We know the Philadelphia 76ers. We know the great players that have worn the uniform. And I fancy myself as an almost obsessive historian. I love looking at the past to see how far we’ve come. I mark down milestones and such.
Today, we’re gonna talk about the Syracuse Nationals. It’s important to talk about them because they are a part of team history. Plus, they had one of the greatest teams to ever play in the NBA. In those short 14 years, they made some impressive marks. Thanks to their owner at the time, we have the NBA shot clock. Dolph Schayes was an original star of the team and league. I mean, there was only a few teams back when they were around but still, in that small window of competition, they dominated. They never missed the playoffs. They made three finals appearances while winning once.
Yeah, the Nationals were special. And we’re gonna talk about them. In a later post, I’ll take a look at if it’s possible that they were the best team to ever play in the state of New York. But let’s get the team history out of the way.
The Nationals started in 1949, as one of the original NBA teams. Other current teams are the Lakers, Celtics, Hawks, Knicks and Warriors. Of course, there were other teams that have since folded. There were 17 teams in all for the start of the NBA. Not bad since it’s practically doubled since then.
Anyway, the Nationals started their franchise run with the best record in the league. They made it all the way to the finals before falling to the Lakers in six games in a best of seven series.
- 5OT win over the Anderson Packers
- 12 game winning streak
- Never lost more than 2 games in a row during season and playoffs
- Scored more then their opponents by an average of 8 points for the season
- Lost only once at home in 32 games
The next season, they slipped and had a losing record. They lost to the Knicks in the second round of the playoffs. Even with a losing record, they scored 0.6 points more that their opponents. In 10 OT games, including playoffs, they went 5-5. Their season record was 32-34. Basically, it was a close season.
In the next season, 1951-52, the Six-er I mean Nationals improved to 40-26 but lost in similar fashion in the playoffs vs the Knicks. Still, they won their division. They had a nine game winning streak that included a triple OT game vs the Lakers.
In 1952-53, they improved to 47-24 but never made it out of the first round of the playoffs, getting swept by the Celtics including a 4OT game. Man, back in the day, multiple OT’s were a lot more common than today’s game. Anyway, the Nats would continue to improve.
In 1953-54, the Nats, with a lower record of 42-30, advanced all the way to the Finals for a rematch of the league’s first finals vs the Lakers in seven games. Darn! But next season…
In 1954-55, the Nationals stormed the castle. There were only eight teams in the league and yet the league managed to schedule 72 games. In the early stages of the NBA, teams faced each other very often and so it was easy for rivalries to grow. Anyway, the Nationals made it to the Finals again but they didn’t face the Lakers. They faced the Pistons. And they won in seven games. The home team never lost and the finals format was today’s current layout: 2-3-2. The Nationals won the first two, then the Pistons won the next three. With their backs up against the wall, the Nationals won two more at home to lock the championship up.
And the good times started to slow up for the team after that. They went 35-37 in 1955-56. As with last season, they were average offensively but one of the best defensively. Again, only eight teams competed but still. It’s not like the team got injured. And they were still young, although 27 years old back then was starting to go over the hill. The game’s prime has extended to age 27 and “getting old” is around 32-33. Anyway, the Nats made the playoffs and eventually lost to the Warriors.
Welp, the Nationals started the 1956-57 season slow enough for the team to fire their first coach, Al Cervi, after a 4-8 start. The next guy, Paul Seymour, took over and led the team to finish with a record of 38-34. They were on the bottom half of rankings for offense and defense. But in the playoffs, they beat the Warriors and then fell to the Celtics. Still with eight teams.
1957-58 saw them improve to 41-31. Not much of an improvement but still something. They ranked 4th in both offense and defense. They lost in the first round to the Warriors.
The next season, they dropped down to 35-37. They took on the Knicks in the first round, sweeping them. Then they fell to the Celtics in next round in seven games. Considering there’s eight teams, there are only three rounds, the 3rd being the finals. As I said before, the last time the Nationals would make the finals was when they won.
Okay so in 1959-60, the Nationals zipped to 45-30. Yet, with their best record in five years, they lost in the first round to the Warriors. Their record was only good enough for 3rd in the division. By the way, in this small league, there were only two divisions: Eastern and Western. Sixers, Warriors, Knicks, and Celtics were East while Lakers, Hawks, Pistons, and Royals (today’s Kings) were on the West. So yeah, Nationals were 3rd best in the East.
1960-61 saw another coaching change. Alex Hannum took over and led the team to a 38-41 record. The Nats finished 3rd again but went further into the playoffs. They took on the Warriors by sweeping them in a best of five game series. They then lost to the Celtics 4-1 in the division finals. Terrific. They led the league in scoring and were 4th for defense.
Hannum led the Nats to a 41-39 record in 1961-62. The league added a new team, the Chicago Packers. After many moves and name changes, the Packers are known as the Washington Wizards today.. The Nationals record against the Packers that season was 9-1, including a time when they met three times in a row. We had nine teams now. The Nationals finished 3rd in the division while being 4th in both offense and defense.
The final season of the Nationals era saw a shift in competition as the Warriors went from East (Philadelphia) to West (San Francisco). That led to the Royals moving to the East. Anyway, this season had something special happen. Franchise star and legend, Dolph Schayes, scored a basket for the Boston Celtics early in the season during a blowout loss to the Celtics. Excellent. Still, the Nationals had one of their best seasons ever ending at 48-32. They were 2nd in their division and were 1st offensively. But, their defense was 8th out of 9 teams. In their first playoff meeting with the Royals, they lost in game five of a best of five series.
So that’s it. The Nationals moved to the vacant city of Philadelphia and were called the 76ers. Sort of following the suit of Nationals, they were named after the year that the USA declared independence in 1776. And in case you didn’t know, the Delaware 87ers are named for the year Delaware, the nation’s first state, ratified the constitution in 1787. Those are the type of names you can get behind because there’s so much value in them.
So, next time we talk, we’ll be looking at how the Nationals stack up against the other teams that have played in New York. Thanks for reading!