Re-Visiting The Nets Sale of Dr. J and Their Tiny Replacement

A few weeks ago, we did a review of the best small forwards of the last 40 years.  In this review, we concluded that Julius Erving, by NBA stats alone, was even better than I remembered (most of my direct memories of Dr. J related to his later career, when he was still very good not quite the same player).  That and some stuff I was reading about Tiny Archibald got me thinking about Erving and how he got to Philly in the first place. I thought we could revisit how the Nets ever sold Erving to the 76ers in the first place.

The general story is well-known…the Nets were not exactly flush with cash and then, as part of the merger deal with the NBA, they owed the Knicks millions in an “indemnity payment” for infringing on Knicks territory.  On top of that, the Nets traded for Archibald, who made more money than Erving.  The situation was untenable and the Nets sold Dr. J to Philly to cover the money owed to the Knicks, thus creating an “original sin” that has haunted the Nets for 40ish years.

Could, the Nets have done anything different?  Did they really let Erving go for Tiny?  Let’s go back to 1976 and see what more, if anything, we learn when go under the surface really dig in…

Background on The Final ABA Nets

The 1975-76 Nets won the final ABA title over David Thompson’s Nuggets.  The Nets were 55-29 (2.56 SRS) and were obviously good.  The deeper numbers, though, don’t support the idea that the Nets were clearly the class of the ABA.  Denver looked better on paper (60-24, 5.45 SRS) and the Spurs actually had a better point differential (50-34, 3.82 SRS).

Other than Erving, the roster was most filler.  Only two other regulars had PER exceeding 15.0 (Brian Taylor, 17.2 and Kim Hughes, 15.6) and Taylor was the only other player with above-average BPM.  The players who played the most minutes after Erving (Rich Jones and John Williamson) were not assets.  Super John Williamson was certainly a memorable and unique player but his game rates out as exceedingly negative (-2.8 BPM) and Jones was much worse (-4.6 BPM in nearly 2,500 minutes!).

In short, the 1975-76 Nets were essentially like the recent LeBron James Cavs, except if the Cavs didn’t have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.  Like LBJ, Erving’s transcendent ability papered over the lack of supporting talent and made them competitive in any series.  For a little context as to how good Dr. J was at the time, check Erving’s advanced stats versus his closest rivals that season:

-PER:  Erving 28.7 (Artis Gilmore was second at 23.5)

-WS:  Erving 17.7 (Gilmore was second at 15.1)

-WS/48: Erving .262 (Gilmore was second at .220)

-BPM: Erving 10.6 (Bobby Jones was second at 5.3

-VORP: Erving 10.3 (Gilmore was second at 5.5)

Holy crap did Erving lap the field.  He won the Nets a title nearly single handedly and it was pretty clear that the Nets needed upgrades to the supporting cast to compete in the NBA in 1976-77.

The Merger Deal:  Death for the Nets

After years of fighting with the NBA, the ABA had become enough of an irritant to finally get the NBA to consider a merger.  The problem was the ABA wasn’t making any money and likely didn’t have the money to fund another season under any circumstances.  Nets owner Roy Boe said in Terry Pluto’s “Tall Tales” that: “we had no real grounds to negotiate.  We were dead on our feet and the NBA knew it.  We couldn’t play another season.”  Denver GM Carl Scheer likened the deal to “what it must have been like to be Japan at the negotiating table at the end of World War II.”  In the end, the ABA’s only leverage was the empty threat of playing another season and the somewhat scarier prospect of an antitrust suit against the NBA.

Ultimately, each ABA team cut its own deal with the NBA.  According to Pluto, the deals were:

-The Nuggets, Spurs, Nets, and Pacers would be merged into the NBA.

-They each owed the NBA $3.2 million by September 15, 1976 (comes to $14.8 million in 2020 dollars).

-The ABA teams would not be able to draft in the 1976 college draft.

-The Nets would owe the Knicks an additional $4.8 million for the territorial indemnification.

-Kentucky’s ownership got $3 million to fold its team.  Owner John Y. Brown used that money to buy the Braves for about $1.5 million and then “traded” the Braves for ownership of the Celtics.

-St. Louis ownership got a smaller upfront payment (reported as $2.2 million) and a piece of NBA revenue per year in perpetuity to fold the franchise.  This deal grew exponentially with the NBA’s increase in revenues.  Back in 2009, we wrote about how the Spirits owners made out quite well on the deal. Indeed the owners made about $15 million per year in the 1990s and $24 million per year in the early 2000s.  At the time, my valuation expert estimated that a fair buyout of this right was $500 million.  In 2014, the NBA finally bought out the Spirits (reportedly for the $500 million we predicted in 2009!). 

The ABA ended up with three classes of teams: (a) surviving teams who owed the NBA a large entry fee, (b) folding teams that were paid to go away, and (c) the Nets who owed about $8 million to various parties.  In other words, the Nets were likely hopelessly underwater. 

