NBA at 75: The Buffalo Braves and the dynasty that never was

In the 1970s, the Buffalo Braves looked like they could be the NBA’s next great team, yet things never panned out. What happened?

The Buffalo Braves no longer exist. In 1978, the short-lived franchise moved to San Diego and was renamed the Clippers, closing the door on a team that often looked promising but perpetually struggled to make good on its potential. The Braves only won one playoff series and one can tell a fairly full history of the NBA without mentioning them at all. But to do that would also mean ignoring one of the most tumultuous and fascinating teams in NBA history, a squad that featured multiple Hall of Famers and looked like a team sure to contend for years to come, but alas, never did. They are a dynasty that never was.

The Buffalo Braves first joined the NBA for its 1970-71 season along with two other expansion teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers. Buffalo was an odd choice for an NBA team since already in the league’s brief history, two teams had been located in upstate New York before leaving for other areas — the Rochester Royals left for Cincinnati and the Syracuse Nationals became the Philadelphia 76ers. The league must have hoped the third time would be the charm.

After a predictably disappointing first season, the Braves began putting together their core in the 1971 Draft, where they took Elmore Smith out of Kentucky with the first overall pick. While Smith was a solid defensive anchor, their best pick of the night would come in the 7th round when they took Randy Smith from Buffalo State, a player the team took more because of his alma mater than his ability. Smith turned out to be much more than a consolation prize for Buffalo fans though, becoming an All-Star and electric scorer who would go on to set the then-NBA record for most consecutive games played. While the two Smiths would not help the Braves win any more games in the franchise’s second season than they had in their first, the foundations for something better were being laid.

In the next summer’s draft, Buffalo drafted Bob McAdoo of North Carolina in 1972 with the second overall selection. And just before that draft, Dr. Jack Ramsay left the abysmal Sixers to lead the Braves. The next summer, Buffalo again drafted a promising young player. This time it was point guard Ernie DiGregorio from Providence. The team also traded Elmore Smith to the Lakers in exchange for forward Jim McMillian. While McMillian would average over 16 points per game in his three seasons with Buffalo, his primary value may have been positional. With McMillian playing the 4, McAdoo moved to center where he was a perpetual mismatch, consistently drawing opposing centers away from the basket as he nailed jumper after jumper. McAdoo was, in this way, decades before his time as a center who was as comfortable playing in the mid-range and the perimeter as he was playing in the low post. ” Bill Russell, who was coaching the Seattle Supersonics at the time said, “You try to get him out of range, but he never is.”

DiGregorio became, after McAdoo, the second Brave to win Rookie of the Year in a row as he led the league in both assists per game and free throw percentage. With him on board, the Braves made their first-ever postseason appearance that season, though they lost to the eventual champion Celtics in the first round.

The 1974-75 season was full of triumph and disappointment. McAdoo would win MVP, but DiGregorio injured his knee, missing the bulk of the season. He compounded the damage by returning as quickly as he could. But when he did come back, he was no longer the same player. Despite DiGregorio’s injury, the Braves still won a franchise-record 49 games, though they again lost in the conference semifinals, falling to the eventual Conference Champion Washington Bullets in 7.

The Buffalo Braves roster was loaded with talent and potential

The next year was Buffalo’s best yet. After losing in the first round two years in a row, they finally won a series, defeating the Sixers in a best of 3. However, they again lost in the Conference Semifinals to the Celtics who would go on to win their second championship in three years. There was no way of knowing it then, but this was as good as it would ever get for the young team.

That offseason, Coach Ramsay left for Portland where he would win a championship in his first season with the team. He foresaw the coming organizational chaos and did not want to be a part of it. Owner Paul Snyder threatened to move the team to Toronto or Florida, even telling fans that unless 5,000 season tickets were ordered, the team was gone. Snyder eventually settled for selling the team instead. Buying the Braves was John Y. Brown – future governor of Kentucky, KFC owner, and former owner of the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels.

Upon buying the team, one of Brown’s first moves was trading Bob McAdoo. Despite McAdoo being an All-Star less than two years removed from winning an MVP, the team saw moving him as a quick way to ease their financial burden. In December, McAdoo was sent to the Knicks with Tom McMillen in exchange for John Gianelli and cash. While McAdoo was one of the best scorers of his era, Gianelli only averaged double figures once in his career. He would play 57 games and average 7 points for the Braves. Brown justified the move by calling McAdoo both “a selfish player” and “totally unrealistic in his financial demands.” Decades later, that rationale sounds no wiser than it must have in the moment and the trade remains one of the most lopsided in NBA history.

The change in ownership and the McAdoo trade were far from the only bits of upheaval the team was facing. That same season, they had three different head coaches and would exchange 13 players and six draft picks in nine separate deals. Thanks to one of these deals, they temporarily owned the rights to future three-time MVP and eventual Hall of Famer Moses Malone. However, the team gave up on one of the greatest centers in NBA history, trading him to Houston after he had played just two games for the franchise.

In spite of all this, there was some small reason for hope thanks to yet another promising first-round pick. This time it was Notre Dame’s Adrian Dantley who became the team’s third Rookie of the Year in five seasons. Yet Dantley’s penchant for scoring and getting to the foul line was not enough to cancel out everything else going on behind the scenes as the team went just 30-52. The next season was little better. Continuing the team’s trend of trading its best players, Dantley was shipped off to Indiana for Billy Knight. He was the third future Hall of Famer the team had traded in less than a year. Teams can quickly recover from a lot of things; that is not one of them.

South of Buffalo, the Boston Celtics were also struggling. Just two years removed from winning their second title in three years, they had gone 32-50. Also, the team’s owner, movie producer Irv Levin, wished the team were closer to Hollywood. Eager to keep the league’s most accomplished franchise in Boston, the league’s legal counsel, an ambitious man named David Stern, found a solution. Stern proposed that Levin and Brown trade franchises. Levin would take over the struggling Braves while Brown would become the new owner of the Celtics. The two owners agreed to this strange transaction with Levin immediately moving the Braves to San Diego, christening them the Clippers.

And with that move, the Buffalo Braves era was over after just eight seasons. Looking back, the team offers an object lesson in issues that plagued the NBA throughout the 1970s: a lack of institutional stability and an ownership group that was often more concerned with staying afloat than growing the game. It is mind-boggling to look at the amount of talent that passed through Buffalo during its brief time as an NBA team. McAdoo, Malone, and Dantley would all be elected to the Hall of Fame while Jack Ramsay would join them as a coach; Smith was a two-time All-Star and there’s no telling how good DiGregorio could have been if not for injuries. They also had two-time ABA All-Star Marvin Barnes suit up for 48 games in the 77-78 season and Hall of Famer Nate Archibald on their roster that same year, though he never suited up due to injury.

If they could have kept even a decent amount of this core together, the Braves could have been one of the best teams of the late 70s, taking advantage of an era with no dominant team. Perhaps they could have even forestalled the rise of the Larry Bird-led Celtics in the early 80s. However, instability and financial desperation kept the team from making the most of their talent. They cycled through players and coaches, trying to make things work, but that very churn was the team’s undoing.

It’s easy to imagine Buffalo, if they existed today, being a League Pass favorite, a team that fans on Twitter rhapsodize about as clips of DiGregorio passes, Smith drives, and McAdoo jumpers circulate. There is an alternate universe where they managed to become much more than they were. But they could not stop shooting themselves in the foot, trading off stars and soon-to-be stars, either desperate to make some quick cash or not realizing just what they had on their hands. Instead of being one of the most successful teams of their era, they are one that prompts those looking back at the Braves to instead reflect on what could have been.

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