The 1978 NBA Draft was the Larry Bird draft. The Celtics took the all-time great with the sixth pick even though he had one more year of school left. The gamble paid off for the Celtics as Bird became an all-time great. Mo Cheeks, drafted in the 2nd round by the Sixers, was the other Hall of Famer in this draft class.
Who were the best players from the 1978 NBA Draft Class?
- Larry Bird
- Maurice “Mo” Cheeks
- Reggie Theus
- Michael Cooper
- Michael Ray Richardson
- Mychal Thompson
- Purvis Short
- Mike Mitchell
This one is easy. Larry Bird is one of the greatest players who ever lived. In his Greatest Peaks Series, which I heartily endorse, Ben Taylor says Bird had the 5th highest peak since the ABA merger . Taylor has Bird behind Jordan, LeBron, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaq but ahead of Tim Duncan, Magic, KG and Kareem.
Even if you disagree with the exact order, that is some nice company. The man who earned the nickname Larry Legend certainly deserves to be in such exalted company.
After his duel with Magic Johnson in the NCAA Finals, Bird joined the Celtics and instantly supplanted Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell as the Celtics best player. He won Rookie of the Year, made the All Star team and transformed the Celtics overnight from a 32 win team to title contenders.
Somehow, the Celtics added Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in one trade, creating quite possibly the greatest front court in NBA history and cementing the team as title contenders for a decade. But Bird was the clear leader of that team full of all-time greats.
Bird did everything you can do on a basketball court and accomplished just about all you could accomplish in an NBA career. He averaged 24 points, 6 assists, 10 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game for his career.
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One thing you may not know is that Larry Bird was a pretty good defender in addition to being an all-time offensive player. He made 3 All NBA Defensive 2nd teams.
Of course, he made all everything: Bird made 12 All Star teams, 10 All NBA squads, was a 3x MVP, 2x Finals MVP, 3 x NBA champion and member of the original Dream Team. He was rightfully inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998.
It almost goes without saying that he led the 1978 Draft class in every major statistical category including points, rebounds, win shares and value over replacement player.
Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, who was sometimes referred to as Little Mo to differentiate him from teammate Moses “Big Mo” Malone, was the 36th pick by the Sixers in the 1978 NBA Draft out of West Texas A & M. Little Mo had his best years in Philly.
Cheeks was a dominant defensive point guard for those outstanding Sixers squads. He made five All NBA Defensive teams while on the Sixers. He made four All Star teams during the Philly years as well.
Little Mo was a key player on the dominant Sixers title team in 1983 that also featured Moses Malone, Andrew Toney and Julius Erving. That team destroyed the league and is considered one of the best teams of all time. They nearly lived up to Moses Malone’s Fo, Fo, Fo prediction in cruising to the NBA title with only one playoff loss.
After 11 incredible seasons in Philly, Cheeks played for four other teams to close out his career. Mo Cheeks is ranked 15th in assists all time in NBA history and 6th in steals. He is the only player from the 1978 NBA Draft besides Larry Bird to make the Basketball Hall of Fame.
While Mo Cheeks finished 12th in the 1978 NBA Draft class in points per game, he finished first in total assists (2nd per game behind Michael Ray Richardson), first in games played, and was 2nd behind Bird in both VORP and win shares.
Mo Cheeks is clearly the second best player from the 1978 NBA Draft.
Reggie Theus was the 9th pick of the 1978 NBA draft after playing for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV. He immediately started doing what he did: filling it up for his team. Theus averaged 16 points per game as a rookie.
He went on to improve on that good start, maxing out in his fifth year averaging 24 points and 6 assists for the Bulls. But he averaged only 8.7 points per game in 31 games the next year before being traded to the Kings. Something happened!
That something was the hiring of new coach Kevin Loughery, who benched Theus in an attempt to create a more defensively oriented team. Theus has some harsh words for Loughery in the NSFW conversation below.
The trade didn’t help Theus and he did become a player who had less respect among fans than you would expect for a guy who put up pretty great numbers. He went on to average 18 points and 10 assists one year for Sacramento.
Theus finished his career averaging 18.5 points and 6 assists per game. He was the third leading scorer per game in the 1978 NBA Draft class and 2nd leading scorer in total points. He was also 2nd in total assists and 5th in assists per game.
He finished 3rd in career win shares for the draft class and 5th in VORP. Theus had a very nice career with some outstanding stats in addition to his 2 All Star appearances. I rank him 3rd in the 1978 Draft class.
Michael Cooper was a third round pick of the Lakers, 60th overall, in the 1978 NBA draft. He would certainly make the pick look like a good one.
Cooper only averaged 9 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds in his career. How could I rank him this high, then? He was not known for his offense on those Showtime Lakers teams.
Cooper was their defensive stopper. The team used him to guard the players Magic could not keep up with. He did just that.