Boe told Pluto that: “[t]he merger agreement killed the Nets as an NBA franchise….I owed the Knicks $480,000 a year for 10 years…I need to get some cash, about $5 million, by September 15.  And Julius Erving wanted a new contract.  He was making $350,000 with several years to run.  Julius said that we made him a promise that we’d renegotiate his contract if we got into the NBA.  Well, he had a 60-some page contract and there wasn’t a word in there about that.”

Did the Nets essentially swap out Erving for Tiny?

So, Boe didn’t have the cash to make it into the season AND Erving wanted a new deal.  Faced with this hard deadline on September 15, 1976, things got kookier.  On September 11, 1976, the Nets traded Taylor, backup big Jim Eakins, and two future first-round picks for Tiny Archibald.  Tiny was under contract for four years and roughly $450,000 per year.  At the time, the New York Times wrote that the Nets “now have two of the highest scoring and most exciting players in pro basketball.”  The article did not mention the Nets’ money woes or the looming deadline and, instead, assumed that Archibald and Erving would be a fun duo.  Indeed, several papers proclaimed the pairing of “Tiny A and Dr. J” and t-shirts were allegedly printed (I could find no visual evidence of these shirts).

Despite the notions of a pairing, a Sports Illustrated article cited the trade as the event that made Erving want to leave town: “the decision to bring him and his $450,000 salary to New York produced negative side effects that might have been foreseen. The arrival of Archibald, who was making far more money than Erving’s $275,000, heightened an already serious salary dispute between Boe and Erving’s agent, Irwin Weiner.” (Note that Boe told Pluto that Erving actually made $350,000 per year). 

What’s clear is that Tiny and Dr. J were never going to play together, regardless of whether Erving was happy about the salary discrepancy.  Boe knew that they had no cash and had no intention of keeping both players.  Erving was the only asset the team could sell to survive.  But the money woes were even greater.  Taylor was due for a new contract (all existing ABA players were given guaranteed contracts as a condition of the merger).  The Times reported that, upon reporting to the Kings, Taylor was given a four-year $750,000 contract.  If you were keeping track, here’s the flow of money/assets:

Nets Assets Lost

-Erving at $350,000 per year (to be sold off)

-Taylor at $187,500 per year (to King)

-Unprotected first-round picks in 1977 and 1978

-Eakins (not sure his salary but is filler in the deal anyway)

Nets Asset Gained

-Archibald at $450,000 per year

In terms of payroll commitment, the Nets saved about $87,500 per season for a few years (and likely more if Erving got to renegotiate his contract). In terms of talent, this was not a great deal.  Tiny was flashy (he put up 24.8 ppg, 7.9 apg in 1975-76) but how did he actually grade out in advanced stats?  Let’s compare him with Taylor’s last ABA season: 

-Archibald 1975-76: 20.1 PER, 8.0 WS, .121 WS/48, 1.4 BPM, 2.9 VORP

-Taylor 1975-76: 17.2 PER, 4.8 WS, .133 WS/48, 2.6 BPM, 2.0 VORP

Tiny was still a very good player but his defense (as a smaller guard) rated out as a big negative.  Taylor, by contrast, did the little things really well and showed similar value (yes, there is a debate to be had on the quality of ABA stats versus NBA but they did appear nearly equal by 1975-76).  To make more of an apples-to-apples comparison, here’s how each player ended up in 1976-77 in the NBA:

-Archibald 1976-77: 19.4 PER, 2.8 WS, .104 WS/48, 1.8 BPM, 1.2 VORP

-Taylor 1976-77: 17.6 PER, 7.9 WS, .152 WS/48, 3.0 BPM, 3.1 VORP

Tiny ended up breaking his foot in early January 1977 (ironically, against Dr. J and the Sixers in a game the Nets lost by 29), so WS and VORP stats are of little value.  Regardless, Taylor was better by rate stats anyway.  In essence, Taylor would’ve been a stathead favorite.  He played defense and shot threes efficiently.  Tiny had more value as a frontline player but Taylor had a valuable skillset of his own.  This is why it is so mystifying that the Nets gave away two first-rounders as well.  Both picks ended up being second overall because the Nets were so bad.  The Kings took Phil Ford (who won Rookie of the Year) and Otis Birdsong (who had a nice career and later actually had some of his best years in Jersey).  Back then, some GMs did not value future picks but Tiny for Taylor did not seem like it was worth adding two future picks as well.

As for the 1976-77 Nets, they remained the same weak supporting cast of the title team noted above, only with Archibald, instead of their two best players (Dr. J and Taylor).   With Archibald, the Nets were bad (12-22) but got worse when Tiny got hurt.  They lost nine straight after his injury (they were already on a four-game losing streak at the time).  The Nets finished 22-60, worst in the NBA.  They were 8-38 after Archibald’s injury and finished the season on a 2-18 run.  In a 2018 interview, Archibald described the season as “a very challenging period for me mentally.  I had to deal with the injuries, and at the same time stay positive and focused on coming back.”

