Years Active: 1971 – 1985
Career Stats: 11.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.5 bpg, 0.5 spg, 49.7% FG, 69.0% FT
Accolades: 3x ABA All-Star (1973, ’75-’76), ABA Champion (1974)
In a 1972 game against the Squires, [Paultz] hit his first eight shots, and finished with 13 field goals in 15 attempts. Rick Barry scored 43 points and John Roche 37 points that same evening. “I get 33 and I’m the third high scorer on the team,” complained Paultz. “Are you kidding me?”
Now there’s an insightful quote into both, Billy Paultz and the ABA. The league was about flash and pizzazz, glitz and glamor. On a night where Paultz goes a-wreckin’ for 33 points on 13-15 shooting, he’s still not the brightest light shining on the court. Nonetheless, Paultz revealed his affable, self-effacing and humble personality in discussing his misfortune. Barry and Roche may have overshadowed him that night, but for someone with no organized basketball experience until his senior year in high school (1966), Paultz was doing quite well for himself.
Drafted by the NBA’s San Diego Rockets and the ABA’s Virginia Squires in 1971, Paultz opted for the ABA and was soon traded by Virginia to his hometown New York Nets. What the Nets got was an uncoordinated heap of man that would be nicknamed “The Whopper” for his well apportioned waistline and the hamburger that kept it so. Nets teammate Rick Barry quipped “I didn’t believe he could possibly make it…” and Jim O’Brien added his two cents: “An ardent surfer, but the way he moved at the outset of his rookie season it was hard to envision him keeping his balance on shore let alone sea.” The off-balance Whopper nonetheless averaged 14.7 points and 8.4 rebounds during his rookie year.
That production would basically be mirrored throughout his tenure with the Nets (1971-’75) and the Spurs (1976-’80). About 15 points, about 10 rebounds on 50% shooting. Despite his size, 6’11″ and approximately 265 pounds, Paultz actually did most of his shooting from the outside with a steady jumper and an awkward, sweeping hook shoot. On defense, his unspectacular foot speed was often detrimental but he still could set his frame up as an imposing, shot blocking presence in the middle.
Paultz’ time with the Nets culminated in 1974 when the team, so infamous for its horrid NBA play, busted loose for 55 wins and the ABA title going 12-2 in the playoffs. Julius Erving was clearly the engine of the squad (27 pts, 11 rebs, 5 asts, 2.4 blks, 2.3 stls) but Paultz did his duty. The Whopper clogged the lane on defense and opened the key on offense for Dr. J and his on-court assistant Larry “Dr. K” Kenon by tossing in those long jumpers to lure out the opposing center. The Nets were even better the following regular season with 58 wins but stumbled in the playoffs losing to St. Louis in 5 games in the East Semis. That offseason, in separate trades, Kenon and Paultz were shipped to San Antonio. Paultz also shed a good 20 pounds:
“I’m a little quicker, I guess,” said Paultz of his loss of weight. “I’m blocking more shots (he’s leading the ABA) this year if that’s an indication. The trade actually wasn’t a definite thing until September. I was going to camp with a loss of weight and a good attitude no matter which camp I was in.
The Spurs wound up losing to Paultz’ old team, the Nets, that postseason and were shuttled off to the NBA the next year as the two leagues merged. Perennial postseason participants during the late 70s, San Antonio with George Gervin, Kenon, Paultz and James Silas rushed out to a 3-1 series lead against the Washington Bullets in the 1979 Eastern Conference Finals. Despite being on the cusp of a Finals appearance, the Spurs coughed up the next 3 games ultimately losing in Game 7 thanks to the supremely underrated Bob Dandridge and his clutch baseline jumper.
At 30 years of age, that ’79 season was the beginning of Paultz’ decline. He still managed 11.5 points, 8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, but it would be his last season with double-digit scoring. Midway through the 1980 campaign, San Antonio shipped the Whopper to Houston. Providing a compliment to Moses Malone, Paultz could take the tougher big man assignment on defense to keep Malone out of foul trouble in a setup often similar to Tim Duncan and David Robinson of the late 90s and early 00s. On offense Paultz would naturally be on the perimeter allowing Malone to gobble up offensive rebounds like a hungry hungry hippo. That postseason, the Rockets defeated Paultz’ old team, the Spurs, in 3 games before being swept by Boston in the Eastern Conference Semis.The next year, the NBA finally consulted a map and moved Houston and San Antonio to the Western Conference.
Initially opting for a youth movement, the ’81 Rockets sparingly used Paultz during the first portion of the season. Receiving not-so-stellar results and maybe trying to save his job, coach Del Harris switched to his veterans and Paultz was back in heavy rotation. Just sneaking into the playoffs at 40-42, the Rockets dethroned the champion Lakers, eked by San Antonio in 7 games, dismissed their fellow 40-42 squad, the Kansas City Kings, in 5 games in the conference finals before bowing out to Boston (again) in 6 games in the NBA Finals. The 32-year old Paultz gave his last hurrah that postseason. His minutes spiked to 34 a game as he contributed 12 points and 7 boards, up from his regular season averages of 20 minutes, 7 points and 5 boards.
The next year, Elvin Hayes was brought in, relegating Paultz to 3rd-string center status and he would soon drift back to the Spurs, then to Atlanta before finally landing in Utah for his final season in 1985. That postseason the world was treated to a final delightful Whopper moment in the deciding Game 5 of the Jazz’1st round series against Houston, which Utah won.
After getting punched by Hakeem Olajuwon, Billy simply responded, “Is that the best you’ve got?” Paultz, 36, and fellow big man Rich Kelly, 32, combined for 39 minutes, 13 points and 14 rebounds as this geriatric version of the Twin Towers didn’t necessarily outplay the Rockets duo of Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, but they certainly frustrated them lessening the potential damage from the young bucks. Kelly summed up their veteran savvy efforts quite nicely, “If there’s one thing Billy and I know how to do, it’s lean on people.”
Several years ago, I saw the season recap film about the 1981 Rockets which was my first encounter with Paultz. Two things shocked me about the whole experience: 1) the Rockets were 40-42 and still made the Finals and 2) the big lug lurching around the court who had a surprisingly effective jump shot. It was nearly comical watching Paultz play. Apparently he was in on the joke from the very beginning: “Mired in a shooting slump in 1972, he said, ‘Things are never as bad as they seem. At least I’m hitting 50 percent of my dunks.’”