Cooper was an 8x All NBA Defensive team member and was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 while coming off the bench. Cooper had the respect of his best opponents. Larry Bird said of Cooper:
“The best defensive player who ever guarded me was Michael Cooper.”Larry Bird
Cooper’s contributions to the Lakers worked out pretty well. He won five NBA titles with them. It is hard to rank players like him. The Lakers also had guys named Magic, Worthy and Kareem.
But Michael Cooper played a pivotal role on five championship teams and won the respect of all who watched him, and played him, on the defensive end.
Is that worth more than a guy like Theus who could fill it up and had way better career stats? You could convince me, but I took Theus 3rd and put Cooper 4th.
Despite being only 17th in the class in scoring, Cooper was 5th in career win shares and 4th in VORP. Because the advanced stats love him, I rank Michael Cooper as the 4th best player in the 1978 NBA Draft class.
Michael Ray Richardson
Reading up on Michael Ray Richardson was an eye-opener for me. RIchardson legitimately might have been the 2nd best player in the draft class!
The 6’5” guard was the 4th overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft and was supposed to be the next Clyde Frasier for the Knicks.
He finished 5th in the class in scoring per game, 1st in assists per game, and 3rd in VORP. Richardson led the league in assists and steals in his second season, led the league in steals 4 times, was All NBA 1st team defense twice and made 4 All Star teams.
Writing the paragraph above makes me want to put him higher on the list! He was almost certainly the second most talented player in the draft. But this is not a list of most talented players but rather the best players.
And Michael Ray Richardson’s drug problems kept him from reaching his potential. He was only 11th in the class in win shares because he could not stay on the court.
After 4 amazing years in New York, he was traded to Golden State where served multiple suspensions and never played a full season again until 1984-1985 when Larry Brown coached him on the Nets.
That year he scored 20 points per game, led the league in steals again and averaged 8 assists. The man could play!
But his demons were calling and he was permanently suspended from the NBA the following year. He was reinstated in 1988 but chose to play out his career in Europe.
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Richardson was bitter about his treatment by the NBA saying other players like Chirs Mullin got more chances to deal with their problems. That is not for me to say.
He did become the face of the NBA’s cocaine problem and that was certainly unfortunate. Maybe in a world like ours today that sees addiction as more of an illness than a moral failure, he would have been offered more treatment and more chances.
As it stands, I think he is likely the second most talented player in the class but am ranking him 5th in the class for actual production. What he did do in the NBA was incredible! There was just far too little of it.
Mychal Thompson is best known these days for being the father of all-world Golden State shooter Klay. But he had a nice career as a big man for Portland, San Antonio briefly, and the Lakers after being the 1st overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft.
Thompson averaged 14 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in his career. He was 7th in the class in scoring per game, 2nd in rebounds both total and per game, 4th in win shares and 6th in VORP.
His first few years in the league looked promising, outside a missed second season because of injury. He got to the point where he averaged 21 points and 12 boards a game for the ‘81-’82 Blazers team. But he settled into scoring numbers in the mid-teens and tailed off from there.
Thompson was a key addition for the Showtime Lakers in 1987. They badly needed another big man to keep up with powerful front courts like the Rockets and Celtics.
Thompson provided just that and put those teams over the top to two more titles in ‘87 & ‘88. Those titles give him the edge for me over players like Mike Mitchell and Purvis Short and I rank him 6th in the 1978 NBA Draft class.
Purvis Short could fill it up! The 6’7” forward had a four year stretch, from 1982-1986 where he averaged over 20 points per game every season including an unbelievable 28 points per game in 1984-1985.
Short was the 5th overall pick in the draft by the Warriors. He was known for his rainbow jumper. He did not come into the league dominating like a Bird or Richardson nor scoring quite as much right away as a Reggie Theus.
He built up to those twenty point seasons. And then, when they ended, he went away quickly. He was out of the league 5 years after averaging 25.5 points per game in 1985-1986.
His Golden State teams were never very good and that seems to have hurt his reputation as well. He was viewed as a guy who filled it up for bad teams – somewhat like Reggie Theus in that way.
He never made an NBA All Star team, which is remarkable considering he scored 28 a game!
The advanced numbers tend to support ranking Short somewhere near where I have. He was 6th in the class in win shares but only 8th in VORP.
He was the 4th leading scorer in the class and I think that justifies his 7th ranking.
Much like Purvis Short, Mike Mitchell was a 6’7” forward who could get a bucket. He actually outscored Short, and everyone else in the 1978 NBA Draft class except Larry Bird, finishing as the second leading scorer both per game and in total points.
Mitchell averaged 20 points per game for his career. After a slow first year for the Cavs, who picked him 15th overall, he started scoring twenty a game in his second year and seemingly never stopped.