The only bright spot was that the Nets traded Tiny before the 1977-78 season to Buffalo for George Johnson (a decent big) and got back two first-rounders (who ended up being Micheal Ray Richardson and Cliff Robinson).  Archibald unfortunately tore his Achilles before the season and never played for the Braves (though he made a comeback as a useful guard for the Celtics).  The Nets lost the Richardson pick to the Knicks as part of the continuing dispute on the indemnity payment (they would get Sugar back later anyway for Bernard King) and used Robinson to get back Birdsong (closing the circle of life).  The Nets returned to playoffs fairly quickly thereafter but they missed out on Erving’s electric NBA career.

Stuff to Consider/Findings of Fact

Having, reviewed all the facts critically, here’s what we find:

-If the Nets had been able to afford Erving, they would still have needed a few major upgrades to be serious contenders.  That supporting case was very weak.  An owner with the cash could’ve fixed this but it would’ve taken a year or two.

-With the benefit of hindsight, the sale of Erving still felt unnecessary.  The Nets defaulted on an installment payment to the Knicks shortly thereafter anyway.  The Knicks ended up suing them and the matter was finally settled, where the Nets moved from Long Island to New Jersey and all sorts of picks were swapped.  Yes, the Knicks somehow felt that moving from Uniondale to Secaucus was “safer” for the Knicks….go figure.

-How much were the Knicks’ rights actually worth the time?  We get an interesting window into this in a 1982 case called Fishman v. Estate of Wirtz, where the plaintiff claimed that his group was improperly prevented from buying the Bulls back in 1972.  The court agreed with the plaintiff and then the issue of measuring damages had to be determined.  There was extensive argument and testimony about the proper way to measure damages, which necessarily required the court to determine the fair market value of the Bulls in 1982 and, by comparison, the rest of the NBA. 

The court reviewed all sort of evidence and gave some interesting insights into the issues.  One of the witnesses spoke specifically about the Nets/Knicks kerfuffle and the court summarized the testimony: “The importance of [market] size is dramatized by the amount of the territory invasion payment by the New York Nets. For the privilege of joining the NBA, the New York Nets were not only willing to pay the expansion price paid by other ABA teams joining the NBA in 1976 (Denver, Indiana and San Antonio); the Nets agreed to pay an additional $4 million to the New York  Knicks for “invasion” of the Knicks territorial rights under the NBA Constitution.” 

The court also presented a chart of all the NBA team sales from 1978 to 1982 and noted that Boe sold the Nets in August 1978 for $8.5 million.  By contrast, the 76ers were sold in 1981 for $12.2 million, with Erving on the roster.  The Sixers sold for a bit more but you have to conclude that Boe did the right thing financially by selling Dr. J to fund his entry into the NBA.  This obviously wouldn’t be true today where the top stars can add hundreds of millions of value to an NBA franchise. 

-The Knicks were idiotic for opting for the cash over the rights to Erving for free.  As bad as the old selling Erving-to-the-76ers story may feel to fans now, giving him to the Knicks for free would feel infinitely worse.  What do you expect from guys who thought Northern New Jersey was further from MSG than Nassau County?

-The Archibald Trade seemingly makes no sense.  Well, the intent made sense.  The Nets wanted to be competitive for the fans upon entering the NBA but, on the merits, the trade was obviously not going to accomplish that goal.  It ended up looking worse because Tiny’s feet gave out after years of heavy minutes.  The plan was doomed either way.  The Nets would’ve been better off tanking.

-The ABA teams that did best were the ones that were paid to go away.  Boe probably should’ve just taken the cash at that point. 

-In the end, the Nets could not survive in the NBA and keep Erving.  Once Boe accepted the merger deal the move seemed inevitable. The only way Boe could’ve kept Erving was by either selling the team or soliciting an angel investor, who wanted to invest in owning a star like Erving.  No one mentions whether Boe looked for outside money to salvage the situation but it’s hard to imagine he didn’t try.

-With benefit of hindsight, the Nets probably could’ve offered to move to Jersey earlier to reduce the payments.  I know I would definitely choose having Erving over staying in Long Island without him.  Still, as bad as losing Erving was, the Nets recovered decently a few years later.  Their travails in the 1980s and 1990s had nothing to do with this bad situation but were mostly the result of other bad decisions and a little bad luck.   

-This entire Dr. J/merger crisis seems to have been created by the lack of central control by the NBA.  I don’t think David Stern or Adam Silver would’ve permitted the Knicks and Nets to have this crazy side deal on territory that would loom over the solvency of a franchise.  Nor would either commissioner permit them to adjudicate the dispute in court.  The NBA got its stuff mostly together a few years later but the 1970s were really the Wild West.