use a variety of head and ball fakes to draw fouls on his larger opponents. Dantley averaged more than eleven free throw attempts per game, sinking almost eighty percent of them, and proved a relentless offensive rebounder, pulling down a team-high 4.1 per game. But in the NBA in the 1970s, there was a perception that successful teams had to have a top-tier center. “You can’t win consistently in this league unless you’ve got a big man in the middle,” Coach Leonard explained. Dantley was an excellent scorer but, at six-foot-five, was certainly no big man.
On December 13th 1977, the Pacers made a trade for that coveted center, and saved some money in the process, by sending Dantley and Robisch to the Los Angeles Lakers, who envisioned Dantley as a replacement for Kermit Washington, recently suspended by the league for brutally punching Houston Rockets’ forward Rudy Tomjanovich. In return for Dantley and Robisch, the Pacers picked up their big man, rookie James Edwards from the University of Washington, along with reserve guard Earl Tatum and cash. Slick Leonard explained the move as “long-range planning,” arguing that a dearth of top-flight centers in the collegiate ranks forced the Pacers to move on Edwards.
Edwards (pictured above), who started twenty-one games in the absence of injured Lakers’ star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, showed flashes of brilliance in Los Angeles, averaging 17.1 points and 8.2 rebounds before the trade. As a Pacer, Edwards stepped into the role vacated by the departed Robisch and played well, if not spectacularly, averaging fifteen points and 7.5 rebounds as the team’s starting center. But Edwards, who would thrive in a bench role as the appropriately nicknamed “Buddha” for the Pistons’ Bad Boy teams of the late 1980s, was primarily a jump shooter and was not the tenacious inside presence the Pacers needed. As a result, six-foot-eight Roundfield had to move over to center for stretches and Len Elmore, returning from a knee injury that had cost him most of the previous season, also chipped in, averaging five points and six rebounds per game.
The revolving door continued into the new year when, shockingly, the Pacers sent leading scorer John Williamson and his nineteen points per game average to the New Jersey Nets. Super John was bitter about the trade. When his Nets played the Pacers a few weeks later, Soup promised to put on a show, scoring 38 points total – including 35 in the second half and overtime – to outgun the Pacers 140-138. That would be the highest point total the Pacers managed the entire season – and it was in a loss.
After the game, Williamson (pictured above) was ecstatic. “I especially wanted to beat the Pacers tonight,” the twenty-six year old crowed. In addition to surrendering thirty-eight to Williamson, the Pacers only suited up nine players. After five fouled out, Dan Roundfield had to reenter the game, despite already having six fouls himself, and referees assessed the Pacers a technical foul (the team would have received a technical for every subsequent Roundfield foul – fortunately he went foul-free for the remainder of the contest). But Super John was not yet done taking out his revenge on Pacers’ GM Slick Leonard. The next time the teams played, in Indianapolis, Williamson asked Pacers’ public relations director Lee Daniel if any player had ever scored fifty points in Market Square Arena. When Daniel told him no, Williamson determined to try for that record. He succeeded, scoring fifty (along with twenty-six for Williamson’s teammate Bernard King – who could have been a Pacer) to best Indiana, this time by eight points, 129-121.
There were some bright spots in the ’77-78 season, despite the constant roster turnover. As a Pacer, John Williamson twice eclipsed forty points in a game, putting in 43 against the Golden State Warriors and 41 against the Chicago Bulls. Their best team effort, though, came in Indianapolis, early in the season when the Pacers beat the Washington Bullets – the eventual 1978 league champs – by a score of 136-127 in front of an excited Market Square Arena crowd. Williamson and Dantley each scored more than thirty points in that game while Roundfield added twenty, Bantom sixteen, and Sobers ten in a strong team effort. In fact, Sobers, Bantom, and Roundfield formed a constant core for the young Pacers, each averaging at least thirteen points per game on the season while Sobers finished third in the league in assists per game (7.4), giving Pacers fans hope for the future.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in team history in the spring of 1977, the Pacers again came up empty in 1978, finishing the season 31-51, good for sixth in the Midwest Division. But because they finished with the worst record in the Western Conference (tied with Kansas City for that honor), fans began eyeing the 1978 draft, which could feature Indiana State star Larry Bird, to bring the team back to the top.
By the Numbers:
1,386 Team Offensive Rebounds (2nd of 22 NBA Teams)
672 Career Games Played by Freddie Lewis, then a Pacers’ team record
108.6 Team Points Per Game Average (11th of 22 NBA Teams)
138 Most Points Scored in a Single Game (Feb. 8, 1978 v. Nets)
89 Least Points Allowed To An Opponent (Dec. 12, 1977 v. San Antonio Spurs)
43 Most Points By A Single Player (John Williamson, Nov. 23, 1977 v. Golden State)
25 Biggest Margin of Victory (Oct. 25, 1977 v. Nuggets)
6.9 Team-Leading Win Shares – Dan Roundfield
Adrian Dantley was only one of three reigning Rookie of the Years to be dealt before his second NBA season. The others? Ray Felix - traded by the Baltimore Bullets to the New York Knicks in 1954, and Chris Webber - dealt from the Golden State Warriors to the Washington Bullets in 1994.
In 1977-78, Pacers players attempted 2,564 free throws and committed 1,642 turnovers, the highest totals the team has recorded in its NBA history.
When Freddie Lewis (pictured above) retired before the 1977-78 season, he was the team’s career leader in a number of categories, including Games Played (672), Assists (2,711), and Free Throws Made (2,999) while ranking second in points (11,036 - trailing only Roger Brown).
After his retirement, Lewis moved to Washington D.C. to work with inner-city youth as a schoolteacher. He moved back to Indianapolis to work on creating a new professional basketball league (known as ABA 2000) and, although it fell through, he remains an icon in Indianapolis for his work in the community and in leading the Pacers to three ABA titles, earning four ABA All-Star nods in the process.
Adam Criblez is the author of the book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA.
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