Mitchell was an All Star in 1981.
He scored 20 or more points per game for 2 years for the Cavs, one year split between the Cavs and Spurs, and 4 more years for the Spurs.
He is the 7th leading scorer in Spurs history and actually outscored George Gerving in 1984-1985.
He finished his Spurs career with a couple lower scoring seasons in his early thirties before playing 10 more years overseas.
Mike Mitchell also led the league in turnover percentage 3 times and is ranked 11th all time in that category – one you hope to be unranked in!
That last stat might explain why advanced stats are not as keen on him as many others with his numbers. He finished 7th in the class in career win shares but only 11th in VORP.
Mike Mitchell’s scoring prowess made me include him on this list of the best players from the 1978 Draft class. His turnovers kept me from ranking him higher.
Who was drafted in the 1978 NBA Draft?
You can see the career games played, points per game, win shares and VORP for the 1st round picks, and selected later picks, of the 1978 NBA Draft Class below.
Just a brief primer on the two advanced stats. Win shares are a complicated stat that tries to assign credit for wins to players on the team based on how much they contributed. Value over replacement player or VORP does basically what it says: value how much a player contributes in total over a league average player who is set at -2.00.
|4||Micheal Ray Richardson||556||14.8||35.2||21.2|
Who were the best picks in the 1978 NBA Draft Class?
Larry Bird was quite obviously the best pick in the 1978 NBA Draft class. When you draft one of the greatest players to ever live, you have to be happy with the pick. When that pick is 6th overall and not 1st, that makes it an even better pick.
There were some other amazing picks in the class, however.
Mo Cheeks was an incredible second round pick. Getting a Hall of Famer with the 36th pick in the draft is pretty good scouting I’d say.
Finally, Michael Cooper was a pretty sweet choice for the Lakers. They picked him up in the third round, 60th overall, and he played 12 seasons for them.
His lockdown defense not only made him an 8x All NBA Defense selection and Defensive Player of the Year for 1987, it helped them win five NBA titles. So, yeah, good pick.
How did the Celtics draft Larry Bird in 1978?
The NBA draft rules at the time said that if you did not declare for the draft, you became eligible to be drafted when your graduating class had been out of high school for four years.
Bird, of course, lost a year transferring from Indiana to Indiana State.
So after his junior year, teams could draft Bird. But it was risky. First there was always the risk he would not play as well his senior season and the pick would be wasted without the player ever suiting up for your team.
Also, the team drafting a player in that situation had to accept that they would not have the player on their team for a whole season. Most owners, especially in the 1970’s, wanted new, exciting players coming in to help sell tickets.
Finally, the biggest risk for teams drafting players like this was if the player did play well. After the next season ended, the player had the right to negotiate a contract with the team that drafted him or re-enter the draft.
The Celtics were coming off tough times and needed a new leader. They also had two picks in the top eight, so they were well-situated to take a flier on a player who would not be available for another year.
With their 6th pick in the 1978 NBA Draft, the Celtics chose Larry Bird and then watched as he went back for his senior year.
Bird, of course, had the best senior year possible leading his undefeated Indiana State team all the way to a national title game matchup against Magic Johnson’s Michigan State squad. Even though they lost the game, the season put Bird in one heck of a negotiating position.
Bird’s agent, Bob Wolf, took advantage of that position and negotiated the biggest rookie contract in the history of sports. It turned out to be a total bargain!
The Celtics other pick that year, the 8th choice in the 1st round Freeman Williams, was traded before ever playing for the Celtics for a package that included Tiny Archibald and a future pick. That future pick became Danny Ainge. Red Auerbach made some moves!
Who Were the Biggest Busts in the 1978 NBA Draft Class?
The Denver Nuggets selected Rod Griffin, a former ACC Player of the Year at Wake Forest, with the 17th pick in the first round. They cut him before he ever played a single game for the team!
I’d say that if you cut your first round pick before he ever plays for you, that makes them easily the biggest bust of the draft. He did play for many years in Italy at least.
Here are some other big busts from the 1978 NBA Draft Class:
- Butch Lee, the 10th pick by Atlanta, only lasted 96 games over two seasons and had a .3 VORP.
- Frankie Sanders, the Spurs 20th pick, only played 69 games over two seasons and had -.1 VORP
- Rick Robey had a much better career than the guys above, but he had a pretty underwhelming career for a 3rd overall pick. He finished 20th in the class in win shares and 27th in VORP. He might not be a true bust because he lasted 8 years, but he was a disappointment for sure for the Pacers who chose him so high.
Summary: 1978 NBA Draft Class
The 1978 NBA Draft was the Larry Bird draft. The Celtics took a chance by taking Bird a year before he finished school. The pick quite obviously worked out. The 2nd best player in the draft was Mo Cheeks who was the only other player to make the Hall of Fame.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.